Tag Archives: Economics

80% stop what you’re doing right now

Today’s lesson is diminishing marginal futility ✎ By Wayne K. Spear

I’m going to stop 80% of what I’m doing, right now.

We’ve all heard of the 80/20 rule, known as the law of unequal distribution.

– Eighty percent of your business is driven by twenty percent of your customers.

– Eighty percent of your profits come from twenty percent of your products.

– Eighty percent of the problems are caused by twenty percent of the people.

The idea is that roughly 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. Known as the Pareto Principle, the concept is named after the economist Vilfredo Pareto.

Pareto noticed that 80% of the peas in his garden came from 20% of the pea pods. He started looking around for other examples of the 80/20 rule.

He found them everywhere.

I think it’s more like the 90/10 rule, but 80/20 is not meant to be absolute. In any individual example, it could be 70/30 or 60/40 or even 99/1.

It will never be 100/100. That’s like buying only winning lottery tickets, and writing only #1 hit songs or #1 New York Times best-sellers.

I have almost 600 posts on this website, and over 80% of my traffic is generated by a half-dozen of them. That’s 80+ percent of traffic from 1% of posts, each and every day!

So I’m focusing on the 10–20 percent of my ideas and actions that get the results. And then I’m focusing on the 80/20 subset of that 80/20.

For example, I’m only going to write the 10% of the words that you’ll read, and leave out the other 90.

If we all did this, we could waste a lot less time.

But first you have to find the 20% of your pods where all your joy, fulfillment, happiness, money, and success come from.

The Bangladesh Factory Fires Could, and Must, Be Prevented

Triangle Fire

IT WAS ONLY eight days after the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and Rose Schneiderman was in no mood for playing nice. Addressing her (mostly) middle-class audience of Women’s Trade Union League supporters, she said:

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.

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Canada’s Little War Against Contraband Tobacco

Contraband Tobacco

If you were a collector of jurisdictional nightmare, then your holy grail possession would surely be the small Kanien’keha:ka — or Mohawk, as it’s called in English —  community of Akwesasne. Transected by two provincial, one state and two federal boundaries (Ontario, Quebec, New York, Canada and the United States of America), Akwesasne is something of a “hotspot,” and not by coincidence.

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Why We Learn Nothing from the Presidential Debates

I‘VE TAKEN IN all the US presidential and vice-presidential debates. Over the years these have become highly rehearsed and scripted affairs, meticulously polished and doubtless focus group vetted and — well, who knows what else the candidates do these days. Computer modelling, maybe. Virtual reality simulations. Testing on non-human animals. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that media experts and pollsters and psychics are also consulted. The result of all this engineering is debate not unlike processed food: enjoyable, but who knows what’s really in it.

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Class Warfare Comes Home

OF THE MANY, tedious American delusions, perhaps the most insistent and counter-factual materialist superstition is the daft creed that America is a classless society. How useful then for so many citizens to chuck this nonsense and have at it in the open October air, and in the precise manner that Karl Marx identified as the very engine of historical development: the struggle between the haves and the have-nots. Or, as the Wall Street Occupation puts it, the struggle of the ninety-nine have-not percent against the has-it one.

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(Big) Business As Usual

[Originally published in ASH Magaine, Volume Four Number Three, Summer 1997.]

Now and then I find myself in a philosophical mood, pondering the evolution of this creature called ASH. I think it’s a healthy activity, the more so since I’m inclined these days not to take the magazine too seriously. I’d like to leave behind me a respectable corpus when I at long last turn my attention elsewhere, but I know also that ASH is likely never to attain a status beyond the obscurity common to small publications.

I confess this disappoints me — and not merely for its humbling effect on the ego. You see, I had a conversation once with a business-minded fellow, who maintained that the market should decide the outcome in all matters. He noted the widespread reliance of Canadian magazines on government funding (ASH is an exception) and wondered aloud: Why sustain a magazine read by so few that it needs taxpayers’ money just to survive? Indeed. I must say the logic, bolstered by economic concepts such as “utility maximization,” seemed to me to be solid. But when I drew out its implications and followed them to their conclusions, I was left with a rather troubling picture.

