JIM LEHRER: After the September 11 attacks, Americans were urged to go about their business, particularly that of shopping, and buying. Our business correspondent Paul Solman of WGBH-Boston reports on how we're doing.
PAUL SOLMAN: While politicians have been warning us of war abroad, threats at home, they've also been exhorting us on another front: To go out and revive the U.S. economy.
MAYOR RUDOLPH GIULIANI: I encourage people from all over the country who want to help, I have a great way of helping: Come here and spend money.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: They ought to take their kids on vacations; they ought to go to ballgames.
MAYOR RUDOLPH GIULIANI: ...Go to a restaurant, a play.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I fulfilled my pledge, my promise last night to take the mayor of Washington, D.C., for dinner. We had a nice...nice slice of beef. Plus, I paid. (Laughter)
PAUL SOLMAN: And indeed, given the downturn, this is a good season to spend, says economic forecaster Roger Brinner.
ROGER BRINNER, Economist, The Parthenon Group: Consumers start the business cycle with their housing or their consumer spending decisions, and right now they've gone into temporary hibernation. There are some signs that they've come back, but if they go into hibernation, we've lost two-thirds of the economy.
PAUL SOLMAN: Two-thirds of the economy?
ROGER BRINNER: Two-thirds of all the spending is done by consumers.
PAUL SOLMAN: What consumers have not been spending on is what they can most easily do without, which may be why business is still so soft at Boston's Faneuil Hall marketplace, usually bustling with tourists.
WOMAN: You can catch the shuttle there.
PAUL SOLMAN: But at the peak of leaf-peeping season here in New England, it's been pretty bare.
WOMAN: Yes, business is much slower than it has been.
PAUL SOLMAN: At this branch of a national housewares chain, business is down some 15 percent.
ELIZABETH MURPHY, Store Manager: Between 11:30 and 2:00 is usually the time of day that the traffic is the highest volume within the store. And now, you know, looking around, we can... every sales associate can probably be individually waiting on the number of customers that are in the store.
PAUL SOLMAN: But, says Roger Brinner, keep in mind, this is a shopping district that depends on tourists and very discretionary spending.
ROGER BRINNER: What you're hearing about are the discretionary purchases, the things people don't really need to have, perhaps enjoy having, may feel guilty temporarily for a week or two about buying, but we'll get back in the swim. We will start buying even trinkets pretty soon.
PAUL SOLMAN: Now with the bleak retail sales figures for the month of September recently released, a startling 2.4 percent drop, you might wonder at Brinner's optimism. But actually, in the last week or two, shopping has made a comebackmaybe not so much at tourist havens, but for example at the nearby Cambridgeside Galleria, a typical mall where business has been rising, slowly but steadily, after the plunge following the terrorist attack.
IZZY SHAIT, General Manager, Cambridgeside Galleria: It appears that from what the stores are telling us, we're going to run a little bit ahead of last yearnot a lot, but probably two percentage points, two, three percentage points ahead versus last year for sales for this month, if we continue on the same track.
PAUL SOLMAN: So, were people shopping out of patriotic duty?
WOMAN: No, out of need. ( Laughs )
PAUL SOLMAN: Why are you shopping?
WOMAN: Because we need things. (Laughs)
WOMAN: I'm planning to buy a pink sweater because I've had this jacket for about ten years and I have nothing that goes with it.
PAUL SOLMAN: So it's not a patriotic gesture for you, for example.
WOMAN: No, I'm not into patriotic gestures. Even though I love this country, I'm not into patriotic gestures.
MAN: You can't just be, gee, go out and spend my money and then all of a sudden... I was a good patriot but I lost money. You can't secure your job or your house or your education or your hope for your children or financial legacy for them if something should happen to you.
ROBERT REICH, Former Secretary of Labor: There is no patriotic duty to put your family finances in jeopardy.
PAUL SOLMAN: Public policy professor and former Labor Secretary Robert Reich.
ROBERT REICH: There have been a lot of patriotic pitches to Americans to go out and spend. But the fact of the matter is that Americans are deep in debt. Savings is down to a 70-year low, and a lot of people are worried about their jobs. They're not going to go out and spend, particularly after September 11, when they don't even understand or know what the future holds for them. This is not the atmosphere in which you get a lot of people going out to a mall like this.
PAUL SOLMAN: In fact, though, and despite the bad sales numbers for September, more people do seem to be on their way back. And the role of the patriotic pitch, if there is one, may be less direct, more subtly psychological: to counteract the worries, the gloom, the feelings of guilt aroused by shopping in a time of trauma. And so our final expert was psychologist Ellen Langer, a noted scholar of human behavior, whom we asked to help us explore the ambivalence of shoppers like this one.
WOMAN: I don't think we should be spending anything...any money right now.
PAUL SOLMAN: Because?
WOMAN: Yes. I'm contradicting myself, okay? (Laughter) this is a stress release.
PAUL SOLMAN: So you're doing this to make yourself feel a little better, calmer?
WOMAN: Yes, yes, very much.
PAUL SOLMAN: But you think people shouldn't be spending as much now?
WOMAN: No, we shouldn't.
PAUL SOLMAN: Why not?
WOMAN: It's the uncertainty of the future. Today, I'm in a cloud.
PAUL SOLMAN: Really?
WOMAN: Right. I feel like that.
PAUL SOLMAN: So you just sort of thinking one thing, doing another, living a contradiction.
PAUL SOLMAN: But to Professor Langer, that's okay.
ELLEN LANGER, Psychologist, Harvard University: She seems to think that she shouldn't be shopping, and it raises the question, what should she be doing? What should any of us be doing? After you've given blood, you've sent in donations, you've helped people around you, there's life to be lived, and the only way to get through it so that it's meaningful is to be awake while you're doing what you're doing and to live life mindfully.
PAUL SOLMAN: Including shopping.
ELLEN LANGER: Including shopping. For some people, especially shopping, if it's the sort of thing that feels familiar and comforting to them.
PAUL SOLMAN: In other words, shopping may not only be what you can do for your country, but in these troubling times, what you can do for yourself as well.