Sunday, December 1, 2013

Of Black Fridays and Red Octobers

Velikaya Oktyabr'skaya sotsialisticheskaya revolyutsiya, commonly referred to as Red October, was the October Uprising or Bolshevik Revolution, the seizure of power within the larger Russian Revolution of 1917. As most of the world knows by now, the Soviet experiment was a failed one. But over the life span of an average human being, the Soviet Union sure gave the other world superpower a run for its money.

The irony behind the blood-rich symbolism found in Soviet history is that the Union was brought down by a red bottom line: the empire essentially went bankrupt.  An Italian friend of mine once commented, as we both watched the literal teardown of the Berlin Wall, it is unfortunate that the Soviets were more concerned with control than with authentic socialist wellbeing. In his opinion, from that milestone moment on, US style capitalism would go unchallenged. The good, the bad, and the Black Thursday.

For those not familiar with the origin of the term, Black Friday refers to retail businesses going from red ink to black ink on their ledgers  in other words, profitable. To go out on a limb, the “Black” in Black Thursday / Black Friday is not where the ugliness lies. At least not until someone steps up as the leading, post-Soviet challenger to the American way of life. Many believe China, another “red state” of sorts, has been trying to fill the Soviet shoes. With its own Great Wall full of symbolic cracks and ready to come down any decade now, China has ironically been busily producing some of the stuff that Black Friday is made of. Not as much as Americans think, less than 10% in all categories, but a sufficiently ominous portion nonetheless.  So instead of aiming its nuclear arsenal at us, China is attacking the leading superpower with… stuffed toys. This would seem like a Disney-esque plot in a world power conflict, if it weren’t for one unfunny complication: merchandise coming from China is manufactured in great part by a labor force that would not be legally allowed to exist in America. We are, after all, “better” than that.

That would seem like enough of a conscience-tugging problem for the US. But wait, there’s more: the US has not merely offshored labor that it does not stomach on its own soil, it continues to rely on hyper consumption as its structural foundation. A consumption-based economy, within reason, is technically sustainable. Cyclical recessions are simply the price to pay. But hyper-consumption, consuming at a rate higher than income, savings or investments, is not sustainable. In hyper mode, it in fact becomes a pyramid scheme – an approach that in great part explains the 1% controversy.

According to a US News Money report, the US middle class peaked in 1969. That’s 45 years ago, in case some of us have lost track. An entire generation was born, graduated from high school, college if they figured out a way to pay for it, started a work career, and found themselves… worse off than their parents in one too-many cases. Of course “worse off” is a relative term, and it shouldn’t just be measured by economics. But a shrinking middle class is not exactly the direction a system that professes to be better than socialism should take. Five republican presidents and three democratic ones have presided since 1969. This is not a partisan issue – it is a systemic breakdown. It is a crack in our very own Wall Street.

I have always been a fairly skeptical person. I don’t believe in most conspiracy theories, and I am put off by agenda-driven exaggerations. Having said that, I recognize I have committed mistakes in judgment, personally, economically, and politically. Yet as we all know, learning from those mistakes is its own reward. With that in mind, it seems to me that every year the average American keeps making the same mistake: Black Friday typically comes at the expense of Red Saturday. There's a fundamental reason the great American middle class is shrinking  it is consuming more than it produces. Wall Street's perennial hunt for Black December may just take the American system to its own version of Red October.

I blogged about the Occupy Wall Street movement a few years ago, my conclusion was that our obsession with Wall Street was not the answer. I do agree that the systemic damage being inflicted by the 1% is outweighing its “trickle-down” contributions. It’s the proverbial “taking more than you give” dysfunction. And yet, obsessing about what fat cats are or are not doing is not where the answer lies. I believed then as I still do today, every time the fat cats put cheese in the mousetraps, we only have ourselves to blame if we keep falling for the same impulse. The American middle class has in fact become addicted to consumption.

A few years ago I made a promise to myself: do not criticize without offering a solution. With that in mind, I am increasingly in search of post-capitalist – not anti-capitalist – movements to support in one way or another. Create one if I have what it takes.

