Amitai Etzioni is a Moron

etzioni According to his own website:

Outside of academia, Etzioni’s voice is frequently heard in the media.

In 2001, Etzioni was named among the top 100 American intellectuals as measured by academic citations in Richard Posner’s book, Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline.

Also in 2001, Etzioni was awarded the John P. McGovern Award in Behavioral Sciences as well as the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany. He was also the recipient of the Seventh James Wilbur Award for Extraordinary Contributions to the Appreciation and Advancement of Human Values by the Conference on Value Inquiry, as well as the Sociological Practice Association’s Outstanding Contribution Award.

So, what does this top 100 mind have to say about the ongoing radical commodification and commercialization of personal life in the United States and elsewhere?

Sit down, because you are about to LYFAO:

As long as consumption is focused on satisfying basic human needs–safety, shelter, food, clothing, health care, education–it is not consumerism. But, when the acquisition of goods and services is used to satisfy the higher needs, consumption turns into consumerism–and consumerism becomes a social disease.

The link to the economic crisis should be obvious. A culture in which the urge to consume dominates the psychology of citizens is a culture in which people will do most anything to acquire the means to consume–working slavish hours, behaving rapaciously in their business pursuits, and even bending the rules in order to maximize their earnings. They will also buy homes beyond their means and think nothing of running up credit-card debt. It therefore seems safe to say that consumerism is, as much as anything else, responsible for the current economic mess.

A shift away from consumerism, and toward this something else, would obviously be a dramatic change for American society.

To accomplish this kind of radical change, it is neither necessary nor desirable to imitate devotees of the 1960s counterculture, early socialists, or followers of ascetic religious orders, all of whom have resisted consumerism by rejecting the whole capitalist project. On the contrary, capitalism should be allowed to thrive, albeit within clear and well-enforced limits.

I certainly do not expect that most people will move away from a consumerist mindset overnight. Some may keep one foot in the old value system even as they test the waters of the new one, just like those who wear a blazer with jeans. Still others may merely cut back on conspicuous consumption without guilt or fear of social censure. Societies shift direction gradually. All that is needed is for more and more people to turn the current economic crisis into a liberation from the obsession with consumer goods and the uberwork it requires– and, bit by bit, begin to rethink their definition of what it means to live a good life. [Source: The New Republic, June 17, 2009]

There you have it.  This pampered and decorated former president of the American Sociological Association has obviously never once contemplated the history and conceptual validity of the word “consumer.”

Nevertheless, onward he plows in his field of air.

“Consumerism,” Etzioni says, is a “mindset” that automatically takes hold as soon as people stop living hand-to-mouth.  Once any kind of affluence develops, this “social disease” emerges, and eventually people drive themselves crazy and even ruin their lovely capitalist economies in their unhinged quest “to acquire the means to consume.”

In this world, people run up their credit cards not because of stagnant wages and salaries, but because they want to.  Capitalism, while perhaps needing a slap on the wrist, is squarely part of the solution, rather than the overwhelming and obvious main cause of the problem.  And people can simply choose to drift away from current behavioral environments and habits.  Nobody in the corporate power structure would much care about that, one way or the other.  After all, “consumerism” comes from we the people and our chosen “culture,” not from the corporate overclass’s ever-expanding two-trillion-dollar-a-year marketing juggernaut.  That minor endeavor exists merely to serve our pre-existing demands, obviously.  Hence, it isn’t even worthy of a mention.

I’ll just say two things about this stunning pile of unscientific manure:

1. If an undergraduate handed me this essay, along with their C+, they would get back a long note about the importance of both taking care with definitions and making some attempt at reference to actual, empirical, documented realities in trying to do sociology.

2. Such is the stuff that gets you laureled as a scholar in this market-totalitarian nation of wall-to-wall lies.  “A study of decline,” indeed.

