Based in Portland, Oregon, Harriet Fasenfest gardens, cooks, writes, teaches, and speaks on the issues of food security and justice. Her book, A Householder's Guide to the Universe, was published in fall 2010. She is currently working on a new book and curriculum guide for teaching householding and householding economics.

The sock-monkey situation

Consumer culture gone mad

By
December 26, 2008

Don’t make me shoot myself in the head. Please. Or, like I used to say at my coffee shop to particularly challenging customers, “Work with me.”

OK, here are your options:

(A) The Sock Monkey Kit as a “starter kit for creativity” for $11.99
(B) My old socks for free and a little time to tap into your natural creativity

(A) Kala Peace Soap for $7.99
(B) A peaceful soak for free

(A) Deep Steep Candy Mint Foot Cream $15.95
(B) Give a friend a foot rub for free

If you chose (B) for all options, then I just saved you, or you saved yourself, about $36, and the landfill and planet a little extra packaging. Mind you, all the gifts I listed are labeled “green,” but I think they are referring to the color of your money.

Of course our tanking economy is going to straighten some of this out, but I ask you: How did this happen? How did the sons and daughters of the cultural revolution start thinking that stuff was the answer? How did we all come to think that cute green packaging was the answer to our various global crises? Do you all not want to be reminded that there are crises? Do you really, really, really not get how nutty this is?

Harriet’s sock girl, whipped up in a few hours.

Still, I understand it. I have tracked it. I have dissected it and attempted to understand its legacy. I am no scholar, but rather a concerned citizen, and I see our willingness to buy stuff you can make for yourself as part of a very subtle system and economy that has been brewing silently for years — centuries, even.

Still, our current economic crisis reveals a part of the motivation behind our consumer culture that might help in understanding why you love, and are willing to buy, so much stuff. It is a part of our contemporary cultural zeitgeist — to consume is to be. And if you do not think you, and the planet, are being had, think again.

Am I being hysterical? Well, maybe, but I think there is a lot of truth behind the way industry has twisted our sense of both D.I.Y. and “green.” There is nothing new to the sleight of hand on the part of industry and marketing; still, there is something particularly odious about it, given today’s economic meltdown.

Despite all the fallout we are witnessing, we simply will not connect the dots. How is it connected? Well, it is difficult to break it down exactly (like I know exactly anyway), but I want to say this: Today’s economic crisis should be making you hopping mad, and not just because your wallet is flat, you may be losing your job, or your “retirement” is under siege.

In an odd twist of fate, the demise of the banking industry and Wall Street (and thereby your personal wealth) is attached to that sock monkey. It might take a while for me to a draw a line between them, but they are connected, if only in their micro and macro essences. Think about it as a tale of two stories connected at the hip by their need and our desire to shop.

Two scenarios, part 1

The first story is about real people in real towns doing honest work and getting by. People who have never wanted or needed to understand the functioning principles behind larger economic systems, because they have been busy and generally fair and good, and who, for the most part, would never have dreamed of the type of funky stuff the banking industry and Wall Street did and are doing.

For them, life existed in the everyday journey between school and work, between grocery store and shopping mall, where stuff was bought and extravagancies were factored in on the assumption of continued personal and financial stability.

If they went out on a limb, it was with a certain degree of hope and trust in the system that they were being sold. The information they used to make these decisions was limited not only by their own ability to understand them but by their faith in the people entrusted to manage them (let’s euphemistically call them the “regulators”).

For them, this is a horrible crisis that has been precipitated by systems and policies that they never understood or wanted to. They were the honest believers, and they are being shafted. So I understand and feel compassion for the story of Main Street, side street, back street, and dirt-road America.

For them, the sock monkey or Fry Daddy was part of a consumer culture that was attached to the American dream. Yes, one might be more “green” than the other, but still attached to the notion of consumer choice and our cultural love of stuff.

