Friday, January 18, 2013

Lowercase Capitalism

This is not a political post. As far as American politics are concerned I am content with the existing Archetypes that you're either a selfish idiotic asshole or a tree hugging pussy. I don't want what I am about to say to be construed as  post-election hidden agenda propaganda attempting to lobby a few votes for my preferred  party. What drives my cursor across the screen this evening is a much greater overall comfort with life.

I won't argue the fact that Capitalism is the most successful of all the "ism" systems that have been implemented.  I only choose to take issue with one small part of the whole shebang and that tiny of tiny parts is a much used refrain: "Capitalism breeds competition." Naturally where there is competition there is a requirement to "best" the competition in order to be successful and we the consumer benefit by getting products that are the cream of the crop. However, just because something is more successful does not mean that it is wholly and absolutely better. Please allow me then to prattle on about the few hidden side effects brought to the surface in the wake of competition.

1) Technology

Technologically speaking, being the first to market is likely the chief concern. I get it, to be in the electronics field you have to be on the cutting edge. You have to be able to see the down the road and develop ideas that will be implemented in five to ten years.  Nobody wants a 60 pound PC hardwired to a wall outlet when they can have the freedom of an Ipad. What this forces everyone in the industry to do is to abandon all of their old technology and instead work feverishly on a clone of the new hotness. Often times an under researched company like Microsoft is better funded and because of this can produce an under developed product faster than a more advanced group of techies. The end result of this is that  incomplete technological devices go to market and they don't work properly...if they work at all.  Ironically the superior product that may have worked right is ignored by the general public and regarded as a clone should it ever make it to the assembly line.

2) Adversarial customer service.

It used to be that the customer was always right and that businesses were interested in accommodating all transactions from cradle to grave. They wanted the customer to feel special with repeat business in mind and they wanted people to tell their friends about the product/service. Today the picture is vastly different.  We've all been put on hold on the phone and forced through an unending maze of button pushing prompts that never quite match up with our questions and concerns. We've also encountered people who speak an artistically abstract version of our native tongue. But these two things are only symptoms of a larger and more deceptive framework.

Every time I go into a store and decide to gamble on asking an employee a question it is as if I approached someone who just walked in off the street the only difference is that one of us is being paid to not know anything. This happens because like a casino the big wigs don't want you to find exactly what you are looking for, purchase it, and immediately leave. In fact, they would rather that you walk around and buy several things that you don't want while searching for the things you do. Should you accidentally buy the wrong item they know that 9 times out of 10 you will be too embarrassed/forgetful to return it in time and they will have made multiple sales instead of just one.

This same method is also applied to fast food. People who do not speak your language and people who are not intelligent enough to evolve beyond serving fast food for a living render the same eventual effect. Every combo has been assigned a number to increase efficiency yet the employees without fail always fail at completing a basic order. You would think that all of the money/time spent by customers coaching their servers through their orders would negate any gains that their implemented system was intended to yield. However, the fact that the system remains in place suggests that someone crunched the numbers and decided that the cost of education, training and benefits was an infinitesimally greater number allowing the current system to prevail.  You'll also note that they rarely if ever accidentally give you an extra Big Mac. What they do constantly is short you food/condiments/napkins/straws, a crime that you will only discover if you pullover and do a complete inventory of your order. Every hamburger or ketchup packet that they can short you is another dollar in their pocket. But the real business genius occurs should you go into the store to complain.

In most retail big box stores the first line of defense is the aforementioned idiot block. If you have a question or complaint about a service or a coupon not working a moron is strategically placed there to shrug his shoulders and give you a "what are you gonna do?" response. The initial store gatekeeper has no authority, training or common sense. His necessity is to absorb all of your questions and complaints and destroy your will to the point where you give up on humanity and leave the store without resolving your issue. He is not expected to conjure up potential solutions for you he has merely been implemented to say: "I can't do that" and "It's not our policy." The majority of us give up at stage one because we have lives and we don't want to get our hands dirty with a petty grievance to the tune of 10 dollars. However, some of us choose to dig in whether on principle or because we sadly can't afford it. Step two in the adversarial customer process is asking for a manager.

A manager is composed of the same DNA as the first guy the only difference is that he has a few more keys to a few more doors than guy #1 and he gets paid about two dollars more per hour. The manager is highly trained in the skill of pretending to listen, he also possesses the added skill of feigning looking something up on the computer. Ultimately however when push comes to shove the manager will spout the same two answers that the first guy does "I'm sorry sir I don't have the authority to do that" or "It's not our policy to "
___(fill in the blank)

As your blood pressure begins to rise you will ask "Who then has the authority to fix this error?" To which the manger will say "All of our issues are handled by our central agency and can be reached  by phone from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Pacific at 1-800-EAT-SHIT.  So you dial 1800EATSHIT (which isn't just a complaint line for truckers) and after wading through the aforementioned phone maze you finally get a living person to talk to and you quickly restate your issue to them. After many minutes of back and forth they will conclude that it is not their policy to help you with your matter. They will apologize for the inconvenience and explain that if you were a new customer they would be able to issue a refund immediately and with a bonus but since you are a loyal customer of over ten years who has made every payment on time that there is simply no possible way that they could make an exception to their policy on this one occasion.


3) The Applebee's Effect

You may think that you like Applebee's but sadly you are mistaken. When I speak of Applebee's I am not limiting it to a single franchise, I am speaking to an entire genre and more importantly their effect on society. We all want to have a good time. Actually, I'd argue that we all like to have a good time as much as possible.Unfortunately in our part-time-no benefit-minimum wage-rotating schedule world we hardly have the time or resources to party down as much as we'd like. If you're lucky you can afford to go out for dinner on your birthday and one other miscellaneous occasion in a given year. While you are sitting down chomping away on your surf and turf in a classy privately owned restaurant you may lament the fact that you don't get to have "special occasions" very often. Well never fear, Applebee's is here! With their 2 can dine for $19.99 (dessert not included) specials a couple can have a nice sit down meal in a classy friendly joint...or so that is what they would have you believe. Applebee's preys on the lower classes and exploits their desire to celebrate like people of a more financially stable stature. We are promised the opportunity to have more fun more often, the only compromise is that we enjoy ourselves less and that we expect a significantly lower caliber of dining.  Number crunchers have once again decided what the mathematical equivalent of mediocrity is and built a restaurant franchise a few notches below that. Once a month the soulless masses march out to eat microwaved turds systematically slung out by apathetic servers in a milling bee hive of ghetto/white trash/broken dream sports enthusiast men. We call it a night out and we learn through repetition to expect less from society and less from ourselves.

Applebee's, Walmart and stores of the same ilk are lowering our self esteem as a society and because of their superior business model they are getting away with it. Ultimately we vote with our dollars and the misguided beliefs implanted in our minds by their "fun" oriented advertising and low prices lead us to inadvertently drive all higher quality, higher priced businesses out of town. Eventually we are left surrounded by businesses that we hate but are obligated to go to because they are the only ones that remain. Further, these companies end up employing and under paying our local townspeople who are consequently forced to perpetuate a system of sub par shopping and living that in no way enriches their lives.

So what's the conclusion to all of this? What's the solution that ties it all up in a neat little bow.  Sadly, I am brave enough to say that I do not know. On one hand I don't like living in a world where I know that every person I meet is a parasite trying to hustle me out of my last dime so that they can afford more toys of excess. However, I am also not content with the alternative of being given one pair of rubber boots and 13 rolls of toilet paper per year with which to pat my privates.  What I believe I suppose is that there is a logical compromise whereupon we can live quality lives AND aspire toward a brighter more intelligent future. Some may say I'm a dreamer.