If you've turned on the tube these last few weeks, you've probably been a collateral casualty of the biggest televisual war of attrition in recent memory. No, I'm not talking about the scripted skirmishes between cable channels, nor am I referring to the Battle of Zombie Talking Points that ate most of our brains during the election. I'm talking about the now never-ending throwdown between two of the most in-your-face salespeople our mediascape has ever manufactured: Geico's unnamed gecko and Progressive Insurance's chipper saleswoman, Flo.
No doubt, you know them both -- the green lizard's smile and cockney accent feign earnestness while the aproned Flo goes for the same effect through the saccharine enthusiasm of an “Office Space” character. It's mildly cute, but don't be fooled: As the best-known avatars of the insurance industry, these two are aggressively competing for our cash through re-education-camp levels of repetition, hoping to harass us into buying their product.
Certainly, there's nothing new about hard sells from TV charlatans. But these two represent something different, something apocalyptic -- and I say that not merely because their maddening ubiquity has driven me to the brink of insanity. I say it because they are peddling the kind of commodity that offers little tangible worth, waging a fight that promises no valuable innovation, and representing a larger insurance and finance sector that's hollowing out our economy.
Think about it: The gecko and Flo do not embody the capitalist vision of private competition fostering innovations that serve the greater good. They are not, say, two private manufacturers grabbing for customers in an entrepreneurial competition that will result in major technological advances.
Instead, the gecko and Flo front an insurance and related banking sector that is a government-supported endeavor -- car and health insurance are mandated and/or subsidized by the state, and deposits are federally guaranteed. This sector, which pools collective resources for (theoretically) collective benefits, provides services that are obviously crucial to the economy. But those services produce little added value beyond their baseline functions -- and that’s why the sector was once regulated like a utility.
Of course, such regulations were eviscerated in recent years, with the promise that competition would encourage self-regulating safeguards and value-added innovation. But as the AIG collapse, the Wall Street meltdown and periodic insurance premium increases exemplify, the effect has been the opposite. Rather than building real wealth for society, unregulated competition between the geckos and the Flos in the insurance and finance sector has often meant fine-print terms like "recission," esoteric maneuvers like "securitization" and acronym-cloaked schemes like CDOs -- that is, ever-more complex "innovations" to reduce customer payouts, increase fees, maximize private profit and limit executive liability, all under the TV-commercial guise of allegedly lower prices and better consumer returns.
In the global economy's increasingly fierce fight for genuine value and better living standards, this might not be so problematic if America's wealth-creating sectors (i.e., making things or providing valuable services) remained substantially larger than wealth-cannibalizing sectors like insurance and finance. But since the 1980s’ decline of manufacturing, the insurance and finance sector has doubled its share of gross domestic product, hitting 8 percent last year. That's twice as large as both the construction and information sectors -- and ongoing taxpayer bailouts promise to exacerbate the asymmetry even more.
This is certainly great for insurance companies -- for example, it provides them excess billions to buy an absurd amount of ads. For the rest of us, though, the growing imbalance between real wealth creation and worthless paper pushing is bad news -- and that’s why the gecko and Flo are so deeply disturbing. More than just the moment's most annoying shills, they are the cheeky visages of our nation's long-term economic decline.