Thursday, August 27, 2009

The magical mirror of consumer pricing, commodity enslavement, and unprepossessing fecklessness

A lot of recent books, films and other media commodities have lambasted corporations, often with eloquence and holy rage. (I'll append some later to this post-in-progress, but I should mention I've not read most of them).

Let's start with, there's something to be said for devices dedicated to accumulating wealth. And that is my definition of "corporation," for now. A corporation in USia is merely a mechanism whose entire function is to accumulate wealth, an enterprise that takes many enterprising forms.

I realize the definition is under-developed, but it has the virtue at least of ruling out the possibility of confusing such wealth attracting mechanisms with those entities who are envisioned, under the Constitution, as "men."

We USians have been very good at figuring out how to build these giant machines, how to manipulate them, and at discovering how they can further manipulate their environments to expand power, "brand," and control. They have made possible economic effects unimaginable in earlier ages (except perhaps at times of moments of massive slave labor) or within other, more regulated, national platforms. Without corporations, we'd still be pissing in the wind hoping it'll bring rain.

We have been rather less good at understanding that simply because something is good at something, that does not mean it's good at everything. Instead of seeing that there's a lot about corporations that, left to their own devices, will be destructive to life, liberty and the pursuit of whatever happiness money can't buy, we have caved to the gods of unregulated motion, and only now are beginning to glimpse some of the rewards of our craven largess. Many of the recent studies of the evils of corporations appear to make this argument in one form or another.

Someone recently said the USian economy is 70% consumer-driven. Let's just accept that for now. As we witness the debacle involving thousands of retailers throwing good merchandise at us at ludicrously low prices, pleading that we take their giant TVs, SUVs, Home Entertainment Centers, indoor dog restrooms and the like for next to nothing, (it's like an engine screaming millions of RPMs and getting no traction, like some sort of behaviorist experiment gone seriously awry "come on, little chinchilla, you liked your dopamine + testosterone + meth shot before, have your 5 millionth dose of pleasure" [vide supra]), we, lacking money, jobs, healthcare, communally centered systems of value, practice and security, grow pale, bloodless, and dumb.

I want to look at an aspect of the "consumer-driven economy" that I, haven't seen explored (perhaps because I'm an entirely unlettered non-student of economics).

The thought occurred to me today as I listened to a tape of the late Ted Kennedy, in a radio interview, talking about the out-of-control way in which corporate interests use money to influence elections: this present time people say, look, I don't want my tax money used into politics. They just don't want it, but at the end of the day they're getting it because they're paying for it with these lobbying activities. And it's something that, as I have said too often, we're getting the best Congress that money can buy, and I think it's a real disgrace. link

Kennedy is noting something that we all know, but that we resist acknowledging at too intelligent a level: When we avoid using money directly for public purposes, our money gets used indirectly to subvert public purposes.

The particular transaction of interest here is the consumer's purchase of a product. When a new product hits the market, its price is a compound reflection of the costs that put it there - materials, labor, marketing, transport, etc. When we buy products, we make them whole -- we pay for the recovery of those costs. The price re-presents a stacked set of various kinds of purposively organized activities, energies and materials laid out with the promise of redemption upon the consuming of the commodity.

It's naive to assume a simple or direct relation of price to costs in a capitalist system. Let's face it, the sellers (vendors, supply chain, point of sale etc) all have to take their piece, it's what justifies -- or at least enables -- their being there at all. Like a magical mirror, price "reflects" certain costs, and it conceals certain surpluses. The same number is both an indicator of certain actual cost values and a misdirecting gesture hiding an uncertain quintessence of value.

What specifically interests me is the engagement of this quintessence in the logistics of brand power. Because it's clear that in the end, a brand becomes Huge Brand by exerting power over the marketplace and the "consumers." How does it acquire that dominance?

In part through marketing. In part, as well, through rear-guard actions that do everything possible to defeat litigation, defuse interest in competitors, and defeat any contenders to brand supremacy. Or maybe that's still marketing?

Now, the dollars for marketing come from the consumer. They're built into the price structure. So when we "buy a product," we're not simply buying a product. We are entering into a complex campaign, a campaign which may not be in our best interest, particularly when, for example, it uses our dollars to pay certain officials to look the other way in certain unfortunate product liability situations.

