Tuesday, May 28, 2013

There's Money to Be Made

Forget "E Pluribus Unum." The real motto of the United States is "There's money to be made." It's no accident we print "In God we trust" on our cash, because materialism is our true national religion.
This first struck me my sophomore year of college, when I took Econ 101. The professor told us a story of Soviet athletes (this was nine years before the Berlin Wall came down) visiting the United States, and being shocked by the sheer variety of products on grocery shelves. Granted, they came from what was, at that time, a planned economy, and they were often lucky to find one version of a product on the shelves, let alone the half dozen available at even a small market in America. But the question they asked is even more relevant today than it was then: Why do we need that many brands of ketchup? Or, if you really want to blow your mind with how many ways the same product can be packaged, take a look at the toothpaste aisle. I did just that this morning at my neighborhood grocery store, the QFC. I counted 94 different varieties of toothpaste, and that's not counting how many different sizes of tubes were offered. Ask an honest dentist about toothpaste, and they'll tell you the only active ingredient in toothpaste is flouride. Everything else is to keep you brushing longer: colors, flavors, textures, foaming agents, breath fresheners.
This was the QFC. Absent from my survey were any generic tubes of toothpaste. Many stores also carry their own lines of toothpaste, significantly less costly than the brightly packaged name brands. I remember well the moment in Econ 101 when Professor Hanson told us about price discrimination, and how disgusted I was with the notion. The same toothpaste, the very same stuff, gets packaged in multiple tubes, and I'm not just talking different sizes with the same name on the label: the store brand is the same stuff, just called something different. Why do they do this? Because it has been proven again and again that some consumers will only buy a product if it's in their price range, while others are willing to pay extra for the very same product with a brand name attached to it. They're exploiting us. Once I learned this, I have made it my practice to only buy name brand products if, with sales and coupons, I can get them at the same price as or a lower price than the store label.
All those different names and packages exist for this reason: to extract money from consumers' pockets. If we all quit paying attention, and just bought whatever was least expensive, most of that glut of toothpaste varieties would vanish.
"There's money to be made." I have to give some credit to the entrepreneurial spirit of innovation. Money is the driving force behind American creativity. Nations that have attempted to do away with this impulse have found that, without it, productivity falls away rapidly. The USSR collapsed under the burden of the arms race coupled with an inability for its planned economy to keep up with the needs and wants of its citizens. China avoided this fate by, beginning in the 1970s, reintroducing competition into its own economy. In both the former Soviet Union and China, it must be admitted that capitalism has worked far better for either of these nations than centralized communism ever did.
But here's the rub: the transition came at a high cost. Russia descended nearly into chaos, and many of the former Soviet republics have clung to tyranny on a smaller scale, and it could be argued that Russia itself is creeping back toward authoritarianism as an antidote to the rampant corruption of its initial foray into a free market economy. China's unstoppable economic engine is built upon horrendous working conditions and low wages, as well as the generation of enormous quantities of greenhouse gases.
For those whose god is money, virtues are all associated with maximizing profit and minimizing loss. Environmental and safety regulations are resisted because they cannot help but reduce efficiency and require capital expenditures. Labor unions are the enemy, striving as they do to improve wages, enhance working conditions, and expand benefits, all of which reduce overall profit. The work week is structured around productivity.
Conversely, family and community values are treated as sins. Does attending your child's concert mean you can't work a night shift you just found out about? Too bad. Is your health suffering because you can't adjust to working the swing shift? You're welcome to look for work elsewhere. What, you want a vacation? It'll be six months before you're allowed any time off. Is your marriage suffering the long hours you're working? Tell your spouse to get a job, too. Long hours, making money, is the American way of life.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of our free-market religion is its addiction to short-term gain. The economic collapse of 2008, which resulted in my being laid off in 2009, and four years later still not being back to full-time work, came about because banks and investment firms became obsessed with generating profits from thin air, spinning out mortgage-backed equities and all manner of other financial products without regard for the future. Billions were made, billions more lost, and it felt like the entire country went into foreclosure. The nation could have recovered faster, but the Republican Congress that caused the collapse has refused to cooperate with the sort of stimulus that could bring back jobs, rebuild infrastructure, and plan for a sustainable economy rather than one that is subject to the excesses of profit-hungry speculators.
