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Black Friday reminds us that Americans are addicted to buying things

The Covid-19 pandemic changed how we spend — especially wealthier Americans.

A quick Google search this week showcased many dire warnings that this Black Friday would be one of the worst ever. The supply chain, you see, is all a mess. And the snags up and down the chain are, in turn, messing with that most American of pastimes: buying stuff.

The Black Friday vibes this year are better understood as a symptom of a shared addiction.

Buyers used to steep discounts starting the day after Thanksgiving may be disappointed this year. Crowded ports and a surge in demand mean many leading retailers have cut back on the traditional price slashes. Those that have been offering sales started much earlier than normal or offered those sales on a smaller number of big-ticket items. The message from businesses and the analysts that love them are the same: Buy now — and pay more — or be disappointed later.

The truth is the shortages we’re seeing aren’t solely due to a diseased supply chain — though that chain is definitely broken in ways businesses have yet to address. Instead, the Black Friday vibes this year are better understood as a symptom of a shared addiction.

Americans as a whole can’t stop consuming, even when there’s no purpose to the consumption — sometimes especially when there’s no purpose. Nothing seems to stop our nation of shoppers: not supply chain woes; not slow delivery times and empty shelves; and certainly not inflation.

A major part of our current economic weirdness is a manifestation of the Covid-19 pandemic radically shifting the way people spend their disposable income, as The Associated Press recently reported:

Though Americans have increasingly ventured out in recent months, the balance between spending on goods and services remains skewed. The pent-up demand that followed the economic recovery is still tilted toward goods like furniture and cars and less toward haircuts, concerts and restaurant meals. Though services spending has grown in recent months, it isn’t nearly enough to close the gap.

Since April 2020, consumer spending on goods has jumped 32%. It’s now 15% above where it was in February 2020, just before the pandemic paralyzed the economy. Goods account for roughly 40% of consumer spending now, up from 36% before the pandemic.

That spending is possible thanks to the fact that when you’ve accounted for the massive government pandemic intervention and already prosperous Americans saving more despite low interest rates, there’s actually a ton of cash floating around the economy. Even the bottom 25 percent of income earners still had more money in their bank accounts in October 2020 than in October 2019. With traveling and other activities still off the table for many, that purchasing power has had to go somewhere, in this case toward stuff.

Manufacturers that had slowed down production to account for Covid had yet to fully ramp back up when the wave of consumer demand surged. Even now there are crucial bits and pieces in many industries that just can’t be replenished fast enough to keep up, while other businesses are stockpiling materials to ensure they can fill orders. Meanwhile, the orders keep pouring in from across the internet, with the majority of holiday spending being done online, according to Deloitte. That, in turn, will continue straining the delivery side of the supply chain and pressuring the brick-and-mortar stores that were already losing out to online shopping to keep ordering more stock to keep visitors happy.

As The Atlantic’s Amanda Mull has rightly pointed out, America’s spending spree is unevenly distributed, with affluent Americans who largely dodged layoffs during the pandemic doing the bulk of the purchasing. Even as Americans with more disposable cash keep throwing it around, the economic factors that have allowed them to do so are also raising prices on the things that lower-income Americans need for survival. But there’s a way to break the cycle, Mull wrote:

As it stands, America’s central organizing principle is thoughtless consumption, acquiring things for yourself and letting everyone else pick over what you left behind on the shelves. You can decide you don’t like that. You can decide that people—your family, your friends, the people in your community, the port truckers and Amazon warehouse workers running themselves ragged—are more important to you than another box of miscellaneous stuff. You can take a bit of pressure, however tiny, off a system so overburdened that it threatens to grind everyone in it to dust.

Mull’s plea for the American public to be at least a little bit more thoughtful about their purchases is probably the exact last thing corporations want people to hear right now. Because one thing you may have noticed missing in most articles worrying about inflation hitting Americans’ wallets this holiday season: any prediction of reduced profit margins for big business and its executives. Even if many Americans will be spending a little less this holiday season thanks to higher prices, the upper crust will make up the difference and pad the pockets of executives quite nicely.

Even if many Americans will be spending a little less this holiday season thanks to higher prices, the upper crust will make up the difference and pad the pockets of executives quite nicely.

Thankfully, I think we’re still a ways off from Black Friday becoming an official holiday audiences are made to learn the true meaning of, in a dystopian inverse of the traditional via stop-motion animated specials. But as ridiculous as it sounds, it’s pretty much the message that we’re constantly being fed: to keep on spending, as part of our civic duty and moral responsibility.

Now, I’m not about to begrudge anyone for taking advantage of sales. But there’s definitely a level of mindfulness in shopping this year that a lot of people could benefit from. As you’re Googling for the best deals (and avoiding Wirecutter in solidarity with its striking workers), maybe reconsider whether everyone in your life really needs that double-wide air fryer ready on Christmas Day. And if you find yourself frustrated because the gift you really wanted to give is out of stock or late, don't take it out on the store clerk or the delivery person. Save your ire for the jerk who decided their luxury hand-knit alpaca throw blanket couldn't wait until January.