Monday, March 24, 2014

Village Markets and Online Shopping

            During the years I lived in Mexico City, I spent many an afternoon going to an outdoor market on Saturday afternoon in Polanco.  Polanco has become very trendy in recent years, but when I lived there, it was simply a lovely quiet mostly residential neighborhood.  The market that I am talking about was primarily for Mexicans, not foreigners.  It did sell collectibles and old books, but it also sold useful items, including things that were brought in from the U.S.  And like any good outdoor market in Mexico, it was a place you could bargain with the seller.  Bargaining is truly an art.  A buyer has to show enough interest in an item to keep a seller engaged, but not so much interest that the seller won’t bring down the price.  Sometimes, the buyer has to be willing to walk away from the seller to show a feigned disinterest, so that the seller will lower his price to make a sale.  It is sort of like a commercial battle, and it is a very stimulating primary experience, where buyer and seller leave mental organic imprints on each other as they move towards a mutually acceptable price.  What is potentially acquired by a buyer in such a situation is not simply a coveted article, but also the memory, the imprint of a rich vibrant life experience.

            I loved this market as well as other markets in Mexico City and other markets in the rest of the country, particularly the rural areas.  The latter were venues that were particularly good for the theatrics of good market strategies.  And the seller expected these strategies from the buyer.  Should a foreigner like myself walk away from a seller because the price truly wasn’t acceptable, the seller would ask the foreigner what he was willing to pay.  The seller couldn’t understand how a potential buyer wouldn’t at least try to bargain before he gave up.

            But shopping can be a vibrant experience even without bargaining.  Nowadays, there are supermarkets in France, but traditionally, French people would buy their food fresh every day from little specialty shops: bread shops, pastry shops, sausage shops, butcher shops, produce shops, etc.  And buyers would go into these stores and they would smell the aromas of different foods and taste different foods and feel the textures of different foods.  In such stores, foods are fresh and not processed, the way so many foods are in modern technological society. The daily shopping trip became a rich sensory experience.  Also, there were the social encounters with the different shopkeepers, with whom pleasantries were exchanged and discussions would ensue about how the respective families were doing. The shopkeepers became old family friends.

            In both Mexico and France, the journey to shop became as important as the destination.   Life was not simply acquiring items for consumption but also the experiences surrounding the acquisition of the items.  One did not simply acquire the figures of products in a vacuum; one acquired them in the rich grounding of organic life.  Both the figures and the grounding were equally important.

            Contrast this with shopping in modern technological society.  Shopping in the external world increasingly tends to be done in big stores: supermarkets and discount department stores.  The supermarkets have a great variety of food, but much of the food is overly processed, much of the food has all kinds of preservatives to give it longer shelf life.  This does not make for a rich sensory experience.  And shoppers do not usually develop a one-to-one relationship with the store help.  There are too many people working in the store and most of them do not have intimate knowledge of one particular product area such that they can make recommendations.         

            The same is true in the discount department stores.  Nobody seems to know very much about any of the products they sell.  There is practically no social engagement between the shopper and the people who work in the stores.  Yes, one has access to a great variety of merchandise in a discount department store, but at the cost of being immersed in a flavorless experiential vacuum.  Trains and trucks and fork lifts and conveyor belts have made moving large quantities of merchandise possible.  And the increasing focus on the free-floating figures of merchandise is the result of the gradual destruction of organic living environments.  The latter leads to a loss of grounding which leads people to increasingly accumulate bundles of figure merchandise as a false kind of grounding.  And the best way to do this is for stores to have vast vacuum spaces selling large quantities of economical merchandise purchased cheaply by the stores because of the economy of scale.  And the vacuum spaces of the large discount department stores further contribute to the loss of the sense of grounding and push people even further to make more purchases in the form of impulse buying.

            But people have taken purchases in a vacuum space one step further.  More and more people have found the convenience and ease of online shopping to be too seductive to ignore.  Everything from clothes to food to books to plane tickets to all kinds of used items can be bought online. A few clicks on the computer plus putting in one’s credit card number can start the process in motion to have goods delivered to your door step within a short period of time.  Plane tickets are in the airline computers at the airport.  There is no necessity to have to go through the arduous process of talking to another human being, let alone going through the process of having to physically transport oneself to a place of purchase.  Everything is done from the comfort of one’s home or one’s office or a coffee house.

