Social Issues

Living in a Material World: Corporate vs. Consumer Responsibility

We are living in a material world... cartoon of shopping cart, smartphone, and money

As Madonna sang, we’re living in a material world. We live in a capitalist economic system with a consumerist society where we are constantly bombarded with advertising. We can probably all agree that the current way of things isn’t great, but what do we do about it? That’s where we may have different ideas.

I’m firmly left of centre on the political spectrum, so that’s part of my worldview. However, I’ve noticed that, when it comes to capitalism, I seem to be a stronger believer in apportioning individual responsibility than some of my blogging friends.

Limiting corporations

That doesn’t mean I think corporations should have free rein. We can think that corporations are evil, but the basis of capitalism is that corporations exist to make a profit. We probably shouldn’t be surprised when they act in ways that are consistent with that. Similarly, we probably shouldn’t expect them to voluntarily behave in ways that aren’t in accordance with that.

I think that constraint needs to come primarily from the outside, be that government regulation or consumers voting with their wallets. I’m all for appropriate government regulation. Corporations need to be held accountable for potential harmful acts, and that’s where government needs to step in.

I’d really like to see a cap on the ratio between the top corporate earners and the lowest (or average) wage earned. That way, for CEOs to earn big, they’d have to pay good wages all the way down the pay scale. In my mind, that would be better than an executive compensation limit, as it would preserve the incentive to perform, but broaden the benefit. However, I know diddly squat about economics, so I haven’t got the slightest clue if that’s workable.

Supporting society

I would also like to see universal basic income, and I would like to see corporations have to contribute to that system before paying out to their shareholders.

Where my left-wing colours really show through is my belief that essential services should either be publicly operated or well-regulated to ensure that public interest takes precedence over profitability. When essentials operate for profit, you see things like the mess in Texas with its mess of a power grid. Essential health services should not be operated on a for-profit basis. Corporations can’t be expected to operate on a break-even basis, so that’s where governments and non-profits need to come in.

Personal responsibility

I don’t think government regulation is enough, though. I think that as consumers, we also need to take individual responsibility for our behaviour. Sure, we’re being pushed to consume, consume, consume, but that doesn’t mean we have to do it. People may feel pressured by advertising, keeping up with the Joneses (essentially FOMO), and what have you to get a luxury vehicle that they can’t actually afford; however, that doesn’t mean they have to do it. Now, there are absolutely people who don’t have the money to afford transportation at all, but that’s a different issue.

The Marie Kondo idea that your stuff should spark joy is interesting, in that it encourages you not to have a lot of unnecessary stuff, but it also suggests that possessions should have a joy value beyond a utilitarian value. I’m fairly non-materialist, so for me, most of my stuff is not about joy; it’s about what serves a purpose and makes it easier to do the things that I want to do.

My now-former in-person friend is a doofus when it comes to money. He was leasing an Audi SUV at his old job before he graduated nursing school. The vast majority of his monthly income went into that stupid car. His lease ran out around the time he graduated. I crunched some numbers for him and told him that if he purchased the Kia that he was kind of interested in instead, he’d likely save $20,000 by the end of the 5-year Audi lease, plus he’d have a vehicle that he owned at the end. What did he do? He leased a new Audi. Corporations should not be responsible for that kind of doofusness. If people choose to throw their money away, I’m inclined to think they need to take responsibility for it.

We have the power to resist

We’re faced with all kinds of advertising telling us to buy things. That doesn’t mean we have to buy them. Maybe it’s because my parents drilled cheapness into my head from an early age, but I don’t get too concerned about advertising, as long as it’s not getting in the way and making it difficult to do what I want to do. Advertising funds a lot of things that we use.

I’ve written before about how nothing is actually free, and it fascinates me how entitled we as a culture have become to getting things without paying for them. Did that exist before the internet age? If we expect to get useful services without paying money, we should own it that we’re paying with something else. That be our eyeballs on advertising, or, increasingly often, our information. It doesn’t have to be this way, and we can gripe about it ’til the cows come home, but if we want to continue to expect things for “free”, we are active participants in keeping this whole information-selling advertising-heavy juggernaut going.

