by Daniel A. Kaufman

Righteous Business

Ideological do-goodism has infected American business – or at least some of American business – to the point that I find myself pining for rapacious capitalists.

Just this past April, my parents were visiting us, for Pesach, as well as for my daughter’s fourteenth birthday.  (This year, the birthday and first-night Seder were just a few days apart.)  I booked them at the Hilton, which is quite near to our house, with the idea that it would mean they would have to do less driving.  My father is 88 and my mother 84.   They always rent a car when they come, because they like to be able to go out and do stuff on their own (the secret to a good visit is not to spend too much time together), and it’s always an SUV, because my father’s knees are so bad that he can’t get in and out of a regular car.

After following them from the airport, we met in the hotel parking lot, where I was surprised to discover that every single available decent spot – i.e. every empty spot even remotely near the hotel doors – was “Reserved for Drivers of Hybrid Cars.”  So, my parents had to park on the other side of the lot, forcing them to undergo a substantial hike, just to walk through the doors of the hotel in which they had paid money to stay, because they did not drive a hybrid.  Once inside, I saw that this sort of green politics was being prominently featured, with all sorts of signs indicating what Hilton was doing about “climate change” and congratulating itself for it.

The experience elicited an interesting mixture of puzzlement and infuriation.  I expect millennial hipsters to be confused about what a business is – after all, they’re the ones who gave us the artisanal-hobbyist-startup that is more concerned with being “socially conscious” than making money — but a massive, established corporation like Hilton?  Punishing its own customers for driving normal cars? In the service industry?  The mind reels.  And the blood boils.

Let’s provide some clarity for the (obviously many) mixed-up folks across the land.  A business has one purpose: to provide goods and/or services in exchange for money.  That’s it.  A business is not a charity.  A business is not an environmentalist commune.  A business is not a welfare-office for Social Justice Warriors.  A business is a provider of goods and/or services to customers, in return for money.  And if it’s a for-profit business, it is also supposed to be making – in the sense of netting – money, for providing those goods and services.

It seems odd to have to point out that one customer’s money is as good as another’s.  If I owned a store, it would be incredibly stupid to implement a policy that would make customers who vote Republican stand at the back of the line, behind those who vote for Democrats.  Why?  Well, for one thing, the Republicans’ money has exactly the same value as the Democrats’ does, and for another, Republicans may make up a significant part of my clientele.  (In this area of the country, they make up a sizeable majority.)  Why would I want to piss them off, given that I am running a business, whose purpose, after all, is to … sell things for money?

But what if I think that it’s really important that people vote Democrat?  That the country will devolve into anarchy and chaos, if Donald Trump is elected?  That our lives depend on it?  (I’ve heard many earnest – and not so earnest – liberals talk this way.)  These are great reasons to start a Hillary (or Bernie) PAC.  To man the barricades at anti-Trump protests.  To campaign.  To badger your family and friends.  But they are not good reasons to make a Republican stand at the back of the line, in your store.  Nor are they good reasons to make your paying customers park a half-mile away from the front doors of your hotel.

Of course, there is zero chance that Hilton is sincere about any of this.  I very much doubt that the CEO of Hilton Worldwide is up at night, worrying about the well-being of the earth, no matter how many times the obviously environmentally committed and engaged Paris Hilton alerts him to the latest rise in CO2 levels. It’s a marketing ploy  — sort of like CVS’s solemn announcement that they will no longer sell cigarettes and tobacco products, because it is “inconsistent with our purpose – helping people on their plan to better health.” (2)  The difference, of course, is that CVS’s brave stand on tobacco comes after several decades of a wildly successful, society-wide effort to villainize smoking and smokers and at a point when they are already tremendously unpopular.  The selfless company is thus rather late to the moral party, but it’s a cheap way of scoring extra marketing points and likely costs them very little.

