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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Corporate apocalypse: Feeding the hand that bites us

Stephen H. Provost

1920: The customer is always right.

2020: The stockholder is always right.

This ain’t your grandfather’s capitalism. The myth of American capitalism endures: If you have good ideas and work your ass off, you’ll get ahead. But the reality is very different: Instead of rewarding hard work and pursuing customer satisfaction, modern capitalism is designed to reward shareholders, and everyone else be damned.

Two things made this possible:

  1. Corporations replaced small business as the dominant force in the nation’s economy.

  2. Convenience replaced service as the most important element (along with price) in the consumer’s daily lives.

Convenience is king

As customers demand more convenience, business is motivated to provide it. But doing so requires technological advances that, in turn, require investment – often more investment than a small business can afford to make. It’s only natural (and sometimes, perhaps, essential) that such a business seek outside money to finance the necessary improvements.

The problem is that, once a business secures financial backers, it becomes responsible to them rather than its customers, much less its employees. Shareholders want a business to maximize profits and minimize expenses, regardless of the cost to worker morale, consumer service or even the company’s reputation. Just hire a glitzy PR firm and make some strategic donations to charity, and you can still look like a good guy even when you treat your employees and your customers like shit.

Andrew Carnegie used part of his fortune to create libraries, but does that make him a “good guy” when he earned that money by paying his employees a pittance and pushing them beyond their limits?

A return to the late-19th century world of Carnegie becomes easier when convenience and immediacy are valued more highly than quality and service.

When service doesn’t matter as much as convenience, the people who provide that service become expendable. When you pump gas yourself, you don’t need an attendant to do it for you. When you buy goods at self-service check stands, you don’t need cashiers anymore. When people demand news the moment it “breaks,” you don’t need copy editors to check for spelling or accuracy, you just need a program to make sure you’re online first.

The Matrix has you

But in demanding convenience, consumers have put themselves in a bind – and, in many cases, have cut off their collective nose to spite their face. How convenient is it, for instance, to navigate a phone tree, then wait on hold for an hour until the next customer service rep is free to take your call (or start all over again when you press the wrong button or you’re “accidentally” cut off)? How convenient is it to use one of those self-service check stands when the scanner keeps malfunctioning? Or to check the accuracy of a story via Snopes because journalism is done on the fly, rather than with care and precision?

Then there’s the identity theft that comes with using debit cards and computer programs vulnerable to hackers. Now that’s really convenient! (Note sarcasm.)

Here’s the rub: Convenience doesn’t always make life easier, at least not in the long run. It often just frees up more time for us to become busier, take on more commitments and, in the end, become more stressed out. We’ve devalued human interaction as consumers, and that interaction becomes the first thing we sacrifice in our personal lives when we start to feel overloaded. The result is a vicious circle of busyness and isolation.

We become, in a very real sense, dependent on – even addicted to – convenience and instant gratification. And, as with any addiction, the “highs” get less intense, the “lows” get lower, and the dependency grows stronger as time goes on.

Corporations know this and, as we become more dependent, they have less incentive to provide that high. Because. They. Have. Us. Hooked. Once they do, shareholder and consumer interests that once seemed aligned in the quest for convenience are no longer in sync. For corporations, convenience was always just a means to an end: maximizing profits for shareholders. Once it no longer serves that purpose, corporations will discard it like yesterday’s news.

Toxic capitalism

When’s the last time you stopped at a full-service gas station or were put directly through to a live operator willing and able to answer your questions? It’s probably been a while. That kind of service has largely gone by the wayside, and (in most places) you no longer have any option but to pump your own gas or navigate that phone tree. It all happened right under our noses, so gradually we barely noticed. But now, here we are, and we’re no turning back.

Once they’ve eliminated all our other options, corporations have no more incentive to provide service, convenience, low prices or anything else. The consumer becomes irrelevant, and only the shareholder matters. Instead of personal service, we get automated phone trees and overseas operators. Instead of quality, we get planned obsolescence. We were supposed to have learned this lesson more than a century ago, when monopolies were working employees to death (literally in some cases) and foisting off bogus “miracle cures” on consumers. But apparently, we’re going to have to learn it all over again.

Capitalism works well when it encourages competition; when it discourages it, it’s toxic.

Want evidence? What ever happened to Marshall Field’s or Rich’s or Filene’s or Jordan Marsh? They’re all Macy’s now. Every single one of them. In the 1960s, there were dozens of regional discount retailers; today, there’s Walmart. And Target.

As Facebook has all but cornered the market on social media access, has it become more flexible or more controlling? Have those controls become more in tune with the user or the shareholder? Since Facebook went public, its quest to maximize profits by allowing corporations access to personal profiles – and by looking the other way on Russian interference – has been widely publicized. But we still use it because most of our friends are there, not on Ello or MeWe. We’re addicted. We’re stuck.

Tainted government

The government, meanwhile, enables and accelerates this process. It’s no secret why this happens: The same corporations that have the money to invest in business have the money to lobby Capitol Hill – to their benefit, and to the detriment of their competitors.

