Warning: you are about to encounter a near-rant, and it may get uncomfortable…
Philosophy, political science, psychology, and religion are full of –isms. In this particular usage, and for the duration of this (near) rant, I will use –ism, and commercialism in particular, in the general sense of “a distinctive doctrine, cause, or theory,” as taken from Merriam Webster, as opposed to a particular belief or prejudicial manner of thinking. So, to be clear, commercialism, as I will use it here, refers to the distinctive cause of packaging absolutely anything, any occasion, or any idea as a possible commodity: something that can be sold to other human beings at a profit to the packager.
I am not some doctrinaire socialist or moralizer fastened on the idea that the word profit is an obscenity or that all corporations are evil in all they do and all they propose to do. Working for a living and profiting from one’s labor are cornerstones of our (American) system of free enterprise, after all, and many other countries operate similar economies, at least in those aspects. What I like less and less as time goes by is the largely unspoken, though increasingly powerful and omnipresent idea that, if a buck can be made from something, it must be exploited, and those bucks must be extracted from other members of society. A corollary effect is that once such exploitation has started, those who are unwilling or unable to pay for the thing someone has successfully made into a commodity are frozen out, prevented from enjoying something they might previously have had at lesser expense.
Even more egregious is the idea of making oneself into a distributor or controller of the product of another’s labor, knowledge, or goodwill; the more this sort of thing gets added into the ultimate cost to the ultimate consumer, the more expensive it becomes.
One of the worst examples of this magnification of costs is our American nonsystem of health care delivery. Health certainly is a basic human need–if you get appendicitis, and it is not taken care of, a ruptured appendix is the likely result, followed by peritonitis and death. The good news is that a relatively simple surgical procedure and postoperative medication will likely avoid all that. Are there costs? Of course. The surgeon is entitled to be compensated for his skills, any assistants likewise, and the antibiotics the patient consumes after the surgery are not free of cost. And the hospital that houses all this has an attendant cost, too.
Sound complicated? Of course. But let’s examine what has evolved in this country in response to such a need. Some people will never need such medical care and will go to their graves with their appendices intact. Others will be less fortunate and will need numerous medical interventions during their lives. As a society, we like to see ourselves as compassionate. We don’t want to see an inflammation of the appendix become a death sentence. Barring some system of charity health care or government administration (shudder!) that is exactly what would happen, though. So the solution here has been the industry of health insurance–more accurately called hospitalization insurance, but I digress. Each surgical invention results in a bill which is submitted to the patient’s insurance company, which may employ claim adjustors and adjudicators, all to ensure that “the company’s” money is not paid out in spurious or inflated claims, administrative personnel, etc., etc., and a highly-compensated CEO, all of whom are entitled to be compensated for their work, as well. Costs are spread over a spectrum of users.
Are these intermediaries immoral, thieving wretches? Of course not. They are all striving to excel inside the system they were born into. But consider Canada, our neighbor to the north. Canadians enjoy a standard of living similar to ours, and their health care is good. Their life expectancy is better than ours–a recent study (2015) by the World Health Organization puts their life expectancy, on average at 82.2 years, while we Americans are at 79.9. They have a health care system that covers them all through a government program that pays all medical costs. Of course, ultimately they all pay for their own health care through taxation or other government funding methods, but still…it works. Just as an aside, I read an article recently about the auto industry. It contained an interesting little tidbit: with the US dollar and its Canadian counterpart at par, Ford or GM or Chrysler produce the average car meant for the US market at a cost of $1500 less in Ontario than in Michigan. Why? Well, you must have guessed. The US autoworker working under his negotiated contract bargained for (largely) company-paid health insurance, while his counterpart to the north is covered by his national health care plan.
Need another example? Look at the music industry. Take a new, young artist who has come up with a style that someone in the established industry finds exciting enough to offer the artist a contract, typically involving the artist’s producing x amount of music in y length of time. The recording label pays the artist a fixed sum, with (maybe) a fixed commission determined by the sales of the artist’s music. There is a story about the band Van Halen (which, unfortunately, I can’t confirm, but still…) wherein Eddie Van Halen, the lead guitarist, claimed they recorded one album that sold 2,000,000 copies, and after they had toured in support of that album, were informed by the record label that the band still owed several million dollars to the label. Incredulous, Eddie said he hoped the album would not sell 2,000,000 more copies or the band would owe twice as much money. Was the label entitled to recoup its costs for promotion and distribution? Of course. How were those costs figured? Hmmm…
More recently, Taylor Swift had a dispute with Spotify, the popular file-sharing service that lets consumers download and listen to music. Swift, one of the most popular contemporary artists in the world, was getting less than one cent per play from Spotify, which led her to pull much of her music from the service altogether. Most of such a service is, of course, automated, with selections made through the consumer’s computer, so there would appear to be little justification for charges by the company of much over one cent!
And finally…this is going to irritate some people, but it is what got me thinking along these lines in the first place. Today is the eve of Easter, the Christian feast which observes the Resurrection of Christ. I will not preach to anyone what he or she should believe or practice. I will admit to being troubled at the number of people who huckster in the name of religion, and I am not, in this instance, talking about those who solicit in the name of a legitimate charity. Jesus, in His time on Earth, after all, did advise that, to follow him, one should feed the hungry, house the homeless, etc. He did not advise that one should subsidize TV preachers or the proprietors of distant megachurches. If you want to do that, I have no business telling you not to. I will say that these people seem like little more than self-appointed intermediaries–commercial enterprises of something that had no commercial aspect in the beginning. And it’s available at some location near you at little cost–even if you are a shut-in.
Whatever your beliefs, I wish you Happy Easter, Passover Blessings, or, Eid Mubarak.