The image I had in my mind was of a culture that could never have enough movie celebrities, rock stars, elite athletes, arms traders, investment bankers, futures speculators, and corporate lawyers: for their market value is, it appears, without limit. As for, say, motherhood (that sacred job which is praised to the skies at appropriate occasions by businessmen and politicians), well, it has no market value whatsoever; and nearly the same is true of all the so-called “caring” professions and the many wage-labour jobs which have long sustained our privileged standard of living. Think about it: much that we might reasonably claim dignifies and enriches life, much which makes this world more than merely bearable, is practically valueless, economically speaking. Remember Mike Harris’s contempt, oft-expressed in the 1995 Ontario election campaign, for welfare mothers, who don’t do anything? Such contempt is one of the free market’s proud accomplishments, and a remarkable accomplishment it is.

I suspect my business-minded acquaintance is now pleased. His vision of an efficient, competitive, rational, growth-centred world has triumphed, and we shall live for many years to come its social and ecological consequences. The New World Order has its bureaucracy (the economists, policy experts, and investment gurus who now make regular appearances on the evening news and the bestseller lists), its constitution (the General Agreement on Trade and Tarrifs), and its Bill of Rights (the Multilateral Agreement on Investment). The message for the masses is also vaguely familiar: believe, submit, and you’ll be rewarded in a future life.

Perhaps the market knows best in some matters — magazines, for instance. In any case, I’m inclined these days to keep ASH going, if only that it might be a voice crying in the market wilderness. It’s an obscure voice, as I’ve already acknowledged, and so there’s little hope ASH might counter effectively the fallacious claims of the economic experts who dominate the landscape. The very attempt risks the pomposity and the intolerable self-righteousness that usually attend those who are convinced they’re on a mission from God. So much, you might then say, for not taking ASH too seriously.

Self-righteousness isn’t the only temptation to which the dissenters are susceptible, as the global economic empire discloses what appears to many to be a heartless agenda. Have you noticed the abundance of books in the last few years with the phrase “The End Of” in their titles? All about us, the horsemen are assuming the saddle in gleeful anticipation of the apocalypse. Unfortunately for them, there’s no end in sight. It’s (big) business as usual.

Not long ago I read George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier, a book that makes me wonder why Orwell is represented in the school curricula by Animal Farm and 1984. Wigan Pier is really two books in one: the first half describes in horrific detail the lives of U.K. miners during the 1930s, and the second half is a scathing look at the people who propose to improve matters by adopting socialism. Orwell of course considered himself a socialist, but his temperament was such that he could never settle into a dogmatic understanding of human affairs. The possessor of a keen, sceptical mind, Orwell had the habit of bringing into his work troubling details — such as his observation that many a would-be “bourgeois Socialist” of his day was at heart an “old Etonian”:

Perhaps once, out of sheer bravado, he has smoked a cigar with the band on, but it would be almost physically impossible for him to put pieces of cheese into his mouth on the point of his knife, or to sit indoors with his cap on, or even to drink his tea out of the saucer. … It can only be because in his heart he feels that proletarian manners are disgusting.

Wigan Pier is full of such scandal, much of it delivered at the author’s expense. Orwell could be, and often was, indignant in the face of injustice, but I’ve yet to catch him indulging in self-righteous cant or doom-saying. It’s this balanced cast of mind that strikes me as Orwell’s greatest contribution to the dissenters’ canon, a contribution well worth recalling.

As it has turned out, Orwell’s works have thus far escaped obscurity. It would be silly to hope for the same outcome in the case of ASH, but that isn’t the point. In the here and now, there’s plenty of Orwellian work to be done — and after all, I’ve only said I’d like to leave a respectable corpus.

In Bill Gates’s World (1998)

I am not sure exactly how much money Bill Gates is ‘worth’ as I write this sentence. His net worth is, I think, around $50 billion. In any case the number will have dropped or gone up a few hundred million by the end of this essay. And that surely is the basic fact of Bill Gates’s world: astonishing, unimaginable wealth. Everything else about him is a footnote. Just as poverty changes wholly a person’s life, so surely does opulence. What then is the meaning of such extraordinary riches?

