The Customer is Always Replaceable

This is a repost from a blog posting I wrote in 2008. I don’t go to Taco Hell now either, but I like the rant so I’m reposting.

The Customer is Always Right. I used to see this sign in businesses. The theory behind it is a pleasant one, although I usually only saw it invoked as a means for bullies to treat customer service representatives like crap. But today, it seems the idea has gone completely out the window. It’s like stores don’t give a shit anymore if we don’t patronize their businesses; 800 people will be standing in line behind us if we don’t like the service that we get. It’s this way with stores, restaurants, customer call centers, you name it. I don’t eat out much. For one thing, it’s expensive as hell. For another, I heard Portland has had an outbreak of Hepatitis A and that it is often spread by restaurants. Since I had to get a shot in the butt in 1990 for an e-coli outbreak, and the thought of eating someone else’s poo is just more than I can manage, I avoid restaurants.

But sometimes you’re across town and starving as hell and ready to run people over your blood sugar is so low and you’re willing to eat all the things you wouldn’t normally touch from a mile away because you’re that hungry. That was me today. I recognized intellectually that I felt like a wretch and I didn’t care because I needed food.  So I went to Taco Hell. Yeah, I know it’s gross. But it’s cheap and they have this burrito with rice in it and I don’t get cheese so I went. The service was horrendous. The charming “customer service” representative who took my order informed me that the burrito I like “cannot be grilled.”

Huh? I told her when I’ve patronized the Taco Hell by my house they always grill it for me. Well, she sneered, that’s another franchise. Uh, okay. Small problem. When I’m hungry, I don’t care how big a bitch I am, at least when I’m that hungry. And I was that hungry. But I’m working hard on living in the moment and I did not want to be the bully customer who makes a worker feel like shit. I sat there in my car waiting to pull up to the window and thinking how irrelevant all this is and what a waste of my energy, but I was still getting annoyed. So I decided to be calm, but I still wanted to know why can’t they just grill my fucking burrito?

I pulled up and asked the kind lady how come they couldn’t grill my burrito. She said it is just a store policy. I said that isn’t an answer, it doesn’t tell me why the policy is in place. She said she didn’t know. Across the way a man who was probably a higher up manager because he wasn’t wearing the fancy Taco Hell outfit but instead had on a cheap shirt and tie came over and asked the problem. I started to say there wasn’t a problem, I just wanted to know why my burrito couldn’t be grilled. He said they are not allowed to grill them, company policy. I said that I get them grilled at the Taco Hell by my house. He said they aren’t supposed to. Then the girl helping said something to him and he turned to me and said it was a health issue. Huh? I said how in the world is it a health issue? He said it’s like giving them a cup and asking them to fill it. It has my germs on it. I was VERY confused at this point. My lack of blood sugar addled brain couldn’t quite muster what was going on. I said how in the world can it be a health issue to grill a freaking burrito? It’s in the restaurant, you put on all the ingredients. I never touch it. He just walked away.

At this point, I didn’t give a shit if my burrito was grilled or not. I just wanted to eat. I sat and waited until the girl handed me the bag. I asked for my water and drove off. I pulled to the side of the parking lot to eat it and it was grilled. Weird.

The main thing I kept thinking about after all this was that had I threatened to take my business elsewhere, they would have said fine, go ahead. We don’t need your two dollars. Companies have gotten so big that the customer isn’t right anymore. Everyone puts up and shuts up about crappy customer service because there is nowhere else to go where it will be any better. This is another byproduct of our one-size-fits-all one dimensional corporate society. Hate waiting on the phone on hold for 20 minutes when you call the phone company? Fine, go somewhere else. And while you’re at it we’ll charge you $200 because you’re in a lopsided bullshit contract.  Hate the piece of crap you bought at the Dollar Store? Too bad for you. No refunds.  Who cares if the state law allows you to return a defective item to a store with no refunds. You planning to sue us over a dollar? Don’t want to wait in line at a store with no employees? Fine, leave. Better yet, stand in line for 10 minutes, then leave. See if we care. Want your burrito grilled and we won’t do it?  Go fuck yourself. We don’t pay our workers enough to care. We don’t hire enough workers so they’re all pissed off all the time. Go somewhere else. Again, see if we care. That’s capitalism. It leaves no one alive.

