The last time I had to go shopping for plastic locking bags, it was in the 1990s and I was driving around Southern California, looking for a replacement for those great old store-brand Ziploc clones from my local grocery. It took several hours to find a substitute from another grocery chain.
The thing is, the technology behind these bags had been well-known for two decades at this point. Plastic locking bags, which have little hitch-in-groove zippers to seal them, came about sometime in the 1970s and left patent sometime in the late 1980s, if memory serves. Everyone made clones.
In turn however that presented an interesting problem. A universally-available product does not differentiate itself much; each of us goes to our favorite store and buys the clone for half the price of the originally patented product. We use them until something goes wrong.
What went wrong in this case was simple: they changed the design. Someone at headquarters, probably an MBA from the East Coast, figured out that they could make the little zippers smaller. This meant that they used less plastic, which meant a savings of a nickel per box of bags.
To the rest of us, high and low, this seems like a shrug-off. Save a nickel and make something less effective? That goes against common sense. However, when you multiply it times twenty million boxes of these sold every year, suddenly we get interested; that figure might buy a house somewhere.
This shows us the negative influence of two forces. The first takes the form of the shareholders, who are regular people like you and I who bought stock for their retirement or to fund college for their kids. They want more money and higher stock value, period, and both rise with profits.
The second appears in a more pernicious form, the “dark organization” or what happens when members of an organization act in self-interest against that of the organization. This may be one of the most pervasive and devastating of human mental pitfalls, since it is basically a time illusion.
Hear me out on this one. A dark organization profits for its members in the short term but weakens the organization in the long term, eventually defeating their source of income. It is like eating the seed corn, party today at the expense of tomorrow. No one sane does it.
However, that bright young MBA realized a couple things in rapid succession. First, if he saved the company money, he would get a promotion immediately. Next, by the time anyone out here in the world figured out how he had wrecked a formerly good product, he would be at a new job, with a bigger title.
So riddle me this, batman. Joe MBA — his father was a coalminer, his grandfather a sharecropper — wants to enhance his wealth (and screw everyone else, because they were the bastards who kept his family down in the past two generations, he thinks). He uses the company to do this by getting them to promote him for coming up with a clever way of cutting corners. Once they promote him, he takes that promotion to another company and repeats the process, sort of like a coronavirus infecting people with the common cold.
The company slaps the new product on the shelves. Quasi-oblivious consumers like myself, stumbling through the store after work with a written list of stuff to buy from our neurotic controlling girlfriends, buy the bags along with the other stuff we keep buying until it fails us.
But the bags fail us. The box sits in the pantry for a week or two, then a bag gets used. That one fails; no one notices, and we assume it was just a weird twist of fate that there are now pretzels all over the back seat of our economy vehicle. Fine, we move on.
The following week, another bag fails, provoking irritation. This is why the gods gave us anger: to wake us up when we are too asleep to notice something vital (the same is true of love, by the way). Irate, but distracted and busy, one of us makes a mental note. Next bag, we inspect.
Finally the light dawns. Next time we are stuffing pretzels in a bag so we have something to eat during the half-hour we can tear ourselves away from phones and keyboards to address biological need, we look at the bag. We pull out an old bag filled with buttons or batteries or other odds and ends, and compare.
Aha. Held up to the morning sun streaming in over the sofa, we can see that the new plastic zipper is thinner and weaker than the old one, explaining why the new bags are terrible. That means that the dreaded specter of change is upon us, and someone must go off to find a new source of non-failing bags.
Cue me driving around for a few hours, going to different stores, buying boxes of bags and throwing them out until I find an acceptable substitute. It turns out that the third-ranked grocery store in town has gotten its act together with generics, and its bags work almost as well as the branded ones.
Over the next few months, this will become our standard grocery store, since most of the products in stores are basically interchangeable. As it turns out, this grocery chain was the first to really get its act together with generics (now called “store brands”) and basically dominated American grocery sales after that, despite having been a place people usually avoided the decade before.
Experts in post-1960s America chided us for ever having relied on the old WASP system, where only people from good families went to college and graduate school, but that lack of social mobility insulated us. These MBAs did not need to score as much money as possible, and screw everyone else. They had money; what they wanted was old-fashioned success, such as being the store with the best products at the best prices. Inferior zipper lock clones do not fall under “best.”
Most of our hatred of capitalism stems from the crab bucket effect. That is, everyone in the system is trying to get ahead by screwing over everyone else, since they all want social mobility to work for them. This means that every good product gets destroyed by some smart young MBA who has figured out how to cut a nickel from the cost per box.
The same is true in government. Careerists, or those who want to advance themselves at the expense of any organizations they work for, come up with gee-whiz ideas and pass them off on the unsuspecting voters.
Voters, of course, come in two types. Fanatics know everything about the issues but, being opinionated, tend to delude themselves into “making a point” or “sending a message” even when contrary to fact. Ordinary people, or those with something of importance going on in their lives outside the ballot box, know less and give the issues a cursory glance, meaning that they are easier to fool. The latter group is bigger but no less inaccurate than the former.