An article on my desk tells me that Bill Gates will have to spend $145 every second of every hour of every day to exhaust his riches in 15 years. Elsewhere I read this: “…a new Lamborghini Diablo, which we think of as costing $250,000, would be 63 cents in Bill Gates dollars.” I won’t reproduce the formula behind this calculation, nor will I quote other such trivia, of which there are many. I wish only to note that these are typical of the many current efforts to explain what the world must look like to Bill Gates. I don’t think they succeed. They are quantitative efforts which understandably focus on the scale of his wealth, but what matters is the qualitative view. Yes, Bill Gates can afford to give every man, woman, and child in the world a $20 bill (or whatever); yes, he can buy 3 Boeing 747s as easily as I buy a soft drink; yes, he could purchase an entire small country. What he can do is however less important than what he is likely to do, and this in turn is less important than his reasons for doing it. Here we’ve entered the qualitative world.

Much is said about Bill Gates’s thirst for power, which is thought by some to be nothing short of absolute. The evidence given on behalf of this position is his alleged attempt to control the essential technologies of the information economy. Now, before we proceed, I ask you to imagine yourself a multi-billionaire. Do you seriously claim the thought of how this wealth enhances your power doesn’t occur? I’ve tried the experiment myself, and I’ve found within seconds it’s there: the thought of wealth as an enhancement of power. It’s true that the thoughts are small and far from the theme of world domination, but I’ve got to start somewhere. World domination is an advanced art. A few seconds into my new fortune I’m thinking about less grand things – travel, starting a business, personal freedom. These are all functions of power. My thoughts are of things I would like to do and be but which I cannot do and be under present circumstances. If this concern with power is demonic, and I do not myself believe it is, it’s nonetheless common.

True, most of us don’t set out to form global empires. Bill Gates is unusual, but only in relation to those of us in the non-global-empire-forming category. Put him next to another CEO and you’ll see he’s unexceptional. He’s employing the same logic, the same principles, and often the same tactics, toward the same ends. Only the quantity of his wealth and the industry he occupies distinguish him, and these are external features, accidents of history and timing. Had he chosen to run, say, a chain of barber shops, he would probably be less of a phenomenon. What if he were the 2nd most wealthy man, then what? He’d be Warren Buffet, of whom a relative speck is read by the general public. That Bill Gates chose to produce computer software made all the difference. If he hadn’t, someone else would be Bill Gates today, and we would be talking about him (it probably wouldn’t be a her, given the state of corporate culture). To understand the world of Bill Gates we have to consider not only the man, but the circumstances of the man. The essence of the capitalist, in other words, is capitalism.

Following the principle I’ve just articulated, one may be tempted to say that Bill Gates is the most successful practitioner of capitalism, and in this lies his essence. I’m not sure that this is so. I agree that he has been successful in business, and that for this success he deserves praise or blame, depending upon one’s point of view. He is not merely a creature of luck, though luck has played a part. So too has strategy; what else would we expect? Global empires don’t just happen, and they certainly don’t happen because of luck alone. They are built through a combination of hard work, planning, chicanery, deceit, ruthlessness, foresight, ambition, and cunning. The idea that capitalists succeed because they work hard to give the people what they want at a fair price is self-serving propaganda, like the view that the English Empire existed for the benefit of backward peoples. Indeed, most economic theories invented to flatter the rich are so much hogwash. This isn’t to say people engaged in business don’t believe them. Nonetheless they are hogwash. Even a cursory glance at history reveals the sine qua non of global-corporate profits, or in plain English, that which is necessary for ever-increasing corporate wealth. I’m speaking of course of economic imperialism, or the domination of the weak by the strong. Capitalism, as proponents like to point out, is for the strong.

Here is what I imagine the world looks like to Bill Gates. He is a multi-billionaire, thanks to the computer. He lives in a high-tech house built into the side of a mountain. He wakes each morning beside his wife amidst the splendour made possible by the success of his empire. Is he optimistic about the future? Does he believe technology will better human lives? The context makes all the difference to the analysis. Around him, he sees what a wonderful thing the information economy is. You may talk if you wish about ‘technological downsizing’ and the supposed workerless, automated future. Bill Gates’s only contact with work (for surely someone else buys his groceries, does his laundry, and cooks his dinners) is in the software industry. Here the prospect is splendid. It simply isn’t true that there are no jobs. As for the unsubstantiated claims that Microsoft is out to control the technology of the future, there is again Bill Gates’s house as proof to the contrary. He wants only to make life easier. In order to do this he needs access to certain resources. It is that simple.

