Black Friday shoppers: Fewer this year
It’s Black Friday in the US, and surprisingly, in European countries as well, despite not celebrating US Thanksgiving. I guess retailers are quick to find an excuse to hawk their goods, no matter the cultural significance. I’m wondering if Canadians also observe Black Friday today, given that Canadian Thanksgiving is in October. Although today is a celebration of buying stuff, it appears that overall we are becoming less materialistic. That is according to Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, an economic geographer at the University of Southern California, who recently published The Sum of Small Things. In the book, according to the Princeton University Press advert, Currid-Halkett argues, that “the power of material goods as symbols of social position has diminished due to their accessibility. As a result, the aspirational class has altered its consumer habits away from overt materialism to more subtle expenditures that reveal status and knowledge.” Members of this new class, which she labels the aspirational class, have moved away from conspicuous consumption: “Highly educated and defined by cultural capital rather than income bracket, these individuals earnestly buy organic, carry NPR tote bags, and breast-feed their babies. They care about discreet, inconspicuous consumption—like eating free-range chicken and heirloom tomatoes, wearing organic cotton shirts and TOMS shoes, and listening to the Serial podcast.”
In a recent interview on NPR (wow, I must be a member of the aspirational class), Currid-Halkett asserts that in fact US Americans are becoming less interested in owning more and more: “As a society, we are getting less materialistic. So we can see that in a cultural way in just the way we talk about things. We can see that in movements like voluntary simplicity.” She backs up her assertion with data she has been collecting on spending patterns. In fact, one of those patterns is less interest in spending the Thanksgiving break shopping. Fewer stores opened this year on Thanksgiving. That contrasts with recent years in which retailers were opening on Wednesday at midnight and all day Thanksgiving. It appears as well, that the violence that occurred in the past, as shoppers battled one another over the few extra cheap TVs, has not happened this year. Maybe we are moving in the direction of voluntary simplicity – giving up the pursuit of happiness through material goods, to focus on living with less and growing spiritually. Or maybe we just have now accumulated all we can fit in our homes/apartments – or that we can afford.
Handshakes have been in the news lately. On his overseas trip, President Trump greeted a number of world leaders, usually with a handshake. The President, according to CNN, “seems to view the handshake as a sort of battle of wills and a battle for power all wrapped into one”. The CNN article discusses a number of examples. Most recently, there was a lengthy, combative handshake with France’s new President, Emmanuel Macron. According to a Washington Post reporter, “They shook hands for an extended period of time. Each president gripped the other’s hand with considerable intensity, their knuckles turning white and their jaws clenching and faces tightening”. Handshakes most often are a simple component of a greeting or departure ritual. But sometimes they have more significance. In an interview yesterday in France Dimanche, Macron said this about the handshake: “Ma poignée de main avec lui, ce n’est pas innocent…Il faut montrer qu’on ne fera pas de petites concessions, même symboliques” (My handshake with him was not without significance…It’s important to demonstrate that there will be no small concessions, even those of a symbolic nature). Macon was using the handshake as a gesture of defiance and independence, resisting the alpha male persona of the US President.
In the US a “firm” handshake, along with the pulling and tugging often used by Trump, is seen as normal male behavior in the business community. It’s not the same in the rest of the world; a handshake is seen as a friendly gesture, not an opportunity to be aggressive and show dominance. As commentator Joe Navarro remarks, that is particularly the case in diplomatic circles: “Diplomacy is about getting along. One of the things we do with our handshakes is we establish comfort. We’re saying, ‘I’m your friend. I’m the person you’re going to be working with.’ That’s what the handshake is supposed to be for, not some sort of sophomoric challenge between two alpha males.” In some parts of the world, business transactions, including negotiating over prices, occurs while men continue to hold hands. In that case, it is less a contest of wills, than it is a symbol of working together to reach consensus. Not a bad model for diplomacy.
Pope Francis & his Ford Focus
Pope Francis today issued his first written document, the Evangelii Gaudium and in it he takes on an issue of concern in many parts of the world, the growing gap between rich and poor. “How can it be”, he writes, “that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses 2 points?” The Pope’s “apostolic exhortation” is in large part a stinging rebuke of unbridled capitalism, juxtaposing the real lives of the poor with the focus on ever increasing wealth. Pope Francis practices what he preaches, living in a modest guest house rather than in the ornate Apostolic Palace and riding around Rome in a used Ford Focus. Last month he suspended a German bishop who had spent lavishly on remodeling and decorating his residence.
