And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon gods they made...
-- Paul Simon
Before we begin today, this...
Off on a curmudgeonly rant today… inspired by a recent Jim Propp piece, but stripped of any math.
I told Jim that his latest post is one of my very favorites, because it is such an “everyman” posting — we have all experienced it, and the math involved is simple but aggravating (I’m happy to finally have a name for it, “fence-post error”). Jim specifically pinpoints an experience with Verizon to make his case, taking them to task, but I’ll cast the net wider when it comes to the behavior of (predatory?) corporate America (I had my own run-in with Verizon many years ago and dropped them forever… but as I told Jim that only means I had to shop around for a different slimy, deceptive carrier). Deceit and fraud are such an ingrained part of modern corporate fabric we largely accept it unblinkingly. Cable and phone companies, Internet giants, food companies, car dealers, airlines, insurance companies, credit agencies, drug-makers, banks (seriously, how does Wells Fargo even remain in business — oh yeah, I forgot, “too big to fail”), the list goes on-and-on of companies that actively con the public as a routine part of doing business — indeed, they probably couldn’t compete successfully in America if they didn’t do so. Lawyers are paid a boatload to keep corporate words and behavior just this legal side of fraud, but let’s be honest, when you do things to deliberately hoodwink or confuse people, thereby boosting your own profits, you’ve committed fraud, by the spirit of the law if not the letter.
There’s a lot of talk these days on starting early to teach young people critical thinking skills (you know, so we don't end up with a certain kind of President). I’m all for it -- I find it egregious that we still force young people to read Shakespeare, but not study basic modes of reasoning/evaluating. It doesn’t have to be scientific or mathematical thinking, just critical/skeptical analysis. In high school I had to take a semester that included a popularized version of General Semantics (also here) which I've oddly regarded as the most important academic time I ever spent, even as simple as it was. It lends one an awareness of how language manipulates and short-circuits our thought processes and behavior; of how advertisers, propagandists, demagogues/politicians, sales people, promoters, plutocrats, etc. operate… but it even applies to ALL of us in our daily interactions to some extent. And since a lot of it will never change, it is important to be aware of it and self-inoculated.
“Advertising” and “marketing,” unfortunately, essentially become nice, innocuous words for deceit and manipulation. I’ve wished at times that present-day advertising was outlawed and reduced to just putting out technical specification sheets on individual products. Wanna buy a car, here are all the specs imaginable, no glossy pics, sexy models, vroom-vroom video. Wanna buy toothpaste, just the specs please, no guys and gals with blinding smiles and radiant testimonials or clever animations. As Joe Friday used to say, “Just the facts, Ma’am.” But of course that will never happen — I accept that truth-in-advertising is a pipedream; images and emotions are what it's all about. And I’ll even admit a lot of advertising is hugely fun and entertaining; just questioning how truly informative and honest it is... heaven-forbid that honesty and full-disclosure should creep into capitalism. The buyer must beware… always.
You can probably sense I’m not much of a consumer… at least not on bigger ticket items (I do sometimes nickel-and-dime myself to death foolishly on small stuff -- OK, I have more pairs of Crocs than I'll ever admit to). And in this country, where conspicuous consumption is the national religion, that pretty much makes me a baaaad American. Worse yet, I pay my Visa bill off on time, every month — as you may know, that literally makes me, in the eyes (and labels) of the credit card industry, a “deadbeat” for never paying my share of the ongoing interest charges they depend upon. Yeah, I’m one of their most despised customers… ‘cuz I actually pay my bill. Such is the world we live in where frugality and timely payments are venial if not mortal sins.
Any rational human knows that the widespread advertising of drugs, in 60-second spots, to unsuspecting Americans is a dreadful idea (and at one time illegal). And don’t you just love the way those ads spend 55 seconds describing the wonder of their product with pictures of a meadow full of butterflies and ducks on a pond... before spending the last five seconds in rapid-fire, barely-intelligible English deigning to mention that the drug just might also cause dizziness, depression, baldness, suicidal thoughts, heart attacks, liver failure, incontinence, and the heartbreak of psoriasis, or whatever other afflictions some poor tortured experimental rats experienced in their brief, beleaguered lives.