Needless to say I haven’t the personal experience of a billionaire, but I’d be surprised if Bill Gates didn’t see matters in the benevolent manner in which I’ve just presented them. The last thing I’d expect of a billionaire is that he should see himself as a rich, greedy, acquisitive monster. Neither however would I expect him to see things as a ‘non-billionaire,’ otherwise known as Everyone Else. We marvel at the wealth of Bill Gates, and it’s a cliché now when discussing him to say, ‘Imagine if you had $50 billion dollars!’ But here’s the intellectual exercise which truly fascinates me: try to imagine Bill Gates imagining what it’s like to live on $39,000 a year. This, by the way, is no arbitrary figure; it’s the 1998 median average gross wage-earnings of an American family as estimated by the Congressional Budget Office. And unlike Bill Gates’s wealth, it is not subject to wild vicissitudes, though it’s been declining (when adjusted for inflation) since 1979. Could Bill Gates really get inside the American life as it’s lived by millions upon millions? Only with an extraordinary effort which he isn’t likely to make. Welcome to Bill Gates’s world.

But again, I said at the outset that what Bill Gates is likely to do is more important than what he’s likely not to do. Furthermore his reasons for doing so are of the greatest importance. And as I’ve suggested his reasons for what he does have everything to do with capitalism, the system which informs his behaviour and which makes it sensible. Here then is the essence of Bill Gates: he is, from the point of view of the average American, the antithesis of Everyman. He is Noman. From the point of view of the capitalist system however he is thoroughly ordinary, thoroughly representative. He hardly merits comment. He will follow the logic of the system and make the best company he can, best meaning biggest, most competitive, most influential, and most profitable. The function of capitalism, as Karl Marx noted, is to reach into every corner of the globe and transform nature into its own image. This means that Bill Gates will genuinely want us all to live in a world created by Microsoft, which, when you think about it, is how Bill Gates himself already lives. How could it be bad if he’s chosen it for himself?

There is no single, sufficient answer to this question. It is again a matter of personal context. This much however is clear: Bill Gates’s choice is not precisely the same as the choice of others. Although the Constitution does not make this explicit, a billionaire’s freedoms differ from those of the average folk, especially when freedom is conceived in market terms. It is furthermore a qualitative difference. Consider: you’ve probably already forgotten the little exercise I introduced near the beginning, the exercise in which you imagine yourself a billionaire. For Bill Gates this is not a game, but rather an unceasing, even banal, reality. His wealth, in short, places him not in a bigger or even much much bigger version of your world, but in another world altogether. What for you is a wild, unsustainable fantasy is for him no more extraordinary than putting on underpants. You are Bill Gates’s wild fantasy. He will forget you soon, if he thinks of you at all, and will continue with his reality, the ongoing creation of a global corporate empire. And he will do so not as an average American, whatever that is, but as an average billionaire capitalist who lives in a house in the side of a mountain. What does this mean for America? That is a question only time will answer. [-July 1998]

Capitalism: For and Against

You’ve heard often and perhaps recently that socialism is defeated and that capitalism is therefore triumphant, as if economic history were a basketball match. Yet socialism, by which one today generally means Soviet Communism, fell for internal reasons. The anti-Communists predictably have taken the credit, in the manner of all chauvinists, but this raises certain questions: what about capitalism? – is it really triumphant? Should it be?

First we ought to clarify what is meant by capitalism. Capitalism here designates exclusive private ownership of productive property, such as factories and telecommunications infrastructure. Property may be thought of as the tools by which wealth is created, and private property as a form of ownership which places economic power and benefits in the hands of the individual as opposed to the state. This, of course, is the main distinction to be made between capitalism and socialism, both of which may be industrial and statist. Capitalism is the ideology of capital; it puts wealth, and not the demos or even the president, in charge.

Wealth as such does not have power. When the capitalist extols the rights of property, it is the rights of those who own the property he has in mind. At the bottom of capitalism you find the proposition, rarely stated, that the rich are specially suited to run things. The argument is almost never put so baldly because capitalists (of the American variety at least) tend to affect a democratic outlook. ‘Meritocracy,’ meaning the rule of the Best and Brightest, expresses the capitalist’s fond belief that America is a level playing field. The best and the brightest, after all, had to work their way up to the top. So the idea that the rich should run things is tempered by the observation that their wealth was fairly amassed, through their effort and according to the rules of the game. Bootstrap democracy distinguishes American ruling-class apology from its aristocratic relations.

