Continuing from Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 9 I’m going to continue the discussion of overall US culture by looking at politics and attitude, tomorrow and Friday I’ll actually start talking about sports. No need for summarizing, hit the link and read if you didn’t already. Let’s get to it.
Quick note: I’m quite sure that someone with a background in economics will get really upset about the next section, being concerned that I over-generalized some factor or left out some incredibly detailed nuance of the system that is just critically important to their mental health that I discuss in detail. Just keep in mind what I’m doing here which is NOT trying to write the be-all end-all series on Capitalism. Or America.
Or a whole bunch of other topics that folks have been busting my nuts for skimming details on because they can’t seem to keep in mind what my actual topic is. Entire books have been written about a topic that I’m going to spend about 6 paragraphs on and clearly I’m not trying to be comprehensive. This is a grossly overgeneralized view of the US economic system. Let it go and get over yourselves.
While it should go without saying, I’m going to say it anyway: the US is based around a capitalistic democratic political structure. And no we’re not going to argue about whether or not it’s a real democracy, take that crap to Facebook or elsewhere. I’m mainly going to focus on the capitalist end of things anyhow and demonstrate that I’m about as much of an economist as I am a geographer.
Capitalism is roughly defined (as Googled) as a system where a countries trade and profits are determined by private entities rather than the government. This distinguishes it from Communist and Socialist countries where the government controls things and usually mucks it up because the system is based around political crap and individual agendas instead of what actually produces results or profit.
There’s little incentive to innovate or even be good at what you do if the government ensures you get paid either way which is why the bailouts were such a mistake; it positively reinforced/rewarded a negative behavior and told companies that they didn’t have to succeed on their own merits to survive. That goes against everything capitalism stands for not to mention just being a bad idea: you should never reward nor encourage mediocrity.
Rather, capitalism works because it’s based around competition and succeeding (where success is defined as making money/growing your business and/or putting someone else out of business by doing a better job). Consider the US Post Office versus FedEx and UPS for example; all three transport packages but they do it with two distinctly different models.
To whit, the US Post office is a government run organization, it gets funding no matter what and has no competition; it’s not based around making a profit but rather providing a service to the US population. And hence has no reason to innovate. Because whether it does a stunning job or a terrible job doesn’t matter; it gets the same funding either way. It has no reason to be anything more than passable or functional and that’s all it is.
In contrast FedEx and UPS are in constant competition with one another because their goal is profit. Whichever company provides the best product/service at the best price gets the most customers and makes the most money. Hence they ‘win’ in a capitalist sense. But that gives them the initiative to keep trying to do a better job in order to make more money. So they are in constant struggle to one up the other to keep succeeding in the capitalist marketplace. Competition drives innovation.
In a capitalist sense, anything that produces ‘works’ and anything that doesn’t produce ‘fails’ (the economists are grinding their teeth now). And the driver here is generally money. And as I heard it so brilliantly put in a documentary about, of all things, Grindhouse cinema “In capitalism, if it makes money it’s good; if it doesn’t, it’s bad” And that’s totally true. But it goes further than that.
I’d argue that capitalism is effectively a Darwinian evolutionary system where ‘success’ is defined as making the most money. If what you’re doing makes money, you succeed. If it makes you more money than someone else, you really succeed. If what you’re doing doesn’t make money, you fail. And you either have to adapt (improve your product or marketing) or fail. Profit is success and a lack of profit is failure (in the way that survival is success and non-survival is failure in evolution) and that drives the cycle of improvement. The economists are now frothing in their lattes, and they were frothy to begin with.
Remove competition and you remove any incentive to improve and this cuts across all arenas. When a teacher knows they can’t be fired (tenure), they often stop caring about their job. When a company knows that it can’t fail financially because the government will bail it out, it has no incentive to try to succeed or put out a better product. When an athlete knows that they can’t get cut from the team, they have no real reason to work hard. Sure, some have internal motivation but the majority will just ‘get by’ in a system where there are no negative consequences to their actions (as detailed in the Because We Let Them series). Mediocrity wins the day because competition has been removed.
Consider this within the current movement wherein ‘everyone is a winner’ and ‘nobody is a loser’ due to PC influences in a lot of areas (sport included). Why bother trying when you get a medal no matter what you do? Why bother trying to get good grades if you get passed regardless? And I bring this up since it will apply to at least two points I’m going to make later on. If I can remember what they are.
