Category Archives: consumerism

Review 145: Griftopia

Griftopia by Matt Taibbi

This book made me want to get rip-roaring drunk, set a banker on fire, and kick a member of Congress square in the nuts, preferably from a running start. It put me one step closer to finally realizing my dream of living somewhere in the wilderness like the Unibomber (although without all the Unibombing). It took all of my already cynical ideas about how America works, patted them on the head and said, “You’re just adorable,” and then proceeded to tell me that Santa Claus is not only dead, but that his body was stuffed, covered in rhinestones and sold to the CEO of Goldman-Sachs to use as a towel rack in his guest bathroom.

Much like The Great Derangement, wherein Taibbi explains how Americans have built new realities for themselves based on their politics, this book really seems to be aimed right at me. My natural distrust of the government and especially of business makes me a natural reader for this kind of thing, and that sets off my bias alarms. So keep that in mind – I’m probably having a hard time evaluating Taibbi and his claims fairly, in that I think they’re all absolutely correct. They may not be, but that’s how they felt as I read the book.

"I'm sorry, but this diamond-encrusted nut-scratcher is clearly made of 14-karat gold, NOT 24-karat as I specified. I wouldn't give this to my stableboy's cheapest whore. Throw it away!"

Taibbi’s premise is disturbingly simple: the American political and economic system is set up to reward lying, cheating and grift. From the fraudsters who convinced poor families to take out loans on McMansions to the Great Greenspan himself, our economic engine has been running for years on an unstable fuel of high-octane mendacity. Every now and then, there is a hitch – the tech bubble of the late 90s, the housing crash, the oil price spike of 2008, the Great Financial Meltdown – but the engine keeps going. What’s more, the people who caused the bubbles and crashes manage to skate clear of damage and punishment, rewarded by lawmakers who are beholden to them. It’s a self-corrupting system that values short-term profit over long-term stability, and it’s probably going to be the ruin of us all.

The mortgage fiasco is well-described here. Taibbi takes us from the bottom of the financial food chain – a low-income homeowner who thought he was getting a great chance for a home of his own, and follows the chain of deceit up and up and up, from the mortgage broker who sold the deal (and, incidentally both lied about his client’s credit score and got him an adjustable mortgage in order to garner a higher finder’s fee) to the banks that put all these rotten mortgages together, to the insurance companies and financial institutions that bought them, sold them and traded them. All across the board, they lied about what they had and made sure that they passed their rotten goods off to some other poor sucker before the whole thing went wrong. And when it did, it was like some horrible chain of dominoes that started with people who discovered they couldn’t pay $1,500 a month for their home, and ended with the failure of banks that had ruled the financial sector for decades.

"Well, Congressman, I'm just going to put this down over here - it's heavy, you see - so just put it out of your mind. Don't worry about it at all."

What’s more, the US government let this happen. Under the guise of being “pro-business,” politicians have been loosening restrictions and adjusting interest rates for decades under the willful delusion that the free market can manage itself just fine. Under the direction of Ayn Rand disciples such as Alan Greenspan, the power of the government to manage corrupt banks and insurance companies is about as impressive as an elementary school crossing guard. They wanted business free of its regulatory fetters, and that’s what they got. What everyone else got, of course, was screwed.

Another example: during 2008, Taibbi noticed something weird. Gas prices were skyrocketing, but supply was keeping pace with demand. There were no lines at gas stations like there had been in the 70s, when OPEC refused to sell us oil. If you wanted to fill up, you could, as long as you were willing to pay a price that went up moments before you pulled into the station. Even people with the barest understanding of economics understands supply and demand – if the supply is lower than the demand, the price goes up, and vice versa. But here, neither the supply of gasoline nor the overall demand for it changed, yet prices were shooting up past $4 a gallon. What, as they say, the HELL was going on?

Our politicians – especially the ones battling for the White House – had pat answers ready for the cameras. Obama blamed the Evil Oil Companies and wasteful SUV drivers. McCain blamed anti-drilling legislation and environmental regulation. Everybody blamed China for its accelerating growth. All of that, as it turns out, was misleading at best, bullshit at worst.

