Category Archives: Rant

Consumerism and Capitalism

A few months back, hanging out at a friend’s house with some beers, we engaged in one of those BS sessions that were so common in college but so rare these days.  We wandered all over the proverbial map, but a particular interesting and engaging topic was the relationship between capitalism and consumerism.

Those who know me likely realize that I’m pretty liberal and believe we should have more social programs to benefit society as a whole.  I basically feel that if my neighbor is better off, so will I be.  However, I also think that capitalism is overall a good system that encourages innovation and progress and allows people the best chance to better themselves.  Where I have real issues is with consumerism.

I basically think that consumerism — consuming for consuming sake — is bad.  And it seems that our economy is so dependent on this.  Consumer confidence is a key indicator of the state of the economy and our political leaders are always cajoling us to spend more.  The economy will pick up when people buy more, as that will spur manufacturing, and thus hiring.  It seems a vicious circle, with us buying stuff just so we can have jobs.  If we stop buying, the jobs disappear.

This consumerism also leads to companies producing products solely so we have something to buy.  They aren’t always good products and, even when they are, they are developed not because of any need, but just to have some new iteration for us to buy.  If Apple didn’t have a new gee-whiz gadget every few months, what would we buy?  Would they still be profitable?  Would their business model collapse?  What does the new iPhone do that the old one didn’t?  Do I really need it?

It seems no.  It seems like these products are produced almost exclusively so that they have something to sell and we have something to buy.  And that leads to more stuff that just gets obsolete and tossed into the land fill.  It all seems an engine to generate waste.

And this begs the question, are consumerism and capitalism fundamentally connected?  Can capitalism exist without consumers consuming?  If not, what is the basis of the capitalist market?

As might be expected, we didn’t answer this question.  We did think that maybe the paradigm could be shifted slightly if the full cost of a product, including its disposal, were included in its price.  If the cost of disposing of some object were included in the purchase price, rather than in either utility bills from the city or just ignored completely, maybe products would have to be designed that were meant to be durable, to have some lasting power, and thus the market would have to rely on other components rather than just consuming.  But, what those would be, I don’t know.

Reflections on a boyhood idol

Jefferson_Memorial_with_Declaration_preambleGrowing up, my idol was Thomas Jefferson.  As one of the founding fathers, he was a giant in US history.  History books aimed at children described all of his great achievements, including authoring the Declaration of Independence; founding the University of Virginia; as President, sponsoring the Lewis and Clark expedition and purchasing Louisiana territory; and his role in the Revolution.  He was one of the pillars upon which this country was founded.  Further, he was an amateur scientist and inventor, a man who was always investigating the natural world around him and who probed the secrets of that world.  He was a renaissance man, a man who could achieve anything he set his mind to, a true American genius.

That was in the children’s books, and, of course, it is all true.  However, there are many aspects of Jefferson’s life that didn’t make it into those books, actions and words that reveal that Jefferson was all too human.  Even setting aside his relations with Sally Hemming, there were such flaws in his character that demonstrate he could be the pettiest of men.  He was a man nearly defined by contradiction.  Writing that “all men are created equal,” he nevertheless never freed the vast majority of his slaves, some 130 being sold upon his death to help settle his debts.  And, speaking of those debts, while he railed against the Federal government’s spending, he himself never took account of his own, racking up mountains of personal debt that he could only sustain by taking out loans. He advocated small government and attacked his rival — and friend — John Adams for excessive use of executive power, but then, in an even bigger expansion of that power, purchased the Louisiana territory.

However, the most disappointing thing that I’ve learned, for one who so idolized him as a boy, is his shear pettiness and vindictiveness.  Jefferson, while never publicly attacking any rival, supported many newspaper men in their slanderous attacks of enemies, even those who had been dear friends at one time, such as Adams.  The words he had these newspapers print on his behalf were vicious and vile, at a level that almost makes our current politics seem cordial.  But, when confronted, Jefferson always deflecting the blame onto others, never taking any responsibility for his own actions.  Jefferson even directly undermined the administration of Adams while serving as his Vice President.