Majority Rules: Part 1
Before moving on, realize that, in general, you make the most money targeting the majority. Yes, I know there are exceptions, you can make huge profits targeting the niche or a minority IF that niche has lots of money that they are willing to spend on your overpriced product. So if you can get a rock star to give you $100,000 for a piece of bling, you may do just fine only selling one or two pieces. And that may be more cost effective than trying to sell 100,000 widgets for $1 to the masses. But you may just as likely go out of business because you don’t sell one. The reward is higher but so is the risk.
There are other examples of that but they tend to be the exception to the majority rule and most companies realize that selling the most product to the most people is the way to win the capitalism game. If it’s at all possible (there are often situations, Internet marketing is one of them, where it’s better to own a smaller niche than try to compete with massive competition in a larger niche).
So given the opportunity, most companies would rather sell something for $1 to 100,000 people than try to achieve the converse. Or find a moderate price point (being determined by a zillion factors) and just make it up on volume. So make your product $10 and sell it to 10,000 people or whatever gives the best risk to reward ratio. That’s been the traditional approach in this country for a lot of reasons; not the least of which is that it works. Some outcomes of this follow to lead into my next point:
Hollywood makes movies that the literati think are trash because more people want to see explosions and romantic comedies than art films; they make more money catering to the masses and that’s why the continue to churn out the same stuff with little experimentation. Why take a risk when you know that explosions and tits or romantic comedies with Julia Roberts will ALWAYS make money?
Restaurants make food that food snobs think is crap because more people want to eat cheaper tastier junk than more expensive gourmet food (note the utter failure of the McLean for example, nobody wanted a healthy fast food burger so they stopped producing something that didn’t sell); they make more money catering to the masses and often learn the very hard way that ‘new’ products fail because people just want variations on what they already like (now, the double BigMac!). Why try something new when sugar and saturated fat is always in season?
TV produces shows that snobs think are mindless because more people watch them (ensuring ad revenue to the stations) than stuff that’s good or intelligent (Arrested Development, we still miss ye); they make more ad revenue catering to the masses. And they will generally choose to make a show in a format that they know sells rather than try something new. Which is why Law and Order had 18 spin-off shows and CSI is up at about 6 right now.
Additionally, this is why you see so much derivative stuff from other companies (how many freaking crime scene dramas are on the air right now, like 30?). When one company establishes a successful product, others will follow it with similar or identical products. Why reinvent the wheel, if some other TV station has established that people like TV shows about crime scene investigation, just make your own.
Make no mistake, there may be innovation which takes the field off in a new direction and then everyone will follow that. But once a product is established as a winner, you need one hell of a good reason to try something different. Not that that doesn’t keep people from trying endlessly. Which is also part of the capitalist system: if you think you can do better than the status quo, you’re welcome to try. If you succeed, great, you’ve created the new status quo and everyone will now copy you. If you fail, well you lose the capitalist evolutionary game. Try again if you have the cash.
Two Exceptions to the Majority Rule
On and on it goes and it applies to any field where making money is the goal. One of the few groups that don’t give a damn about this are not-for-profits organizations. Since their goal isn’t making money they don’t have to target nor cater to the majority (which is why most PBS programming sucks). Because profit is not their bottom line.
Here’s an example, the Austin Humane Shelter is a not for profit organization and we can contrast that to a pet store. The AHS does what it does for the good of the dogs and the dogs alone; we won’t put a dog in the wrong home EVER because profit is not the goal. If that means pissing someone off because they can’t take a certain dog home, that’s fine. In contrast, a pet store doesn’t have that luxury, since their goal is profit if they tell a customer that they can’t buy something, the customer will take their money elsewhere. But ultimately not for profits are not relevant to my discussion, I just wanted to link to the shelter stuff here.
Another exception is when someone is independently wealthy and doesn’t care about making a profit. That person doesn’t have to work under the model I’ve described since making money is not their explicit goal. They’ve already got money and can do whatever they want for whatever personal reason. But that’s also not relevant to this.
Majority Rules: Part 2
But when you are talking about a capitalist situation, where the goal is profit and making money, you’re talking about the situation I described: success and failure are both defined by your profit. If you make money, you win; if you lose money, you don’t. So you do what it takes to maximize your profit.
And in that selling to the majority is generally the better (or at least the most prevalent) model to maximize your profit, this has a singular implication that is a bit of a circular argument but which I feel is true nonetheless. Because if, almost by definition, you win the capitalist game by making things that the majority likes or enjoys (and hence purchases from you), then you can derive what the majority likes or enjoys by examining what is successful. Put differently:
What the majority likes/wants succeeds, hence what succeeds is what the majority likes/wants.
QED (which doesn’t stand for what you think it stands for).