This suggests that in typical commodity transactions, "price" isn't a simple compound of representation and concealment. It's a conflicted engagement of the interests of "the consumer." We are paying in part for the power of the seller to deceive us as to the value, or liability, of the thing we're buying. An enforced collusion, resulting from a delusion of innocence. Of course we're innocent -- how could we possibly know?

The purchase of a commodity then is itself a battleground that comes complete with its own potential conflict of interest. We are investing in the power of the corporate seller to gain ascendance over the market. As the corporation's power increases, we are left with less market command: less reliable information and fewer choices -- products that tend to cost more, and are probably less well made.

Or could it actually be worse than a conflict of interest? Because as we continue to buy what we are sold, we should try not to forget that corporations, according to our current world view, are also citizens.(1) These civic actors network with elected representatives, trade groups, and regulators to assume more power over the market, over the range of choices, over the regulatory system, over who gets elected to rule.

Thus their costs include large expenditures for contributions to media campaigns, for lobbying efforts, and presumably for all sorts of less visible effects.

In order to have the wherewithall to spend on buying houses of congress, corporations need to generate ever larger surpluses. Pricing has to include costs to the end user that pay for the agents charged with diverting lawmakers from the Public Interest to private interests, in order to guarantee that prices can be set to incorporate larger "citizenly costs" with impunity.

This is known as "building brand."

As we (consumers) buy commodities, we lose freedom, cede power. Markets narrow, monopolies grow stronger, brands appear on shirts, skin, and soon, doubtless, on DNA.

Put another way: built into the pricing of the commodities that corporate citizens sell is a component which is allocated to the abridgment of our rights as citizens. Brands build in part by deforming marketplaces, depreciating the quality of your engagement while appreciating theirs.

I suspect it's this claustrophobic predicament that causes USians to feel helpless, dull, powerless. Every day in every way, we pay. For the privilege of our own expropriation.

The economy is indeed consumer-driven, only the consumers are posing as corporate citizens. We who were supposed to be the citizens are merely the consumed.

(1) A corporation is legally a citizen of the state (or other jurisdiction) in which it is incorporated. #

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Anonymous BeBe the Bozo said...

It's not enough that you are consumed, bled dry, etc. They want you to be happy about it.

I suppose it makes them feel safer? Or gives them a hard-on? Or both?

8/27/2009 5:57 PM  
Anonymous BeBe the Bozo said...

By the way, is there a link to a fully-readable version of the "Who's paying to kill healthcare reform" flowchart?

8/27/2009 6:08 PM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

I found it here - I looked, was unable to get back to the source and see:

8/27/2009 7:39 PM  
Anonymous BeBe said...

Thanks, Tom. I was able to find it on the source site:

Dug the piece, by the way. Pondering the magical mirror and the quintessence of value. One's vulnerability to misdirection of all sorts.


8/27/2009 9:34 PM  
Anonymous BeBe said...

Meant to post this one:

8/27/2009 9:43 PM  
Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

BeBe: Thanks for the links. Nice to see Rick Scott there. I once covered one of his trials.

And Abramoff, so potent that he can fill two positions and still serve time in Cumberland. What gifts. What versatility.

8/27/2009 11:15 PM  
Blogger Custom T-shirts said...

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8/28/2009 3:09 AM  
Blogger bmobmobmo said...

thanks, tom. explains the funky feeling inside.

i have a number of friends who are avid consumers. or were. suddenly there is no cash with which to consume. and they are left to consume themselves. and each other.

personally i've seen a sharp rise in cannibalism. very recent. i'm not sure if people are posing as cannibals though, or are, in fact, real cannibals. the kind with pots of boiling oil and menus.

i'm not sure the cannibalism i'm seeing is authentic. it may be just a gesture. a fad.

the dumpsters are empty and we are turning to ourselves, turning on ourselves.

but will it last? can it be sustained? where can i find the salsa?

i myself am taking what little money i have left and investing in a restaurant chain that serves as its main dish babies.

when we are done with ourselves we will turn on our children and their children.

8/28/2009 9:12 AM  

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