On the Commodification of Damn Near Everything

From the great electronic encyclopedia in the sky:

Commodification is the transformation of goods, services, ideas and people into commodities, or objects of trade. A commodity at its most basic, according to Arjun Appadurai, is “any thing intended for exchange,” or any object of economic value. People are commodified—turned into objects—when working, by selling their labour on the market to an employer.”

A year ago, a Seattle runner, training for a marathon, took a self-defense class. In the middle of a long training run, she hopped into a public bathroom on the Burke-Gilman trail, where she was attacked by a violent, deranged person inside her bathroom stall. Thought she was going to die. Then drew on her training, tapped her inner savage, and repelled her attacker.

Made the news. Clearly, a tough, resilient, inspiring woman. A few days ago, I listened to an update. She finished the Chicago Marathon and created a “NTMF” movement, Not Today Mother (something or other), which is intended to inspire women to learn self-defense. A good thing, but then the story took a sharp, predictable, commercial turn. T-shirts and coffee mugs now available for sale. Note too, she’s available for media inquiries and bookings.

A few months ago, pre-Weinstein, my favorite radio sports talk host, who I’ve enjoyed listening to for two decades, stopped by a Bellevue condo complex after a round of golf. Said it was for a massage. Turns out, he paid for sex. His radio station thanked him for his service.

After going dark for awhile, he turned to Twitter to revive his personal brand. He’s not selling t-shirts and coffee mugs, he’s selling himself. The vast majority of people responded positively, quick to forgive, hopeful he’ll get a new gig soon. He replied to darn near each person with a personal “thank you”. I’m sure they think he cares, that they have some sort of personal connection.

They’re all being played. How can he truly care about them, when he’s never met them? All he cares about is increasing his followers on Twitter. The higher that number, the better his odds of a second act.

Everyone is selling something. A friend tells me I’m no different. I’m selling ideas on the Humble Blog. Guilty as charged. But don’t underestimate my commercial chops. At last look, I had 61 Twitter followers.

 

The American Dream Quantified

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From “The American Dream Quantified, At Last”

This graphic is worth several thousands of words. Among other things, it explains why parents are increasingly anxious about their children’s futures and why education policy makers are fixated on economic competitiveness often at the expense of “the whole child”.

For the record, my dad made about 10x more than me.

Trenchant Research on How Birth Order Affects the Way You Spend Money

Thanks to Brown and Grable by way of Horkey for this description of how birth order affects the way we spend money.

Was blind, but now I see. By “trenchant” I mean amazingly facile.

First born. My oldest brother. The best editor I’ve ever had:

The oldest child in the family tends to be mature, confident and, more often than not, a perfectionist. As a result of the responsibilities and expectations placed on them by parents at an early age, older siblings are well organized and generally in control of their lives.

‘Firstborns handle money differently. I see a pattern in a lot of people that I know. They are viciously protective of making sure bills are paid on time and living within their means, which includes building savings and investments.’

Middle child(ren). My sissy and older brother. The best middle siblings I’ve ever had:

“While the oldest child is often given the lion’s share of attention from parents, and the youngest can typically do no wrong, the middle child might feel lost in the shuffle.

Middle children are resigned to the fact that someone is always both ahead of and behind them in terms of familial structure. As a result, they are often found to be naturally gifted problem solvers with excellent negotiation skills. And when it comes to financial habits, the middle child is a born saver, with nearly 65 percent of the group contributing money to their savings accounts each month.'”

The youngest. Myself. Such a perfect, little, Idaho potato that my parents immediately decided to procreate no more:

“More often than not, this person is. . . the life of the party.

While the youngest children might seem charming and fun to be around, they also tend to demonstrate bad spending habits and are typically the least financially responsible of their siblings. It doesn’t help that parents have often become more lenient about discipline by the time the second or third child is born.

Parents have a habit of overindulging and spoiling the youngest children in families. Ultimately, this desire to protect the baby of the family can backfire, causing the individual to spend rather than save for a rainy day.”

Thanks to these poignant insights, I’m going to start trying to save more money. All while remaining true to my life of the party, charming, fun to be around self.

 

Newsflash—Missy Franklin Forgoes $6m to Swim in College

Seventeen year-old amateur swimming phenom Missy Franklin’s countercultural decision isn’t getting nearly as much ink as it deserves. I’ve lauded her parents’, coach, and her before. I’ll have to plead guilty if accused of putting a 17 year-old athlete on a pedestal.

If Franklin turned pro sports marketing experts agree she’d earn about $2m a year through product endorsements. Instead, she’s decided to swim at the University of California for a few years and then turn pro in 2015, one year before the Rio Summer Olympics.

