Thursday, February 25, 2010

Frustrations of a Free Market

Sorry, this is rather unwieldy and probably merely exposes my fundamental ignorance of all things economic...

I hate corporations. I really can't think of any company I would unreservedly support on all aspects of their product line and business model. Google comes closest, I suppose, but I can't even think of a first runner up...and while I like Google, they're certainly not perfect either. Obviously corporations are necessary since we can't all grow our own food and make our own cars and TVs and clothes and such these days since all of our very specialized knowledge and skills leave us unable to do much of anything else and because there's almost certainly someone out there better at inventing/making an X than we are. In theory, I will admit capitalism sounds like a good idea. Division of labor, competition, efficiency of markets—all this sounds great. Unfortunately, the real world doesn't seem to reflect the theory at all.

The general thought, or so I am told, is that in an open market, consumers purchase what best fits their needs, so the company that provides the best products makes the most money, and everyone (well, that company and the consumer pool as a whole) wins. Eventually one would assume other companies get the idea and make similar/better things, introducing competition (including price competition) and making the consumer even more likely to get exactly what he or she desires. I'm sure this is actually the way it worked in the very beginnings of capitalism, but it certainly doesn't anymore.

First of all, no matter how a market should behave, it never quite does because it's full of people who don't exactly act rationally in their own self-interest (shocker). People buy one brand over another because they like the packaging better, because they like the ads better, because it's the brand their parents used or that they have always used (particularly with personal care products like shaving cream and feminine hygiene items, lifetime brand loyalty is ridiculously high and surprisingly affected by parental use), because it's the only brand that works with their other related device (iTunes; video games and gaming systems; printer cartridges; razor blades), because it is carried in more stores, because it has an image that they like, because it's the only thing available (utilities companies that are the only companies available in certain areas), etc. A brand of soap could easily be better than the one someone has used for ten years, but people don't regularly have blind soap-testings to see if maybe their wallets should be voting for a better soap. Maybe Rock Band is superior to Guitar Hero, but if everyone has Wiis, everyone's going to be playing Guitar Hero instead. How is this the exercise of freedom of choice and rational weighing of the options? (Even if someone does regularly switch toilet paper brands to see which is the best, if everyone else is just using one brand because that's what they grew up using, it will be to no avail. Heaven help the poor lone rational actor.) I thought economists had recently 'discovered' this irrational phenomenon (judging by the recent spate of books, at least), but that hasn't seemed to significantly undermine faith in markets.

Even if you were entirely rational and made the best decisions for yourself in alignment with your principles, how exactly does one go about voting with one's wallet? If there is an infinite array of every possible choice, then it's obvious that simply selecting and purchasing the one that best fits one's needs will work quite nicely, registering one's preferences and encouraging companies to do more of what that company/product did and less of whatever is entirely undesirable.

In real life, though, there aren't infinite choices. If you want a computer, your infinite options are suddenly very limited in scope. You get two options (assuming average computer literacy): Windows or a Mac. Find Microsoft and Apple equally repugnant? Too bad. Want something more intuitive than Windows but less expensive/interconnecting/trying-to-run-your-entire-life than Apple? Again, good luck. In many situations, perhaps even most, the option you actually prefer isn't even available.

Now, I assume the pro-capitalism response to this would be that if nobody makes what you want, you can always start a company yourself to fill the gap. Obviously a nice sentiment, but come on; you obviously can't create a phone, a car, a TV, all the clothes you ever need, a health insurance system, and a food supply system that will best serve you all in one lifetime. There's way too much expertise you don't have and don't have time to learn. Plus, isn't that whole point of having companies exist—the division of labor? I would guess the more reasonable pro-corporation response would be that if there's really an unmet need, a gap in the market, someone will rise to fill it. Yes, well, unless it's less likely to make them money for some reason, or if the demand isn't high enough, or, or, or...any one of a number of reasons.

