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GP 16 January 2008: Gimme Shelter: Companies You Love to Hate

“What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult for each other?” - George Eliot

GimmeShelter“Gimme Shelter” is yet another of those wonderful, in-your-face-songs of The Rolling Stones from the 1960s. Written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, it told us we need some place to hide amidst storms, war, and other tempests. These days, despite turbulent weather, the song would have different words and a different meaning, more along the lines of Maxwell MacLeod’s “Third Degree Burns,” posted last week in Poetry and Business:

Oh Bill wert thou in the cold blast
In yonder lee in younder lee
My plaidie round aboot thee cast,
I'd shelter thee I'd shelter thee.

Our times, like in Scotland from whence MacLeod hails, are more dour.  All our protections are stripped away. We need a roof over our heads, clothing, food, and, most of all, the friendship he offers. In the sixties, we might be down on our luck but we could at least look for strawberry fields forever; today the architecture of our life is getting bombarded by global change, seismic weather events, and rudderless leadership. Government has spirited away both our social safety net and the worldwide web of comity that has kept us secure. It’s a good time to have a friend.

The Corduroy Appreciation Club.  It’s in this moment that the Corduroy Appreciation Club springs up. At the time he gave birth to the club, Miles Rohan was between jobs and looking for connection. Why not concentrate on likeminded corduroy enthusiasts? Starting in New York, the Club has slowly worked its way into other ports around the world, sometimes offering ridged, corduroy-like, potato chips to capture new members.

But it is free of cant. About the only requirements are that you can lift your voice to chant “Hail the Wale” and that you have enough capacity to down a beverage or two at its very robust social gatherings. They’ve been off the beaten path—at friendly enough pubs such as the Landmark Tavern on the West Side of Manhattan and the historic Montauk Club in Brooklyn. We do remember that the members who were gathered at one event experimented with us, turning away from lager in favor of Old Fashioneds, an enthusiasm we were pushing during 2006. Friendship, fortunately, does not have much of an agenda—other than having a good time and looking out for the good fellow next to you.

Alienation. As we noted in “Citizens on the Edge of a Nervous Breakdown,” depression, along with obesity, are epidemic in most of the developed nations today—and both are equally untreated. In fact, truth be told, the doctors don’t know what to do about them, despite all their palaver. It seems apparent, anyway, that 21st-century man, tortured by urban claustrophobia, is pressed up against his neighbor but is emotionally distant from him. So close but so far. That puts him in need of a friend.

As we surveyed the high and unduly ambitious last week in “One Nation Indivisible,” we theorized that they might not have the pulse of the body politic. Essentially our presidential candidates are pushing ruthless interest group politics, at a time when many citizens realize we are all in the same leaky boat. While the boat sinks, the pols, caught up in the politics of appearances, prescribe liposuction for the body politic—the wrong treatment for the wrong problem, but something that will play well on cable and in Hollywood. A goodly number of people may be looking for leaders who clearly know they are in the same water-logged boat, not titans who breathe an entirely different ether and who, quite evidently, think they are quite different from the rest of us. Even psychiatrists and ministers may come to agree that the best salve for depression and alienation are friendship and inclusiveness. The tendencies our leaders are promoting pull us yet further apart.

Companies You Love to Hate. Though we’ve not heard much about it, a terribly important article appeared in the June 2007 Harvard Business Review. Authored by Gail McGovern and Youngme E. Moon, two ladies teaching at the Harvard Business School, it’s called “Companies and the Customers Who Hate Them.” Basically they hint that ‘bait and switch’ has become the core tenet of modern micro-market consumer marketing. It turns out to be self-defeating and wasteful. The authors really do not come to grips with the fact that it is downright dishonest and a net contributor to the social alienation that has cankered our society. While this article is far from rigorous, and much more work needs to be done on the subject of convoluted product and service offerings, we salute the Review for including something so suggestive that Harvard itself could afford to take it to heart.

They cite as illustrations health clubs, banks, and cellphone companies—all of which bring consumers into their tents with low-price, no profit offerings. But the basic plans are styled so that one way or another consumers will be forced to buy over-priced extras that really run up the bill. Much in the manner of contractors, these companies try to get rich on the change orders. In several places, we have discussed the egregious behavior of the cellphone industy, as in “Don’t Hang Up.” 