Paris Hilton

Hilton’s move is more mystifying.  Cars are not unpopular in the United States – quite the opposite – and electric cars, like the Toyota Prius, are only about 4% of the US car market.  One gets the impression that the idea is to tap into the ineffable marketing power of “cool”; to seem to be “with it” and thus curry favor with elite opinion, media types, and the younger demographic.  In this sense, Hilton is like a designer, who makes clothes for Americans who are a size 0 – a tiny number of people, but incredibly chic.  Of course, if you ask who actually makes more money selling clothes, these designers or Wal-Mart, the answer is Wal-Mart – totally; completely; overwhelmingly.   And unlike the people who buy clothes from top designers, who are fabulously wealthy and can afford thousands of dollars for shoes or cocktail dresses, the hipster, eco-obsessed population that might find Hilton’s screwing of regular car drivers appealing have no fucking money at all.  There are a hell of a lot more people like me than like them, and I – and the rest of my family – will never stay at a Hilton again.  And the more that companies act like this and try to bully their customers in this way, the less, not the more likely I am to buy a hybrid car.  It’s precisely this sort of thing that is the reason why the internet is overflowing with anti-hybrid – and especially, anti-Prius – images and memes.  Just as the incessant moral policing of every word that comes out of our mouths has made more and more people find the noxious rantings of Donald Trump appealing, this kind of relentless effort to force people to be moral in their car ownership just makes more and more people want to drive gas guzzling exhaust belchers.  If the aim is to make more people environmentally conscious, I can’t imagine a worse way of going about it.



Military Attitudes

I live in one of the most rah-rah military! parts of the country, so I can’t go anywhere or watch or listen to anything without being barraged with pro-military messages.  “Armed Forces Friday!” where the local radio station urges everyone to wear red, so as to “Support the Troops!”  Advertisements for a local roofing company – pronounced ‘ruffing’, in these them here parts – in which roofing is never once mentioned, but in which the company’s owner tells us in soulful tones that when we see a veteran we should “give him a little salute,” in order to show our appreciation for his “defending our freedoms.” Even a mind-boggling roadside billboard, the left panel of which carries an anti-abortion message, featuring the obligatory precious baby, and the right panel of which is a Marine recruitment advertisement.  Don’t abort your baby!  Let him grow up, so we can kill him later!

Of course, this isn’t just going on here, but across the country – only not as much.  On a flight to New York not too long ago – I can’t remember which airline — a perky stewardess announced over the PA that we had a number of military servicemen and women on board and asked us to give them a round of applause.  When I failed to do so and asked somewhat loudly why we weren’t giving a round of applause to the hospice workers on the plane or the pre-school teachers, the looks I got made me feel like I had expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler or shouted Allahu Akbar! while sporting an explosive vest.

All of these sorts of experiences have been accumulating in the back of my mind for years, but I haven’t felt much need to speak out on the subject – it also seemed…well…safer not to – but a recent one pushed me over the edge.  My daughter and I attended the high school graduation of a close friend, and at one point in the ceremony, the Principal called attention to the students who were enlisting in the Armed Forces and asked everyone to stand and give them a round of applause.  Here we were, at a high school graduation ceremony, listening to a celebratory speech by the school’s top administrator – the guy, presumably, who has the greatest investment in the well-being of the young people over which he has exercised stewardship through their adolescence – and what he wants us to celebrate the most is the fact that a bunch of his students are going to go and get their arms and legs blown off in Afghanistan or Iraq or some other Third-World country we have no business being in.  Not the students who are the top academic achievers and who are going off to America’s finest universities.  (Actually, there aren’t any of those – we live in a place that is so ignorant and confused about education that it incentivizes its top students to go to local community colleges (the ridiculous “A-Plus” program)).  Not the students who are going to devote their lives to service to the poor and vulnerable.  No, what we should celebrate are the students who are going to go and get maimed and killed or maim and kill other people.  This is what passes for aspiration for one’s children, in the buckle of the Bible Belt.

I am not a pacifist.  War is sometimes necessary, and we need to be ready for it.  But it’s a terrible, awful, tragic kind of necessity.  The sort that one takes with the utmost seriousness and which is a cause for lament.  It is not the kind of thing for which one cheerleads or celebrates.  My father is a veteran of the Israeli War of Independence.  He does not call himself a “warrior” – the most recent development in American rah-rah military lingo – he does not wear skull-emblazoned “Death From Above” ball-caps, and he does not walk around in clothes covered in military patches.  He will tell you that war is miserable; that militaries are bureaucratic and brainless and unethical; and that people should thank God every day they don’t have to put on a uniform and take up a weapon.  Americans used to know this – the great tradition of military humor from Bill Mauldin to M.A.S.H. testifies to it – but, lately, our attitudes on this subject seem to have become completely unhinged, redolent of some loser with a Soldier of Fortune subscription and a gun collection, rather than the noble – and wise – example of Willie and Joe.