So yeah, corporations are trying to make big money; that’s what they do and always will do in a capitalist system. But we’re not powerless as consumers. We’re also not powerless to at least attempt to get governments to intercede where it’s appropriate. Corporations may try to make pawns out of all us, but I’m bringing my queen to this corporate-consumer chess match. Screw pawns; I’m not willing to be one.

Where do you think responsibility should lie in reining in the excesses of capitalism in our material world?

46 thoughts on “Living in a Material World: Corporate vs. Consumer Responsibility”

  1. I’d have to think more about it… it seems that we might be asking more of people than they can deliver! If indeed we are to have more personal responsibility, there are easier things to test that in than the vast amount of consumerism in our capitalistic system. So, that begs the question, what kinds of things could we test? My example has nothing to do with consumerism (so, it may be useless), but I like the idea of population control.

  2. I like your CEO wage cap, although I can’t see it happening in a million years.

    I’m wary of nationalisations. My experience in the UK (particularly the NHS) is that they are often bureaucratic and contemptuous towards the consumer. I don’t know whether they’re worse than the worst private monopolies, but they aren’t any better.

    Natural monopolies (industries where monopolies will logically form, like utilities – there’s no point having five different water pipes into your house just so you can choose the best one) are a big problem in economics because it’s so hard to bring in any realistic competition that might drive down prices. In the UK there is regulation that is supposed to simulate competition via price caps, but there’s a lot of dissatisfaction, particularly with the energy industry, where prices have been rising rapidly and people think the regulator isn’t tough enough (“regulatory capture”).

    1. In my province electricity. is all handled by a crown corporation, and that seems to be working well.

      The issue of competition is coming up in Canada right now because two of the big telecoms are trying to merge, saying bigger is the only way to be more competitive because infrastructure costs are so high because Canada’s so big. But there’s already a lack of competition, and we pay more for cellular than a lot of countries. Seems to be a no-win.

  3. That’s really interesting, and I totally agree with you about cars. I have no understanding of why people pay so much toward the cost of a fancy car or the rental/lease of a fancy car. Avoiding such a bill must be one of the hugest money savers around. I paid off Carlene shortly after I bought her in February 2002. (Oh my gosh. I’ve had my car HOW LONG?!) There have been major repairs and services and new tires and on and on, but never a huge monthly bill.

    I do buy into consumerism in a colorful sense. I need to be surrounded by pretty colorful things, ya know?

    I agree that people should try not to be so driven by the need for status, if that’s what it is…? Who cares if your car is a big impressive vehicle or a total disaster? Oh my gosh, that reminds me. Years ago, I went on a date with a guy who doesn’t drive, so I picked him up. “What do you think of my car?” I asked him.

    “Um… you asked, so I’m going to be honest.”

    Things went downhill from there, but it was really funny. That was kind of interesting. He confessed to me that he has a mental glitch that makes him think he’s smarter than everyone else (even though objectively he’s not so sure), so I spent dinner challenging that belief. I’m sure we both learned something from it. It was interesting.

    Anyway, I struggle to grasp the bigger themes here because economics and current affairs aren’t my subjects. But your arguments sound good from here!

      1. Has a conversation ever gone well that included the phrase, “well, I’m going to be honest?” 😂

        1. Perhaps the imaginary conversation that happens in an 18-year-old boy’s mind.

          Girl: “Well, I’m going to be honest, all through dinner it was hard for me to keep myself from ripping my clothes off because you’re so hot.”

          Okay, that’s not much of a conversation, but those are the words.