While there is still so much to admire about Jefferson, especially the mind behind all of the powerful words that form the foundation of our country, the man’s actions certainly do not live up to those words.  As I read more and more about Jefferson and the Revolutionary era, the more I am dismayed by the man my idol really was.

I don’t know if there is any real lesson to take from this, except that there are no perfect people out there; even the best of us are flawed.  In an era where idols are now athletes and actors, who continuously show us that they are no more deserving of that respect than anyone else, it is both unsettling and liberating at the same time to realize that even those who we’ve put on the highest possible of pedestals were human, just like us.  Maybe it is even more amazing what men like Jefferson accomplished, in spite of their imperfections.

Expectations and Drive

On the way to work yesterday, I heard a story on NPR about India.  They were discussing how there is such a fine line between rich and poor in that country, and were interviewing an Indian man who is very poor.  He and his wife scrape every penny they can from their earnings for tuition for their three year old daughter.  “I pray every day that she can lift her family out of poverty,” he said.

My first reaction was to feel sorry for this little girl who has all of these expectations on her before she even knows anything about the world.  Her family is essentially placing all their hope on her, that she can find success enough for the whole family.  This is common enough throughout the world, and similar stories have played themselves here in the United States.  It’s certainly a large burden placed on her little shoulders.

However, as I thought about it more, I looked at it from the other side.  This man and his wife are doing everything they possibly can to ensure their daughter has a brighter future, a better life than they did.  They work hard to give her the opportunities that they didn’t have.  And, while there is a great burden on her, it is only because her family loves her so much to do all they can to make her life the best that they can possibly make it.  They have a drive and desire to better her life.

And I wondered about the US and how it just doesn’t feel like we have that drive any more.  We are content with what we have.  We have good lives, especially in comparison to this Indian family, but we don’t have the drive to be any better.  My generation is possibly the first in the US that is overall worse off than our parents.  We don’t have the ambition to make something better of ourselves.  We are content to be where we are.

My dad, and my mom’s grandparents, came to this country to better themselves and their lot in life.  They gave up everything they knew, all that was comfortable, to go to a foreign land where they didn’t speak the language, to engage in work that they knew little about, all for the promise of a better life.  And, while my mom and dad didn’t place any undue burdens on me, didn’t push me to be anything more than what I wanted to be, they worked hard to ensure I had the chances to do exactly that, be what I wanted to be.

I look around and I see families that have no desire for a better life, no desire to improve their lot.  Their life was good enough for their parents and their grandparents before them, and it will be good enough for their children.  I think that, to some extent, that’s why education is not as highly valued here as I would hope.  Parents don’t care all that much.

I’m very proud of how hard my parents worked to give me the best chances in life that they could.  And, while that little Indian girl has some very large expectations placed on her, it’s only because her family wants what’s best for her too.  I wish we all had a bit of that drive, a bit of that want to better ourselves, to better our lives.  It is that kind of drive that made the US the great nation that it is and I fear that maybe we’ve lost it.

Opportunity in America

During the health care debate, one thing that has been a talking point is that the people who are on the lower end of the economic ladder are there at least primarily due to faults and errors of their own.  This is an inherent assumption of the American Dream:  “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Everyone has the ability to pursue their own happiness and, the implication is, if they do not obtain it, it is a result of their own failings, primarily a lack of effort.

At the same time, however, it seems to me that some amount of failure has to be built in to the system.  That is, the system cannot sustain itself if everyone is successful in realizing their dreams, of obtaining their happiness.  There has to be some, even a majority of us, that fail in becoming doctors, lawyers, or whatever they dreamed of in their youth.  We can’t all be at the top of the economic ladder, or better said pyramid.  For the economy, for society function, we need people who end up in those jobs that none of us want, that we don’t aspire to, but are sometimes forced into by circumstances.  We need the sanitation workers, the slaughter house workers, the assembly line workers.  They are absolutely crucial to our system functioning.  But, I dare say, these are typically not jobs we aspire to, jobs that were part of our dream when we were “pursuing our happiness.”

