Sunday, December 20, 2009

Negotiating Price - Conclusive Proof of Conspiracy

Lots of people these days find that just as they were about to poke their nose above water, something bad happens. The car breaks or the furnace needs attention. It's as if there were a conspiracy, with rising prices calibrated to hit your cynicism button. Like when I moved out into the country and my auto insurance rates went up. "Well, that's just what the computer shows" and I read some stuff about how rural roads are actually more dangerous than city streets, and then forgot about it.

Yes yes, we all know that there's a conspiracy against us, but who can we be righteously angry at? What person can we stick in what bullseye, and then throw outrageous darts at? And once they take that spot, well, is it really just a matter of how much they're worth? Can our anger be gaged by the price of the target? Why not, right? What other metric can we possibly have.

Moving back into the city now they want to nearly double my auto insurance rates. It can almost make a guy hopping mad. But who do you get mad at, exactly? Not the nice woman on the phone. Not at her computer. Just like when gas prices were going up, and so everything else had to raise dependent prices at the same time. Sometimes calling it a fuel surcharge, just to outsource some petty rage.

And now the Governor here in New York State has had to cancel payments to local school districts since he can't print money he doesn't have. As if that cut won't get passed along too. It makes you want to go back on all the little deals you made where you accepted logo value for the real thing. As in, how does that price get computed anyhow? Isn't it simply what you're willing to pay, based on some calculus of desire? Weren't we all out buying iPods and making a lifestyle out of it? And then paying the breakdown insurance fee becauase they're not really supposed to be repairable. And then somehow thinking that Steve Jobs is the more cool-friendly dude at the top, up against dweeby cloud warriors like Steve Ballmer or Eric Schmidt.

Jobs runs his job like a fascist dictator, and has his own cult-like following. We don't even resent that he gets his new body organs from the head of some outsourced line, since he's so crucial to the workings of our economy. Well, hell I'm almost certain I'd like him a lot better than I would Bill Gates. I mean, for anyone with a sense of humor who reads Dr. Suess, Mom is the consummate fascist, and she's pretty nice. And Steve manufactures cool, while Bill just makes money, right? Or gives it away to folks who think like he does.

But these are all the guys at the center of the conspiracy to set price just at your breaking point. Um, I think that's what capitalism means. Even though universal healthcare would save more businesses than it could possibly destroy, the business community fights against it. Even though an even and well regulated playing field for doing business would liberate corporations from being forced by business logic to act like really bad citizens in their bogus role as "legal persons", they rail against more regulation.

Well, ultimately, you have the choice to buy or not to, right? Except when it comes to certain things, and those things now raise their prices I guess just because they have to. The economy's bad all over. But it never is quite clear whether the incredibly falling prices or the incredibly rising prices are what constitutes the biggest danger to our economy.

The falling prices are built on the fictional cost of oil, which is subsidized by simply mortgaging our future. Only the cost to extract and for political baksheesh gets factored in, and never the actual cost of the decimation of our commons; our common heritage. Never the cost of war. Never the cost to those we exploit, who aren't resourceful enough to slow our extraction of their resources.

The rising prices are built on want or greed or desperation moves to stay in business despite fallen demand. But sometimes new things, like iPods, can be compared to the incredible cost they would have had were that same "functionality" to be introduced the year before, and they can seem like falling prices even when they fill a category which never even had existed.

So, in the end it can seem marvelously conspiratorial when you find yourself right on that edge if something happens, and certainly over it if you lose your job or get sick. And none of us knows how to fly as escape from free fall.

But this conspiracy is surely between you, the consumer, and those who present stuff for your conspicuous consumption. There can be no real mystery about that. Price means to set you near your edge, which is fine until you lose your confidence or balance, and then the game is up.

Everyone steps away, and like those Chinese who we thought once were being all taught to jump off their stools on some cue to focus a shockwave down to the Big Apple, say, more effectively than a nuke could be delivered; everyone steps away from their edge and the economy reels from the shock waves of it. As if not one chance Chinaman could be counted on to have second thoughts. As if it's all a confidence game.

Because those cappos at the center of the financial economy were caught up in new ways to manufacture confidence and deliver the certainty of high returns by simple math which by any other name would be called a Ponzi scheme. Selling futures at a discount. So long as the future can be pushed off into seeming eternity. Which it can't. I'll insure you insuring me and we're all happy until we're not.

And so now how is it that we can keep full employment without the automobile, say, no matter how powered, to take up that much of our paychecks? How can we keep the economy humming without people playing perpetual musical houses on some bizarre notion that the price of real-estate will keep magically rising just because, what? There continue to be more and more of us? That's gotta stop too.

It would seem that we could and must bring things back down to earth. If the cost of oil were to reflect, truly, the cost to replace it. If the cost of parking were to reflect its true value, and not the reverse-protectionist scheme of if you charge for it no-one will come.

