Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Business as Usual...

Two weeks ago, I had a rather unsettling experience.
I'm going to relate this little DAILY incident so we can reflect on what this means for the way we are doing business.
Blithely surfing through (no that is not an advertisement), looking at the publications of one of the U.S.'s great intellects, the philosopher Mortimer Adler, I noted with interest that he had written a book about linguistics.
"Cool", I said to myself. I respect Mortimer Adler, and would like to read what he has to say on the subject (even if the book is old, well, the Bible, and Goethe are old too, so on subjects like these, I don't feel a pressing need for what has just jumped off the presses. Very often it can be.. LESS interesting than what our ancestors wrote and thought, by the way.)
The book is out of print.
So I checked out amazon's sellers.
Drum roll...
The difference in price for this book ranged from... $600 to $1.67...
Are you in shock ?
Is this price range NORMAL for presumably identical copies of the same book ?
Na. Not in the least.
I think that this example shoots a big hole into any misconceptions that we might have that the markets are... "free" in these days of zero REGULATION. Think about it. It takes more than 0 regulation to make a FREE market. I should say, it takes something DIFFERENT from 0 regulation to make a free market, because I'm not sure yet just how regulation makes the market virtuous.
(Hey, look, that word "free" is there. A light bulb just lit up in my brain connecting to my favorite Smithsonian zoo lions in the cage story. Hmmm. Will have to think a little more about the implications of this.)
Now, my local farmer's market is a FREE market.
When people are selling TOGETHER, and COMPETING TOGETHER WITHIN A COMMUNITY, I think that there is a pressure for prices to come together. With slight variations, of course.
But, in my opinion, something else is happening in order for such enormous variations in prices to exist, as per my example.
Could it be that...
We have bottomed out so much the idea of money in our minds that it really has no meaning for us any more or that...
Our individualism has reached such proportions that we have managed to bottom out EVEN the RELATION of competition ??
Think about it. You have to have a minimum of identification, a minimum of sense of community to even engage in competition. Like apples don't compete with oranges, for example. Keeping up with the Joneses, for example presupposes that you recognize that the Joneses are OTHER PEOPLE. People... LIKE YOU. More or less.
That's a paradox, granted, but it seems true to me.
So... could those prices be an indication of the end of the road towards INDIVIDUALISM ?
Like... the Joneses are no longer even OTHER PEOPLE for us ??
Just a question.
I welcome my reader's comments.


Toby said...

Well, I disagree about the free market part. A ‘free’ market is one where we can charge what we want, and buy what we like (amongst other attributes like rational and perfectly informed participants). Whether or not the seller asking for $600 dollars for a book that is also available at a tiny fraction of that price, finds a buyer, is doubtful, but that’s ok. Also, should the seller seeking $600 become the last remaining seller on Earth of that item, he/she will probably make the sale one day. Scarcity at work in a market setting. Supply and demand establishing price.

There is also the ‘freedom’ to price discriminate, aka price discrimination. An example of this is the cost of underground tickets in London costing more during rush hour than non-peak times. You know people have to buy at those times, so make hay while the sun shines; charge more for exactly the same service. Same thing happens in telecommunications and elsewhere, and in clever ways.

And I also disagree that there is such a thing as a ‘free’ market. Your important point about the farmers’ market being within a community implies restraints on ‘freedom’ along the lines of morality and fairness, because we know each other in a close community, and see each other regularly. Also, how competitive is it? What is the cost of ‘losing’ the competition? Death? I doubt it. Poverty? Unlikely. Do individual actors in the community competition want to win big and crush their competitors, or just be proud to serve the community with dignity and quality? Does competition drive this, or rather morality arising from the need for a solid sense of self-worth and usefulness within the community generally? To take it a little further: Is community State? Are State and Market opposites? I think not, despite what the mainstream says. Community/State gives rise to Market and vice versa, as Market binds/powers Community/State and State sets the parameters for Market and vice versa. The false dichotomy that sets them opposite one another is but one of many poisoning our cultural imagination, and, in my view, arises directly out of the sky-father earth-mother Cartesian Split of yore.

In the end, it’s all about exchange one way or the other. Exchange defines markets and states alike. How do we facilitate exchange? Via ‘competition’ or ‘cooperation’ or both?

