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Jun-10-2009 12:51printcomments

Human First, Economic Object, Second

Economic activity is a human activity, suggesting that economics must be based on some model of human behavior. We are not all capitalists, but we have been duped into believing that Homo economicus, economic man, is a valid model of human behavior.

Live and Work

(CALGARY, Alberta) - Kevin Tokar, in his late twenties, had been working for four years as a sound editor for TV documentaries in Toronto. On the job, he often found his mind wandering as he realized that he was more interested in the stories than in his job of perfecting the presentations.

"I found myself wanting to be more involved with the people, places and problems presented on the screen in front of me than I could ever be from my comfy chair behind the sound mixing board."

A Canada-wide survey last year by Kelly Services Inc. found that more than a third of respondents were not really happy with their career choice. In another survey, by Adecco Group North America, 56 per cent of more than 2,100 U.S. workers polled said they would pick a different career if they could choose all over again.

When we are starting out in our worklife, many outside pressures act to help us make our choice: parents, relatives and friends; the feeling that a job will offer us status or a particular position in the world; pressure to pay off accumulated student loans and the like; most commonly, the need to have an income just to live and spend.

We are not all capitalists

In North America, we’ve forgotten the fundamental truth about life: We work to live, not live to work. Instead, we are caught up in corporate dogma to the point that many of the buzzwords and attitudes of the corporate suite have been transferred holus bolus to our off-the-job lives. Money and the need for money permeates almost everything we do. Capitalists are motivated by money. This is not a bad thing.

The bad thing is the overall societal belief that we should all be motivated by money, gain and accumulation. As business writer and my mentor, Peter C. Newman once wrote: “The businessman’s faith is more a collection of attitudes than any carefully conceived theology.

But it does follow a catechism of sorts. All men and the actions of all men, the orthodox believe, are essentially a product of the marketplace; everyone therefore and everything has its price.”

Mythology notwithstanding, we are not rational and free

Economic activity is a human activity, suggesting that economics must be based on some model of human behavior. We are not all capitalists, but we have been duped into believing that Homo economicus, economic man, is a valid model of human behavior.

Right-wing economists have adopted this concept, which sharply contrasts with those models developed by psychologists, sociologists, biologists, liberal economists and other social scientists who assume that human behavior is complex, imperfect, limited, self-contradictory and unpredictable. As a result, we are wide open to be manipulated.

In 1931, American economist E. H. Chamberlin decried advertising as using: “selling methods which play upon the buyer’s susceptibilities, which use against him laws of psychology with which he is unfamiliar and therefore against which he cannot defend himself, which frighten or flatter or disarm him—all of these have nothing to do with his knowledge. They are not informative; they are manipulative. They create a new scheme of wants by rearranging his motives.”

And advertising was just getting started.

In 1957’s The Hidden Persuaders, Vance Packard explored consumer motivational research and other psychological techniques, such as depth psychology and subliminal tactics, used by advertisers to manipulate expectations and induce desire for products. He also explored the manipulative techniques of promoting politicians to the electorate, questioning the morality of political manipulation.

A decade later this started to be applied to politics as reported in depth by Joe Maginnis in 1968’s The Selling of the President—how Richard Nixon was first elected.

Anyone who thinks they are free must understand for themselves how they freely choose their toothpaste, laundry detergent, the car they drive, where they live (within their economic situation) and a whole host of things in their life that they believe they chose freely.

When I am in the supermarket I sometimes jokingly say that I long for the situation that the Soviets used to endure. They walk up to the shelf and they have the choice of one laundry detergent and that’s it. I look at all the choices we have for almost everything we buy and I know, deep down, that there is essentially no difference between them. It’a almost all waste.

Advertising has a single goal—to sell products, whether are needed or not—particularly if not. As Vance Packard put it in 1960’s The Waste Makers:

“A good many Americans and Europeans have a pretty direct stake in the failure or success of businessmen in inducing us all to be more wasteful. The wife of a supermarket operator, the engineer working for an appliance company—all these kindly people may feel uneasy about the wastefulness they see, and yet they have a vested interest in its accelerated perpetuation (emphasis added).

