You know what is hard?
Overthinking. It’s the curse of the quiet observer, too critical to simplyÂ do without prior analysis.
Slowly, building like a suspenseful plot, I’ve thought myself into an existential crisis. I looked up the term to be sure.
It seems that nearly all assumptions we, the American/Western collective, make based on our societal and political history, are flawed. Or at least skewed. The systems, the laws, the attitudes. The expectations. That in and of itself isn’t the terrible part.
What’s suuuuper depressing, is the realization that I’mÂ largely alone. Or at least, it feels that way. So few people question anything. They don’t ask why, or how, or for what reason. Only how much, how soon, and how good will it make him/her/them feel.
I read an article maybe a year ago titled “How to become a trillionaire.” It was, of course, satirical, in that obviously there is no manual for making trillions of dollars. Other than becoming a country, or dictator of one.
However, it brought up a highly resonant idea that to this day, has changed how I look at the world. It was: through psychological conditioning viaÂ media like the television, you can create a customer for whatever you want to sell, rather than simply a product or service to try to sell.
You can create trends, invent demand, and curate lives through the powerful tools of advertising. In the 20th century, this was mostly delivered through tv commercials. Now, it is multi-channel: billboards, internet and mobile ads, clothing.
I’m inching toward a critique of capitalism here.*
First, I want you to think about the societal challenges making their way through the news and legislative bodies. Things like suburban sprawl, minimum wage, bicycle & pedestrian safety, obesity. Violence. War. Gay rights.
What drives them?
Money. Profit. A lack of relation and responsibilityÂ to the collective.
An air of exclusion, smugly delivered. [No one helped me get where I am, so why should I care about your troubles? Every man for himself, essentially]
An NPR segment I caught earlier centered around the issue of family-friendly workplace policies, related to insufficient maternity/paternity leave for parenting. Other countries are way ahead, of course. Only Papua New Guinea and some other awful place I can’t recall don’t mandate paid leave for the birth of a baby. Or early childcare.
There is only one answer as to why. Profits and losses.
Lately a lot of normally disengaged friends have asked me about the looming transportation funding meltdown. The federal trust fund that pays for road maintenance and construction is broke, and at the 12th hour, it will bring many projects to a grinding halt. Why?
Because we haven’t raised the gas tax rate, even adjusted it for inflation, since 1993. It is dwindling even faster because cars are more efficient now, though they still use and abuse roads just the same. What force prevents us from simply keeping up with previous generations, in terms of paying for what we build and use?
That would be: powerful lobbies for the automotive, trucking, oil, and tire industriesâ€”those that would stand to be forced to evolve the most. They threaten to pull political funding. They hold money over heads.
Maybe it is also, in part, a deserved distrust of government capability, based on past corruption and mismanagement.
This is just one example of a systemic refusal to take “for the good of the whole” responsibility. On an individual level, it is denial that what you do affects your neighbor, and that his condition is dependent on yours.
So here we stand, unwilling to evolve policy along with our evolved needs. Unless it benefits the few powerful interests (i.e. heads of capitalist industry), who stand to be enriched (or degraded) from any change.
That is an example in which I am intimately familiar, thanks to my day job. Its themes are applicable elsewhere, which I am noticing more and more…
- Insurance company questioning your treatment: driven by money. Margins.
- Backlash to socialized medicine: money. Control.
- Diet soda addiction hindering your smaller waistline: driven by money. Marketing.
- Political attack ads: driven by money, financed by corporate interests. Control.
- “Keeping up with the Joneses”: driven by advertising, money.
- U.S. involvement in foreign wars: driven by money spent on defense contractors.
- Americans’ addiction to stuff (stuffocation): driven by money, advertising. [We have a whole store dedicated to containers?!]
- Florida being the most dangerous state for pedestrians: driven by commerce interests, auto-drivers (money).
- General Motors’ faulty ignition switch cover-up: profit margins.
- Mysterious, relatively new ailments only found in Western, developed countries [like cancer and autism]: driven by processed foods, pollution, environmental factors, aka industry aka money.
- Young peoples’ addiction to electronic devices: driven by brilliant marketing.
- Fast fashion and its mistreatment of workers: money, profits.
- Social networks quietly mining personal data: money. Ads!!
- Prescription drug abuse: drug companies. Money.
If you slowly begin to question the givens in your life, you might end up where I amâ€”coming up with more cognitive dissonance than harmony. So in a way, I can see why you wouldn’t.
