TOO MUCH

Being young(ish) and living in college towns among people who tend toward the less lucrative college degrees, a high percentage of my friends would make good case studies for a Quarterlife Crisis reality show. To be blunt, I don't know many people who are terribly successful, financial or otherwise (and I certainly am not either). Let me put it this way: it's the kind of social group in which having health insurance is a cause for great envy. Even my friends and acquaintances who are gainfully employed in something more rewarding than the service industry live with a lot of anxiety and the sense that the world is crumbling around them. Basically, I have a very large social circle spanning most of the country and I can honestly say (anec-data!) that most people I know are at least somewhat depressed. To be in one's 20s and 30s today is to be overwhelmed by debt, overworked and underpaid (or not working at all), and constantly second-guessing every choice that led to this outcome. It's a biased sample, but not totally unrepresentative of the problems facing people in this age bracket.

The explanations for this are numerous and we could spend weeks discussing them all; everything from parenting techniques to macroeconomics to technological advances is relevant to understanding the predicament of the first generation of Americans to do worse than its parents. One specific explanation that has been very interesting to me lately is the psychology of indecision and the consequences of making too many choices among too many options. It doesn't matter that many of these choices are of minor importance – Where should we go for dinner tonight? Am I eating too much wheat gluten? Which toothpaste is right for me? – because the psychological cost is a function of volume as well as intensity. And there are reams of research providing evidence that it leads to depression, anxiety, lack of focus, and other problems.

The toothpaste aisle is my favorite example of this phenomenon. The next time you are in the Box Store or whatnot, stop and take a look at it. I mean, really look at it. There are, what, 75-100 different kinds of toothpaste? Maybe more. God only knows what the difference among them could be. There are dozens of flavors (all essentially identical but with creative naming variations on "mint") and all kinds of pseudoscience claiming different benefits as a marketing angle. The truth, of course, is that you can probably grab any tube of toothpaste approved for sale in the U.S. and, provided it's used regularly, reap exactly the same rewards. Your teeth will be clean and your breath will smell half-decent. But there's something about the experience that is paralyzing; we always worry, "Am I buying the right one? Which one is the best value for the money?" And then we worry about the consequences of choosing the wrong one (70s commercial voiceover guy haunts your dreams: "Gingiviiiiiitissss….")

The problem is not simply that we have trouble choosing from a large number of options, but that we A) are made to fret endlessly about the consequences of the "wrong" choices – How is your kid going to get into Harvard if you don't pick the right diapers? – and B) the choice often provides very little benefit for the cost. What do 100 kinds of shampoo or 50 different TVs get us? It gets us propaganda about how we live in the Greatest Bastion of Freedom in the history of the world. Try getting the TV you want in Soviet Russia! Everyone gets the same TV there…if they're lucky!

This was somewhat rambling, and for that I apologize. But this has been on my mind quite often lately, and the social, political, and economic ramifications are pretty clear. More choices in more areas are more likely to make us feel depressed, indecisive, and anxious than to make us feel fulfilled, happy, or successful. Sometimes I think it would be just great if the toothpaste aisle consisted of a single plain white box labeled "TOOTHPASTE." Would any of us really be worse off in that case?

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75 Responses to “TOO MUCH”

  1. cyntax Says:

    There's a name for that phenomenon of consumer confusion: gruen transfer. And yes,
    it's absolutely intentional. Here's a good article on it by Douglas Rushkoff, 'A Brand by Any Other Name.'

  2. wetcasements Says:

    "To be in one's 20s and 30s today is to be overwhelmed by debt, overworked and underpaid"

    Not to go all Galt on you but as someone who graduated college in 1996 things have been relatively easy for me compared to today's 20-somethings. I did flirt with some credit-card debt issues in my late 20's but managed to tighten the belt and kill those with some amount of personal pain. My senior year of college (as an English major, natch!) I didn't step into the career center once because my plan was "move back to DC and get a temp office job and play it from there." Sounds crazy in 2012, but it was pretty solid life planning for the mid- to late-90's.

    I think I've learned my lesson though that if you want a decent job you have to be prepared to drop everything and move either a) across the country or b) to another continent. And you can't do this if you want to start a family relatively soon so I guess my antipathy towards having children has also made my life a lot easier.

  3. duck-billed placelot Says:

    The number of toothpaste options would bother me less if I felt like I had more real agency/choice in other areas of life.

  4. J. Dryden Says:

    Is choice in and of itself a good thing? Clearly not–for you, it's the TOOTHPASTE aisle, for me, it's the Paper Towels/Toilet Paper aisle. Choice isn't just an inhibition to decision (both trivial and substantial); it's an illusion of independence when we're really prisoners of our basic needs and the advertisers/vendors who want us to think that satisfying those needs in a distinctive way is what makes us special, worthy people.

    Yet despite the fact that I am confirmed in my misanthropy by watching parents argue with their children as to which brand of peanut butter they will purchase–an argument based solely on the ad copy on the label and the TV commercials both parties have most recently watched–I would argue that perhaps it is best if we, as a culture, continue to act as if choice is a very good thing indeed.

    Reason being this: human beings are stupidly polemic creatures–we're either all-in or all-out. (Or checked-out, if you wish.) So most societies and their governments will gravitate towards "all the choice you can cram into your already overfed maw, you make me fucking sick" or "shut the fuck up, you'll take what we give you–or not–and you'll like it."

