Some Things Never Change

Some Things Never Change

As I begin this post, I recall reading an excerpt from Upton Sinclair’s book, The Jungle, about the Chicago meat packing plants. It was a vivid description of the horrible immigrant working conditions, cases where disease and sickness were the price paid by workers for the sake of profit. One particular line comes to mind. After reading about the way that pork was pickled and then packaged, the final act was to take the leavings from the drain and use it in some meat product. “…everything but the squeal from the pigs was used.” To me, this is a historic summary of the path human greed has taken, from those blatant, graphic images to a subtler form that hides behind the same epithet: “business ethics.”

For it was the custom, as they found, whenever meat was so spoiled that it could not be used for anything else, either to can it or else to chop it up into sausage. With what had been told them by Jonas, who had worked in the pickle rooms, they could now study the whole of the spoiled-meat industry on the inside, and read a new and grim meaning into that old Packingtown jest–that they use everything of the pig except the squeal.
– via www.online-literature.com

We trip over ourselves in social discussions and in the news media to avoid point the finger at those who constitute the real problem with society today. It is done so slickly that our normalized selves seldom recognize that we have done it. Comments referring to how sad it is to see so many new health issues, so many families financially struggling to live their lives, increasing numbers of violent crimes, and so on. Underneath is a neoliberal capitalistic system that seeks to use everything and everyone to get “all but the squeal out of the pig.” Done under the guise of efficiency and reduced cost, those defining the terms, “efficient” and “cost” rarely, if ever, include humanity in those definitions. Instead, “efficient” refers to getting the job done as quickly and easily as possible regardless of how it impacts the people doing the job or using the product while “cost” is strictly about profit; who cares about the cost in terms of health, economic conditions, or morality. This is the same way of doing business made more efficient (ha!). Hell, the U.S. government gave smallpox-ridden blankets to Native American children and during the Spanish American war, companies sold the military boots with cardboard soles (Zinn, Peoples’ History of the U.S.)! Slavery ended not from a bloody civil war but from the decision of slaveowners that it was too costly and could be more efficiently implemented by ending physical bondage and replace it with a social slavery. Complicit companies could then be free from the responsibilities of providing food, housing, and medical care while continuing to squeeze more work out of the same people and paying them a pittance.
The same things are done but more covertly and prefaced with an elaborate scheme to set the stage for more raping and pillaging of human rights. Ralph Nader’s notion of “planned obsolescence,” companies selling appliances that were built to fail after a period of time to spur consumerism has evolved into a way of life.

But the American consumer has now been conditioned to accept a reality that would have been characterized as absurd before. We accept that the feature-laden smartphone we buy today MUST be replaced in six months when the new models arrive. We are surprised when anything we purchase lasts for any length of time beyond an ever-diminishing norm. We are trained to believe that society requires us to discard and reinvent ourselves with every wind that blows from the world of fashion. We are constantly bombarded with the clear message that the answer to everything, from the world economy to our self-esteem, will be fixed if we simply…..consume.
– via seattlerecycles

Almost every product was built to fail; quality was a term used to sell the crap. In contrast, a few companies maintained true quality but at a much higher price, unaffordable by many and cherished by those who either wanted quality or just wanted the social status that came from owning those brands. This did not go unnoticed by companies who began to market a separate product line advertised as “better” or “more durable” than the other line that cost less. While a bit better, the profit margin was much greater by relabeling still-inferior products as improved versions. For example, we started with plain batteries that led to alkaline batteries, touted as the ultimate battery that lasted several times longer than the plain ones. However, along came the extra strong alkaline followed by another, each with a higher price than the previous “end-all” product; who knows where that will end…
America’s love affair with the automobile is another excellent example of how pseudo quality has been used to increase profit. Not many decades ago, owning a Cadillac or Mercedes was out of the majority’s financial reach but now, there are affordable models for a much larger percentage of families. Other more common brands now sell a higher cost product that supposedly is better quality and new brands have emerged that simulate the appearance of more expensive ones. A side effect of this race to increase profit while reducing real quality has been the evolution of mechanics to parts people whose main job is to con as many owners as possible into having multiple components replaced to fix a simple problem. This is exacerbated by the engineers who design not for quality but for profit so that when one piece breaks, it requires the removal or replacement of several others. It’s all about ethical business operation a.k.a. get everything out of the pig, if possible, including the squeal.

A Dangerous Philosophy

Most people would say that business is business and profit is the name of the game. This may be true with “widgets” a.k.a. physical products but when that same mindset is used in the realm of human services such as education and healthcare, people begin to suffer and quality becomes a thing of the past, replaced with pseudo quality. In more cases, we are buying more boots with cardboard soles while being told that they are high quality. It is as if we are killing our own children for the sake of profit…

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