Archive for August, 2009

Barack Obombsaway

August 29, 2009

I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen the Obama “Hope” image in a while. A few months ago, it was ubiquitous. And you don’t see many people in Obama t-shirts any more. The reality of Obama’s administration has begun to set in: most of Obama’s policies are not going to be significantly different from Bush’s. Certainly not with regard to the economy; Obama has continued Bush’s policy of giving trillions of dollars to the banks. What’s more, all the screaming and yelling of the tea baggers can’t conceal the fact that Obama’s health care plan really is a terrible plan. The Huffington Post, that nexus of liberal opinion, has said that the plan would be a “windfall” for the insurance companies. These parasitical entities that have caused so much suffering will benefit much more than the American people possibly will. As for the withdrawal of US troops from Iraqi cities, that is simply the fulfillment of an agreement that the Bush administration made with the Iraqi government last year. (Reports are that violence has decreased since. This suggests that we on the left were right in arguing that the occupation has been fueling the violence.)

Those who saw Obama as the “peace” candidate must be scratching their heads right now. It can be argued that Obama is actually more hawkish than Bush. Obama has escalated the war in Afghanistan – something that Bush refused to do. Earlier this summer Obama sent Joe Biden to Ukraine and Georgia, where he made shockingly inflammatory statements. He endorsed Georgia’s bogus claims to Abkhazia and South Ossetia and taunted the Russians. He followed Bush’s line in calling for granting NATO membership to Georgia. This would mean that the next time the Georgians decide to start a war with Russia, we would be obligated to defend them.

Won’t that be fun?

This really shouldn’t surprise us. JFK turned out to be more hawkish than Eisenhower, authorizing the Bay of Pigs invasion and deepening US involvement in Vietnam. Bill Clinton actually carried out more interventions than Reagan and Bush the Elder. It can be argued that, when it comes to foreign policy, liberals are potentially more dangerous than the right. The conservatives have no illusions as to what imperialism is about. Liberals, however, want to believe that they really are bringing enlightenment to the world.

Some More Thoughts on Barnes & Noble

August 21, 2009

Since my last post, I have been thinking some more about my experiences at B&N. One thing that I didn’t talk about was the fact that I had to sell Barnes & Noble “Member” cards. (These were sometimes referred to as “customer advantage” cards, or, more accurately, as discount cards.) The deal was this: the customer would pay $25 for the card (which had to be renewed annually). In return, he or she would get 10% off most items (including cds, dvds, and cafe purchases), 20% off adult hardcovers, and 40% off hardcover bestsellers. So, a person would have to spend as much as $250 in a single year before he or she would begin to come out ahead. Now, there are many people who do spend more than $250 a year on books. However, there are many more people who don’t spend that much (or anywhere near it).

Whenever I was working at the cash register, I was obligated to try to sell, or at the very least mention, the card to every single customer. I felt a bit conflicted about this, since I knew it wasn’t a good deal for most people. Usually I would only do a hard sell if a person was buying a lot of books, or if the person asked about the card. However, management always seemed to be fretting that we weren’t doing enough to sell the cards. We were always having meetings, in which they would discuss the importance of selling the “memberships”. They would outline various strategies for getting customers to buy them. It all got to be a bit wearisome after a while.

The explanation they gave for the card is that it promotes “customer loyalty.” That’s putting it politely. I gradually realized that the card actually entails a subtle psychological persuasion. If somebody forks out $25 for a card, he or she will then feel obligated to spend enough money in order for the real savings to kick in. Otherwise, the person will feel like a chump. P.T. Barnum would have been proud of this.

The psychological persuasion cuts two ways. Every worker wants to believe that he or she is doing a good job, regardless of how that person feels about the nature of his or her work. I really did feel compelled to show management that I could sell the card. I felt proud that I always managed to sell more cards than were required by the company’s mandated quota. I even felt envious of the employees who sold more cards than I did. I know I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. There was a woman I worked with who would get visibly upset if she failed to sell any cards during a shift.

Another thing that bothered me: the cafe workers are paid the same wage as the booksellers, even though their work is more demanding. They aren’t even allowed to have tip jars. (The cafe workers at Borders are allowed to have tip jars.)

Full-time workers get health insurance only after they have worked a certain number of hours. This one woman I worked with injured her leg a few weeks before she would qualify for health insurance. (She had been working there for quite a while.) I remember her limping around the store in obvious physical pain.

Barnes & Noble

August 18, 2009

I recently lost my job at Barnes & Noble after working there part-time for four-and-a-half years. It’s always an odd feeling when you lose a job. It’s as though a part of yourself is suddenly gone.

My fondest memories of working at B&N were the feelings of camaraderie that I often had with my fellow employees. I also enjoyed dealing with the customers (most of them, anyway). Even when people were rude to me, I could often sense that this was the result of difficulties they were having in their lives. (Although I could never forgive people for talking on their cell phones at the same time I was ringing them up.)

Barnes & Noble interests me because it is a perfect example of the trend toward monopolization in capitalism. There used to be lots of small bookstore chains here in the US. (Does anyone remember Paperback Booksmith? They had stores all over the place when I was growing up. Whatever happened to them?) Now there is just Barnes & Noble and Borders (Coke and Pepsi). (B. Dalton is owned by B&N, and Waldenbooks is owned by Borders.) And Borders is rumored to be about to go under at any moment.

I got a sense of B&N’s predatory business practices long before I worked there. Years ago, I worked at the Strand Bookstore in Manhattan. (This was the weirdest place I have ever worked. I could tell lots of stories about it, but I will have to save them for another post.) This store is justly famous for its mind-boggling collection of second-hand, and often obscure, books. While I was there, B&N opened up a huge store a couple of blocks south of the Strand. A few months later, they opened up another huge store just a few blocks north of the Strand.

Gosh, what do you think they were trying to do?

Milton Friedman famously argued that capitalism is about “choice”. Yet capitalism actually narrows our choices. One day you can choose between Barnes & Noble, Borders and a bunch of independent bookstores. The next day you have Barnes & Noble and Borders. Then you have just Barnes & Noble. There’s choice for you!

I must admit that I’m pleased to find that the Strand is still in business, although I must say that when I worked there, they treated their employees very badly. (So much for the “small capitalism” argument.)

During the past year I noticed that B&N has been a lot harder on its employees. No doubt this has something to do with the economic downturn. When things are slow, bosses take it out of their workers’ skin. One day I came in to work, and I was told that a customer had called the store that morning and complained that the night before she had heard me “mumbling”. (I was never told what it was that I was supposedly “mumbling”.) So I was written up for “mumbling”. On another occasion, a manager angrily reprimanded me for washing my hands in the employee break room after clocking out. (I swear, I’m not making this up.)

I once found on the Internet a blog for Barnes & Noble employees. I was delighted. I assumed this was a place where employees would share grievances about the company and perhaps discuss ways they could possibly fight back. To my dismay, I found that, although there was some criticism of management, most of the gripes were about customers. Even worse, many of these complaints were trivial. For example, some bloggers seemed to take great offense that people would sometimes line up in the wrong spot for the cash registers. Well, what do you expect when the registers are surrounded by tables and spinners selling all sorts of knick-knacks? Even Davy Crockett would get lost in such a wilderness. I suppose this is another example of capitalist alienation. Instead of getting mad at your boss who’s screwing you over, you get mad at some poor guy who happens to be standing in the wrong place.