Political ideologies are all based upon self-justifying fictions. Democracy flatters the common man, and capitalism flatters those with capital. In the end, someone must rule and someone must be ruled. The fictions qualify prevailing arrangements; rarely do they lead to them. It’s the arrangements themselves that concern us here and not the ideologies. Of the latter we need only note that rarely is one so good as his PR asserts, nor so wicked as claim his adversaries. In this instance, what is true of the capitalist is also true of capitalism. It produces, as does any economic and social system, mixed results. But though the results are mixed, they are not arbitrary. Capitalism establishes certain relationships and trends. The apologists recognise this when they attribute all successes to the Free Market. Their boasts would be meaningless if capitalism didn’t in fact produce a certain predictable kind of outcome.

What, then, is the outcome? Capitalism produces a society which is dynamic and varied. You will find the ultra-rich and the ultra-poor. You will also find extraordinary energy and productive capacity, both of which are organised around effective demand rather than human need. The difference between the two tells us something essential about capitalism. Mere hunger is a human need, but a hungry person with money and the intention to spend it constitutes effective demand. Capitalism will satisfy hunger as demand while ignoring hunger as need. In other words, human needs as such are external to the capitalist system. It is the effective demand that is all-important. What matters are the production and distribution of effective demand-fulfilling consumer goods, and to this end the social, economic, and political systems of capitalist countries tend to be organised. I stress ‘tend’ because in most capitalist countries, including Canada and the US, capitalism competes with other ideologies like democracy. It is thereby limited. A pure-capitalist country (such a thing has never existed, but some so-called developing nations come close) would be indifferent to human need, need being an extra-economic matter.

This is an extraordinary fact of capitalism and thereby deserves careful qualification. I’m not suggesting that capitalism is actively cruel. The point is it is active only as capitalism, active only when it is engaged in exchanges of value and the accumulation of capital. Remove money from capitalism and capitalism is no more. The system collapses; it cannot feed the hungry or clothe the naked or put the unemployed to work. In a well-functioning capitalist economy need is translated into effective demand by paid work or credit. Even in the best of times, however, capitalism is unable to lift millions of people out of poverty; something else inevitably must do the job, and that is socialist democracy.

Here I have suddenly abandoned the term ‘socialism.’ That is because I wish to make a case for social democracy, by which I mean public ownership of public goods and the organisation of human activity around human need. This, I admit, is a weak definition, but it is not inane. We should get over the propagandist’s conception of all socialisms, including social democracy, as Big Brother, and so on. Of course, pure socialism (i.e. abolition of private property) has lead to Big Brother, and it is consequently quite impossible today to discuss statist socialism without considering some very unpleasant facts, such as that it has never worked well for ordinary people. And yet social democracy (as practiced in Norway, for instance) has not fallen, or collapsed, or whatever term you prefer. Indeed, it works quite well. As for Big Brother, let’s consider the capitalists’ fearful prate about ‘managed economies’ and how evil they are, then ask ourselves whether General Motors is not a huge bureaucracy with a centralised, vertically integrated, economy. No, socialist democracy is above all else the temperance of capitalist social relations. Temperance is necessary because the corporate form of governance gets us no closer to economic democracy than does Stalinism. It does however greatly facilitate the mobilisation of capital, which was one of its historic purposes. Nor was the corporation originally designed to suit capital, but rather social needs. Here we encounter both the strength and the Achilles’ heel of modern-contemporary capitalism, the corporation.

The corporation was in the beginning a restricted legal entity, granted specific rights and privileges by state governments. The earliest corporations were constituted to achieve specific public goals requiring extraordinary amounts of capital, such as canal or road construction. Once the project was completed, the corporation was dissolved. Incorporation enabled governments to amass large amounts of capital while protecting individual investors from any losses that may occur. In other words, the public corporation was a useful and necessary instrument for achieving public goals.