We had a local politician here, a young guy who came from a humble background. He ran for office on the promise of making education better for everyone with this “new” policy idea, namely spreading the money around from the good schools to the bad, and shipping the kids from nearby poor communities to the more affluent (and thus, higher-scoring, on grades and SATs and whatnot) communities across the river.
Four years later, two things happened. First, a glowing news article came out, written by a single mother living in a condominium near downtown, about how the new school policy had raised average scores. We were really hitting the big time, both in progress for the fanatics and presumed economic gains for the ordinaries. It was a smashing success! Second, that politician was now running for a new office higher up in the state, with more power and money.
It takes a long time for the actuality of things to come out. Not truths, because those are human mental constructs, shared through verbal tokens, appearance, and emotions. Actuality means how results show up in reality when the afterglow of the fond articles wears off.
Some years passed, and then we saw the grim truth of our education reform. Average scores had raised, no doubt, but we no longer had “good” schools, that is those substantially above average. In fact, all the schools were now looking a lot more average, and so now the smarter children of doctors, engineers, lawyers, and detectives were coming out of school knowing a heck of a lot less, and getting less far in their careers.
To cut out a lot of drama, an ugly fight erupted between the fanatics and a few pragmatists speaking up to defend the ordinaries. The fanatics won every battle right up until the point where they lost the war. School policy changed, bad results lessened, but the damage had been done; all the good teachers had fled. Now if you wanted your kid to get an actual education, you had to do it yourself or pay for someone else to do it, all while still paying those (now heartily increased) property taxes to pay for the public schools.
However, that politician never saw a hiccup in his career. He went on to the state level and implemented a similar program, but for car insurance instead of education. It has taken a couple decades, but someone finally noticed that our state now leads the country in certain types of fraud and possibly, in uninsured drivers. Like I said, it takes an age to see the actuality, but only a minute to be fooled.
It reminds me of something else we see now in the news. Since this panic epidemic hit, certain professions have become more valuable. Notably, medical workers and mail-order factory workers are now experiencing their “fifteen minutes of fame,” since with everyone shuttered at home and terrified, these are the most important people in our worlds.
The mail-order workers are striking for more money, and the nurses and doctors are dancing in videos that are quite popular on social media, at the same time that they are also asking for more money. When the golden plate passes to you, you have to take what you want, since social mobility commands it; nurses would like to be paid more like doctors, and mail-order workers more like detectives.
This shows us another ugly side to social mobility which is that people who do fairly easy jobs now overstate their value. Nursing requires a fair amount of schooling, but not much of it is difficult; worldwide, they are teaching people to do it in unprecedented amounts, and still do not have enough of them. Working in a mail-order factory on the other hand requires no skills but reading and advanced tape management.
When the golden plate passes to them, these groups decide like everyone else in a social mobility society to take what they want, and screw everyone else. “Me first” and “I got mine” are not slogans of merely the rich people caricatures from that Monopoly game you played as a kid, but expressions of the mentality of everyone in a socially mobile society.
After all, they know that dozens if not hundreds of people want to take their jobs. For any reason — boss is upset, they have trouble getting along with a prima donna coworker, too many sick days taking care of a child — they can be booted and replaced. This makes them decide that social mobility means Us or Them, and that they will vote for themselves each time, and screw everyone else. “Take all you can and give nothing back,” in the immortal words of Captain Jack Sparrow.
Looking further, we can see plenty of examples. Tort reform is big these days because canny lawyers have found people burned by hot coffee, called bad names at jobs, died of their diabetes before medicine could save them from their 4000 calorie-a-day habits, or who did not get promoted as fast as they thought they should have. These people then filed lawsuits and won a ton of money.
Juries, themselves enraged at how social mobility has failed them, tend to view such cases as opportunities for revenge. They want to “send a message” or “make a point” too, so they hand down huge awards. Companies shrug, add those to the costs column as they are legally obligated to do, and promptly raise prices and lower salaries. They do the same each time the MBAs screw them, government passes new regulations which require hiring more lawyers, or the cost of living of their executives goes up because the nurses and mail-order workers demanded more money.
Lawyers, MBAs, politicians, bureaucrats, and doctors are part of our nu-elites, or those who rose to power when the Anglo-Saxon hierarchy was deposed in the 1960s. The gleaming slick pages of media tell us that things are going better, but some are starting to wonder — remember, it takes a long time to see actually — if we are continually putting lipstick on a pig, fooled by gee-whiz “new” ideas and gadgets, instead of noticing that quality of life and quality of leadership is continually plummeting.
Who pays for all of this? The guy driving around looking for plastic locking bags now dishes out more for his monthly medical insurance. He pays more in taxes and education costs. Half of the purchase price of anything he buys goes to paying off lawsuits, affirmative action, regulatory costs, and high taxes. And he still has to take half a day out of his week — his free time — to find bags that are not inferior.
Our system is based on the idea that everyone competes for power based on self-interest. This is more fundamental than capitalism, even; it is a social order, but one that maximizes selfishness instead of restricting it. If you find yourself outraged at our elites, capitalism, or even the Tik Tok nurses, place the blame where it belongs instead: on social mobility.