Choice in All Things: Consumer Financial Protection as the “Plain Vanilla Approach"

“[T]here's a view that says protect consumers by limiting the choices they have. Let's create one mortgage, one approved credit card, one of each, right, kind of a plain-vanilla approach to financial products. We don't think consumers benefit from fewer choices.” -- David Hirschmann, U.S. Chamber of Congress

Although you will not see any mention of “choice” as an inalienable right in the U.S. Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, or find any philosophical certitude supporting our exuberant American “free to choose” attitude, choice, and especially the proliferation of choice, is what our notion of freedom – existential – and liberty – political – seem to be all about.

On the political Conservative Right we have a deeply committed effort to provide Americans with opportunities to choose in every domain that is not illegal and on the political Liberal Left we have a deeply committed effort to protect Americans from the possible dire consequences of their own choices.

The Right portrays the Left here as an intrusive government cop in the dark tradition of all manner of dictatorial power. The Left portrays the Right as duplicitously supporting free consumer choice but actually inveigling that choice in sly chicanery and “branding” the psyche of that consumer with all manner of sly brainwashing – that is, advertising and marketing – tactics.

The Right believes in and upholds the notion of “free to choose,” of a consumer whose free choice rises above and trumps all manner of constraints while the Left recognizes the awful power of all manner of constraints and seductions to shape and influence a “free” choice that is thereby only free within those boundaries.

On which side does the present American cultural imaginary align itself? Quite simply, how do Americans prefer to see themselves, and, in effect, choose to see themselves? Once again, we have a Right/Left division: on the Right, the choice is the individual’s alone and on the Left how an individual may choose to align himself or herself may or may not be accommodated by a resident “order of things.”

Americans have a fiery response to this: their right to choose what suits them personally cannot be infringed upon and does not seek the accommodation of any power outside their own. It’s a sort of “Don’t Tread On Me!” defiance, a defiance once directed at George III’s monarchy but now replaced with the U.S. Federal Government itself. We choose to be free to choose because it is our inalienable right to do so. Thus, our choice in all things becomes a sign of our freedom, becomes in fact how we define freedom. As such, it – choice – must be cherished and protected. Progress is a continuous expansion of our freedom that is accomplished by a continuous expansion of our choices, of our opportunities to choose, of an arrangement of all things and all matters to what is subject to our choice. In this fashion, the world truly becomes our kingdom. Not “ours” in a plural, societal sense but “ours” individually and personally as we each exercise our “freedom to choose” … as we choose.

On this foundational psychic level, we are more attuned to the Right’s vehement opposition to any governance of our right to make individual choices than we are to the Left’s skepticism not only in regard to the “freedom” of our choices but also to the Right’s agenda in promoting a politics of visionary and simpleminded freedom. Both “visionary” and “simpleminded” are antagonistic to the “free to choose” individual who does not see the actuality of choices made daily both online and offline as “visionary” nor does the “free to choose” individual accept the notion that his or her mind can be overwhelmed by complexity or chicanery. In short, while the Right polishes the apple of personal ego, the Left tarnishes it by pointing out vulnerabilities and susceptibilities, addictions and dependencies, seductions and repressions.

The Left’s chances of making any cracks in the illusions of individual freedom to choose can be represented most easily by considering what we now mean by “The Left.” I mean that the “Left” of now has already had its “Leftness” shaped by the metanarrative of “individual freedom to choose.” It’s very difficult to critique anything from a socialist or social democratic or democratic socialist view because the underlying belief in all is that “society” means something good and positive, something helpful and civilizing. Unfortunately, anything “social” and “societal” has given way in the American cultural imaginary to what is “individual” and “personal.” Influencing conditions of our worldly surround have been trumped by personal choice.

It seems pretty clear even to this much diminished “Left” of today that the Great Recession of 2008 provides us with a clear illustration of how personal freedom to choose can be led astray, detoured, obstructed, bamboozled by a complexity of financial dealings expanded to global proportions. From the Right’s point of view, the collapse came about through various intrusions of the Federal Government into the housing market. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, stigmatized by some attachment to the Feds, forced choices upon a group of people – the Have Nots – choices that would not, in the normal transaction between products and consumers, been available.

