Can’t Buy Me Love
by Anne Newkirk Niven
“My experience is what I agree to tend to; only those items I notice shape my mind.”
— William James
As the editor of three magazines, I see a lot of spam. Entirely too much of it consists of a veritable sandstorm of press releases for bizarre, superfluous, and downright stupid products. Among the most egregious I’ve seen recently are the following notable examples:
• At ShopLaTiDa.com (real name!) you can pick up fashion faux-pas fixers that erase unsightly bumps, lumps and imperfections. Products include Commandos no-undie undies, Hollywood Fashion Tape and Miss Oops Deodorant Sponges. At the advanced age of forty-eight, I’ll admit to plenty of “unsightly bumps,” but whatever “Hollywood Fashion Tape” is (I have visions of sparkly duct tape being deployed in, let us say, delicate locations) I am certain that I can spend the rest of my life happily ignorant of the finer points of acquiring and (gasp!) applying it.
• Or how about an electronic press release promoting … electronic press releases. SoundClick, Inc., today announced the signing of MyPRGenie, the world’s first on-demand Internet provider of public relations services. We are especially looking forward to using MyPRGenie’s proprietary publicity engine to generate some real excitement for our platform. Oh, I just can’t wait to be the target of a “proprietary publicity engine.” Sounds like the unholy union between a diesel locomotive and a neon sign: you’ll have the sponsor’s name indelibly imprinted on your face as it rolls right over you and crushes you into a smear of paste on the sidewalk.
• Or how about this winsome accessory for your next Solstice soirée: if you are about to have sex with someone you don’t know well and want to make sure you’re not infected as a result with something that will require you to contact every intimate partner you’ve ever encountered, why not play “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours” with your Safe Sex Passport.™ Gonzalo Paternoster (also real name!) founder and CEO of SSP BioAnalytics, Inc., has taken on the fight of preventing the spread of STDs through his ‘outside the box’ creation of the Safe Sex Passport, and the world is starting to listen. Listen, maybe; giggle uncontrollably, certainly; pony up a subscription for (ohmigoddess) seventy-five bucks every six months; I think not.
• I have also been notified that: one can get “five free music downloads” courtesy of the U.S. Navy (sorry, “Anchors Aweigh” wasn’t among them); I can get my “brand” imprinted on those ubiquitous little sticky notes (what am I supposed to do, leave them on subway trains all over town?); and, to top it all off, I was recently introduced to a line of “fashionable golf clothing” that has Vitamin C embedded right in the fabric. Pitched as part of a new “Green” collection, the clothes (which I like to imagine turn your skin a vivid shade of apricot) also offer a “soft, drapey hand.” (Doesn’t that sound vaguely ghoulish somehow?)
I could regard all of this ridiculousness as simply an opportunity to exercise my “delete” key if I didn’t have the sneaking suspicion that all these bizarre goods were actually being manufactured somewhere, hauled across the oceans in humongous container vessels, and dumped into an enormous landfill somewhere. All this nonsense contrasts uneasily with the growing reports of food shortages I’m hearing from around the world. Just this morning an NPR story about a Kenyan woman who had been forced to begin taking her morning cup of tea black because she can no longer afford the milk and sugar necessary to drink it properly almost had me in tears. (We all have our soft spots!)
But such sentiments appear to be utterly out-of-step with the dominant paradigm. Take, for instance, the soporific words of Ben Bernake, who holds the keys to the (virtual) vault of the Federal Reserve, and who asserts that we must all keep buying, buying, buying or the world will come to an end. Often misquoted as saying he is willing to “throw money out of helicopters” if it will help keep the consumer — well, consuming — Mr. Bernake never actually said he would drop greenbacks from Hueys, but what he did say is almost as disturbing:
Mr. Bernake (as well as the Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson) understands his job to be that of creating constantly rising consumer spending. But this paradigm — consumerism as sole measure of a society’s health — is fundamentally flawed. By only valuing those goods and services that are exchanged for currency in the open market, this paradigm creates a mindset in which money is all that matters.
A definition: economic activity is measured by (among other things) the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). GDP is the total value of all goods and services produced for consumption during a particular time period. The data used to assemble the GDP include the manufacture of tangible goods such as cars, furniture, and bread, and the provision of services such as education, health care, and auto repair. GDP (and other such measurements) are important tools for understanding the economy, but our current dependence on them is a dangerous oversimplification.
It is a well-known magical principle that we tend to attract that to which we pay attention. In our current society, what we pay attention to is commerce: every monetary impulse is encouraged, applauded, and attended to, but noncommercial activities are largely devalued and ignored.
For example, imagine that I jump in my car, drive to the supermarket, and buy a loaf of bread. Let’s say that I spend $4 for the bread, and $1 on the gas to get to the store. As a result of my purchase, I’ve contributed $5 to the GDP. I’ve supported the farmer (who only gets a measly twenty cents for the wheat, by the way)2 , the processor, which transports the wheat and makes it into flour; the bakery, which bakes the bread; the distributor, which sells it to the market; and the grocery store, which sells it to me. At each step in the process, the original cost of the wheat gets marked up (marketing costs, processing, wholesaling, distribution and retailing account for 80 percent of food costs)3 and all that markup and profit is counted in the GDP. Officials like Mr. Bernake are absolutely delighted that I have just given the wheel of commerce another spin.
But what if I decide to skip the trip to the market and bake the bread myself? I only spend a buck on the ingredients and the electricity to heat my oven; my time, expertise, and labor are “officially” free. Thus, if I buy a loaf of bread, the government reckons that I added $5 to the economy, but if I make it myself, I only contributed $1. Baking my own brand has resulted in a whomping 80% reduction in the GDP assigned to this activity; according to the statisticians, I’ve just created my very own micro-recession.
You may not bake your own bread, but you are undoubtedly part of this “invisible” economy, too. Do you help your children with their schoolwork, care for your aging parents, volunteer at the local foodbank, pick up litter at the beach, grow your own tomatoes? All invisible to the economic bean counters. But if you hire a tutor for your kids, engage a professional caregiver for your parents, find a dog-walker for your pooch — then that activity is toted up. See where (in magical terms) all the intention is focused?
GDP also fails miserably on the level of environmental sustainability; as economist Gernot Wagner points out:
There is nothing inherently wrong with commercial activity, but it is high time we discard our overwhelming obsession with measuring monetary trends. For several decades, attempts to reform the GDP have been percolating in sustainability circles; recently, the government of Bhutan decided to measure that nation’s Gross National Happiness.5 Perhaps we should consider adding such concepts to our fiscal policies as well.
Regardless of governmental decisions, each of us can choose to direct our attention away from the lure of the consumerist will-o-the-wisp. In a world focused almost exclusively on money, perhaps one of the most magical acts we can perform is to concentrate our intent on abundance — the health, security, and joy in our lives — instead. I find that visiting my neighbors, working in my garden, cooking food for my family, riding my bike, or reading a book are far more satisfying than acquiring bling in any case.
(By the way, it is my husband who bakes our family’s bread — and it rocks!)
- Remarks by Governor Ben S. Bernanke before the National Economists Club, Washington, D.C., November 21, 2002, www.federalreserve. gov/BOARDDOCS/SPEECHES/2002/20021121/ default.htm
- http://www.nfu.org/documents/ 0201FarmersShare.pdf
- http://www.gwagner.com/writing/ 2005/07/from-answer-desk-green-gdp.html
- http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/ bhutan/gnh.html
— Anne Newkirk Niven is the Editor of SageWoman, PanGaia and newWitch magazines. She lives with her family in Forest Grove, Oregon.
» Originally appeared in PanGaia #49 - Money Magic
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