What Else Don’t We Know?

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On our recent trip to Europe, we flew into Venice, rented a car, and drove through Trieste into Croatia. The car was a six-speed VW Golf with a TDI Clean Diesel engine.

 

It could really scoot. It was fun to drive. It was very comfortable for the four of us.

 

Of course, now I know that as we scooted up and down the Dalmatian coast, our Golf was emitting up to 40 times more pollutants than VW had reported to regulatory agencies and advertised to the public.

 

Turns out that some time ago, the company developed and installed on millions of its cars an auxiliary emissions control device (AECD) — a so-called “defeat” device — that is designed to reduce emissions from its “clean diesel” engines only when the cars are being tested. For everyday driving, the AECD overrides the system. Thus the scootability of our VW Golf.

 

Naturally, everyone’s shocked.

 

But as Richard Conniff writes in The New York Times, at some point we’re all going to have to wise up:

For the rest of us, we need to acknowledge that some of our favorite phrases — “clean diesel,” “green car” and apparently also “corporate responsibility” — are just a contradiction in terms. But that shouldn’t let us off the hook either. Every time we complacently accept some company’s green-scamming promises, we allow ourselves to become the gullible partners in crimes against one another, and the Earth. And that makes us all just a nation of willing fools.

So is anything for real in our global corporatocracy? Er, apparently not.

 

For example. You were promised a pension. You were planning to retire on it, but before that time comes, your employer announces that your plan is grossly underfunded (how did that happen?), persuades the powers-that-be that the company itself is in financial distress (according to one set of books, anyway), and asserts that it must terminate your pension plan to save the business. Poof! (Never fear, your union’s got your back! Oh wait …)

 

Or you naively assume that when it comes to investing in those same corporations (hey, maybe they could use the money to restore their defined-benefit plan!), the playing field is level. Then you find out that high-frequency traders with advanced computers and sophisticated algorithms and high-speed connections directly into the stock exchange (even using lasers!) are cutting the line. It’s worse than you thought: not only is the field tilted against you, but your opponent is also starting play on your own five-yard line.

 

But what choice do you have? Stuff cash under a mattress? So you go ahead and invest your retirement savings, through your 401(k), in mutual funds. When you realize that your savings has been invested not in a company that makes detergent or toilet paper but in complex financial instruments that hardly anyone understands, the value of which has nothing to do with reality and is instead entirely speculative, it’s too late. Kaboom. That’s the sound of the economy, driven off a cliff by Goldman Sachs.

 

Exhausted by trying to keep track of the queen of hearts in this game of three-card monte, you decide to numb yourself by watching television. Or cruising the Internet. Or reading a magazine. Hey, look! Apparently all you have to do is drink a Coke and — presto! — you’re back in the Garden of Eden. Youth, beauty, friends, money to burn. Who would have thought that flavored, carbonated sugar water could work such magic!

 

Okay, okay, you get my point. But now I have to worry: what else don’t we know? Just how far is Acme, Inc., willing to go to make a killing for senior management and Warren Buffett?

 

Look, I know this will sound crazy, but I’ve been thinking. In September 1990 and November 1995, nurses at a corporate-owned hospital brought into my wife’s room infants whom the nurses claimed were really and truly our sons. But are they? How can we be certain? For that matter, are our “boys” even human? Is it possible that the hospital handed over lifelike dolls equipped with “auxiliary human simulation devices”? Or could they be anthropomorphized credit default swaps? Or perhaps they’re some extremely elaborate form of product placement? (It’s true that I’ve noticed that they keeping dropping phrases like “Tostitos® Artisan Recipes® Baked Three Cheese Queso Flavored Tortilla Chips” into conversations with us.)

 

Food for thought. Or more properly, I suppose, Kirkland Signature® Disney® Whole Grain Breaded White Meat Chicken Nugget-Shaped Patties for thought.

 

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