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Sunday, October 09, 2005

Relationships as a consumer product.


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Sunday, October 09, 2005

Relationships as a consumer product.

I quite agree with you that this topic seems a bit strange. I think, however, that at the beginning of the twenty first century we can just about make it fly; a mere 100 years ago we would have been burnt at the stake. So chocks away, and Tally Ho!!

Incidentally, in a hundred years time, one would probably be burnt at the stake for uttering such expressions as Tally Ho! But that's another story.

The noun group 'consumer product' and the noun consumerism are supposed to be negative concepts especially the latter. So, it's not surprising that we should be taken aback with such a title for a philosophical topic given that relationships are supposed to be wonderful things. Moreover, the fact that a term such as consumer product does not feature prominently in philosophy does not help either. Actually, it does feature prominently in philosophy, but not in so many words.

No doubt we have to start by first establishing what kind of relationship we are talking about and then how do we interpret the issue under discussion. I will limit myself to partner type of relationships usually based on affection, love and romance; anyway you know the type.

There is a good chance that we might misinterpret this subject. There is a chance of thinking that this topic implies entering into relationships for profit or personal gain and then ditching our partner when we're finished with them. In the same way we buy a TV set then throw it away when we're fed up with it.

I personally do not read this wrong interpretation in the title, ''Relationships as a consumer product''. However, before a relationship can become a consumer product it has first to be established. In other words, the topic presupposes that a relationship already exists. So we're not about why people get together, but what happens to them once they do.

A plausible interpretation, is to think of relationships as an economic unit that can be a profit source and accounted for as a commodity. I am, of course, not referring to slavery or some other form of physical exploitation. That model has been changed in most civilised countries to something more user friendly , although like old technology, one can still find it alive and kicking in certain parts of the world. I am thinking more in terms of relationships as a source of income to economic organisations. In a way, this is as if we're exploiting for profit the opportunities that arise from the fact that two people socialise together, and in the majority of cases, live together in a single household.

The concept is not new, what is perhaps new is the extent, the scope and the implications. To take two common examples, we have double beds, hotel rooms are usually cheaper per head for a couple than for a single person and no single person would contemplate buying a pack of two dozen eggs.

What is more challenging is the interpretation of consumer product in this context. It will be worth our while to start by looking at the meaning and characteristics of consumer product. This will help us to assess whether we ought to talk from analogy or from fact. That is, whether, relationships as consume product, is an analogy or whether it is true that relationships are consumer products.

What would make something a consumer product? The first of many conditions is that a consumer product must be freely available to a lot of people. A painting of a Rembrandt is not a consumer product, a picture postcard of the same painting is a consumer product. So, by freely available, we certainly don't mean something that is exclusive. Price would be a good indicator whether something is exclusive or not.

The nature of the product would be an indicator as well. Something that cannot be easily manufactured or made available more or less on demand might not qualify as a consumer product. Although the printing process of a postcard is quite complex, the machinery and tools make it a straight forward process. Once this machinery is in place, the number of postcards that can be printed is probably limitless. The same scene as shown on the postcard painted by a renowned artist would probably be limited to a single work of art.

Another feature of a consumer product is that it does not have any intrinsic value other than the purpose it was designed for. And any external value that a consumer product has is limited to the value we impose on it. A picture postcard has no intrinsic value and it only has some external value if, for example, it was sent to us by a friend or we collect picture postcards. A Rembrandt has the intrinsic value of uniqueness, it's a master piece, the man knew how to paint, and there are enough people to appreciate its qualities even if we don't.

An important aspect of a consumer product is that it must generate an income for the supplier by selling large quantities of the product. The income, and profit, in selling TV sets comes from the sale of thousands of sets. Selling a dozen sets would not do. In fact, consumer products survive in the market place because of economies of scale. The global economy depends on the principle of stacking them high, and selling them cheap.

Although consumer products are usually associated with relatively cheap prices, large production runs and multinational companies, these types of products are not immune to market conditions and market forces. One of those important conditions is that products must conform to a certain standard of quality and safety. Furthermore, consumers usually have specific rights if the product does not function to specifications. But to achieve this minimum standard the product must be sold at a price that gives a return on investments. Anything cheaper and we'll end up with some of the cheap junk that is touted around the world these days. However, what all products have in common is that they are supposed to render a benefit to its user.