  4. Well, I believe in free market economies. Those are economic systems where government minimizes it’s oversight to matters pertaining to safety, fraud, and anti-trust. The consumer controls the marketplace. Corporations must listen to the consumer when they do not have lobbyists manipulating government. Most socialist governments create the winners and the losers in the marketplace. It gives them sufficient power to wring political support and concessions from corporations.

    Free markets must guard against unfair trade arrangements from both globalists and manipulative governments. When governments like China form unholy alliances with the globalists and then manipulate currencies to further globalist sponsored trade at your and my expense, I worry. Tariffs and other trade restrictions have been the most practical way to keep these forces in check. Corruption in our own government is the globalists stock in trade.

    Advertisers can create some swings in the marketplace, especially when the government allows them to mislead the public. The Pinto was a wonderful safe car until journalists printed the truth about them being death traps. Finally, the government stopped listening to those Ford lobbyists and did something. The public lost confidence in the Ford Motor company for quite some time. It took their advertisement teams decades to repair the damage. If Ford had not tried to hide their death trap, they would have rebounded much sooner. This is a splendid example of my rules for government and the consumer working in concert.

    Last, workers must demand that government limit immigration to a level consistent with the economy. In a robust economy, a higher demand for labor produces higher wages and benefits for workers. Globalists will always try to circumvent practical limitations on foreign workers, to create a surplus of labor and reduce the cost of labor. Foreign workers must only be allowed to enter the marketplace when there is no domestic source of this brand of skilled laborer.

    Some may think these ideas reflect socialism. Others may argue that the consumer bears the cost of keeping free markets free. Fair competition always creates the best markets for consumers, not government manipulated ones. I will save taxation for another discussion.

    1. There’s certainly benefits to competition, but when profit is the primary driving motive, that can lead to problems when accessing a good or service is non-optional. Health care in the US is absurdly expensive, and that’s driven by the free market, because consumers don’t have much bargaining power; when you need heart surgery, you need it, even if happened at a time when you’re between jobs and therefore don’t have insurance and will be paying through the nose for the rest of your life.

  5. We’d love to see caps on executive pay as a multiplier of low-level worker pay. Does wealth concentration hurt consumers’ ability to influence corporations and markets?

    Lease vs buy is not just about dollars spent for some people. People we know who perpetually lease don’t want a car that breaks down so they lease perpetually newish cars to avoid that hassle. It may cost more but it’s not just a dollar calculation.

    1. It would be nice to see greater distribution of wealth, and that would need regulatory intervention. If individual consumers felt more empowered in terms of how they participate in the economy, maybe that would help to shift the current balance of power that leans so heavily towards corporations.

      I can see the benefit of leasing in that sense. In my friend’s case, leasing allowed him to have a luxury car he couldn’t actually afford because he liked the supposed status of it.

  6. I love your idea of executive wages being linked to wages lower down – the fact that Jeff Bezos is worth trillions and pays his workers minimum wage with very poor working conditions is immoral – I think there should be a cap on personal wealth as well with excess going into a global fund to deal with climate change, health inequalities etc. I believe in nationalised free or cheap essential services but the NHS though a wonderful concept is a bureaucratic nightmare, over politicised, under funded and over managed leading to poor care in a lot of areas. I know I can deliver better care outside of it but it pains me that people have to pay or have insurance – I vary my charges within a band so people can pay less but still means not accessible to many so a 2 tier system. So it’s complicated but we need a redistribution of wealth big time! 😘😘

    1. I’m a firm believer in pubic health care, but there’s always room for improvement. I’ve tried to figure out how the NHS works, but I was left totally baffled. But I suppose almost anything is better than the mess they’ve got in the US!

      I would love see Jeff Bezos having to spread the wealth around. How much money can one man possibly need? ❤️

  7. The artist Banksy said this about it;

    “People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you.
    You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity.
    Fuck that. Any advert in a public space that gives you no choice whether you see it or not is yours. It’s yours to take, re-arrange and re-use. You can do whatever you like with it. Asking for permission is like asking to keep a rock someone just threw at your head.
    You owe the companies nothing. Less than nothing, you especially don’t owe them any courtesy. They owe you. They have re-arranged the world to put themselves in front of you. They never asked for your permission, don’t even start asking for theirs.”

