Sunday, September 27, 2009

On Virtue and Happiness

Life is all about balance. The ancients defined happiness (loosely translated) as virtue - and virtue is attained through balancing desire with clear thought. In other words, the blind and reckless pursuit of happiness driven by desire will not bring happiness and, consequently, virtue. Although I have always admired the virtuous and would say that at some level of consciousness it is a quality worth striving for, it never was my aim. Indeed, I never saw it as a quality that need be built; one either had it or didn’t. And I always believed I did. My pursuit, however, was happiness - driven by passion and desire. Balance was not part of the equation.

But it has turned out that the regulation of passion with clear thought is the only way to attain lasting happiness. Virtue is the result of acting responsibly and happiness has become not just the acquisition of that which makes me happy, but from a careful and often precarious balancing act. My wants do not define my needs – ever, however, the confusion between want and need drove me right to the gates of insanity. Pursuing my every want without regard to consequence, though I was often successful in attaining what I sought, never rendered long-term happiness; it only left me “needing” more. There was no balance.

I used to manage my time around my leisure for I thought that was where my happiness could be found. My wants never included the necessary effort to acquire those things I wanted; yet I would chase them regardless. I wanted the result, not the effort. I wanted the afterglow, not the sweat. As much effort I put into attaining happiness, it always proved, at best, fleeting and elusive. My perspective was such that when I was necessarily busy (with important things, not busy doing nothing), I felt as though I was not enjoying myself – that I was not experiencing happiness. So warped was my outlook that I could find little satisfaction in a job well done and consequently I tended to ignore the link between earned leisure and the effort that created it.

That perspective no longer blurs my vision. It didn’t happen overnight, but prominent and life-altering events serendipitously occurred in my life such that the only way forward was to look back. Nothing much in the world has changed, the same can be said of the “stuff” that my life is made of, but life is different today. Enumerating the various and sundry details could (and probably will) fill a book, but the little epiphanies along the way are easily enough recorded in real time. The essence of this one is not entirely new, but it’s not exactly a re-run either.

As a grad student and a teaching associate (TA), I am arguably busier than I have ever been before. More than last semester, more than as an undergraduate, more than any time I can recall in the last several years at least. My leisure time is not abundant – I find it in little chucks along the way. Sometimes it comes as a surprise, sometimes I know when it is coming, but it is always welcome. I schedule and plan on the things I have to do - my responsibilities, but I am not perfect; I still have a procrastination streak a mile wide. The tasks I am charged with today, however, cannot be done “just in time.” These are, for the most part, long-term tasks that will not be completed unless started well before they are due. Like weeks before…

But that’s not the epiphany, not a new one anyway. It is more the idea that I am no longer “scheduling” my work. Work is always on the schedule; it is the default condition. It's the leisure time that is penciled in – and often subsequently erased. I am no longer staring at my calendar looking at gaps and how to fill them… I am looking for gaps, filling them is never a problem. There’s more to it than that, though. My changed perspective makes work (either as a grad student or as a TA) a rewarding experience in and of itself – it needs no pay-off; it is its own reward. But that is an entirely different nugget for some other time. Maybe the next time I can carve out a little leisure time.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Not Just My Opinion...

This space has fallen victim to hiatus, inconsistency and neglect in the past, but only rarely as long as the recent past. Other than a re-run posted Wednesday, I have not written anything new for the 25 Year Plan in more than two weeks. A friend noted last week that, judging from my dearth of creativity, I must be very busy. And in fact I am, but there have been moments where, although tight, time is available. Further, when sufficiently inspired (i.e. pissed off), I’ll make the time. Such was the case recently. I was outraged about a unilateral policy implementation at a local mall. This is not the first time this particular mall has drawn my ire, but it is the first time I have chosen to invoke the power of the press to do something about it.

It was refreshing to put on my journalistic hat again. Although I am working on a Master’s degree in communication studies with an emphasis on rhetorical criticism, I am still a journalist. I ask questions, verify information and report it. When it comes to column writing, I get the added pleasure of saying what I think it all means and what I think about that. But it’s still journalism; opinion in this case is actually a misnomer. I am making an argument, backed up with evidence, such that a reasonable person can see where I’m coming from. One might not agree with my conclusion, but my argument is sound. It is far more than just my “opinion.”

I did some research and interviewed some people – some of whom did not like what I was asking. The conclusion I drew was, generally speaking, that there are some who will make a little power go a long way. This particular mall has a manager who can’t see beyond her blinders and has instituted a policy that unfairly restricts mall access to a specific group. Based not on what mall management told me, but on what all other evidence shows, this mall is profiling, although mall management absolutely denies it. Its policy is unique among all other area malls and provisions that the manager insisted are in place to mitigate the effect or impression of profiling (my words, she never admitted to profiling in the first place) could not be substantiated – at all. Management was lying to cover its collective ass.

