Saturday, December 24, 2011

Ho, ho ho; get your Air Jordans while they last

I don’t wear a watch more than twice a year, and when I do, it’s usually one of those $20 buy-it-at-the-airport deals that I’m likely to lose before the battery runs down.
So I can’t be absolutely sure, but I think the most useless, ridiculous, and wasteful gift I have seen this holiday season is this: an automatic watch winder that will, for $99.99, wind your self-winding watch.
I’m not kidding.  According to the blurb in the Brookstone catalog, “if your watch doesn’t wind itself from wrist motion, it cannot be wound by our winders.” 
And as long as you’re buying the winder, you might as well purchase a cordless battery pack for $24.99. If you want to wind two watches at the same time, you can buy the double watch winder for $149.99 or, for four watches, a quadruple watch winder for $199.99 (otherwise known as $200).
You can also buy individual modular winders that hook together – up to 12 at a time – for $59.99 each.  You are a wealthy person indeed if you need 12 $60 gizmos to wind your self-winding watches. 
 I’ll bet both the self-winding watches and the watch winders on offer here (and my airport watch) are made in China by factory workers whose working conditions are so miserable they are contemplating suicide when not chained to their work benches for 30 hours at a time (see Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele’s recent expose of Apple in the Philadelphia Inquirer ).  
Since I’m not a big watch person, you tell me, is there some value to having a machine to wind your self-winding watch or is this thing just stupid?  
Not that there are not other gifts this year that don’t come close to rivaling the automatic watch winder. 
There is, for example, the pillow universal remote ($39.99), also offered by Brookstone.  I can’t help but wonder, can you put your head on this pillow without constantly changing the channel?
And there’s the spiral staircase architectural model ($149) offered in the Signals catalog, “exquisitely handcrafted in cherry wood, with hand-carved details and a French distressed finish.”  At the end of the day, it’s still a 15-inch high wooden model of a spiral staircase.
Signals also offers a stainless steel cuff bracelet for $45 with, your choice of a map of the New York, London or Milan subway system.  If you’re a regular user of any of these subway systems, you already know your way around, and if you’re not, $45, really?  I’ve gotten around the Moscow subway with a wall map that spells the names of the stops in Cyrillic without needing one of these bracelets.
Of course every gift catalog offers some spectacularly useless and expensive items, which, I think, illustrates a very basic point about our capitalist economy: it is demand, not tax policy that drives economic growth.
When the Republican/Tea Party crowd starts whining about how job creators are not creating jobs/loaning money/building American factories, etc., because of the “climate of uncertainty,” the claim is that businesses are uncertain about whether or not they are going to have to pay higher taxes or endure more “crushing” government regulation.
If corporations actually paid the 35 percent tax rate they are allegedly assessed, they might have some reason to gripe and, admittedly, there is some excessive government regulation of small businesses designed to prevent them from cheating on their taxes, but that’s not what uncertainty is all about.
The main uncertainty for any business is whether there is going to be a demand for its products or services, whether enough people will buy their cars, lunches, MRIs or watch winders, to keep them in business and help them make a profit.  If there is strong demand, businesses will hire more workers to fill that demand without giving a second thought to the tax rate or a pile of government forms.
If there is little or no demand for their goods and services at prices people are willing to pay, businesses will go out of business.  They will not build factories, hire more workers or stockpile inventory.  Supply and demand, still a useful economic model after all these years.
And when a lot of people are out of work, facing foreclosure, about to be cut off from unemployment insurance and have no job prospects, guess what, watch winders and subway map bracelets don’t have a lot of appeal.  Food and a mortgage payment are likely higher priorities. 
Or they should be priorities.  I was appalled by a laborer I saw in a TV news segment the other night who was pawning his tools to buy his mother a Christmas present.  And she was probably pawning her TV to buy him a cordless drill.  O'Henry is spinning in his grave!
On the other hand, stampedes for $180 Air Jordans?  Maybe that’s a sign of better economic times rather than merely mass lunacy.
Every year this artificial construct known as the Christmas season comes along to pump up demand and rescue the economy at the last minute. 
Everybody rushes out to buy gifts, gets stuck in traffic, can’t find a parking place at the mall, can’t find that one present that absolutely everyone must have, and generally gets very stressed out.
And so, we all buy into the convenient fiction that we are honoring the birth of a man who, as far as we know, never owned, or wanted to own, anything more than the clothes on his back and the sandals on his feet.   
Brick and mortar merchants and online merchants have a lot of confidence that this holiday shopping season is going to be better than most previous years. 
Often that’s just wishful thinking, but I hope that’s true this year, not for the sake of CEO bonuses but for the actual people who work for those businesses and the overall economy.   
One family is guaranteed to have a very merry Christmas.  Thanks to their patriarch’s mastery of the concept of supply and demand, the nine members of the Walton family, purely by accident of birth, own Walmart and are worth $93 billion dollars, more than the GNP of many countries.
For me and many  people I know who have had to tighten  their belts one more notch this year, the Christmas season is more “bah, humbug, I’m not spending a dime” than “merry, merry, let’s take the family to Aruba.”   
But nevertheless, merry Christmas, happy Hanukah and joyous whatever you celebrate.

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