Friday, February 6, 2009

you want it to be one way

"Exiled Dallas Stars' forward Sean Avery is expected to be cleared from the NHL and NHLPA's Behavioral Modification program later this week or sometime early next."

I was going to write about the ongoing absurdity that is the NHL's unwavering effort to scrub any life - unpredictable, troubling, trangressively hilarious - from it's off-ice theatre, but then this was brought to my attention. I suppose the two stories are somehow linked by what I see as one of the defining themes of modern capitalism: the mechanized deceptions of the market sublimated in the simple language of personal responsibility. It's rare that a 21st century organization would be so honest as to use the phrase "behavioral modification" to describe their means of attracting profits, but that is undoubtedly what is afoot when a BoA representative asked Paul Kelleher of his deceased mother's debts: "You mean you're not going to help her out?"

For a year or so, I was a Bank of America customer. For many years after that, I was their prey. Years later, at a Chicago-area bank, I ran into similar problems while trying to skate by, paycheck-to-paycheck. With overdraft fees piling up due to the bank's convenient policy of re-ordering withdrawals, I called the bank to beg for mercy. After talks with the service rep went nowhere, I was transferred to a manager, who proceeded to lecture me about the importance of keeping tabs on my balance at all times. I protested that these fees were the result of their willful manipulation of my account, which resulted in even more condescending blather from the manager. We're charging you these fees, she seemed to be saying, to teach you a lesson, to show you how to be a better, more responsible person. Every word she said was designed to disguise the simple fact that mistakes like mine are her company's bottom line.

We're conditioned to see institutions like banks as monolithic, neutral arbiters of human activity. Experiences like Kelleher's, surely compounded by the thousands in call centers worldwide, bear out exactly how completely and utterly wrong this is. Banks wield this kind of biopower effortlessly, rigging the unseen details of the game while hectoring us about right and wrong. If it were Bank of America's mother, surely it would pay off the debt. We're led to feel shame about these kinds of defaults, as if they are true faults. Everyone else is watching their balance, paying their debts, why can't you? The irony being that, when Bank of America itself took its eye off the ledger last fall, it felt no shame. Just the opposite, in fact. It marshaled the dire straits of the economy in its favor: as just another way to guilt average Americans into cutting them more checks.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

how many fingers

"Of course it affects you. But the lessons are really remarkable and important. Part of the problem is..., slowly but surely, you lose your sense of identity. All the perks that you have become addictive. ...You get isolated from yourself, from your family and who you really are. You forget that it’s transitory; that there is a next chapter. You put aside the important things like, why are you here? and what about your family?"

Sounds like a withering testimonial from the latest Partnership For a Drug-Free America ad, right? You know, the one with all the weird animation and bloopy electronic music that looks like it must have been created by someone stoned out of their mind? Wrong. It's former Time Warner head Jerry Levin on CNBC, explaining the culture of entitlement in our nation's gentle CEO class.

The endless bonus windfalls for these executives and the faulty logic of retention now being employed by apologists for the status quo ante; Daschle and Geithner's glib tax avoidance, and the establishment's brushing off of revolving-door bureaucrats as nothing but "valuable assets" to both corporations and government; all of these are little more than a set of anti-social behaviors, behaviors we have long been told were integral to progress.

It's funny then that, over in the pool, or atop whatever pile of money he sits on when not in a pool, Michael Phelps has been compelled to issue public mea culpas for the dire, dire transgression of smoking marijuana. At a party, at an public institution of higher learning, no less. Still early in his days as a national figure, Phelps must not yet be familiar with the American Sportsman's role as the nation's moral stalking horse. Give him time. All he's done is earn his acclaim through hard work, tireless practice and supreme physical conditioning. In our culture's reverse meritocracy, it is he who must apologize for his indiscretions, while our elected and unelected power brokers publicly pursue their addictions unabated.