Harvard Sells “Consumerism”

Louis Menand‘s new book is, despite having its moments, deeply strange. For one thing, despite being about the meaning of freedom in America, it lacks a central hypothesis.

Along its weird, almost pointless way, it also promotes this claim, with very close to no shading:

This period I’m writing about is the great triumph of consumerism. And consumerism means consumer choice, what they used to call consumer sovereignty. So when I go online to buy a pair of headphones for this interview, I can immediately comparison shop every available headphone on whatever company I’m buying it from. And there’s all kinds of ratings and so forth to enable me to make the best choice.

And that’s something that you see starting in mid 20th century and these economies is consumer choice. People experience that as a good thing. They experience that as freedom. I get to decide what kind of car I want and what kind of a washing machine I want, what kind of headphones I want. And the economy is giving me more and more choices.

Louis Menand interviewed by Ezra Klein, The New York Times, June 15, 2021

The book contains not one word about either the institution of marketing or the corporate power it serves. Not one word.

Neither does it come close to questioning the word “consumer.”

The great triumph of consumerism!

With Harvards like this, who needs ITT Tech?

Platinum Waters?

TCT, of course, is the giver of the much-uncoveted Golden Hicksie Award. The candidates for said trophy abound, of course.

But what of those who cling to human values and reject Mammon? There are such people.

One is Roger Waters, of Pink Floyd fame.

Here he is not only turning down the bribe, but reading out how it was proffered. This is a major public service!

Consumerism?

These days, it remains a dominant hypothesis among people alarmed by current ecological trends that the real problem we face is “consumerism,” which, in this familiar formulation, is the individual-level mental disorder that adds up, at the collective level, to “consumer culture.”

If this “consumerism” hypothesis is the best one available, how, then, are we to interpret this “nationally representative sample of 2,003 U.S. residents interviewed between April 13-16, 2021”?:

graph from CBS News
Source: CBS News, April 2021

The answer, of course, is that you can’t. This evidence is not compatible with the “consumer culture” hypothesis. Even here in the good ol’ US of A, people are not a pack of intractably stupid shopaholics who insist on preserving the status quo.

Will this basic point penetrate the environmentalist community? Almost certainly not. They themselves are pretty wasted on their own dangerous mix of social-scientific laziness and “I’m green” hubris.

But one can still say it: Physicians, heal thyselves. “Consumerism” and “consumer culture” are phantasms.

Flush Goes the Boss

Bruce Springsteen, native of Freehold, New Jersey, is the latest recipient of the widely uncoveted Golden Hicksie Award, given at appropriate moments by TCT to dishonor the most extreme sell-outs in our sprawling empire of commercialism and commodification.

Here’s what sad old Bruce looks like in this shocking self-travesty of what he used to be (or at least seemed to be):

I don’t know which is more pathetic, more galling, more flabbergasting — this pandering imagery, or the ideological stupidity of the ad’s content, which centers on the supposed desirability of meeting in “the middle” — at a moment when Marjorie Taylor Greene represents the new face of the institutional right.

And all in the name of selling more Jeeps, in the year 2021.

As usual, you could spend weeks pulling apart the depravity of this two-minute assault on everything that’s actually holy.

For now, suffice it to say that there’s never been a Golden Hicksie recipient more deserving of the exact, precise words of the late Bill Hicks:

“Here’s the deal folks: you do a commercial, you’re off the artistic roll call forever. End of story, OK? You’re another corporate fucking shill, you’re another whore at the capitalist gang-bang. And if you do a commercial, there’s a price on your head, everything you say is suspect, and every word that comes out of your mouth is now like a turd falling into my drink.”

Point blank, as somebody once said.

P.S. From the department of excessive protestation, here’s what Cowboy Bruce’s manager has to say about this catastrophe:

“Olivier Francois and I have been discussing ideas for the last 10 years and when he showed us the outline for ‘The Middle,’ our immediate reaction was, ‘Let’s do it,‘” Springsteen’s manager, Jon Landau, said in a statement. “Our goal was to do something surprising, relevant, immediate and artful.”

Quoted on CNBC

Consider the Peanut Butter Jar

In an age when product containers can easily and almost costlessly be shaped at the whim of their issuers, why does peanut butter continue to come in tall jars rather than squat tubs?

A corporate PR department would surely assert that it’s because that’s what people are used to and expect.

That, of course, is 99% horse feathers.

The real reason is salable waste, aka planned osolescence.

Tall, narrow containers make it needlessly difficult to use all the sticky, amorphous gels residing in them. This structural difficulty, in turn, leads to a small but meaningful amount of the peanut butter being throw away, rather than used. It means, on average, people buy the next jar of peanut butter a day earlier than they would if the stuff came in a short, wide tub that permitted easy access to the last portions.

If you have been around big-brand peanut butter lately, you’ll know that this point stands double. Nationally advertised peanut butter jars are not just tall cylinders, but, within that form, are fairly riddled with flanges and recesses that heighten the difficulty of using the last spoonfuls. Why?

Again, there’s only one plausible answer — the obvious one: Corporate capitalist product planners want us to throw away some of what they know we want and need.

Interestingly, this very example was apparently central to the career of Brooks Stevens, the industrial designer who first publicly enunciated/acknowledged the concept of “planned obsolescence.” Here is how Stevens, near the end of his life, explained his early entry into a field in which he eventually became a superstar:

Peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches inspired one of Brooks Stevens’s simplest and most ubiquitous designs.

“I loved peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches,” Mr. Stevens says. But the jars the peanut butter came in were tall with small caps. “I could never get the peanut butter out of the shoulders of the jar.”

“So I squared up the jar,” he recalls. “And then I made the opening the full diameter of the width of the jar, so that it was a big circle and had a big cap. Then you could get it all out of there.”

The obvious question for Stevens was why he stopped there. Why not go from jar to tub?

The answer was inherent in the job description of the modern corporate capitalist product engineer:

[The industrial designer] has to be a salesman, an engineer, a manufacturer — in the sense of knowledgeable about process and materials — and an artist, and in that order.

-Brooks Stevens to The Chroncile of Higher Education, September 16, 1992

It bears repeating, and remembering: Salesman, then engineer…in that order.