Monthly Archives: March 2005

Wall Street Journal Roundup

I don’t have much time to develop arguments today, but these items from the Journal speak for themselves. Arizona police are worried that allowing volunteers with guns to patrol the Mexican border might lead to vigilantism. Boy, that would be shocking, huh. Aren’t these just fair-minded, self-surrendering citizens who want to police the border? These wouldn’t be people with a personal grudge against immigrants. Also, some parents are now “outsourcing” their children’s potty training to “fussy-baby” services. Perhaps you’ll be able to send your infant to Banglalore to have its diapers changed. The current administration’s tax policy hypocrisy is addressed in a piece about the AMT, which, because it isn’t indexed to inflation, is shifting more and more of the tax burden to middle-class families in Democratic-leaning states. I wonder why Congress isn’t fighting to cut these taxes? Maybe because the shortfall for cutting business taxes is made up conveniently by this little loophole. Also of note, a front-page story about Chinese tax collection reminds us that in America, 83% of the tax burden is bourne by individuals rather than businesses. And why shouldn’t it be that way, when our friends at the largest insurance company in the world, AIG, have confessed to essentially systematically defrauding their investors for several years. What! Insurance companies defrauding? I thought we the people had the problem with defrauding them — as when we refuse to report our addresses honestly or pwn up to our preexisting health conditions so they can bar us coverage. I’m just shocked to see a scandal like this in such an honest, straightforward business as insurance. Next you tell me that there’s waste and needless paperwork in the medical-billing industry. To finish things up, the heart-warming story of the executive with MS who didn’t feel comfortable enough to admit his condition to his employer. Though companies are mandated by law to be tolerant of such medical conditions, this person must not have felt reassured that his company wouldn’t find little ways to screw him over that would be hard to prove on the record.
Also: the Bush administration is prosecuting blacks for their discrimination against whites, is cutting funds to the victims of crime, and is gutting the protection of whistleblowers. All in all, a banner day.

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Democracy and business interests

One of the reasons it’s so hard to take George Bush, the buisness-class lackey extraordinaire, at all seriously when he champions the march of democracy in the Middle East and the old Soviet republics is the tradition emnity of business for democratic ways. Business prefers a despot (cf, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan), who can overrule popular but not especially profitable notions like higher standards of living for wider swaths of the population and environmental protections that democratic bodies have a tendency to pass. (America has a workaround in the form of demogoguery — cf Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?) Business prefers stability to all other things as well, which a despot (or Alan Greenspan) can provide in spades.

In The Passions and the Interests, Hirschman cites two striking insights made early on in capitalism’s history regarding the compatibility of private business interests and despotic, antidemocratic governments. The first comes from Adam Smith’s Scottish contemporary, Adam Ferguson: “Liberty is never in greater danger than it is when we measure national felicity . . . by the mere tranquillity which may attend on equitable administration.” The point is that keeping the waters calm for business is no sign that liberty is spreading, any more than more diverse and abundant consumer markets are. These things may actually be preoccupations distracting us from the curtailment of freedom, the dismantling of social safety nets. Married to our material interests, we are likely to agree to whatever depotic measure is pitched to us to stave off some supposed economic crisis just around the corner. Think of the current social security demogogery coming from the president: a perfect example of a phony crisis being trumped up to preserve the interests of the wealthy and their heirs and the expense of the liberties of the rest of society. The other comes from Toqueville, who is more customarily quoted in support of the proposition that commerce only thrives in free societies. His views weren’t so simple: “People think they follow the doctrine of interest, but they only have a crude idea of what it is, and, to watch the better over what they call their business, they neglect the principal part of it, which is to remain their own masters.” When people have their attentions fixated on profit, and see it as a proxy for freedom, actual liberty in the form of rights is readily shelved, espcially in imperialist scenarios where the rights-exporpriation is exported to third-world countries far from the stockholders who benefit by it.

