Conspicuous consumption

November 28, 2010

With the greater part of rich people, the chief enjoyment of riches consists in the parade of riches, which in their eyes is never so complete as when they appear to possess those decisive marks of opulence which nobody can possess but themselves. In their eyes the merit of an object which is in any degree either useful or beautiful, is greatly enhanced by its scarcity, or by the great labour which it requires to collect any considerable quantity of it, a labour which nobody can afford to pay but themselves. Such objects they are willing to purchase at a higher price than things much more beautiful and useful, but more common. Adam Smith

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Wikipedia defines conspicuous consumption as “the lavish spending on goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth.” In the mind of a conspicuous consumer, such display serves as a means of attaining or maintaining social status. The term was coined by Thorsten Veblen in his classic 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. The name may be relatively new but the idea of trying to impress others is most definitely not. Adam Smith’s description in the quote above shows that the Scottish economist was aware of how material wealth was flaunted. Karl Marx liked to talk about commodity fetishisation.

But we must go back much further back in time and we cannot limit ourselves to humans. Ostentatious display is ubiquitous in the animal kingdom, where the classic example is the peacock’s tail. This may seem like a waste of evolutionary resources but it serves an important signalling function. It is saying I am so fit that I can afford this garish display of extra strength and stamina and still manage to avoid being eaten by predators! Animals have used bright plumage loud roars flashing teeth and oversized antlers to intimidate their rivals and human culture has mimicked their practices.

Conspicuous consumption has been an inseparable part of our history especially since we began to see the stratification of society after the invention of agriculture. The anthropologist Marvin Harris argued that conspicuous exchange, display and destruction of valuables were culturally constructed strategies for winning and then protecting power and wealth. For Harris preciosities such as gold cups jade figures bejewelled crowns and diamond rings did not acquire their status because of their intrinsic beauty. They represented much more than that. They were tokens of concentrated of concentrated wealth and power – the material symbol of the ability of godlike humans to do godlike things. These items had to be scarce or extremely difficult to find. They could be buried deep underground, available only after long and dangerous journeys or be the product of the minds of great craftsmen and artists.

Conspicuous consumption has been a constant factor in human history. What has changed have been the manifestations. In the precapitalist feudal period status was shown with slaves, women and food. With the rise of capitalism a rising upper middle class wanted to get in on the act with expensive clothes and houses. Finally the last 100 years or so has seen the democratisation of luxury as both the middle classes and the masses strive to conform and be individual at the same time.

Whenever there is extravagant spending, there is always a counterreaction. The most typical manifestation was what are known as sumptuary laws, laws that attempt to curb extravagant consumption. The principal motivation behind such laws was not to control wasteful competition, but rather to enforce the existing social hierarchy. Of course the people who made the laws were exempt from them.  Those below them should dress according to your station and not have pretensions. Generally these laws failed because the desire to flaunt one’s wealth is so powerful and will generally find an outlet. Fashion proved an especially complicated area to control with legislators unable to employ the specific fashion terminology to correctly identify luxurious clothing.

Is conspicuous consumption something to be worried about? Critics argue that luxury spending does in fact generate negative spillovers. If we base our spending on keeping up with the Joneses, we are making a wasteful use of economic resources. There is a game theory problem here. If we could all agree not to engage in this wasteful behaviour, we would surely be better off? It’s like if everyone in a stadium stands up, then nobody sees any better.

It was the American Revolution that really changed the world in this sense. Before then we all had our station in life. But the American Revolution upturned this worldview. This had many positive aspects but there was one big downside. We no longer could put down our social situation to our station in life. Now if you weren’t successful it was somehow your fault. It raised people’s aspirations but now they intensely feel your inadequacies. American society had a real sense of status anxiety, which as De Tocqueville accurately foresaw, they would soon export all over the world.

Attacking the vulgarity of consumer capitalism has been a favourite sport for intellectuals for many years now – John Kenneth Galbraith, Herbert Marcuse, Jean Baudrillard and, more recently, Naomi Klein have all made stinging denunciations. This material abundance hides the spiritual poverty of capitalism. These critics really don’t like choice which they see as a subtle form of tyranny.

