We are a nation of consumers, and we should get back to the job of consuming. So say our political leaders. But it seems that Americans are smarter than that.
It is not only because of fear that people have stopped spending. President Bush acknowledged in his recent press conference that families are reordering priorities. People are choosing to stay home more with children and loved ones. The devastation of Sept. 11 is part of our nation's life cycle. It is a testimony to the people of America that we do not want to go on with business as usual.
Our eyes have been opened -- opened by twisted steel; by the pictures of malnourished children in countries we could not find on a map a month ago; by obituaries that tell us of sons and daughters who will never know their fathers. We are not a nation of ascetics, so soon we will go back to spending again -- the question is on what.
If a few fast-food restaurants close because more people are having dinner at home with their families, that is not a national calamity. If the market for $400 flower-girl dresses dries up, so be it. If parents decide to take one fewer business flight per month and stay closer to home, let that airline seat be empty. No grieving wife is talking about how her husband wanted to complete another merger.
In a recent interview, a survivor talked about leaving work early on a Friday to go to a parents' weekend at his daughter's college. The time off would have been unthinkable before Sept. 11. Now it is unthinkable not to go. So maybe fewer bonds will be traded, but there will be the drive in the car, the money spent at rest stops, the overnight lodging. Money will flow, only differently.
`NEW ORDER' BENEFIT
And yes, there will be other benefits from our ``new order.'' Research has told us for years that parents are the most important influence on their children. But for many families, communication becomes less and less as both adults and children develop their own packed agendas. This is especially true during adolescence, a time when peers are taking on increasing significance. But knowing that their parents are involved and concerned has been shown to have a moderating effect on substance abuse, teen pregnancy and HIV risk behaviors.
Dr. José Szapocznik at the University of Miami speaks of bringing parents of peers together, to recreate that village mentality of looking out for each other's children. So we should skip the fast food and invite the parents of our children's friends over for dinner. This will involve shopping for food, buying flowers and maybe even a bottle of wine -- there are more ways than a double order of fries to keep the economy going.
It is not the number of televisions per capita that makes America special but rather its people. Our public policy should reflect the changes in our own personal priorities. The schools that were overcrowded before Sept. 11 still are overcrowded. The 44 million people in our country without health insurance still are not receiving necessary treatments and preventive care. And many of the 4.4 million workers at minimum-wage jobs still live in poverty.
The economy can be stimulated not only by trips to the mall but also by investing in our population.
Many people have lost jobs as a result of the attacks. We can retrain workers to meet our nation's new priorities. Why not have people learn how to teach preliteracy skills to 3 and 4 year olds instead of stocking shelves at a department store? Increasing the numbers of teachers and public-health workers could be part of a new workforce plan. Building more classrooms and affordable housing would be good way to keep construction workers, engineers and architects employed.
A well-educated, healthy population is indeed the best long-term defense against terrorism.
It is not spending money at Wal-Mart that will prove to the terrorists that they missed their target. Rather it is our ability to rise from the trauma with a clearer picture of who and what we are. We are not only a nation of consumers; we are also a nation of people with values, families that we love and a nation that we cherish.
Shopping is not a bad thing, but it is not what defines America. We should invest in what does.
Gwen Wurm, MD, is director of community pediatrics at University of Miami/Jackson Childrens Hospital.
Copyright 2001 Miami Herald