Are so many Americans furious just because the rich keep getting richer and the rest of us are getting poorer? That seems an amorphous target for such visceral rage. I think the anger roiling the masses also stems from a hundred small deceptions inflicted upon the public on a daily basis.
Take, for example, the shrinking product. Manufacturers, faced with rising costs of raw materials, labor, and transportation, have quietly reduced the content of your bag of chips. The subterfuge becomes apparent once you open the package. There, nestled in the bottom of the once-puffed up bag, is a notably smaller quantity of chips. Still sold for the same price, the lesser content sends a subtle message: You are being cheated.
Crackers come in geometrically reduced proportions. Toilet paper is narrower, less tightly rolled. There are only four gel pens in the package instead of five. All for the same price as before.
The true cost of food is most clearly displayed in the produce department where two pears will cost you a dollar-fifty. Or in the meat department where a pound of ground chuck has somehow crept up to the unbelievable price of $5.99. Yes, you can buy ground beef at a lower cost—but it’s suspiciously slick and off-scent and each mouthful yields little granules of gristle and other mysterious and disgusting bits.
Manufactured goods suffer a similar problem. While potato chips must still—for now at least—be made from potatoes, wooden picture frames can be made of plastic that won’t hold a screw. Wooden cabinets and furniture can be made of plastic or pressboard which, once broken, cannot be repaired. Toys and shoes fall apart.
Clothing once warmed us, comforted us, an ancient human invention to ameliorate the savages of raw nature. But what comfort comes in wearing synthetics manufactured from crude oil? Synthetics sit on the skin like plastic sheeting. Even the latest efforts to make this material more user friendly can never take away its basic petroleum nature.
Want cotton? Prepare to spend a lot more money than you ever imagined. A simple work shirt can run upwards of sixty dollars. If you can find one. Can’t afford it? Walk around all day in clothing that irritates your skin and contributes to the random outbreak of eczema. The aggravation becomes subliminal but ever present. Check your anger level as you rip off your clothing at the end of the day.
Recently my hard drive crashed and I was forced to upgrade my version of Windows. In the process, I lost the ability to interface with my laser printer—a new driver wasn’t available. I also lost my favorite word processing software, Word Perfect, since I could not afford to buy it new as well as Microsoft Word. For a writer, Microsoft Word is required so I had no choice about how to spend that money.
The financial hit started piling up. My version of Photoshop no longer worked. I lost use of clipart software that included over 10,000 images and there is nothing comparable available. I lost font software that included 1000 fonts. The fonts that came with the new system are essentially all the same—nothing fancy, scrolling, or ornate. New fonts are sold by the each. (Recently I’ve learned of a font source that sells fonts in bundles, but they’re still costly.)
The new email software (Windows Live Mail) that came with the new Windows—because of course my old Outlook Express no longer works—is full of fancy bells and whistles I don’t need but is haunted by a glitch that has cost me more than one friend. At random times, if I add an attachment to the email, the email will send and send but never show up in the sent folder. I discover the error if I happen to check the outbox and see it still sitting there happily sending the ten thousandth copy. One time I merely replied to a message with imbedded images and because of those images, the glitch sprang into action. That recipient got several hundred copies of my reply.
(Yes, I also use Gmail but my vast reserve of old info from Outlook was imported into Live Mail.)
Things get worse instead of better and it’s the certain knowledge of this, the personal daily acid drip of unexpected expenses and losses that eat away at your nerves. Admittedly, if we earned more, we might not stand in shock at the price tag on a cotton shirt or a bundle of fonts. However, until the day that we can drop sixty bucks on a comfortable shirt, we’re forced to shop at big box stores such as Walmart. And therein lies another wrathful screed.
(Yes, one can shop at second hand stores. Good luck finding what you want in your size. For me, shopping is akin to sitting in a red ant hill. Do it and get out.)
It’s not just the computer world that disregards and/or manipulates its buyers. In big box stores, nothing is where it was the last time you shopped. (Okay, slight exaggeration, but I’m ranting, so bear with me.) Driven by some junior executive concept of aggressive marketing, store managers are instructed to move key items from one place to another in order to encourage shoppers to explore new aisles. In theory, when we have to search for Band-Aids in a new location, we’ll find a new product to buy.
A similar strategy drives these bargain stores to make strategic shifts of entire departments. Too easy to place the paper, pens, and other office supplies in a convenient aisle near the grocery section. That made sense until the latest theory came into play. Now one must trudge a half mile to the farthest corner in order to purchase a note pad. This might not infuriate shoppers so much if there was an alternative retailer where a note pad might be found. But alas, along with the big box came the demise of the local stationary store, five and dime, and other potential competitor.
Let’s not forget the bait and switch method where a useful product appears on the shelf only to be replaced six months or a year later with an inferior clone.
Or how about the now-you-see-it, now-you-don’t ploy? Or the clerks (assuming you can find one) who have no idea what you’re talking about because they didn’t work there when that product was stocked. Or they did but they have no idea why there aren’t any now. Or a tired acknowledgement that no, trays that catch overflow under flower pots aren’t stocked in the fall or winter because that’s not the garden season. NEVERMIND that pots don’t need trays when they’re outside for the summer, they’re needed in the fall and winter.
For me, it’s this sense of being played in service to greed and ignorance that underlies my fury. It’s the paper checking account register that’s half the size it was in the days before online bill payments. They can’t sell enough checks now so you have to buy registers. It’s the Facebook newsfeed default setting that sends you back to their idea of your ‘top stories’ instead of allowing you to receive your friends’ posts permanently in chronological order.
Progress should means keeping what’s good and adding new good stuff. Instead, our progress seems to mean replacing the good stuff with cheaper shittier stuff while paying the same price. It’s not difficult to understand consumer outrage over corporate executives who rake in millions. The race to the bottom in quantity, quality or durability comes not because they can’t afford to offer more chips in the bag or software that works with my laser printer, but because the profit formula means that people at the top and their stockholders must make more money.
The profit formula dictates not only that the cost of production must be suppressed but that the consumer must be beguiled into the belief he is paying less. The details of this formula are all too familiar—jobs exported to Third World nations, lousy workmanship, poor quality contents. Rape and plunder of the earth’s remaining resources. Consumers confront the guilt of adding to the trade deficit by buying a shirt made in Bangladesh, of knowing they’re contributing to an industry that may employ child labor or which ignores workplace safety.
What lies within memory for perhaps the angriest Americans are times when most clothing was made from natural fibers, when a pound of ground chuck could be had for a buck ninety-nine, and the meat tasted good. We remember furniture that could be repaired with a larger screw and a bit of yellow glue. We remember stores that remembered us, familiar aisles where we could find another one of those things we bought last year.
Rationally, we know the government is not to blame. We know that the fundamental corporate mandate dictates the endless machinations by which its executives gain ever greater salaries and its consumers function as pawns in their capitalist game. We buy in because we’re not ready to stop using computers or stop buying chips. They’ve got us by the short and curlies.
The reason we’re angry with the government is that the government alone has the power to regulate the corporations. Only government can mitigate the capitalist prime directive and look out for the common man’s interests. When evidence supports the suspicion that corporations have infiltrated the government’s function, then it’s time to vote in a new Congress.
Then let them eat cake.