Dan Popp
Vulture valentine (a response to Stephen Kokx)
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By Dan Popp
May 14, 2012

Wherever the corpse is, there the vultures will gather. — Jesus (Matt. 24:28, NASB)

Renew America columnist Stephen Kokx tackles a worthy subject in his recent essay, Pop culture and the meaning of work. But I believe he's laboring (pardon the pun) under some misconceptions.

The cable TV program Storage Wars is the example Stephen uses to illustrate several false concepts of work. If you haven't seen the show, it documents what happens after someone doesn't pay his rental fees for a storage locker: An auction is held, and the winning bidder tries to make a profit from his newly-acquired stuff.

To distill what I understand to be Mr. Kokx' points:

1) The show encourages gambling, which is (sort of) bad.

2) It condones theft.

3) It champions a "get-rich-quick" mentality.

4) Money is gained though no value is created.

5) The dignity of human beings is diminished.

6) Some people profit from the misery of others.

I'd like to respond briefly to each of these.

Gambling?

While bidding at these auctions usually isn't a "hobby" (as Stephen asserts), or a pastime like his card games, there is an element of chance present. I don't know why the buyers aren't permitted to inspect the contents of the units; my best guess is that small, valuable items might sprout legs and walk off if buyers were allowed to spend much time in these small spaces. But since the sellers and the buyers agree to the "blind" nature of the auction, it would be silly of me to insert my ignorance into the exchange and tell them that they're sinning.

Theft?

Mr. Kokx imagines that the person who rented the storage space is having his possessions stolen. He says, for example, "The problem with Storage Wars is not that the show itself is contingent upon the sad realization that some people are dispossessed of their assets." But who is being dispossessed of what?

When you sign a rental agreement with a storage company, it states right there in the contract that if you don't pay your bill for a certain number of months, whatever is in that space becomes the property of the company. There's nothing underhanded or even unusual about that. If you hire a contractor to work on your house but don't pay him, he then has the first claim on the value of your house. If you park your car in a private lot and don't pay the fee, you may be "hoofing it" for a while. People who park their belongings in a storage unit without paying for that service are stealing from the business owner. He is the one being "dispossessed" of his assets. These auctions are actually a remedy for that theft.

Get-rich-quick?

True, Storage Wars probably gives some people the notion that storage auctions are a ticket to instant wealth. Some of that may be the fault of the producers' desire to create drama where there's actually very little. But pro sports and the music industry and many other careers give impressionable people the same impression; that they're an easy route to fame and fortune. I think we have to lay most of the blame on viewer sloth and avarice.

Money for nothing?

Mr. Kokx thinks that no one on these shows is producing anything of value for his fellow man. But just because some uninitiated outsider doesn't see the value in a particular business transaction, that doesn't mean there is no value. We live in a complex society, where vocations are highly specialized. (And that's a good thing.) My relatives don't understand what I do for a living. I can't comprehend some of my friends' job titles. I would be wrong to conclude that, because I don't understand what they do, therefore they don't really do anything.

So what is the value of a scavenger?

Tonight is trash night in my neighborhood. This evening, well ahead of the city trash trucks, some entrepreneurs will make the rounds with their rusty pickups loading up discarded sofas, lamps and whatnot. These "vultures" will connect this unwanted stuff with someone who wants it. They might do a little repair, or pay to have it reupholstered. Maybe it only needs polishing or sorting to be desirable again. It could be that there's nothing wrong with it at all; the owner just got tired of looking at it. These people do the scouting, the inspecting, the lifting, the hauling, the cleaning, the sorting, the repairing, the brokering, the displaying, the eBay-ing, perhaps the disposing, and (we hope) the tax-paying.

You know, someone would have to pay me to do that. That's what I call "work."

Undignified?

I'm glad for, and a little bit inspired by, these scavengers. They rescue the remaining value in things. That makes us all a tiny bit richer. They keep stuff out of landfills for a little while longer, helping the environment. They bring affordable things to people who need affordable things. You know, like the poor. How is that not valuable, dignified, manual, intellectual, entrepreneurial, morally uplifting work?

The bidders on these auction shows are much the same. The storage-unit owner has a nuisance on his hands: a bunch of unwanted crap preventing him from renting his unit again. I suppose he could take it all out and burn it. But why destroy the value that may be there? Why not let someone take a risk — even an "extreme" risk if he so chooses — on the contents of that unit, and get it off the owner's hands? In that way he could simultaneously help the owner recoup some lost rental fees, help feed his own family, and help others looking for those items. That's undignified and un-Christian?

Tycoons of tragedy?

As to Mr. Kokx' complaint that the participants "cash in on the misfortune of others," I ask him to consider undertakers, repairmen of all kinds, insurance agents, roofers, policemen, firemen, EMTs and social workers, to start a very long list. Yes, it's sad that one man's misfortune is sometimes another man's fortune. But since there are misfortunes in this fallen world, it's nice that there are people who can help mitigate them. And who may even profit from them.

That's the market. Or, as some call it, "capitalism." When allowed to operate, it provides real work for Christians, and everyone else. I don't see anything wrong with that.

Stephen Kokx no doubt has some important insights on pop culture and the meaning of work; he just picked a poor example to make his point. If he's looking for TV shows that glorify legalized theft, extreme high-stakes gambling, get-rich-quick philosophies, negative productivity and human degradation — starring lowlifes who gain from the misery of others — he should click his remote over to C-SPAN.

© Dan Popp

 

The views expressed by RenewAmerica columnists are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of RenewAmerica or its affiliates.
(See RenewAmerica's publishing standards.)

 

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