In the half century since Packard wrote that, nothing has changed. He put it in perspective “Growth is fast becoming a hallowed word alongside Democracy and Motherhood.”

On the job

The opening paragraph of Studs Terkel’s 1973 book Working was:

This book, being about work, is, by its very nature, about violence—to the spirit as well as to the body. It is about ulcers as well as accidents, about shouting matches as well as fistfights, about nervous breakdowns as well as kicking the dog around. It is, above all (or beneath all), about daily humiliations. To survive the day is triumph enough for the walking wounded among the many of us.

In the 36 years since he wrote that, nothing has changed; the world of work has gotten worse and become even more dehumanized. As Montgomery C. Burns commented in a Globe and Mail online article: “Unfortunately, it's hard to love working anymore. An employee is given an unlimited amount of work and a finite amount of time to do it in. The days of working steady throughout the day, and being proud of one's accomplishments are gone. They've been replaced with a go-go-go type of behaviour that leaves people mentally and physically exhausted, and uncaring at the end of the day. Add to that the chronic mental and physical illnesses suffered, and the workdays missed due to stress, it's easy to see why one can become jaded.”

Human beings are not economic objects, to be used as profit centres when business is good and cast aside to fend for themselves when business slows down.

An offering of wisdom(?)

Here is the opening thought I had which prompted me to begin this article. From it comes a little bit of wisdom that I wish to impart.

When I was younger, I used to see old people sitting quietly, whether my old father, or people in a nursing home, and wonder what their thoughts were. Now that I am at the other end of the scale I have come up with this aphorism:

When we are young, we wonder what we might become; when we are old we wonder what we might have become. True or not, I don’t know, but I think it is a factor in the lives of many who have nothing but time on their hands.

A note about advertising

It’s easy to take a black and white approach to advertising as I did above. But it’s not all bad, just bigness is bad. I think in particular of those who advertise on this website. These people are friends and neighbors and are not out to manipulate or cheat us. They are making a living, just as you are doing, and their choice is to offer their goods and services to you in a friendly fashion. You want to go out to a restaurant in an evening, as just one example? Without advertising of some sort, you would not know they are available to you. It’s the national and multi-national corporations with hundreds of millions of dollars budgeted for advertising that we have to be careful of and learn to exercise our critical and cynical faculties.

Daniel Johnson was born near the midpoint of the twentieth century in Calgary, Alberta. In his teens he knew he was going to be a writer, which is why he was one of only a handful of boys in his high school typing class—a skill he knew was going to be necessary. He defines himself as a social reformer, not a left winger, the latter being an ideological label which, he says, is why he is not an ideologue. From 1975 to 1981 he was reporter, photographer, then editor of the weekly Airdrie Echo. For more than ten years after that he worked with Peter C. Newman, Canada’s top business writer (notably a series of books, The Canadian Establishment). Through this period Daniel also did some national radio and TV broadcasting. He gave up journalism in the early 1980s because he had no interest in being a hack writer for the mainstream media and became a software developer and programmer. He retired from computers last year and is now back to doing what he loves—writing and trying to make the world a better place

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Henry Ruark June 15, 2009 8:32 am (Pacific time)

D.J. Yours re Waste-Makers 1960 (FIFTY years ago!) appreciated since it shows clearly this crucial social issue has been subject to full probing attention for a very long time. Re yrs on figure plus the unavoidable inflation-costs, other information here shows clearly one can multiply by between 8 and 10 for more accurate costs involved now. When one then factors in, inevitably, the non-obvious costs such as additional health and criminal due to the inbuilt attitudes thus not only strengthened but first initiated, then taught by long time exposure, and THEN still further promoted --all in the name of corporate cash-flow-- one begins to wonder: For anyone still in doubt on this specific point-of-damage to our democracy, simply seek counsel with any beleaguered parent desperately trying to provide cell/phone service, car access, and flashy fancy, much less recreational drugs, to any group of two or more

Daniel Johnson June 14, 2009 11:24 am (Pacific time)

I have no current figures but I refer to my 1960 copy of Vance Packard's "The Waste Makers". At that time, he reported, the average American family was spending $500/year for packaging. Just figuring it for inflation that would run more than $3600/year today! Actually the costs would be even higher than that taking into account extra charges transportation and landfill degradation.