Doesn't constant competition in a market actually make it less likely that the best product will ever be created? Even if everyone is vaguely dissatisfied with the current offerings, they will likely still select what they consider to be the best available option, and there will likely not be a raucous demand for a better widget since this one is good enough. Never mind that much better widgets could easily be made; it's not worth someone's while to make them and then worry about how they're going to brand them, advertise, and get enough market share to make it worth their while.

Speaking of advertising and marketing, they warp the competition even further. It quickly becomes less about which brand of thingummy-bob is actually better and more about who has the best ad ideas or the most effectively designed marketing campaign. (Obviously advertising doesn't move people who are passionate fans of Brand X to consume Brand Y instead because it has funnier ads, but for people who have no strong feelings or who aren't fully informed, brand preferences can be easily influenced by the quality or ubiquity of advertising.) Brand recognition is also a problem for anyone trying to improve the market in any area where there are already entrenched competitors. Nobody wants to switch to the unknown because nobody else is using the unknown. Better to keep using an iPod because everyone else has one than to take a chance on some no-name MP3 player, right?

Then there's the problem that consumers often don't even have access to the information they would require to make rational decisions. Say someone only wanted to buy meat that had been raised humanely. Until very recently, they would be entirely unable to do this as nothing was labeled as cage free or free range or organic until enough people made enough noise. Say someone wanted to select which cell phone to buy based not on price or available service providers or features but on some other less popular criterion. Good luck trying to figure out which cell phone currently on the market has the smallest carbon footprint or is made by workers who are exploited the least.

...Which leads to my primary concern with the market system. Given that one's wallet can vote based on various aspects of the product in question itself (price, color, size, function, features, durability) or on any given aspect of the company as a whole (business ethic, country of origin, environmental effect, labor practices, humaneness, ingenuity, charisma of the guy in charge, or simply the fact that it's the best-known and therefore is assumed to be the best, period), how is the market supposed to effectively transmit all these choices to the companies' decision-makers? What happens when a company thinks people are buying all their stuff because their ads are awesome but people are really buying their stuff because of their decent labor practices? They'll spend more money on awesome ads, which would be kind of unnecessary. Or what if a company interpreted their high sales as consumers saying their features were better than their competitors' features but in actuality, their competitors have shoddy environmental practices and nobody wants to buy their stuff to send them a message? They won't try to improve their product's features because they think people love them, even if they're not even as good as those of the competitor.

Obviously it would never be the case that consumers as a whole would have the same response to any given aspect and that the company would entirely misjudge a giant movement, but I think that even makes my point stronger. With so many competing groups making purchasing decisions based on so many completely different aspects, how is anyone supposed to figure out what's actually working and what the consumer wants? I guess the idea is that it doesn't really matter, and if slightly more people favor one thing, it will have an advantage over others, regardless of whether it was preferred because it came in cute colors or came from an environmentally conscious company, and then the company and its attitude toward design and production and labor and environmental practices, etc., will hold more sway in some greater uber-market. Nice thought, but most of us want our better computers, toothpaste, or jeans now, not when the market finally subtly shifts in three decades to reflect the choices consumers are making now.

To me it really seems like consumers, rather than simply voting in a clear-cut manner on whether Product A or Product B is the best, are involved in complex behavioral shaping attempts. Oh, good, you quit exploiting Asian workers for pennies a day! I guess that means I can buy your products now since everyone else is still doing that. Oh, look, a slight design change. Yeah, I don't care so much about that; no reward for you. Urg, your CEO is kind of a jerk; maybe I'll show my disapproval of his comments by boycotting your products. Hey, your new source for raw materials is deforesting the earth at an even more-rapid pace than the last one—I'll stop buying your stuff even harder! (Great, I'm sure that last message came through loud and clear, considering there's no way for them to even note that change in your opinions.) Shaping works all right to train pigeons to perform tasks like pecking buttons to get food, but I'm not all that convinced it would work very well to convince unwieldy corporations to behave in accordance with your system of ethics all while producing stuff you actually like and that will improve your life.