Two scenarios, part 2

But then there is the story of the banking industry and Wall Street and our own lazy federal regulatory system. That is the harder story to take, but the one that is vital to understand. These stories are part of the reason you like stuff and shopping so much and why, today, the “professionals” are near-bereft with the notion that you might stop.

This story is truly corrupt. Forget about all the planetary and environmental damage that has been done over the years in the name of stuff. Forget about the dismantling of fair-labor laws and unions. Forget about the historical legacy of our industrial society that did all the damage we and the planet are breathing in. That is yesterday’s (albeit enduring) fallout of unregulated corporate greed. Today’s economic mess is financial, or rather the stuff of fancy financial commerce that no longer seeks to make money on stuff (factories, products, or goods), but on the debt and interest owed on stuff.

Think about it as a second-tier resource generator. The first tier was somewhat finite (tangible stuff like hard body cars and trinkets) that for the longest time was attached to real cash in hand. That good old American ethic somehow became passé. The second tier is not so mundane. It has the potential for creating an endless revenue stream specifically because it is not attached to anything tangible. Its wealth is built on the miracle of fees, interest, and compounding. This is the legacy of virtual wealth, and you have helped them make it. You and your sock monkeys, particularly if you bought that monkey on credit.

You see, this particularly economic meltdown is not like anything we have ever seen because it was built on fairly modern inventions in the world of commerce: easy credit and a consumer culture gone mad. This is not just another mess waiting for a fix but rather one for the books, an enduring parable of greed and desire our kids will inherit and read about in textbooks.

As it is playing out, while we have been busy shopping on credit, they have been busy making money, tons and tons and tons of money on our debt. Sure, that seems fair; they are taking the risk, right? Not really. They no longer hold on to the debt or risk or, if they do, it’s in ever-decreasing percentages.

This is a very important turn of events to understand, because this passing-off of debt (and in a very particular manner) is one of the very modern financial tools given banks and Wall Street through recent legislation. That’s what makes this crisis so specific to our times. Today, commercial banks and other loaning institutions are not making reasoned returns on reasoned loans which they are required to hold on to, but rather on the fees inherent to their sale.

Enter Wall Street

Who would want to buy these loans? Investors. Enter Wall Street. By processing loans (mortgage, student, car, credit card, line of credit, etc.), banks create vehicles that are then sold off by Wall Street to investors eager to make money from the interest owed on them. Believe you me, the larger the loan and the greater the risk (i.e., the higher the interest rate), the tastier the product. This desire for fees on the part of the banks and investors’ desires for interest-bearing loans created a feeding frenzy that was additionally precipitated by a dismantling of regulation.

Here is where the corrupt rating institutions come in, but that’s another story. Suffice it to say the consequences of these converging factors created the perfect storm we are witnessing simply because everyone forgot, or wanted to forget, that debt and greed do not a sound fiscal policy make.

But at the end or beginning of this fiscal model is you, the sock-monkey buyer. You have been encouraged, plodded, pursued, and persuaded to keep shopping or, rather, to keep going into debt, because the debt was the thing that was being sold. That is why you kept getting those credit-card applications. That is why folks could get a mortgage with no money down, just interest. That is why our nation never saves or why we want every single silly thing we see; we have been created to make this engine work.

We are now known simply as a consumer culture — the engine of this economy. And everyone in the banking industry and Wall Street knew what they were doing, even though the average consumer did not.

Most folks thought they were getting a piece of the American dream: a house, a car, a shiny new flatscreen TV. But I am telling you all in the plainest terms, your value to Wall Street has been your willingness to buy everything and anything and, most importantly, your willingness to go into debt for it. That is what made them drool.

A reflection of time well spent.

Now I could give you more hairsplitting and fact-supported information about what the unregulated financial industry has been doing, but it might make you weep. The real point is, everyone went a little brain-dead for a while, but I understand. Who wants to understand basic economic systems, and who has the time? Who wants to question what it’s based on and how it’s fostered? Who wants to consider when, historically, it has served us, and when it has betrayed us?

