The potlatch spirit

Just in the past week, I’ve noticed a significant increase in nasty driving during the evening commute. More drivers are abruptly changing lanes, often multiple times, and speeding into tight gaps. The time they gain from this is negligible, and they contribute to traffic congestion, as I discussed in an earlier post. I think this is a result of the start of the Season of Good Will.

People are trained to talk about “commercialism” when they discuss this sort of behavior, but that explains nothing. Commuters are traveling to businesses to make money, and that’s as commercial as anything gets. The problem with the shoppers isn’t that they’re buying things, but the reason they buy the way they do.

Some North American tribes had a custom called potlatch, in which people with high status would go wild giving gifts to raise or maintain their rank. In popular legend, this sometimes led to gift-giving feuds in which the loser would go broke. Christmas has become a nationwide potlatch, in which people buy expensive gifts out of obligation rather than good will. As Tom Lehrer put it, “It doesn’t matter how sincere it / Is, nor how heartfelt the spirit. / Sentiment will not endear it, / What’s important is the price.”

When people are on a mission to spend lots of money because it’s demanded of them, they aren’t going to think well of other people. If they’re thinking of what they’ll get in return, they know a lot of it will be expensive junk they’ll have to return or stick in the closet. This isn’t commerce, it’s stupidity, and it makes them think of everyone else who’s out doing the same thing as enemies. Some of them take it out on anyone else who’s on the road.

I’ve opted out of the whole thing, and my friends know it. I neither expect nor give Christmas presents; when I give gifts, it’s to the people I want to do something for, at a time which works for us. On December 25, I celebrate Newton’s birthday. Letting the Christians have Christmas back, as long as they don’t try to impose it on the rest of us, may not be such a bad idea.

I learned about them from the NSA

If it weren’t for the NSA, I might never have learned about Liberty Maniacs. An article on Salon reports that the NSA issued a takedown notice to Zazzle against a Liberty Maniacs shirt which mocks the agency. It’s no longer available on Zazzle, but Liberty Maniacs has lots of amusing merchandise on Cafe Press. I’ve just ordered a couple of shirts, including the NSA one.
T-shirt image with mock NSA logo and 'The only part of the government that actually listens'
Don’t expect deep or fully consistent philosophy there. It’s simply a shop where, if you value liberty and free thought, you may find some clothes, stickers, and posters you like. I can’t say anything yet about the quality of the service or products, but I hope both will be good. Order while you still can.

Thanks for making them known to a wider audience, NSA.

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Buy local?

When I visit a town and see “Buy local” signs in the stores, I’m vaguely amused. They’re telling me, if I take them seriously, I shouldn’t shop there but should wait till I go home. “Buy local” is a zero-sum game. My local business is most people’s out-of-town shop.

Why should I make a special effort to “buy local,” anyway? Are the shops in my home town more virtuous than in yours? Not that I’ve noticed. Does buying local mean more jobs and more money coming back around to me? It’s an extremely attenuated effect at best.

“Buy Local” usually means to buy at small locally owned shops, not at local shops that are part of big chains or franchises. But both bring employment, and big chains may hire more people than a small shop on a shoestring budget. When I buy at a chain store, that doesn’t mean money is leaking out of my town. Money goes out, but it also comes in. Local stores also send money out of town, unless they’re selling strictly home-grown and homemade goods, have locally made furnishings, deposit their money in a local bank, etc. If they have to pay higher wholesale prices because they’re small (and pass the costs on to you), then they’re actually sending more money out of town.

Sometimes I’d rather deal with a particular business even if I have to pay higher prices. I might like the people who run it and the service they provide, or I might admire what they do outside their dealings with me. I might just not like the big store, if they’ve been spamming me or otherwise acting obnoxious. But this has nothing to do with whether they’re local or not. A lot of my favorite vendors are websites based in distant places.

There are cases where favoring a local shop makes sense. If there’s a business nearby which offers something that’s otherwise hard to find, then I’ll make a point of buying there even in cases where I don’t have to. For instance, decent bookstores are hard to find around Nashua (Barnes and who? The ones who sent me 300 pieces of spam email?), so I make trips to the Toadstool Bookshop in Milford, NH, fairly often. I like having a place not too far from home where I can browse through real, dead-tree books. The point isn’t that it’s local, but that it’s a unique value which I want to keep. My own purchases don’t really do a lot for them, but my recommendations and their ripple effects might. Saying “Shop there because it’s a good store to have around” is a lot more convincing than “Shop there because it’s local to you.”