Well how else are we going to get the bathroom redone? I mean look at it, the place is a sty!

The answer: oil speculation, the use of commodities futures to make a ton of money by driving the price of oil ever higher. Futures were originally intended to provide a safety net for buyers and sellers of commodities, so that neither one would lose too badly if supply or demand shifted unexpectedly. But a way was found to exploit this system, for profiteers to buy and sell massive amounts of stuff to each other, raising their profits to obscene levels.

While a few clever people on Wall Street were getting rich through oil money, thousands of regular people were getting boned. The higher price of gas meant people with long commutes had to quit jobs and leave schools, which put them in ever-deepening financial straits. The price of oil has a very real effect on lives, but that was all ignored so that some high rollers could get rich. The close ties between the banking sector and the US government were what allowed this to happen, after decades of “pro-business” deregulation.

The health care overhaul, the sale of American cities to foreign investors, the collapse of the stock market and the erasure of untold billions of dollars of savings and investments are all given a close, angry look in this book, and Taibbi does a good job at making it understandable to those of us who aren’t really good with the intricacies of the financial sector. He takes his time, breaking down each scam into its component parts, and makes sure you can see every piece of the puzzle as he puts it together.

But what he also does – and I don’t think this is necessarily intentional – is paint a picture of hopelessness. At least, that’s how I saw it. The “great vampire squid” of the financial sector (a metaphor he used specifically with Goldman-Sachs) is inextricably attached to our government and the people who run it, sucking the blood out of the country that we thought we had. The more you see the connections, the more it seems like that squid simply cannot be removed and will never be sated.

Such a vivid image, isn't it?

What’s more, our elected officials are doing a brilliant job at convincing the American people that removing the squid is not necessary. The Tea Party chants its simplistic message that the Constitution is all the law we need, and our leaders smile and nod and watch the money come in. Lawmakers rail against the evil of “earmarks” right up until the day they get elected, and then make sure they reward the people who got them into office. Every time someone tries to loosen the tentacles a bit, they’re attacked as anti-business or anti-capitalist or just out and out socialist, and they’re either shamed or threatened into submission. They tell us that it’s all really complicated, and we shouldn’t worry our pretty little heads about it – here’s another season of Jersey Shore.

And the American people? We are, after all, the holders of sovereignty for the country – what about us? We’re idiots. We don’t want to spend the time necessary to understand a problem as ridiculously complex as the fraud that’s being perpetrated in our names, and the leaders we elected aren’t at all interested in making sure we’re educated. We’re instantly distracted by the new shiny thing and forget what happened only a few months ago thanks to smooth talking fraudsters who want us upset about gay marriage and Mexicans in our schools. We trust a media that needs us to be angry, but only just angry enough to keep watching. We’re tied up with businesses that see us as nothing more than a resource to be exploited.

Contrary to popular belief, money does not always make it easier to get your message across.

As of this writing, the “Occupy Everything” movement is still going strong, and I think that’s great. If nothing else, it will cause people to ask questions about how the government is run and why, but I fear it will have little effect in the long run. Why? Because the Occupiers are going after the wrong people.

Corporations make money. That’s what they do. And they’ll do it good and hard if they can. Much like a tiger, they’re just obeying their nature. Chris Rock put it best when he was talking about the Sigfried and Roy incident where one of their show tigers nearly bit off Roy’s head. Everyone said that the tiger had gone crazy, but Rock disagreed – “That tiger didn’t go crazy! That tiger went tiger!”

"I said GOOD DAY, sir!"

Well, Wall Street is the tiger. Chant and occupy and wave your signs all you want, you’re not going to change the fundamental nature of corporate America and how it works. Where all this energy should be going is into Washington, to the people who let the tiger run loose through our villages and happily picked up whatever it left behind. The lawmakers are the ones who can stop this, but right now it’s not in their interest to do so. The status quo has kept them safely employed and empowered, and until they see a real threat from the voters, there’s no way they’re going to turn their backs on their plutocrat supporters.

