Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Bachelor Culture and Consumerism, Rotten Fruits of Progress

My antennae are always raised by the slightest bit of economic illiteracy. When I started reading John Gatto's book I reflexively deemed him an econo-illiterate. The guy was a teacher, a steward of the Government Economy. Of course he wouldn't understand capitalism, free markets and the like. I have yet to meet one teacher who does.

In his book he continually avers that government schools are part of some underhanded alliance with "corporations". That sentiment took me aback for two reasons. One, he sounds like the typical socialist business basher, you know who hates Walmart, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, "oil companies", etc. and thinks every company in America is like the outlier Enron. And secondly, I couldn't for the life of me believe that "corporations" covet the illiterate, cheating, self-entitled graduates churned out by Big Education.

Upon further reading, it turns out we were both right. The guy is economically illiterate and somewhat self-aware of that. But Gatto is absolutely correct that historically corporations had a huge hand in shaping compulsory government education.

Remember, American forced schooling started in 1850 in Massachusetts, but it really started to gain steam in the early 1900s.

In 1908, when the play opened in Washington, the United States was in the middle of absorbing the largest influx of immigrants in its history – Irish and Germans, followed by Italians and East Europeans, Catholics and Jews – some 18 million new citizens between 1890 and 1920. (link)

Well, the industrial capitalists (Robber Barrons) who ran the country had as their greatest fears, strikes and labor unrest. Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford, and their cohorts saw compulsory schooling as the vehicle to tame this horde of alien rabble. Schools would teach kids obedience to authority. Immigrant students would be Americanized, molded into productive citizens, forced to cite the Pledge of Allegiance, and LEARN ENGLISH.

Note schools take the complete opposite approach today, preaching ethnic pride, hatred of America, and multiculturalism to border-jumping progeny. Also, the brats don't seem to think much of authority or obedience anymore either.

So a century or so ago, the titans of industry co-opted the schools for their own purposes. They are still shaping policy today through various Ford foundations and Carnegie foundations but clearly, a lot has changed since then. Government schools have since been recast as a tool for political patronage and for chiseling the minds of future voters. "Corporations" are certainly not in charge of curricula anymore as control was wrested from them by agents of an ascendant Big Government.

Academics, socialists, and other Morons always decry what they think is the downside of the corporate structure. These cavils are dressed up as "externalities" and used to broad-brush the corporate animal. Pollution remains the most propagated symbol of an externality because that's the business basher's most effective stereotype. To them, all companies pollute in one way or another, get away with it, and therefore we need a vast regulatory arm not just to save the Earth but more broadly to clean up the excesses of capitalism. But the reality is, lawyers and private property rights are sufficient enough to stem real externalities like pollution and even the imaginary ones like "discrimination".

So what are the "negative externalities" of the corporate structure?

Consider Michael Dell for instance. He is a staunch capitalist and a Republican. So why are there full-page ads for his company every single day in the New York Times?

Well, since Dell Computer is a public corporation, it has to make purely rational business decisions. Michael Dell could hate Sulzberger and Co's guts but if advertising alongside the agitprop offers a profitable return on investment, then the ads will be bought. Otherwise he'd be disserving his shareholders. Despite a hatred of all things Dell, The Times has to accept his advertising because it's in dire financial straits (not because it is rational, a profit maximizer, or gives a hoot about shareholders).

So one potential, but nonetheless real downside of corporations (especially public ones), is their inability to be morally judgmental.

I have long wondered why nobody has organized a powerful product boycotting group to take aim at the advertisers of certain offensive media. But it recently dawned on me that advertisers are all big corporate conglomerates like Dell, wholly incapable of making value judgments.

Now my insight extends further than boycotting the sponsors of a particularly treasonous episode of 20/20 or an issue of Time magazine. Advertising corporations are averse to making value judgements of almost any kind, so lewdness runs wild on television and throughout the culture. After all, the racier a show, the more viewers it gets, the better the return on ad investment. Have you seen the way pre-teen girls are clad on the Disney Channel? They look and act like complete prostitutes.

The average child watches 28 hours of TV a week, the average teenager 23 hours.

By mid teen years children have watched 15,000 hours of TV, more time than spent with teachers, parents and friends put together.

By the age of 18 they have seen 16,000 murders and 200,000 acts of violence.

