OVERCONSUMPTION AND THE PERPETUATION OF SCARCITY

(This essay is part eleven of the series HOW JOBS DESTROYED WORK)
Because we have built for ourselves a system that tends to cause debt to outgrow productive ability, it is essential for the perpetuation of such a system that we never succeed in ending scarcity. Now, human needs are finite, or if not finite then nowhere near insatiable enough to fuel the appetite for growth that our market system has, dominated as it is by cancerous forms of money growth that extract wealth from the real economy. Fortunately for the system, human desires can be manipulated to embrace a ‘throwaway’ culture. Such an outcome requires a hedonistic, short-sighted value system and measures of ‘wealth’ and ‘success’ that define such things in purely consumerist terms. Such an outcome must undermine, as much as it can, any interest in the types of innovation and problem-solving that are not inherently based on monetary return.
It is therefore perhaps not surprising that the majority of people have been conditioned to devalue all nonmonetary forms of work and to ascribe success to overconsumption. It also explains why advertising has grown to become such a dominant part of many businesses budget. It’s required to manufacture fake needs.
CHANGING YOUR BRAIN
Notice how many adverts rely on genuine meaning and non-monetary values to sell their products. TV commercials tend to revolve around people finding love, or being among friends, or having the freedom to immerse themselves in idyllic locations. Adverts for cars, for example, will show a happy driver travelling down an empty road to some stunning location, perhaps to meet a gorgeous partner. Those adverts don’t depict a stressed-out employee stuck in rush hour traffic with his superior barking in his ear through a cellular phone, whose debt levels brought on in part by his consumerist lifestyle severely restrict bargaining power in negotiating better terms.
The power advertising has to influence our minds is demonstrated by the ‘Pepsi paradox’. The paradox consists of the fact that when blind taste tests are conducted, people tend to select Pepsi as the best tasting cola. But Coca-cola outsells Pepsi. Brain scans show that when people taste Pepsi and Coca-Cola without knowing which is which, the former drink triggers greater activity in the Ventral Putamen, a component of the brain’s reward system. When the drinks are tasted with awareness of which drink is which, we see a change in the brain: Coca-Cola triggers greater activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain dedicated to personality expression and moderating social behaviour. As Steve Quartz of the Californian Institute of Technology explained:
“What is a brand? It is a social distinction that we are creating…Cola is brown sugar water about which the brain discerns no particular difference until the brand information comes in. Then, the brain suddenly perceives an enormous difference”.
Another study conducted some years ago introduced television to Fijian islanders who had not been exposed to Western values. Prior to this introduction, eating disorders were almost unheard of, but by the end of the observation period, the barrage of materialistic and vanity values that feature so heavily in our commercial world had altered the psychology of the islanders. As Zeitgeist explained:
“A relevant percentage of young women…who prior had embraced the style of healthy weight and full features, became obsessed with being thin”.
It would be wrong to suggest that all consumerism is bad. If we had no choice but to live in austere conditions that offered no comforts or luxuries and only addressed our most basic needs, I don’t think that would make us all that happy. It is a triumph of capitalism and market systems that ordinary people now enjoy a greater range of food, drink and luxury items than a medieval monarch ever laid hands on. 
Capitalism’s success lies in its ability to solve problems and the measure of a society’s wealth should be determined by how well problems are being solved. But our debt-growing monetary system and the consumerist mentality nurtured to support it have encouraged the emergence of a market that creates problems more than it solves them, for the simple reason that monetary gain can be had if the market can perpetuate a feeling of inadequacy and inferiority so as to sell us bogus cures. 
TECHNICAL EFFICIENCY IS ‘BAD’
It’s also opposed to technical efficiency. A product that maximises technical efficiency lasts for as long as possible. This may be because it is robustly made- think of a bulb that provides light for as long as physical limits permit. It may be achieved through easy repairability. Think of a tablet computer with component parts that can be swapped out as they suffer wear and tear. 
Market efficiency, on the other hand, is much more concerned with driving sales, and so there is an incentive to inhibit technical efficiency for the sake of repeat purchases. Food comes with ‘sell-by’ dates- even if it is tinned food that lasts pretty much indefinitely if unopened. That’s assuming it makes it onto the shelves at all. Enormous amounts of decent food gets thrown away simply because it fails to meet the exacting standards of supermarkets who want absolute uniformity in fruit and vegetables. 