    Neither is ideal. Yet, when I compare the life of those who inhabit one of those cultures, and the life of those who inhabit the other, I recognize that life is just much more…pleasant in the too-many-choices places. Yeah, we're dithering, neurotic, whiny and entitled. But we're not *scared*. And that's what I note about people from places that don't give you a choice–they're scared, all the time. I'll pass, thanks. I am, grudgingly, a grown-up. I take responsibility for the consequences of my choices. I try not to waste my time debating which brand of gasoline to buy (though I'm still drawing the line at BP, because fuck those guys, still–yeah, it's petty and impotent, so what?) Point is: in a place that offers me too much choice, I really can–if I put my mind to it and don't let myself get distracted by the noise–really and substantially pursue my own individual happiness.

    Mind, there's an awful lot to be said about whether that happiness can long survive in a world in which corporate unity presents us with a mercantile tyranny represented by a governmental oligarchy of "elected representatives," but fuck it. There are nuggets of gold, even at Costco. And for true happiness, well, I use my brain and produce–I write, I think, I talk, and I come her semi-daily and show off my impressive vocabulary, sentence structure, and casual vulgarity to a crew of like-minded (and refreshingly unlike minded–shout out to bb!) fellow travelers. Not too shabby, and hey, if you really doubt that a cornucopia of choice is a bad thing, I ask you to consider this: what if there were only *one* take-it-or-leave kind of porn? Yeah, that's right–life *would* lose all meaning, wouldn't it? QED.

  5. Ed W. Says:

    @wetcasements, I also graduated in 1996, and I had the same post-graduation temp office job plan, with the M. Night-style twist that I *stayed in my college town for another year* instead of moving on. Yeah. Bet you never saw that one coming.

    But yes, I can confirm that, strange as it may sound today, that was a solid plan for the mid-90s.

  6. wetcasements Says:

    "Kicking And Screaming" anyone?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kicking_and_Screaming_%281995_film%29

    That's about as 90's a film as you will ever see.

  7. WyldPirate Says:

    @wetçasements…..it seems to me that you haven't been paying much attention to what as been been happening. Plenty of people in their 40-60s who thought they had the world by the short-n-curlies have seen their futures go down the toilet in the past few years.

    It can happen to almost anyone at anytime and sometimes there isn't a job to pick up and move to or the means to do it even if there is a job available.

  8. Daniel Says:

    Picking out which flavor of Pringles I want usually takes a good five minutes.

  9. wetcasements Says:

    "Plenty of people in their 40-60s who thought they had the world by the short-n-curlies have seen their futures go down the toilet in the past few years."

    Not denying that. Just saying 20-somethings never even had the chance to accumulate any wealth in the first place.

  10. Middle Seaman Says:

    20-30s clearly are in bad shape today. 40-60s were not untouched by the last 12 glorious year of W1 and W2. (W2 Better known as Obama.)

    Interestingly enough two Clinton time commenters represent the good old days. Those were the terrible days of low unemployment and budget surplus we didn't want to repeat in 2008; hell we were warned of the dangers of another Clinton.

    The days of English and PoliSci are gone at least for the next decade. Tooth paste hysteria is here to stay. It's cheap useless sweet and the profit is great. Go into business or finance and make money helping no one but yourself.

  11. argh Says:

    "Being young(ish) and living in college towns among people who tend toward the less lucrative college degrees, a high percentage of my friends would make good case studies for a Quarterlife Crisis reality show. "

    That's me.

    Nothing is over! Nothing! You just don't turn it off! It wasn't my war! You asked me, I didn't ask you! And I did what I had to do to win! But somebody wouldn't let us win! And I come back to the real world and I see all those baby boomers in the news, protesting me, spitting. Calling me entitled and all kinds of vile crap! Who are they to insult me? Who are they? Unless they've been me and been there and know what the hell they're yelling about!

    The working world is nothing! In school we had a code of honor, you watch my back, I watch yours. Back here there's nothing!

    Back there I could debate ethics, I could measure the speed of light, I was in charge of million dollar equipment, back here I can't even hold a job *parking cars*!

  12. eau Says:

    No title? Paralyzed by choice between a number of options, perhaps?

  13. Elle Says:

    I know that this is an incredibly literal reading of your post, but nothing induces a sense of lassitude in me faster than walking into one of those enormous Wal*Marts. I will confess, on my first visit, to seeking out the most stereotypical not-found-in-European-supermarkets things to gawp at (Books by Rick Warren! Guns! Food that you can spray out of a can!) but there doesn't seem to be more choice in some ways, so much as just more of each individual thing. The shops themselves are just stupidly large.

    Also, if Wal*Mart is where people with less money are intended to shop, then the revolution is going to need to take on the issues of fruit and vegetables that don't taste like straw, cheese diversity, and seafood provisioning. Eating well should not be the purview of the rich.

    Every woman my age who goes to the US regularly has an enormous collection of Mac makeup, because you cleverly keep some products for your own market, and Benefit products, because that took a while to start selling in Europe at all. In addition, if you could start exporting the following things, that would be terrific: Hefty bags with the plastic zip thing; U by Kotex tampons; and pretzel M&Ms.

  14. Jimcat Says:

    This is where being a creature of habit works to one's advantage. I walk into the supermarket and know what I'm going to buy. Coca-Cola Classic. Suave shampoo. Quilted Northern toilet paper. Et cetera.

    Bewildering arrays of products filling the aisles? Fine. It's good for the economy. I'll take what I always get and ignore the rest. Choice isn't a problem when you've already made yours.