One cannot over-estimate the amount of antagonism citizens feel towards mobile phone companies, credit card services (that have instituted too short payment periods and refuse to help with phony credit card charges), cable TV providers, and a host of other business sectors that have institutionalized trickery. McGovern and Moon also demonstrate that companies that play such games have to spend unbelievable amounts of money to attract customers, all the while suffering huge customer churn. Virgin Mobile, Richard Branson’s cellphone service, and ING Direct, the king of the internet savings market, have enjoyed huge growth, with low marketing budgets, simply because they are straightforward. Jeff Bezos at Amazon wins the attention of journalists for more than satisfying the implicit contract that exists between a good customer and a worthy company.

The vituperation bait-and-switch companies arouse leads to a tainted atmosphere. Customers literally writhe in delight when something goes awry for such companies, or when these miscreants get slapped with fines. They scoff at the sunny, happy-dappy advertisements that come from these huckster corporations. The rancor leads to a society at war with itself, right at the very time when we most need to pull together.

Many know we are in the midst of a recession, as does Chairman Bernanke of the Federal Reserve, who promises more major interest cuts. Some observers think we are headed for Depression, all stemming from the subprime lending implosion and other similar debacles that have arisen out of poor governance. It seems that our citizens sense the depth of our disarray and are praying that we will pull together so that we can face up to some of our most arresting problems. One would sense that our voters, not wont to bay at the moon, are looking for social unity rather than division to heal the breaches of faith occasioned by the self interested. Psychologists and sociologists should find fascinating grist in this: Americans, even amidst the alienation they feel for institutions that are not working for them, seem to be pulling together.

Stephen Ambrose. We think the late Stephen Ambrose, our fine and popular historian, symbolized this incipient tendency to elevate fellowship over partisanship. As best we know, he was a left-of-center historian, pretty much in the mainstream of America’s academics. But he wrote about World War II and its heroes as a centrist, his inbred patriotism balancing out any inclination to see America as a nation of fractions.

We have said that Ambrose by career was a historian, but, in his heart, he was all about friendship. That was the subtext of everything in which he participated. His best book, and there were many fine ones, was Comrades, Brothers, Fathers, Heroes, Sons, Pals in which he writes about closeness. That’s what is needed right now.

P.S.  Tom Brokaw’s Boom: Voices of the Sixties, his take on  America’s sixties, is warm and fun if not profound, at least according to the Times. But, one little afterthought shows him to be a reporter who can smell what’s going on in a room: “‘I find in my travels and reporting a longing for common cause,’ Mr. Brokaw writes.” For sure, he would say, the Sixties were a more hopeful time. He senses that Americans want a better communion today, and somehow he must also know that the media itself has fostered so many of our divisions.

P.P.S.  Lest we seem partisan, we should add that we can well imagine that one could also enlarge one’s capacity for friendship at the Cloud Appreciation Society, on which we remark in “The Post-Consumptive Society.” Membership does cost 4 pounds, which is a bit steep. Its manifesto says, “And so we say to all who’ll listen: Look up, marvel at the ephemeral beauty, and live life with your head in the clouds!” But it is a time to lift our heads up.

On the other hand, we are recommending against membership in the International Federation of Competitive Eating. We are astounded at the number of contests staged under its aegis. But we’re afraid this is a form of athleticism where people get much too full of themselves.

P.P.P.S. We were happy to see an Australian inveighing against the extreme bad sportsmanship shown by Australian fans and players at international cricket matches. One should note that an Indian player Harbhajan Singh has comported himself badly as well. The sport has gone out of sports in several areas of the globe, and our lives are the less for it. At question here was unseemly Australian behavior towards a visiting Indian team.  How different from the image of human solidarity pictured in Edgar Guest’s “Speaking of Greenberg” about baseball hero Hank Greenberg:

Came Yom Kippur—holy fast day world-wide over to the Jew—
And Hank Greenberg to his teaching and the old tradition true
Spent the day among his people and he didn’t come to play.
Said Murphy to Mulrooney, “We shall lose the game today!
We shall miss him on the infield and shall miss him at the bat,
But he’s true to his religion—and I honor him for that!”

Without honor, there is no sport. Cannot we act with grace even as the world becomes more difficult?

P.P.P.P.S. In our present circumstance, we might hearken back to John Gardner, one of America’s unsung political heroes. His accomplishments are too many to recount. He pondered how to achieve and sustain quality in a democracy. Most importantly, he founded Common Cause, an organization that pressed the general interest of average citizens amidst a Washington that was and is dominated by special interests. Senator McCain has taken a page from its book with his undying interest in campaign finance reform. In essence advocates of reform say you cannot have democracy when elections and legislative votes and more can simply be bought. Even today Common Cause patiently labors on, newly chaired by Jim Leach, the former, very distinguished and very honorable Republican congressman from Iowa’s Second District.

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