Mugger: The Green Lady

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One day last week my wife, after a stop at the local Sunoco gas station, was a little pissed off upon reporting that filling our ’98 Mercedes wagon cost $57. “When is this going to stop?” she asked out of frustration, knowing full well that the economy is subject to cyclical booms and bumps and that when a recession hits you trim the fat, whether it’s a household or business budget. And so we’ve switched to Deer Park bottled water rather than Evian, buy staples in bulk at Costco instead of Whole Foods, obtain DVDs via Netflix rather than buying them from and make more frequent cracks about the cost of private education when one of the boys does poorly on a Spanish test.

I understand these are small measures in the scheme of things and that a lot of Americans are far worse off, but when the economy goes sour nearly everyone is forced to make adjustments. It’s likely, given historical precedents, that this downturn will run its course in 18 months or so and commentators will once again rattle on about yet another “Gilded Age.” The real estate market will rebound and houses are bound to reclaim their values from 2005 and perhaps tick up further. In other words, although the media likes almost nothing better than a bad economic report, and the influential gloom-mongers—regards to Paul Krugman—are promiscuously predicting another Great Depression, it’s doubtful the streets will be filled with people selling apples or used iPods.

As usual, if you’re a regular reader of The New York Times who doesn’t look at one section and toss away the others—or do the equivalent online—it’s understandable if you’re confused by the state of the current economy. Let’s return to Krugman, whom I genuinely hope is happier in private life than he is in public. Back in June of 1999, before he signed on as a regular op-ed columnist for the paper, Krugman fretted that Americans were too giddy about that era’s economic expansion. He wrote: “In fact, there seems to be a rising chorus of complaints about the annoyances of prosperity—complaints, in effect, that spending lots of money isn’t as gratifying as people expected it to be.” He went on to lecture readers that consumers were being “imprudent” in their shopping sprees.

Fast-forward to March 28 of this year, when Krugman chastises both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton (he dismisses John McCain as a lost cause) for being “disappointingly quiet” on the “need to reform our out-of-control financial system,” a crisis he terms as “epic.” He further warns: “Now, the securities and investment industry is pouring money into both Obama’s and Clinton’s coffers. And these donors surely believe that they’re buying something in return. Let’s hope they’re wrong.”

I’m pretty good at math—pardon my lapse in memory about how many editorials The Times has run about the subprime mortgage mess—but the gist of all them is the same: unscrupulous banks, real estate agents and flim-flam lenders ought to shoulder all the blame. As in any business, including media companies, there are shady characters looking to make a quick buck who practice unethical methods, but this is generally the exception to the rule. Was anyone forced, back when credit was cheap and home equity loans plentiful, to sign a contract for a house they couldn’t afford? The rash of foreclosures across the country is a significant problem, but it would’ve been lessened had buyers actually read the fine print and realized that you can’t get something for nothing.

Of course, if you flip to The Times’ fashion pages, another view of the economy is presented: One that’s jarringly out of sync with the editorial and news columns. On March 27, for example, Mike Albo wrote a piece called “Jeans for Lean Years,” ostensibly about New Yorkers downsizing in their clothing choices; and while there were several digs at the newly financially-challenged Wall Street crowd, it’s unlikely that the middle class would find much solace in his findings, especially if they’re facing foreclosure. Albo puffs up a Meatpacking District store called Jean Shop, where the duds “[seem] honest and built to last.” Never mind that Albo paid $240 for a pair of size 28 “Medium Rocker” jeans, which he admitted wasn’t bargain basement, but there was the bonus of a clerk giving him a shot of Herradura tequila as they guided him through the store’s wares.

Albo also gets in the obligatory dig at financiers, writing, “If you are a Bear Stearns executive blowing your last bloated bonus, you can come [to Jean Shop] for something durable. The denim is not cheap, but it’s worth more than those shady derivatives you loved so much.” So this fellow, like most of the writers for The Times fashion and style pages, is able to write about overpriced clothes and make fun of finance workers at the same time. On the same day, Ruth La Ferla gives “maverick” designer Tomas Maier an outstanding spread of publicity, praising the man for his “beneath the radar” line of clothes and accessories. Why, in an economically perilous era, Times-reading shoppers will be glad to know that one of Maier’s handbags can still be had for a mere $1,500.
La Ferla solicits the opinion of the Luxury Institute’s Milton Pedraza, a fan of Maier. He says, “[Affluent consumers] don’t want something flashy that everybody else has. They are looking for unique handcrafted things that can’t immediately be reinterpreted at every level of the marketplace.”

If I were in a less charitable mood, the suggestion might be offered that Times management, while vigilant about blaming the economy’s downturn on the Bush administration, doesn’t think twice when assigning articles about very expensive items and boutiques that could prop up advertising revenue.

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