Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The Rebel Sell (1)

Don't get me wrong, I'm really enjoying this book and I am sympathetic to its project of debunking countercultural rebellion.

Indeed I remember thinking at Cambridge that the biggest conformists of all were the members of the various rebel subcultures.

I also appreciate the key distinction Heath and Potter make between dissent and deviance: that the dissenter would re-set the rules for everyone, not selfishly for himself alone like the deviant.

And I feel I have a certain special perspective on this issue: one home with hand-made furniture and another with largely mass-produced stuff. One foot in a country where people will unquestioningly form an orderly queue and stop at traffic lights during the night, and the other foot in well, Guatemala.

But there are arguments deployed here that are not as secure as they might initially seem, and although I'm not even half way through the text, my need to quibble is quite urgent.

1) If consumerism were all about conformism, why is the desire to stand-out its primary driving force?

This does seem like a compelling hippie-slammer, but it's really just a restatement of the contradiction at the heart of American society. How can the world's most individualistic nation also be the world's most herd-like?

In my book, when you come across a contradiction like this you should celebrate it, rather than try to make it go away, for it may be telling you something interesting about the world.

2) The engine of consumerism is a 'mass-action problem' similar to the prisoner's dilemma, such that a good number of people that buy 4-wheel drives do so defensively, in order to protect themselves from the other people on the road with a propensity to crash into them and kill their children.

This trouble here is really the perennial economists' tendency to regard all consumers as equally rational agents operating on a level playing field. It's based on a rather simplistic version of game theory. But there are different base mixes of personality types in different societies, and alternative cultural responses to the fundamental dilemma. For instance, I've said many times before that what most strikes me about Guatemalans' response to these so-called mass action problems is their willingness to screw their compatriots even when they apparently seem to know that it is not in their best, rational interests to do so. And then there are the stupid people. (Scott Adams's Induhviduals)

3) Social status is subject to diminishing marginal utility so that the less you have of it the more you are willing to pay for it.

So, the plebs end up spending more on status-enhancing gear than us inherently classier folk. This hypothesis, lifted from Thorstein Veblen, is fine on paper. But what of the boxer from the slums that suddenly makes his millions, sees his status surge, yet can't help continuing to spend money as if it is going out of fashion? His race to the bottom has become a solo journey. Some people are not only keeping up with the Joneses, they are trying to blast themselves clear of their own humble upbringings.

4) Once GDP per capita reaches $10,000, further economic growth generates no gains in happiness. With the abundance of stuff in our lives, how come we aren't more satisfied?

Those econonists again, failing to realise that their rational agents are getting older. Societies with lower GDP per capita see less economic and social change in the course of their citizens' reduced life-spans. Societies where income increases significantly over the space of a generation are likley to feature unhappier late-middle-aged people. (And yet societies, like Guatemala, where the generations stick together more, are perhaps less prone to this downer effect. )

I don't have an answer to the dilemma in 1). But consider the case of the soldier in war. His existence is driven by both intense, aggressive competition and an unquestioning conformity to a set of values, both local to his unit, and national to his political identity and the system which created the conflict he finds himself embroiled in.

So, lots to think about. More soon.

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