(Obviously corporations don't actually care what you think, and I don't guess the free market really cares if you feel fulfilled and happy either, but still, doesn't it seem inefficient to anyone else to have no clearer way to communicate than through a simple up-or-down buy-or-not vote?)

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Real Women Have Better Things to Worry About

Ostensibly what the media tells women about their bodies is that they contain too much fat, are the wrong shape, are too wrinkly or saggy or discolored, and that one's life is not worth living unless one somehow changes this and becomes like everyone else, by which is meant everyone else who is depicted in said media.


The real message I get from media about my body? That representations in the media (by which of course they must mean all those other media, the ones that lie to you and hold up impossible standards before you) are unrealistic and that nobody looks like people in the media look (what about those very same people?), that you're better off being a size twelve and being a real person (skinny people aren't real, apparently), that the only way to be a size two is to starve yourself (which may or may not be true depending on your body type and presumably comes off as dismissive and mean to those who are actually a size two without eating disorders), that skinny people don't have curves and "real" women do ("curves" often just meaning big hips and bust, never mind that the waist is the same size as the hips and bust and thus there is not actually any curvature). The media is (or "are," but I prefer treating "media" as a collective noun rather than an actual plural) so busy telling me to disregard the media's messages that the messages they allege I am bombarded with aren't even coming through.

Methinks they do protest too much. This public-service-like message smacks to me of them telling people the politically correct message they feel pressured into disseminating but don't actually believe or don't really think anyone else will actually believe. (It's reminiscent of the "Now, children, black people are just as good as white people" message that public schools and other responsible adults are particularly fond of. In my opinion, that just makes kids who probably don't think that one race is inherently better or worse than another stop and go, "Why wouldn't they be?" which leads to "Wait, obviously somebody thinks they aren't or they wouldn't be telling us that..." and get a little suspicious. Backfire ahoy.) Now, ladies, big and slightly lumpy bodies are just as good (or better!) than thin, svelte ones. Vive la lovely lady lumps! Pardon me for not believing the sincerity of that message.

To be clear, I'm certainly not saying that we all should weigh 100 pounds or look like runway models or anything (though nothing's wrong with that), I'm just wondering who actually thinks we should in large enough numbers or fervently enough that suddenly the entire world is united in the "celebrate your curvy plus-sized (or normal-sized that you've come to feel is plus-sized) body!" message to save. I have personally never felt TV or movies telling me I'm not a real person because I am a size eight to twelve or have a jiggly stomach or visible pores. Perhaps that message comes through slightly more in magazines (though even then, the message I get is "Real women have pores; get over it...but here's what you can do to minimize them so you too can look like a model" or "Real women have fat deposits...but here are twenty-one love handle—zapping moves").

I mean, who actually thinks runway models are the goal? I don't think the fashion industry is telling humanity in general (or even the female half) that they should all be six feet tall and 115 pounds; they're just telling their models that that's what their bodies have to be like. (Which is also a problem, but not the same kind.) Runway models aren't supposed to look like real people; they're supposed to look like vaguely human-shaped hangers to display the designer's clothes. The model is so not the point; it's all about the clothes. (Hm, someone should make runway robots. I bet the designers would be fans of that—none of that inconvenient messing around with bodies that aren't quite the dimensions your design happens to be shaped like...) I mean, it seems to me most women have come to terms with the idea that runway fashions were never intended for people like them (read: people who actually go to a normal job or school or take care of children or go to the post office and the grocery store and even sometimes a party) to wear; why is it such a stretch that the same people have independently determined that runway bodies are also not for people like them (read: people whose jobs are something other than spending all their time maintaining their body or who don't have those genes, etc., etc.)?