  15. c u n d gulag Says:

    When you look at all of those dozens and dozens of brands of something, realize that in many cases, there are only a handful of corporations that make all of them.
    These few companies have so many brands for a couple of reasons – they bought out the original maker, and are trying to keep the people loyal to that original brand; and, spreading out with so many different names, lets them keep their market share, where, if they had only one, they'd have to establish loyalty to that particular brand.

    Let me tell you a story about some distant relatives who came the US for a visit, back in the late 70's.

    They stayed in NYC with my Aunt and Uncle, which, though overwhelming, wasn't too bad because they came from Moscow, itself a huge city.
    They went shopping with my Aunt and Uncle there, but the food stores in NY aren't, or weren't then, that big – city real estate, even in the boroughs, is expensive, so stores stock only a few brands of each item. And if you wanted good meat, you went to the local butcher. Good fish – the local fish monger. Good produce – the local fruit's and veggies shops. Not too different from what they were used to in Moscow – just better stuff.

    They came on a planned visit to Upstate NY with us for a weekend. We took them food-shopping with us to one of the, then, larger supermarkets.
    They cried almost the entire time they were in the store. They'd never seen so many fruits and vegetables, so many assortments of meats, and other thing – and ALL under ONE roof! In Moscow, like NYC, they had to go buy meats in one store, fruits and veggies in another, and most canned goods in still another – with LONG lines outside the door at each shop.

    And here, we drove-up to this big store, parked right out front, and walked into a (then) huge store, which wasn't too full of people, since it was early on a Friday afternoon.
    They looked at the rows and rows of fresh fruits and veggies, and cried.
    They took one look at the butcher shop – INSIDE the same store, and cried.
    They looked at the dozens and dozens of brands of cans, and boxes, and frozen foods, and pickles, and aspirin, and tooth paste, and ice-cream, and butter, etc. – ALL INSIDE ONE STORE – and cried and cried and cried.
    It was kind of embarrassing, but, hey, what are you going to do, right?

    All they could talk about all weekend, was that supermarket.

    We took them to FDR's estate, Vanderbilt's estate, the old Catskill Game Farm – and they had expected to see decadent capitalist excess when visiting the estates. They'd been told how the rich American bourgeoisie lived in luxury, while the rest of the people lived in relative poverty.

    And still, all they could talk about was that store.
    And how my father, a machinist's foreman, and my mother, a singer who worked part time in a department store, could live like we live.
    And, oh yeah, when we took them to the mall (a tiny one compared to today's mega-monstrosities, but big at the time) and the store where my mother worked, and they cried there too – so MANY clothes, and toys, and TV sets, and lawnmowers, etc!

    When they left on Monday morning, they went back to NY City.
    Unexpectedly, my Aunt and Uncle got called out of town for a few days, and they asked if we could pick-up the Moscow relatives, and keep them for a few days. We didn't mind – we had loved having them.

    So, I drove down to NY and picked them up. And, as we turned onto my road, we passed the supermarket that had so astounded them.
    "It's still there?" asked the husband, looking at me.
    I looked at him, not knowing what to say, so he repeated the question.
    I looked at him, and said in Russian, "Yes, of course it's still there. It's been there about 5 years, and it'll be there for a long, long time. Where would it go? Why?"
    And he told me – they had thought that the US government, knowing they were coming Upstate, had built the store, and staged everything, so that we would look better off than we really were, and to make the Soviet's feel inferior.

    Well, I almost drove off the road!

    And then it made sense to me.
    When my Aunt and Uncle had gone to visit relatives in Moscow and other cities, those relatives got special passes to "privileged" stores for the duration of the visit (which they were to keep a secret) – stores that, normally only Communist Party members could shop at.
    The Soviet's did that, because if people took their American relatives to the REAL stores, tiny ones, the Americans would have laughed – when they weren't disgusted with waiting in long lines, and seeing the paucity of goods available.

    So, for all of you (and me) who are confused by choice, don't lament.
    Look at it from my Soviet relatives perspective – we have a system which, if not to die for, is, from their POV, one to cry for.

    PS: I get AIM toothpaste- it's $! at the local supermarket.
    And with all of my dental problems, old bridges and caps, even THAT'S probably too much! :-)

  16. Anonymouse Says:

    I agreed with just about everything you wrote except that your generation is the first to do worse than its parents. As a Gen Xer who graduated college under St. Ronnie's regime, I joined a huge cohort whose only job options were to work part-time in fast food or work part-time in bookstores. As a generation, we never caught up to the Boomers in earnings. As 40-somethings, we were often the first to get laid off under W's recession for being "too expensive".

  17. SiubhanDuinne Says:

    @c u n d gulag: That is a great story! Potemkin supermarkets!

    You also point out that only a small number of corporations own/control the great majority of brands. That became clear to me a couple of years ago when I first became aware of the Brothers Koch and somewhat naïvely thought I could register my own little protest by boycotting Koch-owned products. But there aren't enough hours in the day to track down the few non-Koch items on the shelves (or they are of inferior quality or something) — anyhow, I gave up on the boycott idea pretty quickly as a futile pursuit, and these days try to register my opposition to Charles and David more effectively. Or at least less frustratingly.

    (Like J. Dryden, though, I still do the "petty and impotent" thing and will go out of my way to avoid buying BP gas, just because.)