    1. I find it bizarre that direct-to-consumer advertising of prescription drugs is allowed in the US, but pretty much nowhere else, because there it’s considered protected free speech.

      1. What about the videos on YouTube that have been taken down for ‘false or misleading information’ regarding covid, from doctors too I might add, were people simply voiced their opinion about it? Is this the same free speech that corporations have? It’s akin to burning books by the Nazis. Free speech as long as you are speaking about the same thing as us

  8. I agree with you about the ceo cap, the wage factor needs to go from top to bottom.
    I dislike the idea of the two telecom companies merging. Question, when I am upset with the service where do I go? If they merge we will be stuck on paying their prices leaving the consumer without any recourse.
    Essential services should not be there to make a profit. What they need is adequate funding to function properly. Too many times when it is time to table a budget they are one of a few who see cuts.

    1. Yeah, the lack of telecom options is not good. I can see that it’s expensive to create infrastructure across our big country, but there’s got to be a better way.

      It would be nice to see more money go to preventative care and early intervention. Waiting until things are urgent seems likely to cost the system more in the long run.

        1. I was very happy to switch from one to the other a couple years ago. So much for that, I suppose. But like you, I really hope it doesn’t go through.

  9. Agree with your thoughts entirely. Keep capitalism but control the abuses. Rein in corporate profits and salaries. It’s gross how much Bezos made last year off pandemic buying while Amazon workers don’t even get pee breaks. And we need A better healthcare system for sure.

    And people who can’t control their spending don’t get sympathy from me or my Corolla!

  10. I’m with you Ashley! I think many people take ‘freebies’ like our NHS or benefits system for granted. They may be free at point of access but we’re all paying for it one way or another.

    Some people say I’m lucky to have got my NHS Pension because I was medically retired but where’s the ‘luck’ in that? I paid into that Pension Scheme for many years at what seemed like extortion at the time — but now, I’m so glad I did!

    I had patients many years ago saying that if I ended up in hospital due to my smoking habits (I’ve stopped 6 months now) I’d cost the NHS a fortune. What I didn’t yell at them was that my smoking over the years paid a lot of taxes – 89% on a pack of 20 cigs – I’d paid my dues. My sons (both have worked for the NHS) researched this and said that although they disagreed with me smoking, I’d paid more than enough for any care I might need. They hadn’t even thought of that either!

    What I’m saying is that nothing’s for free. It’s paid for in one way or another – sometimes at other’s expense.

  11. I like your idea of putting a cap on the RATIO between CEO earnings and those of low or mid wage earners. I don’t know much about economics either, but I don’t see why that wouldn’t provide incentive for wage payers to bear fairness in mind.

    1. I just found this article: https://inequality.org/great-divide/democrats-ceo-worker-pay-cap/

      It looks like there was at least talk of something like this attached to COVID bailout money. Republicans had different ideas, though, and I love this quote: “Saying you’re going to limit CEO pay at bailed-out corporations and then merely proposing to freeze that pay at pre-virus levels is like chasing burglars out of your house and then calling them an Uber for their getaway.”

      1. That was March 2020 and so fairly recently. It’s possible a bill like this can prevail. Weird that Republicans claiming to come from an ideological stance of wanting to “narrow the gap” would come up with such a non–solution.

  12. This is an interesting question for me because I work for a company that sells consumer products. I earn a living from consumers purchasing material goods.

    For me, the products need to comply with the relevant regulations, be safe for normal use and of a quality that is reasonable for the price. The advertising for the product should not be false or deceptive. I’m also very supportive of continuing pro bono legal and consumer protection education to educate consumers on their rights. I have to credit fellow blogger ShiraDest for her many excellent posts on this subject (https://shiradest.wordpress.com/2021/03/11/thoughtful-thursdays-stayed-on-freedom-with-the-call-of-freedom-and-continuing-legal-and-financial-education/) It’s just disgusting how some scammy companies take advantage of desperate people.

