Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Monopolize This!

As a child growing up I would accompany my mother on daily excursions to the local grocery store or to the clothing store or the pharmacy. All were within walking distance in the small community where I lived and were owned and operated by local residents. The shoppers and merchants were on a first name basis and good service and quality products were a given.

One day news came that a large grocery chain was going to open a branch store in our village. Every Friday night, payday for my father, we would load into the family car and go shopping at the National Food Store. Half the village was there shopping and collecting their green stamps which could be exchanged for merchandise once enough stamp books were filled. Next came a K-Mart, then one of the large oil companies opened a service station in town. The final blow came when a huge shopping mall was opened only a few miles from our house. One by one the locally owned businesses disappeared as shoppers gravitated to cheaper prices, greater product selection and more convenient venues. Gone also was the personal service.

There was one bank in my hometown. All the people that worked there lived in our village and everyone banked there. My math teacher moonlighted as a teller. There was always free fresh coffee, pastries and cookies set out for the customers. Bringing children in to open their first savings accounts was a ritual that was celebrated by all. Issues with one's mortgage were discussed and resolved and foreclosure was never a concern.

The grade school I went to was staffed by village residents. Student discipline was never a concern for teachers since the teachers all socialized with the students' parents. Any behavioral issues got resolved quickly, lest the parents find out and suffer the embarrassment of their child being labeled a trouble-maker. Parent-teacher conferences were mandatory and everyone participated in the PTA and school activities.

I imagine my childhood was not unlike that of most my age. There was a network in these villages that served to unite the community. Children, in effect, were raised by the village, ala Hilary Clinton.

I mention all this because I suspect that a great deal that is wrong with this country stems from the fact that our lives are now firmly controlled by very large corporations that have no sense of responsibility when it comes to their patrons. Corporations exist to make money for their shareholders and that doesn't often comport with providing personalized service to customers. From our groceries to our banking to our gasoline purchases we are dealing with Orwellian images, not human beings. The employees of these corporations are faceless and often have only an employee id number or a made up name in the case of overseas call centers. Those who are in charge of running these corporations are detached from the masses and care little for societal concerns or what is morally appropriate.

My little town bank was long ago gobbled up by a conglomerate and no longer offers coffees and treats to its customers. If I was to go there today and asked to open a savings account they would probably stare at me in disbelief. Who saves? How about a nice CD at .5% interest! The local school has now been divided into a grade school and a middle school. I doubt that any of the teachers there even live in town or would recognize parents if they ran into them at the Walmart.

The larger and more distant corporations become the less human they become. But for the threat of lawsuits, I doubt that any recalls would be made or product safety considered. More often than not businesses will refund or exchange because it is more cost efficient that not doing so. It has nothing to do with good will and customer satisfaction. Employees seldom talk about their jobs with pride.

Recently the Wall Street banks were labeled as too big to fail. I submit that big is a failure. It is a failure of the spirit that helped this country grow into something quite unique. Now instead of reputation it is one's wealth and possessions that seem to matter most. Capitalism is a wonderful thing except when it evolves into a system of wealth acquisition at the expense of morality and trust. When one merchant or service provider raises prices it creates a small tsunami that ripples throughout the economy. That is why virtually no one in my generation actually owns a house without a mortgage. See if you know someone who isn't making payments on a car that isn't ten years old. I often see people use credit cards to buy groceries and cringe. There is a high school that I know that has over 4000 students.

I see the economic meltdown in this country as the natural progression of what happens when big replaces small and conscience disappears from the deal. Does anyone really think BP cares about those affected by the oil spill other than how it will affect their share price. What is up with Pay Day Loan Stores that can charge 500% interest? Usury statutes were there to protect us from our own greed. Now the big banks have lobbied those out of existence. When was the last time you heard the word anti-trust? You think the teachers at that high school care about the throngs of students they see every day whose parents are non-existent.

The politicians have walked hand-in-hand with big business for decades now. The constituents they represent are the ones on their donor list, not the one's struggling to try to find a job or pay a mortgage. So you can't really expect to get any help from them. What passed for health insurance reform was only the latest homage to the insurance lobby, camouflaged to send them millions of additional customers and more government money than they could have ever hoped for.

I was driving today down a major commercial highway by my house and taken by the number of "For Rent" signs in vacant windows. Whether the politicians or the corporation CEOs know it or not there is change on the horizon. That change is going to come and there isn't anything anyone can do about it. The more unemployed there are, the more the government is going to have to fund unemployment and subsidize jobs through the public sector. Eventually there won't be enough workers to pay the taxes necessary to fund the operations of government. We already see this on a state level. Illinois is one of many states that is functionally broke and can't pay it's bills, fund it's pension obligations and finance its schools.

Yes, change is coming. The other day I watched a Tale of Two Cities on DVD. I suspect the time is near when the masses will be storming the Bastille and heads will roll. It is just a question of how much the masses will put up with before they pick up the pitchforks and torches.

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