I read Greg Smith's earth shaking New York Time's Op Ed recently, "Why I am Leaving Goldman Sachs" and I must say that I for one am shocked! Mr. Smith must have been either home schooled or led an otherwise sheltered life. When I was a young boy on one of those bright and lovely spring Saturday mornings I dressed in my smart khaki Boy Scout uniform and we good scouts all gathered at the local community house. There the scout master explained to us the costs of all of our planned activities for the summer and further explained that we would be selling lawn fertilizer to raise funds.
Each scout was given a packet with order forms and assigned a part of the neighborhood to canvas for prospective customers (i.e. Muppets). Off we went ringing doorbells and selling lawn fertilizer offering the advantage of having the fertilizer delivered and in the process helping local boy scouts. I freely admit it, when one of the Muppets would ask me, "How many bags do you think I need son?" My mercenary side would kick in, and maybe four bags would have been enough, but I was twelve years old and I wanted to go to Boy Scout camp so out the window went my boy scout oath and I would answer with certainty, "Six!"
How early this lesson was taught to me in this America, if you want to get ahead in this country, you've got to sell a lot of fertilizer!
Later when I was around sixteen I landed a job at a gas station up on the highway. Ann Street Gulf was the old fashioned model for Service stations, full service gas pumps, three service bays and even a clock in the window to measure my speed in reaching the Muppet's car. The owner Harold was a funny kind of a duck and I like him now in retrospect, even more than I did in those days. He had this little motto which he used to share with to us boys to help motivate us during our shift, "You can sell or you can go to hell!"
Muppets? Our customers were rarely referred to in any such kindly terms as Muppets, they were at best suckers. The station patter would begin something like this, the Muppet would pull into the station and the attendant would ask casually, "What's that noise?" Invariably the customer would answer, "I don't know? I've been wondering about that myself?"
"Pop the hood and I'll take a look for you," Then I would sell a can of oil treatment or maybe a fan belt. There were some boys at the station who would check the oil and wipe it down a quart and then walk into the service bay where they kept this empty can of oil with a spout already in it. When we boys would compare notes around a few beers after hours the stories would usually begin with "And this guy was so stupid that."
There are good and honest business people out there but they are quickly being eliminated by that same corporate culture which Mr. Smith has so recently stumbled upon. There is a national chain of repair shops which offers $99.00 brake jobs when the reality is, you'd be lucky to buy a cotter pin in there for $99.00. Mufflers, brakes, tune ups or stocks and bonds it's all the same pitch, anything to get your car up on their rack or take your money.
The problem isn't with rip-off gas stations or muffler shops or even Goldman Sachs the problem is with Capitalism.
When I donned my smart little Boy Scout uniform, oh so long ago, to sell fertilizer I was but a spoke in a wheel. A salesman, a grown person, had negotiated a contract to sell truck loads of fertilizer by using little boy's cuteness and their desire to go to summer camp as a seductive motivation. My boss at the gas station, Harold, was our Fagin, he was teaching us to be automotive pick pockets and to his credit, he shared the proceeds with us.
We are daily bombarded with advertising trying to sell us all kinds of fertilizer that we really don't need. Half of the advertisements on television are for products which will make us fat and unhealthy while the other half are"anybody? Weight loss products which promise us that we can that lose weight and body fat without changing our lifestyle! Why sure, you can eat pepperoni pizzas with cheese stuffed into the crust and wash it down with chemically laced soft drinks and still have ice cream for desert.
There's a TV commercial now in heavy airplay for a new Italian car assembled in Mexico which compares the car to a beautiful Italian woman. Is it a good car? Does it get great gas mileage? Is it comfortable? Who knows, all they are really trying to sell here is the image that this car is somehow sexy and attractive. I saw one of these cars in traffic the other day and had to laugh out loud because to me, at least, it looked like a lump of mashed potatoes.
A society which pounds messages into your head at least a hundred times a day, that message being, you are too fat or too bald. You're teeth aren't white enough or you're not pretty enough. The message that the candy bar now comes in a new giant size and is located just one aisle over from the diabetic supplies. Selling us the message that life is about having things and about buying things. If you are unhappy, take a pill or read a book, maybe a book on how to communicate with your spouse, or how to meet girls after your break up or how to keep your man satisfied or he might stray. Messages which seek to undermine our happiness and replace them with fear and self doubt so someone can make a quick buck.