I know this is a cynical bitchy rant. I shouldn’t complain without offering some solution. But I don’t know what the solution is. I go out of my way to avoid patronizing monster corporations, but sometimes it’s inevitable.  Sometimes it’s just being so damn hungry I’ll eat a rat in the gutter or Taco Hell. Those are the times those places get my business. I never go to Walmart or McDonald’s ever, and I mean never. They could be the last businesses on earth and I wouldn’t go there. Maybe there isn’t a solution unless enough people say enough, and judging by the lines in SkankDonald’s and Taco Hell or the mass of cars in the SkankMart parking lot, that isn’t going to happen anytime soon. In the meantime I guess I’ll rant on my blog.

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Marveling at the State of the World

As I move through my day, more and more I’m looking around at the world and marveling at human intervention. Humans have taken over everything and they seem to take it completely for granted. In fact they do take it completely for granted. It isn’t even questioned, yet it seems so bizarre to me. I’ll see a lamp post or a sidewalk or a building and think This doesn’t have to be here. But it is and it is because humans have taken over the world.

As we are isn’t natural. We put ourselves in charge when we shouldn’t be. Even this typing and this website isn’t natural; I recognize this. There is so much that humans do and so much time that humans spend that isn’t necessary. We go about our days and live our lives as if any of this is how things are supposed to be, as if it matters more than anything, but it isn’t how things are supposed to be and it doesn’t matter the most. We aren’t supposed to control so much.

More and more lately I catch myself stopping and staring at a thing and amazed that the thing exists, and I realize that the humans who put it there were not thinking how odd it was that they created what they did. Yesterday while using the toilet, I noticed that the buttons on my button-fly jeans said “Loft.” Down each one, Loft, Loft, Loft. Somewhere some human decided that the buttons on pants sold at the Loft need to say Loft on them. That person found someone who could get others to carve this word into these buttons. That person hired others who made the tools to carve the word Loft into those buttons. They hired people to use those tools. They carved the word Loft into thousands and thousands of buttons, popping them out like little coins falling into a bucket, filling a container made through the same process, filling baggies and sending them to the place where jeans are made, sewing them onto those jeans, packaging those, and then mailing them all over the world to sell to the likes of me. Humans set up these immense and complex supply chains. Really, it boggles the mind.

I like my jeans. They’re comfortable enough. They serve their purpose. But seriously, how many people does it take to make a pair of jeans? 800? It seems we have created these immense and complex supply chains to give ourselves some purpose because we’ve lost sight of what our purpose really is. I’m not sure what that purpose was intended to be, but I’m positive that humans taking over the world and making things like buttons with the word Loft on them isn’t it.

Bully Nation

Bully Nation  (Copyright, Truthout.org. Reprinted with permission)
by By Yale Magrass and Charles Derber, Truthout | Op-Ed

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has appropriately been called a bully. This has implications well beyond Christie. His calling out has the potential to shift the growing public conversation about bullying from a psychological narrative about abusive individuals to a new discourse on institutionalized bullying, carried out by ruling institutions and elites.

The current focus on bullying – like much of the discussion about guns and gun violence – has tended to focus on individuals and mental health. It is a therapeutic narrative. Bullying is seen primarily as a psychological problem of individuals. The victim needs therapy, better communication or adaptation skills. Bullies are characterologically flawed and need therapy or perhaps legal punishment.

But there is little or no discussion of larger social or cultural forces in the United States and the American institutions or leaders who bully other countries or workers and citizens at home. Institutionalized bullying is endemic to a capitalist hegemonic nation like the United States and creates death and suffering on a far greater scale than personal, everyday bullying, as important and toxic as the latter might be.

Moreover, much of the everyday bullying that is the current media focus must be understood as the inevitable consequence of a militarized corporate system that requires a popular mind-set of bullying to produce profit and power. The individual bully is the creation of the bully nation.

The United States openly views itself as the world police force, a benign hegemon morally ordained to impose its interests and values on the rest of the world and justified in the name of freedom, human rights and antiterrorism to do to weaker countries what it wants. It spends more on weapons than its next 20 largest competitors combined. President Obama proclaimed “[S]o long as I’m Commander-in-Chief, we will sustain the strongest military the world has ever known.” To peasants living in small countries in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Southeast Asia – where the United States has sent armed forces, used drones to bomb, and often overthrown the government – polls show that a majority of people see the United States as the greatest threat to their security, and fear it. Hegemony here seamlessly unfolds as morally sanctioned, institutionalized bullying.