Many of those competitors are small businesses, who then have little choice but to go public themselves so they can get money to pay for their own lobbyists.  

The 2018 tax cut is a great example of how this works. Whom did it benefit most? Small businesses that need help to compete or corporations that will use the advantages to consolidate their stranglehold and eliminate even more choices?

We know the answer to that question.

Before the trust-busters broke up Standard Oil’s monopoly at the dawn of the 20th century, cartoonists portrayed it as an octopus, with its tentacles wrapped around everything from the U.S. Capitol to statehouses to investors. Walmart, Amazon, Facebook, Google and others are on the brink of becoming today’s version of Standard Oil.

Customer service died decades ago. Convenience is on its last legs. Can a return to snake oil and sweatshops be far behind?

Bohemian Rhapsody: Right tone, wrong timeline

Stephen H. Provost

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

The opening lines of the Queen song Bohemian Rhapsody are also the question viewers are left asking after seeing the film of the same name. At least this viewer.

This this is the kind of thing that happens when the fan and the historian are the same person. You love a movie that paints a triumphant picture of your favorite band, but you hate the fact that it paints outside the lines to do it: especially when it messes with the chronology.

Granted, Queen and frontman Freddie Mercury painted outside the lines all the time. It’s part of what made them great, and band members Brian May and Roger Taylor did produce the movie, so ...

Bohemian Rhapsody is epic. I loved it. But it’s also wrong, and what’s troubling about that is that it exposes something about propaganda in general: It gives us not the whole truth, but what we want to believe. The truth on steroids, which is, in the end, not the truth at all. What we end up with is what’s convenient to the storyline, and history be damned.

In an era when politicians rewrite history – without apology – for their own exaltation, that’s even more worrisome.

The Real Rio

The moviemakers decided to make Queen’s inspiring Live Aid performance the lynchpin of Freddie’s life. The film begins with him about to step on stage at Wembley, then ends with the band whipping the massive soccer stadium crowd into a frenzy. That moment was a kind of magic, no question. Queen stole the show. You couldn’t imagine a greater triumph if you tried.

But the film does try. Too hard. Sometimes, it seems like it doesn’t want to be a Queen biopic, but Rocky VII. To create an epic comeback story, it has Freddie quit the band (something that didn’t happen), and posits that he found out he was HIV-positive just before that epic performance. The truth? He wasn’t diagnosed until two years later.

Reality check: Queen released an album called The Works the year before Live Aid, and toured in support of the album after that. That record-breaking Rio performance, depicted in the film as happening sometime in the seventies? It actually took place during this tour, in 1985. The band hadn’t even performed in South America before that. This was during the time the movie suggests Queen was “broken up,” but the Rio show was part of a tour that ended just two months before Live Aid.

Broken up? I don’t think so.

Freddie as Rocky Balboa

None of this is a problem for me as a moviegoer. I happen be a sucker for “Rocky” movies, and the story, as told by the movie, was inspiring. But as a Queen fan and history buff, it made me cringe: The movie should have carried the tag “based on a true story,” because it fudged so many things. Yes, I know Hollywood does this. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

When Ron Howard made Cinderella Man in 2005, he didn’t add to the drama by having Jim Braddock knock out Joe Louis in the final scene. He didn’t have to. Braddock’s shocking win over Max Baer was epic enough. The fact that Braddock lost to Louis in his next fight was no shame, especially when Braddock knocked down the greatest heavyweight of his era in that fight. (There were, to be fair, a few inaccuracies in that film, too; most notably, Baer was portrayed as a jerk, when the real Baer was apparently a teddy bear.)

Some of the historical inaccuracies in Rhapsody don’t add to the drama, but seem wedged in where they don’t belong for no particular reason.

Why, for instance, does Queen play Fat Bottomed Girls on a tour that supposedly took place years before that song was released? And why does the film show We Will Rock You being conceived after Crazy Little Thing Called Love was a hit? Contrary to what the film would have you believe, WWRY came out two albums earlier, and Freddie was not sporting his famous mustache at the time. There’s just no reason to do this sort of thing. Even casual Queen fans will know you’ve gotten it wrong.

What’s there, what’s not

Others have had different problems with the film. Some, for instance, say it glosses over Freddie’s hedonistic lifestyle. I’m OK with that, because the movie made it quite clear that he loved to party and have casual sex. Sometimes, inference is a lot more effective than hitting someone over the head. I don’t need to see one sex-and-drugs scene after another paraded in front of me to get that point; if the movie had done so, it would have bogged down the narrative. I think the moviemakers took the right approach to this one.

They also got the casting right. Rami Malek doesn’t look as much like Freddie as I had hoped, but he makes up for it with a standout performance. And the rest of the band? Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy are dead ringers for May and Taylor, respectively, and Joseph Mazzello looks a lot like the real John Deacon, too. The hair stylist deserves a shout-out for getting Deacon’s oft-changing coiffures dead-on most of the time.