Henry Ruark June 14, 2009 8:10 am (Pacific time)

To all: Must also point out, with no fear of any possible sensible response to obvious conditions "seen with own eyes" by millions, that it is that lush laid-on "must/have", and also psychologically-perverting advertising which moves huge piles of product, thus producing the pelf of profits then devoted to digging up even more, with small percent sliced off-top to fill up to overflowing those bags, boxes and envelopes bearing huge political pluder of "corporate campaign contributions" to our duly-elected/and/sworn representatives. That's the reality of our "realpolitik" in the opening years of the 21st Century world in America, with painful repercussion worldwide as now demonstrated in ongoing crisis affecting every economy.

Henry Ruark June 13, 2009 9:07 am (Pacific time)

DCB: Yours re Coolidge reflects neatly the very attitudes which make of advertising one of the most defining, and thus the most damaging, of many complex shaping forces in our society. Even the most casual --and the most mature-- observers now grimace and growl at the unbidden and highly intrusive presence pushed onto their attention at the most painful of times --ad/break time being the absolutely-untouchable in even the most touching of any program, sports not excepted. (As NBA-view demonstrated.) We pay dearly, some say even indecently, for allowing that intrusion via channels owned by the people and given free to commercial interests, allowed to use them for far too deep indecent invasions of our time and attention, simply to shove off on us still more profit-making nonentities, truly shaping our society; and also building attitudes any thinking parent must work hard to combat and control. Not only private profit, greatly enhanced, results, but then there is also the high added cost of the advertising itself, which drives the entire damaging diversion. We need much stronger and tougher control of these truly natural channels owned by "the people" and now prostituted for private gain. There is a better way, well demonstrated in other nations, having learned from our U.S. blunders built by brute bashes emanating from deep lobbyist intrusion into wise policy. That's historical fact, for anyone who will but seek it out on the public record. Surely it must be the function of government to hold high and honestly working for the commonweal any such great open, democratic channels, especialy when they ARE NOW and ALWAYS HAVE BEEN a mutual asset for our many millions of potential viewers and learners with the extremely pressing needs now felt due to the worldwide unique economic debacle. WHEN will we EVER LEARN ??

Dorsett Bennett June 11, 2009 11:59 am (Pacific time)

Daniel--Thank you for an interesting piece. Since we both are in our 50s, we are of no particular interest to advertisers. In the United States CBS is the most watched television network, but NBC, ABC and Fox derive higher advertising income per capita viewer because they do better amongst the coveted 18-49-year-old demographic group. It is the commonly held belief amongst advertisers that people 50 and above are not significantly affected by their ‘by me’ message. I usually buy the store brand or generic as it is my personal belief that by buying the name brand you are essentially paying for their advertising costs. I do not actually mind advertising that much, with the exception of prescription drugs, male enhancement and mass tort claim lawsuit ads. President Calvin Coolidge had a higher opinion of advertising then you, on which he pronounced a benediction on the business in a 1926 speech: “Advertising ministers to the spiritual side of trade. It is a great power that has been entrusted to your keeping which charges you with the high responsibility of inspiring and ennobling the commercial world. It is all part of the greater work of regeneration and redemption of mankind.” He makes it sound so grand. See

Mike Vaughn June 11, 2009 12:43 am (Pacific time)


Henry Ruark June 10, 2009 6:14 pm (Pacific time)

Friend Daniel: Beaeutifully done, and extremely relevant, fully truthful, highly sensitive, especially informative for the younger ones perhaps not so aware of your excellent selection of major classic references. We need to begin that backwards look far before most of us do...say, at age 30, then 35, 40, etc. Might help to relieve the multiple massive and malign circumstances into which we all seem to plunge ourselves, sometimes along the long way. Look forward to moresoon in same vein, and will enjoy more learning from your sharp and sensitive contributions here.

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