The Madness of the New

A German diesel carI probably didn’t buy my car from the most reputable salesman. He wore silver dice cufflinks, had a shirt that was so crisp with starch that the collar tips could be used to gouge someone’s eyes out, and had enough mousse in his hair to keep Vidal Sassoon in profit for a year. But beyond this, there was an aspect to his countenance which I simply could not trust: perhaps it was the insincere sincerity in his tone of voice or the false “hail fellow well met” demeanour. I could not shake the sense that there was something exploitative in every word he said.

Fortunately for him, the used car I bought sold itself: it gets 600 miles on a full tank of diesel, it’s modest, and it’s adequately comfortable. I thought I was getting it at a reasonable, if somewhat inflated price. Then less than 4 months later the brakes gave in; I had a panicked moment when the car juddered rather than glided to a halt. When I took it in for servicing afterward, I found out that the cam belt needed to be replaced. There was also a leak that needed to be remedied, and the tyres barely passed the annual inspection: I had to replace all four. To add insult to injury, this past January, the battery died completely. All told, fixing its issues cost me more than 15% of its purchase value within the first 16 months of ownership. It’s worth mentioning that I wasn’t some idle sucker who wandered into a dodgy dealership off a dirt track; this was purchased from an official outpost of the Volkswagen Group.

My “friend” who sold me the car sent a letter and left a telephone message inviting me for a coffee at the dealership. I ignored these invitations as I didn’t really have anything to say, or rather, nothing pleasant. However I was bemused when I received a phone call from his colleague yesterday.

“Hello, am I speaking to Mr….”

“Yes,” I replied.

“Uh, yeah, this is Phil,” he continued, “I’m calling from Volkswagen Audi Finance.”

“Oh no,” I thought, “the last payment didn’t get through?”

“What can I do for you?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said, “well you’re about halfway through paying for the car.”

“Don’t remind me,” I thought. The interest rate I’d been charged would be enough to make an investment banker blush.

“Yes,” I replied.

“We was wondering if you’d like to come down to the dealership to talk about buying a new one.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“There’s never been a better time to buy a replacement.”

“I’m not interested.”

“What?”

“I’m not interested. I am very happy with my car as it is, and I just want to pay it off.”

“Well…”

“Is there anything else?”

“No…”

“Bye.”

I allowed myself to fume quietly for a minute or two. The nerve: I didn’t accept that they didn’t know my history with them. All they had to do was look up the car in their database and see the various repair bills I had paid: nearly all the fixes had been done at the dealership in order to preserve its service history and value. They also knew my profession and that I worked in academia, yet they sent a salesman who couldn’t even string two coherent sentences together to try and swindle me again. In short, they expected me to be gullible, stupid and greedy.

However, I realise that I haven’t been singled out. The entire economy is now based on the idea that we, the people, are gullible, stupid and greedy; for example, the British government is trying to get people to buy new cars by offering a £2000 bonus. It was said on BBC News this morning that the Japanese government is also trying cash incentives to get consumers to spend more. Much of the focus of economic policy has been to try and get the interbank lending rate down (known as LIBOR) so that credit will flow freely again, and that people will consume more; according to the Economist, LIBOR is down to pre-crisis levels. Employment depends on it, mortgages depend on it, pensions depend on it: more, more, more.

Fortunately, in some instances, the consumer isn’t playing ball. The item on the BBC suggested that Japanese consumers, once handed extra cash, stashed it away. Some governments don’t play ball either: the Norwegian government took much of its oil revenues during the long boom and saved it for hard times like these, in order to guarantee public services and employment. However these are small obstacles standing against the torrential flow of consumerism, and is indicative of perhaps the most depressing aspect of the present crisis: most policy makers have learned absolutely nothing.

When the population was smaller and the world seemed a much larger place due to the difficulties of travelling distances, it was possible, even rational, to assume that an economy based on limitless consumption was possible. Coal was just lying around in some parts of the United Kingdom. Some soils were fertile enough for food crops to sprout up like weeds. One could poke a shovel into a hole in Texas and find oil. However, now we should know better: limitless consumption is not possible in a world of finite resources. In a scenario in which our population is increasing, we are pushing nature to breaking point. We are getting tell tale signs that this is happening from phenomena like peak oil: for example, British North Sea Oil production peaked in 1999 and has been in decline ever since. Similarly, there is a limit to arable land, and thus food production. There are also constraints on the amount of ore that can be extracted from the earth. Yet few want to believe, let alone accept these basic facts of life. My friends the car salesmen are part of the myth industry that whispers in one’s ear, “Come on, you deserve a little more luxury, you deserve something new. Don’t worry about tomorrow, worry about today. Throw away the old.”

However there is no rational reason for me to throw away the old. My father had a German diesel car that lasted over 1 million miles. Mine is nowhere near that and after all the trauma of sorting its issues, is now running well; it also will work with biodiesel, if necessary. Additionally, I can repair old clothes. I can fix and polish old furniture. I can mend the sink or the shower. Unless something actually breaks beyond all repair, I don’t need self-indulgence, but it is precisely self-indulgence that many governments want to restore. Very few, if any, have had the courage to say that the way we live now is madness and it has to stop for all our sakes. I truly am afraid that because of this reluctance, we may experience a bit of temporary relief in terms of economic recovery, but the long term prognosis has darkened. President Obama has reminded us that the Chinese terms for “crisis” and “opportunity” are interrelated; the lack of willingness to eliminate the madness of the new means the crisis may be being wasted.

The sole sliver of light amidst the gloom may emanate from the fact that there are people like the Japanese, Norwegians and to a lesser extent, the Germans, who simply don’t want to fall into line. So long as there are people successfully saying “No”, then the victory of consumer culture is not entirely assured. Furthermore, the near-collapse of political culture in Britain is opening the door for alternative voices and ideas to be heard, including those who don’t much care for the present orthodoxy. I don’t expect that these changes will prevent the dealership from calling me again, or dumping more junk mail in my letterbox; however, perhaps we’re moving into an era when that will be less acceptable.

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