Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Free to Choose, Born to Buy (and Left to Die)

In the past two weeks I've been reading a series of books which connected together despite being on disparate subjects. Milton Friedman's Free to Choose, published in the 1970s, argues for a completely free market -- that is, one with no regulations, tariffs, government licenses, public financing, etc. Friedman follows initial chapter on the power of markets with sections that compare the effects of government attempts to improve safety,  protect consumers against defective products, raise wages, etc.  Time and again he made good points about market efficiency,  but the general attitude advocated is extreme. Friedman is not nearly as extreme as other free marketeers: he respects the potential power of monopolies and advocates for free trade so that potential monopolies are always disrupted from outside, and  (staggeringly, for the 1970s) acknowledges environmental hazards.  Although I'm often tempted to agree with him on principle, in practice caution is warranted. While Friedman is correct in pointing out that people who buy defective products will not be likely to purchase them again,  consumer-driven corrective measures aren't always the best. What would he make of malware, for instance, which invades people's computers and then pretends to be an anti-virus program, which will rid the obvious infection for a fee?   On the whole, this work makes the same arguments as Thomas Sowell's Basic Economics, but Sowell was far more thorough.

A much different view was taken by Juliet Shor, whose Born to Buy examined the commercialization of childhood. After providing a history, an overview of the tactics, and an examination the consequences, Shor argues -- pleads, as a parent -- for regulation and taxation to reign in the corporate invasion of schools, the ubiquity of product placement in television, the insidious attitude in advertising that encourages kids to not only seek approval by buying things, but to assert their coolness by badgering their parents into buying them the latest and greatest -- advertising that blames the parents for being  mean and the cause of their child's misery if they don't. Released in the same year as Susan Linn's Consuming Kids,  Shor's work contains more concrete data, but is not quite as helpful:  Linn focused on especially destructive themes and counseled parents on how they could make decisions in their household and in conversations with their children to counter consumerism and premature sexualization.  Shor largely passes by  media sexualization and only looks at government regulation to reign in the abuse. Considering that the Supreme Court regards corporation as people who can dump however money they'd like into elections,  I would not count the US government as an ally in this fight.   Born to Buy is still very much worth reading, though, just for the numerous interviews with marketing execs, many of whom (parents themselves) left the business when they could no longer reconcile their work with their consciences. (With good reason:  their usurpation of child psychology and carefully planned invasions of home and school borders on villainy.)  A quotation from one:

"Banks [,a marketing agent], believes buzz practitioners are just getting started.
'We'll have ten or fifteen more ways of encircling the consumer in ten years [...] surrounding almost every move you make, that would be the ideal.' Asked about consumers who didn't like being marketed to, Banks didn't hesitate. 'Covert messaging. Use their friends.'"

Born to Buy was published in 2004. Nine years later, 'Banks' must surely be pleased with the ubiquity of facebook, which converts our friends' passions into ads for us, projected across the internet via plugins.

And lastly there was The Working Poor: Invisible in America, which profiled the millions in America who do their damndest to fulfill the promise of the American dream, but cannot seem to escape poverty.  David Shipler attempts to find out why, and realizes the answer is...complicated! Yes, shockingly, a societal problem has nuance. Poverty cannot be reduced to bad character nor oppression inherent in the system. Instead, it's a little of both. More extensive comments on this piece will follow this week.

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