Here’s the conventional wisdom on her decision:

While the opportunity to earn money from endorsement deals will not completely evaporate should Franklin delay becoming a pro-swimmer by competing at the NCAA-level, it will drastically impact the amount of money she will earn from endorsements. Not only will she miss out on a lot of money in some prime earning years for what are normally short Olympic careers, but she will likely also miss out on the chance to build her brand on a larger stage by way of the promotion and visibility that would come from advertisers using her in campaigns.

Another sports marketer adds, “I think it’s hard not to justify waving her amateurism.  If I was an objective advisor to her and her family, I would advise this way:  Her window to reap the rewards of her life’s work is relatively limited when you consider it over a traditional working career.  As such, her potential earnings in the next four years will be five-times greater than what she’ll be able to make in the subsequent 30 years.”

My brother, who I may have been a tad too hard on the last several months, weighed in more creatively, “Missy-stake! Shoulda took the money.”

She’s rolling the dice on avoiding injury, finishing third in 2016 Olympic Trial races, and having Michael Phelps pressure her into a bong hit.

All you have to do for an alternative perspective, is turn to Franklin herself:

“Someday, I would love more than anything to be a professional swimmer, but right now I just want to do it because I love it. Being part of a college team is something that’s so special. I went on my recruiting trip, and the team was so amazing. Just being with those girls, I really felt like I belonged there. The campus itself is gorgeous. Everything about it was just perfect.”

Borrowing from the linked article above, Franklin said the opportunity to compete with close friends to earn points toward a team total, rather than simply attending school with them, was an allure stronger than the potential millions of dollars she could earn in endorsements. She actually wanted to commit to a full four seasons of swimming for Cal, but her parents told her “that would probably be the biggest financial mistake” she “could ever make.” Franklin acknowledged, “This can pay for your future family. This can pay for your kids’ school, things that I really have to think about. So that’s been the hard part.”

The materially minded majority will lament, “She’s paying about $6m for the opportunity to ride on busses and stand in security lines in airports with her college teammates in order to score points in college meets.” The assumption being she’d be two and half times happier with $10m in 2016 than $4m. What’s lost in that calculus is the fact that her parents are professionals and she’s grown up economically secure. She’s comfortable, she’s a good student, and with her family’s resources and a Cal degree, odds are she’ll continue to be comfortable.

And if comfort was her primary goal, she’d cash in now. She’s saying you can’t put a price tag on some things like memories of close friendships strengthened through athletic competition. She’s wise beyond her years. She probably knows that multimillionaires tend to get caught on an ever speedier treadmill, and as a result, never pause long enough to ask, how much is enough? Franklin, who I suspect is extremely confident she can swim as fast or faster in Rio, is saying $4m is enough.

And what if somewhere in the world right now there’s a 12 year old girl who out touches Franklin in Rio?

I have no doubt she’ll handle it with grace and dignity. “Honestly anything can happen,” she recently reflected. “You can’t predict the future, so whatever God has in store for me I’ll just go along with it.”

How to Tap People’s Generosity

Through detailed, well told personal stories of individuals dealing with identifiable difficulties.

Exhibit A—The grandmama bus monitor who endured bullying at the hands of marauding middle schoolers. The national media shined their light on her plight and a few days later people, moved by her predicament, had sent her $650,000+.

Exhibit B—The young East L.A. boy who built an arcade at his dad’s auto supply storefront. No one knew or cared until one person told his story on-line. Next thing you know his college education was paid for by an army of people moved by his creativity and lack of business success.

Exhibit C—A Mexican-American Seattle resident whose story was told—as part of a series on the recession—on Seattle’s National Public Radio station. Raised in a poor Mexican family. Emigrated to the U.S. Got an engineering degree and a good job with a Seattle firm. He helped his firm determine how much buildings would cost to build. When the recession hit and building ceased, he lost his job. So he opened a taco truck with his brother, but it was a struggle. Until his story was told on the radio. The next day a long line of customers weaved around the block. By mid-afternoon, they had run out of food. While the taco truck took off, other listeners offered him good jobs. In the end, building picked back up and his original employer offered him his job back. He took it.

Forget generic pleas to fight ageism, or the cost of higher education, or economic dislocation. People want to feel like their donation is helping a specific person.

The problem with this of course is that the most vulnerable people, who are the most in need, rarely have their stories told by the media.

A related question is how can governments, whether local, state, or the federal government, leverage this element of human nature to get people to see the potential benefits of selective tax increases? Governments would be well served by telling compelling stories of how individual people, families, or communities benefit from public spending.