Ali’s blog

Mostly quant stuff with occasional digressions

USA: shopper’s paradise

Posted by alifinmath on April 11, 2008

Also in the Guardian:

Like erstwhile downtrodden peasants gleefully pillaging a falling former empire, Europeans are, famously, now taking advantage of the weak dollar. Increasing numbers are coming to America to do their noble international duty by pumping some of their stronger money into the US economy.

The New York Times recently claimed that “[The British] are travelling because they want to shop. Period.” Because of this, the newspaper dubbed the British “the new Americans, whose once-dominant dollar used to buy them everything, including a reputation”, a description that was both wistful and snide.

It is a bit like a United Nations effort to give funds to a developing country, but with more of an emphasis on Ralph Lauren and Levi’s. And in truth, this analogy can be read with something akin to literalism: as Americans, beaten into consumer timidity by daily warnings about their dying economy, increasingly forgo $300 (£150) dresses and a 17th pair of jeans, US retailers are increasingly relying on British tourists’ money.

According to the Office of Travel and Tourism Industries (OTTI), the number of UK visitors to the US rose by 8% last year, to 4.5 million. Britons accounted for 41% of all tourists from western Europe. New York is the most popular American city for British tourists and, according to NYC & Company, the UK is their number one inbound international market, beating its geographical neighbour Canada into second place. In 2007, the number of British tourists to New York City rose by 25%.

“The combination of the weak dollar and the increased access via air travel has obviously helped. For the Brits, the city is essentially on sale,” says Heywood. In 2007, 92% claimed that they came to New York for shopping, while only 69% said they could be bothered to do any sightseeing.

The USA increasingly looks like a giant Brazil and less and less like the prosperous (and expensive) economies of Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia. But don’t include Britain in this list: if anything, the British economy is even more up the creek than the American. It’s just that shopping in Britain is so expensive, customer service so lousy, and choice so restricted. And the pound is currently riding high against the dollar. The USA is a shopper’s paradise and also a paradise if one cares for vast, open spaces — but it’s increasingly becoming a hell on most other measures: access to healthcare, access to affordable quality education, the ability to retire comfortably, and the ability to support oneself economically. The Americans used to call the Soviet Union “Upper Volta with rockets”; is the USA not going down the same road to perdition itself?




3 Responses to “USA: shopper’s paradise”

  1. Chris Prouty said

    This has nothing to do with your post, but a great link:

    Finally academia is being forced to acknowledge a writer who made a substantial impact on the fabric of our culture. I think Rand would appreciate the manner in which change is being facilitated.

  2. alifinmath said

    Chris, I don’t subscribe to Rand’s ideas and I find her novel, “Atlas Shrugged” a silly piece of pulp, in my exceedingly humble opinion. But this isn’t what makes me uncomfortable between the deal between BB&T and UNC. It’s that Rand will now become required reading for U students — not because academics have judged that Rand is worth reading (though I’d suspect the credentials of any academic who did), but because some money has traded hands. If some bible-belt foundation donated money with the stipulation that creationism was to be taught, there’d probably be quite a stir (unless it was at some place like Bob Jones U, where it’s probably part of the curriculum anyway). Or if some commie foundation donated money with the stipulation that Marx’s “Das Kapital” was to be required reading, there’d probably be a media-conducted uproar.

    Where does the commercialisation of US education stop? Would the U of M’s math department take a $10m endowment in return for agreeing to teach that pi = 3? Would a philosophy department agree to chuck out a bioethics course on receiving money from a pharma foundation? It’s becoming increasingly clear that what constitutes knowledge, how it’s transmitted, and in which directions research will be conducted are increasingly orchestrated by money interests, with academics as little more than hired hands, willing (or unwilling)accomplices.

    Other than commercialisation, there are other things troubling me. One thing students are supposed to learn (ideally) at U is how not be dogmatic: this is part of our liberal, humanistic heritage. It’s the notion that if there is an absolute right or wrong, we as puny humans can’t know it, and so the next best thing is the power of ideas, of evolving and ever-more sophisticated debates and discussions — without ever reaching some dogmatic finale. Thus, I may not agree with your libertarianism and you may not agree with my socialism, but we can live with each other, and (hopefully) appreciate each other’s stance and arguments. But a dogmatic insistence on our absolute rightness — which Rand seems to have — makes such compromises and living with people who have different ideas more difficult, and is akin to religious fundamentalism. Indeed, in the case of Rand, we call this “market fundamentalism,” which is the unshakeable belief that — all empirical indicators to the contrary — markets are self-correcting entities best left alone.

    Indeed, it’s probably this ideological fundamentalism — with a patina of fake intellectualism — that accounts for her appeal among the college freshman set and some of middlebrow America. Simple black-and-white solutions to intractable economic and social problems. Do away with government; let free enterprise reign supreme.

    Just so that you don’t think I’m gunning exclusively for Rand, the dogma of multiculturalism bothers me just as much at American universities. Is it any wonder that graduates of American universities can’t argue or hold up their end of a discussion when they’ve never learnt how to understand, appreciate, or counter differing points of view? The end of this road leads ultimately to fanaticism and the religious schools of Pakistan — and in that country say something at odds with prevailing religious dogma and they’ll string you up from the nearest tree.

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