  18. anotherbozo Says:

    Ed's and c u n d's response provide me with enough food for thought, and appreciation for where I am at 70, for one day. For Ed's generation, I can point out that at least the Internet provides research tools to help make decisions that are a cut above toothpaste in importance.

    Yesterday I needed a plumber for a simple job. I used a free reference service called "Service Magic" (Angie's List for skinflints) to get a well-reviewed company and had a serviceman on the job within two hours. This in NYC. Bill was $150, cheap. We research everything online, via Consumer Reports and otherwise. You take online opinion with a grain of salt, but when was that different from any other source? This doesn't answer Ed's generation's problem about the plethora of choices and the complications of their young lives—they've never lived through any simplifying movements like the Eastern-looking, find-your-center post-Essalen, guru-seeking generation I'm part of-—but there are ways to solve some of the quandaries. Hell, you can probably research to find out what to look for in toothpaste. But not, I guess, while you're dressing the kids for school..

  19. buckyblue Says:

    The good news is that the toothpaste dilemma also transfers to the beer aisle. Do I want a Pale Ale, an Indian Pale Ale or a Black Indian Pale Ale? Stout, Sweet Stout or Imperial Stout? Wheat Beer, Shandy, Rye Beer? AAAARRRGGHH, it takes me hours to get out of the liquor store.

    Unfortunately, none of this choice transfers to our political choices, which range somewhere from right-wing uber fascist to just right-wing. All of which will screw you for the corporate overlords in a heartbeat.

  20. Carrstone Says:

    "Somewhat rambling"? Major understatement! It's the usual chicken-and-egg conundrum. If you had any meaningful experience at all, you'd know that companies, in order to stay in business, offer product variety (or even variations on a theme) because consumers are looking for a product uniquely designed with them in mind. It's all a bit of a bell-curve …..

  21. John Says:

    I guess maybe I'm a weird person, but this whole 'problem of choice' thing doesn't really affect me for these sorts of things.

    Which toothpaste should I buy? The same one I always buy because it's a flavor I've known since childhood. The few cents I'll save by switching brands isn't going to make a difference in the scheme of things, and marketing BS is just that — BS. So I just grab the Aquafresh and don't give it a second thought.

    Same with toilet paper. Same toilet paper I always get because I find it acceptable, brand and "Double-quilted-mega-absorbant-aloe" marketing be damned.

    There may be 50 kinds of TVs in the store, but the brief research I did before hand (Does the feature set meet or exceed what I'm looking for, are there generally favorable reviews of it) has narrowed it down to one TV that I have specifically gone to the store to purchase. In, grab, out, done. From there on, there's no point in worrying about it, it's a box that displays moving colored images at X resolution and Y refresh rate and has Z connectors for the media devices I have.

    But again, I accept the notion that I may be an odd person.

  22. Jimcat Says:

    @buckyblue: No, the beer section is the one place where bewildering diversity of choices is a GOOD thing! And it's the easiest one to solve. I want them ALL.

    Well, not all, but I am unspeakably grateful for living in a country in which I can try half a dozen new beers each month.

  23. Jimcat Says:

    @John: that's not odd at all, that's the proper, healthy coping mechanism for dealing with this situation.

  24. John Says:

    I suppose it stems from my inherent distrust of marketing of any sort. I always assume that it is at best a misrepresentation, at worst an outright lie.

  25. DH Says:

    I've been ranting about the toothpaste aisle for years as an example of the paradox of choice. I also use it as proof of meaningless innovation in the name of marketing. Why does my toothpaste need sparkles in it?!

  26. JBerardi Says:

    The irony here is that arguably the most successful company in the world can famously fit it's entire product line on your kitchen table. But, no, seriously, consumers LOVE choice. That's a known fact of conventional thinking! Except with computers, tablets and cell phones, but that's probably just some kind of fluke…

  27. RosiesDad Says:

    @c u n d Gulag: That is a great story; thanks for sharing. But how did the aunt and uncle feel about heading home to Russia? They didn't have a burning desire to move to Sullivan (Orange or Dutchess?) County to forever enjoy the big box supermarket?

  28. Cheap Jim Says:

    If as you say, among the problems you face is a lack of money, how can toothpaste selection be a problem? You buy the least expensive. If that turns out on immediate use to be absolutely horrible, you go one step up, and remember not to get the cheapest again. Same with toilet paper, or any other quickly consumed stuff. It's when you come to things you're going to have to live with for a while, like a washing machine or a leased apartment that choice becomes a problem.

  29. Bentpine Says:

    @c u n d gulag: Not to be redundant, but your story made my morning. Really, thanks for sharing.

  30. CaptBackslap Says:

    The best way to deal with the whole range of cognitive issues like this–problem of choice, inaction inertia, buyer's remorse–is to commit to live without regret. It's nontrivial to teach yourself not to regret decisions, but it's not as hard as it sounds.

    The key step is to regularly remind yourself that you're constantly changing, and even if a decision seems wrong today, it was the best choice at that time for the person you were at that time. Don't hold your lack of precognitive ability against yourself; just learn for the next time. Above all, don't hold yourself to a standard you'd find it unreasonable to hold others to.

  31. Chicagojon Says:

    I love that you chose toothpaste as your example. Whilst I don't recommend watching coupon shows toothpaste happens to be an item that is easily purchased for free with coupons, coupon matching, rebates, etc.

    That to me is the height of irony in the glory that is capitalism.

  32. Michael Says:

    Yes, there's good psychological research that shows willpower is reduced by having to make choices (any choices), and that we find it strenuous and difficult to do so.

