Thursday, December 31, 2015

I Don't Much Like Christmas Anymore

So with the year winding down, I decided to write a little about my thoughts on Christmas and a few other things. Specifically, Christmas as a sort of social barometer.

Christmas is both a religious and a secular holiday, but you wouldn't know it from the presentation of Christmas in the public sphere. This year I noticed that while as always Christmas music was absolutely everywhere, it was always of the lamest secular variety: Britney Spears singing a song to Santa about how good she's been this year and similar garbage. These are the depths we've sunk to in a desperate bit to not offend people by playing O Holy Night, God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen, or even something as vaguely benign as Good King Wenceslas. Whatever.

Something that has been bothering me for a lot longer is the insane consumer frenzy associated with Christmas. We have Thanksgiving to get all of the gratitude out of our system so the very next day we can launch ourselves into the most crass display of consumerism of the entire year: Black Friday. It's the sort of animalistic savagery best narrated by Sir David Attenborough.

It's not particularly surprising that Christmas feeds into this, as many companies are reliant upon Christmas spending to stay afloat. Being of a free market capitalist persuasion ideologically, I am aware that the success or failure of a business should be determined by whether it is making efficient use of resources to satisfy consumer demands. But that just brings to the fore the reality that without people spending exorbitant amounts of money on crap every year, these companies would not, and should not, exist as they currently do. This means they have a tremendous incentive to maintain the status quo of Christmas as a months-long shopping spree. This is why you start hearing Christmas music in some stores sometime around Halloween, and the day after Christmas it's basically everywhere.

I wouldn't say that businesses are solely to blame for this; consumers want to buy stuff for Christmas, so companies provide it, but they in turn fan the flames for all they're worth so people want to buy more stuff for Christmas. It's a mutually reinforcing relationship, I think. And I think it sucks, largely because the values of the people involved are garbage. More on that in a minute.

Among the capitalist free market crowd, contempt for consumerism is relatively rare. A lot of people don't even make a distinction between private ownership of capital; that is, relegating the risks and rewards of entrepreneurial activity to individuals rather than society in aggregate, with the kind of crass materialism embodied in contemporary Christmas.

The root of the problem is that people are inherently hierarchical, and there is no solution for this. Every society has means of establishing a pecking order of sorts; it could be something formalized like a caste system, it could be adherence to a dominant ideology within a group, or it could just be buying the most expensive crap you can get your hands on and showing it off so everyone knows how "successful" you are. It's the time-honored tradition of spending money you don't have on stuff you can't afford to impress people you don't like.

In the United States, in the absence of some other system of values people seem to default to the accumulation of stuff as the measure of success, so wealth and status are highly connected. This leads to things like people accumulating credit card debt to temporarily maintain a lifestyle beyond what they can afford, burying themselves in mortgage debt to get a bigger house than they really need, or competing for status with expensive clothing while relying on payday loans to make it through the week. All of this crap is devastating on both an individual and a social level.

When people signal their status with the crap they buy and savings accounts don't even beat inflation, any temporary bump in unemployment brings with it a decline in demand because nobody has any savings. It makes the economy brittle. This is a consequence of the materialistic values of our society and our system of fractional reserve banking which undermines the incentives for saving by removing the need for banks to attract deposits in order to finance lending.

So, I can see the appeal of trying to get rid of income as a barometer for success, but if it were gone people would just latch onto some other dumb thing to show how much better they are than everybody else, which is probably a lot of the impetus behind the recent rise in nutjob ideologies that tend to flourish in insular online cabals; militant feminism, "social justice" and whatever else. Replacing materialism with the other stupid signaling games these people play still wouldn't fix the problem of people not having any savings and getting wiped out the first time it rains, since I think that problem is mostly caused by the downright insulting interest rates that banks need to offer in order to cover their minimum reserve requirements. As such, I think the materialism is more of a consequence of the lack of other values by which people would construct their little hierarchies, but that the popular alternatives aren't any better. I'd much rather work with some douchebag who thinks his new car makes him a better person instead of working with a social justice warrior; the first is content to think he's better because he bought some crap, while the second wants the total ideological subjugation of everyone. It's more tolerable to work with someone who wants to talk about the stuff he bought than it is to work with a zealot.