When the whole thing finally becomes unsustainable, when that final bill becomes due, they will slip away in the night with the wealth of nations in their pockets, leaving the rest of us to kill each other over refrigerator boxes and dogmeat.

See? Told you this book made me angry…

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“This story is the ultimate example of America’s biggest political problem. We no longer have the attention span to deal with any twenty-first century crisis. We live in an economy that is immensely complex and we are completely at the mercy of the small group of people who understand it – who incidentally often happen to be the same people who built these wildly complex economic systems. We have to trust these people to do the right thing, but we can’t, because, well, they’re scum. Which is kind of a big problem, when you think about it.”
– Matt Taibbi, Griftopia

Matt Taibbi on Wikipedia
Griftopia on Wikipedia
The Taibblog at Rolling Stone
Griftopia at Amazon.com

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Filed under consumerism, corporations, culture, economics, Matt Taibbi, nonfiction, politics

Review 143: Mad Men and Philosophy

Mad Men and Philosophy edited by Rod Carveth and James B. South

If you had asked me a few years ago which television show you should absolutely make time to watch, I would have immediately told you to start watching Mad Men. Deep, complicated, and made with great attention to detail, it is a show that rewards viewers. The characters reveal themselves over time, minor plot elements emerge as major turning points, and they give us 21st-century viewers a chance to look at the ’60s in a whole new light. The show had had three outstanding seasons, and up until that point, I would have recommended it unreservedly.

What were they THINKING??

Until they dropped my brother from the cast.

I understand that I did not really default to my rational soul in this instance. The third season was one giant setup for the surprise ending in which Sterling Cooper is bought out (again) and Don and Lane hatch a plan to break away with all the staff and clients they could carry. In this situation, they needed their strongest people, and when it came down to choosing writers, there was no question that Peggy Olsen was a better writer than Paul Kinsey. It had been shown again and again during the season, so that when Kinsey was left twisting in the wind at the end, it made sense – from a writing perspective.

That didn’t mean I had to like it.

So when season four rolled around, I started to download the episodes, but I resisted watching them. I just sulked. Was I being childish? Immature? Petty? We may never know the answers to those questions, but I can tell you this – the reason I finally gave in and started watching it again was this book.

Oddly enough, this book does not discuss the ethics of office bloodbaths.

Part of the Pop Culture and Philosophy genre of books, this volume takes a deep, intellectual look at the series, examining its characters, its ethics and its messages, to see what kind of lessons we can learn from it. From Aristotle to Ayn Rand, thousands of years of human thinking are illustrated in this tv show, and the authors who have contributed to the book are able to tease fascinating concepts from whiskey and smoke. How do Betty, Joan and Peggy represent second-wave feminism? What are the responsibilities of advertisers to their target audience? How might be Peggy a Nietzschean Superwoman, and why does Pete fail so hard? Is Don Draper a good man, and would Ayn Rand have salivated over him, as Bert Cooper claimed she would? The book is full of interesting ideas, and I’ll share a few of my favorites with you.

In “Pete, Peggy, Don, and the Dialectic of Remembering and Forgetting,” John Fritz examines the Nietzschean virtue of willing forgetfulness and how it applies to these three characters. The way it goes is this: Nietzsche believed that the past should serve the present, that you should be able to use your memories to push yourself forward. Not all memories do this, as we all know, and to hold on to memories that simply hold us back – to live in the past – is detrimental to leading a good life. Pete Campbell, for example, perpetually lives in the past. He can’t forget anything, especially if it is something he perceives as a slight against him. When Ken Cosgrove gets a story published, Pete stews over it, bitter that Ken did something worthwhile and he did not. Rather than do the adult thing – congratulate Ken and move on – Pete cannot let go. He ends up nearly forcing his wife into the arms of another man just to try and match Ken’s accomplishment. Pete’s inability to forget causes him almost constant distress.

