Friday, April 3, 2015

What do Pet Rocks and handbags made from frog and anaconda skin have in common?

By Marc Jampole

Would you pay $17.23 for a smooth gray-colored stone that could fit in your hand, something you could find at almost any municipal park for free? That’s the equivalent value in today’s money of what people paid for Pet Rocks in 1975. Of course, it came with a 32 page manual full of puns and jokes about the rock.

Around the Christmas season in 1975, the Pet Rock first became a media sensation, covered in newspapers and TV news shows all over the country, and then a marketing fad as 1.5 million people plunked down $3.95 (plus tax, I assume) to buy one—for what purpose remains a mystery. Gag gifts? Funny party favors? Conversation starters? Because neighbors bought one for their grandchild? Unlike their later incarnation in virtual pets, which needed to be “fed” and “cleaned” on a regular basis, the Pet Rock did nothing and demanded no interaction. It just sat there, looking smooth.

Pet Rocks are in the news again—briefly—because their creator, a formerly ne’er-do-well advertising writer named Gary Dahl, has died.  

The Pet Rock came out during a time of abundance when we had an historically large middle class and the smallest gap between the wealthy and the poor in terms of wealth and income in American history.  In 1975, someone making the federal minimum wage of $2.10 would have to work 1.88 hours to buy one, net of all taxes. The Pet Rock still sells today, but inflation has driven the cost for one up to $19.95, which means that net of taxes, it takes someone earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 about 2.75 hours to pay for one. Interestingly enough, someone earning the median household income in both 1975 and today would both work about 47.5 minutes to pay for a Pet Rock, again net of taxes. (The median is the point at which half the population is higher and half lower.)

If someone ran me through a word association test and mentioned the Pet Rock, the words that might come to mind are useless, frivolous, wasteful, stupid. It represents the frothy extreme of American consumerism—something you can find anywhere for free and yet you buy it. The Pet Rock takes to an absurd extreme the branding strategy by which you slap a catchy or famous name onto a cheap product and jack up the price. The messages behind the name supposedly imbue the product with greater worth—at least to unsavvy consumers, a category that seems to include many of us. In the case of the Pet Rock, the entire value is in the brand name, except for those who use their Pet Rocks for door stops or to keep their papers from flying around when the window is opened.

Coincidentally, the same day the news media reported the death of Mr. Pet Rock, it also told us that Carlos Falchi, a designer of exotic handbags, also met his demise. Falchi first made his name in the 1970’s and 1980’s selling exotic handbags patched together from the bits of skins of wild animals—the list of his raw material in the NewYork Times obituary includes pieces of alligators, anacondas, anteaters, buffalo, caiman, crocodiles and frogs, among others. Falchi handbags sell for thousands of dollars at upscale department stores, but you can get cheaper versions from $20 to $300 on the Home Shopping Network or at Target.

The question of how a $30 bag differs from the $5,000 bag involves a lot of variables, including materials. One Amazon seller is currently offering a bag for $16.95 made of nylon and faux snakeskin; another has one of the same material for $89.99. Meanwhile, Nieman Marcus is selling a bag made of python and leather for $1,155.  Most women and many men think they need handbags, and Falchi has a version for everyone, no matter how much money they earn. In fact, once you buy into the ideology of branding, buying a Falchi for around $20 is an enormous value, because you’re toting what the rich folk tote.

The brand-name fashion item thus becomes a social leveler of a peculiar sorts—it doesn’t level economic or social differences, just brand buying patterns. Mick Jagger, Miles Davis and Andy Warhol carried Falchi bags and so can the working Jane or Joe watching the Shopping Network. Celebrity worship, which usually involves a preoccupation with what a celebrity buys and uses,  serves as a means to lessen the perceived difference between rich and poor, thus helping to preserve social order.

But whatever price one pays for a Falchi, it costs more than it would without the fame of the Falchi name, without the back story of his creating custom hand-sewn bags for cool people. I don’t know it for a fact, but I’m extremely confident that the brand value of the Falchi name and myth adds much more to the cost of the expensive bags than the entire price of the Pet Rock.  I’m also confident that the cost to make the cheap bags is about the same as the cost to find and package the Pet Rock, and that both represent a small fraction of the sales price.