One such example is the “Landfill Harmonic” project, born out of a trash landfill in one of the poorest countries in the world (watch the three-minute preview of the project below, I am confident you will be inspired by it). This project is a wonderful example of how change can happen, not by continuing the blame game against the 1%, but by curing our addiction to what they are selling. This particular project may or may not survive, but that's hardly the point: none of us do in the long run. That's where the beauty of change comes in. Change does not have to always stem from pain and fear. Smart change needs to increasingly come from inspiration.

The Landfill Harmonic Project


  1. Great article and I loved the video! Here are some points to consider and I state these backed with no data or intent to malign. I feel that capitalism's crowning glory is "profit;" not for all, but for the few. All companies today strive to make a profit and no matter how great you say a company is, a company's greatness is always measured first and foremost by its profitability. When you get promoted in a company, they pay you more to pay the person below you less.
    Hyper consumption is absolutely true! But, I feel 'that by not eating the cheese, we will not curb hyper consumption, companies by their profit driven nature will find a way to make us eat and enjoy something else. I do not have a solution to this but I do have a thought that I think is worthy of consideration. I'm sure you know the golden rule: he who has the gold makes the rules and, as you so aptly put, but wait there's more, he who make the rules keeps the gold. With this in mind the solution is not to work with the people with no gold; but, to work with the people with the gold. We have to change the minds of the wealthy if we want to effect any real change. The wealthy today have seen pictures of abject poverty, some may have even visited slums and smelled it - I wonder how many have tried to eat the food. Does that stop them from buying luxury goods and hyper consuming? The people in slums, many of them, given the chance will work hard to become wealthy. Once they get there, they will assume the same characteristics of the wealthy - hyper consumption. We have to change the way the wealthy think if we really want to end hyper consumption. All revolutions occurred because the wealthy refused to change their ways. Stop setting traps and share the cheese!

    1. Good comments Paul, thanks for sharing them. If I understand you correctly, one of your main points is that change won't come by ignoring the (golden) fat cats, but on the contrary, by working with them closer, and work harder to convince them to modify their behavior. After all, you maintain that addicted consumers will simply get tempted by somebody else - in a vicious circle.

      If I've come within reason of your points, I would respond as follows: you are 100% right that we have to work more with the hyper-wealthy. I am, incidentally, not concerned with their consumption habits, as they can technically afford it. I am more concerned with the consumption of those who cannot afford it. So when I say it's important for those who are addicted to consumption to heal themselves, I mean for good. Which means, they would not merely be bouncing from one supplier to another. Yes, I know - a tall order. But as you and I know, Rome wasn't built in one day ;)

      So speaking of revolution: yes, working with, or dealing with the hyper-wealthy is one important way to go. But we cannot continue to rely on demanding change from the fat cats. One thing we've learned from revolutions in the past is that the new society almost never turns out to be as perfect as it was promised. The USA was forced to take a hard look at itself less than 100 years after its own revolutionary war, and what it saw in the mirror was downright ugly: it engaged in a civil war over whether or not its citizens had the right to strip perfectly innocent human beings of their fundamental freedom and their own pursuit of happiness. Which leaves me with only one plausible conclusion, best said by Mahatma Ghandi: be the change you want to see in the world.

      Incidentally, and speaking of Ghandi: leaders like Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Mandela don't happen often, but when they do, they leave us with a remarkable message, through amazing inspiration.

