“You need to buy more stuff,” fashion industry says to working-from-home women

When Covid first hit, more women working at home stocked up on the softest, cosiest sweatpants they could find and stayed wrapped up in their comforting embrace for months. 

Initially, fashion companies pivoted, churning out casual clothing to meet demand and even endorsing the shift, suggesting it was time for unbridled consumption to end.

“I feel very strongly that when we come out at the other end, people’s values are really going to have shifted,” Vogue editor Anna Wintour said in April 2020. “I think it’s an opportunity for all of us to look at our industry and to look at our lives, and to rethink our values, and to really think about the waste, and the amount of money, and consumption, and excess that we have all indulged in and how we really need to rethink what this industry stands for.”

But as the pandemic has persisted, it has devastated the fashion industry. Consumers have been shopping less and overall spending has declined. As one analyst said, consumers have shifted to inconspicuous spending. That reduced industry revenues by an estimated $640 billion and profits by as much as 90% in 2020. 

Horrors! Fashion industry leaders have come to realize that promoting casualness and frugality will kill their businesses. They needed to up their game, to get people to care more about how they looked on Zoom, to buy for when they eventually leave the cocoon of their home office and reemerge in public.

So now the industry is going all out to convince women that the new Zoom-dominated business environment demands they shed their shapeless comfortable loungewear and return to glamorous outfits that will sparkle and shine, reinforce their power and strengthen their social identity. 

Some fashion cheerleaders are arguing that ramping up fashion choices is imperative to save fashion company standouts. Others say it’s needed to give people something to focus on that isn’t morbid and depressing or because we need to focus on a future of choices. But what it’s really all about is returning to an environment of conspicuous consumption.

This past weekend, I was struck by a story in the Wall Street Journal that illustrated this new posturing. 

“After a dispiriting year of living and working through video, women are investing in fashion and accessories that truly shine on-screen. How to make an impact from the waist up,” the paper announced.  “Now, thanks to some combination of optimism, sweatshirt fatigue and longing for a pre-pandemic world, many women are not only getting dressed for Zoom—they’re getting decked out.”

Featured in the story was a model in a $2,470 sweater from Alexander McQueen, a $545 necklace and a $505 choker.

 

Another recent WSJ story featured a model in a $7,000 jacket (you read that right, $7,000) and $2,000 shirt (you read that right, too, $2,000) all ready for a Zoom session. 

The industry isn’t just pushing expensive and extravagant clothes for the homebound. It’s hawking costly skin care treatments that will make women shine on screen. “Go for the glow,” the WSJ said. “A consistent beauty regimen is the secret to a dewy complexion that will radiate on screen,” said the WSJ.  Emphatic accessories “help you stand out from all the other tiny squares,” said Jennifer Behr, a New York designer.

Then for the truly insecure, the fashion industry says Zoom-time means it’s time for expensive surgery. 

“Zoom is making people notice all of their small imperfections,” New York dermatologist Dendy Engelman explained in the WSJ. “We are used to seeing our faces statically in the mirror, rather than dynamically as we do on video,” added New York plastic surgeon Adam Kolker. Movements and expressions “often demonstrate facial aging more vividly.”

Most popular cosmetic procedures, Kolker added, are “neuromodulators [like Botox] to decrease lines and injectable fillers [like Restylane and Juvederm] to minimize the perception of deeper wrinkles.” For Miami dermatologist Heather Woolery-Lloyd’s patients, Zoom has cast a spotlight on skin-tone and texture issues, which she addresses with chemical peels and microneedling.”

Or women can simply choose to use Zoom’s flattering “Touch Up My Appearance feature” to smooth over their appearance, making them look dewy and well-rested. It costs a lot less.

Reckless lunacy: Portland has surrendered to graffiti vandals

The scourge of graffiti in downtown Portland, OR

It should have been confronted in the beginning. Now it’s out of hand.

Graffiti was once a rarity in downtown Portland. Now, ignored or tolerated for too long, it has metastasized, spread like a cancer throughout the city.

Graffiti isn’t harmless play-acting or simply entertainment for bored youth. It isn’t simple rebellion either. It is, instead, reckless lunacy.

Unapproved graffiti on a building, train or highway wall is not just a harmless “expression of self,” as some apologists argue.  There’s no romanticism in it. It is abusing others’ property. It’s a crime that impacts the quality of life of everybody who has to confront it. At a minimum, it’s vandalism. When used to mark territory by gangs, it puts the community at risk. If allowed to stay and multiply, it serves as a billboard for disorder and social disruption.

As Whitney Hall has written, graffiti has a “wave effect” in that it leads to increases in crime, including violence, loitering, littering, and other forms of property destruction, as well as more theft of items being used to do the graffiti.

Maybe some graffiti can be seen as art, but that’s not what’s now covering Portland. It is, instead, brutality taking away our right to a clean city, our right to live in a safe unthreatening environment.

ProPublica, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power, recently posted an article written by Jeremy Kohler arguing that the failure of state legislatures and law enforcement to respond to the attacks of armed far-right mobs led directly to the riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan 6. “Experts and elected officials said the lack of action by lawmakers and police created an environment that encouraged political violence,” ProPublica wrote. “Eventually, you get to the point of entitlement where you can get away with anything and there will never be any accountability,” the Idaho House minority leader, Ilana Rubel, a Democrat, said.”