Not that I'm holding on to any memories myself, mind you. Perish the thought.

Don is a little better. Don knows that you need to forget things, and tries to live that way. When his estranged brother shows up, Don tells him, “My life moves in only one direction – forward.” He chooses to forget the things he has done if they will interfere with the way his life is going now. When he gets into a car accident, and Peggy has to bail him out, he doesn’t remember to pay her back until she very pointedly reminds him. It’s probable that he used this willing forgetfulness as part of his strategy to cheat on Betty. The only way to live both lives at once is to forget the one that will cause you trouble, and then recall it when it’s time to get some nookie again.

But Don’s not perfect. His memories are triggered again and again – sights and smells bring him back to his childhood, to his abusive father, and to the traumatic day in Korea when he became someone else. Don’s past follows him, like a loyal dog, occasionally nipping at his heels and reminding him where he came from, no matter how much Don would like to forget it.

Peggy, on the other hand, is the champion of willing forgetfulness. The birth of the child she had with Pete is a fantastic example of this, and my favorite moment is when she finally tells Pete what had happened. She sits him down, and very calmly explains that she had his baby and then gave it away, and the tone of her voice is less exciting than someone talking about the new shoes she has bought. Peggy forgot about the baby – she chose to forget about the baby, no matter how much her family and Father Whatawaste tried to remind her. But for this one moment, she unpacked it, held it out at arm’s length just long enough to tell Pete, and then she wrapped it up again and buried it in her mind. Peggy knows that there are things in her past that will hold her back if she clings to them, so she doesn’t. In this way, she is the model of Nietzsche’s virtue of willing forgetfulness.

I mean, I suppose I could still be a little annoyed about the whole thing, but who wouldn't be?

In “‘In on It’: Honesty, Respect, and the Ethics of Advertising,” Andrea Novakovic and Tyler Whitney ask about what ethical rules bind advertising, if any, and how advertisers relate to consumers. The essay centers around the season 2 episode, “A Night to Remember,” wherein Don uses his wife as a demographic model for Heineken beer. During her meticulously-planned dinner party, full of international cuisine, Betty reveals that they are drinking Heineken, from Holland, which comes as a welcome surprise to Don and Duck Phillips. Betty is upset by this, and after the party accuses Don of purposefully embarrassing and humiliating her, and Don doesn’t quite get what the problem is. No surprise there.

But does Betty have a legitimate beef with Don and Sterling Cooper? Well, that depends on why she bought the Heineken. If she bought it because she likes it, or because she had heard good things about it, then no. But she suspects that Don had done his research too well, and that the only reason she picked up those nice green bottles was because he knew her so well that he could make her think she wanted to buy it. From her point of view, he manipulated her, (which in fancy-pants philosophical terms might be called depriving someone of agency) and then laughed about it. Don has shown no respect for his wife and her ability to make choices on her own, and this reflects the larger issue of respect between advertisers and the consumers they target.

You bring back Paul Kinsey and I give you the antidote. For the poison YOU JUST DRANK! AAHH-HAHAHAHAA!!

It is, of course, a challenging topic, even within the show. In the pilot episode, “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” Don actively rejects psychological profiling in coming up with an ad for Lucky Strike, yet in that season’s finale, “The Wheel,” he is quite clearly using psychological manipulation to sell his idea for Kodak’s Carousel. So what is the difference between profiling Betty to sell beer and using nostalgia to sell a slide projector? It’s a matter of respect. It is easy for people watching the Kodak ad to understand what is going on in an ad that uses their memories to evoke an emotional response. The advertiser respects the consumer’s intelligence and agency, and uses that to sell their product. In Betty’s case, however, the manipulation was more subtle. Display techniques, signage, subtle and professional methods which start from the assumption that the consumer doesn’t know her own mind.