As I stated in my Adam Smith post, I think that the market is an excellent way of distributing goods but we have autonomy and we are not forced to worship at the altar of consumerism. I would make the case for inconspicuous consumption; we should buy what adds value to our lives. There is a problem with the concept of conspicuous consumption. How do we define it? The line between luxury and need is not always so easy to define.  We often end up with elitists whose superior education gives them the power to define which items are luxuries. I do not consider myself in thrall of consumerism but I am wary of anti-consumerists who seek to tell everyone what they should be buying. I leave the final words to HL Mencken in a satire of Veblen:

Do I enjoy a decent bath because I know that John Smith cannot afford one – or because I delight in being clean? Do I admire Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony because it is incomprehensible to Congressmen and Methodists – or because I genuinely love music? Do I prefer terrapin à la Maryland to fried liver because plowhands must put up with the liver – or because the terrapin is intrinsically a more charming dose? Do I prefer kissing a pretty girl to kissing a charwoman because even a janitor may kiss a charwoman – or because the pretty girl looks better, smells better and kisses better?


QI: A selection #7

November 28, 2010

Here is another selection of trivia that I have picked from the QI column in the Telegraph:

The longest and slowest piece of music in history is John Cage’s As Slow as Possible, originally written in 1985 as a 20-minute piece for piano. After Cage’s death in 1992, a conference of philosophers and musicians set themselves the task of seeing just how long the eight-page score could last. As a result, it was adapted for organ and has been playing since 2001 at the church of St Burchardi in Halberstadt, Germany. It is planned to last 639 years, the first organ in Halberstadt having been built 639 years earlier. After kicking off with a 17-month pause, the organ’s six pipes have managed eight chord changes since and a new chord is due on February 5 2011. To check on progress, or to order a (somewhat faster) CD, visit www.john-cage.halberstadt.de.

The highest mountain in the known universe is Olympus Mons, a giant volcano on Mars, almost three times the height of Mount Everest.  Olympus Mons is 15 miles high and 388 miles across. It is wide and flat, resembling a vast island in a sea drained of water. The crater on top is 45 miles wide and nearly two miles deep. The mountain is so wide that its base would cover Italy and the caldera at the top would engulf London, though the incline of its sides is so slight (between one and three degrees) that you wouldn’t even break sweat if you climbed it.

The universal belief that Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821) was tiny came about from a combination of mistranslation and propaganda.  Napoleon’s autopsy, carried out in 1821 by his personal physician, Francesco Antommarchi, recorded his height as “5/2”. It is now thought this represents the French measurement “5 pieds 2 pouces”, which converts to the English measurement of 5ft 6½in (1.69m). The average height of Frenchmen between 1800 and 1820 was only 5ft 4½in (1.64m); Napoleon was thus 2½in taller than his rival Horatio Nelson, who was only 5ft 4in (1.62m).

One of the strangest products of Indonesian agriculture involves the farming of the Asian palm civet (Paradoxurus hermaphroditus). These small, cat-sized mammals are fed coffee berries and their faeces are collected and washed to make kopi luwak (civet coffee). The action of their stomach enzymes lends the resulting drink an unmatched richness of flavour that has none of coffee’s usual bitterness. As a result it is the world’s most expensive beverage, fetching up to £500 per pound. In 2008 an espresso made from kopi luwak went on sale at Peter Jones department store in Sloane Square, London, for £50 per cup. Apparently a similar coffee can be made by feeding coffee berries to muntjac deer, a south-east Asian species now naturalised in southern England. Home-grown English kopi muncak has yet to be reported.

Despite its apparent stately motion, the Earth is pretty nippy: if you stand on the Equator, the speed of its rotation around its own axis is about 1,040mph. This decreases as you approach the poles: stand on either pole and you barely move at all. But remember that as well as spinning, Earth is hurtling around the sun at 67,000mph. Were we able to fly at that speed, we could circle Earth in 20 minutes. The solar system is moving even faster, spinning around the centre of the Milky Way at 492,000mph. Even so, it takes it 225 million years to complete a single orbit (so it has managed 20 in total since the birth of the Sun, and only one since humans evolved).

According to the historian Niall Ferguson, of the 125 major European wars fought since 1495, the French have participated in 50 – more than Austria (47) and England (43). Out of 168 battles fought since 387BC, they have won 109, lost 49 and drawn 10.  The British tend to be rather selective about the battles they remember. Every English schoolboy was once able to recite the roll call of our glorious wins at Crécy (1346), Poitiers (1356) and Agincourt (1415), but no one’s ever heard of the French victories at Patay (1429) and (especially) at Castillon (1453), where French cannons tore the English apart, winning the Hundred Years War and confirming France as the most powerful military nation in Europe. And what about the Duke of Enghien thrashing the Spanish at Rocroi late on in the Thirty Years War in 1643, ending a century of Spanish dominance? Or the siege of Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781, when General Comte de Rochambeau and American forces prevailed? The British always prided themselves on superiority at sea, but knew they could never win a land war on the Continent. France’s achievements help to explain another French “military victory”. Whether it is ranks (general, captain, corporal, lieutenant); equipment (lance, mine, bayonet, epaulette, trench); organisation (volunteer, regiment, soldier, barracks) or strategy (army, camouflage, combat, esprit de corps, reconnaissance), the language of warfare is French.