Bill Mauldin









16 responses to “Provocations”

  1. Dan: “But it’s not a good reason to charge a Republican more for a jar of peanut butter in your store. And it’s also not a good reason to make your paying customers park a half-mile away from the front doors of your hotel.”

    This strikes me as straw manish. How would you tell Democrats from Repubs any more than the Donald can tell Moslems from Christians or Mexicans.

    Basic supply and demand will equalize the peanut butter price even in Socialist Sweden [a].

    The ‘babushka’ ladies who ran the ran the library at Northwestern U Law School when Margaret worked there always wore head scarfs. They were orthodox Christians. At most you can make a statistical guess.

    The Repubs may dress better on the average – though you’d end up not selling peanut butter to my mother who dressed like Nancy Reagan, but voted for Stevenson (that’s really ‘died-in-the-wool’) and Jimmy back in the day.

    Presumably all those Hilton eco car spaces [b] are a marketing ploy which Hilton thinks will get them more customers (seems unlikely but they didn’t ask me). It is capitalism at work!

    What you need is a little (but not too much – that’s called ‘liberal’) socialism making Hilton put a reasonable number of ‘gimp’ spaces close to the door whatever their hair-brained marketers are telling them is ‘best’ for bidniss.

    [a] Where peanut butter is very expensive because only Americans buy it. Low demand seems to fail to lower the price likely because we’ll (Repubs and Dems) buy it at any price and Swedes won’t buy it at any price.

    [b] Such a rule is likely not even legally enforceable. You could have just have parked there anyway and if it made your parents uncomfortable just tell the staff. I recently parked my wife at a Hilton while our floors were being done. I was able to find a very good ‘gimp’ space near the elevator once we were checked in (they were sparse near the main entrance, so I dropped her off with her caregiver). The handicap spaces are, of course, legally endorsable, but we have a permit.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the net Carbon emission of Hilton printing all those signs and then disposing of them was larger than the marginal gains from people who by a Tesla so they can get I good parking space at a Hilton. Think of the trees …

    My father used to just park anyway in ‘small car spaces’ that were once fashionable. They were a little tight but his depth perception was still good. He used to say he’d not park in them when they provided ‘big car only’ spaces too. Which is not such a crazy idea as a suitable mixture could increase the total number of cars that could be parked in a given lot, providing you could prevent the little guys from hogging the big spaces.

  2. You make this sound like a trendy favoritism of hybrids; don’t hybrids need to be near a power source? Anyway, especially if one has bad knees, one should drive up to the entrance and tell a doorman or bellhop, concierge or even the desk. They will park for you. And however narrowly you define a business, marketing (even misguidedly) is surely a legitimate part of it. Also, there must be both an ethical and a legal component of the exchange of goods/services for $$: the exchange must be perceived as fair or fair market or it’s a criminal enterprise or racket, which I would not call a business (except cynically). So there is an implicit ethical component to business. Hotels are phantasmagoric, their goods/services provided reach into all aspects of one’s existence, temporarily replacing them with simulations. Putting one’s parents up in a nearby hotel can be so stressful.

  3. Björn Carlsten


    I would suppose that most readers who aren’t Americans sympathise with what you’re saying about cheer-leading for the military. As far as I’m concerned, unconditional exaltation of soldiers is not only ostentatious and dangerous–considering that it conditions us to tolerate abuses committed by soldiers or those purporting to legislate on their behalf–but also ultimately disrespectful towards the men and women serving in the armed forces. It seems to me–though I’m reluctant to say so, not being from America and all–that people have this idea that paying compliments to soldiers absolves them (the people) from doing anything real (and therefore inconvenient and costly) to contribute to those very soldiers’ well-being. For instance, I think it would be a greater service to soldiers everywhere if we did everything we possibly could to reduce the number of unnecessary wars. This would include voting warmongers out of office; publicly criticizing destructive policies; and also criticizing, condemning and even prosecuting the military, including the soldiers that comprise it, when they make avoidable mistakes. My prejudices tell me this would be interpreted as “anti-military” or “disrespect for the troops” in some corners of the US, but I think the alternative is responsible for a higher body count.

