Get the Money
Not so long ago I decided I needed a bicycle. Riding a bike is a handy and cheap way to get around, and keeps you in reasonably good physical condition. I checked the bike shops in town, but they wanted more than I was willing to pay. So I tried the discount stores. K-Mart didn’t have anything I was interested in, but Wal-Mart was having a sale, so I headed out to their "big box" to see what they had. As it turned out, they had a display of bicycles at the store entrance, and one that perfectly suited my needs for $129.00.
I was elated at my good fortune, and went to the bicycle department to find one my size. Curiously, there weren’t any to be found, in my size or any other. I managed to find a store clerk, and asked him about the sale bikes in the front of the store. I said I had one picked out, but couldn’t find any in the bicycle department.
We went to the front of the store together, and I showed the clerk the bicycle I wanted. He said that they didn’t have any of that particular bike. I was incredulous, and asked him how they could have a bike on display for a sale, but not actually have any. He answered that the bike was just for display to show that that would be the sale price if they actually had any, and that the bicycle was available at other stores. I asked if there were any stores in the area that had the bike, and that I would drive over and get one, but he said no, that they were only available in other states. Even the display model was not for sale.
I was tempted to sue, and to call the state’s consumer protection agency, but was pretty busy at the time, and had too many other things to do. I would have had to get a camera and go into the store and take a picture of the display bike, and go through a lot of documentation that I didn’t feel like doing. If I had had the time, I would have done it, but settled for cursing Wal-Mart, and vowing to never shop there again (unless there was something I needed that I couldn’t get somewhere else). It’s what I call practical idealism.
This story is a pretty good allegory of what ails us as a nation. The brazenness of Wal-Mart and their phony sale is pretty typical of corporate behavior in general. There is nothing unique about Wal-Mart. They work on the same principal as almost every other corporation: get the money. The provision of quality goods and services is secondary. The main thing is to get the money. Bring people in, make them feel they are getting quality at bargain rates, get their money, and send them on their way.
The more interesting aspect of this incident was the store clerk. He was only 18 or 19 years old, but was all-too-ready to say and do anything that Wal-Mart wanted of him. He was an energetic fast-talker, and in spite of this, was a bit unskilled at moving beyond his lame defense of Wal-Mart’s phony sale. With age and experience he would easily be able to steer most customers to another bicycle.
This country is brimming full of this kind of person. That is because this is the kind of person who is rewarded by the system. In a mass commercial system, the sale is the measure of worth. The better one is at getting people to buy whatever one has to sell, the greater the reward. You can move all the way to the top of any corporation on the basis of generating more sales.
Thus, we have Enron, WorldCom, Adelphia, Arthur Anderson, Merck, HealthSouth, Tyco, and many more. Then of course there are the shameless war profiteers: Halliburton, Bechtel, General Dynamics, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Anteon International, A.P. Moeller-Maersk, Global Risk Strategies, Raytheon and Olive Security. All these companies have been involved in massive corrupt business practices, and in the case of the war profiteers, in other crimes such as the abuse of Abu Ghraib prisoners, and bilking the U.S. Government by false billing for services rendered, and by overcharging.
It is fair to say that we have a corrupt system. Our last two presidential elections were stolen (For a little perspective on the crimes of the Bush regime, click here). We have an infinite growth economy that by its very nature cannot protect the environment when the first priority is the profit level of corporations. We have increasing poverty, hunger, illness, and misery that we cannot address in a climate of corporate supremacy. We have religious crackpots like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell trying to create a fear and damnation theocracy, based on their Elmer Gantry style hypocritical fulminations. We have a corporate-controlled news media that spins propaganda for both the Bush crime family and its corporate backers, gleefully cheering Bush on in his various schemes. The Iraq war is only the most obvious of these schemes. The Social Security privatization hoax is a little less obvious, but for some reason the country hasn’t been fooled this time around.
The two questions that this predicament raises are where this dynamic is leading, and what we can do about it. The first part is easy. To disaster. Plain and simple. If we continue with our corrupt way of being on this planet, we are doomed. If life on this planet survives the GET THE MONEY system, it may not include humans. If it does include humans, they probably won’t be from the industrialized nations. Even though other "advanced" countries may not be as corrupt as the United States, they are active members of the worldwide infinite growth, full speed ahead, convert the planet into finished products brotherhood.
The answer to the second question is not so easy. There are any number of activities one can engage in – join a non-profit group advocating change, work with a fair-trade organization, shop at a food co-op, study, write letters to newspapers, congresspersons, even corporations, live a simple life, use public transportation, vote, wear buttons, paste bumper stickers on your car, engage in public debate, etc., etc.
I have done almost all of these things. I haven’t worked with a fair-trade organization. It takes a lot of energy and effort. You have to contend with all kinds of silliness, the most frustrating being what I call the "Life of Brian" syndrome – the tendency of people in groups advocating change to engage in petty, ego-aggrandizing bickering and jockeying for position. It is as if these people get themselves on a mental tape-loop that goes out of control, and they are incapable of doing anything to slow the tape down or turn it off.
The thing I routinely suggest is that you can always do something. It doesn’t have to be a group involvement or any kind of yielding to conventional wisdom. You can meditate. I believe it was Thomas Merton in his great narrative "The Seven Storey Mountain" where he talked about the superiority of meditative practices in healing the world. In my own experience I have found this to be true. We cannot establish the empirical relationship between spiritual practices and the betterment of humankind and the planet, but the intuitive connection is clear. It is not something that can be dismissed as merely "post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this)." Intuition is an experience that cannot be measured on the material level.
By always doing something we can at least maintain a baseline of alternatives for when the system of corruption finally collapses, which it most certainly will. By engaging in activities advocating the advancement of harmony, mutuality, moderation, humility, and synergy with nature, we can generate examples of the change we would like to see happen.
The Bush crime family will fail, and it will happen sooner if we not only expose its criminality, but also show how the proliferation of such criminality is fostered by the corruption system, which guaranteed that someone would rise to such a level of fiendery. What we must do, though, is make sure that we construct a system that does not have a reward structure solely based on getting more. Otherwise, we will be back where we started, and the planet will not support another round of degraded humanity.
By the way, I bought a used Trek at an upstart bicycle shop, and got cheated. The bicycle shop is no longer in business, but I still have the bike, and it suits my needs. I at least attained my goal: get a bicycle. All the rest falls into that great cauldron of sowing and reaping, sometimes known as Samsara, sometimes as Karma.