Any individual can pursue their happiness, to varying degrees of ability, opportunity, and circumstance.  But, most of us have to fail.  Most of us have to give up on those dreams in order to survive.  The economic pyramid has to be bottom heavy to function, and none of us aspires to be at the bottom.

I understand that our system in no way guarantees that we obtain happiness, just that we are able to pursue it.  However, that most of us must fail, suggests to me that we who do succeed are not entirely free from any responsibility for those who do fail.  We depend on them, we require them, for a functioning economy.  Therefore, it seems that we should realize that failure to obtain our happiness is not entirely on our own shoulders, but is also a part of the system.  It will happen to most of us, the system ensures that.  As a society, we have some responsibility to make sure those people have some basic standards of living, including health care.

Black and White and Grey All Over

The country is politically very polarized, seemingly more so than ever.  You can see it in the town hall meetings, in the blue vs red electoral maps, and in the very people we hang out with.  For instance, an application has been going around Facebook which shows statistics about your friends.  It is very interesting to see that most people’s friends are very strongly either Democrat or Republican.  There aren’t many people with a relatively even split.  So, not only do we limit our news to sites and channels that we agree with, but we surround ourselves with people we agree with, locking our viewpoints even more rigidly on one side or another.

There has been a lot written about this already.  I’ve read, for example, that people who are religious tend to see more connections between seemingly unconnected events, while less religious people do not.  This is in effect a function of brain chemistry and wiring.  And, there does seem to be a correlation between how religious you are and which party you more strongly identify with.

I also wonder if it might also have something, at least a small part, to do with the stories we tell as a culture.  The cartoons I used to watch as a kid always pitted the “good guys” against the “bad guys”.  But, in retrospect what seems to define most of these stories is that the bad guys had no motivation, they are simply bad, or evil.  For example, the bad guys in “GI Joe” are Cobra.  Their only motivation is to rule the world, but they never say why.  They are just evil.  The same with Skeletor in “He-Man”.  And the Decepticons in “Transformers”.  Even in the “Smurfs”, Gargamel is an evil old man, who doesn’t seem to have any real reason for why he is after the Smurfs (except he wants to eat them).  Each story needs a bad guy, and that bad guy is simply bad.  The universes in which these stories take place are completely black and white.  There is no grey.  This is perhaps epitomized in the games that were popular at the time, such as Dungeons and Dragons and the like, and the fantasy novels that fleshed out these types of worlds.  Evil is an inherent part of the fantasy genre, where evil exists explicitly and simply to destroy.  Again, there is no grey.

Our religions, at least how they are interpreted today, also embody this dichotomy:  God is good, Satan is evil.

I wonder how much these black and white views of the universe, or even those universes in which our stories take place, color our perspectives of the real world.  If everything is black and white, good and evil, are those that disagree with us necessarily bad or evil, since we ourselves certainly are not?  Does that mean, if I’m a Democrat, that the Republicans are bad, and vice versa, leading to the polarization we see today?  Or are our stories a reflection of deeper down hard wiring within our brain to view the world in black and white?  Is that a survival mechanism, an evolutionary advantage that helps us more easily determine friend from foe?

I personally do not believe in absolute good nor evil.  I do not believe that there is some ultimate source for either.  Rather, I think that both good and evil are defined by society, by the norms that society creates within which to moderate itself.  And those norms are typically a result of instincts evolved over many generations.  I think that those we typically consider evil — those that live far outside societal norms — have different brain wiring that does not inhibit their base instincts as much as the general populace.  That is, I think it is essentially a different brain structure that makes it so that these people do not see good and bad in the same way as the rest of us.  Unlike the movies and books, I don’t think anyone views themselves as evil, not in an evil for evil’s sake way, hysterically cackling while committing their foul deeds.  Rather, they view the world differently, most of the time, and cannot distinguish right and wrong in the same way.  Either that, or they are like the rest of us, but get caught up by the situation, the power, the moment, to commit “evil” acts but either in the heat of the moment or for some perceived greater good.