America makes heroes of bomber pilots like John McCain and offers them as role models for children and adolescents to emulate. They see the media applaud the bullying behavior of their own government that dispatches police, soldiers, FBI and CIA agents into foreign nations to kill and wreak havoc – from Afghanistan to Somalia to Columbia. If you kill enough, whether in a just war or not, you may win the Congressional Medal of Honor.

If bullying brings esteem to a nation, then surely that is a behavior to strive for. Potential recruits for an aggressive military need to be immunized against scruples over violence and bullying. This becomes an implicit part of their education, whether or not it is ever publicly admitted. Accordingly, schools and adult authorities often turn a blind eye toward bullying. After two world wars, the Army lamented that a majority of combat soldiers never fired a weapon. They called for a change in the training of soldiers and the education and upbringing of children to correct that. By that measure, they have been successful. In Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, the majority of combat soldiers killed.

Sports has played a vital part in preparing children for institutionalized aggression, bullying and combat. In football, the goal is to attack the opponent and knock them down, a hard hit that keeps the opponent dazed on the ground is sometimes encouraged by coaches and cheered by the crowd. In schools and campuses, the athletes are often the popular heroes and also the bullies, involved too often in sexual violence or drinking binges in bars that lead to fights or crimes.

Only recently would they expect sanctions against bullying. Indeed, the more they bullied, the more popular they would be. Even before World War I, President Theodore Roosevelt insisted that elite universities like Harvard would have to enhance their football teams if America were to dominate the world. He declared: “We cannot afford to turn out college men who shrink from physical effort or a little physical pain.” For the nation needed men with “the courage that will fight valiantly against the foes of the soul and the foes of the body.”

The aggression and competitiveness of bullying pervades civilian life as well as military. As the beacon for the rest of the world to emulate, the culture the United States wishes to export is capitalism. Capitalism’s staunchest defenders proclaim competition to be its fundamental operating principle. The monopolistic corporations and the wealthiest 1% have been the most aggressive, bullying anyone who stood in their way by outsourcing their jobs, lowering wages, stripping away benefits and firing those seeking to organize unions.

The bully demonizes their victim. In American capitalism, elites have long defined the losers in the competitive struggle with the words used by Mitt Romney to defame the 47%: undeserving “moochers.” They are weak and lazy and don’t have the stuff to prevail. As victims, they deserve their fate and must submit to the triumphant. Those, like the wolves on Wall Street who bully their way to the top, should be there; those who couldn’t or don’t, belong where they are.

Bullying is the means through which the corporate empires were built. Carnegie and Rockefeller intimidated and threatened their rival capitalists to cede them an ever-larger share of the market. They brought in Pinkerton goons to beat striking workers into submission. Workers were forced to either sign “yellow dog” contracts and pledge not to join unions, or be thrown into the street. Similar bullying practices continue today. Corporations warn entire communities they will shut down factories and undermine the local economy if they do not accept low wages and minimal regulations. Banks entice consumers to borrow through predatory loans and then raise interest rates and threaten foreclosure. The corporations are clear they have the power and will not tolerate challenges from weaklings who fail to know their place.

Bullying enhances the ideology that the strong are strong and the weak are weak, and each deserves to be where they are. This attitude pervades America’s culture, government, military, corporations, media, schools, entertainment, athletics and everyday life. The first step to a solution is shifting the conversation to institutional bullying, moving beyond simply a therapeutic narrative to a political one aiming toward transformative social change. As long as the United States embraces militarism and aggressive capitalism, systemic bullying and all its impacts – abroad and at home – will persist as a major crisis.

Work Harder to Earn Less: French Fury in the EU Cage

“Work Harder to Earn Less” : French Fury in the EU Cage.

by Diana Johnstone

The French are at it again – out on strike, blocking transport, raising hell in the streets, and all that merely because the government wants to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62.  They must be crazy.

That, I suppose, is the way the current mass movement in France is seen – or at least shown – in much of the world, and above all in the Anglo-Saxon world.

Perhaps the first thing that needs to be said about the current mass strikes in France is that they are not really about “raising the retirement age from 60 to 62”. This is rather like describing the capitalist free market as a sort of lemonade stand. A propaganda simplification of very complex issues.

It allows the commentators to go crashing through open doors.  After all, they observe sagely, people in other countries work until 65 or beyond, so why should the French balk at 62? The population is aging, and if the retirement age isn’t raised, the pension system will go broke paying out pensions to so many ancients.

However, the current protest movement is not about “raising the retirement age from 60 to 62”. It is about much more.