So by looking at what’s wildly successful or popular, you get a pretty good idea of what the majority likes. And by extension, by looking at what fails, you have a pretty good idea of what they don’t like. Because, if they liked it, it wouldn’t have failed (yes, I realize that things can fail for reasons unrelated to their quality per se, it doesn’t change anything at a fundamental level). So since it failed they didn’t like it. Make sense?
And at this point the economists are about to blow their brains out with a gun (or come find me with their gun) because of my simplification of capitalism into a trite two sentences. I told you upfront I was no economist.
I just happen to be right.
Yes, this is a section that I didn’t comment on in the previous parts of this series about other countries; I don’t live in those countries and my comments would just represent gross American stereotypes about them. Not that Americans usually have a problem expressing those. But it’s relevant here as I am an American (sometimes in ways that make me feel a little bit dirty) and have been my whole life; I am in a position to comment on this.
Because when it comes to attitude, America is also unlike anywhere else in the world. Unlike the situation in the Communist or Socialist countries, in premise, anybody can do more or less whatever the hell that they want in this country. Which is technically true in all non-Communist/Socialist countries. But in most of those, there’s usually enough of a long-term cultural tradition that the majority are raised to fit in. Cultural tradition that the US as a whole lacks outside of local pockets.
Society has always existed to train children to fit into that society’s culture and norms. Brits are raised to be British, Scots to be Scottish, East Indians to be East Indian, etc. Sure, there’s always that percentage that doesn’t fit the mold or doesn’t play along; they usually move to the US. Or stage a coup d’etat and impose their own beliefs on everyone else.
Kids in the US are, at most raised to fit into their local subculture which why Yankees coming to the south often have problems fitting in and vice-versa. I always laugh when northerners come to the south and tell me about ‘all of the rude people’, never realizing that they and their attitude is the commonality in the equation. Southerners aren’t rude, northerners just don’t understand how we express ourselves or how to avoid irritating us by not being northerners.
Because not only does the US lack the overarching culture of either Communist/Socialist countries but we don’t have the long-term cultural tradition of the non-communist countries. And we’re made up of the folks who couldn’t get along with people in their home land and wanted to do things their own way. And when you put all those things together and mix them up, you end up with a very extreme, fairly selfish attitude indeed.
It was even spelled out in our Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
It’s that last bit that is the issue. All Americans are guaranteed, by God, to the rights to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. And we take that to an absolutely stupid level. Because it’s not just good enough to know that we have those rights. Instead it goes beyond “I can do it and that’s enough.” It usually moves to “Not only can I do it, I’m going to do it and anybody who tries to stop me is violating my civil rights.”
Somehow the specifically worded declaration has come to mean “I have the right to do whatever I damn well please and fuck you if you won’t let me.” to Americans. And it causes all kinds of silly ass stuff to go on here; silly ass stuff that I just don’t think you see anywhere else in the world. Certainly not to the degree that you see here. We take this idea of individual rights to just an absurd level.
Any idea, no matter how dumb or misguided, you can find some group rabidly defending their right to it. Even if it’s causing harm to them, their community or their children; you can find some group of people who will die for their right to do it. I give you the anti-vaccination movement as one great example; not only are these idiots hurting their own children, they are hurting other people’s children by letting easily preventable diseases run rampant in the public schools where their unvaccinated kids are running around and interacting with other kids. And they don’t give a damn, it’s about their individual freedom and choices. Guaranteed by our Constitution.
Government interference is called fascism or oppression, defined here as ‘The government is trying to tell me that I can’t do whatever idiotic thing I think I have a right to do.” Well it’s called fascism if you don’t agree with it or it affects you personally. If you agree with it, then it’s just ‘good government’ (because Americans are also nothing if not hypocrites). You see this a lot in college students: if they can’t do whatever stupid thing they want to do, they are being oppressed and cry fascism.
The Egocentric Model of the Universe: Everything Revolves Around ME!
I like to tell people that I find it silly that folks think that the universe revolves around them when it’s obvious to anyone with a brain that it revolves around me. This joke is usually too subtle for most to really get as the point is kind of hidden within the statement.
But, in some seriousness, every American sees themselves as the single most important individual ever, who’s opinions and attitudes are the only ones that matter. And pretty much screw what anybody else thinks. A single individual, pissy about something that annoys only them, can, will and have sued to have their singular viewpoint respected and acknowledged by everyone else.
So people who dislike Christmas don’t want Christmas stuff in government areas, folks who are anti-Christian don’t want Christian stuff anywhere to be found (especially not in the schools). You see this kind of thing all over the place; any individual offended on any level by any minor thing will vehemently argue for it to be removed so that they and they alone are not offended.
