RSSCategory: Consumerism

Breath of fresh air

March 26, 2012 | By | Reply More

Our family vacuum cleaner had seen better days. Like most things that break these days, it wasn’t that old; my wife and I bought it less than five years ago. Thus, the frustration and an opportunity. We were aware that there was a vacuum repair store less than a mile from our house, and we decided to see whether we could save our vacuum.

Upon entering, we spoke to “Dan,” who has been running his vacuum repair shop for fifty years. He is a affable fellow with a small shop filled with more than 50 used vacuum cleaners. After a quick test of our machine, Dan announced that $40 would get our old vacuum working again. That would have been much less than $200, the price we would pay for a new vacuum cleaner. But for $100 and our vacuum as a trade-in, we could upgrade to a significantly better “commercial vacuum” that someone else had traded-in and which Dan had already repaired. My wife and I decided to upgrade, and we are now happy with our powerful “new” vacuum (not so powerful that it sucks up pets and children, but quite powerful).

It occurred to me that this is an unusual way of doing business in modern America. As Annie Leonard explains so well in “The Story of Stuff,” most things that are manufactured these days are designed for a single use (including immense amounts of packaging). My family makes regular use of other kinds of re-sell-it shops, including Goodwill, Salvation Army and private garage sales. But how nice, to also be able to make use of a store for fixes things in order to keep them out of the landfill, especially when these things are expensive household appliances. Perhaps a vacuum cleaner is about as cheap as appliance can be while it is still expensive enough to make it worthwhile to offer a repair shop. At least, I don’t remember seeing any smaller appliance repair shops; a look on the Internet tells me that such shops do exist, however.

Dan had more than a few noticeably old (repaired) vacuums for sale, a sight that made me think of the phrase “planned obsolescence.” I do think society would be better off with fewer big box purchases and more repair shops. And since Dan was such a competent and friendly fellow, I’ll mention that he is an avid bowler who recently bowled his second 300 game.

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Superbowl Time

February 5, 2012 | By | 3 Replies More
Superbowl Time

Today is that time again when about 1.5% of the world will be watching a particular ball game in America, The Superbowl. Although Superbowl madness has been addressed on this forum, I’d like to put forward a couple of observations.

The Superbowl is the culmination of the 20th century adaptation of sports to mass media. The packaging, production, and marketing of this one game is a major profit center based on what is essentially a sedentary activity. There are 22 players on the field, and 100,000,000 people watching, most in comfy chairs via television.The game play is nominally an hour long, but the coverage lasts many hours. This includes pre-game and post-game coverage, plus the three hours needed to watch the sixty-minute game.

Worse than just sedentary, a predictable large fraction of the audience will be eating badly and drinking immoderately during the event. The advertising in all the media up to and during the event panders to and fosters this market segment. The message is clear: If you are not eating fried things and washing them down with booze, you are a weenie. If you are not buying these things for the family, you are not a good provider.

So let’s take a look at the activity itself. You have nearly two dozen buff young men in shiny tights periodically thrusting their bodies together to accomplish the explicit task of firmly holding a tapered cylinder with the goal of placing it repeatedly into the opponents end zone.
The result of this “scoring” is brief solo dancing and many a manly fanny patted.

What do I do on Superbowl Sunday evening? I go to a contradance. I spend the evening with a couple of dozen women in my arms, moving in rhythm and breathing hard. And the jocks in school called me gay.

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Visualizing money

November 24, 2011 | By | Reply More
Visualizing money

In his bestseller, Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (1988), John Paulos introduced the term “innumeracy” to refer to “an inability to deal comfortably with the fundamental notions of number and chance.” Paulos bemoaned that innumeracy “plagues far too many otherwise knowledgeable citizens.”

Innumeracy causes many people to struggle with their own personal finances.   I’ve personally spoken to people who have taken out payday loans (about which I’ve written quite a bit), who cannot tell me what 10% of $100 is.   One problem, discussed extensively by Stanislas Dehaene (The Number Sense: How the Mind Creates Mathematics (revised ed. 2011)) is that human animals are naturally rigged to understand zero, one, two, three  and four but on our own we cannot precisely identify or work with greater numbers.  To do that, we need an incredible human invention, mathematics, which provides us with an intellectual scaffolding for comparing and manipulating larger numbers.   Without a solid grasp of mathematics, humans are left only with vague intuitions about the numerical meaning of the world around them.

How can we help those who are mathematically impaired?  Money counselors have often recommend that people stop depending so much on credit cards and operate more on cash. This does two things. First, it keeps you from spending more than you have. Second, it allows you to visualize what you are spending. It causes more pain to hand someone several $20 bills than to swipe a credit card, because you are actually seeing significant amount of cabbage leave your wallet.

I thought of this problem of innumeracy as I viewed an excellent new graphic produced by a website called xkcd.com. The concept is simple, but the execution was excellent and designed to illustrate various salient political issues.  The result is an highly detailed image that allows you to see the numbers that are affecting our government and our lives.  I invite you to take a few moments (or longer) to visualize thousands, millions and billions of dollars.

