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The Economic Man

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Message Abbas Bakhtiar
Once a week, I watch the American CBS TV program: the 60 minutes. This time part of the program was about the latest fad among some teenagers: beating homeless people, some resulting in death. The reporters had obtained the footage of a security camera which showed how four young men beat an unfortunate homeless man for fun. The reporter then interviewed another young man (part of a group of four) that had participated in killing a homeless man. When the reporter asked the young man why he had done this, he replied for fun.

The reporter went on to point out how a DVD film called BUMFIGHT, in which two homeless people were paid to beat each other, had become very popular among the American teenagers. The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) says that beating the defenceless homeless people has become a perverse national trend. Across the country, packs of teenage boys are stalking homeless people and attacking them. [ ] The reporter went on to blame the "Bumfight" DVD and its twenty-something year old producer (who incidentally had sold his DVD rights for 1,5 million dollars) for being partly responsible for these attacks.

The day after I began to receive the usual calls from friends and associates: did you watch the 60 minutes last night? Wasn't it awful? How can this sort of things happen? Well, that is US for you. It seemed to me that what my friends hadn't realised was that what happens in US today, will happen in London a few months later and then it spread throughout Europe. Usually we get a milder form, a bit later in Norway. The fact is that US is a trend setter. If they succeed in their policies, we adopt them, and if they fail, well, we won't touch them.

But sometimes their success is illusory and comes with a very heavy price tag. But by the time the Americans realise this, we have already jumped on board hoping to take advantage of whatever new technique or policies that they have come-up with.
Americans, unlike Europeans, are not shackled by traditions. They are risk takers and energetic. They try anything once and are willing to share their experience with all, especially if they can also benefit from it. But sometimes they believe so strongly in their policies that they try to get everyone to implement them, sometimes even by force if necessary.

For the past 100 years, the US have been experimenting with various forms of capitalism and we in Europe have been (to some extend) copying them. We have consistently adopted, although always in a milder form, the American economic policies, from the New Deal of F.D. Roosevelt, to Consumerism and Neoliberalism. By copying them we accept to take the same risks.

We should not shake our head and think that this is just an American phenomenon. What is happening there will happen here, it is just a matter of time. You only have to go to London or Paris to see the homeless sleeping rough in the streets. It is only matter of time before some teenagers try to have some fun with these poor people; after all we have adopted consumerism as well. What these teenagers did and are doing only reflect the extreme of what the current value-less, pleasure seeking, and self-centred consumer-oriented society is all about.

John Berger, the British writer, was correct in his observation when he said that: "the poverty of our century is unlike that of any other. It is not, as poverty was before, the result of natural scarcity, but of a set of priorities imposed upon the rest of the world by the rich. Consequently, the modern poor are not pitied...but written off as trash. The twentieth-century consumer economy has produced the first culture for which a beggar is a reminder of nothing."

The indifference, indeed hostility that we show to the homeless or the poor is just a very small part of a bigger problem facing our societies today. The big problem, as I see it, is one of corruption of our most basic values and ideals. In our capitalist democratic societies where individual's interest is proclaimed to be the centre, we are seduced by the promise of happiness that money can buy and in pursuit of that dream we both seduce and are seduced; going round and round in the circle of illusory compassion, loyalty and real indifference.

A few years back, I attended the launch ceremony of a new software release by a Swedish company in Stockholm. At that time, two Swedish economic professors (Ridderståle & Nordstrom) had written a controversial (in Scandinavia) book called "Funky Business". One of these gentlemen was invited to start the ceremonies by giving a short speech about their findings on how western society was changing and its implications for businesses. I certainly was not prepared for what I was about to hear. Nordstrom started his speech with the following: Loyalty is dead, Family is dead,..... what is left is shopping and

At first I was surprised and indignant. Surely these guys are mistaken. Are these the only things that people are concerned with? And then slowly I began to understand that although we are not there yet, "there", is where we are heading.

Loyalty is dead. In an era of down-sizing, BPR (Business Process Reengineering), TBC (Time-Based Competition), Six Zigmas, etc, people are hired and fired at will. There is no room for loyalty. In an era of "what have you done for me lately", there is no loyalty. In an era of prenuptial agreements there is no room for loyalty. In an era where politicians are bought and sold, there is no room for loyalty. Now it seems loyalty is rented and not earned.

In an era where over 50% of all marriages end in divorce, there is no room for family. In an era where parents have to spend most of their waking time working, there is no time for family. In an era when a child will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to educate, there is no incentive to create a family. In an era where the old are sent to retirement homes to die, there is no place for family.

Family unit is important. It is around this unit that we gather, creating villages, towns, cities, and countries. It is the glue that keeps our societies in place. Family functions on two things: love and loyalty. Constant betrayal by corporations, governments, friends and even spouses, has effectively destroyed the notion of loyalty.

That leaves us with love, which we have began to treat as another commodity. Friend finders, Marriage bureaus, online dating agencies, etc are places where people exchange CVs and list their assets hoping to find another person that is willing to give more than he/she is willing to take. We even have speed dating; often used to find out what the other person has to offer in as little time as possible.

With loyalty almost gone, and love commercialised, there is nothing left but a huge vacuum, which the governments and corporation are trying hard to fill with products. That is why Nodstrom was saying that there is nothing left but shopping and
The oft-repeated saying in the US is: there is no such a thing as a free lunch. If the family unit is being slowly dissolved and our social interaction is reduced to quid-pro-quo, then indeed we are on a slippery slope to our very own individual hells.

The Economic System of Quid-Pro-Quo

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Dr. Abbas Bakhtiar lives in Norway. He works as a management consultant.He is also a contributing writer for many online journals.
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