We Winter Weaklings

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Here in the East, we just endured our first winter "storm" of 2007. If it revealed anything, it's how little we, as American consumers, get for our money.

As a taxpayer, I'm content (just this once). The guys driving the snowplows attacked the roads as if trying to prove that their jobs shouldn't be outsourced. They must have been bored to death, after so much balmy weather.

I'm less impressed with my fellow consumers. Whole industries have been built to help us better survive misfortune, calamity, and winter. And we have bought just about everything they've offered: SUVs, portable generators, power snow-removal equipment, GPS gizmos able to help locate us in an avalanche, crushproof watches, chemical-free fire logs, moisture-wicking long underwear that's stylish too. This, of course, is the "rugged individualist" phenomenon–the arming of Americans with the tools to do what their ancient ancestors did, should it ever be required.

We've got lots of help, too. In the event that you threw out your back reaching for the remote control, and couldn't get out to man the snowblower, there are legions of workers from Mexico and Guatemala and El Salvador who will do that hard work for you–even though it's a foreign climate.

In fact, as a society, we have never been better equipped to survive an emergency. And we have never seemed more pathetic.

In Washington, D.C., the federal government shut down early (did anybody notice?) so that thousands of bureaucrats could drive home in the sleet at 2 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. They got the next morning off, too, since there was still some slush on the roads. In New York, so many people stayed home that evening rush hour was as light as traffic on a Sunday. If you flipped through the cable news channels at any point during the day, you really needed a survival strategy–the breathless reports of closed schools and slippery roads were so boring that I longed for another update on Anna Nicole Smith ("there's still no cause of death . . . .").

We've been paying a lot for rugged individualism. So where is it? Look, I know there are still some mountainfolk in the Appalachians and Rockies who eat only what they kill and sleep beneath bearskin blankets. No doubt there are some pretty hardy people in Mexico, N.Y., near Lake Ontario, where they got 10 feet of snow in one week; it would take extraordinary fortitude not to flee, deranged, for an airport. Even in my suburban neighborhood there were a few brave souls who actually went for a walk–before the sidewalks were plowed.

But most people stay home and wait–for somebody else to make things better. It used to be considered a big problem if the power went out for more than 12 hours or the snow drifts got so big you couldn't pile snow on them anymore. Now we get upset if we lose Internet access or can't charge our cellphones. People can run out to the store, if they really have to, but it takes a long time for the SUV to defrost itself and the heated seats to warm up. It's easier to call Peapod.

Hey, I don't want to sound like one of those geezers wistful about the good ol' days. I'm not old enough yet to remember any good ol' days. And there's nothing wrong with living better, softer lives than our forebears'.

But I can sense a good marketing scam, and winter storms highlight our gullibility. As any marketing pro knows, when we pay for products that enhance our rugged individualism, we're not really buying better capability to survive adversity. We're paying for self-image. The truth is, the fuller our sheds get with tools to aid our survival, the less adaptable we really are. That's the whole history of technology, of course–the more we can devise gizmos and machines to do things for us, the less we have to get our hands dirty.

And who can blame the marketers? If people are willing to pay for cars and underwear that make them feel invincible, well, you'd be a poor capitalist not to meet their need. But for once, I'd love to see an SUV ad that shows the invincible vehicle–with a real-world driver. He looks out the front door at his car near the curb, decides it's too snowy to run to the car, takes off his hat, and pops a frozen pizza into the microwave. Now that's a storm.

--Rick Newman