This week-end the Swiss voted on one of their many national voter referendums, this one stipulating that CEO’s could not earn more than 12 times the pay of their lowest-paid employee. The measure did not pass, but that it even came up for a vote in a country that values highly the entrepreneurial spirit and celebrates its rich multinational firms is an indication of how wide-spread the concern over the increasing gulf between rich and poor is in many European countries. In fact the Swiss passed a referendum in March that already placed restrictions on CEO pay.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., as the NY Times pointed out in an article this week-end, the mere mention of “redistribution” is political poison. The article points out that a leading candidate to chair the White House Council of Economic Advisers, Rebecca Blank, had her name withdrawn when it was learned that 10 years earlier she had not only used the word in print but had dared to assert, “A commitment to economic justice necessarily implies a commitment to the redistribution of economic resources, so that the poor and the dispossessed are more fully included in the economic system”. A statement in harmony with Pope Francis’s epistle and one that Christians would seem obligated to support, but seemingly so out of step with American popular opinion that not even a Democratic White House could embrace it.
Interesting story recently from Mexico about women being used exclusively as traffic cops. The reason? To fight corruption in the police force, a chronic problem in Mexico. The assumption is that women are less likely to take bribes to forgo issuing traffic citations or to strong-arm motorists into forking over cash instead of being arrested. Ecatepec Police Chief Carlos Ortega Carpinteyro, cited in a story on NPR, says women are much better suited for traffic duty: “When a man is approached by a female cop, even though he is the stronger sex, he calms down and will listen to her…women are more trustworthy and take their oath of office more seriously. They don’t ask for or take bribes.” So far the women traffic cops in the Mexico State don’t have full police authority – they can only issue warnings.
Are women really less corruptible. Tania Lombrozo points out in her blog that the results are mixed. In a recent study from Rice University, researchers found that corruptibility of men versus women depends on the kind of government in place: “We find strong evidence that a gender gap in corruption attitudes and behaviors is present in democracies, but weaker or non-existent in autocracies.” According to the article, this correlates as well with the role of women in politics – in democratic countries having a larger number of women participating in government lessens corruption, but not in autocratic regimes. They provide an interesting explanation of why women are different from men in terms of corruptibility:
Women are more powerfully subject to social norms because systematic discrimination against them makes their position more tenuous. Insomuch that sex discrimination means holding women to a different (higher) standard than men for the same reward, it is riskier for them to flout the formal and informal rules of political culture because transgressions are more likely to invite retaliation. Thus, if a political culture discourages corruption, women will avoid corrupt activities more and profess greater aversion to it (compared to men) because they anticipate suffering more severe consequences than their male counterparts.
Whether the new approach will work for Mexico remains to be seen. Mexico ranks high in the corruption index of Transparency International (105 out of 174 most corrupt). It’s interesting to note that the countries that are listed as the least corrupt are also among those that in the recent World Happiness Report rank as the “happiest”, namely the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Canada.
Walmart is bringing back its “Made in America” campaign, as outlined in a story in this week’s Time Magazine. The chain had promoted American-made products back in the 1970’s when founder Sam Walton was still in charge – in fact the title of his autobiography is “Made in America”. However, this goal, in line with a general pro-American campaign at the time, largely in reaction against what was perceived as the anti-patriotic anti-war movement, ran up against the an even more important goal: super low prices, as a way to attract customers and make money. More and more products sold in Walmart stores were coming from abroad, as they could be produced much more cheaply outside the U.S. It is estimated that by 2004, 70% of the products sold at Walmart came from China. The “Made in America” campaign resulted in a backlash when “NBC Dateline” aired an exposé in the early 1990’s showing that Walmart associates put “Made in America” signs over products made in overseas sweatshops.
Now Walmart is bringing back the campaign, but not out of a patriotic duty to promote American-made products and create more jobs in the U.S. The shift is in line with other companies, such as Apple, which are finding that it’s starting to make economic sense to make or buy goods in the U.S. Shipping charges have made imports more expensive, as have higher wages being paid in China and other manufacturing centers. The campaign does not necessarily mean a windfall for American manufacturers or other producers. Walmart is only interested in large scale contracts and is famous for driving down prices to the point that it’s hard for suppliers to make a profit. A recent story on NPR discusses the difficulty small farmers have had in the American Midwest selling to Walmart.
