Black Friday – A History

blackfridayBitching about Black Friday is like slapping Satan – nobody’s going to tell you to stop.  You can call Black Friday everything but nice, and not one person on this planet is going to say, “Hey!  Watch your mouth, you insensitive bastard!”  It’s weird, but the highest High Holy Day of our consumer culture has absolutely no cheerleaders.  Yet, even as you read this, millions of people all over the world are kicking each other out of the way to get at tech toys they don’t really need.  (Notice Black Friday never includes food.)

So, rather than rip Black Friday a new one (like everybody else) I’ve decided to offer a history lesson.  This is how Josiah Wedgewood invented our consumer culture and with it Black Friday.  (Originally written in 2012 and gently edited for 2019.)

Today is Black Friday.  It’s the day when half of America (and a lot of the world) lines up for hours, searching for an incredible bargain, and the other half waits impatiently to sell it to them.  To some, this is the seed of greed; to others, it’s capitalism at its finest.  Regardless, unless you flunked math, history and economics in high school, you know that without our much-maligned consumer society, our world would look markedly different from what you see out your window.  And most of us would have neither the energy nor the leisure to wax critical on the whole process.  However, did you ever wonder why people buy so much useless junk and literally kick other people out of the way to get at it?  The answer’s quite simple, really: Josiah Wedgwood had smallpox — and survived.

History does not always run on big events.  For example, one of the reasons Drake, Hawkins and the rest of Elizabeth I’s Seadogs kicked the snot out of the Spanish Armada in 1588 is their cannons were shorter.  Thus, they could reload faster and, therefore, held superior firepower over their Catholic adversaries.  A much overlooked detail, to be sure, but absolutely critical to the history of Europe and the world.

Likewise, Josiah Wedgewood’s bout with smallpox as a child, insignificant as it might be, was a decisive event that changed human history.  When Josiah recovered, he was apprenticed to his elder brother as a potter, but because his legs were still weak from his illness (a condition that lasted his entire life) he couldn’t work the foot-powered potter’s wheel for long periods.  Thus, he spent more time designing pottery, working with glazes and selling his wares than he did actually making them.  Unhitched from the daily grind of producing pottery, Josiah had time to figure out how to effectively sell it.

The story is long and quite complicated, but here is the gist of it.  Josiah’s business career coincides with the early rumblings of the Industrial Revolution.  James Watt’s steam engine was putting people power out of business and creating a whole new class of folks unfettered from the land.  This new urban class of managers, foremen, clerks, artisans etc. etc. were stuck in the “middle” — between the obscenely rich aristocrats and entrepreneurs and the virtual slaves from the mines and the factory floors.  Plus, unlike their parents, who had been practically self-sufficient, without land, this new “middle” class had to buy every necessity of life rather than produce it for themselves.  Essentially, Josiah’s pottery works had been handed a huge new consumer demographic that nobody had seen before.

Obviously, all these new people moving into the urban centres of Britain needed plates, cups, jugs etc. but that’s just the nuts and bolts part of the story.  What separates Josiah Wedgwood from every other guy with a lump of clay was his understanding of the market.  He realized that this new middle class was not living hand to mouth.  They had a modicum of leisure time and disposable income.  He also saw that they were willing to use this income to distinguish themselves from the poorer urban masses.  More importantly, even though they didn’t really have the coin for it, they wanted to emulate the social superiority of wealthy aristocrats and the new-fashioned nabobs of trade and industry.  Josiah simply thought outside the 18th century box and cashed in on this middle class social climbing.

Basically what he did was create unique pieces for his wealthier clients — and then mass produce less expensive knockoffs for everybody else.  Suddenly Harvey and Maud, the uppity couple from Pembroke Lane, could eat off plates and saucers just like King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte.  Wedgwood even called it “Queen’s Ware.”  His Jasperware was elegant, expensive and exclusive, but anybody with enough shillings could afford a posh replica.  Plus, Wedgwood treated his clients as if they were upper class, by bringing the marketing tools of the aristocracy down to the middle class.  He used illustrated catalogues just like exclusive art dealers.  He had salesman who came to your home, written guarantees and free delivery.  Not only that, but he also produced objects of art.  Before Wedgwood objets d’art were the exclusive province of the upper class who could afford to squander money on trinkets and antiquities.  After Wedgwood, everybody had household ornaments.  He made Etruscan busts and Grecian urns that were well within the price range of even the most modest home.  The thriving middle class, striving to keep up appearances, bought this stuff by the wagon load.  Even today, his powder blue and ivory white Greek motif plates are recognized around the world, and many of us have these useless pieces cluttering up our shelves and coffee tables.