(If you’re wondering, the photo above shows the three-quarters of the real Queen – Deacon, May and Mercury – on tour in 1977. Notice Mercury does not wear a mustache.)

The film’s lighter moments, such as the argument over Taylor’s tune I’m In Love With My Car, are a lot of fun, if perhaps a bit too few.

The film misses a few gems. David Bowie, whose memorable duet with Freddie on Under Pressure was the best thing about Hot Space, doesn’t make an appearance, and the film also fails to mention that Queen snagged its first Top of the Pops appearance because Bowie had canceled out 24 hours earlier. (Another connection: Queen’s first tour supported Mott the Hoople, whose biggest hit was penned by Bowie.)

Fans love this sort of trivia, but the movie was created for a mass audience, and it’s probably too much to ask that such minutiae be squeezed into 2 hours and 14 minutes of screen time.

And mass audiences seem to love the film. As of this writing, they’re giving it a 94 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while less enthusiastic critics have it at 59 percent. As is often the case, I’m with the fans on this one. To reiterate, I loved the movie.

I would have loved it even more if the fictional Queen had played We Will Rock You in 1977 and Fat Bottomed Girls in 1978, the way the real Queen did.

Was that really too much to ask?

A point-by-point rebuttal to Kavanaugh's WSJ op-ed

Stephen H. Provost

Breaking down key excerpts in Brett Kavanaugh's Wall Street Journal op-ed, headlined "I Am an Independent, Impartial Judge," with my point-by-point response:

"I was very emotional last Thursday, more so than I have ever been."

More than on your wedding day, more than at the birth of your children. This is troubling, especially since you go on to say how important your family supposedly is to you.

"I might have been too emotional at times."

Saying you "might have been" is a hedge. It means you realize others think you were, and you don't agree with them, but because you want to save face, you're going to pretend they might have a point. Instead of taking responsibility for your actions, you’re seeking to minimize them, in the same way you sought to minimize your excessive drinking and bad behavior in high school and college. No wonder you were grounded so often on that calendar of yours.

"I know that my tone was sharp, and I said a few things I should not have said.:"

Minimizing, again. “Sharp?” Try rude and belligerent. "A few things?" Many, things, some of which were distortions, others of which were simply false.

"I hope everyone can understand that I was there as a son, husband and dad."

This has nothing to do with your ability to be an impartial judge, . In fact, impartiality demands that you set aside personal biases. This is not evidence of your ability to do so, but the exact opposite. If this is the kind of logic you use making legal arguments, I'm amazed that you were even considered for the bench, much less the highest court in the land.

"I testified with five people foremost in my mind: my mom, my dad, my wife, and most of all my daughters."

No, you didn't. You testified with yourself foremost in your mind. This is clear from the testimony itself. You're using your family as human shields in a war against, how did you put it? Democrats who hate Trump and are seeking revenge for the 2016 election? You certainly didn’t have the sexual assault victim who says you were the perpetrator foremost in your mind - either then or now.

“Going forward, you can count on me to be … hardworking, even-keeled, open-minded, independent and dedicated to the Constitution and the public good.”

Let’s take this one at a time. Hardworking? Except when you’re getting drunk at frat parties that make “Animal House” look tame by comparison. Even-keeled? After Thursday’s hearing, you really expect me to believe that? Open-minded? When you respond to an allegation of sexual assault by calling it a “calculated and orchestrated political hit” on behalf of the Clintons and blaming your opponents instead of expressing even a shred of empathy for survivors? Independent? In light of your history working in a political capacity for Republican politicians (whatever happened to separation of powers?) Dedicated to the Constitution: The same document prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude. News flash: Sexual assault is an attempt to subject another person to exactly that. The public good? More like your own ambition, ego and reputation.

“As a judge, I have always treated colleagues and litigants with the utmost respect.”

As a judge? The implicit admission here is that, in other facets of your life, you don’t accord such respect to others. Again, this is supported by your behavior in high school, college and at Thursday’s hearing. Always? Not on Thursday. Or don’t you consider senators to be your colleagues in upholding the Constitution you claim to hold so dear?

"I have been known for my courtesy on and off the bench. I have not changed."

Your angry, defensive and sometimes belligerent behavior during Thursday's hearing suggests otherwise. Or maybe you HAVEN'T changed. Maybe you were a discourteous jerk all along. Your behavior in high school and college would seem to confirm precisely that.

Oh, and one last thing. This op-ed piece? The Fox interview? The words “protest too much” come to mind. On top of that, any good lawyer will tell you it’s a bad idea to act as your own defense attorney. But then, you’re not a very good lawyer, are you, Mr. Kavanaugh? You’re just an insecure overachiever who has risen to the top on the coattails of political hacks who want to use you for their own purposes. Being used by others shouldn’t make you feel good, Mr. Kavanaugh, but if you’ve done it yourself, you probably don’t have any room to complain.