It’s time to face Portland’s tolerance for graffiti for what it is, another sign of a city out of control.

Cancelling student loan debt: bad politics, bad policy

(Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“Cancel federal student loan debt!”  That’s the latest rallying cry of liberal politicians.

During their presidential campaign, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris called for forgiveness of up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt.

Now the pressure’s on to up the ante and cancel $50,000.

“We are not going to let up until we accomplish it, until $50,000 of debt is forgiven for every student in the country,” Sen. Chuck Schumer, the majority leader, said Thursday.

To use a word linked to so many progressive causes these days, there would be nothing “equitable” about going down this road. 

What would this mean for Oregon?

As of Sept 30, 2020, 483,500 Oregonians had outstanding federal student loan debt totaling $12.4 billion. The number who hold $50,000 or less of debt is approximately 413,100. A $50,000 loan forgiveness program would mean eliminating the debt of 413,000 debtors. That would leave just 70,500 with outstanding debt, each of whom would see their debt reduced by $50,000 as well.[1]

But would that be fair and equitable? Not likely.

First of all, the fact is most Americans don’t have federal student loan debt, including about 30 percent of college undergraduates, and about 25 percent of all bachelor’s degree recipients graduate with less than $20,000 in outstanding loans. Fewer than 20 percent of all borrowers owe more than $40,000.

And despite all the hysteria and political posturing, most who do have outstanding federal loans are not overwhelmed with huge amounts of debt. Average debt at graduation from public and nonprofit colleges was $28,800 in 2019, less than the average amount Americans pay for a new car ($36,718 in 2019, according to automotive information site Edmunds).

An initial rationale for forgiving federal student loan debt was that it would help struggling students who couldn’t get ahead because of burdensome loan payments stretching far into the future.

Then came the justification that it would particularly help Blacks because Black students borrow more, have lower levels of family income, wealth, and parental education and have much higher loan default rates. That’s partly because Black students are more likely to attend for-profit colleges, where default rates are higher in general. Also, completion rates at many HBCUs are high, leaving too many students with debts but no degree. 

Now proponents of loan cancellation are trying to connect the idea to Covid-19, arguing that Covid has made paying bills harder (even though Pres. Bi9den has already signed Biden also signed an executive order extending the payment pause on federal student loans due to Covid-19 until October).

One problem is that if you pay off $50,000 of federal student loan debt just for those with current outstanding loans, many students just graduating will owe nothing, while new freshman will be starting to build debt again.

Loan cancellation would also tend to benefit the better-off among us who are more likely to have completed college and this be able to pay off college debt. Even in a $10,000 debt forgiveness program, an analysis by the Urban Institute indicates that about $150 billion would accrue to the top 40 percent of U.S. households by income.

Also, students and parents who have been faithfully paying off their loans for years, often at great sacrifice, may see little benefit if their balance is now close to zero.  

As Jeff Jacoby, a Boston Globe columnist put it, “…a massive bailout of borrowers would be unfair to countless families that saved and worked to pay for college, to say nothing of those who responsibly repaid their loans.”

Another problem. Students and parents with private loans will still owe it all. Americans owe more than $132 billion to private student lenders.

Then there’s the cost, probably about $1 trillion. But neither party seems overly concerned about that now. Even the media doesn’t care. The Hill, like many other news sites, recently managed to write an entire article on the idea without once mentioning how much it would cost. The cancellation advocates say not to worry because taxes on “rich people” will cover the cost. The problem is they want “rich people” to pay for every other new budget-busting program as well.

The argument progressives make that forgiving student loans would be a huge stimulus to the economy doesn’t make sense either.  

The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget says the stimulus benefits would be minimal and aimed at those who least need the help. Total student loan debt may be atrociously high, but borrowers often pay back their loans over 10, 15, or even 30 years. That means debt cancellation would increase their available cash for injection back into the economy by only a fraction of the total loan forgiveness. 

“Stimulus dollars that are spent rather than saved provide a stronger boost to near-term economic output,” the Committee says.

The fact is, subsidizing people who run up large college loan debts penalizes those who took their responsibility seriously and acted responsibly, James B. Meigs wrote in City Journal, a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a free-market think tank. That leaves a lot of people feeling like chumps, he said.

 “…the chumps of modern America feel that the life choices they’re most proud of—working hard, taking care of their families, being good citizens—aren’t just undervalued, but scorned,” Meigs wrote. 

Then there’s the “moral hazard” of a one-time cancellation of student debt. It would encourage students and parents to continue running up risky big loan balances on the assumption that their debts will be forgiven at some point. That would cause a distortion of borrowing decisions, making them insensitive to the ability to repay. 


[1] The office of Federal Student Aid (https://studentaid.gov/data-center/student) doesn’t break down student debt numbers showing debt owed of $50,000 or less. Instead, it shows debt owed between $40,000 – $60,000. I arbitrarily split the amount of the debt and the number of debtors in half to determine the figures for debtors owing $50,000 or less.