I’ve argued often that we understand competition poorly. We have projected a war-like, dog-eat-dog construct, one we accidentally put together as a consequence of domesticating land and beast, on to a falsely conceived ‘nature-out-there,’ which is far more subtle than our narrow musings allow. Oddly, “to compete” has latin roots meaning “to strive (or seek) together:” com + petere – a Freudian slip perhaps? Compete seems to mean co-operate, etymologically speaking. In the end, determining whether an animal or plant ‘competes’ or ‘cooperates’ with others probably comes down to how we analyze the data and how much data we gather, and what our mindset is. Ultimately, both describe (poorly) tactics to survive. In the insect kingdom for example, ants, a social and therefore cooperative animal, are feared. That they cooperate enables courage and self-sacrifice, not to speak of group organization. In a fight, solitary insects flee. Peter Kropotkin’s “Mutual Aid” is really fascinating on this (it’s available online too!). The question for humanity is this: can we expand the circle of reciprocity – that group within which we cooperate and share – to include the whole world? I think that’s the only way we’re going to make it. That’s our challenge.

As to your speculations, I think they are accurate, but not because of the wild variety of prices demanded for a book on Amazon. I most certainly believe that money as a sysmbol is unravelling. The whole idea of value is undergoing a reformation, and it’s happening really fast. And yes, part of this is the paradoxical, troublesome self/other split which needs to be softened and re-understood. Money is part of that, as you suggest.

Debra said...

Good points, Toby.
I think we come together on our perception of competition/cooperation.
I think that your remarks about competition echo mine about the necessity for a commond denominator of IDENTIFICATION in the competition RELATION.
I think that money as symbol is unraveling BECAUSE we have been attacking fiction as a lie for such a long time that we are no longer capable of sustaining/believing IN the fiction that our symbols REPRESENT the "real" world for us.
Our symbolic systems are based on fiction.
And when we attack fiction as a lie, well... we are inevitably attacking our symbolic systems AT THE SAME TIME.
Logical. Inevitable.
And... the ship goes down if we attack the fiction of our symbolic systems.. the MONEY ship, but not just. The... LANGUAGE ship too.
Everything that our symbolic systems structure and CREATE for us WITHIN SOCIETY.
Pretty bleak, huh ?
Well, let's... do as the man says, and maintain our dignity from moment to moment, glorying in the small pleasures of our daily existence.
What else can the WISE man do ??

Toby said...

"attacking fiction as a lie"

I don't get this idea, can you expand on it for me?

Debra said...

A few observations...
My mother in law no longer reads novels because, well she wants to read "things that REALLY happened"... like history, or autobiography, written in the first person.
But, her prejudice on what history is, or what autobiography is, does not take into account that we REALLY DON'T KNOW "what happened", from whatever point of view we take.
History, and historical narrative is CONSTRUCTED BY us and NOT REVEALED TO US from the objective exterior.
But FOR HER, a novel, as FICTION is a LIE, as opposed to the "truth", and history is truth because it "really happened".
Our attack on fiction, separating our world out into a pugilat between "truth" and "lie", constitutes an attack on our capacity to IMAGINE our world, and our relationship with other people. An attack on our empathy, because empathy emanates from being able to imagine what other people are feeling and thinking.
Other examples of this : the endless debate on whether children have been sexually abused by adults (in the past) or not.
This debate neglects the fact that THE STORIES WE TELL OURSELVES about who we are, and what happened to us in the past are constantly shifting, and changing, and we are reinterpreting to integrate new information, new experiences in relation to our present.
The stories we tell ourselves about the past are constantly influenced by.. who we are in the present, and the pressure of the social body.
Two hundred years ago, fewer people would have been talking about sexual abuse.
Does that mean that there is more of it now ?
How do we know ?
We will NEVER know.
And the idea of what constitutes... sexual abuse changes all the time too, for example.

Toby said...

Excellent explanation.

I thought that's what you meant, but wanted to be sure. In German of course, history and story are the same word; Geschichte. French too? Of course "story" is in history, a fact Michael Jackson used in the title of his last album (I think it was his last...).

Anyway, there's no such thing as objectivity. We CAN NEVER leave ourselves out of the equation or observation, and our millennia long, futile attempt to do so (this is the main thesis in "The Ascent of Humanity") has brought us to crisis point.

Interesting times.