Finally, in “What Fools We Were: Mad Men, Hindsight, and Justification,” Landon W. Schurtz asks the question we all asked about the people in this show: how could they be so dumb? I mean, when Betty’s daughter shows up with a dry-cleaning bag over her head, Betty is angrier about the possible state of her clothes than the chance her daughter could suffocate. When we first meet Sal Romano, he is so ridiculously gay that we can’t believe no one notices. And Sterling-Cooper gleefully take on Richard Nixon as a candidate when we all know what the man is clearly a crook. From our perspective, these things seem completely obvious, yet the characters on Mad Men just don’t seem to know any better. So why is that?

Tell you what I know - "Paul Kinsey: Two-Fisted Copywriter!" I'm telling you, it's Emmy GOLD!

Well, it depends on what you mean by the word “know,” and that’s what Schurtz tries to figure out in this essay. We can know things through direct experience, for example, but Betty has probably never had a daughter asphyxiate on plastic, Don and the others have probably never met an openly gay man, and, well, historians still don’t know how Nixon convinced America that he wasn’t a weasel in an ill-fitting suit. We can know things through the testimony of others, but again – those bits of knowledge hadn’t quite permeated the culture yet. Even if they had, whom could you trust for accurate testimony? Don rejects Doctor Guttman’s suggestions for the Lucky Strike campaign because he rejects the significance of psychological research. The elders of Sterling Cooper continued to reject Pete’s ideas because they didn’t believe young people could know anything worth knowing.

In short, no – the people in the ’60s weren’t stupid. They just didn’t know any better.

Kinsey laughs. He's in a better place now, I'm sure.

This book got me to give up my sulk and start watching Mad Men again. Even though it is clearly diminished with the absence of Paul Kinsey, I was reminded that the show is immensely complex and worth the time to watch. So I am recommending it to all – watch the show. And read the book. Together, they defy the common wisdom that modern entertainment has nothing to offer us. Indeed, they give us a new perspective not only on the show, but on our own lives. Pretty impressive for an hour a week.

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“The basic desire to feel okay is deeply human, but if Don Draper can take this generic human longing and create a desire for a particular product, are we genuinely free?”
– Kevin Guilfoy, “Capitalism and Freedom in the Affluent Society”
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Mad Men and Philosophy on Amazon.com
Mad Men Homepage

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Filed under analysis, consumerism, essays, ethics, James B. South, Mad Men, morality, philosophy, psychology, Rod Carveth, television

Review 135: Jennifer Government

Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Look around your house. Sneakers, computers, movies, household items. How many of those things are made by massive, multinational corporations? Probably all of them. And how many of these companies are from America? Lots, I’ll bet.

In her book No Logo, Naomi Klein takes a trip through the history of branding – the association of a particular company with a particular product. Given that most products with similar function – sneakers, for example – are fairly similar in their makeup and function, the companies that make them use brand marketing to distinguish themselves from their competitors.

The Nike people are a wee bit intense...

Thus, Nike, Reebok and Adidas, whose sneakers are, by and large, as good as each other, use brand marketing to make you believe that, if you buy their product, you are somehow superior to those who buy the product of the other guy. If you buy Nike, you’re part the the Nike family – the uber-atheletes, the people who Just Do It and don’t go in for all the fripperies of life. If you buy Reebok, you’re more down to earth, more involved in the gestalt of life, and not quite as intense as the Nike people. If you have Adidas, you’re probably more fun, a little irreverent, and you dream about sex all day. Or something like that.

We use brands to define ourselves. When my father worked for GE, we only had GE appliances in the house, even if that meant paying a little more for the new washer. I had a student who wore nothing but Jean-Paul Gaultier clothes. Hell, Generation X has been divided into the Pepsi Generation and the Coke kids, a terrible schism that may never be repaired in my lifetime, unless the Mountain Dew Freedom Fighters intervene. And we won’t even start in with the Windows-Mac Civil War.

Brand loyalty is more important to some of us than others....

I don’t pretend to be immune, either. I drink Diet Coke and used to smoke Marlboros, and would never have chosen another brand if those were available. Of course, this probably has something to do with scary chemical additives than anything else, but the point is the same. I was loyal to my brands, one way or another, without even thinking about why.