By the age of 11 they will have watched 400,000 acts with sexual innuendo primarily between non married persons.

Last night I was contemplating that last statement and tried in vain to think of ANY portrayal of married people having sex on television or in a movie. I couldn't really come up with an example. When you do the math and realize that even with the divorce rate what it is, there is still a lot of husband/wife sex going on. I just don't buy the idea that married sex isn't marketable and that explains its absence. I'll bet anyone that has "walked in" on their parents can stump for the pure beauty of the act.

Getting back to the topic at hand...

So when your child isn't at home alone inhaling this filth, they are "safe" at school with a couple hundred age-mates who are also brainwashed by insidious television programming.

Consider the following, also from that link,

The article features an experiment in which 3 year olds watched an actor on a TV screen cuddling a life size doll. The children then were led into the room where this was filmed with the same doll in it. They all cuddled the doll. Then the children went back to watching the TV and saw the actor go into the room with a large wooden hammer and strike the doll. When the normally well behaved children were led back into the room each attacked the doll furiously.

My son is two years old and through him I can vouch for children's unfettered disposition towards mimicry. This summer, my son started hitting golf balls though I never showed him how. He just saw me doing it from a distance. Every incremental word he learns or action he takes is a clear aping of someone else. Recently he started using the "F" word but not just randomly, in proper context like when he gets frustrated. For this, my wife and I point fingers at each other.

Lemma - Not only does sex sell, by mandate, corporations must buy it.

I still think a formidable boycott group will emerge one day, but it'll find it awfully hard to operate considering that there are only two kinds of computers (Dells and Apples) and every brand of soap or beef jerky is owned by Proctor and Gamble. Corporations may be in control of many aspects of American society, but they don't pull the puppet strings of government education anymore.

Another cynicism of Gatto's is that Big Education deliberately created a nation of consumers rather than producers.

First of all, even though he spent his adulthood teaching in Manhattan, Gatto is from farm country. He bears a resentment, common throughout much of rural America, against mechanization, the shift toward city life, and the destabilizing march of economic progress. He genuinely believes that corporations and Big Education surreptitiously convince the public to buy things they don't need.

Now I can forgive his small farm bias but the idea that it's possible to convince Americans to consume more than they need struck me as ridiculous. I mean how exactly could devious corporate executives pull this off?

After reading, rereading, and fully digesting Gatto I've concluded that he has a point.

The problem was, I was interpreting his message too narrowly. Sure the bucolic small family farm is sorely missed, but that's not Gatto's message. What's gone is rugged self-reliance and its lifeblood, self-production. Depend on one corporation for your job and others for your food, clothing, entertainment, heat, banking, etc. There's no more chopping firewood, well water, milking the cow, stuffing money under your mattress, or raising your own kids. If one produces nothing, they are forced into a life of consumption, are they not?

Let's shift over to the narcotic of schooling. Government education is a drug in the sense that American society has grown addicted to it. Increasing wealth may have paved the way but nefarious forces chimed in to make it a one way road; families lack the memory of homeschooling, remain unaware of its virtues, and for the most part can't rejigger their lives to accommodate it.

Compulsory mass education is seemingly free to most people. Before government schooling, sending one's children to be educated would lower the productivity of the family farm or the family store. It was an economic tradeoff, a tuition payment that shaped educational realities and institutions. One hundred years ago, nobody would send their kids to school against the interests of family wealth if they were going to come back unlettered, unruly, and un-marketable. Nowadays the kids come back ignorant and unskilled but the loss (economic and otherwise) is not so obvious to the parents. The cost is really borne by taxpayers, i.e. rich working people. Also, your kids don't look so dumb compared your neighbor's brood either - so breathe a sigh of relief.

If you are an accountant at a big corporation, bringing your two young sons into work isn't really going to help you get your job done or get you a raise. And you can't send them to work on their own either because of child labor laws (notwithstanding that sneaky little Greek kid). It's hard for your wife to stay out of the workforce and homeschool them because every other household in your local economy has a double-barreled income. That is priced into the housing market and you'd likely have to move to a less desirable neighborhood should she opt out of the workforce. Not to mention, that everyone else sends their kids to the government school AND you already pay property taxes, the bulk of which fund that school. So even if skeptical and averse to groupthink, you reluctantly hand the kids over to a government school, promising yourself to be a vigilant parent, and hoping for the best. The school can't possibly ruin your kids, after all you did okay yourself. Right?