A famous example of market efficiency versus technical efficiency would be the Pheobus light bulb cartel of the 1930s. Back then, light bulbs were technically able to provide about 25,000 hours of light. The cartel forced each company to restrict light bulb lifespans to less than 1000 hours- much better, at least as far as repeat sales are concerned. Today, some inkjet printer manufacturers employ smart chips in their ink cartridges to prevent them from being used after a certain threshold (for example, after a certain number of pages have been printed) even though the cartridge may still contain usable ink. When the cartridge is taken to be refilled, the chip is simply reset and the same cartridge is resold to its owner. 
In 1801, Eli Whitney produced fully interchangeable parts for muskets. Prior to this move, the whole gun was useless if a part broke; Whitney’s interchangeable parts allowed for continual maintenance. Common sense would assume that such an idea would spread throughout the market, but instead we see proprietary components that ensure a total lack of universal compatibility, and products driven to unnecessary obsolescence. 
Bare in mind that these products are the result of human effort. People are giving up their time to labour at producing goods that are designed to be thrown away, and the sooner the better. As Zeitgeist put it:
“The intention of the market system is to maintain or elevate rates of turnover, as this is what keeps people employed and increases so-called growth. Hence, at its core, the market’s entire premise of efficiency is based around tactics to accomplish this and hence any force that works to reduce the need for labour or turnover is considered “inefficient” from the view of the market, even though it might be very efficient in terms of the true definition of the economy itself, which means to conserve, reduce waste and do more with less”.
GDP
A clear indication of how money can distort perspectives of work can be seen in the rationale of Gross Domestic Product or GDP. GDP has its origins in post-depression America. In the 1930s, presidents Hoover and Roosevelt were looking for a way to determine how dire the situation was. A Nobel Laureate in economics, Simon Kuznets, devised a method for measuring the flow of money as a whole. Back then, industry dominated the economy, which meant that most economic activity involved the creation and sale of physical products. So, Kuznets’ measurement only tracked the flow of money among different sectors, not the creation and sale of actual things. To further simplify things, Kuznets’ model tended to undercount what economists call ‘externalities’, which refers to any industrial or commercial activity that is experienced by third parties who are not directly related to the transaction (IE they are not directly working for, or customers of, the company). Externalities can come in both positive forms, providing unintentional benefits (a cider farm’s apple orchard happens to provide nectar for a nearby bee-keeper’s bees) or negative, causing unintentional harm (an industrial process causes pollution, affecting the health of people who happen to live nearby). Also, externalities occur from both production and consumption.
So, what does life look like when viewed through the filter of GDP? Since it only tracks the flow of money, anything that does not involve monetary exchange is disregarded. In reality, work can and often does exist outside of monetary transactions. A man may volunteer to paint fences in his community because he wants the neighbourhood to look nice. A retired teacher might give free maths tuition to his friend’s son who is falling behind at school. All good work, but from the strictly monetized perspective taken by GDP, services rendered without payment have no value. Furthermore, whereas violence, crime, breakdown of the family and other such things have a negative impact on society, GDP counts them as improvements if the decline results in paid intervention. Crime results in the need for legal services, more police and prisons and repairs to damaged property. The breakdown of the family may lead to social work, psychological counselling and subscriptions to antidepressants. Since these are paid interventions, as far as GDP is concerned, social decay registers as an improvement, because it’s generating financial flows as we pay for all that extra security, counselling, and damage repairs.
GDP is obviously a simplified model that cannot accurately inform us of how well a society is solving its problems and improving lives (to be fair to Kuznets, he did point out its limitations). But notice how well it serves the logic of today’s market, which has at the heart of its context of ‘efficiency’ a focus on monetary exchange and general growth in consumption, with scant regard as to what is being produced or what effect it has. So long as money and consumption continues to grow, that’s good. Any significant reductions are bad.
Submitting to labour within a market that devalues community-building voluntarism and views the cost of social decay as a financial benefit, exposed to an endless barrage of psychological manipulation designed to persuade us that happiness comes from the possession of material things, and culturally trained to idolise the very people who tipped the balance of negotiating power almost entirely in their favour enabling them to reduce wages and benefits down to a point where there is hardly any compensation for so many hours lost to servitude, it cannot come as a surprise if we see credit card binges and other forms of overextension. During the lean-and-mean 90s, many people found that pushing household borrowing to dangerous heights was just about the only way they could obtain what seemed like an appropriate reward for so much sacrifice. Savings were put into mutual funds, but few held investments in such funds that were large enough to compensate for all the insecurity, benefit cutbacks and downsizing that typified the era. Moreover, their portfolio managers often backed the very investor-raiders and corporate changes aimed at short-term profit at any cost, that was causing so much deterioration in working life. 
Coming up in part twelve: how money decentivises work

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