The point is that isolated individuals watching out for their own financial interests don’t automatically aggregate into a free society that preserves everyone’s rights. The fight for profit is often a zero-sum game. And often individuals are so divorced from collective politcal power, that they are led to believe they must mortgage their rights in order to secure profits. They allow themselves to become so preoccupied with their personal gain that they let society become progressively worse (the NIMBY phenomenon). And as society worsens the political landscape ripens for demogogues like the current charlatan in the White House. A vicious cycle, indeed.

Theses about commercial fiction, consumer societies

1. Commercial fiction exists to justify the status quo, and make such justifications be experienced as pleasure, either through flattering the reader for his ability to predict what will happen or dignifying his typical circumstances or positing fantasies that dovetail with what commercial markets profess to offer.

2. Commercial fiction thrives on the reader’s isolation, which allows his fantiasies to develop unchecked in the channels provided by the fiction and allows for a more absorbing suspension of disbelief. This corresponds well with how the consumer society relies on isolated consumers to permit a wider array of unnecessary purchases and to allow unsubstantiated claims about products and the lifestyles they purport to provide go unchecked. Resistance, even to the flimsy premises of genre fiction and advertisements, requires social organization–you need a network of communication outside of mass media to set up a discourse counter to it. Isolation, on the other hand, streamlines acquiescence.

3. Vicarious participation is a prerequisite of both commercial fiction and commercial societies. In both instances we must be prepared to enjoy our emotions more thoroughly through proxies than through direct experience of nature or society. We must be prepared to choosed mediated forms of experience, because of the illusion of control it affords us, over direct, spontaneous, unpredictable “natural” experiences.

4. Plausibility may be redefined within the realm of commercial fiction to suit the consumer society’s requirements. Reading commerc ial fiction reconfigures the plausibility threshold so that only matters inconsequential to commerce and consumerist fantasy are rejected as “unrealistic.”

5. The question of the commericial novel’s form may best be seen as a problem of industrial design.

6. The commercial novel was one of the first commodities, and as such, it contributed to the notions that acquiring goods constitutes a story itself. The dream world we enter in fiction is akin to the dream lifestyle a good hopes to posit for us via its ads. A story unfolds, closure is obtained (the good is purchased) and a new story must begin. Commercial novels, in being utterly worthless after they are read once, are emblematic of consumer goods generally, which become beside the point of pleasure once acquired. (example: the home espresso machine. Note how many of these you find in thrift stores.)

7. Our facility at enjoying commercial fiction, adopting to its conventions and enjoying its foreshortenings and its illusions, makes us able to enjoy shopping more — its necessary pre-purchase fantasizing, how ads are metonyms for powerful narratives of our values, how there can be a dramatic arc to our market experience.

8. Connoiseurship in the market — the quest for distinctive goods — has roots in the connoiseurship of feeling, experienced vicariously through the earliest commercial novels and the taste in reading it allow to be expressed.

9. Pleasure does not preexist systems of distribution and consumption. It manifests itself through those systems; the shape pleasure can take is defined by those systems. The 18th century commercial novel is an artifact of first forms of pleasure enabled by capitalism. (Needs are “set free” by economic growth.)

10. For commercial novels as well as consumer societies, anticipation is far more important than satisfaction.

Drug store blues

If I’ve read the commercial real estate markers right, there’s a new Duane Reade drug store coming to the corner of Broadway and 57th street. Of course, there’s already a Duene Reade on this corner, and one a block away at 58th and 8th. But that’s not stopping the company from opening another one in this apparent epicenter of pharmaceutical consumption. Crack dealers can’t even work the same corner profitably. How come Duane Reade can?

