Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fear and Trembling, Sold and Purchased

More and more, I think we live in what Frances Moore Lappé calls “a thin Democracy.” In her 2007 book, Getting A Grip, she demonstrates that one of the major thinning aspect of democracy is the existence of, not to mention the over-riding interest of, capitalism and free market economy. Lappé suggests that we are sold on the idea of scarcity, and that the complicit, if not leading, marketplace drives consumption by promoting fear. Lappé is not the only person to have made this observation.

In an interview with Amy Goodman on the radio program Democracy Now!, Naomi Klein, author of Shock Doctrine; the Rise of Disaster Capitalism and other books, said. 
[Milton] Friedman believed in a radical vision of society in which profit and the market drive every aspect of life, from schools to healthcare, even the army. He called for abolishing all trade protections, deregulating all prices and eviscerating government services.
These ideas have always been tremendously unpopular, and understandably so. They cause waves of unemployment, send prices soaring, and make life more precarious for millions. Unable to advance their agenda democratically, Friedman and his disciples were drawn to the power of shock… Friedman understood that just as prisoners are softened up for interrogation by the shock of their capture, massive disasters could serve to soften us up for his radical free-market crusade. He advised politicians that immediately after a crisis, they should push through all the painful policies at once, before people could regain their footing. He called this method "economic shock treatment." I call it "the shock doctrine."
Take a second look at the iconic events of our era, and behind many you will find its logic at work. This is the secret history of the free market. It wasn’t born in freedom and democracy; it was born in shock.
To return to Frances Moore Lappe:
… Private power supersedes public power—as FDR warned us seven decades ago… To pick just a few frightening examples:
* for almost six years after 9/11, the chemical industry lobby was able to resist measures needed to secure fifteen thousand chemical plants against attack.
* While five thousand Americans die annually from food-borne illnesses, the food industry is able to block mandatory recalls.
* Ex-oil lobbyist Philip Cooney was so tight with the Bush White House that he edited official reports to downplay climate change.
* Pharmaceutical lobbyists helped craft a healthcare law that forbids Medicare to negotiate drug prices—while we pay double what Europeans do for identical drugs.

The biggest product on the market today is fear. We purchase fear every day, in the form of some product marketed to protect us. Overstatement?

Think about the recent H1N1 pandemic that was forecast and, supposedly, averted by means of a vaccine. Do you remember how there was a scarcity of the vaccine? Then, suddenly, a huge flood of the vaccine hit the marketplace, but mostly right after the containment of the outbreaks. This did not stop people from purchasing the vaccine. Interesting that we had to purchase it, if we wanted it and didn't have a health plan that provided it. When I was a child, inoculations against Rubella were given to every school child by the county health department, for free. People purchased the H1N1 vaccine based on their fear, not because there was an outbreak, or even just a few reported cases, in their area.

Now, think about the new TSA (Transportation Security Administration) airport security pat downs. The fear being marketed here is terrorism. The price of your airline ticket entitles you to the indignities of an extremely invasive full-body search, that by law you must submit yourself to. The public outcry has been loud. But Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and TSA Administrator John Pistole Monday claim the new practices are necessary to protect the flying public.

Now, recall the last visit you made to your local pharmacy. Have you looked around the shelves immediately adjacent to the pharmacist’s window? What are the primary products lining those shelves? I’ll tell: hand sanitizer. The fear being marketed here is germs, viruses and bacteria that lead to sickness and possibly death. The sanitizers that are alcohol based are probably fine, unless over-used, but those that are marketed as being anti-bacterial are probably overkill. Why? Because, as a friend of mine who is an emergency room physician said, “oh, these products are good. They are so good that they take away the good stuff as well as the bad stuff.”  The human body naturally contains bacteria, yeast fungi,  and bunches of other things like protists and archaea. Details from
Bacteria help digest complex carbohydrates which would be indigestible otherwise, promote growth of intestinal cells, repress pathogenic microbes, prevent allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, and play crucial roles in the immune system. Body flora and the body it occupies have been co-evolving for tens of millions of years. 
Is it possible that we are fiddling with the delicate balance of our immune systems when we over-use some of these products, rather than rely on soap and water as our first line of hygiene? I know octogenarians who have never received flu shots and have never used hand sanitizers. They are some of the healthiest people I have ever met.

On a website called Medical News Today, there is a “fact” page about hand sanitizer. The information for this “fact” page has been provided by Johnson & Johnson Consumer Companies the makers of Purell ®. I quote from it: 
Do you have enough PURELL(R) products available to consumers? 
We are committed to providing optimal distribution of the product to meet the increasing need and demand, particularly in areas where cases of illness outbreaks have been reported.
I find that an interesting statement, from a marketing perspective. It speaks to the issue of scarcity,  relieving potential consumer fear of not being able to obtain the product.

I do not suggest that an alcohol based hand product is a necessarily a bad thing for people, but that we have been advised to use a lot of it, and in situations where washing the hands with soap and water might be quite sufficient. This USA Today article from 2007 talks about the kind of money these products generate for their producers: 
U.S. hand sanitizer sales have grown in double digits since 2003, according to marketing data company ACNielsen. Through late 2006, sales in supermarkets and drugstores alone were up 14.4% from 2005 to $70 million, with Purell the market leader at $36.6 million. That growth built on a huge 53.5% rise in 2005, according to ACNielsen.
 What I suggest is that we need to think about what is being marketed and by whom. I think that we are steered into paying out big money to buy fear, and that there are no regulations to protect us from the fear peddlers, many of whom are big business lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

If you have not read Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine, I highly recommend the book.

Moore Lappé, Frances. Getting A Grip. Small Planet Media Group, 2007. Pp. 13, 17.

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