Like it or not, our brands define us, and we allow them to do so. Mainly because they use their commercials to terrify us – buy Preparation H or lose that valuable sale, wash your husband’s clothes in Wisk, or all the other wives will laugh at you, that sort of thing. And the moment you start to wonder if perhaps there isn’t any real difference between cars made by Honda and those made by Toyota, they hit you with a barrage of special offers, incentives and tie-ins to remind you that they love you. Really, they do.

Max Barry takes this kind of brand identification one step further.

This is a world where, economically speaking, most of the world is the United States. All of the Western Hemisphere (except Cuba), the UK, Southeast Asia and Australia, Russia, India and South Africa belong to the US, for all intents and purposes. The US government operates in all those places, if you have the money for it. Europe, Africa, China and the Middle East stand alone against the US economic juggernaut.

I pledge allegiance...

Corporations are king here. There are no taxes, as the US Government is simply another corporate organization, responsible for enforcing such laws as they have the budget to enforce. Every service – police, medical, fire – has been privatized. And while the concept of the political nation has pretty much vanished, there are economic nations emerging – the US Alliance and Team Advantage, both economic alliances that have their roots in airline mileage campaigns. Each of these groups controls dozens of markets, and cross-promotes all their goods. So if you wear Nike shoes, then you had better not eat at Burger King – that’s Team Advantage territory. And if you work for McDonald’s, then you’ll want the NRA to protect you, rather than the Police, because you get a membership discount. Schools are run by “kid-friendly” companies such as McDonald’s and Mattel, and are basically corporate propaganda mills. Not like now, of course. As if all that wasn’t bad enough, your surname is the name of whatever company you work for.

Thus, a young man named Hack Nike is given a pivotal role in the marketing of a new Nike sneaker, the Mercury. As part of their marketing strategy, they’ll limit production and distribution to five pairs per store. As Beanie Babies, among other products, have shown, the more limited the availability, the higher the demand, and the higher the price. Thus, charging $2,000 for a pair of shoes that an Indonesian laborer made for $0.85 is perfectly reasonable.

The second part of their marketing strategy is to increase the public’s awareness of the sneakers, as well as to give them some street credibility. That’s where Hack Nike comes in. His new marketing job is to shoot and kill ten purchasers of Nike Mercury sneakers.

Can Nike get away with this? They seem to think so, and they probably could have, were it not for Hack’s distaste for murder. Suffice to say, the plot becomes complicated, and the Government’s best and most dedicated officer, Jennifer, is on the case.

The "E" stands for "Egregious corporate malfeasance that makes a mockery out of our democracy!" Yay!

The story is a lot of fun, and well written. The world that Barry has created is a logical extension of our own, if hopefully improbable, and his characters are pretty easy to identify with, with only a few who don’t shine as brightly as the others. Being a native of Melbourne, Barry also takes a few nice stabs at Americans, but they’re good-natured and accurate, so I didn’t mind. It was a tale of massive corporate malfeasance based on the solid marketing and corporate ethics of today. And since 2003, when the book was published, we’ve seen plenty of examples of how much large corporations are able to get away with and how unethical they’re willing to be in order to make a quick buck.

Barry’s book is, fundamentally, about the problems that arise when you allow the free market absolute control. The adage about the corruptive influences of power does not only apply to individual people, it most definitely applies to corporate entities as well. The excesses of the early 2000s showed that not even the law – to say nothing of basic ethics – could make some of the biggest corporations in the world behave honestly. The recent housing/financial services collapse is another example – when pursuing the almighty dollar, considerations for what is right and wrong fall by the wayside, and the law might only be a temporary stumbling block.

Read this book. It’s a lot of fun, and then watch the papers and see how true it really could be….

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“There was no place for irony in marketing: it made people want to look for deeper meaning. There was no place in marketing for that, either.”
Max Barry, Jennifer Government
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