All of this came out of an addiction to the most ephemeral commodity of all: the dollar. Money only has value because we agree that it does. Take the constituent elements of a dollar or a dime: paper, linen, ink, nickel, copper. They're worth a tiny fraction of the face value of that currency. And before you tell me this is an argument for the gold standard, remember that the value of gold is just as ephemeral. Gold is valuable because we say it is; in fact, apart from some usefulness as a coating for high-end wiring, gold is good for nothing. This sense of ephemeral value becomes even more obvious when the entire system is computerized. Now it's just numbers rising and falling according to ridiculously complex algorithms in the heart of a server somewhere on Wall Street that determine who wins and who loses. All the lives ruined by stock market crashes, mortgage crises, bank collapses, boil down to flickering 1s and 0s.
Let's turn to something more tangible: oil. It has become a scientific certainty that the world is warming rapidly, and that fossil fuels are driving this process. Take a look at this story in Slate: The Arctic Ice Death Spiral, by Phil Plait  In particular, read the portion about how oil companies can't wait for ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean, where they hope to drill for more oil--which, of course, will drive global temperatures even higher, as gas prices come back down and consumers happily return to SUVs and Hemis. Concern for the livability of the planet is drowned out by the chorus of delighted executives screaming, "Money!" So what if the temperature in Southern California tops 100 on a cool day? Hop in your SUV and move north!
There was a time when I accumulated possessions, especially books, records, and movies. These were not large objects, but over time, they took up more and more space. When changes in my livelihood forced me to downsize my living space, I packed up my collections and stored them in my parents' attic. A few years ago, I went up to that stack of boxes, and pulled out the books. There were ten boxes of them. Many were filled with books I had read in my youth, books I had studied in college, grad school, seminary, books I had enjoyed; but there were also books I had purchased because they looked like books I should read, then never did. I scoured those boxes, and sorted them into three new collections: books I would want to refer back to or might read again; books that might have some value as collectibles; and books I knew I would never open again. The vast majority fell into the third category, seven boxes in all. I loaded them into my car, drove to Powell's, and took them to the bookbuyers. Of those seven boxes, less than one box was of any use to them, and I received $75 for it. The rest I left in the donation area, most likely to be picked up by Goodwill. I did similar things with my record and movie collections. When I think about all the ephemeral money I invested in these collections, I feel deep pangs of regret. I am now far more cautious about such purchases, especially as we enter into an age in which nearly all information and entertainment are available instantly online. The bottom line for me: I don't need much. Having less means I can live in a smaller, less expensive home, and when it comes to move again (perhaps in yet another downsizing), it's far less daunting.
I see millennials making this decision as a generation. They don't need hard copies of books, newspapers, albums, videos; everything entertainment or information related can be found in the cloud, and does not even need to be downloaded prior to use. Their politics mirror this shift toward simplicity: the Occupy movement, and its stress on the 99%, was a reaction against the excess consumption that had led to the 2008 recession. This shift has corporate executives scrambling. The youth market has traditionally driven the economy; for that market to be losing interest in acquisition is terrifying to producers. But have no fear: if there's a way to make money off the new paradigm, it will be discovered and exploited, and the US economy will continue to grow, though this time the products being purchased will be as ephemeral as the money used to buy them.
You may be wondering, at this point, if this is all just a socialist rant. But like most Americans, even the most idealistic, I am compromised when it comes to capitalism. I do participate in the economy. Apart from groceries, most of my tangible purchases are recreational: shoes appropriate to my many outdoor exercise activities, backpacks, ski gear, technical clothing, bicycle accessories; not to mention travel and lodging for the adventures Amy and I love to take. Given my early discussion of downsizing, you may be surprised to learn that our garage is rapidly filling with exercise-related gear. As with my feelings about consuming meat, I'm not a purist by any stretch of the imagination.
But I do yearn for a simpler lifestyle, and for a spirituality grounded less in stuff, and more in being. Everytime I'm in the Peace House (my home for three years, and still a holy place to me), I see a small bit of calligraphy hanging in the first floor restroom: "It is you I want, not your possessions." (2 Corinthians 12:14) The Apostle Paul was writing, in this passage, about needing a place to stay when he next visited Corinth, but not wanting to be any sort of burden on the small church there. It's a sentiment I have long felt in myself with respect to my parents' estate, and whether I will benefit from the financial wherewithal of any romantic partner. I don't want anyone's stuff. I would far rather enjoy your company than your money. If there is a God, I expect that this being really has no use for our stuff. If anything, God would rather we chuck our stuff, because it tends to distract us from the presence of the Creator in our lives and our world.
I began this essay with a discussion of the irony of the motto "In God we trust" being on our money. Perhaps there's another way of looking at it. The next time you've got some cash in your hand, look at that motto and ask yourself: If I really trusted God, what would I do with this scrap of paper, this bit of metal?
Then go forth and do accordingly.

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