Monday, April 12, 2010

Snake Oil Reflections

The Snake Oil Salesman is arguably the first villain of capitalism. The first depiction of one was for me was the character Dr. Terminus in Walt Disney's Pete's Dragon, played by Jim Dale. He had the mustache and a shill who helped him hock his bogus wares, but he was comedic and as a child he was infinitely less scary than the other villains, the abusive Gogans, who pursued the protagonist, Elliot. I didn't really understand at the time exactly why Snake Oil Salesmen were so bad.

I remember in school when I learned about them I also learned the phrase caveat emptor (Latin for buyer beware). I was also learning about techniques of persuasion (Testimonial, Band Wagon, Peer Pressure, etc.) as part of late 1980's D.A.R.E. program. To top it off my Mom, who is very much into consumer advocacy, bought her children a subscription to “Zillions”, which was basically Consumer Reports for kids. All these things together built in me a very healthy skepticism of people who want me to buy things and their motivations.

My first sales job was as a telemarketer. I took calls for infomercials. I completed the sales and tried to up-sell the customer while I was at it, it wasn't a very difficult job. Before I worked there I was fully convinced that most of the stuff being sold through infomercials was crap that people didn't need. This job only strengthened that conviction for me. I couldn't help but feel creepy through the whole process, twirling an imaginary mustache as I told people how easy three payments of $29.99 would make their lives.
Subsequent sales jobs didn't change my feelings. It didn't help that as a christian I've been trained in anti-materialism, “Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal” (Mathew 6:19-20). I really enjoy transcendentalist writers like Emerson and Thoreau, who mourned the materialism of the nineteenth century (they didn't have malls back then).

Through it all I've made friends with people who really think they're helping others by selling them crap, or putting them into debt for a “good cause”. A lot of money can be made doing that. I wonder at what cost though. I can't help but feel empathy for the customer who tries to improve their like through material means. I sometimes just want to shake them and say “You're life will not get better by buying stuff,” and then collect my last paycheck from my employer.

Now I have no problem with capitalism, in general an open market seems to be the best system of economy available. But I do have a problem with how capitalism is represented as the perfect system of economy, one that makes full use of man's self-interest. The problem is that man's self-interest does not naturally sustain an open market and full disclosure; pure self-interested capitalism is not self-sustaining, as evidenced by monopolies, scams (like snake oil salesmen), and most recently the sub-prime mortgage crisis. If people can make money at the expense of someone else then they will. Not to say that all sales use unfair or underhanded business practices, but for the ones that do, I wonder how those people feel about humanity at large and their place in the human family. Are they playing the villain who thinks they're the hero?