So maybe I'm just a freak and am the only woman on Earth who is capable of thinking for herself (unlikely), but I don't particularly see a crisis of women who are trying to live up to unrealistic images of themselves that come from the media. (Is this the same poor "The Media" getting maligned from all sides politically as well? The mainstream media with its left-wing agenda wants you to know you're too fat!) Of course, plenty of women do have unrealistic expectations about their appearances, but I'd imagine most of them come from themselves or their interactions with their family or significant others or the general world population. I do suppose some of those pressures (real or perceived) are somehow influenced by who is represented in the media and how, but I don't think it's as strong an edict as the (other) media would have you believe.)

There is a Facebook group/event called "Tell Her She's Beautiful." Some guy sees that all the women he knows are depressed every day because the media tells them they should be something they're not and wants to fix it all by telling them how beautiful they are:

It has come to my attention that as I grow older, girls get more and more self conscious of themselves. [The obvious solution to this problem is for you to stop getting older.] This hurts me, because every girl is beautiful in their own way. They all want to live up to standards that the media has set for them, like being paper thin or double Z breasts. It really breaks my heart to see all of the girls to wallow around and hate who they are and think they aren’t worth something.

I’m making this event so everyone can tell anyone that they think is beautiful, that they are beautiful. Just tell them. They don’t hear it enough, and they want to hear it. Tell anyone; tell your friend, your mother, your sister, your cousin, your dog for all I care. Let’s show girls that we don’t care about the standards that they set for themselves and that we like them the way they are.

Let’s show every girl that they really are beautiful. So tell them, it’ll make their day.

Girls, you ARE beautiful.

Yes, I'm slightly offended by someone who has the best of intentions. But I kind of doubt that he can tell that it's the media that is making his friends self-conscious. Even if he can and it is, that's still an awfully large leap to generalize to "all of the girls." Honestly, it makes me feel more marginalized to have people think that I spend that much of my time and energy wallowing around being sad I'm not "paper thin" with "double Z breasts" than it does to have TV shows only cast women under 120 pounds as leads. The latter? If I notice it, it doesn't really affect me terribly. The former? Yes, it's offensive to imply that I have nothing more significant or real going on in my life than concerns about my body shape and that I don't think I'm "worth something" because I'm too dumb to tell the difference between real life and digitally altered photos in a magazine. Thank you, I'm perfectly capable of assessing my appearance for myself and, if I feel the need, comparing it to my coworkers' or classmates' or friends' or women on the streets' bodies to see where I stand, if I'm concerned about where I stand in comparison to others. Why would I compare my body to the perfume ad girl's in Cosmopolitan? She and I don't frequent the same circles, so if nobody else is comparing my body to hers, why should I? (Not that I necessarily should even if someone else were, but since they're not, I definitely shouldn't.)

Also, I imagine this is just unfortunate phrasing, but it angers me as well: "Let’s show girls that we don’t care about the standards that they set for themselves." Excuse me, but you sure as hell had better care about the standards I set for myself, as those are the only standards that matter. Are you suggesting instead that I should be concerned about the standards you set for me, even if they're low ones because "every girl really [is] beautiful"? My body is mine; the only opinion about it that matters is mine and then perhaps the opinions of those (doctors, significant others) who have a legitimate stake, but that stake is still granted by me and can be revoked by me. You, random sir, can have an opinion about my body or my beauty if you like, but it really doesn't concern me and I'd be much happier if you didn't share it with me. If you're not my significant other, it's really just kind of awkward to hear you judging my appearance anyway, even if it's with this non-judgmental all-inclusive mood-boosting 'real beauty' spreading.

It comes across as terribly patronizing for men to think they (as, presumably, the judges of all things feminine and attractive, the approval of whom every woman is desperately and single-mindedly seeking) have the ability to magically blast away years of (presumed) media bombardment and repair we fragile ladies' self-esteem and body image.