    A significant part of the advantage of being rich is that you can avoid those choices. Like the shirt? Buy it. If it looks crappy on you at home, throw it out. You can avoid the whole decision-making that people with less money have to engage in.

    I'm pretty sure that one of the major reasons for the success of stores like Costco is that they limit choice. You want ketchup? There's one choice. Lima beans? One choice. Cereal? Five choices, not 100. It is inherently more pleasant shopping in such an environment because you don't have to make as many choices.

  33. c u n d gulag Says:

    RosiesDad,
    They were relatives of ours, and my Aunt and Uncle.

    And when they left, they knew they'd miss America – but they still had family back home. Including a teenage son, whom the Soviets wouldn't let join then – he was their lure to return back.

    Well, to add insult to their injury of leaving, something else happened.

    They had asked me to make tapes of as much R&R music as I could, since their son loved R&R, and access to that was strictly forbidden in the USSR – they had their own really shi*tty R&R-style bands, which sang songs lauding the Party. Think "Stay i
    n the USSR!" instead of "Back in the USSR!"

    Now, at the time, I had literally over 500 albums, so choosing songs and whole albums was tough.

    In the end, after days and nights of "work" (FUN! I got to blast my music, and my parents didn't complain, since I was helping out a relative), I forgot how many dozens of tapes I recorded for the kid, but it was a lot.
    His parents stashed this stash as carefully as they could in their luggage.

    Well – they got busted trying to smuggle in the MORALLY CORRUPTING CAPITALIST WESTERN R&R MUSIC!
    I have no doubt that some Soviet officials son or daughter got a very nice May Day present that year.

    Our relatives didn't end-up in a GULag or anything – if R&R were around in Stalin's time, they'd have been lucky to end up there, and not shot after torture and a quicky trial.

    Out went some of privileges that they had!
    And NO MORE TRIPS TO THE WEST!

    We didn't see them again until the mid-late 90's.

    I met the kid, now an adult with a family, when I chaperoned a trip to Moscow for the college I was an Adjunct Professor at, in 1995. This was, obviously, long after the USSR was gone.
    He picked-me up in some ancient Soviet car, held together with spit and prayers, and we had lunch and talked.
    He told me he really wished his parents were better smugglers than they were.
    He asked if I'd send him the albums. I, of course, politely declined to do that. He said it was ok – he'd probably heard most of what I had tried to send him.
    I told him, I didn't think so – and listed some of the obscure, but great, albums I had.

    To make a long story short, over 15 years later, when I got home, I recorded a whole bunch of stuff and sent it.
    And THAT didn't make it, either!
    Someone probably confiscated that, and kept the tapes for themselves!

    I guess it just wasn't meant to be…

  34. c u n d gulag Says:

    That first sentence, for clarity, means that the people who came over from Russia, weren't my Aunt and Uncle, but relatives of our family.

  35. Bentpine Says:

    Relevant:

    " Every day – your job, the government, your addiction, your depression, your money – you feel like you can’t control the forces affecting your fate. So, you stage microrevolts. You customize your ringtone, you paint your room, you collect stamps. You choose.

    http://youarenotsosmart.com/2009/11/11/learned-helplessness/

  36. A Says:

    This is why Costco & the like does so well – limited choices.

  37. mel in oregon Says:

    do you really think you are the first generation that's suffered? sorry but you 20s & 30s seem like a bunch of over priviledged babies.

  38. PWL Says:

    There's always been lots of benefits in keeping people confused and indecisive. Just ask the Republican Party.

  39. the other gunderson Says:

    I'm reminded of a story I heard back in th 50's. A Russian pilot defects bringing his Mig 15 with him and is brought to the U.S. for resettlement. He stays here for a year or two then asks to be returned to his homeland. His reason being that in Russia he was comfortable with the small selection of goods there, but felt uncomfortable with having to select from among so many choices available here. Said he liked it better the old way.

  40. anotherbozo Says:

    @ other gunderson: I remember that story too. I think it was on 60 Minutes or somesuch news magazine that followed the stories of a few emigre families. But it was true.

  41. Elle Says:

    @Arslan

    I've had a moderately unpleasant day at work. Be a good chap and furnish us with the story of the first time you went inside the Gap? I trust that you fell immediately to your knees in shock and awe, because you didn't realise that sweatshirts came in colours other than gulag grey, nor that they could be purchased without a fourteen hour queue outside the GUM.

  42. EJ Says:

    When it comes to stuff that's basically a commodity, like toothpaste, the answer for me is "whatever's on sale." Simplifies things enormously.

  43. NYD3030 Says:

    I think the heart of the matter is that we are psychologically unable to acknowledge the mountain of dis-confirming evidence that our choices matter at all. The affairs of any individual's life are utterly probabilistic, and yet our pattern recognizing self centered mammal brain simply cannot see it. And so you end up believing that your current life is the effect to all the causes you've plugged into it while utterly ignoring the titanic roll of the dice that occurs every second you exist.

    It's really cruel to live in a time when the law of averages is trending downward and yet be psychologically forced to place all the blame on yourself, when what you're experiencing is a society-wide regression to the mean.

  44. Edward Says:

    There is a simple solution to the toothpaste selection problem; buy toothpaste that lacks a whitener or even fluoride. I try to minimize the chemicals I am exposed to.

  45. sluggo Says:

    @ Edward ithought you were great in Dr stranglove.