For one thing, this movement is an expression of exasperation with the government of Nicolas Sarkozy, which blatantly favors the super-rich over the majority of working people in this country.  He was elected on the slogan, “Work more to earn more”, and the reality turns out to be work harder to earn less.  The Labor Minister who introduced the reform, Eric Woerth, got a job for his wife on the office staff of the richest woman in France, Liliane Bettencourt, heir to the Oreal cosmetics giant, at the same time that, as budget minister, he was overlooking her massive tax evasions. While tax benefits for the rich help empty the public coffers, this government is doing what it can to tear down the whole social security system that emerged after World War II on the pretext that “we can’t afford it”.

The retirement issue is far more complex than “the age of retirement”.  The legal age of retirement means the age at which one may retire.  But the pension depends on the number of years worked, or to be more precise, on the number of cotisations (payments) into the joint pension scheme. On the grounds of “saving the system from bankruptcy”, the government is gradually raising the number of years of cotisations from 40 to 43 years, with indications that this will be stretched out further in the future.

As education is prolonged, and employment begins later, to get a full pension most people will have to work until 65 or 67.  A “full pension” comes to about 40 per cent of wages at the time of retirement.

But even so, that may not be possible.  Full time jobs are harder and harder to get, and employers do not necessarily want to retain older employees.  Or the enterprise goes out of business and the 58-year old employee finds himself permanently out of work.  It is becoming harder and harder to work full-time in a salaried job for over 40 years, however much one may want to.  Thus in practice, the Sarkozy-Woerth reform simply means reducing pensions.

That, in fact, is what the European Union has recommended to all member states as an economy measure, intended, as with most current reforms, to reduce social costs in the name of “competitivity” – meaning competition to attract investment capital.

Less qualified workers, who instead of pursuing studies may have entered the work force young, say at age eighteen, will have subscribed to the scheme for forty-two years at age 60 if indeed they manage to be employed all that time. Statistics show that their life expectancy is relatively short, so they need to leave early in order to enjoy any retirement at all.

The French system is based on solidarity between generations, in that the cotisations of  today’s workers go to pay today’s retired people’s pensions.  The government has subtly tried to pit one generation against another, by claiming that it is necessary to protect the future of today’s youth, who are paying for the “baby boom” pensioners. It is therefore extremely significant that this week, high school and university students massively began to enter the protest strike movement.  This solidarity between generations is a major blow to the government.

The youth are even much more radical than the older trade unionists. They are very aware of the increasing difficulty of building a career.  The trend is for qualified personnel to enter the work force later and later, having spent years getting an education.   With the difficulty of finding a stable, full-time job, many depend on their parents until age 30.  It is simple arithmetic to see that in this case, there will be no full retirement until after age 70.

Productivity and Deindustrialization

As has become standard practice, the authors of the neo-liberal reforms present them not as a choice but as a necessity.  There is no alternative.  We must compete on the global market.  Do it our way or we go broke.  And this reform was essentially dictated by the European Union, in a 2003 report, concluding that making people work longer was necessary to cut pension costs.

These dictates prevent any discussion of the two basic factors underlying the pension problem: productivity and deindustrialization.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the former Socialist Party man who heads the relatively new Left Party, is about the only political leader to point out that even if there are fewer workers to contribute to pension schemes, the difference can be made up by the rise in productivity.  Indeed, French worker productivity is among the very highest in the world (higher than Germany, for example).  Moreover, although France has the second longest life expectancy in Europe, it also has the highest birth rate.  And even if jobholders are fewer, because of unemployment, the wealth they produce should be adequate to maintain pension levels.

Aha, but here’s the catch:  for decades, as productivity goes up, wages stagnate.  The profits from increased productivity are siphoned off into the financial sector.  The bloating of the financial sector and the stagnation of purchasing power has led to the financial crisis – and the government has preserved the imbalance by bailing out the profligate financiers.

So logically, preserving the pension system basically calls for raising wages to account for higher productivity – a very major policy change.

But there is another critical problem linked to the pension issue: deindustrialization.  In order to maintain the high profits drained by the financial sector, and avoid paying higher wages, one industry after another has moved its production to cheap labor countries.  Profitable enterprises shut down as capital goes looking for even higher profit.

Is this merely the inevitable result of the rise of new industrial powers in Asia?  Is a lowering of living standards in the West inevitable due to their rise in the East?