But I need to say this: We, as consumers, are the end product of this formula, whether it be in our willingness to consume or our willingness to go into debt. (By the way, those who pay off their credit-card bills every month are called “deadbeats.”) In an economy driven by an consuming culture, we are the thing they are lusting after.

So fine, everyone was happy with the system until the system broke. And don’t believe the break was the result of our overextension as consumers (story number one) but rather, Wall Street’s avarice (story number two). And now they want us, the tired tapped-out racehorses of the consumer culture, to bail them out and to keep on shopping.

Like it’s really going to help anyway.

Hogwash. Do you know how long it’s going to take for the trillions and trillions of bad debt to work itself out of our books? In my opinion, 20 years, if not longer, but that’s only if Wall Street wants to keep accurate books. They won’t; they’ll come up with some newfangled way to cook the books so we’ll feel better about our little microcosm stories. Besides, we all have short memories.

And so it is that the calls to patriotism are being heard again. Shop or the economy will die. Shop because we must keep our country afloat. Shop dirty or shop green. Be a “values-driven” shopper or a bargain-basement shopper. Doesn’t matter so long as you shop, shop, shop.

Hey, why don’t the folks who made tons and tons and tons of money on our fragile and unexamined faith empty out their pockets? Perish the thought. Certainly, believers in the market economy will defend the right of the corporate titans to make all that money (it was legal, wasn’t it?). And give me a break if you think (I’m talking to you, auto-industry magnates) that one trip to Washington is going to make me feel good about opening up my wallet for a bailout — oops, “recovery package.” Nope — but then I’m a hardliner with a different agenda in mind. Again, it all relates to the sock monkey, peace soap, and candy mint foot cream.

The point of my lament

Now I know the poor sock monkey is not really the problem, but I am making a point of sorts. I’ll bet, in its trajectory of existence, the sock monkey started with some frugal homemaker’s desire to make something sweet out of an old sock. Let’s just call it a tribute to sustainable creativity and thrift. That it comes today in a package and needs construction instructions sort of misses the point, which is the point of my lament.

Oh, we look good when we go shopping (lots of cool outfits at the grocery store), but we are getting dumb as f....! Sorry, I gotta say it. Our logic is being sold to the cutest, coolest thing on the block, and it’s making me crazy.

Another logic

Today I am calling for another logic, one that requires a little consideration of the endgames attached to the models we are supporting. And be careful in assuming one large loop system is so much better then another. If it’s got packaging and any traces of “values-driven” yada yada attached to it, I’d be wary. But that’s just me. I’m just asking you to think about it and then something more.

Sure, I’ve said it before and I know it’s redundant to the max, but I am hereby calling for a new consumer mantra: It’s not what you consume that counts, but how it much comes from what you personally produced. It’s high time we replaced our heralded consumer culture with a producing one.

And I am not just suggesting the production and contribution inherent to our collective brain trust or, either, the cubicle centers of really important and not-so-important work imagining and/or maintaining the status quo of the status quo. Yes, I know we are brilliant, and no one needs to get their hands dirty any more, but I’m telling you, we have become sissified and the planet is paying the price.

Make or grow something already

Supply for your own needs already. Stay out of the stores already. Produce yourself. Practice thrift. Learn how to make a sock monkey. Move in together. Save money. Don’t buy, or rather, don’t go into debt to do so. Barter. And, in a nod to the good kind hearts I know, support friends in business, ‘cause they are in the soup and need it.

Sure, in another post I can explain (and here I am anticipating your response) why your time is worth so much (i.e., why it’s cheaper to buy canned tomatoes than make them), or how, in fact, the disingenuous logic behind “economies of scale” is setting up sound economic systems for the fall, but I have done enough for now.

But trust me, I’m not going away, nor just talking about it. Preserve has announced its 2009 householding series for “the serious Chicken Little.” I’m not talking jam here, though I like it as much as the next person. I’m talking about new models of production and consumption. I’m talking old school. I’m talking about un-poodling yourself. But I warn you, it will require your willingness to work with me.

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