Confessions of a Capitalism Non-Conformist

Hear this, you who trample on the needy
and bring the poor of the land to an end,
saying, “When will the new moon be over,
that we may sell grain?
And the Sabbath,
that we may offer wheat for sale,
that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great
and deal deceitfully with false balances,
that we may buy the poor for silver
and the needy for a pair of sandals
and sell the chaff of the wheat?”
The LORD has sworn by the pride of Jacob:
“Surely I will never forget any of their deeds.

Amos 8:4-7 (ESV)

These verses have been on my mind lately, partly because they are the Old Testament reading for the lectionary in a few weeks. Mostly they stick in my mind because they speak to American capitalism. The Sabbath-trampling is obvious and rampant; we don’t even wait anymore. But the dishonesty is also increasing.

Have you ever wondered why there are so many cell phone plans? I am convinced they make it confusing on purpose. The more complicated it is, the more likely a customer is to buy the more expensive thing that they are pretty sure will do what they want. Buying a car is wrapped in the same mumbo-jumbo shell game shenanigans.

I had thought about buying a tablet computer, perhaps as a replacement for my laptop, but as the choices have multiplied, overlapped, and obscured each other — even from a single manufacturer — I’m realizing these devices have fallen to the same fate. They have become about making the most possible money, not about making the best possible device.

This, it seems, is where capitalism leads. It starts with open competition, which is a benefit to the consumer. If anyone who wants to can make a widget, then in theory, the best widget-maker would prevail. But as marketing¹ enters the equation, this is obscured. If I can make an average widget and wrap it in good marketing, you’ll buy my widget even if it isn’t the best. As soon as producers and sellers figure this out, we start the headlong decline to where we are now.

Complicated products tend to fall victim to this first: automobiles, computers, and the like. It’s hard to spin a simple product like salt, thread, milk, pencils, or paper — not that you can’t still achieve market dominance.

My wife uses DMC embroidery floss for her cross-stitch projects. Is it of superior quality? Not that I can tell. DMC’s edge is it has become an industry standard because of two simple factors. First, the DMC color numbers are used in a majority of cross stitch patterns. Second, the colors are consistent — no dye-lots or variations across years of the same color.

In my mind, DMC deserves the place they have earned. No marketing hype. No complicated graduations of quality, quantity, and color.² They introduce new colors on occasion, but I think they are honestly reaching the limit. (454 according to their website, not counting metallics. Do I want warm grey medium, warm grey dark, or warm grey very dark?)

Bells and whistles don’t attract me anymore. Discussions at work of systems and software to accomplish multitudinous tasks cause me to roll my eyes and reach for paper or index cards. These are commodities with little variation. (I do have strong feelings about Leuchtturm1917 notebooks, but that’s a quality issue, not a marketing issue.) The company making index cards isn’t trying to figure out ways to spin them to increase margins. They know they are making a commodity and do so probably just to “round out their product line.”

I take comfort knowing that my preferred tools — pen and paper — are not platform dependent and won’t apply incessant incremental upgrades until they are incapacitated and demand replacement. There is no complicated pricing scheme for ink or paper. What matters at the end of the day is the quality of the work I produce with it. Would it be that everything was judged on its merits and not on its marketing.


¹ I had to take marketing as part of my MBA program. I felt like I should shower after each and every class. They should just call it “how to lie in order to make more money” but I suppose that would be poor marketing.

² If the same folks who run cable companies sold embroidery floss, you could only get Very Dark Blue Violet if you bought the 200-color pack, and you couldn’t buy any color by itself. “Oh, you need Very Light Baby Blue? That’s available with a premium add on that also includes 4 metallic shades!”

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Filed under Capitalism, General, Simplicity

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