Early motoring was very slow. Such was the fear of the damaging effects of the motor car (hugely exaggerated by the railway companies) that a series of laws were passed in the 1860s known as the Red Flag Acts. They limited the speed to 4mph in the country and 2mph in town and required each car to have a minimum crew of three, one of whom was required to walk 60 yards in front of the vehicle, waving a red flag. It wasn’t until 1896 that Bridget Driscoll of Croydon became the first pedestrian to be killed in a road accident in Britain. She was crossing the grounds of Crystal Palace when a car hit her, travelling at 4mph (the speed limit had been raised to 12mph and the red flag abolished).

Cicadas are the world’s loudest insects, with some of the 2,500 species reaching 120 decibels — the equivalent to what you hear when sitting in the front row of a loud rock concert. The longest-living insect is the termite queen: they have been known to live for at least 50 years and some scientists believe they may live to 100. The giant weta (Deinacrida heteracantha), a type of cricket endemic to New Zealand’s offshore islands, is the heaviest insect alive today. The largest specimen, a female, weighed 71g (2.5oz), three times heavier than the average house mouse, and was more than 85mm (3.4in) long.


My media week 28/11/10

November 28, 2010

ABC’s religious affairs programme Encounter has a programmed called If God is Dead…?, which asks if is morality a cultural construction and where God fits into the picture.

The Onion had a video about Obama explaining his decision his decision to pardon the turkey for Thanksgiving: Obama Outlines Moral, Philosophical Justifications For Turkey Pardon

Loyal reader Alberto sent me this link, Bras and other clues on the economy can be found at mall. I do like this off-beat stuff. I seem to remember there used to be a theory that skirt lengths were a predictor of the stock market direction. The theory is that if skirts are short, it means the markets are bullish. While if skirts are long, it means the markets are bearish. If you like this kind of stuff, here is a link to the World’s Wackiest Stock Indicators.

 


Men are from Africa, Women are from Africa

November 21, 2010

In the most intelligent races there are a large number of women whose brains are closer in size to those of gorillas than to the most developed male brains. This inferiority is so obvious that no one can contest it for a moment; only its degree is worth discussion. All psychologists who have studied the intelligence of women, as well as poets and novelists, recognise today that they represent the most inferior forms of human evolution and that they are closer to children and savages than to an adult, civilised male. They excel in fickleness, inconstancy, absence of thought and logic, and incapacity to reason. Gustave Le Bon, French social psychologist  (7 May 1841 – 13 December 1931)

 

Humorists, philosophers and scientists have been writing about sex differences for millennia, differences which were believed to be immutable. Only in the twentieth century did the idea that society creates its own gender roles challenge this view. And the debate continues today. There have been a number of books published over the last twenty years so: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps and The Essential Difference. This last book was written by Simon Baron-Cohen, cousin of Sacha, and a world authority on autism. Baron-Cohen argues that, in general, men are better at systematizing (analysing and exploring systems and rules) while women are better at empathizing (identifying with other people’s feelings). In 2010 two books railing against these ideas have come out: Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: The Real Science Behind Sex Differences, and Professor Rebecca Jordan-Young’s, Brainstorm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Difference.

 Fine and Jordan-Young attack the scientific basis of many of the studies which purport to show differences in our brains. The fundamental question that divides the two camps is whether the mind is shaped in distinctly male or female ways, by testosterone or estrogen. In their counterblasts Fine and Jordan-Young attack many of the experiments designed to prove these innate differences. One problem they identify is the size of the experiments, which are often carried out with only 20 participants. They also criticise the actual design of the experiments. People’s self-perception can be influenced by gender stereotypes. Many of these experiments involve questionnaires where participants assess their own abilities – not a very reliable way of gathering evidence. Their ultimate point is that this science is being used to justify the status quo – the discrimination against women. The opening quote from Gustave Le Bon shows how prejudices can be converted into science. I am no fan of postmodernism but I will concede that there is some element of social construction in science. There is an objective truth but it can be difficult to get at. The beauty of the scientific method, though, is that it is self-correcting.