It is the most extreme example of a nationwide phenomenon of drug stores multiplying with an obscene, bunny-like promiscuity. Even when I lived in Tucson, I was astounded by all the new Walgreen’s going up, opening faster even than predatory paycheck loan cabanas. How can the market sustain all these drug stores? It seems to be a dark commentary on the profit margins involved in the drug industry, or at least on the ways in which retailers can piggyback frivolous purchases on the necessary medicine purchases people must make. LIke paycheck-cashing kiosks, drug stores can apparently make money anywhere they choose to open; they have a kind of captive market that can freely predate upon. The typical drug store is like a Wal-Mart in miniature, or a steroidal five-and-dime with all sorts of sundry goods available, from groceries to truck-stop-caliber CDs and cassettes to makeup to toys to liquor to stationary. They behave as though they are the only store in a fifty-mile radius, even though there is often another store just like it in the next shopping center down the boulevard (or at the next corner for those cities that still have pedestrians). Maybe I’m not in the demographic for drug stores, but no one I know is ever excited or relieved to see another drug store open. It usually just seems like a waste of commercial space that could have gone to something your neighborhood really needs (like a Trader Joe’s or something). Like fast-food restaurants, the drug stores seem to muscle out other potential businesses and reduce commercial strips to the bland sameness of cheap-apartment wall-to-wall carpeting. It seems like we’re edging closer to the logical endpoint, where nothing will exist but drugstores, and all commodities will be perceived as drugs themselves, each in their own way.

Follow your greed

How did greed (aka self-interest) go from being one of the deadliest of sins to become the underpinning and core value of an entire civilization? That’s the question that A. O. Hirschman attempts to answer in The Passion and the Interests, which traces the evolution of the intellectual concepts that undergird capitalism. Hirschman argues that greed came to be considered a counterveiling passion to the more destructive passions of lust and hatred and honor and so forth because of its predictability and presumed universality. Also, it’s very insatiability came to be seen as a point in its favor, because the presumed fact that the desire for more wealth can never be sated means that avarice is always operating in all men, and can be used as a lever to rule over all men alike. As Simmel explained, “as a thing absolutely devoid of quality, [money] cannot harbor either surprise or disappointment, as does any object.” Coveting money so easily beccomes a single-minded mania because it is never subject to the law of diminishing marginal utility: one ham sandwich is nice, but five of them is overkill. But a million dollars is nice, and five million is even nicer, and fifty million is nicer still — as long as one doesn’t try to convert money into specific utility. The lust for money is insatiable only when it is fetishized as an end unto itself and not a means to another end.

Reduced to his greed, man’s psychology is rather simple, and manipulating him into participating in a social order becomes that much more plausible. To this end, one might conclude, man is henceforth encouraged in his greed at the expense of other pursuits. He is encouraged to fetishize money as an end in itself. Self-interest is held to be the only interest; all other interests ultimately can be reduced to it (a la Rochefoucauld’s Maxims). From this point, self-interest can be defined as the only form of rational decision-making, and refusal to be greedy can be seen as a kind of insanity. Because the greed of a host of independent agents is seen to check and balance each other in the aggregate, and produce a growing and expanding society, refusal to be greedy is positively detrimental, subversive. But following one’s greed is perfectly natural and excusable.

Salespeople

I had to buy a new mattress over the weekend, which meant an entirely depressing encounter with a salesperson. I had a pretty good idea what I wanted, something exactly the same as the bed I already own, except new and king size. When I found the like model in my local Sleepy’s, the saleswoman basically ignored my plea to circumvent salesmanship, told me I didn’t really know what I wanted, forced me to lay down on a computerized gizmo that purported to tell me what was most comfortable, tried to steer me to Sleepy’s house brand, gave me a bunch of flimflam disinformation about comfort zones and so on, tried to force me to buy a $60 mattress “protector” and only barely stopped short of calling me an idiot when I refused, quoted me an excessive price, laughed at me when I told her I wanted to shop around and price compare, told me that “price comparison is a waste of time,” then offered to call her manager to see if she could plead on my behalf for a better deal to prove that I shouldn’t shop around, and then tried to insist the Sleepy’s price guarantee made comparison shopping irrelevant. I don’t know why I tried to reason this woman (even going so far as talking about “information asymmetry” at one point) who so clearly intended to regard me as a dimwit mark and a pushover. But she probably learned that her method is most successful, especially considering she’ll have one chance with the average mattress purchaser every twenty years. The rarer the purchase, the more aggressive and deceitful the salesperson, who has to make most of her money on commissions from sporadic sales. This is why real estate agents are the most deceitful of all.

