Lighten Up Francis

November 22nd, 2023 No comments


Given the big picture events happening in the world today, this little story probably escaped the notice of most busy people.  Nevertheless, it was significant in its own way and in fact has wider ramifications beyond the actual story.

While the world is caught up in an endless vortex of existential threats through wars, climate catastrophes, medical pandemics, political upheaval, Taylor and Travis, homelessness, soaring debt loads and of course Black Friday issues, the smaller threads in the fabric of life are still meaningful.

The Miss Universe pageant was held recently and as usual, a cacophony of criticism was levelled at the show. The expected criticisms were leveled at the spectacle of being horribly outdated and sexist of course, but accusations of racism are now being leveled against the format as well.  The key thing to remember is….this is a show.

Firstly, we can be somewhat relieved that the winner of this contest was actually a natural woman and in fact, actually a Miss. The fashionable thing of allowing other than natural women to enter contests was thankfully not a consideration….at least not in this year’s iteration.

From an early age, it was always quizzical to observe that the women in these contests were preposterously beautiful.  Most would agree that these women no more represented a nation’s inventory of females than Porsches represented the average car. But it was a show and we all suspend our beliefs for the entertainment value.

But, because of human beings’ natural tribalism, it was important to have a good showing at the contest.  It wasn’t about representation as much as it was about winning.  Like sports contests, the victory of your team oddly reflects a glory unto oneself, thus, you win when your team wins.

This year, the controversy actually surrounded a contestant from Zimbabwe, who was as you’d expect, pretty attractive. The problem was that the contestant, Brooke-Bruk Jackson was white which irked many people because the vast majority of Zimbabweans are black.  Though Miss Jackson was born in Zimbabwe, she apparently doesn’t reflect the people and in fact seen as a symbol of their historical oppression.  As we know, breast beating these days is a global phenomenon.

This is an oddly provincial view since the world aspires to be pushing towards inclusiveness and world kumbaya.  Some may recall that many years ago, way back in 1978, Canada entered a contestant in this same contest who was ethnically Chinese, Andrea Eng. I don’t recall a national outcry at the time; and that was over 40 years ago.

Presumably there were contests within Zimbabwe to narrow down the contestants to the ultimate winner, Miss Jackson and presumably, some of the contestants were black. Should race matter? Should the ultimate winner be determined as a function of demographic statistics?  If so, perhaps the contest can be renamed the Miss Statistical Universe pageant.

If you were to extrapolate this logic, think of all the professions that should also be subject to statistical restrictions.  In a population of citizens, only those who fall under the national quota would be allowed into a profession.  If for example, Indians make up 5% of the population, they cannot be represented by more than that amount in the tech industry.  If blacks are 13% of the population, they cannot represent more than that amount in sports teams.

At the end of it all, who cares what a contest claims?  Do we really think the winner is the most beautiful woman in the universe? Pretty arrogant since all of the contestants are from Earth.

The Price Of Luxury

October 17th, 2023 2 comments


In a famous quote by P.T. Barnum, it was stated that, ““Nobody ever lost a dollar by underestimating the taste of the American public.”  His reference was of course to ‘popular’ acts he featured in his eponymously named circus with partner James Bailey. The baser the acts, the more popular they seemed.  In the day, bearded women, tattooed strong men and morbidly obese people of ambiguous sexuality were unusual curiosities.  Today of course, not so much.

A very similar sentiment was expressed by H.L. Mencken, an American journalist who invoked, “No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

Anyone paying attention to current events would have to concur with the sentiments expressed by these insightful men, so many decades ago since they are confirmed again and again in our own lifetime. Today, the appetite for base amusement continues unabated and it seems that there is no spectacle too crass or raw for public consumption.

The success of so many enterprises and individuals over the decades have relied exclusively on this principle.   While invoked in reference to the American public, people of all nations are no less susceptible.  Vast empires have been built on selling consumers not just the idea, but the need, to get or experience, the next big thing. In our time,  some of the best exponents of this are such companies as NIKE, Apple and Louis Vuitton, the inspiration for this post.

Without this urge to consume fed by savvy enterprises willing to satisfy a virtual bottomless pit of demand, we wouldn’t have the grotesque consumer economy we see worldwide today. The dark side of this enormous consumer economy is the associated debt that has been taken on by naïve consumers.  At the center of this consumer vortex are the so called ‘luxury brands’ that cater to those especially insecure types who need to express their superiority over others by association with a prestigious marque. Quite a combination: the need for amusement as well as the need to assuage insecurities.

And thus it was bizarre to observe that during the insanity of the past few years of lockdowns and sequestering, companies such as LVMH, the French based vendor of premier ‘luxury’ brands actually had record sales!  How odd that during a period when people weren’t allowed to venture outside their own homes, that they would feel the need to buy a $6000 purse or $3000 alligator shoes.  The expensive cognac, I get; why drink swill if you’re in jail.  To be sure, many high priced marques do provide higher quality products, that’s not the issue. The issue is the need for average consumers to ostentatiously display these goods as a means of separating themselves from the hoi polloi. It always seemed odd to me that someone sporting a garment with CHANEL imprinted on it in bold letters was essentially broadcasting their deep insecurities.  No wealthy person would display their lack of taste in such crass fashion.

This mindset of association with brands is much worse among those who are clearly unable to live in this world.  It’s truly bizarre to see young ghetto kids wearing sneakers costing many hundreds of dollars when they couldn’t find 3 bucks for a McDonald’s burger. But it’s no less different than the suburban couple up to their hairline in mortgage debt needing to own a Mercedes and a Range Rover.

Marketers have done their jobs brilliantly in creating the insatiable demand for things that are entirely discretionary.  They’re even able to do this with food.  Next time you go to Whole Foods, have a look at the range of prices for eggs.  You will pay much more if you want to be associated with the woke crowd. Marketers have successfully capitalized on people’s need to be associated with success and wealth. Imagine the 20 something mall gal sporting a Louis Vuitton labeled bag.  As if anyone is going to associate her with Paris Hilton.

Nothing wrong with aspiring to better things of course.  That’s the natural order of things.  However, what the little people manage to do is to make people like the Bernard Arnaults of the world even wealthier…which separates them even more from their aspirant customers. Ironically that’s exactly what the little people want to do when they flash their Rolexes to the peons. And isn’t that the entire point of the Instagram generation?  To show others exactly how vanilla others’ lives are compared to theirs?  They are only emulating what works for the big guys.