A Nation of Consumers

Photo by Jack GouldSometimes I have to wonder: Am I a whiny liberal with so little faith in human goodness and intelligence that I think government has to tell everyone how to behave? What if conservatives are right that the marketplace is the ultimate voting booth and that competition—and unfettered American know-how—are the greatest problem solvers?

For example, folks in the circles I move in are concerned about global warming just because an overwhelming number of scientists have determined that human activity is contributing to climatic changes that will make life on this planet difficult if not untenable in the decades ahead.

Balderdash, retorted a conservative home-builder acquaintance I ran into recently in a circle I don't move in; he claimed that most scientists on these committees never agreed to these findings (this is news to the scientists, I know, but not to Rush Limbaugh) and that global warming is just another trumped-up excuse for government to regulate our lives.

I didn't argue with the guy, instead suggesting that we resume the discussion after another two decades of sitting on our asses, when we might have some definite proofs at hand as to whether we've bequeathed our progeny a burnt husk of a planet or not. I wish I'd thought to wager some money on it. I could put the winnings toward buying an ark.

Our little discussion got me to thinking about the last time conservatives were howling about a scientific climate theory spoiling their fun: the Nuclear Winter claims of the 1980s, when experts asserted a nuclear war would heave sufficient particulate matter into the atmosphere to cut off sunlight, and life on Earth would wither in a new Ice Age. They thought this was not a good idea.

But thinking about it now made me wonder if maybe we've underestimated George W. Bush, those of us who believe he has dog food for brains. We are baffled when he scraps hard-fought environmental regulations; when he proposes thousands of new polluting power plants; when he tells the world to take a hike on global warming accords; when, in the absence of any tangible enemy, he makes astronomical hikes in our military budget; when he abandons long-standing arms treaties in favor of a missile-defense system that will never work.

But, just as there is a complex interrelatedness of all things in even the simplest tide pool, so it may be in Bush's brain.

If only we had the faith in American ingenuity that he does, maybe we, too, could see a win-win situation emerging from his seeming policy mess. Then, rather than worry about global warming, we could embrace it. You know the way charity fund-raisers use a thermometer graphic to show how near their goal they are? We could look at real thermometers that way, seeing boiling mercury as the sign of a booming economy.

It's all good because just when things start getting a mite too toasty for us, the other part of Bush's brilliant policy kicks in. His heightened international tensions and arms buildup result in nuclear war, and presto-change-o, Mr. Global Warming gets cold-cocked by Ms. Nuclear Winter! The planet cools down again, and the plucky, can-do survivors can crawl out and start the cycle over again.

Go figure: these days the conservatives are the ones jettisoning the past to embrace a bold future while the liberals are the old fussbudgets concerned about moving too fast. Pro-business Republicans, for example, are gung-ho on genetically engineered foods, opposing even labeling to let us consumers know what we're eating, while some Democrats are concerned about the unknown and possibly incontrovertible impact these radically new products may have on nature's balance.

They'll point to the way StarLink corn keeps turning up in foods where it shouldn't and the way its "improved" traits have already mutated into other strains of corn. But if liberals were only able to think "outside the box" the way conservative visionaries can, they might see new vistas of potential here. Genetically modified organisms are patented, yes? So if GMO contamination causes natural plants and animals to adopt the GMO's attributes, that is patent infringement, and the corporate genetic overlords could sue nature's maker—generally recognized by conservatives to be God—and might extract certain rights and concessions from him, such as the Pizza Hut franchises and real-estate development rights in heaven. The same dedicated elite that serves our interests so well on earth could ensure a smooth rollover into an afterlife that's just like this one. Your credit-card debt could even go with you.

If that's not an appealing prospect, consider that the only world we know for sure exists is this one, and the dedicated elite is trying to get a lock on its resources and assets for perpetuity. Forget the afterlife: living on this world is looking more like bad science fiction by the moment. Did you know that there are more than 1,000 genes in your body that you have no right to, because corporations do? They own the patents, literally. They didn't create the genes—which have been in us forever—they just mapped them. But thanks to a perverted interpretation of the U.S. patent code, companies like Myriad Genetics and DuPont own parts of you. Researchers can't even study those genes to cure our illnesses without a license from these corporations. (There's a good piece in the June Esquire about this, if you're interested.) This calls for a new term: How about microimperialism?

Our conservative friends will tell us that the market will take care of everything, that whatever may run askew from our national and social interests—and I would say that Monsanto owning my gonads qualifies—will naturally fall in line with our values via the ebb and flow of market forces.

I think that's a load of hooey. When most of the country's wealth is concentrated in 1 percent of its population—which owns everything from your genes to your media sources to your congressman—it's no longer a market. It's a slaughterhouse of our natural interests.

But let's ignore that reality to instead ponder things on the purified fluffy cloud where conservative thought dwells because they have a point on which I think we can agree. It is one of their central arguments against government regulation; that it is you who knows what's best for you. Yes, you, the individual, should be the one to decide what you'll allow in your life. It's a tenet Republicans adhere to only selectively—they'll pass laws to protect you from communists and clitorises and things they've deemed you too stupid to sort out for yourself but defend your freedom to stand alone against polluters and monopolies.

Well, as the Bush administration makes clearer by the day, we are alone. And it is time we started acting like it.

Don't like the ever-escalating cost of concert tickets? Blame lax antitrust laws for allowing Clear Channel Entertainment to buy up every concert venue and radio station in sight. But also blame yourselves for buying those inflated tickets. Rather than boycott such greed, consumers instead led the way to it by forking out $300-plus to scalpers long before it occurred to promoters to join the fun. The same applies to gasoline. If lunkheads will pay $1.50 for a 12-ounce bottle of water, can you blame gas companies for trying to get $2 per gallon for their highly refined product?

We've become a nation not of citizens but of consumers, and lame consumers at that. Businesses are there to make money. Some of them try to do that in a just and moral way; others give full value to Thorstein Veblen's observation that capitalism is the predatory phase of our existence. If you don't educate yourself to know which is which, if you don't shop or invest in an informed and moral manner, if you don't actively oppose wrongs, then you deserve the shitty world you get.

Hold on a minute here; the mail just came. Hey, I got a notice from the IRS on my Immediate Tax Relief. Well, shut my mouth—President Bush came through for me! I'm getting $25.30 any day now! I'm gonna buy me an ark!


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