Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Competition? Setting the Stage Still Matters

Why has competition basically come down to competing for favors in Washington, instead of for customers on Main Street? After all, Washington should not be the stage where anything (not directly government related) needs to be "sold". What's more, if the product has already been negotiated and endlessly strategized, there's a growing chance the consumer would just as soon pass on it. When real options exist for both production and consumption - attractive, diverse and easy to negotiate options which consumers actually want to buy: they don't have to be coerced or compelled to do so. What's more, if people really want what others desire to produce, innovation has a chance to flourish. This should be a given, right? I never thought I'd live to see the day that the biggest part of consumption feels like a dreary chore.

Small wonder that even as some question the value of a "free" market, others question whether any freedom is actually left. In part because producers and suppliers are competing with one another through governments - instead of directly appealing to customers - the economic stage is no longer set up to be accessible or relevant. When it appears that markets become "rigged" or otherwise captured by special interests, people lose interest in consumption.Thus much of the sustaining capacity of consumption is lost, as it becomes more of a necessity than enjoyment or at least social connectivity to others. Perhaps one exception exists: does "signaling" consumption feel good or just provide status? I scarcely knew what signaling was, in the most significant years of my shopping excursions.

To be sure, some continue to visit the better retail stores regularly, and have the discretionary income to be able to do so. But the product diversity which once existed in the U.S. is now shifting towards regions where mid to high range incomes are prevalent. Here the stage can still be found in tempting formations. Others? Not so much. Where efficiency meets budget consciousness, consumption becomes necessity. People buy in order to accommodate the needs of their lives. Once that is accomplished, purchases vary according to how local economies interpret staging elements - let alone whether they even consider such presentations important enough to preserve.

The degree to which people once enjoyed shopping in many regions of the country, must be something of a mystery to younger generations. Certainly it was my mother's favorite activity, and the one I shared most in common with her, besides our mutual love for non fiction books. Even one of my cousins recounted stories about my mother's love of shopping recently, at her passing. To be sure, a lot about those years when homes were filled with sought after treasures, may appear "overdone" by present day terms. But the very act of shopping generated a lot of positive social interaction, of a kind which hasn't quite been replaced in the present.

Today we say that competition "wins" the game for whatever people want the most, so we go with whoever or whatever wins. But how true is that? Yes the winners continue to power their way through the game. But some on the sidelines have wearied of even watching the primary economic action, as it becomes ever more limited - in spite of untapped worlds of possibility. There is still money to be made on the offerings societies consider necessary, but certainly not in every quarter. And much of the consumption that remains is not only "non-discretionary" in a developed nation sense: it is fiercely fought over in settings that scarcely resemble the marketplace that was born of spontaneity and dynamism.

Whatever one thinks of the more "discretionary" consumerism of the past: at least it provided shared experiences and commonalities for family and friends, which otherwise didn't always have a place to happen after the decline of agricultural life. Today those earlier downtown squares and even malls are being replaced by sports arenas, mega church multi environments and of course the digital realm, but none of these "replacement" stages are capable of providing settings where individuals can find their primary economic interconnectivity. All of these partial stages have a valuable purpose. But the main arena of economic interaction  - that mythical place where we're supposedly able to fulfill our identities and purpose - remains curiously absent.

Another odd aspect of today's "necessity" economy  is that a lot of us are no longer particularly inclined to dress up for it. In agricultural times, one looked forward to wearing their Sunday best, and in the heyday of office life, many of us looked forward to wearing our weekday best. To say that the marketplace is not "fun" the way it once was, must sound like a strange complaint for those who never really had a chance to experience it as such. Today's contrast to what the marketplace once offered in the U.S., is stark indeed.

Plus, when marketplaces of any kind are no longer enjoyable, this is just more "fuel for the fire" and the shouting begins: "markets don't work". Sometimes people insist that markets don't work because it appears that they were ruined by finance. But here the causation is backwards. Finance only took its "golden opportunity" when special interests - alongside governments - went too far with their constant demands as to the most basic products of our lives. In spite of the measured progress of recent decades regarding home valuations and lifestyles: in some ways this doesn't compare to the places that a "small time" discretionary income could once take you.

What might appear as discretionary high income consumption is often geared towards maintaining future economic stability - not exactly a high quality of life indicator on the Maslow pyramid. And finance products - while certainly useful, aren't exactly "bucket list" material in consumption based terms. Sometimes it seems as though finance just wants a nice long nap after the long party, so it's not interested whether the economic stage is in serious need of renovations.

If that were not enough, finance is far from ready to give up the right to host the next party invitation. Given the chance, the finance sector would keep the keys to a now locked room (tight money), so that it gets to open the door first once the marketplace has a chance to flourish again - even if that might be decades away. Someone else needs the right to hold those keys, who is more willing to consider real progress in the present.

For centuries, the marketplace was our open commons where people could gather to be collectively intrigued, entertained, challenged and inspired. While elements of this meeting place still exist in the digital realm, it remains highly problematic that no stage presently exists where all economic activities can coalesce. We need to imagine a new stage where competition works again at the individual level: where people come together for no better reason than they want to, not because they have to. After all, the product we remember fondly for the course of our lives is that which we choose freely. Much of the rest is forgotten.

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