A Congress more “Left” than Right at the time, as well as a President with developing affinities to the “Left,” responded from the “Left.” A Federal financial reform law was enacted and a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau formed. The grounding idea here was to prevent a repetition of the 2008 financial collapse by placing some protection between the freely choosing individual and whatever the market was pitching. Within the American cultural imaginary context I have been describing, neither the market nor the freely choosing American is attached, politically or psychically, to the need for Federal protection.

In a debate on the PBS News Hour, July 18, 2011, between Jeff Madrick of the “Left” leaning Roosevelt Institute and David Hirschman of the Right leaning U.S. Chamber of Congress, Madrik argued for clarity in standardization while Hirschman argued for the benefit to the consumer of lots of choices. Hirschman is not referring to product and service choices but to choices in consumer protection efforts. States should be free to choose to protect – or not – consumers as they see fit. Hirschman affirms that consumer protection is a good thing and even a better thing if every State goes about it, or not, in their own way. And the best that consumer protection can do in the way of protection is to inform consumers as to what choices they have. There is no benefit to consumers in Hirschman’s view in limiting the choices they have, that is, allowing Federal protection laws to trump States’ protection laws. He argues against the Feds establishing one “plain vanilla approach” to everyone.

What Hirschman does here is play the “personal free to choose” card. He can expect great success in doing so. Why? Because any association with a “personal free to choose” connects positively in the American cultural imaginary. Power resides here and not in any attempt to get in between the individual and his freedom, which historically has been defined differently, but now rest totally in “choice.”

The power of globalized techno-capitalism stands behind all the illusions of individual freedom and choice. It stands behind an American attachment to these because of American history, everything from a rugged individualism fostered by a Frontier spirit, to a geographical spaciousness that privileged a mythos of individual and not societal well-being, to an economic system that defines “winning” not collectively but personally.

The unquestioned circle of connections that holds on deeply with the American cultural imaginary is this: we choose to be free to choose because we are free to choose, the more choices we have, the freer we are as individuals, we achieve and fulfill our personal uniqueness by expanding our freedom to all things, capitalism proliferates choices to all things and therefore expands our freedom, allows us to become “all we can be.” “We” here always refers to “me,” to the first person singular and not plural.

It’s difficult to see how this cycle of illusions can be interrupted once it has become established. I mark Reagan, some thirty years ago, as a beginning, not the “new morning in America” beginning but rather an assault on reality by illusion beginning. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau goes right to the heart of the matter – consumption, freedom and protection. The intelligent “free to choose” individual is not opposed to “becoming informed.” Individuals can Google or Wiki or Twitter and so on. However, what we choose to Google is already influenced by what was once estimated as three thousand commercial messages a day but now in our cyberspace age that is no more than what we’re exposed to before breakfast. We are informed in the fashion of Huxley’s Brave New World. We can choose to choose to be unaffected by these, day after day, but that freedom is illusionary. Consider how Americans, in the face of increasing environmental degradation and gas prices, “choose” to drive SUV’s, a “personal” choice “freely” made that is neither personal nor freely made.

Our Millennial generation feels more capable of self-empowerment through cyber-tech and is therefore more inclined to believe in personal free choice and less inclined to accept any intrusion in that personal transaction. It is this disposition that will torpedo eventually any societal entitlement program. The preference is always for “personal choice,” a preference strengthened by the self-design nature of cyberspace.

The cyberworld is a world where an individual has spyware protection, can “un-friend” or “de-friend,” and can limit the offline world to a “networking circle.” The problems the “Left” is now having regarding the illusions of free choice are nothing compared to problems it will have with Millennials in their majority. No one feels that there is “one, plain vanilla approach” on Facebook, no template here of standardization meant to achieve clarity. And yet the Twitter/Facebook world is a world of what Huxley called “hypnopaedic phrases,” phrases already manufactured for our choosing. Clarity here, like choice itself, is what we personally choose, a notion of clarity that makes all things dark indeed.

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