But very few working parents can counteract the peer pressure, the brainwashing, and the television.

So how then does mass schooling fuel consumerism?

The answer is that it doesn't do so directly. Consumerism is the confluent result of the corporate efficiencies and technological progress that have completely redrawn the landscape of America. Not only are there are fewer family farms, there are fewer family restaurants, "mom and pop" gas stations (thank the environmentalists), family supermarkets, etc. Every aspect of American life today is bigger, more efficient, and more complicated than it was one hundred years ago. Very few people earning six figures can so much as change a flat tire. That may be a point of condescension for today's older folk; but I am sure their grandparents mocked them when they were young and unable to milk a cow. Getting back to point, progress and prosperity facilitated the idling of children. But take notice that while you and your wife went to work for large corporations, depraved forces have moved in to fill the void left by farm chores and child labor. If you believe they have anything resembling the best interests of your children then your own "education" fails you.

Devil's Advocate - I thought you couldn't stand the defenders of "mom and pop" businesses?

That's right. Ninety-nine percent of them are socialists. Here, I am just mentioning the undeniable fact of their demise. Banning Walmart is not going to right any of the wrongs addressed by this post. Socialism will certainly not bring back the family farm, help poor people, or reanimate the country with self-production and self-reliance - which is the subject of my post. Entrepreneurialism is not dead; in fact many recent developments (e.g. the internet) have given it a massive boost. BUT, it, like all business is constantly under siege by hyper-regulatory socialist econo-illiterate... let's just call them economic insurgents.

As I was saying, the world got a whole lot more complicated. One can't simply blame corporations for the death of small family businesses because that wouldn't tell the whole story. The Industrial Revolution, combustion engine, and the assembly line cheapened food, heat, and housing for the multitude. Its great wealth brought sanitation, better healthcare, and grew life expectancies. The cornucopia of capitalism did however fertilize the weed of Big Government. Many pundit-types refer to this as the flip side of economic growth - a ripe topic for another time.

Someone on the web captioned the above pic as "The Church of Consumerism". By that metric how pious are the women in your family? Some women I know have locked up sainthood!

So what exactly is consumerism? Wikipedia has a very tame definition but I think we all can agree that it generically refers to the purchasing of goods if not an obsession thereof. Clearly, the more money one has, the more they can purchase. The richer this country has gotten, the greater its appetite for iPods, designer jeans, hybrid cars, premium wine, organic food, etc. So where am I going with this banality?

You see, John Gatto is absolutely correct. Not only can people today not raise a chicken, kill it, pluck it and serve it up for dinner, most people today can't cook a store-bought bird. Who today hems their own pants or even owns a sewing machine for that matter? My grandfather did his own oil changes - not too long ago either. What madness, no?

What about self-entertainment? For centuries people played instruments, sung, socialized, and read books. Most of the social clubs in cities like New York and Philly are long since dead and gone and the survivors are desperate for new membership. Today when the cable is out nobody knows what to do. How pathetic is it to drive around at night and see a flickering television in almost every house? Today Americans sit on their collective asses, listening to music or inhaling the politically correct pornography on the idiot box. Everyone is consuming entertainment; no one is producing any.

Recently I have come to loathe television. For at least twenty years I used to mock my sophisticated uncle who doesn't own a television. I thought him grotesquely out of touch (of course he still is on many fronts). But now I have come full circle to his point of view, or at least its conclusion anyway. Parenthood put the first involuntary dent into my television viewing. When a newborn deigns to sleep, you find yourself relaxing by say, brushing your teeth, doing the dishes, or taking your own nap. The whole new parent experience shocks the bachelor and bachelorette lifestyles into a foreign if not alternate reality.

Even with the DVR, watching fluff shows like Pardon the Interruption just couldn't compete with an opportunity to go to the bathroom or feed myself. Predictably, I clung to my favorite programs and axed the Marginal ones. Each month it seems another of my pet shows bites the dust. Ever since the umbilical cord was cut, literally and figuratively, stark tradeoffs were manifested, and my television viewing began an irretrievable descent.

