Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (review: 4/5)

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior

By now it should be clear that you’ll be most comfortable with my arguments if you fully accept yourself as a fitness-flaunting consumer narcissist who has been deluded, throughout your whole life, into irrational spending habits by advertising euphemisms and peer pressure. In other words, you’ll probably feel uneasy for much of the time you’re reading it.

That line comes about 100 pages into the book. I stumbled on it when I was flipping through and it’s the passage that convinced me to take it from the library. Geoffrey Miller’s book, Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior turned out to be very good. If I could just block-quote the entire thing right here, I probably would.

You get a sense of the tone from the quote above. It’s fairly conversational. There’s a counter-cultural bent to it that comes across as more detached and bemused, rather than left-wing-ish panic or conservative haughtiness. He picks on both perspectives fairly evenly. Some of it I found genuinely funny, some was awkward funny (“Mobile phones are already becoming too Lilliputian for adult males to use without feeling like a palsy-pawed giant ground sloth.”). Most of it offered plenty of brain-tweaking “I hadn’t thought of it that way” moments. The book got quite a collection of dog-ears by the time I got through with it.

He starts out with a discussion of the “Big Five” personality traits, explaining what they are and how he’ll be using them to guide the discussion. The discussion at hand hinges around the idea of signaling: basically, how we inform others (and exaggerate) our worthy traits and minimize the appearance of less worthy traits. We signal in really primitive ways based on evolutionary learning (e.g. nice, white teeth = healthy) and in really modern ways, such as conspicuous consumption (e.g. nice, white teeth covered with a grill = wealthy).

Anyway, as you make it to page 75, he lists a few reasonable assumptions for the rest of the book:

  • We are social primates who survive and reproduce largely through attracting practical support from kin, friends, and mates.
  • We get that support insofar as others view us as offering desirable traits that fit their needs.
  • Over the past few million years, we have evolved many mental and moral capacities to display those desirable traits.
  • Over the past few thousand years, we have learned that these desirable traits can also be displayed through buying and displaying various goods and services in market economies.

And a few pages later, he brings the connection with consumerism and marketing, and hints and hints at the anti-consumerist arguments that he’ll get into later in the book:

Consumerism depends on forgetting a truth and believing a falsehood. The truth that must be forgotten is that we humans have already spent millions of years evolving awesomely effective ways to display our mental and moral traits to one another through natural social behaviors such as language, art, music, generosity, creativity, and ideology. We can all do so without credentials, careers, credit ratings, or crateloads of product.

The next bit ranges into a really interesting discussion on the three basic ways we signal: conspicuous waste, conspicuous precision, or conspicuous reputation. Conspicuous waste is fairly self-explanatory: gigantic cars, 30oz steaks, liquid-cooled gaming PCs. Conspicuously precise products rely on refinement, intricacy, low tolerances for error: luxury cars, fine sushi, Apple products. Conspicuous reputation is about envy or facade. Miller mentions BMWs and well-regarded postal codes in this category. Those aren’t perfect examples, and the categories can bleed, but you get the idea.

In one great leveling passage, he writes:

Each signaling principle has its distinctive pros and cons from the viewpoint of the signaler, the audience, and the population and ecology at large. These distinctions are significant but often overlooked. For example, socialist and environmentalist critiques of runaway consumerism apply most forcibly to cruder forms of conspicuous waste, which sequester matter and energy for the rich at the expense of the poor, and which impose the largest ecological footprint (resource and energy requirements). It is much harder to raise socioecological objections to an iPod nano than to an H1 Hummer. Aristocrats differ from the nouveaux riches not in their freedom from consumerism, but in their preference for conspicuous precision and reputation (“the finer things in life”) over conspicuous waste (“the crass and the vulgar”).

Later parts brought to mind the idea of social objects: “As a self-display strategy, it is very inefficient to buy new, branded, mass-produced products from stores at the full manufacturer’s suggested retail price. The product comes into one’s life naked and mute, without any social context, memorable circumstances, or narrative value.” It’s not just what you have, but how you earned it and how it brings you closer to those you love.

And I just love this one bit, about 3/4 through the book. He’s spent a couple sentences talking about buying a Toyota Camry or a comparable Lexus. Both are made by the same mother company to similar quality levels:

If you must have the Lexus, that’s OK, as long as you consciously accept two things: (1) apart from its higher mass, you are paying an extra $40,000 for the Lexus badge, and (2) everyone who sees you driving the Lexus, and who has read this book, will assume that you could think of nothing in the world more creative, kind, or conscientious to do with $40,000.

Zing! Boom! That’s something to think on.

The last 10% or so of the book wasn’t as good the beginning. It got more prescriptive than descriptive, and it just wasn’t as interesting. But man, that first 90% was so worth it.

More elsewhere:

Marshmallows and time preference

You probably recall Jonah Lehrer’s New Yorker article about the kids who were told not to eat the marshmallow. Those who were able to hold out were better behaved, higher achievers later in life.

Low delayers, the children who rang the bell quickly, seemed more likely to have behavioral problems, both in school and at home. They got lower S.A.T. scores. They struggled in stressful situations, often had trouble paying attention, and found it difficult to maintain friendships. The child who could wait fifteen minutes had an S.A.T. score that was, on average, two hundred and ten points higher than that of the kid who could wait only thirty seconds.

When I was reading it, it reminded me of some ideas that have been around for in economics for a couple centuries or so: time preference and intertemporal choice. Someone with high time preference will tend to consume sooner rather than later. People with low time preference are the savers—the ones who can hold out. The same applies to social groups or societies. For example, married folks or people who have children (or expect them) tend to have lower time preference and set aside more for the future. And they tend to display fewer risky behaviors, so they can actually see the eventual benefits of their saving. It’s the opposite for the single, childless, young. This relates to why single males in their 20s tend to have high car insurance, lots of cool electronics stuff, and little in their IRAs. Consume more now, have less later.