If the actual labor cost for goods were to be some significant fraction of what are now the distributed logo-costs, the shipping costs, the marketing costs, the free-parking costs, the salesperson costs, the stocking costs, all of which are in competition with the free-of-them-all-but-shipping cost of goods from the virtual shelving of the Internet.

The fact that there is not a greater disparity in price from store shelves and price from the Internet does beg one great big question, don't you think? As in, where does the real subsidy come from? Could it be, simply, the roads and the parking and the fact that none of us factor in the cost to own our cars? It might turn out that labor represents the almost nil actually built in to final price. It might turn out that there really is a conspiracy of price fixing which has nothing to do with anything at all but your desire.

But where will people work when this all collapses? Can there really be enough jobs after the big box stores shuffle down their cardboard walls, and all those underpaid workers go back out into the local stores where the clerks once could earn enough to raise a family? When physical widgets get manufactured locally without physical danger to children or smokestack effluent to spoil the air, will there be enough actual jobs for handy people without the desire to prove it in college?

Why not, right? I mean, if you do the math, there's enough money right now going to the center that if it were to be redistributed out would generate enough tax revenue to even silence Glenn Beck about his trillions that he can't conceive.

I'd say maybe. I'd say it might be worth the investment of some hope, which costs precisely nothing. What if instead of doing everything ourselves, according to the massive educational infrastructure of lego-style DIY home improvement, we were to actually learn, once again, to trust our neighbors, and pay the ones with that kind of genius to build and to repair our houses? Could it actually be that the price, rid of all those externalities of centralized design copyright costs, would drop to where we might wonder how we ever could afford the extravagant cost of widgets sent from distant shores?

Could it be that we could end up with houses worth living in, and minds not all ticky-tacky identical? Where design flowed more naturally from workers trained as apprentices, and who understood local conditions and materials? Where the distance from source to market was actually walkable? Bicycles in a pinch?

Not to mention the food, which we've already learned to never cook ourselves, as though the cost of servants was ever so extravagant as the cost, including the externalized health-care cost, of eating out perpetually and rapidly. Julia Child compiled her guide to French cooking for servantless Americans. Well . . . .

Not to mention the dialing back of war overhead. Not to mention the re-creation of tourist destinations worth visiting since they aren't all variations on the very same theme park. They could be so interesting that it might be worth threading them together across a slow walk, like beads on a necklace, making the flyover far too boring to be worth its expenditure of however little time and inconvenience.

This extravagant vision is as near to hand as ceasing to hand over all of our power to those Ivy generated thinkers who have been allowed actually to believe that their particular brand of genius - the kind which gets measured by IQ - is the only kind which counts. They are naked now, with nothing to show for their supposed intelligence apart from a very clever deflowering of our mother earth.

So, I'm also extravagantly hoping that our very fine community organizing president has surrounded himself with so many Ivy Leaguers simply because he knows that they represent the actual power elite; and that he has that much confidence in his own powers of persuasion that he can convince them to relinquish their strangle-hold on what gets considered for publication. That he understand that one must hold ones friends close, but ones enemies even closer.

That once the power elite are convinced that they too will feel the pain of the least among us, whether transmitted along with the rampant and indiscriminate disease vectors of poverty, or the indiscriminate desolation of living on a despoiled planet; that once this seed-core of sourdough thinkers and doers and lever pullers sees that they actually are naked emperors, then the catalytic outspread of better living actually can change the world, so to speak.

Because, of course, scant readable publications do come from the Ivy. The good stuff all comes from somewhere else; the music, the literature, the interesting architecture, the theater, the painting. All that comes from the Ivies is power. They train for the voice of power, the assumption of power, the supposition of power, and they populate elite museums with meaningless art removed from the context of any life. They fill the elite concert halls with music which never can quite remove itself from the age when cardinals actually did wear red and jewels and screwed around and wielded power behind their curtains.

And these folks are the ones we allow to represent us in the halls of power? And Glenn Beck is the enemy? It really can be hard to know which are the more powerful delusions, but it does seem clear that the mutual suspicious between intellectuals and people whose genius is elsewhere, might be the most corrosive actual divide in our actual Republic.

I retain some real hope that this divide can be crossed. Rock and roll has made its way into the halls of power. Powerful stories sell better than refined literature. Good wine can still be had. What the hell, eh? Size really does matter, as does height. Some things are just too high, and must come down, like Tiger Woods, for the sheer pedestrian weight of being human. Some kinds of genius are simply over-compensated, as are some shortcomings overcompensated for. And no matter how perfectly composed are your publications, reclusive and exlusive geniuses of my world, I'll take mine live and local. Every time.

No comments: