I just came from a totally unsatisfactory experience at a restaurant — but the food was good. What’s wrong with this picture is what’s wrong with so much of our economy — and what’s wrong with us.
Let me set the scene for you: A local chain restaurant, which has always had good food, has struggled of late (now probably 20 years) because of corporate mergers where perceived “synergy” made sense. “Synergy” in this case meant that a big candy company bought out this restaurant and filled the restaurant’s menu with all of their candy products. You could still get the quality food at the restaurant, but you had to dig through all the unhealthy, synthesized, “food product” of the big corporation’s food to get to the food you actually wanted from the restaurant you grew up on.
This didn’t really work and the big company pulled away their assets afterwards, leaving the restaurant alone with a damaged reputation. It may well be that the original owners wanted their restaurant back, but I can’t tell. In any case, they were crippled by their damaged reputation and left without much of the riches that the big company promised for selling their soul.
Mind you, the food on the menu was still good, but now it cost more so that the company could afford to survive. Fewer customers, more cost was the way to go for awhile. Now, the restaurant is trying the latest dumb idea — a new look that makes no sense and doesn’t fit with anything in existence today. I’m sure people in a boardroom believe it’s going to work because, according to their admen, it’s supposed to. The logic goes like this: “People will love it. Even if they don’t like it, they’ll remember it and that alone will bring customers into the little-restaurant-that-could”. The advertising company has studies that show that this is the way the human mind works and therefore, it’ll work. They pretty much guarantee it’ll work. What could go wrong?
The restaurant in question has moved to a “Retro” look that is so far retro that nobody remembers what they’re talking about. Plus, there’s a subtext — “this is what America was like when it was good — and White. The culture that they’re making reference to in the restaurant industry would have been the restaurants where people sat in at the counters to protest the racial divide in them.
And to make matters worse, this group of ad agents doesn’t even know it. The time period that they’re making reference to is before my time and I’m 53 years old. So, unless these particular ad executives are in their 70’s, they don’t remember this time fondly. Since we don’t hire “old” people in this society, what we have is people in their 20’s trying to evoke the happiness of an age that wasn’t actually happy. They try to evoke this “beautiful happiness” with Black-and-White pictures the size of walls while playing music over the speakers that none of them were around for in it’s original format. In short, people who don’t know what they are talking about, trying very hard to sell me something I would have bought anyway — because they they think it’s what I want (it’s not) and charging me more money for it.
I don’t want to be sold my food. I want to buy my food — and clothing, shelter, and maybe even style. Here’s the difference in the transactions. In my version, I want something, I go to the store and they sell it to me and I go home. In their version, they think I want something, they tell me I want and it how cool it is. A million people rush out to buy one so that they can look cool in the way the store or manufacture says they will, and they charge me and everyone else a lot of extra money for the “rush” of being cool. Usually the object is something goofy — a back scratcher with a girlish poodle on it who says something sexy that has trended online and supports breast-reduction research — but sometimes it’s something people actually need.
We sell everything the same way so that people can no longer see a difference between needs and wants and it all costs a lot.
If you read this blog regularly, you know that economic injustice — extreme poverty and extreme wealth is probably my pet-peeve issue. Throw in the misuse of psychology and the twisting of our moral values and you’ve got an all-in-one problem ripe for my sadness and complaints. I worry that I’m whining, but I sense that what I see is real.
Let me give you an example of the way things used to be — when they had just started getting this way — while I hope you get it.
In the late 1960’s, wearing jeans was a rebellious act which said that you were willing to be a normal person in order to be happy — that you happily fit in with people who worked rather than be greedily unhappy. Jeans cost very little because people who worked couldn’t afford expensive clothes. Then it became cool to wear jeans rather than a necessity to wear them. Then jeans were produced for their cool factor and their price began to rise. Now, we go to the mall (where they don’t pay workers very well) to spend more than we have on cool jeans that will soon be a part of the what’s-hot-and-what’s not lists. Later, they will be donated to the Salvation Army where poor people will buy them and like them, while the original owners can scoff at “those people” trying to be cool and the financial gulf between them and the jeans’ new owner. While the semi-wealthy person pays 30% interest on their charge card for the already expensive jeans, the owner of the jeans company laughs at all of them — and pays the people who make them less than any American can imagine working for.
When I was 12, my pepe’ (grand-father in French-Canadian) was a painter. In order to paint and not ruin all of his clothes, he went to the hardware store and bought a pair of cheap but sturdy painter’s pants. They cost him a dollar or two. When I was 14, I bought “painter’s pants” at the clothing store, because they were slightly cool, and very comfortable. I could put things in the pockets. They cost ten dollars now and he couldn’t buy them in the hardware store anymore because — well, “why would anyone sell something for a dollar when they could sell it for ten times that amount?!”. Painter’s pants became like jeans and when jeans’ cost skyrocketed, so did they.
The man who painted your house or put up your wallpaper’s costs went up ten-fold because of this system, but you looked good. If they even make painter’s pants today, you probably have to go to Abercrombie and Fitch where there’s a giant picture of a chest-hairless man with six-pack abs staring at a chest- hairless boy who’s dancing in the open air like a kid should, and there’s a catch-phrase “Freedom!” written underneath. The painter’s pants, now “American Classic”, cost $75.00.
You are no longer buying pants because you need them. You’re buying sex and freedom and America and you need pants. All that other stuff comes extra, and with an extra price to match. Meanwhile, because pants cost $75.00, a man needs a larger income to afford them. Because the only way he can afford $75.00 pants is to join a union, and the pants-makers are afraid of unions, they ship the labor to some-country-you-never-heard of- that ends in “-stan” and pay them even less than you can imagine for working at least as hard as you can imagine under conditions that aren’t even human.
In the 1940’s, Ghandi understood that the problem was colonialism. People who lived in India had salt, sold it to the English against their best interests, and bought it back from the English at five times the price. In order to gain Indian independence and pride as a people, they had to throw off colonialism in a brave, sacrificial, loving way that changed everything the world thought about them and they thought about themselves.
In today’s America, we have somehow colonized ourselves — and it costs us more than money.
In the past few months, my iPod and iPhone have been “upgraded”, whether I want them to or not. Our phone service was “upgraded” against my family’s wishes. I hate the feeling, but I am aware that my clients have been “upgraded” right out of the market. Do they still need phones to make calls on? Yes. Can they make those calls? No, but they looked cool long before I did because they had less of an identity than I did.
They didn’t buy phones, they were sold phones while the pay phones they were using were taken out. Did you notice that there weren’t pay phones out there anymore? It sneaks up on you, this self-colonialism that we have put ourselves in (with help from people who don’t know us or care about us).
To get ourselves out of it, we may have to to throw off this “colonialism” in a brave, sacrificial, loving way. But I think that if we do, we will remember everything we and the the world thought and we once knew about ourselves.