Since doing the footwork a week ago, it appears as though the mall has stopped enforcing its policy. Other sources tell me that those mythical provisions are being instituted. Perhaps they are worried what I will write? Where it might be published? Am I serious? They should be, locally, and yes, I am. So where is this wonderful column? It is being considered for publication and as such, it cannot appear anywhere else – including here. It will eventually, but for the time being it has to remain it under wraps. The power of the press has already trumped that of mall management, but it’s not over yet. People need to know and I’m going to tell them. Then they can decide if my “opinion” is valid.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Buy a Car, Get a Check

This is a (very slightly edited) re-post from Home of the Free, a blog that has been even more neglected than this one has of late, but still full of interesting tidbits that have not appeared anywhere else. Enjoy...

Robert B. McCurry, Jr., former vice president of sales and marketing for Chrysler died almost three years ago.

So what?
Never heard of him?

Perhaps not directly, but because of a marketing ploy he developed more than 30 years ago, retail advertising has never been the same.

McCurry holds the dubious distinction of inventing the factory (or manufacturer’s) rebate.

The gimmick was originally introduced in a half-time TV commercial during Super Bowl IX. Former professional baseball player turned sports commentator turned advertising pitchman Joe Garagiola announced that those who purchased a brand new Plymouth Duster or Dodge Dart would receive a $200 check directly from Chrysler.

“Buy a car, get a check,” Garagiola said, without one single wardrobe malfunction. It proved to be pure genius. Sales rocketed the very next day as Ford and GM scrambled to catch up.

Today that pesky rebate has inundated every area of consumer and retail life.

Googling the term “rebate” returns no less than 36 million hits. There are sites dedicated to tracking rebates, finding the most attractive rebates and even locating those products that are “free” after the rebate. There are rebates for electronic gadgets, garage door openers, laundry detergent and pharmaceuticals, just to name a few. Some products even carry multiple rebates - a combination of offers by the manufacturer, the distributor, the retailer and others. It’s enough to drive even the most conscientious shopper insane.

Surely if McCurry knew how his creation has evolved, he would be rolling over in his grave.

According to data collected by Brian Grow for a November 2005 article in BusinessWeek, fully 40 percent of all rebates are never collected. The data, supplied by the market research firm Vericours, Inc., goes on to conclude that roughly $2 billion in extra revenue remains with the manufacturers and retailers every year. And that was in 2005.

It’s no wonder the rebate is such an appealing marketing strategy. The customer is sold the product based on the advertised “after rebate” price, but 40 percent of those customers never realize their discount - they have actually paid the full price. And even those who are able to navigate the exceedingly narrow path to redemption, often they are so thrilled to have won the prize that they have forgotten who paid the sales tax on their rebate. Furthermore, they fail to realize who has been earning interest on their money during the weeks and months spent waiting for the check to arrive.

I avoid rebates. The labyrinth set up between me and my money most often renders the victory hollow. Occasionally the rebate is sufficiently large or perhaps it is offered through a retailer or manufacturer that I know and trust. Sometimes it’s worth the risk, but as a general rule they only serve to make me take my business elsewhere. Once in a while, just for grins, I’ll go through the motions and jump through the hoops for the $5 or $10 rebate. Sometimes they actually come, but so long after the fact that I can’t even remember sending off for it. Like finding a five spot in a parking lot, I feel as though fortune has smiled upon me. There is no telling, however, how many checks are still languishing in rebate purgatory.

California Assembly Bill 1673 is currently sitting on Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk (update: AB 1673 was vetoed on Oct. 14, 2007). The bill is an attempt to make retailers truthfully advertise the price of merchandise with rebates. The bill would give them two choices: Either emphasize the full, un-rebated price or process the rebate instantly - at the time of purchase. Of course, those on the business end of the continuum say the fine print is clear enough and that consumers are aware of how rebates work while those representing consumer interests say the rebate claims process has become so convoluted that advertising the “after rebate” price with the details in the fine print amounts to false advertising.

This bill goes a long way to reeling in the rebate monster. The manufacturers and retailers can still offer their rebates, but the price featured in bold print will have to be the full retail price. Or, if they really want to advertise the discounted price prominently, they would have to assure that the customer actually pays the advertised price by giving the rebate at the point of sale.

Maybe then McCurry could rest in peace.