    As for do-gooder businesses… I share your weariness of moralizing, and it strikes me as particularly disingenuous when corporations engage in the practice. Obviously they don’t act out of the goodness of their hearts–they don’t have any, what with being immortal psychopaths and all–and its clear that they perceive some advantage to acting as they do. On the other hand, I don’t really see what we can do about it. As long as marketing is legal, businesses will be conscious of their image and how to manipulate the public’s perception of it. I suppose consumers can choose to only patronize businesses who act with naked greed and who conduct themselves without schmaltzy concessions to “morality”, but good luck encouraging people to do so, and even if that happened, I can’t imagine it would result in a better situation than what we have now.

    Regardless, consider me provoked, which means this was undoubtedly a successful effort on your part.

  4. Hi Dan, so first you alienate the left, and then proceed to alienate the right. Well played, sir. 🙂

    If Hilton was so eco-friendly perhaps they should offer to upgrade their customers’ nonhybrids with hybrids or full electrics. That would not hurt anyone, and might drive customers their way. Oh, yeah… no profit in that. It is weird to think of the customers driving hybrids who actually think such a policy means anything regarding that company’s commitment to the environment. Do they at least have solar panels on all their hotels? Windfarms on their properties? Ah yes, you do the work, we’ll reserve a space for you up front.

    On (over-)treatment of soldiers as heroes. I actually think it makes sense to respect those that end up making a commitment to physical defense of… well… anyone. It does involve personal sacrifice and risk which most other jobs don’t. But there is a sense of pride and heroism and better than everyone-else-ism which is unwarranted and even unhealthy. Maybe it’s a by-product of the honest respect/nostalgia people have for those that fought in the last “good war” (WW2), or the establishment of the jaded military-industrial complex that needs fresh bodies.

    As for me I would have served in the military, with the hope I would not have to kill, but my choice of who I have sex with precluded that option. Assuming I got to be in the military, I always felt the Taoists had it right on attitudes towards war and those that make war…

    From the Tao Te Ching ( chapter 31

    Good weapons are instruments of fear; all creatures hate them.
    Therefore followers of the Tao never used them.
    The wise man prefers the left.
    The man of war prefers the right.

    Weapons are instruments of fear; they are not a wise man’s tools.
    He uses them only when he has no choice.
    Peace and quiet are dear to his heart.
    And victory no cause for rejoicing.
    If you rejoice in victory, then you delight in killing;
    If you delight in killing, you cannot fulfill yourself.

    On happy occasions precedence is given to the left,
    On sad occasions to the right.
    In the army the general stands on the left,
    The commander-in-chief on the right.
    This means that war is conducted like a funeral.
    When many people are being killed,
    They should be mourned in heartfelt sorrow.
    That is why a victory must be observed like a funeral.

    Based on this concept I submit that preparations for war, and the attendants of it, should equally be treated as preparations for a funeral, and the attendants of such. Not a celebration, not a cause for applause.

  5. synred: Not sure I see what’s “strawmanish” about it. Nor do I see the problem with the analogy. *If* you could tell who was an R and who was a D, it would be ridiculous to disadvantage one of them in line, regardless of whether you think one of them is “socially responsible” while the other is not. Similarly, that Hilton does not think my father is being as socially responsible as a Prius owner is no reason for them to disadvantage him as a customer.

  6. dbholmes wrote:

    I actually think it makes sense to respect those that end up making a commitment to physical defense of… well… anyone. It does involve personal sacrifice and risk which most other jobs don’t.


    The problem is that the American military hasn’t been defending American citizens, since the Second World War. We’ve just been invading and attacking third world countries that we could defeat with one submarine. (As well as the occasional atavistic European, a la Milosovic.)

  7. Our local shopping centre have these “hybrid only” parking spaces, in some cases they are better than the disabled spaces.

