Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Side Effects

Side Effects
by J. Brad Hicks, The Infamous Brad
Jan. 10th, 2011

I read a fascinating book, a while back, called When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store by Elaine Abelson. Here's the story it tells, and what (I think) it may have to do with the Tea Partiers' refusal to back down on their rhetoric even after the assassination attempt on Gabrielle Giffords.

At the dawn of the industrial age, factories started churning out products for the home that had been previously hand-made by wives and their servants, in the home, and the problem arose of how to persuade wives to come in and see that the factory-made products were better than the ones they were making at home, more uniform in quality than the ones they were making at home, and actually cheaper than the materials cost, alone, of the products they were making at home. And what they developed was the Department Store: a brilliantly lit, fantastically delightful gigantic building, made as pleasant to visit and to hang out in as it could be made to be, where women could come and see the newest factory goods, try them out, and be persuaded to buy them. Then they had to staff them with enough people to handle the customers, including both salespeople and what we now euphemistically call "loss-prevention specialists."

It worked at getting the merchandise into the womens' hands, but it had a glaring drawback: operating the stores themselves was insanely expensive. And as long as women could comparison shop, they could force the department stores to bid against each other in a destructive race to the bottom, until the goods were selling for less than was necessary to pay the upkeep and the payroll for the store. So the stores eventually invented "impulsing selling:" make the store as hypnotic as possible, make it a total sensory overload environment, advertise "loss leaders" to bring women in, sell the loss leaders at the back of the store, and on the way back to the door, hard-sell products at a high enough mark-up to cover the store's expenses.

This worked at making the stores profitable, but it also had a glaring drawback: store detectives found that fewer and fewer of their shoplifters were the semi-professional criminals who had made up the shoplifting class before. Now, the vast majority of their shoplifters were respectable middle-class women, upper-middle-class women, even wealthy women. These women had regular accounts at the stores they were stealing from. They bought things from those stores all the time. They had frequently just bought three items, on the same visit, for every item that they stole. They almost all had more than enough money on them to buy the items they'd just stolen. So they put the best detectives and the best psychologists they could hire on the job of finding out what the heck the women were thinking when they risked their position in society and risked their husbands' reputations over trifles, and finally had to conclude that the women weren't lying when they said: they hadn't consciously stolen those goods. They weren't thinking of anything when they did it; they weren't thinking, period, not at all. They were in a trance when they did it.

The stores tried toning down the level of trance-inducing sensory overload ... and found that the impulse purchases dried up. Finally they cranked the sensory overload back up, and adopted a "harm reduction" type strategy: when particular upper-class and middle-class women could be confirmed to have stolen certain items, simply mail a bill for the items to the womens' houses; the vast majority of them could be easily embarrassed into paying. (Although even then, it occasionally fell to the people in charge of those departments to persuade the women to search their own pockets -- no, you really did take this, yes, it really is in your pocket. They were in that much of a trance when they did it.) What the Victorian department stores had learned, to their chagrin, was that any sales technique that left customers with enough intact free will to prevent rampant theft left them with enough intact free will to resist high pressure sales.

Fascinating, no? Now, here's what I think this has to do with the Tea Party.

When Holy Saint Ronald Wilson Reagan the Infallible and Great, Savior of the Free World and Conqueror of the Communists, Blessed Patron Saint of the God's Own Almighty American Dollar, was sworn into office in January of 1981, it was his holy and sacred promise that cutting taxes on the wealthy and deregulating business would eliminate all of the problems in America: newly freed businesses and investors would hire us all to make products for each other, and we would all be happy, healthy, safe, and free. But in the wake of a whole series of back-to-back gigantic nation-wide Ponzi schemes, suddenly Saint Ronald doesn't look so infallible. People were starting to wake up to the fact that when freed from all taxation and regulation, the nation's wealthy have exactly zero inclination to hire us all to make goods for each other. What they do with that freedom is to trick us, over and over again, into piling all of the nation's wealth into a dozen or so piles, and then play a rigged game of musical chairs: at the end of each game, a dozen or so people, at least half of them the previously wealthy, own everything and the rest of us lose our entire life's savings.

Saint Ronald's ideas were so popular in the 1980s and 1990s that they became the ruling ideology of not just the Republican Party, but of the post-Clinton Democratic Party as well ... and now they have been discredited. Which leaves the people who were enjoying those global Ponzi schemes, who enjoyed that hypomanic game of musical chairs, with a problem: how do they get people to keep voting for an ideology that has been entirely and thoroughly discredited? And their first attempts were pretty pathetic, and failed utterly in 2006 and in 2008. But now they've got one technique that works: fear. Deploy a multi-billion dollar campaign, funded by the dozen or so wealthy guys who won the last couple of rounds of musical chairs over all the world's wealth, in the world's greatest propaganda campaign, to persuade as many people as possible that the Death Panels are coming.

Sure, Republican ideals have failed; they poll horribly and only a tiny handful of the most clueless and elderly Republican and right-wing Democratic elected officials are still talking about them, still trying to make the case for that failed ideology. What all of the prominent spokespeople are saying, instead, is, never mind our failures, never mind our laughable ideology, just remember this: if you don't put us back in power, the Death Panels will kill your babies, the Death Panels will kill your parents and grandparents, and the first time you get old or get sick, the Death Panels will kill you, too.

It's not actually possible to persuade sane Americans that this is literally true. But it turns out to be possible to persuade a working majority of Americans to be uncomfortable with the idea that it might be true, to doubt their own confidence that it isn't true, to vote Republican just in case the Republicans are right that the Death Panels are coming. However, this solution comes with a drawback: there are people out there who are so crazy, so suggestible, or so already inclined to fear Government Death Panels for their own reasons, that it is possible to persuade them that the Government Death Panels really are coming, no really, no doubt about it. And those people, as soon as the Death Panels nonsense started, behaved the way you, frankly, would behave if you really believed that the Death Panels were coming for your mother, for your baby: you would form a resistance movement and start assassinating the pro-Death-Panel government officials.

The Tea Party spokespeople and candidates have painted themselves into this corner: they have discovered that no line of rhetoric they can devise is powerful enough to persuade enough people to keep voting for Reaganomics, unless it's also powerful enough to persuade dozens of lone crazies to run around assassinating Democrats. This leaves the rest of us in the awkward position of having to persuade them to voluntarily give up their only chance of winning, for conscience's sake. You may quite accurately guess, I suspect, how likely I think it is that they will volunteer to lose in order to save however many dozens (or more) of the lives of people they disagree with.

[This article is the work of J. Brad Hicks, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution, NonCommercial, ShareAlike 2.5 License.]

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