  46. Major Kong Says:

    @sluggo

    Ahem

  47. Arslan Says:

    Few seem to realize that the lack of brands in the USSR and Soviet bloc meant that many Soviet citizens didn't spend time obsessing over these things, and the lack of consumer goods meant that they didn't base their lives around shopping and consuming. Subsidized culture and arts programs as well as paid vacation and shorter working hours meant that many people developed talents in art and athletics rather than spending weekends moping around some shopping center.

  48. Edward Says:

    @sluggo

    There was some research a few years ago that raised concerns about the safety of fluoridation, so those anti-communist anti-fluoridation crusaders may have been right after all. In any case, I don't think fluoride does that much to prevent tooth decay. Eating habits and the frequency of brushing and flossing probably are what really count.

  49. Svnski Says:

    There's a great show on ABC here in oz all about advertising and marketing called The Gruen Transfer. The panel consists of ad industry big-wigs discussing current campaigns, how the industry sells different products and the different psychological triggers they play on to setup us shit.

    Funny and fascinating.

    http://www.abc.net.au/tv/gruentransfer/

  50. Eric Titus Says:

    I'm always quick to defend our generation, but I do think some of the issues within your group are self-inflicted. I don't think there's anything wrong with not shooting for health-insurance providing jobs, but if you take a that path you need to at least be willing to take the lumps as well as the benefits.

    I'm a few years post-college, living in New York, and I have two groups of friends who play out this situation to an almost stereotypical extent.
    The first group are friends from college, many of whom were philosophy majors, and practically all are now doing enough tutoring/baristaing/etc to get by while also doing a good deal of reading and their own projects.
    The other group is one or two years older, and most have a job that provides insurance (teacher, computers, publishing, etc), or are back in school.

    Now I'm not using this example to harangue aimless post-college folks. But I do think it is partly a matter of choice, a conscious or unconscious decision to enjoy youth and put of serious work a bit longer. And I don't think it's even really about majors, but more about attitudes and who you know (most people find their first job by meeting someone). Part of the problem is, as with your toothpaste example, a variety of end goals but no clear way to get from here to there.

  51. xynzee Says:

    Well like Ed, I'm a bit late to the party. I believe that Devo already beat you to it with "Freedom of Choice".

    But isn't it GREAT!! We got Choice!! We're number f###in' ONE!! because we have so many choices to choose from. No where else do you have so many choices so we must be number F###in' ONE!!

    I'm with Bucky and Jimcat. Beer! Unfortunately, even those start to taste the same after a while. Just as long as my choice isn't limited to Schludweiller, 4 Ecks or worse yet Sap-pooor-ewww!

    I can be a happy bunny.

  52. Jimcat Says:

    @Arslan: I see a couple of problems with that system as you describe it.

    1. If there is a lack of consumer brand diversity across the board, then that eliminates the variety that the people want (in my case, beer) as well as the variety that they can do without (toothpaste).

    2. Government subsidized culture is okay, as long as the culture that the people want to enjoy is the same as that which the government chooses to subsidize. As cund-gulag pointed out, many Russians were more interested in the Beatles than the Bolshoi.

    Even in America today, it is possible to live one's life without being baffled by product diversity or bamboozled by marketing. See John's posts on the subject above. All it takes is a conscious decision not to be taken in by marketing. Many Americans choose to concentrate their energy on the arts, athletics, or beer. Many more don't – I try to let that bother me as little as possible.

  53. JohnR Says:

    Obviously struck a nerve, Ed! A couple things – I'm smack in the middle of the 40-60s, and fwiw, I did worse than my parents. My siblings by and large have done about as well, but by having both spouses (and any children) do whatever jobs they could get, rather than just rely on Dad's income. My one-income family has been barely scraping by for the last 25 years. Things weren't so bad in the 90's, but after that, we stopped running surpluses every month, and began running deficits (or with luck, breaking even). My choice – I took a flex-time job at lower pay to be able to deal with family health emergencies, but it's been a real Micawber life. Luckily my older boy speaks Chinese fluently, so he's off to China with a job now that he's graduated. At least they're hiring.
    As for choice, CUND is right – a decade or so back when I was recovering from death and doing part-time stuff to get back into the work thing, I did a stint in QC at a big cosmetics outfit. I was amazed to find out that pretty much all those various brands are the same thing, made by the same company, but just labeled differently so that you think you're making a choice. Anybody who's raised kids immediately recognizes the old "forced choice" trick. The thing is, we don't normally expect to think of ourselves as the two-year-olds.

  54. Eric Titus Says:

    My problem at grocery stores isn't about choosing between products that are basically the same (toothpaste), but ones that are different but all fill the same niche (potato chips, tortilla chips, pretzels, etc). But in general, I just get the cheapest thing that isn't from the store brand and that works out.

    What is really amazing, though, is places like clothing stores that have 20 choices but none of them seem to fit just right!

  55. mel in oregon Says:

    here's something to think about, while you wallow in self pity. probably every post on here is written by a white male. so look at your ancestors in europe. many, many generations of peasants with no rights, no education & no hope of change. or look at most people in the world, 3 billion people in real poverty, hungry all the time, no hope for a better life for their children, & no hope of change. look at my ancestors (i'm cherokee), slaughtered by you "good" christians so you could steal our land & resources. look at black people, 300 million of their ancestors brought to this country as slaves so capitalist christians could exploit their labor to become wealthy landowners. the fact is the united states never had any prosperity for most people except for a few decades after ww2. then when other countries recovered from the war, & the united states began to have some competition, we started the long slow decline which has been going on for around 30-40 years. see, what the real problem is for you, is when the top capitalists in the united states only expoited people with dark skins, there was no problem for white people. now the corporate top executives & their toadies in the three branches of government know the united states cannot compete internationally, so they are exploiting not only the dark skins, but any white person that isn't wealthy. the extremely wealthy are beholden to no country, their only allegiance is to money. that's the beginning of knowledge.