The second dent into my TV viewership began with Marginalizing Morons. When I first started this blog, I had little idea what I would write about, no less where blogging would transport me. (I did know that I wanted to avoid the sewer pit of "politics".)

Early on I put a tracker on my blog and it had a profound impact on me. I could see that people in far off places had read my posts: Pakistan, London, Iceland, Thailand, etc. And I could see exactly how they found my work. I was blown away by the prominence of my post on J-Crew's embroidered djellabah. At one time, if you googled "embroidered djellabah" my blog post came up first in the search results - right below J-Crew's listing. Now I was hooked, awed by the sheer power of the internet.

There probably has only been one other epiphanous moment like this in my life. In the fall of 1988, I went to my first freshman math meet. I didn't really train for the event nor have any idea what it was all about. Nonetheless, I turned in a perfect score - the only one of 300 kids in the county. Imagine the effect beating out perhaps the smartest kids around had on my incipient ego. Winning the event validated my arrogance or so I thought. I was hooked on the euphoria and really took to math. Once I began working at it, I graduated to national acclaim. Consequently, my mind, ego, and self-confidence ascended to dizzying heights. This is why Greg Mankiw is but a gnat to me; I have competed against and held my own with profound geniuses, guys who could memorize Π to 500 decimal places in an afternoon.

Writing a blog was the first productive endeavor of my life. Imagine that at 30 years of age, like most people I had never created or built a single thing. This novel experience has had a profound effect on my life. Today I could either vegetate in front of a ball game or I could compose my thoughts and publish them globally. The end of self-centered bachelorhood forced this dilemma on me. When I think about how much time I have spent idling with a remote control I can't help but get mad at the time I have lost. My blog will be there forever. It'll be a window into my soul for my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, etc. Wouldn't you have liked to know your great-great-great-great grandparents?

I have said this before, my blogging is also a tool for self-education. Dumping your thoughts onto an open forum like the blogosphere makes you measure your words, balance your thoughts, and wend your way towards clarity. So again, weigh the benefits of watching the Red Sox today versus the benefits of developing your mind and leaving a legacy for your descendants.

It is a categorical trait of most Morons that they can't put their "ideas" and "opinions" on paper. If you can't formally articulate your arguments, consider that maybe you haven't thought them through or researched them. Or perhaps your opinions are not even your own - they are just propaganda clichés. I would confidently say that at least 90% of people simply pawn off others' propaganda as their own creed. Look at this email I recently received from a family member.

I will debate you on this whole global warning thing... I usually agree with your blog but your last grandstanding nonsense about global warming is wrongheaded

Scientists say 2007 may be warmest yet - Yahoo! News

One, instead of posting his dissent on my blog he sent me an email expressing nebulous disagreement. Two, he threatened to debate me at a later time but I guess only verbally. Three, note the Yahoo news link he regurgitated and propagated as "argument". Four, he still hasn't engaged me in the threatened debate. I emailed him and dared him to post a comment - he didn't. Five, it's not like he doesn't have time to post a comment - he is a shiftless bachelor!!!

The point is, consuming content pushes most people to act like my mind-numbed relative. Most people don't have any coherent ideas of their own because they are too busy consuming the thoughts of others.

I apologize for the peripatetic course of this post. Sometimes coherence can be as much an anchor as it is a rudder. How's that for a sloppiness justification!

Remember I resolved to be more positive this year, so I'll try my hand at offering a dollop of advice.

Ask yourself whether you are a consumer or a producer. If the imbalance is as bad as mine was, figure out how you can change that. Instead of joining a club or a weekly card game, start your own. Become a leader, not a follower. Instead of watching television, seek out edifying web content. Everyone isn't made for blogging but you can still engage others via comment threads. If you are going to consume content, seek out the best, the classics. Right now I am immersed in the eleven volumes of Will and Ariel Durant's The Story of Civilization. Reading is not just another form of passive media consumption. It forces your mind to stay awake, crack the code of language, and form your own mental images. One simply can't eat, doze off, and scratch themself while reading a good book as they can while watching television. There are great books on every subject; find the ones suited to your palate.

For my last chi enhancing prescription, get yourself a set of Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones - especially if you have small children in your present or future. They are also good if you ride the subway or fly often. They won't make you completely deaf but they'll make a big difference. If you've ever felt like running into the cockpit and strangling an overly loquacious pilot, you need this headset.