            Of course, with online shopping, one not only loses the vibrant interaction from bargaining in a village market, but one loses the affirming interaction with known salespeople in a specialty store as well as the sensory involvement with the merchandise that comes with actually seeing, touching, and even smelling and tasting it.  One still maintains sensory contact with some unpackaged merchandise in discount department stores and a minimal contact with service people in these stores, even though the service people are mostly strangers.

            Actually, there is one form of shopping on the internet that could be said to be a real interaction between buyer and seller.  This encompasses those situations where one bids for items on online auctions.  The highest bidder before a deadline gets the item.  But this is bidding, not bargaining. It is like a silent auction, only the bidder is not in the presence of other bidders or of the merchandise.  One is in a vacuum bidding on free-floating merchandise in the cyber world against nameless free-floating competitors.  It is very impersonal and remote.  It certainly is not like an art auction house or a cattle auction house, where one is in the presence of the auctioneer as well as the art or the cattle as well as the other bidders or their proxies.  Such auction houses provide exciting rich vibrant grounded experiences.  

            So much is lost when purchasing on a computer.  There is little sensory contact with merchandise (just visual photos that don’t show much.)   There is no direct contact with human beings.  This is the purest form of purchasing figure items free from a grounded sensory shopping experience.  The vibrancy of shopping as a life experience is completely lost.

            Now one other problem with shopping online is that one has to wait at least a day or two to receive the item or items one has purchased.  Most of the time when one goes to a market, one takes home what one has purchased right after purchasing it.  When one goes to a store, one also usually takes home a purchased item the same day, unless the item is too big like a refrigerator.  So isn’t it amazing that some online vendors like Amazon have come up with the notion of delivery drones that can bring an item to the purchaser some thirty minutes after making an online purchase.  It’s not quite as good as taking an item home from a store, but it’s good enough.  If and when this is up and running, online vendors will be able to deliver almost instant gratification to purchasers.  And in a vacuum living environment, where rich vibrant shopping experiences are primarily available in boutiques and specialty food shops for the wealthy, the average middle-class shopper focuses on getting the only thing available in shopping today and that is the free-floating figures of products.  The shopping experience has now been reduced to a few clicks on the computer and in the future to the smooth frictionless delivery from a drone.  One really doesn’t have to leave his house anymore to get what he wants and needs.  That is except the experience of feeling truly alive.  Right now, I wish I was in some village market in Mexico bargaining for some ceramic pots, some woven rugs or some ceremonial masks.  Or some bananas, some oranges, some peanuts and on it goes.

(c) 2014 Laurence Mesirow

Monday, March 10, 2014

The Cost Of Treating Workers As Costs

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine from a networking group that I attend, came up with some very interesting observations about the differences between companies when he was getting started in business, on the one hand, and companies today on the other..  When he first started working in business, he worked for a large corporate entity that was paternalistic.  The company had a five thousand person factory that had no unions because it was offering benefits beyond those that a union would normally be able to obtain in negotiations.  Among other benefits, the company had a self-funded insurance program and its own clinic.  When necessary, it could bring in medical specialists for the workers.

Anyway, the company invested in my friend by paying for his M.B.A. education.  By doing this, the company was giving my friend the opportunity to grow and to qualify for higher-paying jobs within the company, for jobs in middle and upper management.  Benefits like these made a person loyal to a company.  The person would end up working for the company for thirty to forty years.  The company had created an environment that engendered a sense of family.  The company did this, because it saw a worker as an investment on a balance sheet, upon which it would expect to see a return.

My friend sees company attitudes today as being very different.  Today a worker is looked at as being an expense on a profit-loss statement rather than an investment on a balance sheet.  The key moment for this change, not only in the United States but in many other countries around the world, came around the time of the presidency of Ronald Reagan.  The president adopted supply-side economics as his guiding strategy for dealing with the American economy.  According to this theory, made famous by Arthur Laffer, the economy could be best stimulated by lowering taxes, particularly on the wealthy members of society, who had the means to invest in business.  More money for investment meant more jobs and paradoxically more tax revenue for the long run.