  2. Thanks for the comments! Yes it is true! Be the change you want to see. After all, it is the only thing you can really control. But for the sake of argument, what would you want to see the world be? In the world that you want, would there a be differences in wealth? Would there be a "have" and a "have not?" Would there be people who consume more than they need while others can't even find their next meal? I have my own personal pet theory that is a vision of the world that I would want. I call it the Star Trek theory. Star Trek because if I am not mistaken, Stark Trek's world had no money and people just contributed what they had. After World War II countries defined themselves by the enemies they had, result cold war. The apogee of the cold war was Reagan's Star Wars plan that scared not only the Russians , but I think it also scared the Americans. In what way? Americans felt that the end of the world was near so they started consuming too much believing that anyway we are all going to die soon. In due time, credit became a "right." Fortunately, Reagan's Star Wars plan also led to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. What changed? Now instead of Governments defining themselves by the enemies they had, business stepped in a did away with borders. Global businesses do not see borders all they see are profit and cost centers. As the consumer began to consume more, businesses responded and I must say even encouraged it. They would sell you credit cards (with out lecturing on the responsibilities of credit) and they would teach how to sell to sub-prime (people who cannot afford it) and today I still feel the world is still there. The recent financial collapse (07-09) is clear evidence of just that. Companies today always strive for greater efficiencies to make wall street happy. I remember one email that I would send elicited the most responses (hi, I can help you meet your quarterly goal, let's talk). In the end, it brings us back to my original question. This time let's ask Mr. Ghandi, Mr. King and Mr, Mandela the same question: What would you want to see the world be? In the world that you want, would there a be differences in wealth? Would there be a "have" and a "have not?" Would there be people who consume more than they need while other can't even find their next meal?

  3. Good stuff again Paul. I have for many years worked within the capitalist world of profit, which of course tends to put me at odds with my philosophical convictions - if it weren't for one logical connection: I see capitalism as an imperfect improvement within the human experience, a temporary solution to a bigger problem. Which means that, as an end in itself, it would be a huge contradiction to my convictions; but as a bridge of sorts, it gets me from where I don't want to be to boldly go where I want to go ;)

    I see the human condition in terms of a magic percentage: 10%. I believe 10% of humanity is enlightened in varying degrees, and 10% is in almost total darkness. The rest of humanity is in some kind of grey limbo - a "fog" if you will. So far in our evolution, the more popular societies have come up with ways to deal with these class struggles: from communism, to socialism, to capitalism. Let's try to stay out of ideology and semantics for a moment, so let me define the three "systems" as follows: Communism is an attempt at controlling the exact amount of goods and services everyone in a society can or must have - excluding the leaders of course (sorry, I couldn't resist the jab there); Socialism is an attempt to allow for a healthy amount of difference in the flow of goods and services, presumably based on some work ethic merit, with a CAP at both extremes - meaning, the 10% at one end will have a minimum safety net of sorts, and the 10% at the other end will not be allowed to hog a hugely disproportionate stock of goods and services; and Capitalism is an attempt at minimizing caps at either end (extreme capitalists would say NO caps, but let's keep it generic for now). These are my definitions, somewhat oversimplified, but I don't believe they are preposterous or useless for our purposes.

    So what change do I want to see in me, and therefore the world? I want to rid myself of envy, and hope that everyone works just as hard at it. So if someone has more "stuff" than me, as long as they achieved it without exploiting anyone, then they have the right to that stuff - no one should restrict them or demand that they give it up. Within reason. What is that reasonable limit? The one that prevents one single person to fall through a rip in the safety net. So long as a reasonable net is there for everyone, then the stuff-driven folks can knock themselves out if that's what rocks their world. Likewise, if someone has less stuff than me, but they do absolutely nothing for the safety net they have, I should not demand that they give up that safety net. Within reason. What's the limit there? The one that demonstrates that someone can actually do something productive, and is in fact not pushing themselves. Who decides? A smart system of checks and balances. That system of checks and balances is of course going to be a challenge, no doubt. But it is not unachievable, and it does not have to cost society an arm and a leg. A smart safety net, in fact, is not a luxury by any standard. It is basic, and fairly inconvenient. But it is humane. If you want more than that, then you need to go out and work for it. If you can't or don't want to work for it, then be grateful for the humane safety net you have been given.

    My bet is that, over time, only about 10% of society would actually live on the "net". And some of them would live there only temporarily, just enough to get back on their feet. My bet is also that, over a greater span of time, the 1% that wants stuff insatiably would realize that's an empty dream. Who knows, maybe then the "fog" will finally lift.

    As for a money-less, Star Trek world - ah yes... perchance to dream. It will come, I'm sure, and I like to think we're talking about the roadmap here.


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