Metastasis of the Corporate Panopticon

In a report on how corporate spying and data mining contribute(d) to the general debt-pushed financial implosion, today’s New York Times conveys a bit of news on how the big business marketing juggernaut continues to do what it always does — grow in size and sophistication:

The American information economy has been evolving for decades. Equifax, for example, has been compiling financial histories of consumers for more than a century. Since 1970, use of that data has been regulated by the Federal Trade Commission under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. But Equifax and its rivals started offering new sets of unregulated demographic data over the last decade — not just names, addresses and Social Security numbers of people, but also their marital status, recent births in their family, education history, even the kind of car they own, their television cable service and the magazines they read.

The data agencies start by categorizing consumers into groups. Equifax, for example, says that 115 million Americans are listed in its “Niches 2.0” database. Its “Oodles of Offspring” grouping contains heads of household who make an average of $36,000 a year, are high school graduates and have children, blue-collar jobs and a low home value. People in the “Midlife Munchkins” group make $71,000 a year, have children or grandchildren, white-collar jobs and a high level of education.

In addition to selling these buckets of names, data compilers and banks also employ a variety of methods to estimate the likelihood that people will need new debt, even before they know it themselves.

One technique is called “predictive modeling.” Financial institutions and their consultants might look at who is responding favorably to an existing mailing campaign — one that asks people to refinance their homes, for example — and who has simply thrown the letter in the trash.

The attributes of the people who bite on the offer, like their credit card debt, cash savings and home value, are then plugged into statistical models. Those models then are used for the next round of offers, sent to people with similar financial lives.

The brochure for one Equifax data product, called TargetPoint Predictive Triggers, advertises “advanced profiling techniques” to identify people who show a “statistical propensity to acquire new credit” within 90 days.

An Equifax spokesman said the exact formula was part of the company’s “secret sauce.”

Such is the normal course of affairs in our market totalitarian social order — unceasing, unregulated, and politically undiscussed expansion of the overclass’s capacities to dictate human experience, behavior, and choices.

And, as I argued in The Consumer Trap, the effects of this on individuals are small but very real:

In 2005, Experian, and then rivals Equifax and TransUnion, started selling lists of these consumers to other banks and brokers, whose loan officers would then contact the customer and compete for the loan.

At Visions Marketing Services, a company in Lancaster, Pa., that conducts telemarketing campaigns for banks, mortgage trigger leads were marketing gold during the housing boom.

“We called people who were astounded,” said Alan E. Geller, chief executive of the firm. “They said, ‘I can’t believe you just called me. How did you know we were just getting ready to do that?’ ”

And, as I also argued in the book, the collective impact of having our individual actions scientifically nudged around like this is akin to an attack by a school of piranhas on a wounded animal.

In these days of economic meltdown and mounting pain for the commoners, the fact that this subtle but central and ever-growing kind of coercion is still miles away from anybody’s political agenda speaks volumes about the scale of our predicament.

Old Overclasses Never Learn

As Chris Hedges noted yesterday, “[o]ur oligarchic class is incompetent at governing, managing the economy, coping with natural disasters, educating our young, handling foreign affairs, providing basic services like health care and safeguarding individual rights.”  And, I would add, that’s just the short list.

And, now that their system has spent its latest and greatest upswing phase, the overclass hasn’t got a clue what to do about the coming downswing.  As Hedges puts it, “the corporate managers and government officials trying to fix the economic meltdown are pouring money and resources into the financial sector because they only know how to manage and sustain established systems, not change them.”

Indeed, consider what Business Week calls “the next meltdown.”  That is the coming implosion of the securitized ocean of credit-card debt in the United States.  As Business Week explains, in the terminology of the times:

The troubles sound familiar. Borrowers falling behind on their payments. Defaults rising. Huge swaths of loans souring. Investors getting burned. But forget the now-familiar tales of mortgages gone bad. The next horror for beaten-down financial firms is…outstanding credit-card debt—much of it toxic.

That’s bad news for players like JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and Bank of America (BAC) that have largely sidestepped—and even benefited from—the mortgage mess but have major credit-card operations. They’re hardly alone. The consumer debt bomb is already beginning to spray shrapnel throughout the financial markets, further weakening the U.S. economy.