Josiah Wedgwood was the first person to sell the sizzle instead of the steak and make you pay for the garnish.  He understood how the middle class ego worked and, frankly, it hasn’t changed in over 200 years.  Those people who lined up this morning for the 80 inch television set aren’t buying solid walls of entertainment; they’re buying a physical expression of their success.  By recognizing this need and filling it, Josiah Wedgwood single-handedly create our consumer society in the late 18th century.  It’s been going strong ever since.  Today’s madness at Target, Best Buy and Walmart is just the latest incarnation of two centuries of marketing.

4/20: A Capitalist’s Dream

grassOnce again, the world has survived 4/20.  Despite dire warnings, our civilization didn’t collapse in a hail of exhaled smoke last Saturday, Bob Marley didn’t rise from the dead and Satan isn’t rolling a FatBoy (or whatever they’re called these days) on a throne of broken skulls and pure evil.  However, even as the suburban kids and the 60s-going-on-70s grey hairs are putting away their inner Jesse James for another year, I’m struck by just how bourgeois the once mighty marijuana counterculture has become.  The telling feature is the 4/20 inner circle password isn’t exactly secret anymore.  It’s so seriously mainstream, it wears Mom jeans, drives a Prius and has a bad boy Celtic knot tattoo.  There’s something just a little sorry about the gangstas at the annual 4/20 rally covering their faces with bandanas to avoid corporate disapproval rather than prosecution.  Of course, these days, smoking dope is tantamount to breaking Dad’s ten o’clock curfew rule.  The cops really don’t care who smokes what anymore (tobacco has more prohibitions) and unless you combine your recreational drug use with kidnapping and/or arson it’s practically impossible to get arrested.

There’s no real harm in the solid middle class playing one-day-a-year outlaw on April 20th: knock yourself out!  However, ever since high school, I’ve thought it was hilarious that these bad-to-the-bone counterculturists are missing the one great irony.  The world of marijuana is, in fact, the last bastion of radical right-wing laissez-faire capitalism — and it works.

I don’t think anybody needs a primer on capitalism; it’s been the bogeyman since Western youth got the two Lennons (Lenin?) mixed up — back in 1965.  It’s the system that sophomores love to hate.  However, many of the same people who wouldn’t be caught dead endorsing the free market have been indulging in it up to their rolling papers for at least three generations now.  Let’s take a look, shall we?

Marijuana is a huge international commodity.  Yet unlike all other agricultural products on this planet, it is devoid of government interference, intervention and/or regulation.  There are simply no governmental rules set up for the cultivation and sale of marijuana.  Therefore, there are no agricultural subsidies, no marketing boards, no tariff barriers, no packaging regulation and no other bureaucratic etceteras getting in the way of the dedicated business person.  In fact, as a commodity, the marijuana industry is governed, in its entirety, by the free market forces of supply and demand.  Not only that, but the price and profits of the industry are completely controlled by how efficiently the marijuana entrepreneur brings his product to market and how 4/20 at the University of Coloradoeffectively he handles his (or her) competition.  But wait: there’s more!  Taxation, the Holy Grail of all left-wing social planners and the bane of all free marketers is – OMG! — nonexistent.  The marijuana entrepreneur is not forced to share his profits with anyone.  If all this isn’t greedy bastard capitalism at its very best, I don’t know what is!

Now, here’s the kicker: not only has the marijuana industry survived for these many decades without government intervention, it has thrived.  The retail price has remained relatively low, the profit margins have remained relatively high and the market is stable.  Plus, at a time when the entire world is playing chicken with economic collapse, marijuana remains a growth industry.   Looks to me as if there’s some pretty convincing empirical evidence that, in fact, capitalism works.