Even if it’s them against 10,000 other people; so far as they are concerned their singular, individual viewpoint is too important to not be respected by EVERYONE. Never recognizing, of course, that in ensuring that their opinion is respected, they are (by definition) ensuring that someone else’s opinion is NOT being respected. But they don’t give a damn since they are the only ones that matter.
And like I said, in other countries that have been around long enough to have some sense of country wide culture, you don’t seem to see this level of silly ass stuff going on. Which is why you can ban texting in the car in the UK and most everybody will be fine with it; as a country they realize that it makes sense to do it for the greater good and safety of the populace.
Do it here and someone will sue for having their rights violated (“It is my God given right to text in my car.”). Or they will text in their car deliberately as an ‘act of civil disobedience’ which I’m roughly defining here as ‘being an asshole for the sake of being an asshole’. But Americans have that right too: to be an asshole simply for the sake of being an asshole. The Constitution says so. I’m not sure which page but it’s in there.
What’s a Long-term View?
And this extends to the country level as well. Not only do we really not care what we do to our own country, we truly don’t care what we do to anybody else or the planet to reach our individual short-term goals. And we end up pissing off most of the world because of it. The US is the petulant little child of the world who has to have his own way; we just happen to have the military and economic power that allows us to be the brats of the globe and get away with it. At least we have for quite some time now.
As a whole, we take a very short term view to things which I’m guessing comes out of the mentality of having a country only 200 years old. We don’t have long-term history in anything and the idea of doing something now that has an impact 500 years from now just doesn’t scan to most Americans. It’s just about making as much as you can (generally profit) in the short-term and everything else be damned.
For example, there are building in other countries hundreds or thousands of years old. And I’m not just talking churches and castles, homes that are centuries old. And in the US? Well, the movie LA Story made the amazing joke about homes in Los Angeles: “This house was built a long time ago, it’s nearly 30 years old.” The 70’s are the Dark Ages to an American. The 1970’s.
We are a culture of convenience, a culture of short-term plans and damn the long-term consequences. We have no problem using styrofoam cups or plastic grocery bags that we know don’t degrade ever. Whatever is most convenient to us in the short term (or makes us the most money in the short-term) is what we (as a majority) will do. It’s part of our societal mindset.
So in the UK, a capitalist country, you actually see quite a large scale concern about things like the environment and fair-trade. I spent some time there a few years ago and the signs are everywhere. People care about things like ‘Not taking advantage of the indigenous people of anther country for profit’, at least they do now (I’m sure Britain would love to forget about some of the stuff they did to East India back in the day). And there have to be enough people who care to make it profitable to do it that way. Here, it’s only the niche that will bother. But they are often VERY loud about it. And they usually have the money to make such choices.
In the US, Martha Stewart gets busted for running a sweatshop, goes to white people jail and then gets right back on TV and nobody blinks. Because she has products that we want to buy and she’ll teach us how to decorate our kitchen. Michael Vick gets busted for running a dog fighting ring and people are more worried if he’ll be playing football this year or will be on the cover of Madden 2011 than about him torturing dogs. Because sports and stuff is more important than human or animal abuse to Americans.
Other countries drive ecological and economical cars and ride bikes and care about stuff like the environment. We drive SUV’s to the mini-mart and soccer practice and think Hummers (a vehicle designed for military combat that gets about 4 gallons to the mile) are just an excellent idea for use as a family sedan. And if asked about this, we’ll say that our right to do so is right there in the Constitution (I’m not sure which amendment talked about Hummers). And don’t you dare violate my civil rights by suggesting otherwise.
That’s America, at least in the majority. We don’t care if small business get destroyed by WalMart if it saves us 12 cents on toilet paper. Dammit, that’s capitalism! And if you don’t like it, you can go to China, Commie pinko scum. Again, all of this is in aggregate just in case you forgot my disclaimer. There are exceptions; they aren’t the majority and you know it.
There always a vocal minority that don’t feel this way, that do care about the stuff of the rest of the world, who make a point to shop at mom and pop stores instead of the evil Mart. But they aren’t the majority and everyone reading this knows it. Wal-Mart is successful under capitalist rules because it provides a better product at a lower price; the majority choose that over paying more for less at a mom and pop shop. What the majority likes succeeds hence what succeeds is what the majority likes. QED.