    But, looking at the cars parked there, you would be surprised what is a hybrid. I had no idea the 1972 Ford GTHO was a hybrid. Or a 1974 Volkswagen beetle for that matter.

    Well, you get the idea. It is, as the saying goes, a sign, not a policeman. Your father should just damn well park the SUV there and if the hotel doesn’t like it then they can suit themselves. Certainly nobody at our shopping centre appears to heed these signs. Certainly I have never heard of a hybrid owner who is calling out for this peculiar form of special treatment.

  8. Robin, there was a towing threat along with the sign. We were not going to take the chance that my elderly parents would have to deal with a towing situation.

    And no, I do not personally blame this on Hybrid owners. But it is precisely the sort of thing that does.

  9. Hi Dan, though I generally agree with what you said*, doesn’t that argue soldiers shouldn’t hold much respect for us, rather than the other way around? I mean, given that military personnel don’t dictate how we use them, and in some cases have little control over whether they served, it does seem a bit like blaming the victim.

    The purpose of the military is supposed to be necessary defense, and outside of psychos and war junkies most join (even if naively) with that expectation. That they haven’t been used that way is on us, right?

    *caveats: I don’t see our use of military in Afghanistan as fitting your description.

  10. dbholmes:

    I actually think the volunteer, professional military is a large part of the problem. I *think* I am for universal conscription. Two points:

    –With universal conscription, we would enter far fewer wars.

    –With a volunteer, professional military, one self-selects for those who are inclined towards violence and dysfunctional behavior. (I am *not* making the point that this is what characterizes everyone who volunteers, but rather, that it does select for such people, whereas universal conscription does not. (And I don’t think it is an accident that we’ve had increases in police brutality, now that police departments recruit more and more from ex-military personnel. Compare the fat, Irish cop with a revolver from the 50’s with the muscle bound, buzz-cut, AR 15 packing guy you get today.)

  11. Hi Dan, while I’d like to think universal conscription would get us fewer wars, it would have to be real universal conscription. So far people manage to get exceptions (particularly for the wealthy) which means that will not stop many.

    I half agree with what you are saying about the so-called volunteer, professional military. It does attract psychos and war junkies. And the military seems to want such people. Plus, the fact that it has this image, means people feel freer to use it in less responsible ways.

    However, given the horrible economic system the US has, which withholds important public services from the poor unless they volunteer for military service (services found as basic in all first world western nations) I do not consider our military truly voluntary. There are no press gangs, but it employs coercion. And what you just said about the quality of recruits they are bringing in, points to how un-professional it has become. It was almost funny to watch (as a bisexual) how low they were willing to drop their standards for criminal behavior, and not budge an inch on their sexual orientation “standards”.

  12. I agree with virtually all of this. The way the military is recruiting — with ads reminiscent of some infantile Call of Duty video game — is indicative that they are trying to appeal to exactly the types I am talking about.

  13. By the way, I replied to your last email. Did you get it?

  14. Yes, admittedly just tonight… I’ll be responding momentarily!

  15. I’m going to pass along some silliness I just spotted – I think this thread could use some:

    OT: guess who else has been writing replies to Pigliucci? From the looney faction of social epistemology — those who see Alvin Goldman as a an anglophone analytic philosopher fuddy-duddy, and Bruno Latour as a sellout — comes this second-guessing of:

    “How Should Feyerabend* have Defended Astrology?”

    (the article may be disappointingly sensible sounding despite the title).

    The world is full of craziness and >>I say we should develop a sort of connoisseurship for it<< even as we try to make the world more sane. DBHOLMES I just bet the Dalai Lama and (Thich Nhat Hanh) would approve even if it's not their particular style. I wonder what you think?

    More on topic, Well Dan I sympathize really I do my parents are about the same age and I'd hate to see them put through that but businesses will annoy you through their overzealous pursuit of profit (Amazon does that to me every day because I'm one of their so-called business partners) or they can annoy you with hypocricical "greenness".

    * I dictated this into my phone's speech-to-text input, and had to correct "Hell fire Robin" for "How Feyerabend" — also "Pigly you see" for you know who.