Gradually the corporation moved away from its traditional, public function. Investors began to use the corporation to deepen and extend their economic power. Ironically, the demise of the public corporation was hastened by the Jacksonian Democrats, who discerned in the corporation, perhaps correctly, the beginnings of excessive and tyrannical state power. Joined by groups representing wealthy private investors, the Jacksonians successfully advocated the retreat of the corporation from public activities. Corporations were gradually granted new private rights at the same time that they were relieved of public responsibilities. This trend culminated in the early-20th-century decision to grant corporations the rights of persons, specifically freedom of speech and of expression. Unlike persons, however, the corporation would be able to exist eternally, accumulating wealth and power generation after generation. Once a temporary institution with limited powers and a specific public mandate, the corporation became an eternal person with extraordinary economic power and a private mandate to maximise profits.

To date, this arrangement has been tolerated by the public. The increasing influence and even dominance of transnational corporations over the economic and social affairs of the world’s nation-states is nonetheless repugnant to many millions of people. The demos will not long allow corporate capital to practice laissez-faire cannibalism. At some point in the future, citizens will insist that economic arrangements bear a meaningful relation to basic human needs; in other words, they will rediscover economic and social democracy. If the term socialist democracy disturbs you, by all means call it something else. It will be impossible for the plutocrats to resist democracy indefinitely, though goodness knows they will as always try mightily. Once again, a bargain will be struck between capital and the people – but in all likelihood not until a painful, protracted historical lesson is yet again learned, that capitalism on its own does not work. [-August 1998]

The Secret Life of Work

Here are some general observations of the work that goes on in a modern city. To begin, everyone is in a hurry. Most people I’m guessing are engaged in some sort of bureaucratic enterprise, and the rest are downtown to serve them coffee. In the morning a pack of buses hurries about, now and then disgorging itself of suits and umbrellas and PDAs. Regarding the work itself I have the following thoughts.

One used to think of major industries when it came to jobs. For example, in small towns work meant the steel or auto plant. Is this still the case? Ottawa was known as Silicon Valley north and Nortel was a major employer. However, Government was a larger employer, even during the boom. So there are still only a few truly dominant employers, with one being undeniably at the front. The one-industry town is not completely obsolete.

Most of the folks running about at 8 am in Ottawa are white-collar workers. If you ask them what they do you will likely get a vague answer. It seems to me to come down to this: they move around bits of information.

In a nasty mood, when I am most doubtful concerning the busy-ness, I may draw certain conclusions. The first is that most of the middle class-people who earn over $30,000 a year-are economically superfluous. They are necessary as consumers but survive only through a combination of inertia, tenacity, political clout, and good fortune. I sometimes think that everything done by the professional classes will become automated, sooner than we suspect. The question I am addressing is What do people do?

I am not trying to glorify the Working Man, but I consider it a fact that the most low-paid, dirty, and unpleasant work is the most necessary. You must have food, sewers, buses, roads, toilets, clothing, and heat. Someone must kill your dinner and clean up afterward, and that someone is generally a person of the lower classes. They are hidden away from professional view, high up in the air, or deep in the belly of the earth. They are getting filthy to keep things nice. Nor have the working classes disappeared as technology advances. There are more technocrats than ever in a place like Ottawa, and I’ve noticed they like to eat, which means also they shit. So there is a person, probably a woman, who cleans the toilets at minimum wage. If she does not show up for work, it means things get rather unpleasant. But what happens when the $60,000-a-year professional does not show up? Something does not get photocopied and filed. For much of a professional’s time at work consists of throwing words and numbers into the bureaucracy’s maw and afterward writing reports about it, that is, producing more words and numbers. All of this takes time and effort; it is work.

I am aware that this is a jaundiced, probably unfair view. We need information and clerical services. However, the recent love affair with information needs some critical examination. The 2000s encouraged us to believe that information would be the commodity of the future. I am not trying to work up pity for the poor working folk at the expense of professionals. I am merely suggesting this was a superstitious notion. For what it is worth, I have noticed that the higher up one goes in the pay scale, the more one encounters the intangible and mysterious. No one at $80,000-a-year, or even $40,000, can say ‘I make buns’ or ‘I scrub the shit off toilets.’ Rather, they are ‘supervisors’ of ‘processes.’ They direct implementation of long-term strategic co-ordination. This sort of language is a bit like being given a Hubble Space Telescope snapshot in response to the question Where do you live? Look at the professional job description and you will see hardly any concrete nouns. Just as paintings came to look less and less like worldly objects as painters consciously liberated themselves from the work of representation (better done with the newly-invented camera), so too résumés lose reference to the physical world as professionals liberate themselves from the vulgar matter of physical labour. Abstraction is a perk of the educated. Only at $20,000 must you toil in the concrete, and in the porcelain too. [- July 1999, updated February 2010]

Downsizing and The Dollar Store

The dollar store is a good example of that creature commonly termed a phenomenon, something of apparent and great import which cries out for explanation. In every city they are popping-up almost like roadside weeds, taking advantage of meagre soil. You may pass them by without regard, but take a careful look and you’ll discover a good deal about the niche they exploit as well as their own remarkable qualities.

