Thursday, April 30, 2015

Department Stores

Back when I was a young child growing up in Melbourne my father used to take me on special outings to the Myer department store, usually around the time of my birthday or Christmas. We'd park outside the hospital where Dad taught and walk into the city. The smell of warm nuts would welcome me into the store, then we'd go up past the clothes, the sports and camping gear, up to the toy section where I would chose a Star Wars or Lego toy for my present and dream about getting another model train from their wall of them.

The Myer Flagship store in Melbourne

Later we moved to the city of Rockhampton in Central Queensland. We had a couple of father and son shopping days there too, where we'd wander around the city, looking for a present. Again, I longed for a department store like Myer. There was Stewarts, an old building with multiple levels. It had that sense of age about it, but it only sold clothes and soft furnishings, nothing of interest to a kid. That was disappointing.

Nearby, Milroys sold more, but I don't recall anything of interest there until its closing down sale when the shelves were filled with an strange selection of odds and ends: Racing car tracks without racing cars, a stack of Bib Fortuna Star Wars figurines.

And that was it for department stores in Rocky. There was the K-Mart, the BigW, but they are one storey, modern affairs, full of cheaper goods and no atmosphere.

To me a city isn't a real city unless it has a proper department store.

The Takashimaya department store in Matusyama, Japan.
But, according to the sales figures, the department stores are dying now. Their eclectic selections work against them in this consumerist society with all the world's goods at their fingertips. We all want the biggest ranges and the cheapest prices and too time poor to wander aimlessly we'll order it online and send it directly home.

As a consequence the department store has streamlined and reduced what it sells. I go into a Myer now and the toy section is often tiny and not just shrunk by adult eyes. No wall of Star Wars or model trains, just a few choices hanging on a rack (Lego might be the exception, with all their different options now). Computers reduced to a couple of small tables, maybe three brands in all.

I love the old fashioned department stores. I don't know why. Maybe it's because they are not like a regular shop that sells a single type of good, where you enter with a single defined purpose. There's the mystery, never knowing what you will find on each level as you wander through the maze of aisles, through islands of goods in a sea of paths, at each opening of the lift or the top of each escalator new discoveries to be made. There is something tangible about shopping in a real department store that online shopping can't match.

And it seems that I am not alone in believing this.


My thoughts about the justice system in general, in an ideal sense:

A) The victim wants the offender punished. They want them to feel and understand the hurt that they have caused.
B) Society wants to be protected.

For A) you want the offender to feel a sense of guilt, a pain that makes them regret committing the offence.

Punishments of yore

B) Is more complicated as you have a number of factors.

  1. Deterrence - preventing the committing of an offence in the first place due to fear of punishment.
  2. Removal of opportunity - A custodial or capital sentence removes the offender from society thus preventing them from committing further crimes
  3. Restitution - Paying for/repairing the damage caused (not always possible). This is very specific and will be ignored in this discussion.
  4. Reform - Changing the character of the offender and removing the desire to commit further crimes and turning them into a productive rather than a destructive member of society.

Added into the mix is C. Issue of human rights. From a societal, not offender's, perspective, it is "How do our actions as a society reflect and impact on our society." This includes issues like wrong convictions and punishment of the innocent, the impact of punishment on society - what kind of society are you building through vigilante justice or public stonings for example?

I know that if I was the victim of crime I would be very angry and want to cause a lot of pain towards the offender. However, civilised laws are made by societies and not individuals, which is why they are usually about B and C and not A.

Unfortunately, getting the balance of 1,2,3,4 and C seems very difficult. The Scandinavian examples place a strong emphasis on reform with lower rates of recidivism than many other countries , but sometimes fail at removing the opportunity to commit further crimes. In the US and Australia it often seems like criminals, especially petty ones, come out of gaol worse than when they go in and are as such incarcerated for longer.

The death penalty offers the ultimate prevention of further offences without the need for reform, but can fail badly at human rights (especially for the innocent).

And as for deterrence, it seems to work best for rational people who are least likely to commit an offence anyway.

The biggest problem with getting things right is that not all people are equal when it comes to criminal behaviour, due to the nature of their brains and the environment that shaped them. Psychopaths have been shown to be largely incapable for understanding (or caring about) punishment, so deterrence simply doesn't work. Same with those driven to irrationality by taking drugs. Does an angry drunk think about gaol when they lash out? The compulsion to commit further crimes may, in certain cases, be too great to reform. This seems to be the case for many mass murderers and sex offenders.

But it's not true of every criminal. And the brain does change as one ages. For instance, adolescent male brains struggle to comprehend risk, which is why we see so many young people overconfidently driving too fast, jumping into big waves etc etc etc. Ten years later they will probably be a different person.

Ideally society could identify potential criminals as children and work on their behaviour to steer them away from crime. It's a lot of work to do so.

My personal belief is that if somebody is a strong potential threat to society - segregate them from society until they are no longer a threat. If they have reformed and are no longer a threat then release them. Put effort into reforming them into productive members of society. From a resources perspective, once they are productive you aren't paying for them any more.

And the death penalty is wrong because the justice system can be wrong.

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