Thus Gary Dahl and the Carlos Falchi ( at least the one who expanded beyond making bags by himself for a handful of customers) were running the same exact scam, but on different audiences. Dahl went for the mass market and Falchi went for the wealthy, but both used the name to jack up the price beyond the value of the materials and labor needed to assemble the product. One could argue that the added value consisted of creativity, in the case of Dahl, his humor, and in the case of Falchi, his designs and selection of materials. But by the time the products rolled out in department stores, all this value had been reduced to the exhortation of a name: buy the smooth gray stone rock because of the name; buy the bag because of the name.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

We learn same old lesson from Indiana law that claims to protect religious rights: Money talks

By Marc Jampole

When did the fight about religious liberty change from protecting the right to practice in private to asserting a right to impose a religious practice on a public space?

It’s a rhetorical question, because history tells us that for at least 200 years the religious rightwing has always wanted to impose Christianity on American society, just like radical Muslims want to impose a conservative version of Islam on civil societies across the Middle East.  We know that the America’s religious rightwing has become more pushy over the past 35 years as it has become more politically powerful—thanks to a deal to join forces with those who support the economic interests of the wealthy. The campaign against the war on Christmas, the many state laws trying to restrict a woman’s reproductive rights, the demands that the state pay for religious education through voucher programs, the demonizing of Michael Schiavo and passage of “Terri Schiavo” laws—these are some of the steps that the Christian right has taken to impose its religious values on the rest of the country.  

But we do live in a secular society and sometimes the religious right pushes too far.

The mainstream of business leaders, pundits, politicians and media have joined progressives in believing the new Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act allows business to discriminate against LGBT individuals and couples. Indiana Governor Mike Pence and other conservative supporters of the new law believe that it merely protects religious people and the organizations they control from having to take actions against their religious beliefs.

It sounds like a face-off between two rights, each with equal standing, but it’s really not. There is no right to refuse to sell goods or services to anyone because you don’t approve of their private actions.  Many people who support the law—Pence, the Wall Street Journal, Jeb Bush—insist that it won’t enable discrimination against LGBT, although the comments of Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and Scott Walker all suggest that they don’t care about gay rights as long as religious rights are preserved.

An analysis of what the law means on the level of day-to-day actions reveals that at its heart, it represents an imposition of religion on civil society. Let’s start by all the real-world actions that the law might protect: Private worship in the home? Other laws protect that. The right to display religious imagery on one’s own property? Other laws protect that. The right to gather with others of like mind and pray or philosophize together? Other laws protect that. So why did we need this law if not to enable individuals and corporations to act out their beliefs in ways that do impinge on others?  

Supporters of the law have yet to name one additional action not allowed previously that religious individuals and the organizations they control will now be able because of the new law.

Keep in mind that many businesses can quietly refuse to serve anyone, although as the recent case of Macy’s discriminating against blacks in New York City, you have to be pretty subtle about it. Take everyone’s favorite example of the florist or photographer who doesn’t want to work a same-sex wedding. A vendor can claim to be “too busy, jack up the price or market the business solely through religious vehicles such as the local Christian business directories. As long as no one discovers a pattern of discrimination, the vendor—be it florist, landlord or adoption agency—could always get away with it.  If the interpretation of most in the mainstream and on the left is correct—and I think it is—the new law would enable these vendors to take their discriminatory attitudes out of the closet and explicitly tell LGBT people why they won’t serve them. 

Thus, when we reduce the lofty words about religious freedom to specific actions, we can only conclude that either the law is unnecessary or that those supporting it do want to give people and corporations the right to refuse service to others because of a difference in religious practice.

Even as the Indiana governor and legislators raise a hue and cry about the hue and cry everyone else has raised about this ill-conceived law, they are nevertheless acting swiftly to amend it to make certain that no one can hide behind it to discriminate.

The reason for this rear guard action is money: They fear that businesses will take theirs away from the state. In the few days since the Indiana legislature passed and Pence signed the law, large employers in Indiana and all over the country have protested loudly. Indianapolis-based Angie’s List has canceled a $40 million office expansion. The Gap, Apple and Levi Strauss have all come out against the law, as have the administrations of Indiana and Butler Universities. So has the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which is holding its basketball finals in Indianapolis and has an extensive operation in Indianapolis. Several smaller organizations have already canceled conventions planned for Indiana’s largest city.

Those who believe that the United States is a secular nation should naturally rejoice that the Indiana state legislature is going to fix the new law to make certain no one can use it to discriminate against others in the marketplace. But we should mourn the fact that Indiana’s elected officials are not acting from a sense of right and wrong, but rather reacting to what the moneyed interests want. It reflects the hypocrisy of many of the politicians who follow the classic demagogue playbook in upholding the views of the religious right. Their support is not sincere, but part of a snow job to gain support for economic programs and policy that hurt 99% of the country but help their real employers—the super wealthy.

Once again, in the immortal words of Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Newman, “When money talks, no one listens to the accent.”