I can’t go into a dollar store without being impressed by the sheer productive capacity of industrialism. It’s impossible to overstate the ability of machines to make stuff, stuff of very low price and astonishing variety. Not only this, but there is almost an effortlessness implicit in the cheapness and abundance. Whereas scarcity of goods is the classical economic problem, here there appears to be a casual glut. The goods roll out by the millions in hundreds of factories and are shipped to thousands upon thousands of dollar stores. The numbers! And yet this feat occurs unremarked. The Socialist of an earlier era wrote hymns of praise to the awesome power of machines, but today we are supposed to forget about this power and instead dwell upon the ancient fact of scarcity: not enough jobs for workers, not enough money for social programs, not enough labour productivity to justify wage increases, not enough food to feed the children, etc. Austerity, based on diminishing expectations, is the order of the day. In contrast, the dollar store reminds us that at some point in our history (when?) we attained a technological level sufficient to solve the basic human problem of scarcity. It became possible, for the first time, to lift all people out of a condition of deprivation. There was no longer a technical reason for people to live without food, clothing, and shelter. Utopia, defined as a generalized state of physical well-being, was at this point not only thinkable but practical. There is so much wealth about, in fact, that it’s possible now to dedicate considerable resources to the manufacture of baubles. That, in a sentence, explains the phenomenon of the dollar store.

We’ve established then what a marvellous and unparalleled thing industrial-based capitalism is, so far as productive power is concerned. It’s fashionable to lament the destructive effects of the machine, but really, would you prefer to return to the simple days before penicillin and electricity? Neither would I. There is too much to give up to make giving up a viable option, and anyway we should admit also that we enjoy our mass-produced trinkets as much as the essentials, if not more. Even the notion of essentials has been changed by mass-production. You could hardly extricate yourself from the industrial system, but suppose you could. Historical evidence suggests you’d enjoy pollution-free food and drink – and die at 42, as a result of complications from a common cold. Industrialism, we should remember, was compelling because it emerged amidst the conditions of near-universal poverty and misery.

Needless to say poverty and misery are widespread even today. I’ve praised industrial capitalism’s quantity of production, but what about the quality of distribution? For instance, most of the goods come from China, a low-wage country. William Greider has coined the phrase “job arbitrage,” which means moving jobs from a high wage market to a low wage market, not to eradicate global poverty but indeed to take advantage of it. In the dollar-store universe, North America is significant only as a point of consumption, which is another feature of distribution. We’re told the market arrives at the best of all possible conditions, so don’t worry. But look at those conditions: the market has shuffled things with the result that the North American worker is becoming obsolete and the impoverished ‘developing-nation’ worker is exploited. That much has long been known and discussed, but what about the North American consumer? Will the market render this creature obsolete also? The dollar store is only representative of a universal trend – exportation of capital, goods, jobs, and indeed every other domestic function. Consumption is the only job we’re given in many industries. And you’re replaceable, you know. When the Chinese market is more fully developed, it may turn out to be cheaper and more profitable to sell the goods there as well. If workers can compete so too can consumers. The dollar store at least lowers the standard to the point at which the game becomes possible.

Is the dollar store, then, the cutting edge of an unintended consumer-force downsizing? Surely it trivializes the social roles which attend industrialism. Put the 99-cent Virgin Mary nightlights beside the Utopian-Socialist conception of human potential and you’ve got something which approaches contempt. The dollar store implies you aren’t really worth very much, even as a consumer. ‘Just spend your damn loonie and get out already’: this is what these places convey to me. You’re so close to being not worth the bother, 50-or-so cents away from lumpenprole. One suspects secretly that the store is a diversion to keep us from noticing the entire economy has at last been shipped-off somewhere else. All that remains are the beads and trinkets which have always attended such dealings. [-June 1998.]