So for all those “capitalism is worse than crap” wannabe economists out there: you might want to take a closer look before you run your mouth.  And for all those “I’m so baaad” middle-class muffins praying for the legalization of marijuana: careful what you wish for.  Once the government gets a hold of 4/20, the price will go up, the quality will go down and they’ll probably turn it into (3X – 2)/(6X + 8) — just to complicate things!

The Tale of the Bulgarians’ Levis

Bulgarians not exactly as shown

Many years ago, when there was still an Iron Curtain and most thinking people were very much aware of Brezhnev’s missiles, I met a Bulgarian (several of them, actually.)  He was on a cultural exchange program to America with some other bureaucrats and a phalanx of stoic minders who loomed large getting off the plane.  Several people and I were supposed to show our Communist visitors the wonders of the West — without pissing off the minders, who looked like they weren’t about to be trifled with.Before we go any further, you must understand I was never a diplomat.  The only reason I was even there is the guy from the Chamber of Commerce, who was one of the hosts, blew out his appendix the night before.  I was a serious third-string, emergency replacement, so my Bulgarian was young and nobody special, and his minders were definitely not members of the A Team.

We were given a list of “approved” places to take our new friends, but after the first morning of dull and boring, I thought “What the hell!  I’ve got a week off, a pocket full of government money and I’m driving.”  So we broke away from the group and went to Eddie Basha’s grocery store for Pepsi and Doritos.  It’s amazing how quickly solid walls of sugar and sodium can thaw a Cold War.  It was as if I’d given mis nuevos amigos the keys to snack food heaven, and they were going to stock up before it was all gone.  I had to explain to them — more than once — that we could come back tomorrow and get more.  They didn’t believe me.  Even at the end of the week, after we’d been shopping many times, I’m sure they still thought it was all a capitalist scam that they’d been clever enough to take advantage of.  Anyway, on the first day, we ended up with Camel cigarettes, Miller beer, a bag of assorted candy bars, pantyhose, and band aids, and three boxes of Froot Loops™.  From then on, the four of us got along famously.  Every morning, we’d follow the group to the designated snooze fest, and every afternoon we’d mysteriously get lost.  As long as they were back at the hotel in time for the nightly “We’re all friends here” reception, nobody seem to care.  I don’t think the folks running the show realized that the two minders were in on the plot.  My Bulgarians found the America that never makes it into the Anti-American Instruction Manual, including a video arcade, Go Kart Racing, Whataburger and a trip to the barrio for authentic chicken, chitlins and greens, courtesy of my friend Sam who had filial connections to the street gang that ran things down there.  All things considered, I think my guys quite liked the Land of Milk and Money.  They certainly got comfortable enough to laugh at the Wild West’s attempts at culture and make fun of the beer.  They maintained that someone drank it first — before Miller put it in the bottle.  I, for my part, genuinely liked those guys, had a great time, and even in the full flush of arrogant youth learned a little bit about how wrong I was about life on the Black Sea of communism.  The only discordant note was when it got to be good-bye time and everyone was getting on the plane.  Suddenly, the more senior minders stopped everything and made a big show of taking away the blue jeans I’d helped my buddies buy.  My Bulgarians dutifully gave up their prize possessions.  Interestingly, in all the huffing and puffing, nobody but me wanted to notice that the mucky-muck babysitters weren’t making them leave those Levis in the decadent West; they were confiscating them.  It was a sad reminder that no matter how much sugar coating you sometimes get, real life eventually intervenes.

Of course, the moral of the story should be that even the most antagonistic strangers are just one box of Froot Loops™ away from being friends, but it isn’t.  It’s a lot deeper than that hackneyed homily.  The real moral is that the world is full of self-righteous bastards who, given an opportunity, will use their power to steal our metaphorical Levis or anything else they can get their mitts on.  They are the most dangerous among us because they have convinced us that they do this in the name of some esoteric common good.  I learned a valuable lesson that day at the airport.  Capitalism may very well be a brutal system that allows man’s exploitation of his fellow man, but under communism, the opposite is true. At least we get to keep our Levis.