  56. Carrstone Says:

    @Arslan;
    I agree with you – we didn't worry about excessive choice, we worried about the gross lack of choice. I know which worry I'd rather have.

  57. Elle Says:

    see, what the real problem is for you, is when the top capitalists in the united states only expoited people with dark skins, there was no problem for white people.

    I was at a meeting to discuss the impacts of the post-financial crisis global economy contraction on women, and there were a number of economists and policymakers from the Global South. They put it extremely nicely but there was a sense, as they listened to a bunch of Europeans describe the problem, of 'Shall we break out the world's smallest violin for you privileged bitches now? Welcome to the party.' Totally fair point.

  58. Eric Titus Says:

    @mel & @elle
    If I could have a nickel for every person who thinks that the problems they care about are more important than those of the next person, I'd be 6 billion nickels richer. I can understand the appeal of going to discussions about the glass ceiling and pointing out that Africans are even less likely than women to head Global 100 companies. But at best you'd win some people over to your opinion while hijacking a potentially useful conversation.

    For a long time, there have been groups of liberals in the US who do precisely what you want and think that what's important is solving someone else's problem, such as race relations or problems in the global south. A lot of those people were rightly called elitist and out of touch. The truth is that people are more effective and sensible when dealing with problems they can relate to on a personal level. That's why there have long been people in the US who feel exploited by the current system, contrary to Mel's claim. If the beginning of knowledge is to understand that the wealthy aren't looking out for the common good, the next step is to learn to express sympathy and solidarity with people with different grievances.

  59. Elle Says:

    @Eric

    I can understand the appeal of going to discussions about the glass ceiling and pointing out that Africans are even less likely than women to head Global 100 companies. But at best you'd win some people over to your opinion while hijacking a potentially useful conversation.

    I'm sorry, but I don't think I understand your point.

  60. Eric Titus Says:

    @Elle
    They put it extremely nicely but there was a sense, as they listened to a bunch of Europeans describe the problem, of 'Shall we break out the world's smallest violin for you privileged bitches now? Welcome to the party.' Totally fair point.

    In your example, whether women in the 'global north' are privileged compared to the 'global south' is unrelated to the question of how they're being effected by the recession.

    Similarly, african-americans have gotten the short end of the stick since the start of the US. Does that invalidate the grievances of today's youth? I'm reminded of seeing posts during OWS pointing out that now young white kids were learning what it's like to deal with a hostile police force. It makes sense to have that reaction, I just don't think it's that constructive.

  61. Elle Says:

    In your example, whether women in the 'global north' are privileged compared to the 'global south' is unrelated to the question of how they're being effected by the recession.

    Not really. Women (in a substantive, not a descriptive sense) in the North are closer to macroeconomic levers than women in the South. Economic policy articulations may be fantastically ungendered in the North, but women in the South are even less visible.

    I think there is value in having a real conversation about appropriation. It's a constant that ideas articulated by the powerful resonate to a greater degree than those articulated by the non-powerful. Whomever the non-powerful are, depending on the lens being applied to a circumstance, a sense of frustration that their work to identify and label a problem is being lifted wholesale by the powerful, is understandable. Struggles over turf are not just about individual or organisational ego. If you lose your seat at the table, then you lose influence over policy, access to funding, and your identity as expert. There is no guarantee that whomever appropriates your idea will represent the community of interest you represent in taking it forward.

    To use your example, if OWS succeeded in creating some kind of police/OWS liaison body, and that body did not have a race-sensitive analysis of police/community relations, they would not be effective in representing a community or communities who had already done work to identify specific problems with policing.

    I do agree that nothing is an unworthy topic of discussion, interest, or concern. I just don't guarantee that I'll find it interesting to discuss it, or that I'll be concerned about it.

  62. bb in GA Says:

    @mel

    Your litany is one that is sung often by the Left. Some good points.

    However, your slavery math is inaccurate, best I can tell.

    "From the 16th to the 19th centuries, an estimated 12 million Africans were shipped as slaves to the Americas.(see Slavery in the Americas)[3][4] Of these, an estimated ***645,000**** were brought to what is now the United States.[5] By the 1860 United States Census, the slave population in the United States had grown to four million.[6]"

    The 4 million arises because of slavery in perpetuity (i.e. children of slaves belong to the owner of the parents.)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery_in_the_United_States

    Let's round the US number up to 1 million. You say 300 million. That's 2 orders of magnitude discrepancy. Typo? IF not, would you share a source?

    From Jamestown in 1607 to the outlawing of importation of slaves via the US Constitution in 1808, your 300 million would require something on the order of:

    300E6/ 200 years = 1.5 million people per year for 200 hundred years straight.

    If we assume 500 people per ship that would be 3000 ships per year for 200 years. And for the first 50 – 100 years there is no place to land which makes the numbers get worse.

