August 18, 2014

Seven Billion Petty Gods


There are many things wrong with the world right now. Ferguson is burning, Northern Iraq is ablaze, Eastern Ukraine is boiling over, and (at least according to some) greedy evil bankers are destroying the music industry. Greed has even invaded the local grocery store. Myself, being married as I am to a woman who has been in the financial industry her entire life, working her way up from part-time clerk to COO of Equity, I tend to have a different view of all these things. Although there are as many greedy people in finance as there are in any other industry, blaming wars and local bankruptcies on corporate greed is about as helpful as blaming global warming on American coal-fired power plants, which is to say, not helpful at all.

Our world is a very complex place. There are about seven billion people in the world today. Seven billion hungry, ambitious people desperate to improve their economic standing, live comfortably, and die with dignity. To blame the entirety of the world's problems on any one group, class, nationality, religion, or other arbitrary group is not only futile, it is dangerously misleading. The problem is not evil bankers, the Illuminati, or a cabal of ancient royal families. Regardless of whether or not any one of these groups is real, every group you can possibly imagine into existence will have both a collective goal and a collection of individual goals. The real source of conflict in the modern world is not interracial, intercultural, or international. The only true source of conflict in today's world is interpersonal relationships. Everything that creates conflict (wars, economic collapse, terrorism, crime) reflects individuals who have banded together because they believe they share a common grievance and the only way to resolve that grievance is to destroy whatever it is they perceive is oppressing them. Here's the punchline: no one alive can oppress you, you can only oppress yourself!

Every single day you make choices. Those choices spiral out from you like ripples on a pond left by a thrown stone. Some people are helped by your choices and some people are hurt by them. You cannot make any choice on any issue without having this impact. If you choose to eat Vegan, shepherds and ranchers around the world feel a pinprick of pain. If enough people choose to eat Vegan, that pain becomes intolerable. And the reverse is also true. If you love a thick steak with a side of fries then ranchers from America to Chile feel a tiny thrill. If enough people choose prime rib and a mashed potato, ranchers all over the world begin to see improvements in every aspect of their lives. Every choice you make is going to have a global impact. Our world is so tightly bound together that when Chinese consumers choose coffee over tea Brazil gets an economic explosion while Sri Lanka suffers another famine. Our individual lives have become completely tangled up with the life of everyone on the planet, all seven billion of them. We have become a world of seven billion petty gods all clamoring for our own temples and churches filled with worshipers.

Starting sometime during the weeks and months immediately following the brutal, bloody Munich Olympic massacre of 1972, our world shifted from a collection of squabbling nations into a globe of squabbling individuals. It is impossible to pin down a precise date for just when this occurred. All I can say for certain is that I watched the change take place with my own eyes. Prior to the Munich massacre the evening news was something Dad watched while everyone else waited patiently for the good stuff to start. After the Munich massacre everyone in the family took an interest in the evening news. Not every night, not even every week, but from that point on mothers meeting at fences between adjoining yards became more concerned with world events than they were with who was sleeping with whose spouse and who the milkman spent extra time delivering to. Sunday afternoon gossip shifted from the pastor's rebellious children to the economic fall out from the president's visit to Red China. All of a sudden, for no reason at all, "What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?" shifted from a statement of complete indifference into an economic puzzle that housewives, high school students, and out of work fathers all wanted to solve.

This world we live in now, bound together by instant global communication between individuals through the internet, text messages, and online video chat sessions, is unlike anything anyone foresaw as little as half a century ago. The scale of interpersonal debate has grown from backyard fences to world-spanning teleconferences. If I post something controversial on this blog, people from every country on the planet (including the ones most people claim are still unwired!) jump to my blog and my weekly hits soar from a couple dozen to tens of thousands for at least a day or two. The Ugly Duck, my local watering hole, has become a global oddity with people writing to me from Italy and Greece demanding to know what grounds I have for calling the Ugly Duck's Friday night $10 pizzas the best in the world. When I uploaded a picture of my new 2014 Ford Escape to Twitter, I got email from Russia asking me if I'd like to list it in a Moscow newspaper! If I dare post something criticizing homosexual marriage, I get messages from Arabia praising my moral fortitude and asking how long I've been a practicing Muslim (I'm not, but apparently many people in Saudi Arabia assume only Islam opposes homosexuality).