But commission-driven salespeople break out all the sleazy tricks, it seems, to mystify the process and make you feel weak and anxious. They prey on your instinct to be civil and nice and cooperative and use that against you, because they feel no civility toward you, seeing you as an opportunity to make money. High-pressure sales is a very bizarre career choice, seeming to require more than the usual amount of sociopathy, cynicism and contempt. It seems a refuge for the desperate, because it takes a kind of Hobbesean chip-on-the-shoulder desperation to fuel their aggressive pitches. Or it requires people who simply enjoy manipulating others, for its own sake, or for the sake of measuring the reach of their powers. Perhaps each boiler-room encounter is like chess to them, and they end up admiring the ingenuity of their tactics. But it seems to me that you’re a fool if you don’t view sales encounters like combat. Threaten to go to a competitor, call bullshit on what they say, laugh at their pitches, and see how flustered they become.

I ended up walking out on the saleswoman who was pressuring me, going to a Sleepy’s down the street, and buying the same bed from a guy with a soft-sell approach who gave me the discounted price, which incidentally was advertised in company’s newspaper circular.

Theses about consumer societies

1. When a consumer society becomes dominant, aesthetic value is measured in marketability and commercial values merge with artistic values. (Hence, the Grammies). What is valuable is what we imagine ourselves owning; this dream of ownership gives a work of art its aura.

2. In a consumer society, advertisements replace entertainment. Their purpose is to inspire insecurity, which becomes synonymous with desire, which is treasured as that which propels one into society. Advertisments mimic rationalism so that its parodies of logic, its fallacies, can be mistaken for reasoning, can convince.

3. Advertisements manifest the unifying ideology in a consumerist society, providing the imaginative space where citizens can comingle, replacing the physical space where conversations once occurred. Ads are the matrix undergirding the consumer society, its atmosphere, its substance. They are not merely an aspect of such a society, but it’s very atomic structure. The fantasy in the ad space is now where our most meaningful interactions, our deepest and most affirming conversations with (imagined) others takes place.

4. Brands attached to products are emotional triggers. Ads attach emotions to inert words, to neutral everyday concepts and necessities, vivifying them, glamorizing the drudgery of subsistance, the necessities of reproducing our current ways of life. In this they replace ritualized religion.

5. The habit of narrating our existence, of making a unified, coherent story of our lives, derives from our exposure to advertising, which mythologizes the individual and his autonomous potency. The experience of sympathy, of vicariousness, these precede the notion of ourselves having a life story worth telling. A life story is always a public phenomenon, even when its completely personal and inarticulate. Because the personal narrative is socially generated, it internalizes in the interior monologue social mechanisms of control, the various insecurities to which we’re subject. The degree to which we feel insecurity is simultaneously the degree to which we feel we belong to society. This is why our consumer products seem to assuage and intesify this insecurity at the same time.

6. The experience of vicarious sympathy as pleasure, a pleasure in the misery or joy of others, compensates for the loss of solidarity that stems from individualism. Consumer society depends on our experiencing sympathy as more satisfying than solidarity. Thus ads and commercial entertainment illustrate and emphasize the pleasures of observation and undermine the pleasures of participation.

7. Under capitalism, having an inner life becomes a commodity, an experience that is sold to the individual, and valued to the degree the individual has to pay for it. This inner life then becomes subject to the pressures of social emulation — one compares its depth and profundity to that of other people and measures oneself accordingly.