    I’m not opposed to wealth caps or limits on the ratio of top earners to bottom earners, but I’m also not convinced this would actually result in any real change. I just feel like companies will find some loophole around it, whether it’s compensation to top execs in stock or via their charitable foundation tax shelters, reclassifying workers as contractors or something to manipulate the ratio, outsourcing overseas, etc. Maybe I’m cynical, but I just think the mega-rich CEOs will find some way to weasel out.

    Consumers do have power. Sustainability is so big right now, we actually run into supply chain issues trying to source packaging components made with post-consumer recycled content. My company would love to use PCR in more of our products but we struggle to find a reliable source.

    1. That’s a good point about companies finding loopholes for executive compensation.

      It’s disturbing how scammers will take advantage of fear. At my local grocery store there’s a sign by the gift cards saying that government agencies will never ask for payment in gift cards. There’s the same kind of notice on government websites. Yet the scammers play into fear, and everything else goes out the window.

  13. I’m left. Lefter than you, I think, which is odd. Convention says I should drift more centre and right as I age. Corporations are a big problem. Remunerations of top earners for sure, but also their flagrant disregard of economics when it suits them, and the ongoing government support for that reality, especially from those who scream “let the market decide.”. Corporations exclude property rights and responsibilities and costs, for the most part. It is a huge problem now.

    I’m not convinced we’re emotionally mature enough or smart enough for capitalism.

    1. What’s the alternative, though? That’s what I’m stuck on conceptually. I’ll always vote NDP or Green in BC, but socialism taken to the extreme of communism hasn’t worked, and I don’t think it ever would work because it would require people to extra-smart and emotionally mature. I don’t know what the answer is when the average person is a doofus and there are a substantial number of greedy, power-hungry people. We’re too messed up for our own good.

      1. The thing with socialism or communism is they’ve never actually been tried. Mostly, the real world examples are dictatorships.

        Party politics are a whole other kettle of wax/ball of fish. Representation issues, the need for term limits, and so on.

        The thing that really amuses me is that all the corruption and greed and immorality and amorality is all so they can “win.” Get the most toys, end up with the biggest pile of money.

        So what? They’re still as dead as the poorest. Only they lived a graceless and unethical life. Their original obits may flatter: history will not be kind.

        We are definitely not as good as we could be.

  14. Well said! I’ve personally been considering taking an ad off my podcast, as I hate hearing ads when I listen to podcasts. What are your thoughts on that?

    1. I think people are used to seeing/hearing ads, and a small amount of advertising probably isn’t going to disrupt the user experience much.

  15. I somehow agree with your point about companies not willing to change without external constraints. But we whould be careful on relying too much on individual responsibilities. If there are no alternatives or people just cannot affort to pay the premium for sustainable products (poverty for ex.), we cannot blame them for not acting right. So yes, we need governments laws and citizen movements.

    1. Yes, poverty absolutely takes away the element of choice in consumption, because the focus becomes meeting basic needs. Governments and social service organizations are definitely needed to address that.

      But in terms of the free market, I would suspect that corporations are adapting their behaviours based more on the the demand from those who have a certain level of disposable income. It seems to me that behaviour change by consumers with that level of disposable income would create increased demanded for sustainable products, and competition to meet that demand would bring down prices, which in turn would make those sustainable goods more accessible to those with minimal disposable income. With electric vehicles, for example, it seems like we’re getting closer to a point where there is sufficient demand that prices will come down to a point where they’re accessible to consumers who would otherwise have only had the means to access non-sustainable options.

      As for those who can’t afford to purchase a vehicle, full stop, they’re not influencing car manufacturer behaviour regardless, and that’s where governments need to ensure there are public transportation options that are universally accessible.

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