Monday, January 13, 2014

"It's Just Business"- An Innocuous Phrase, or a Symptom of a Sick Culture?

We've all heard the phrase. It's usually uttered in an apologetic tone along with a slight shrug of the shoulders (as if to say, "eh, what can you do?") which makes it that much worse when you stop and think about it- It's simultaneously being treated with ambivalence/an air of meek acceptance (the shrug) and an implicit admission of the phrase's darker undertones (the apologetic tone).

"It's just business."

You can bet that if someone is saying it, someone else, or a group of someone else's, has just been (or is about to be) hurt. Maybe a thinly veiled bribe has been delivered by a lobbyist to a government official, gaining favour for a corporation in a manoeuvre that, whether the parties involved want to think of it this way or not, violates the entire premise of a democratic government. Perhaps an entire town's/state's/countries' water supply is sold to a company who then sells it back to the community at prices they cannot afford and/or utilizes it in less than ideal ways (things that maximize profit (logging, let's say) but not availability of fresh water to the community) causing serious water shortages and causing massive health problems.

Whatever it is, something has been done that would be unacceptable in  a non business context but because the context in which it occurred is the wonderful leviathan we lovingly refer to as "business" it becomes acceptable. If you examine this for but a second the extent to which it is clearly a symptom of a system gone awry becomes glaringly obvious. So much so that I struggle to understand how this notion has pervaded for so long without really being deconstructed in the public consciousness. At it's core, "it's just business" is a euphemism for something that, once faced without prejudice, bias or the desire to defend, justify or diminish, is shockingly sinister. If we were being honest with ourselves, we would recognize that "it's just business" is a less obviously disgusting way of saying "I know it's wrong but I'm getting paid to do it."

Having said that, let's now consider an example from my personal life, first using the euphemism, then replacing it with a more appropriate, more accurate and non obfuscating statement like "I know it's wrong but I'm getting paid to do it." This example is not nearly as obviously immoral as some of the examples I mentioned above (especially the water supply one, which, by the way, happened in Chile) but it struck me at the time as being wholly unfair and really started the process of opening my eyes to the reality of business practises (working for a few doctors and seeing the relationship drug company reps have with the medical establishment definitely accelerated that process, but I digress).



About twelve years ago I was a university student by day and a cook (then eventually a kitchen supervisor) at a popular restaurant chain here in North America by night. During my time there, the company restructured the menu and the pricing. As we were looking through the new menu, I noticed that the pricing of the half portions of pasta had been increased across the board. This was not due to an increase in the companies' overhead or anything, as the pricing on the full size pastas had remained unchanged. The price increase was a strategic one, I was told by the manager upon asking.

When I asked what purpose it served he told me that the price on the half sized pastas had been increased just to the point where, according to research conducted by the company, the customers were most likely to feel as though the half portion was not really worth the price as the full size one was just a few dollars more. Why spend (this is hypothetical; I don't recall the actual prices) $9.99 on a half order when the full order is $13.99? It's only $4 more for twice the food!

Before they had made that change, sales of the half portions were significantly higher than they were after as the price on the half orders was further from the price of the full size than it became after the increase- the full sized order was purchased because the person was too hungry to be satiated by a half sized order rather than because consumer/psychological research done behind the scenes demonstrated that beyond a certain price point on the half order, the full sized order becomes a value proposition, regardless of whether or not the customer was hungry enough to justify ordering that much.

"Wait a minute," I asked, feeling completely floored (I was very naive then). "They increased the price on the smaller offerings specifically to manipulate people into buying the larger ones? We're tricking people into buying more than they need and spending more than they want/need to?" In my mind at the time, a price increase would solely have been due to an increase in the cost of production, not a strategic move to manipulate people. I hated the idea. It seemed very immoral to me and I immediately had a problem being involved with it (I am fully aware of the benign nature of this in the grand scheme of things but I felt how I felt).

Sure enough, the reply I got came quickly and with an ambivalent shrug "it's just business."

It's just business......Okay, I suppose. That seems reasonable.....I guess? I mean, it still feels wrong but maybe I'm just being too sensitive? 

Okay, now with the more honest way of saying it:

"Wait a minute," I asked, feeling completely floored (I was very naive then). "They increased the price on the smaller offerings specifically to manipulate people into buying the larger ones? We're tricking people into buying more than they need and spending more than they want/need to?" In my mind at the time, a price increase would solely have been due to an increase in the cost of production, not a strategic move to manipulate people. I hated the idea. It seemed very immoral to me and I immediately had a problem being involved with it (I am fully aware of the benign nature of this in the grand scheme of things but I felt how I felt).

Sure enough, the reply I got came quickly and with an ambivalent shrug "I know it's wrong but we're going to make more money this way."

The difference is pretty clear, isn't it? Even now, having thought about this many times over the years, reading it back to myself it is quite shocking. It's a jarring difference, and even though I feel this way, and have felt this way now for years, my brain still wants to try and justify it, or at least take issue with my conclusion that the two statements can be taken at parity. "It's just business" and "I know it's wrong but we're going to make more money this way" aren't the same thing, the part of my brain that has had this capitalistic mantra so culturally engrained  in it tries to tell the rest of itself. In fact, it can't be the same thing.

I mean, if it was, that would mean that people all over are doing things to hurt others, from the very small ways like the pasta example to the very big ones like lobbying the government to the detriment of the populace or privatizing a countries' water supply and then using it to make as much money as possible, causing massive water shortages in the process. And that's just something that part of my brain doesn't want to face, let alone accept. Unfortunately for that part of me, however, the rest of my brain has not only faced this concept, but accepted it, and if we're honest with ourselves, the rest of us have done so as well.

Which, I will say in closing, means that we just accept people getting screwed over in the pursuit of capitalistic gains and we do so openly and unabashedly. And we do so in a culture in which morality is highly stressed in our dealings with children. We raise them to both value morality and to be moral in a landscape in which morality is openly thrown out the window as long as little pieces of numbered paper are gained in the process

This is a huge problem that no one is talking about and I think that needs to change.

2 comments:

  1. Justin Hayes YatesJanuary 19, 2014 at 1:31 PM

    be nice if you simply told us the way to resolve it

    ReplyDelete
  2. "Said solution being them giving me a one month free Xbox Live gold code which they finally did this past Saturday."

    ReplyDelete

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