“The next meltdown will be in credit cards,” says Gregory Larkin, senior analyst at research firm Innovest Strategic Value Advisors. Adds William Black, senior vice-president of Moody’s Investors Service’s structured finance team: “We still haven’t hit the post-recessionary peaks [in credit-card losses], so things will get worse before they get better.” What’s more, the U.S. Treasury Dept.’s $700 billion mortgage bailout won’t be a lifeline for credit-card issuers.

But some banks and credit-card companies may be exacerbating their problems. To boost profits and get ahead of coming regulation, they’re hiking interest rates. But that’s making it harder for consumers to keep up. That’ll only make tomorrow’s pain worse. Innovest estimates that credit-card issuers will take a $41 billion hit from rotten debt this year and a $96 billion blow in 2009.

Those losses, in turn, will wend their way through the $365 billion market for securities backed by credit-card debt. As with mortgages, banks bundle groups of so-called credit-card receivables, essentially consumers’ outstanding balances, and sell them to big investors such as hedge funds and pension funds. Big issuers offload roughly 70% of their credit-card debt.

Making matters worse, the subprime threat is also greater in credit-card land. Risky borrowers with low credit scores account for roughly 30% of outstanding credit-card debt, compared with 11% of mortgage debt. More than 45% of Washington Mutual’s credit-card portfolio is subprime, according to Innovest. That could become a headache for JPMorgan Chase, which agreed on Sept. 25 to buy the troubled thrift’s credit-card business and other assets for $1.9 billion.

“Subprime,” of course, is the overclass label for all those who live in conditions below those enjoyed by the upper-middle-class and the overclass. What Business Week is trying to say is that the same problems that killed the housing gambit are about to devastate the long-running credit-card push.

And that figures, since it’s much easier to get a credit card than a mortgage, and, just as they did via the “home equity” delusion, the masters of the system have been enjoying the long-running substitution of credit cards for wage and salary increases among the peons. But people can’t not pay debts forever. That, in turn, means that credit cards can only compensate for class polarization for so long, even in the most aggressive, creative market-totalitarian conditions (a.k.a. “even in America”).

But the real lesson of the coming trouble is to realize that, despite the strong memories of the last Great Depression, the egregious even-more-of-the-same anti-solutions being fobbed off as “solutions” remain exactly the same as they were last time around: help the rich and wait for them to re-start the economy. After all, they’re entrepreneurs!

Want proof that that’s the going policy? Guess what the amount of outstanding credit-card debt is in the USA? $950 billion.

Hence, one massively obvious answer to the question of how to stimulate the economy was to aid its victims rather than its victimizers. And one massively obvious way to have done that would have been to pay off all the credit cards, instead of bailing out the Wall Street speculators.

But that idea was never, ever on the agenda. Naturally so, for history shows that established overclasses never, ever concede or learn or change, unless severely threatened with progressive overthrow.

As Hedges puts it:

Our elites—the ones in Congress, the ones on Wall Street and the ones being produced at prestigious universities and business schools—do not have the capacity to fix our financial mess. Indeed, they will make it worse. They have no concept, thanks to the educations they have received, of the common good. They are stunted, timid and uncreative bureaucrats who are trained to carry out systems management. They see only piecemeal solutions which will satisfy the corporate structure. They are about numbers, profits and personal advancement. They are as able to deny gravely ill people medical coverage to increase company profits as they are able to use taxpayer dollars to peddle costly weapons systems to blood-soaked dictatorships. The human consequences never figure into their balance sheets. The democratic system, they think, is a secondary product of the free market. And they slavishly serve the market.

We may elect representatives to Congress to end the war in Iraq, but the war goes on. We may plead with these representatives to halt Bush’s illegal wiretapping but the telecommunications lobbyists make sure it remains in place. We may beg them not to pass the bailout but 850 billion taxpayer dollars are funneled upward to the elites on Wall Street. We may want single-payer, not-for-profit health care but it is not even discussed as a possibility in presidential debates. We, as individuals in this system, are irrelevant.

[W]hat is coming, as long as our oligarchy remains in charge, will not be good. We will either recover the concept of the public good, and this means a revolt against our bankrupt elite and the dynamiting of the corporatist structure, or we will extinguish our democracy.