Perhaps.  However, if shifting industrial production to China ends up lowering purchasing power in the West, then Chinese exports will suffer. China itself is taking the first steps toward strengthening its own domestic market.  “Export-led growth” cannot be a strategy for everyone.  World prosperity actually depends on strengthening both domestic production and domestic markets.  But this requires the sort of deliberate industrial policy which is banned by the bureaucracies of globalization: the World Trade Organization and the European Union.  They operate on the dogmas of “comparative advantage” and “free competition”.  On grounds of free trade, China is actually facing sanctions for promoting its own solar energy industry, vitally necessary to end the deadly air pollution that plagues that country.

The world economy is being treated as a big game, where following the “rules of the free market” is more important than the environment or the basic vital necessities of human beings.

Only the financiers can win this game.  And if they lose, well, they just get more chips for another game from servile governments.

Impasse?

Where will it all end?

It should end in something like a democratic revolution: a complete overhaul of economic policy.  But there are very strong reasons why this will not happen.

For one thing, there is no political leadership in France ready and able to lead a truly radical movement.  Mélenchon comes the closest, but his party is new and its base is still narrow.  The radical left is hamstrung by its chronic sectarianism.  And there is great confusion among people revolting without clear programs and leaders.

Labor leaders are well aware that employees lose a day’s pay for every day they go on strike, and they are in fact always anxious to find ways to end a strike.  Only the students do not suffer from that restraint. The trade unionists and Socialist Party leaders are demanding nothing more drastic than that the government open negotiations about details of the reform.  If Sarkozy weren’t so stubborn, this is a concession the government could make which might restore calm without changing very much.

It would take the miraculous emergence of new leaders to carry the movement forward.

But even if this should happen, there is a more formidable obstacle to basic change: the European Union.  The EU, built on popular dreams of peaceful and prosperous united Europe, has turned into a mechanism of economic and social control on behalf of capital, and especially of financial capital.  Moreover, it is linked to a powerful military alliance, NATO.

If left to its own devices, France might experiment in a more socially just economic system.  But the EU is there precisely to prevent such experiments.

Anglo-Saxon Attitudes

On October 19, the French international TV channel France 24 ran a discussion of the strikes between four non-French observers.  The Portuguese woman and the Indian man seemed to be trying, with moderate success, to understand what was going on.  In contrast, the two Anglo-Americans (the Paris correspondent of Time magazine and Stephen Clarke, author of 1000 Years of Annoying the French) amused themselves demonstrating self-satisfied inability to understand the country they write about for a living.

Their quick and easy explanation: “The French are always going on strike for fun because they enjoy it.”

A little later in the program the moderator showed a brief interview with a lycée student who offered serious comments on pensions issue.  Did that give pause to the Anglo-Saxons?

The response was instantaneous.  How sad to see an 18-year-old thinking about pensions when he should be thinking about girls!

So whether they do it for fun, or whether they do it instead of having fun, the French are absurd to Anglo-Americans accustomed to telling the whole world what it should do.

Diana Johnstone is the author of Fools Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions. Write her for the French version of this article, or to comment, at diana.josto@yahoo.fr

Charade and Socialists

Milla, Boyfriend, and I watched the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn movie Charade tonight.  Good flick.  Milla really liked it.  Some things were kind of dated, but it was still enjoyable.  And Audrey Hepburn’s outfits were fantastic. It’s like the child of Duplicity, keeps you guessing.  Anyway, I recommend it.

On another note, I avoid the news lately.  In my current mental state, I simply can’t handle all the negativity.  However, I peruse a few pages including Huffington Post.  Today there was a story (see it here) regarding a Republican moron, er, congressman, who has created a, shhhhhh!  Secret list of socialists!!  Oooooh!  Can you BELIEVE this?  I was so upset, I could hardly stand it.  No wonder I don’t read the news anymore.  The one time I do and I discover socialists are creeping into our guvment.

Well, we’re just gonna have to root them dang socialites out, I’m telling you.  Get rid of anyone who thinks the guvment should pay for schools or roads or hell, social security (see that horrible word social in there?  It’s like herpes, you can’t get rid of it).  Big bad socialites, wanting the guvment to help pay for things like healthcare, education, transportation, and the like.  Hell, we should let people who can’t afford it DIE if they can’t go to the doctor.  And what’s the point of paying for schools?  They all teach the wrong stuff anyway.  And don’t even get me started on transportation.  All roads should be toll roads. That way the people who can afford it will drive and the rest can just stay home.  And if they can’t afford a home, well too bad for them!  Shit.  What is this world coming to people?  I swear, the anti-American bastards, we should just line them up and shoot them.