Friday, February 11, 2011

Catalogs and affordable public transportation

Let me be honest here: I grew up in a big city in Hungary, under the Communist regime, and was, therefore, puzzled by the idea of catalog shopping: Why on earth would I want to buy jeans and shoes from a catalog? Without trying them on? Really? I understand I could return them if they didn't fit, but it still sounded like a weird phenomenon.

But after travelling a bit around California, I must confess, I am reformed. Now I see the immense impact of the possibility of ordering goods to be delivered by the U.S. Postal Service (a government agency that beats all the Communist "planned economy" propaganda by the almost impeccable performance of its duties).  I can now understand how important this lifeline to mainstream urban shopping establishments could serve in a country as vast as the United States.

My epiphany regarding the catalog phenomenon stems from my growing understanding of the importance of spatial context: in the U.S. rural people live in villages or towns much farther away from each other than those in Europe. Also, in Europe, the state subsidizes public transportation, but not the price of gasoline for individual transportation. And thus, in Europe, most women (because, let's face it, women still do most of the shopping) take the bus or train to the nearest town center to shop. In the U.S., one has to either drive her own car (expensive, cumbersome, and very tiring) or shop from catalogs. (Well, now we have the chance to shop online where ever we live, yet online shopping is, substantially, a form of catalog shopping.)

This cautionary tale of my reformation vis-a-vis mail-order catalogs is merely an illustration of what we may term spatial bias (just don't tell it to my economist and med-student friends). I was so enthralled by the urban shopping paradigm, and the type of rural environment present in Europe, that I became myopic in my inability to understand the effect of the American landscape on the importance of direct marketing.  Legal professionals, like myself, have to examine their own vision, their own perception of reality, and check their understanding of how the world works often for similar biases.


Jon di Cristina said...

I totally agree with the idea that catalog shopping solves an important spatial issue. When I was stationed in West Texas with the Air Force, was my very dear friend. But I wonder what the best solution is from an environmental standpoint? Is it better to bring individual items to rural people through the mail, or would it be better to construct a system wherein rural communities could more effectively get to hubs of commerce? Is it better to lead the horse to water, or carry water to the horse in multiple buckets?

Chez Marta said...

Jon, I guess you have to do individual cost/benefit analyses to determine this. But I think you would have to consider that the U.S. Postal Service is already providing services to the rural areas. Thus, the mail-order idea is a no-brainer.

Caitlin said...

I found this post particularly interesting in terms of differences between rural space in the United States versus rural places in other countries, such as Marta's own experiences in Hungary. Considering that on the international level, each country determines what "rural" means, my guess is that rurality and the use of space/isolation is entirely different in the United States versus places like Europe.

I am also constantly wondering whether the US made a huge mistake when it chose to subsidize gasoline for private vehicles over the European choice to subsidize public transportation over private transportation in its entirety. How has this difference in approach affected the class stratification here in the United States?