Thursday, January 10, 2013
We hear it so often: Big corporations determine, through their massive financial and political power, virtually everything the government does or does not do. As a result, the rich only get richer while the majority of us are progressively worse off, true democracy in America is a chimera, and our country as the “City on the Hill” is but a memory of either what once was or could have been, depending on your politics.
Because of the power the big banks and other greedy corporations wield, millions of hard-working Americans cannot find a job, millions have lost their homes, and even more millions can’t afford health care. All of this against a backdrop of record multi-billion dollar profits for the corporations, with compensation for top executives running into the tens of millions annually, in no small part made possible by government subsidies and bailouts. Just this week, $27 million – minimum guaranteed - over three years for a Padres player I’ve never even heard of. (Yep, pro sports in America is nothing if not Big Business).
Big Business defeats legislative changes that would give us healthier food, more fuel efficient cars, affordable health care, fewer Columbines and Auroras, and a decent living wage. It promotes income inequality and social division, crass materialism, and devalues true art for art’s sake. Big corporations have ruined America, and most of us – the little guys and gals – are merely powerless pawns, manipulated for their greater aggrandizement.
Big corporations DO have way too much power over America and its people, and their endless search for greater earnings, at almost any cost, disgusts me. But I disagree with the implicit message that commonly follows this type of thinking: That (1) it’s the corporations’ fault (not ours), and that (2) there’s not much the little guy can do about it.
Look – businesses exist to make profits, and they do so by convincing us to give them their money. It’s OUR job to be careful with our money, to say “No!” to business more often than not. I have a big problem accepting that it is our lot in life to pay $200 a month so we can chat and text endlessly on our cell phones day and night. I reject the premise that somebody forced Americans to buy bigger, more expensive cars and houses than they need or can afford. I call bullshit on the claim that people don’t have time to fix a decent cup of coffee in the morning or to cook, and therefore they’re forced to spend $4 on a Starbucks Vente Mocha each morning and eat fast food crap for lunch and dinner. I don’t understand why they have to buy designer jeans or handbags or polo shirts and whatnot at prices 2 or 3 or 10 times higher than what a perfectly serviceable generic substitute would cost. I say it’s just plain stupid that the average American household has zero savings and an average $16,000 in credit card debt, as a result of decisions such as these.
How in the hell did Americans get so gullible, so ignorant? When and why did we abrogate our responsibility to spend wisely, to say “No!” to spending decisions that people 50 years ago would never dreamed of making, to limit corporations’ ability to take advantage of us?
Decisions like those have played a key role in allowing Big Business to become so powerful. Verizon and Cadillac and Starbucks and Donald Trump and Nordstroms and McDonalds wouldn’t be nearly so large, not nearly so powerful, if we hadn’t voluntarily opened our wallets and invited them to take whatever they want. Even on the lower end, WalMart – the world’s largest corporation – has prospered not by selling us higher-quality (and priced) goods than we need, but have become immensely powerful by selling us a greater quantity of goods than what we really need. So it’s our endless search for more and better controlling us that has given power and money to Big Business.
This is not to give the businesses themselves – and our political leaders – a pass. Shameless advertising tactics that appeal to our baser emotions have been perfected over the years. Predatory business practices have similarly been improved, to great effect. Investors have focused more and more on short-term profits rather than ethical actions and long-term value. Meanwhile, governments on all levels have allowed big corporations to flourish via a number of active means: subsidies, bailouts, bribes, waivers, as well as passively by failing to pass and enforce legislation that might better control business excesses.
But the buck stops, or should stop, with the individual – with us. We’re the ones who should and can have the power. Not in every case, of course, but to a great enough degree to not be mere pawns, jerked around by the corporations. Why aren’t we the ones who are jerking them around? This takes us to my second main point of the essay.
Putting it into a first-person perspective, my wife and I are regular old, middle-class folks. We don’t come from a privileged background; never had high-paying jobs (OK – there were a few pretty good years when we had business careers a long time ago). Yet as people of modest means, we live really good lives. And we don’t feel at all like Big Business’s helpless bitches. In fact, we take advantage of what the big corporations offer, so it’s more like we're the boss of them. I realize that what follows is going to sound like bragging, but it’s the way to make a point, so bear with me.