A Theory of Capitalism & Socialism (review: 4.5/5)

A Theory of Socialism & Capitalism: Economics, Politics, and Ethics
The first book by Hans-Hermann Hoppe that I read was the most excellent Democracy: The God That Failed. In the introduction to that book, Hoppe talks about competing social theories and, in face of conflicting arguments about society or politics or economics, how we can decide between them:

The data of history are logically compatible with… rival interpretations, and historians, insofar as they are just historians, have no way of deciding in favor of one or the other. If one is to make a rational choice among such rival and incompatible interpretations, this is only possible if one has a theory at one’s disposal, or at least a theoretical proposition, whose validity does not depend on historical experience but can be established a priori, i.e. once and for all by means of the intellectual apprehension or comprehension of the nature of things.

In other words, disagreements can’t be solved only by appealing to historical data. In the end “a priori theory trumps and corrects experience (and logic overrules observation), and not vice-versa.” A Theory of Capitalism & Socialism: Economics, Politics, Ethics [full text, pdf] takes this deductive approach. Hoppe starts by building a theory of property. We only need property because things are scarce; where there is no scarcity (e.g. ideas) there is no property…

And the rest flows from that. Sorry I don’t remember much more than that off-hand, because I finished the book almost a year ago. This draft has been sitting neglected for months and months. Just wanted to clear out the archives. Highly recommended, though.

Tax rates of the rich and poor:

Lowest quintile: 4.3 percent
Second quintile: 9.9 percent
Middle quintile: 14.2 percent
Fourth quintile: 17.4 percent
Percentiles 81-90: 20.3 percent
Percentiles 91-95: 22.4 percent
Percentiles 96-99: 25.7 percent
Percentiles 99.0-99.5: 29.7 percent
Percentiles 99.5-99.9: 31.2 percent
Percentiles 99.9-99.99: 32.1 percent
Top 0.01 Percentile: 31.5 percent

Crisis & Leviathan (review: 5/5)

Crisis & Leviathan
I had been meaning to read Robert Higgs‚Äô book for years and I’m very glad I got to it. And I’ve been sitting on my review for a while because I always fear sounding like a shrill, libertarian paranoid.

Crisis & Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government explores the past century of American history, the national response to the nation’s worst crises (whether genuine or contrived), and the aftermath of each. The government’s scope and power exploded in response to World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. And after each, the powers were mostly disassembled.

Mostly. The so-called ratchet effect meant that after each event, the government never fully relinquished all its powers. Some of that was due to bureaucratic inertia or cronyism—some agencies never disappeared, but continued or assumed new roles in the aftermath. And a large part was of course due to changing ideology and public support for the government’s new roles. There were the lingering effects of decades of propaganda and new generations raised in those times. We grew comfortable with the new role, learning that it “wasn’t all that bad”—we could still worship as we pleased, and the news wasn’t yet nationalized. We looked to the progressive examples of the European states. The costs of the larger government were hidden with clever schemes like income tax withholding—you never miss what you never had—and the ever-growing number of people included in the tax base. Mind-blowing trivia: in 1913, the highest income tax bracket was 7% and 98% of the population owed no income tax. Times change.

One of the big assumptions in the book, one that makes me uncomfortable for our present, is that “government has substantial autonomy in its policy-making”. Like we saw recently, even with widespread opposition to the first bailout, we got one anyway. And the strategy seems to change with every day. We probably have even more on the way. Especially in these crisis situations,

Few people outside the government have enough information to identify the precise contours of the emergency or to formulate comprehensive plans for dealing with it. Citizens tend simultaneously to demand (a) more governmental action and (b) less research, public consultation, debate of alternative, and general “due process” in governmental decision-making.

Higgs’ study of each era ranges through the socionomic and political conditions before, during and after; the prevailing ideologies; the leading elites and interest groups; emergency orders and agencies; court challenges and decisions; and the institutional fallout—what society learned. He ranges through statistical analyses, Supreme Court decisions, legislative studies, executive backroom dealing and more. While there is a clear growth trend, Higgs makes the distinction between big government and Big Government. The first is an issue of size, the second has more to do with intrusion in peaceful affairs. We’ve had increase in both. I find it astounding that, during World War II for example, we so easily accepted conscription and price controls—even the courts went along with it. And once you give in to those, what are a few other small sacrifices here and there?

The book was published in the late 1980s, but you can see the same patterns repeated in the wake of 9/11 and our current financial awkwardness. This does not bode well.

By the second week of March 1933 an extraordinary conjuncture had developed: 1) a genuine economic crisis, especially the massive unemployment and the pitifully depressed production and consumption; 2) and artificial economic crisis produced by the nationwide banking shutdown; 3) a widespread sense of crisis and a feeling that only extraordinary measures could prevent an even greater catastrophe, sentiments manifested in the numerous and diverse calls to “do something” even if dictatorial powers were required to do it; and 4) a new administration taking office unencumbered by perceived responsibility for past ill fortunes and unchecked by opposition from a partisan Congress eager to obstruct and embarrass the President.

Advice from Hal Varian’s monograph, How to Build an Economic Model in Your Spare Time [pdf], most of which applies to things not related to economics:

  1. Look for ideas in the world, not in the journals.
  2. First make your model as simple as possible, then generalize it.
  3. Look at the literature later, not sooner.
  4. Model your paper after your seminar.
  5. Stop when you’ve made your point.

The Story of Stuff, a big-picture overview of consumption. The animation is surprisingly good at times and there’s some clever sound, too (shaky economics and eco-paranoia aside). “You cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely.”