    "It has been estimated that in 1600, the population of Africa stood at about 50 million people, or thirty per cent of the combined populations of the New World, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. By 1900 the population of Africa had grown to 70 million, but made up only ten per cent of the total combined population. Furthermore, the population of Africa in 1850 has been estimated to have been only about half of what it would have been had slavery and the slave trade not been a factor in African history."

    http://www.ucalgary.ca/applied_history/tutor/migrations/four5.html

    As you can readily see, your number exceeds the total population of all Africa several times over in the centuries involved.

    "The Truth don't need no proppin' up" – Old Southern saying

    Indeed, it's bad enough as it is…

    //bb

  63. Major Kong Says:

    @bb

    "One death is a tragedy. A million deaths is a statistic." – Joseph Stalin

    So what if it was only 1 million? That's still a pretty huge number.

    Heck, we only lost 54,000 in Vietnam but we felt it was noteworthy enough to build a monument.

  64. Eric Titus Says:

    Elle, I think we're in agreement about this, and it's simply a matter of perspective. Being a white male, I probably am more likely to think people should jump on board if an idea they've always supported begins to have mainstream (i.e. white, middle-class) appeal.
    But I also think that coming together sometimes requires accepting the support and enthusiasm of some new group, even if that group is new to the party and rather naive.

  65. Arslan Says:

    it.

    "1. If there is a lack of consumer brand diversity across the board, then that eliminates the variety that the people want (in my case, beer) as well as the variety that they can do without (toothpaste)."

    Since humankind got along fine without any brands whatsoever, this was not the massive problem you think it was. The majority of Soviet citizens came from peasant roots, so what seems like a paltry lack of brands to you looked like a cornucopia to many of them.

    "2. Government subsidized culture is okay, as long as the culture that the people want to enjoy is the same as that which the government chooses to subsidize. As cund-gulag pointed out, many Russians were more interested in the Beatles than the Bolshoi."

    Forgive me if I don't take his pithy liberal claim seriously, since I live in Russia and am more than familiar with the culture. This is the Western liberal narrative of Soviet history which, like liberalism in general, isn't connected with material reality.

  66. Xynzee Says:

    @elle and mel: well that's their fault for choosing to not be born rich Anglo-European males ;)

    All Randian humour aside, if you're going to get into a slinging match of most hardly done by peoples I think Terra Nullis beats your Treaties and enslavement. So that makes it a toss up between the Aboriginals and Japan's Ainu. Though the award goes by default to the native Tasmanians. They're all dead.

  67. Elle Says:

    Elle, I think we're in agreement about this, and it's simply a matter of perspective.

    I don't think we are, because I see actively including all perspectives as fundamental to the policy process, which I think should be as participatory as possible. But it's okay to disagree.

  68. Elle Says:

    if you're going to get into a slinging match of most hardly done by peoples

    Nope, that's unrelated to my point, and I don't think that was Eric's point, either.

  69. Jimcat Says:

    Arslan, I'll concede that you know Russians better than I do, and the system of limited consumer choice and state approved culture may indeed work better _in Russia_. But on the other hand, I live in America and am quite familiar with the culture here, and I know that it wouldn't work for us.

    Three-quarters of my ancestors originated in Poland and Lithuania – parts of the Russian sphere of influence for centuries. Come the 20th century, they had the choice to live in communist Russia or capitalist America. None of them decided to go back to the USSR after experiencing the brutal capitalist oppression of the working class.

  70. bb in GA Says:

    @major

    Any detail in my post that would lead you to think I was minimizing anything? I'm sorry if that is so.

    How would you receive it if I posted that Hitler was responsible for the death of 500 million Jews in Europe during WW II? Since that number vastly exceeds the number of Jews in the world…etc. If I correct the record, does that mean that I am minimizing the Holocaust?

    How about the US govt killing off 50 million Cherokee during the Trail of Tears? Same thing…by estimating the actual number, I have minimized nothing, have I?

    Somewhere between Lord Kelvin:

    "I often say that when you can measure what you are speaking about, and express it in numbers, you know something about it; but when you cannot express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a meagre and unsatisfactory kind; it may be the beginning of knowledge, but you have scarcely, in your thoughts, advanced to the stage of science, whatever the matter may be."

    and Einstein:

    "Everything that can be counted does not necessarily count; everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted."

    is the happy place to live, but I think the historical record deserves our effort at accuracy.

    //bb

  71. Bernard Says:

    lol, the end of the affluence in America is what shows the bare facts of "propagand". thanks to the Republican party the mask has been peeled back over how most Americans live. though, most Americans still believe the BS coming from the Republican/Democratic Elites.

    that the newer generations, whatever their labels are finding an America not at all like their parents and grandparents means it is time to wake up and see the reality, which i think Occupy did a little exposing of.

    my parents were of the Depression. and i will never be able to do as well as they did. thanks to the Decline and Fall of the American Empire. lots of causes to that downward trend for all the rest of us worker bees.

    waiting and watching for the younger generations to see "reality" as it is today is a most fascinating exercise.

  72. Archery Journal Says:

    I like your blog. Ed, What motivated you to call this blog "TOO MUCH", not that the title does not go with the content, I am just wondering. Well put Ed.

  73. Omahacrab Says:

    Just on your toothpaste point. You'll enjoy:

  74. Rachel Says:

    I sent this to my friend while stocking up my new apartment:

    "WHY ARE THERE SO MANY DIFFERENT TYPES OF HAND SOAP, PLEASE KILL ME"

    also, this XKCD comic is relevant to the toothpaste packaging. http://xkcd.com/993/ (sorry if this was posted…I admittedly did not want to scour all these comments)