Finnish school (From Smithsonian)
Americans like to think of themselves as valuing personal freedom and equality of opportunity, but also praise individual initiative and personal success. Individualism and entrepreneurism, core American ideals, foster competitiveness. In the ongoing efforts to improve American schools, these values tend to rise to the surface in the measures most often advocated – school choice (more private and charter schools), rewards for the best teachers and schools, high-stakes testing to identify success and failure. So far, the results have not been impressive. In international rankings, including the PISA surveys, US students tend to be at best in the middle of the pack. It may be that marketplace competition which works in the business world doesn’t translate well to schools.
A country that perennially ranks near the top in PISA tests, Finland, like the US an individualist culture, has a quite different approach to education. The small Scandinavian country is an outlier among the countries at the top, which are mostly from collectivistic cultures in Asia (South Korea, Singapore, China). The Finnish approach does not feature school choice — there are no private or charter schools — standardized testing, or teacher accountability. A recent article in the Atlantic on Finnish schools cites one of the leading Finnish authorities on education reform, Pasi Sahlberg, on the current buzzword in US education, accountability: “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish… Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.” Teacher performance is monitored by individual schools, mostly by the school principal. Teachers are given a great deal of individual responsibility and design their own testing. All students go to public schools at no cost and all schools have essentially the same financial resources. Ironically, the talk by Sahlberg that is the main source of information in the article was given at Dwight School, a private, for profit secondary school in New York that costs $35,000 a year to attend. Teachers in Finland, as in many cultures, enjoy relatively high pay as well as considerable prestige. That seems to make a difference in the quality of teachers. The irony of the Finnish success story is that in their school reform efforts they did not set out to achieve excellence, but rather wanted to provide an equal education for all students, regardless of socio-economic backgrounds or family educational levels. There may be a lesson there for US education reformers: real equity rather than more differentiation.
Mitt Romney’s comments in Israel during his recent trip abroad raise interesting questions about the relationship between cultural values and economic success. He compared the much higher per capita income in Israel compared to Palestine: “Culture makes all the difference…and as I come here and I look out over this city and consider the accomplishments of the people of this nation, I recognize the power of at least culture and a few other things.” He didn’t enter into any specifics on what cultural differences he had in mind, presumably aspects of the culture that favor industry, frugality, and an entrepreneurial spirit? Or was it individualism (Israel) versus collectivism (Palestine)?
This echoes the discussion that has arisen from President Obama’s comments that successful businesses in the United States were not built exclusively by the business owners, but owed part of their success to the infrastructure created by American tax payers. Objections were quickly raised that business owners created success exclusively through their own initiative and hard work – the triumphant result of unbridled individualism. Reminds me of the hefty debates over Hilary Clinton’s “It takes a village” and the criticism of this advocacy of “collectivism”. A particular virulent attack on collectivism comes from the “one government” critics.
Romney’s remarks were criticized in that he didn’t talk about the very unequal opportunities in Israel and Palestine. He was also way off in stating that personal income in Israel is twice that in Palestine: it’s more like 20 to 1. Of course what Romney meant by “success” was exclusively economic prosperity – as a businessman that is understandably his focus. Is the point of his comparison that Palestinians would be well advised to change their cultural values? It would be interesting to see where the Israel and Palestine rank in happiness indices.
A local language team transliterates product names into Thai.
Interesting article in the Wall Street Journal on problems Ikea has with using its normal product naming process in other countries. The Swedish names sometimes don’t go over well. In Thai some of the Swedish product names had sexual overtones. Reminiscent of Chevy trying to sell “Nova” (Spanish: no go) cars in Latin America. They would like to keep the Swedish names (often from place names in Sweden) not out of nationalism but to reinforce the Scandinavian origins, with the hope that the association is with quality products. Product names for American products in China is an interesting challenge. The products should sound similar to the name in English but the characters used for the sounds should also have an appropriate and positive meaning. Coca-cola’s name in Mandarin is 可口可乐 (kě kǒu kě lè), with the sound being close and the meaning something like delicious happiness.