How does a relationship fit these conditions for a consumer product? You will appreciate that these conditions might not be fully in tune with received wisdom, you might also not agree with all of them or their importance. And of course I might not have included everything there is to say about consumer products. It does not matter, what matters is that we need a starting point.

In my opinion, the two most important conditions are the mass supply and the money return. Historically, relationships have been the best way to maintain the level of population in a country, not to say future generations. Nations need relationships in the same way that we need staple produce. Of course, this does not say anything about the nature of the relationships. The population levels may still be maintained whether people are married or not. The population may still be maintained in the short term by importing people as immigrants or as adopted children. In other words, relationships are responsible for keeping the species going. Its as if your TV set reproduced itself every five years or so. Relationships are responsible for a very advanced model of mass production; eat your heart out, Mr F!

Relationships also meet the criteria of money returns. We can safely assume that social security benefits, especially pensions, are a form of legalised pyramid selling. One generation pays for the benefits of the previous generation. But this assumes that populations will keep on rising or at the very least be more prosperous. Those who reach pensionable age expect to be better off than when they started, that's how we usually measure standards of living. Furthermore, we're supposed to have a standard of living even higher than our parents.

In theory, we can only be paid more if more wealth is produced. I work more, I get paid more. I improve my skills, I can get a better paid job. But there is a back door way to increase standards of living: we buy goods at a cheaper price.

Surely, if I can buy a new TV for two hundred Euros, when in the past it cost five hundred, I would have increased my purchasing power by three hundred Euros. Not only do I get a better TV than my parents did, but I get an extra three hundred Euros to spend on other things: my standard of living has increased.

Of course, new manufacturing technologies bring in new economies of scale, scientific advances introduces new technologies and new business models make the firm more cost efficient. These factors go a long way to help reduce prices, but most of them need a medium to long term lead time to bring about the desired effects. But as we know there is a quicker, cheaper and more short term solution. Basically, use relatively old technology at near full capacity and pay dirt cheap wages. But never mind the cheap labour costs, never mind the pollution created by using old technology, never mind the morality of using scarce resources to produce junk, what matters is that we now need to buy the same product twice or three times more often over a given period, whereas in the past the same product would have lasted the comparable time. Under this model companies derive their profits from a higher turnover in physical goods and of course governments get their taxes from this short term movement of money. So between the long term borrowing and the short term income governments can just about function and keep their promises.

Of course, all's well if we're gainfully occupied in the mainstream or black economy, but if someone's parents were employed assembling TV sets, today the chances are they are preparing coffee in the new services based economy. One thing is for sure, they haven't become brain surgeons. Cheap goods always come at a price.

So where do relationships come in all this? Of course, it's only consumer goods that can be bought and sold in bulk at cheap prices, other things that do not fit the model keep increasing in price; for example, cups of coffee, housing, plumbers, auxiliary medical services, education and so on. In other words, services keep on increasing. The point is that because the real cost of living has not really gone down, we need even more money to make ends meet. There are limits to the number of TV sets we want to buy at the new price, but if we need a dentist we don't know what the limits are.

If in the past women were told to stay at home and look after the children, today very few women can afford to do so even if they wanted to. Today a couple both working and earning with an average income would be hard pressed to maintain their standard of living and life style with only one partner working, never mind having children. Of course in relative value, a couple can have economies of scale which a single person cannot, but in real terms a couple might spend more than the double of a single person. For example, holidays cost double, except for a slight relative discount in hotels, the rest of the things associated with a holiday have to be bought in double.

Once we add to the meaning of relationships, the family structure, this spending hypothesis is proved by a visit to our local supermarket. Offers are usually, three for two, in many cases bulk packs are relatively cheaper. Today, relationships not only have more opportunity to spend their borrowed money, but as the Queen might have said to Alice, they have to spend more money to maintain the same life style and standard of living.

The final condition I want to look at is that of value. What value do we place on relationships. And who are this 'we'? You and me? Society? The Government? Business organisation? The reason why we put a value on things is because we derive some benefit from them. There thing to which we attribute some intrinsic value, but these are exceptions and not of interest to us.

One test we can perform to help us answer this question would be: what do relationships get in return for the benefit they give to the various entities? Maybe one yardstick would be to test why relationships break up. Of course we're not interested in what people say in the various bureaucratic forms they have to deal with, but in what they are feeling, what they are thinking.

But to do that we need to come back down to reality and ask the individuals. Now that we're at it, I wonder how my TV set is feeling this evening?

Take care

Lawrence

9-10-2005

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