Thursday, April 03, 2014

Impressions of America

There are characteristics of the United States that, living in Australia, I forget but which I remember lamentably upon revisiting. The hotel information card tells me that they've designed the "Link@Sheraton™ experience with Microsoft™, a connectivity hub in our lobby." It reminds me that every aspect of life in the US is commercialised. Nothing is unsullied by it. It unsettles me that the room service menu in my hotel room opens with "Brighten your diet with Color Your Plate™, a simple approach to eating right by adding colourful foods to your meals." (It goes on to provide oversimplified and perhaps questionable conclusions that red foods such as tomatoes and watermelon support the circulatory system, yellow foods like pineapple and squash optimise brain function, and so on for blue and green and other pretty, marketable colours of the rainbow.) I certainly won't argue against promoting healthy food choices, and good on the Sheraton for including it in their menu, but must we trademark it? Is the simple pleasure of eating forgotten by people and now usurped by the powers of commercial interests? Remember what it was like to be human, and to simply say, "mmm, I love pineapple"? All right, I'm in a hotel and it's a commercial environment. But this quality of pervasive commercialism was born here in America.

Another characteristic of American life is tipping wait staff. Here is a shameful demonstration of laissez-faire market economics trammeling the common worker: tipping for survival. Wait staff are underpaid. All of them. If patrons halted tipping en masse, an entire section of the working population would, after work and commuting expenses, be working practically for free, so miserly is the minimum wage system. Using the Australian example as an alternative, the union award system provides just recompense for the type of work, whereby waiters and waitresses earn a living wage paid by the employer, not by the customer. (Tips exist, of course, but are for good service as opposed to being obligatory.) This means personnel costs are higher and so restaurant opening hours are often shorter; 24-hour places in Sydney are rare. This in turn means patrons have less opportunity to patronise, less opportunity to go out and spend money and lubricate the gears of the economy, and fewer opportunities to be consumers. And therefore greater opportunity to be people, or citizens, to rediscover the things in life that have true value rather than apparent value: playing football with your kids; debating social policies and civic life with friends; throwing the stick for the dog; having a good meal for the joy of company and good food—food that is not a registered trademark.

This all sounds conspicuously socialist. Perhaps Cuba is calling.

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