Wednesday, April 18, 2007

KUOW's Weekday Manufactures Consent

This morning, KUOW's Weekday talked to Benjamin Barber, author of Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, about consumerism. Listen to this show.

Barber repeatedly invoked "capitalism" as a market force developed to meet people's real needs that had changed or been corrupted from its puritan roots. It quickly became clear that Barber either a. does not understand what capitalism is, or b. is deliberately misleading people about capitalism. When I called into the show and said he was using the word "capitalism" incorrectly, the screener decided my opinion was not "about consumerism" and thus not appropriate for the show.

This is a classic example of what Noam Chomsky calls the "manufacturing of consent". By instinctively refusing, on grounds of relevance, to allow discussion of the basic forces that govern our lives, KUOW perpetuates the delusion that we can somehow defeat consumerism at the individual level without structural changes in the economy. Barber repeatedly evoked a beneficial Puritan Capitalist Ethic that never did exist, to which we could never return. He will get nowhere with this approach, and the blighted "consumers" he is trying to enlighten or help will get nowhere either. KUOW did its job to perpetuate this ineffectiveness by insisting callers focus on surface phenomena like whether there are enough chairs at Alderwood for mall rats to ogle each other.

To his credit, Barber did mention microlending as a force for providing people's real needs. This would have been a good opportunity to discuss how real capitalism could be leveraged to defeat consumerism. But of course, without talking about what capitalism really is, we can't really talk about how it can really help us.

Here's the email I sent in frustration after being put down by KUOW's screener:

Your guest, Benjamin Barber, repeatedly invokes a mythic "capitalism" as a system whereby markets provide goods that people need at reasonable prices for both the seller and buyer. This is not and never was Capitalism. Capitalism, as its root word suggests, is a system whereby capital (money) is traded on markets. It has never had anything to do with providing goods and services people need - except for money. For example, a friend of mine who was an early employee at Amazon now "makes her living" renting her Amazon stock to short sellers. This activity has nothing to do with people's needs in the sense meant by Mr. Barber.

Note that I am not saying Capitalism is bad. Capitalism is very beneficial in many ways, but it is needs-agnostic. Mr. Barber will never win his crusade against consumerism until he acknowledges that Capitalism never was about providing individual needs - it's about lubricating markets by allowing money to be traded. Capitalism will amplify the bad or good effect of any economic system by making it more efficient overall. There is no Puritan Capitalist Ethic to which we can return Our Democracy. It doesn't exist, and it never has.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Killer Dogs vs. Wussified Humans

The infamous fatal mauling by two Presa Canarios in Pacific Heights, San Francisco is back in the news as the California Supreme Court decides whether it should set a new legal standard regarding culpability for "unintended" deaths. That's an interesting topic in itself, but today I'd like to point something out about dogs, their owners, and the general public.

Dogs are pack animals, and they behave as such. Dog owners need to understand this in order to control their animals. However, even conscientious dog owners have a tendency to disrespect people who don't "behave correctly" around their dogs, thus "triggering" undesirable behaviors - from uninhibited romping and sniffing to fatal maulings.

What dog owners need to understand is that humans have to obey laws that prevent them from acting aggressively toward dogs. Back in days of yore, if a large, aggressive dog got close enough that you felt threatened, you would kill that dog with your spear or whatever before it had a chance to do anything to you. There would never be any question of your right to do this. Nowadays, if you physically attacked a dog before it attacked and injured you, you would definitely be subject to criminal prosecution. In fact, if you killed or injured a small dog for biting you, in a situation where the dog would have no chance of seriously injuring you, you could also be jailed.

This is the fundamental problem: our entire culture is built around a covenant of responsibility and non-violence on the part of its members. We don't carry weapons any more, not just because we don't need to, but because we're not allowed to. When people bring large predators they can't physically control into this environment, you are guaranteed to have trouble - it's just a matter of time.

There are only two solutions to the problem of dangerous dogs, whether they are simply biting people - as the dogs who perpetrated the Pacific Heights mauling repeatedly did, without being taken from their owners or put down - or actually killing people:

1. Responsible Alpha: Make dog owners completely responsible for every behavior of their dog, as if they themselves were that dog.

2. Superpredator: Allow people to kill dogs they feel threatened by, and to carry weapons sufficient to do that job, regardless of the size of the human or the dog. Humans are supposed to be the apex superpredator - let us act like it.

It looks like the courts in CA may go a ways toward option #1. I can't imagine #2 ever happening, but if dog owners want to be absolved of the consequences of their dogs' behavior, they must support it.