The Untapped Power of Social Sanction

Social sanction is a force that our policy makers, in the thrall of economic thinking, have neglected for too long.  It really is effective.  I once visited Calgary, in Canada, and on my first day experienced a “chinook,” which is a balmy wind that raises the temperature into the fifties in winter.   The temperature dropped from there to about ten below in about two hours.  I was downtown, waiting to cross the street, and freezing to my bones.  The signal said “Don’t walk” but there were no cars coming.  Of course I crossed.

Did I say “of course”?  The people waiting patiently on the other side did not feel that way.  In Calgary, I grasped quickly, you do not cross against the light. Their stony disapproving glares cut through me like the artic wind.  Nobody said a word.  For the rest of my visit, which was about a week, I waited patiently along with everyone else.  (I also paid my fares on the city’s transit system, which was on the honor system.)


The Market’s Casting Call

It is a conceit of the Left that the corporate system keeps us underfoot through the sheer weight of economic power.  Power it has, but there is more to it than that.  The system couldn’t work unless we worked with it; that is, unless we internalized its narratives and values and so lent a willing – or at least conditioned – hand.

This happens most obviously in our assigned role as “consumers.” But it happens on the production side as well.  There is a powerful moral drama that attaches to the producer side of the economy, and leads people to detach their enterprise and effort from the impacts of these upon the world.  Until critics of the corporate economy grasp this – until they grasp how people can feel virtuous even when they are doing ill — they will continue to beat against a psychological stone wall.


Sweat Voltage: How to Turn Consumption into Production

It is the perverse genius of the corporate economy to constantly find ways to sell us what we used to have for free.  In nothing is this more evident than in the realm of bodily exertion.  For decades – centuries really – this thing called “the economy” has been stripping away the physical activity from daily life. Eventually exertion itself became scarce, and something we had to buy.  At the same time, corporations were turning food into oral entertainment and arterial junk, and pushing it at us constantly, thus making the activity deficit all the more pressing.

Ergo the need to buy from “health clubs”, the activity that once was built into daily life.  The farmer’s plough became a Cybex machine, the walk to the station a treadmill.  Where once we produced we now consume; and we internalize this process to such a degree that the ersatz version becomes more legitimate than the original.  I once belonged to a YMCA in Manhattan where people would take an elevator to the 4th floor to use a Stairmaster.  The strange alchemy of market culture had made the commoditized substitute more real somehow than just walking up the stairs.


Commercial Television Tries Community

Is there anything commercial television has touched that is the better for it?  Sports? Politics? Drama?  Anything?  The practice of community has been blessedly exempt, except to the extent television has depleted the ranks of those available to do the work.   Community doesn’t have much sizzle; and how do you sell products in the context of a show about people who think there’s something more important than buying products?

It looks like that is changing though.  On New Year’s Eve I found myself at a family gathering, watching a show that has taken the popular themes of personal makeover and home improvement and given them a  new twist.  It appears the show solicits the names of people who have made significant contributions to their communities.  Then, via the show, people in the community help to build the family a new or remodeled home in return.


The Right’s Own Welfare State

Why are right wing writers so dismissive of social security and other means of social support?  Could more than ideology be involved – in particular, that many of them have their own private welfare system that insulates them from the rigors of the market they preach for the rest of us?  That possibility has been on my mind since the day in New York that I ran into an acquaintance who recently had been fired from his job at a rightward magazine.  I commiserated and asked what he would do next.

Oh, he said, he was going to talk with Bill Buckley and get money to write a book.  He seemed totally unconcerned – and in New York where rents are not cheap.  That contrasted with my own experience a few months later, when the magazine I worked for went under, and I had to go on unemployment, to my great discomfort and yes, shame. The champion of the market was coddled in a risk-free cocoon, while someone such as myself had to take the lumps.


Labor Day

Yesterday we drove out to Drake’s Beach, on the Point Reyes Peninsula, and the sand sculpture contest that is an annual event there on Labor Day week-end.  It was overcast and a little dreary, as things tend to be out here at this time of year.  But the parking lot was full, and the beach was bustling in a way that combined the paraphernalia of family outings – coolers, blankets, folding chairs – with the milling chatter of a gallery opening.

I had expected kids making sand castles with plastic shovels and buckets.  Instead there were adults with sculpture tools and brushes, hunched over their work with the passionate intensity of kids.   (The first time I wrote that sentence I said ”real artists” instead of “adults,” but what are they?)  Some of the work was amazing.  Elephants, alligators and hippos peeked from the sand as from slow rivers.  Mice from the Wind in the Willowsmunched on cheese, next to a baited trap.  Two feet, exquisite in detail, guarded the entrance to a walled human head.


Closed Code in the White House

Business Week ran an article last month (July 10, 2006) on corporations that make a point of learning from their mistakes, and the list is shorter than one might expect. The profit motive apparently is not the sure prod to diligence that the textbooks assume. At most companies the instinct is to bury mistakes because the boss doesn’t want to hear bad news.

Smart executives, by contrast, seek it out. “They try to prove themselves wrong” the way scientists do, Business Week observes. “That focus on potential flaws makes failure, and the lessons that come with it, happen earlier.”


The Long Tail and the Market Me

This question of the “long tail” gets under the skin in a way unusual for a business idea.  See, for example, the forth-and-back here over the last week or so, which is just a tiny corner of the larger debate.

One reason people take it so personally is that it is personal.  The long tail is ourselves – most of us who are disposed to read and talk about it at least.  It forces us to consider the implications of our actions and even of our own identities and natures. Ultimately, I think, it raises questions about a fundamental assumption of market thinking – namely, that the goal of life is to have exactly what we want; and that happiness and well-being increase exactly to that extent.


The Missing Tail

Oh dear. Another red hot business notion that is going to level the old paradigm, change the world as we know it, and create piles of dough for those with the capacity to think outside the box and the gumption to stay ahead of the curve.

I’m losing track of all these paradigm shifts. But the new one is called The Long Tail, and it comes to us via a book of that name, written by a fellow by the name of Chris Anderson, who is the editor of – who would have guessed? — Wired Magazine. Anderson’s argument is that computers and the Web have changed not just the mechanics of selling but also the nature of what is sold. In the old days, people bought a lot of a relatively few things. It was the 80/20 rule: eighty percent of sales came from twenty percent of the stock.


Go Martha

In the precincts of Rightward opinion, they dismiss concerns about the growing gap between the very rich and everyone else as the effluvium of envy and other base motives. But the problems are real, as a visit to most Third World countries would attest. One of the biggest, and least discussed, is the way vast wealth insulates people in high places from the impacts of their own decisions and behavior, and from the problems the rest of us confront every day.

People who fly in executive jets never experience the travail that air travel today has become. People with staffs to pay their bills miss the joy of dealing with credit card companies, with their multitude of tricky ways to extract more money from us. Dick Cheney and George W. Bush never will have to worry about medical insurance; and it shows in the ideological and cavalier way in which they purport to deal with the problem for everyone else. (I suspect neither has to wait in telephone help line queues either.)