On Capitalism

I used to think that my dislike for sales-people made me a bad capitalist – not that I mind being a bad capitalist, because I think it’s a system with some serious flaws. And not that I dislike all sales-people, just that breed of them whose goal in life is to sell people things they don’t even want – telemarketers and door-to-door-ers and drug reps, to name a few.

I’ve recently had an epiphany, however. The pushier a salesman is, the worse his product is, or at least the less he believes in it. A Rolls-Royce essentially sells itself; a Yugo or an Edsel doesn’t. Or rather, didn’t. A good product doesn’t have to be “sold” the way a shoddy one does. Of course, our economy is built on shoddy products – built-in obsolescence and mediocre workmanship guarantees that people will have to buy the same products every few years.

I had this epiphany at work yesterday. The coffeeshop I work at supplies a number of local drug reps with coffee, pastries, whatever – which are, if I understand the drug rep’s modus operandi, essentially bribes. (A co-worker’s brother works in a small doctor’s office, and was fortunate enough to receive an iPod as a bribe from a drug rep.) The reps get paid to convince doctors to prescribe their company’s brand name drug instead of a competitor’s (or generic) that does exactly the same thing. Bribery (though of course we don’t call it that in a situation like this) is the easy recourse. I’d like to think that most doctors aren’t swayed to prescribe a given company’s drugs because their rep brings better coffee, but that’s the way the system works.

The same kind of thing happens, though with fewer intermediaries, in the selling of automobiles and credit cards. And, oddly enough, all three have a significant thing in common – they are far less necessary to our survival than we have been led to believe. I’m not saying that some medicines aren’t necessary or even life-saving, but there’s a growing tendency to solve any and all problems, mental or physical, with a pill, rather than with a good diet, exercise, and working less than 80 hours a week. Likewise, a car is a necessity for most families and individuals, especially those in places without good public transportation. But a family of three (or even four) doesn’t need a luxury SUV or a Ford Excursion (i.e., a small bus); it doesn’t take a Ford F550 to run to the grocery store for eggs and milk. And credit cards are only good for getting into debt with, and debt is awesome.

I think the fundamental issue is the conflict between conspicuous consumption and sustainability. The standard American attitude (or instinct – there’s not much thought involved) is that buying things and then throwing them away is what makes you a good American. That’s maybe an attitude left over from the fifties, when it was “necessary” to prove one wasn’t a Communist. And while there’s a growing trend of buying “green” and “organic” and “eco-friendly,” the basic attitude hasn’t changed – we’re still buying (though hopefully buying better stuff) and getting rid of it, though there’s more recycling and donating to charities. The paradigm shift from consuming to sustaining hasn’t happened yet, and I’m not at all sure it will, at least until our current lifestyle crumbles under its own weight.

Maybe I’m a bad capitalist after all.

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