But I’ll go even further when talking about America as a whole (and this is actually relevant to my overall thesis, believe it or not) and now I’m going to really piss people off. Too bad, take a look around you and you’ll see that, on average, what I’m saying is closer to true than not. Even if it makes you unhappy. It makes me unhappy, too. I’ve just come to terms with it.
Americans are, by and large, a very nationalistic people, we know that America is #1 and have no problem screaming it out at the top of our lungs constantly. Make no mistake, this probably isn’t any different than most countries, most people are proud of their home country; it’s an evolutionarily conserved mentality. Our tribe is better than that other tribe and we express that through national pride, sports, or genocide. I just think Americans are louder about it. And as I’m fond of saying, the more you have to tell someone it’s true, the less it is actually true.
So what America is #1 in. Education? Nope. Health care? No way. Adult and childhood obesity? Yeah, probably. Number of fast food restaurants? Absolutely. Hot soccer moms? Oh yeah. Volume of porn production? Absolutely. Military power? Probably. Financial power? Right up there although we’re rapidly seeing what happens when you focus on short-term profit and destroy your own economy and that might not last much longer. I personally welcome our future Chinese overlords. In case they are reading: Ni hao, guys.
Sure, we’re the world’s superpower (or have been for quite some time) but that’s based on military might; we’ve also held the economic power power to make everybody else step in line. Anybody who doesn’t tow the line gets hit with trade embargoes or big taxes and such until they bend over and take it from us. And they better smile the whole time. USA #1.
We also have all the stuff that other countries want. Like 47 different types of Ranch Dressing in every store, a concept that always blows people from other countries away (where they usually have exactly one choice of ranch dressing, and it sucks). When folks come to visit, they stand in the grocery store simply overwhelmed by the options available. Visitors to the US always want to go cereal shopping because we have 80 kinds of cereal and their countries have two, both of which are corn flakes. We don’t even need the variety, most people buy the same stuff every day. But as Americans we find it comforting to know that, if we ever needed it, there are 46 other types of ranch dressing available.
Basically, we’ve got the guns, the money and the stuff and we leverage that to maintain power and get our way.
How America Sees the World
Basically, Americans have a pretty overinflated belief in the awesomeness of the country and we really just don’t care about anything outside of it. I’ve joked that people in the US see the world this way but it’s no joke: Basically there is the USA and there is EVERYTHING ELSE ™. EVERYTHING ELSE ™ is this strange country called Foreignland which is inhabited by strange people called Foreigners. Some of them look a bit like us, many of them do not. We do not like this.
They all speak a strange language called Foreign which might as well be clicks and whistles for all we care. To the majority of people in the USA, Foreignland DOES NOT MATTER; we just don’t care on any level about it. Not unless they have stuff we need like oil or resources. Or make the mistake of starting shit with us. Then they matter enough to be invaded and blown back to the stone age just to make a point. Or to take their stuff. Often both.
Quick note: Texans take this further, they see the world as Texas and EVERYTYHING ELSE ™ where EVERYTHING ELSE ™ completely fucking does not matter. Many in The Great Republic of Texas still want to secede from the US and would be perfectly happy if the rest of the world just disappeared and left us to our own devices. Many outside of Texas wouldn’t mind if Texas seceded either, just so Texans would shut the hell up about it.
Anyhow, not only do we not care about the rest of the world, we expect everyone to cater to us, never the other way around. It’s true when they come here (“If you can’t speak English, get out.”) and it’s even true when we go elsewhere in the world. Go into a store in Foreignland and they better find someone who speaks English or they can go to hell. If we have to use their Monopoly money, someone better be able to tell us how much that is in good old American dollars. A billion pesetas/lire/whatever this fake money is? I don’t know how much that is. Here’s a dollar, keep the change.
And before you dismiss this as me being stupid, consider that most local news stations (I’m not talking CNN) will spend at most 1 or 2 minutes on ‘World News’. In SLC we got ‘Around the world in 60 seconds’ as part of the nightly news. 58 minutes of local irrelevant tripe (Cat stuck in tree in Layton, LDS Elders still nutty as hell) and 60 seconds of “Serbs and Croatians murdering one another, death in Afghanistan, China under water, Kim Jong Il still crazy” before returning to what was going on at the mini-mart on Redwood and 45th. That’s local news most places and you know I’m right. The local news shows what people like and it isn’t global news; that’s why stations like CNN exist. For the literati to have something to yell at.
But the awesomeness (in the literal sense of the word) of America doesn’t stop there. But it does stop here for today. See you tomorrow and I will talk about sports, believe it or not.
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 13
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Notes to the Nitpickers
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 9
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Ol’ing Part 9
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 8