Or how about the contracts we all read and sign in order to receive some service… contracts that we don’t actually read (but falsely sign, saying we’ve read and understood). The companies know that we don’t read them, we know the companies know we don’t read them, and they know we know they know we don’t read them… if you get my drift.
Or take one of my pet peeves: fruit juice products. There have been many outright fruit juice scandals over the years which I won’t even cite (except to say that often you’re not getting what you think you’re getting when you buy a bottle of say orange juice). But, as bad as the contents may be, my big beef is with the labelling.
The label may say Grape (or some other variety) Juice beverage, drink, blend, or cocktail, but of course “GRAPE JUICE” is scrawled in BIG catchy letters across the label, while the ‘drink,’ ‘beverage,’‘blend,' or 'cocktail" notation is added in smaller and different lettering below — disguising the fact that the contents may actually contain surprisingly little grape juice, but a whole lot of additives. There are other tricks they employ, as you likely know, yet still sometimes fall for. Why this is legal I don’t have a clue; except well, lobbyists and money don’t ya know. And of course the grocery shelves are chockfull of other examples of packaging chicanery and labeling hype.
I grew up admiring/trusting corporate America, before joining the swelling ranks of those distrustful of big companies in particular. I’m constantly amazed by folks who are peeved with big government for all its ills and incompetencies, but who give the corporations who really run our lives and treat us like guinea pigs a free ride. Meanwhile the income gap between CEOs, and their employees and customers, increases obscenely, while the shrinking middle class stands by helplessly. Besides, at least I have a chance to vote in or out the scoundrels of government; the heads and management of corporations are unelected and I have little sway with.
People roil over all the regulations that government imposes, but many of those regulations are merely the result of trying to prevent in the future the very ways companies have shafted people in the past — all have to be regulated in order to insure a few bad actors stop doing what they’re doing (same reason we have laws against murder — in order to have a mechanism for dealing with the small percentage of people who actually commit murder). Anyone who walks into Verizon, Comcast, Wells Fargo or Time Warner or Best Buy or, or, or… and doesn’t realize you’re about to get played needs to wake up and smell the cash register.
Reminds me a bit of the current focus on sexual harassment — a situation that has been around for millennia, but held under-the-radar until at long-last being taken seriously and critically. We need such a spotlight on the treatment (abuse?) of customers by corporations, as well. On Twitter, the sex harassment headlines led to a #MeToo hashtag for women to add their relevant experiences. I feel like James Propp's storyline could be given a #MeToo followup for all who feel they've been screwed by businesses at one time or another.
Jim cleverly calls these corporate foes “errorists” in his post (because of mathematical mistakes they make), but actually or more broadly I don’t think they are errorists at all, rather primarily knaves who know exactly what they’re up to -- indeed, they pay people good money to derive the marketing, algorithms, wording, and sales techniques aimed specifically at exploiting people.
Earlier this year, polymath Eric Weinstein was so concerned about the way language is being used to sway people he actually made the little-referenced “Russell conjugation” (or “emotive conjugation”) his selection in response to the 2017 annual Edge question, “What scientific term or concept ought to be more widely known?”
These “conjugations,” made famous by Bertrand Russell (and studied by myself back in General Semantics) are rhetorical devices for expressing similar ideas but with very different connotations. Some famous ones below:
I am firm. You are obstinate. He is a pig-headed fool.
I am righteously indignant. You are annoyed. He is making a fuss about nothing.
I am a creative writer. You have a journalistic flair. He is a prosperous hack.
You can easily invent many more, often very creative ones, at will. It’s a bit reminiscent of how many people in polls tended to support “the Affordable Care Act” but oppose “ObamaCare,” not realizing they were the same thing (or "illegal aliens" versus "undocumented immigrants" is a similar example from Weinstein's piece). Anyway, his brief essay is worth a gander.
I could go on and on about shameful practices in big business, but I don’t even entirely fault them for manipulating us so regularly, given the cut-throat competitive world they inhabit (and perhaps I should be clear that many of their worst foibles don't apply as readily to small business and entrepreneurs). I do wish though, through enlightened education, the citizenry could be placed on guard against the very techniques being used to connive them, yielding a more even playing field. Worse yet, the managed demagoguery/skulduggery of corporate America is being transferred to the highest levels of government (and a President who worships at the altar of the dollar sign). But hey, don’t get me started…
p.s.... Merry Christmas (...or, Festivus, as the case may be)