This theory went against a theory previously in vogue, the demand-side economics of John Maynard Keynes.  There were many aspects to Keynes theory, but the important point here is that Keynes thought that the economy could be best stimulated by putting money into the hands of working-class and middle-class consumers.  These were the people who needed to spend their money on everyday life needs.  Anyway, Keynes strategy could be carried out by creating government work projects, by raising the minimum wage and by lowering taxes on the working and middle classes.

There is a connection between my friend’s observations about how workers have been perceived and these two economic theories.  When employees are perceived as investments, it is because one gives them the opportunity to work well and earn well and live well.  Then they take what they earn and put it back into the economy by spending it quickly and moving the money through the economy.  This is demand-side economics. 

Employees are perceived as costs, when the focus on stimulating the economy is on putting money into the hands of company owners and investors, who are supposedly motivated to generate economic activity when they are allowed to pay out as small a percentage of revenues as possible in taxes.  So supposedly, the owners and investors should take the money they save from taxes and invest it back in their companies and create more and better-paying jobs.  But that hasn’t been what has happened in recent decades, when there have been major tax cuts.  Investors and owners have held back a lot of the money they have gained from tax cuts.  They have hoarded it for personal purposes.  There hasn’t been increased business activity leading to increased tax revenues though at lower rates.  There hasn’t been much growth in jobs.  And why should there be a growth in jobs, when employees are viewed negatively as costs anyway.

This view of workers as costs is, in my view, connected with a deeper attitude towards workers among owners and investors today.  Workers are no longer really perceived as people.  They are viewed as robots.  They are hired with skills that are fixed, not evolving.  They are worked as hard as possible for a certain number of years with as few benefits as possible.  And then they are let go, if possible, without a pension.  As robots they are machines that depreciate with use.  Why pay them anything when they are no longer useful? 

This is so different from my friend’s experience when a company invested in his growth, because it knew that what was good for my friend was good for the company.  My friend was a growing person, not a depreciating machine.

            Let’s take this analysis one step further.  The reason that business owners and investors view workers consciously as costs today and unconsciously as robots is because workers are beginning to blur together with the increasingly complex technology that they operate.  They are becoming what they use.  The complex entities of these machines act as models for how people should behave and mirror back the behavior that they, the people, then adopt.  And as people start acting more and more like robots, the company owners and the investors who own the complex machinery merge the workers into the machine system as components barely distinguishable from the actual machine components. And if workers are merely robots, then they are incapable of leaving organic imprints on the owners and investors for whom they work.  The suffering they experience from wages on which they can’t live, from minimal or no benefits, and from job insecurity does not leave an impression on the owners and investors.  If the workers are merely robots, their suffering simply translates into mechanical dysfunction.  Too many complaints and the robot can be replaced with another one that is less troublesome.  Taking it one step, further, a worker today is a free-floating figure in a vacuum.  He has no economic grounding in his society.  There is little formal protection of his job from the government and little informal protection of his job from his community and social groups.  And because he lacks any meaningful grounding within his own sense of self, he doesn’t inspire any bonding emotions like compassion, concern or respect from the owners and investors.

 Returning to our original discussion, the economic attitude of a worker being viewed as a cost is based on the experience of the worker as something not-human, as a robot, as a machine, as a free floating ungrounded figure.  A question arises as to how such an attitude can coexist with the concept of the dignity of the individual human being that is fundamental to modern democratic societies.  A robot cannot be a citizen of a democracy.  So if a human worker is actually a person, then he should have the opportunity to work in a situation where he is truly treated like a human being and not like a robot.  The transformation of more and more workers into robots is not conducive to the maintenance of a democratic society.  While it is still possible, modern democratic societies will have to find the means to start protecting its working citizens from gradually sinking into non-human economic status.  If not, modern democratic societies will cease being democratic.  This is why it is important that workers be seen as investments on a balance sheet and not costs on a profit-loss statement.

© 2014 Laurence Mesirow