This is what the true curse and promise of the modern world is. We now have a global voice (Facebook, Twitter), a global music market (iTunes), and a global literary market (Amazon Kindle). Bastions of "traditional" distribution that were considered absolutely essential to life beginning in the latter half of the nineteenth century are now both obsolete and rather useless. If they so desire, anyone on Earth can order Kona Coffee direct from Hawaii and expect it to show up at their front door in as little as 72 hours. Corner stores of all varieties have become obsolete and unnecessary because not only can anyone in America hop into their car, drive to the next town, make a purchase, and be home again in a couple hours, thanks to the internet and services like Amazon Fresh, in some places they don't even have to leave home. Right here in Ohio, Walmart and Buehler's both are eagerly promoting their online ordering. Walmart will deliver either straight to my front door or to the local store while Buehler's will have my groceries sitting in the pick-up lane waiting for me to drive through so the kids working there can load them in my trunk.

This trend is not going to change. It is only going to strengthen and gain speed because consumers in every village with an internet connection are both demanding it and willing to pay for it. The collapsing vitality of local music stores, local grocery stores, and even local gas stations has nothing to do with corporate mergers and highly capitalized investment groups. Those people are simply responding to changes in the habits of consumers and putting their money in places they believe will earn them the best return. If a global venture capitalist invests a few million dollars in a holding company with stock in both Guitar Center and Fender Guitar, it does not give that holding company the power to dictate corporate policy. The only thing it does do is suggest that the venture capitalist who made the investment is looking at the success of Amazon.com and assuming the same principles will work for Guitars, amplifiers, and musical accessories. If the venture capitalist and the holding company have guessed correctly, they will both make more money in the next few years than most of us will see in our entire lives. This does not make them "greedy"! It just makes them savvy consumers. The only difference between the multi-million dollar venture capitalist buying into Weston Presidio and the garage musician buying his guitar at Guitar Center is the scale of their investment, not the nature of it, and certainly not the motivation behind it.

I buy almost all of my musical instruments from Larry's Music Center right here in Wooster, Ohio. There have been many times I could have saved money buying online. Just a week ago, I asked Larry's to order me a ukulele and hard case. I could have ordered the same instrument and the same case from Amazon.com and had it delivered straight to my front door. In fact, if I had done so, I would have saved about $35. I didn't do that. I spent the extra $35 and ordered it from Larry's instead. I enjoy doing business with Larry's. They are good people, friendly, and always eager to answer my stupid questions (I ask a lot of stupid questions). If I have a problem with my ukulele, I just take it back and they'll fix it right there in the shop. Most of the time, I get it back the very same day. For about $20 they'll put a new set of strings on one of my instruments, oil up the wood, and then inspect it for cracks, potential cracks, or other problems. I rely on their expertise, their knowledge, and most of all, their warm-hearted service. Friendly smiles and polite conversation are worth far more to me than the $35 I could have saved by ordering through Amazon.com, let alone some place like Guitar Center.

The real problem behind the collapse of local business is that there are too many individual consumers in the modern world who are cold, callous, indifferent discount shoppers with absolutely no desire to talk face to face with a merchant. This new generation of consumers has lost the ability to enjoy smalltalk, let alone meaningful conversation. By the time they enter high school they are jaded, selfish, self-absorbed, and narcissistic. The main problem with today's world is that when we live among seven billion petty gods, the children of those gods become the worst sort of spoiled little royals the world has ever seen. Instead of a handful of arrogant rich kids bullying the much larger majority of desperately humble peasants, we have a globe filled with arrogant rich bullies picking on a mere handful of desperately humble peasants. Since there aren't enough peasants to go around anymore, they pick on one another. When arrogant rich bullies start picking on one another they duel and when they duel, they duel to the death. So what we really have in our modern marketplace is seven billion rich bullies drawing swords on one another trying to show who the more noble rich kid is!

Yes, dear reader, I am talking about you.