There are plenty of devious elements out there trying to waste your time, your money, and your mind - so fight back a little.

(Since my ramblings took us away from the Bachelor Culture, I promise to cover it in a subsequent post.)


The Owner said...

I have a feeling you'd find Hans-Hermann Hoppe's "Democracy: The God That Failed" to be interesting reading, considering what you just wrote.

Hoppe would blame the consumerism, or more generally, the "high time preference"-ism of today's society on government, specifically democratic government. He argues that government is a decivilizing force, with monarchy being less decivilizing than democracy.

It will probably challenge a lot of your current beliefs about the nature and benefits of government, but I think someone like you can handle it and probably come away feeling satisfied with the book, even if you don't agree with all of his points. While his argument isn't flawless, I think he does make a strong case in linking our declining moral culture and rising crime rates with the concurrent expansion in government power that has been going on all the while. Kind of makes sense when you look back at the French Revolution, as one of Europe's first experiments with mass democracy, and see another connection between civil decline and moral depravity and the expansion of government.

As for "self-reliance," that's a tricky one. While I share your concern that so many people seem to be infantile to the point of absurdity, you have to be careful about being TOO concerned about it, because the logic goes somewhere you maybe aren't considering.

I get depressed when I think about the fact that I have yet to meet a girl at school who knows how to cook. Apparently mothers aren't teaching their daughters this essential home economics skill anymore. And that unhygienic roommate I told you about in the e-mail is simply one OF a million.

Children should be raised in a manner in which they become adults who are able to survive independently of their parents, financially and resourcefully. But is it really necessary that we all know how to milk cows?

The beauty of the capitalist system is its division of labor. Division of labor is what allows for the intensification of productivity through skill specialization... it's what allows rocket scientists to work on rocket science, CEOs to be CEOs, etc. It's what provides us with the circumstances necessary to invest in capital production and technological innovation.

The alternative is true self-sufficiency, a la old-school feudal peasantdom. If we don't all take up a different aspect of production and focus our attention on it, than we must be reduced to individual subsistence farmers.

Maybe some people (you?) yearn for that kind of lifestyle and don't enjoy having a car to drive, a nice house with central heating and air to live in, a variety of foodstuffs to eat regardless of weather conditions, an abundance of clothes and various forms of entertainment and sports to relax/engage in recreation. There is nothing stopping those people from buying a plot of land and withdrawing from the world, much like the Amish do.

Irresponsible consumerism (consuming beyond your ability to support your consumption financially) is deadly... but if no one bought anything from anyone else, no one would have a job and we'd be right back to subsistence farming.

I am looking forward to your thoughts on some of the issues being discussed at NN when you find some time in your busy life (child-rearing, marriage-having, and job-doing) to sit down and read a bit.

Great post.

Anonymous said...

"Mr. Nut",

Seemed like a fitting post for me to leave my first comment. Am a recent college grad/struggling entrepreneur and I find myself nodding to many things you have to say. Really enjoy your blog - keep up the good work!

- AO

CaptiousNut said...


When I met my wife, she was 22 and an excellent cook. I was not. From her I learned to cook and then my own competitiveness took over. I am now an excellent chef a few notches ahead of my very talented wife.

My advice to you is, become an expert cook yourself. Then find a girl who's skilled and competitive. Teach her to get her started, then sit back and enjoy her toiling to surpass you as cook. Do what my wife did!

Draft on potential, just like an NBA executive.

CaptiousNut said...

And some college girls are no doubt prowling for a guy who can do the foxtrot...

The Owner said...

"Draft on potential, just like an NBA executive."

That's good advice, never even considered that before.

CaptiousNut said...

Here's some centuries-old advice that's been tossed aside by the current generation.

Get a good look at her mother.

Because that's what she'll likely turn into...

The Owner said...

Actually, that one has been playing in the back of my mind a lot recently, and I am not sure why.

Maybe it is because my own mother reminds me of how crazy she can be on a weekly basis, and I have simply subconsciously connected the dots...

"...hmmm, my mom's crazy. My sisters are starting to turn crazy because of her. Every girl I meet is some other woman's daughter. I should probably check to see if her mom is crazy..."

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