The inevitable post-Black Friday stories report that while it wasn't as bad as it could have been, spending was way down and profits even more down. Being reflexively liberal, I have a scoffing "so what" reaction, but I know that this isn't so great, realistically speaking. Black Friday is not, as it's often presumed, the biggest shopping day of the year, but it's a good indicator of what the season is going to look like. And it's not good.

But while the crowds did come out, analysts say they were thinner than last year, and according to some accounts, business fell off sharply for the remainder of the weekend.

Shoppers were also focused on bargains and smaller-ticket, practical items like blenders and video games, as they worry about layoffs, tightening credit and shrinking retirement funds.

Here's what's sick about the whole thing---it wasn't good, but spending is still up. That's our economy for you---so growth-oriented that you don't even need to shrink for there to be a problem. It's bad if you simply don't grow at a ridiculously huge rate. I fail to see how anyone could observe this attitude and think that we were facing anything but disaster. I have to wonder if the economic crunch is going to affect how people view their own consumption, because right now the trend for cheap, throwaway goods tends to overwhelm everything, including the electronics market. (I think some people don't even really care if electronic goods fry out and have to be replaced frequently---means you know what to buy people for Christmas.) What I would be interested in is seeing if gift choices trend towards economy. For instance, a video game might be expensive, but on the whole, it's frugal if you play the game a lot. You can get a lot more use out of a $50 video game than spending the same amount on movies, for instance. And more buying things that people would have to buy themselves is someone didn't get it for them, like clothes. I know I asked my mom for clothes this year, because I want stuff I will absolutely use.

I'm not inclined to beat my chest over the tragic materialism of American culture on display this time of year. Americans didn't invent gift-giving, even though we do take it to dizzying levels. But I do think the spirit of generosity is a good one, and I definitely have a tendency to get excited over giving someone I love a gift that I think they'll really like. I can't wave my hands over that and declare it merely a symptom of materialism invented by capitalists---giving gifts is primal, probably residing in our DNA. Functionally, what's hard about gift-giving is picking something out that someone else will like. Christmas and birthdays are often a painful reminder of how little individuality we each have, because it is so often hard to find a gift that will please a person without being generic. But it's hard to be innovative without running the risk they won't like it.

I'm an early starter, so I'm basically done with my Christmas list, but I sort of wish I wasn't, because the economic crunch made me realize that the "hard times" theme might be a good one to arrange your shopping list around. Vow to make all your gifts something that will last for a person, or a replacement for something they'd have to buy themselves, or something that will save them money, like crafting materials or classes in crafting. But we're in this recession for awhile, so there'll be time next year.

At Feministing, I saw that Planned Parenthood is giving out gift cards, which I can't say that I'd buy because that's a tad too unsentimental. (Yay! A pap smear! What I always wanted!) Of course, this is controversial, and the excuse for being upset is that you could use the money towards an abortion, if that's what you need. But I doubt anyone is buying one with that in mind (it's probably more "one month free birth control" that's motivating purchases), but let's face it---even if they made you openly borrow the money from a friend for an abortion, that wouldn't stop people from bitching about this. Because giving your (likely female) friend a gift certificate from Planned Parenthood is, in the eyes of social conservatives, suggesting she has a right to have sex punishment-free, and that's controversial enough. Wonder what they'd think about gift certificates to Good Vibrations, which are more fun but send the same message?

Feel free to share your ideas for "hard times" gifts in comments. I'm sure that good suggestions will be helpful to people like me who often have trouble thinking of really good gifts.