Anyway, blanket statements like "everyone is beautiful" are pointless and seem insincere. Pronouncing someone beautiful is supposed to be a judgment actually based on their appearance (or, if we're talking "inner beauty," on some evaluation of their inner state). Making a pronouncement that everyone is beautiful is tantamount to saying "beautiful" is a meaningless term. It's not even true. Everyone is not beautiful. Everyone has inherent worth as a human being, but that's not at all the same thing. If you're using the word "beautiful" to get across that fundamental idea, well, use your vocabulary better; "beautiful" already has a meaning, and that's not it.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Killing Beethoven

You've probably gotten the e-mail before or seen the scenarios used in arguments about abortion:

A teenage girl is pregnant. She is not married. Her fiance is not the father of the baby, and he is very upset. Would you recommend an abortion?

If you did, you just killed Jesus!

Gah! First, there's the fact that the scenarios are often total distortions of the truth or outright lies (particularly the Beethoven one), then there is of course the immediate comeback of "Well, wouldn't we be better off if Hitler's mom had gotten an abortion?" (which I think is terribly oversimplistic, but whatever, it works as a retort since the entire thing is a bit oversimplistic).

I understand that the point of these scenarios is to point out that you should think about what your unborn child might turn out like in the future, his or her personality or gifts, and take more into account than just your bad situation, since plenty of awesome people have come out of bad situations. However, these little "gotcha!" scenarios seem to take as implicit that what the world gains or loses is more important than the individual personal lives concerned.

Does the world really have the right to demand a Jesus or Einstein or Beethoven from a pregnant woman who doesn't think she can handle it? It's not like we as the entire world do or should be permitted to vote about who is able to or required to enter the world and join the human race. Is a Beethoven (or a Tim Tebow...) owed to us? Of course not. If people really thought this way, they'd be mixing and matching eggs and sperm all over the place, trying every combination so that the world could have as many great artists, leaders, and scientists as physically possible. (Who are we missing out on? Somewhere out there there is a combination that will beget the person who will cure cancer—hurry up and find it!) Obviously this is madness. (I suspect their actual thought process is that God has a plan, and if you abort someone, you could be stymieing his great design for us all. If so, then God's plan isn't very thorough.) It just seems terribly selfish for the world at large to say, "But hey, I like [that guy]! You don't have the right to keep [that guy] from existing and enriching my life." Shut up, world. What did you do to help [that guy] out on his path to awesomeness, and what did you do to deserve [that guy's] contributions to society?

I guess it all eventually leads to perhaps my biggest pet peeve of all: thinking genes are destiny. I mean, obviously had Beethoven never been born, the Ninth Symphony would never have been written (and then what would we hum when something dramatic and foreboding was happening??), but who is to say that Beethoven's particular package of genes is necessarily the package of genes best suited for taking the musical world by storm? Other great musicians would have still come along; music would still have developed, though perhaps in different ways; other great music would perhaps have come to the fore, being less obscured by Beethoven; we would have developed different cultural tropes with different works of music.

More importantly, I'm pretty sure the world already contains plenty of children with the capacity to become great humanitarians, political leaders, writers, medical breakthrough-ers, philosophers, artists, and so forth; maybe we should concentrate on giving them the opportunities to develop those talents rather than sit around hoping that some genius will fall into our laps fully formed (which isn't even what happened in probably any of those cases anyway). If the kids who could cure cancer or make the next mind-twisting scientific discoveries are stuck in really bad schools full of science teachers who don't really understand what they're teaching and don't do a very good job at it, they're probably not going to go on to study science in college because they'll think they're not sciency people. Let's take care of the genius that's already in the world before we worry inordinately about that which could possibly come into the world if people made other decisions.

The value of a human life is supposedly sacred regardless of who that person turns out to be or what they end up doing. These scenarios (though perhaps deliberately so as they are aimed to make the heathen reading them think again) seem to be almost utilitarian: the world is better off with these people in it, therefore they must be born. You'd think those who are pro-life would balk at seeming to make such ends-based calculations; isn't it inherent in the sanctity of life that you respect people as people and don't use them as the means to some other end? Whatever happened to valuing all life as life?

For some other date (perhaps): the world had Jesus never been born.