Our 3-bedroom house in a decent neighborhood will be paid off in 3 years. We both own vehicles made in 2012; both cost only about $20,000 but are great cars. There's nobody we need to impress by driving a $50,000 Lexus or Escalade. We play (and win) the car dealers’ own weekend ad game every time we buy, and we get sweet deals as a result. One car is paid off, we owe about half on the other one.
I love hunting, fishing, and surfing, so I own over a dozen nice guns, about 15 fishing rods/reels, and half a dozen boards; something for every type of hunting, fishing, surfing. Plus all the necessary gear to go along with those things. They’re $600 guns with $200 scopes, though, not $2500 guns with $1000 glass; $250 rods/reels, not $700 ones. I make the boards myself for $250-$300, rather than spend $600-$1500 for them. But they all look good and work just fine; just as good as the big ticket guns/poles/boards. I go on one or two out of state hunting trips and a few tuna fishing trips each year, along with occasional salmon or trout fishing trips and surfing just about every weekend (neck problems permitting).
Apart from those trips, though, we enjoy traveling, so each year we go to Europe or Asia or Hawaii or whatever for a few weeks. We usually fly Business or First class, paying little for airfare and for about half of our hotel rooms, using frequent flier miles to get those. The miles come from paying for virtually everything on credit cards, which cost us basically nothing since we pay off our entire bill each month. Thank you airlines, hotel chains, big banks, and credit card companies!
We both enjoy good food, so we both cook: chicken, ribs, seafood, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, whatever. Almost everything is made from scratch, using natural, raw ingredients. Following doctor’s orders, we usually have a glass of red wine with dinner; often as not, “2 buck Chuck”. We used to be big wine snobs, but not anymore; we just can’t tell much difference between Chuck and a $30 bottle. We rarely eat out, not only because the cost is ridiculous, but because the food usually just isn’t better than what we fix at home. Morning coffee comes from a can of Yuban and a pint of half-and-half at home, not from a trip to Starbucks or 7-11. We eat VERY well, and in ways that don’t add much to corporate bottom lines.
My jeans come from WalMart or K-Fart, and cost $10 or $12, or from thrift stores and garage sales, which is where my wife buys a lot of my shirts for $2 or $3. Ditto for her clothes; when she was in the business world, most of her $200-$300 suits were from those places and cost $20 or $30. But you couldn’t tell; they looked professional and good as new.
We’ve got 2 flat-screen TVs, a good sound system, 3 laptops and 1 desktop computers, nice artwork around the house, a 3-piece leather sofa set, an antique oak dining table and China cabinet – you get the idea.
And almost no debt. In fact, other than 3 years of remaining house payments and about $10,000 on one car, we have no debt whatsoever. What we do have though, are healthy savings accounts, along with even healthier personal retirement accounts. If either of us were to die, if I were to lose my job tomorrow, if I never got a dime from my pension or Social Security – our lives wouldn’t change much financially.
We’ve been lucky. Despite family tragedies and some bad career moves, we haven’t had any financial, health, or legal disasters – thank God. But mostly – mostly we’re in the rather comfortable situation we’re in because (geez, how do I say this tactfully?) we’re not f#@*ing idiots. We didn’t spend more than we earned, we didn’t fall for all the marketing hype, we didn’t care much about keeping up with the Joneses or impressing the Smiths, and we saw the corporate world as worthy adversaries, capable of benefiting us if approached wisely. Please understand - I'm happy, even proud - to be in this situation. But the point is not to brag, but to show how one has a choice, how a regular person doesn't need to be a pawn at the mercy of big business. If we could do it, so can most other Americans.
So I reject the “poor me!” mentality that says the big corporations run the world and the little guy can’t get ahead. Maybe they run it and maybe they don’t; if they do, then the typical American and their foolish decisions over the last four decades are a big part of why that’s the case. But it almost doesn’t matter as far as I’m concerned. I can’t do much about the international implications of our military-industrial complex - granted. Big corporations CAN have more power and influence than we'd like in some cases. In my little corner of the world though, we’ve managed to eke out a sweet life in spite of, because of, or whatever of, Big Business. And that’s not so bad.