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Surprise fireworks

November 18, 2011 | By | Reply More

When I was young, you would only see fireworks on the Fourth of July. Now we commonly see them on New Years Day, at baseball games, and on what seem to be random occasions. Today I saw fireworks outside of my window, and had to check to determine the occasion. It turns out that it’s the Macy’s Holiday Festival of Lights. I suppose it’s yet another excuse to roll back the Christmas buying season. Whatever . . . I did enjoy this display of surprise fireworks; I snapped this photo from my 17th floor office:

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Bottle ban quashed at national parks

November 16, 2011 | By | Reply More
Bottle ban quashed at national parks

Banning the sale of disposable water bottles at national parks? Sounds like a good way to preserve the natural beauty of our national parks–and remember that we got along without disposable water bottles for centuries, until about 1990. But banning disposable water bottles means banning Dasani brand water, which is owned by a big company . . .

Weary of plastic litter, Grand Canyon National Park officials were in the final stages of imposing a ban on the sale of disposable water bottles in the Grand Canyon late last year when the nation’s parks chief abruptly blocked the plan after conversations with Coca-Cola, a major donor to the National Park Foundation.

And here’s more information, from Philanthropy News Digest.

And also consider the fact that the tomato paste used on pizza turns pizza into a vegetable, thanks to Congress.

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To spend or not to spend

October 4, 2011 | By | Reply More
To spend or not to spend

According to this article at MSNBC, the failure of U.S. consumers to spend lots of money has screwed up the U.S. economy:

For the time being, it looks like American consumers are AWOL. And until they come back, don’t expect to see any real recovery in economic growth and the job market. Consumer spending typically accounts for roughly 70 percent of the U.S. economy.

But here’s another way of looking at things. Annie Leonard has made a good case that out-of-control consumer spending has been wrecking our society, as she explains in “The Story of Stuff.”

Leonard now offers a free school curriculum based on The Story of Stuff. It is called “Buy, Use, Toss?”

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Insider Trading Writ Large

July 31, 2011 | By | 6 Replies More
Insider Trading Writ Large

Imagine, if you will, a country in which banking regulations were stripped down so far that worthless paper again becomes a hot commodity. Now consider that this had (as it inevitably must) blown up and caused a crash in the lending market and equities market and thus the economy in general. Further note that a necessary result would be a rapid rise in the price of precious metals, notably gold.

After a couple of years, that gold bubble would be ripe. People who had assets remaining when the junk bonds or sub-prime mortgages or whatever collapsed could have conservatively moved their money into gold, further depressing the equities market and inflating the price of gold.

But, wait. Because of government investing, the market was recovering too fast! So fast that the wealthy were unable to swap their inflated gold for depressed stocks at the optimum time. What to do?

Congress to the rescue! The wholly owned carriers of the banners of freedom and independence could be employed to create a palpably unnecessary crisis with a distinct deadline. Yes! This would quickly depress the markets and allow those holding too much bubble-gold to buy depressed stocks.

Meanwhile, those elected to carry the load of screwing the middle class could also jump on the wagon and buy up stocks just before the deadline hits. Then the price of stocks returns to normal levels, and the gold bubble can be allowed to pop.

I, for one, would like to see the trading histories of all those involved in the current crisis, and their friends and kin.

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Annie Leonard warns us about toxic cosmetics

July 21, 2011 | By | Reply More
Annie Leonard warns us about toxic cosmetics

Well-informed Annie Leonard (The Story of Stuff) is back with a new video on the completely unregulated toxic crap many manufacturers pump into the shampoos and cosmetics we use. The new video is called “The Story of Cosmetics.” It’s an important story that touches a theme common to all too many of today’s tragedies: The unwillingness of the federal government to regulate business that feed large amounts of money into the the campaigns of politicians.

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We consume

May 10, 2011 | By | Reply More
We consume

At Truthout, Ellen Dannen points out that we live almost entirely in the present, as consumers:

As consumers, we live today in a perpetual now, ingesting and eliminating. But our ancestors understood the importance of being conservative, of conserving. They saw the value of building infrastructure of lasting value – not thinking only of themselves – but building also for their children and progeny yet to be. They understood, as did Oliver Wendell Holmes, that the taxes they paid were the price of admission to life in a civilized society. They understood that to live in a civil society required providing real nourishment, including the best education possible, for everyone. That society at least gave lip service to the principle that, “What you have done to the least of these you have done to me.” The things they produced and created still contribute to our security and progress. Among other things, they created a high-quality, heavily subsidized system of education that eliminated cost as a bar and made our country a leader in so many areas. We would be better off today had we properly valued their investment in us, rather than having consumed and destroyed so much of that inheritance.

I consider this issue often. If one were really to implement “family values,” would we be trashing the planet and failing to plan for the future? Wouldn’t we be obsessed with making sure that our children will have access to a well-cared-for planet on which they can live out their lives, one they can hand to their children? But as a government, we really do seem to be living in the present, dealing with the disasters as they arise rather than taking steps to avoid them. We excel at kicking the can down the road just a bit, putting off for another day.

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