In light of these light bulb moments, I have to ask myself: Is it really admirable to build a career, or a life, that grows by necessity of screwing someone else?
It’s almost comical to inspect the television industry from this lens. For one, millions of homes with cable tv actually pay to be delivered commercials, for food that is bad for them and for products they don’t need.
Reality tv, one of the hottest television trends of the last decade, is propped up by Jerry Springer-grade petty drama, most of which is fabricated. The only difference is they have better clothes, bigger homes, nicer cars. And people love it.
But what good are the Real Housewives doing for the world?Â I’m all for fictional entertainment, but seeÂ it for what it is.
The advent of things like Netflix have addressed this model somewhat (there are no ads). Users pay a monthly fee, but choose what and when they watch, on-demand.
In response, internet companies [e.g. Verizon], often under joint management with cable providers [e.g. Time Warner], have challenged the principle ofÂ net neutrality, which essentially treats all internet traffic the same. Were the principle to be abandoned, those cable-internet providers could charge for better quality access.
In other words, greater control, and a different profit model that doesn’t require advertising.
I spent the weekend listening to FM radio through a pervasive home speaker system (no escaping it), and was fascinated by the frequency and repetitiveness of the advertisements: almost entirely for cars and lawyer referral services. A reflection of its core market, I thought.
1-800-411-PAIN, modified to fit varied demographics, encourages listeners to “find out how much your pain is worth” after an auto accident. It’s a pathetic money grab, and a blatant reason why auto insurance rates in Florida are at their highest, and the court system is overburdened with claims. And somehow, no one recognizes this as ludicrous?
I happened to serve jury duty on such a case in November. We, a seven-member group of surprisingly intelligent, logical citizens, awarded the plaintiff nothing. That was, after spending three days in court, missing work.
But how dare I complain. This is the land of the free, the home of the open market. I should be grateful.
Now, as always, this isn’t a discrete yes or no dichotomy. We are all guilty of playing a role in the perpetuation of our status quo, and we are all victims of it too. It is a masterful cycle that uses you unless you become a user, but there is no exit ramp.
After all, I’m writing this while pinning shoes I like, and looking at cars I want to buy someday. I intend to earn my MBA, and possibly work for the likes of LVMH or Kering, the love-to-hate juggernauts of marketing luxury goods.
It is the dream of prosperity, one that I am allowed to pursue in exchange for my labor, time, and life.
I’m not saying I plan on leaving the USA for more socialist places like Scandinavia. Though that idea has crossed my mind.
People are empirically happier and live longer there. I can only imagine because it is a less severe society, with a better Bell curve income distribution. A strong middle class…
I know there are others like me out there, though. I came across a story recently about benefit corporations, which are designed from the start to both profit and improve the community or society, rather than as an afterthought or retrofit.
I also saw a piece on “why we still need more MBAs” that pointed to a need to evolve and improve business, not just sustain it. Hence, my renewed goal of returning to school.
Capitalism and its freedoms are wonderful. Everyone wants comfort, and easeâ€”to do what makes them happy and keeps them healthy. The truth is, not everyone can have that. There are bound to be losersâ€”beings too feeble of mind or body to be autonomous or independent. People incapable of avoiding psychological trickery [Marketing, Advertising].
And why should that be my or society’s burden to carry, when I/we could profit from them?
The conditioning that tells them (the masses) how to live, who to be attracted to, and what should define their lives is a study of evil genius.
When you realize all of this interconnectedness, that it points to the same conclusions…it rocks your world, as it has mine. It’s also incredibly depressing. It colors everything, almost sucking the joy out ofÂ pleasures I used to partake in, minus critique.
I can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube here either. Crap.
It isn’t all bad. There are wins some days and losses others, and some untouched natural pleasures one can still enjoy ad and currency free.
But fewer each day.
I’m inching toward a critique of capitalism, which will inevitably garner argument over its theoretical principles and basis. In America, we have a very strong sense of capitalism in that our governmentÂ does not highly tax, highly restrict, or greatly alter the natural flow of Â the private sectorâ€”relative to peer countries.
We ‘Mericans also have a distinct attitude of personal liberty, in that any attempt to curtail freedom of one, even at the indirect expense of many, is unacceptable (e.g. gun control). We take care of ourselves, fight the honorable fight, and romanticize bravado. [humility is for sissies]
We think we make independent choices, about where we live or what we eat. Ha!
That said, my crisis relates to the American condition, not the vacuum capitalism that you read about in Economics textbooks.