I don’t belong to the Men are from Mars Women are from Venus school; we actually both come from Africa, where we evolved together as a species. We should apply a healthy dose of scepticism when we read or hear reports of sex differences in the brain. There is still much to be learned and it is important to retain an open mind. However, I find it hard to believe that there are no differences in male and female brains. It strikes me as counterintuitive. If we belong to the animal kingdom, how can our emotions and intelligence be completely separate from this? The claim that all differences are socially constructed just seems implausible.

The limits of the idea that gender is a cultural phenomenon are shown in a dramatic case from Canada. The story was told by John Colapinto in The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl. Bruce Reimer was born a normal healthy boy on August 22nd 1965. However eight months later he had a botched circumcision. On to the scene came one John Money. Reimer was just what Money had been longing for: a chance to prove that his theory of the primacy of nurture over nature. His advice was to castrate Reimer.  His mother thought, with his injury, it would be easier for Bruce to be raised as a girl. Money, an expert in self-promotion, sold the idea that the gender reassignment had been a great success. He was the star speaker  the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1972 and he published a book, Man & Woman, Boy & Girl.

The reality was very different. Right from the start, Brenda resisted feminizing; she felt like a boy trapped in a girl’s body. Money even tried to build an artificial vagina for Brenda but she refused. Her brother Brian described her childhood:

She’d get a skipping rope for a gift, and the only thing we’d use that for was to tie people up, whip people with it. She played with my toys: Tinkertoys, dump trucks. This toy sewing machine she got just sat.

In March 1980 Brenda became David. Alas there was no happy ending. Financial problems, severe depression and a marriage on the rocks led to suicide in 2004. He was just 38. One key lesson from this sad episode is that the politicisation of science can run both ways; Money’s work lent an aura of science to the radical feminist ideas that were all the rage in those days

The debate about gender and differences is never-ending. Perhaps neurobiology will be able to unlock some of these secrets. The new brain science is just beginning a very exciting journey, which is going to tell us a lot about what it means to be human.

But there is also a deeper moral principle here. To believe in equality you do not have to believe that men and women are exactly equal in everything. The point is that nobody should be judged by the average properties of their group. There is no known gender difference that applies to every single man or woman.  Discrimination is wrong. We really don’t need science to tell us that.


Stephen Fry on learning

November 21, 2010

I recently read The Fry Chronicles and I couldn’t resist copying out this passage where Fry talks about having a thirst for knowledge:

There are young men and women up and down the land who happily (or unhappily) tell anyone who will listen that they don’t have an academic turn of mind, or that they aren’t lucky enough to have been blessed with a good memory, and yet can recite hundreds of pop lyrics and reel off any amount of information about footballers, cars and celebrities. Why? Because they are interested in those things. They are curious. If you are hungry for food you are prepared to hunt high and low for it. If you are hungry for information it is the same. Information is all around us, now more than ever before in human history. You barely have to stir or incommode yourself to find things out. The only reason people do not know much is because they do not care to know. They are incurious. Incuriosity is the oddest and most foolish failing there is.

Picture the world as being a city whose pavements are covered a foot deep in gold coins. You have to wade through them to make progress. Their clinking and rattling fills the air. Imagine that you met a beggar in such a city.

‘Please, give me something. I am penniless.’

‘But look around you,’ you would shout. ‘There is gold enough to last you your whole life. All you have to do is to bend down and pick it up!’

When people complain that they don’t know any literature because it was badly taught at school, or that they missed out on history because on the timetable it was either that or biology, or some such ludicrous excuse, it is hard not to react in the same way.

‘But it’s all around you!’ I want to scream. ‘All you have to do it bend down and pick it up!’ What on earth people think their lack of knowledge of the Hundred Years War, or Socrates, or the colonization of Batavia has to do with school I have no idea. As one who was expelled from any number of educational establishments and never did any work at any of them, I know perfectly well that the fault lay not in the staff but in my self that I was ignorant. Then one day, or over the course of time, I got greedy. Greedy to know things, greedy for understanding, greedy for information


My media week 21/11/10

November 21, 2010

I have never played FarmVille but I was interested to read this article from The Guardian, FarmVille: they reap what you sow. I don’t know what the author, Ms Penny, had for breakfast that morning but the article sounded like something from Mao’s Cultural Revolution:

Alienated workers pay real money to play out a fantasy of having control over the products of their own labour, but the true tragedy is that, even in the jerky bucolic idyll of FarmVille, they are still working for someone else’s profit.”

Perhaps they should make a communist collective farm version where there was no alienation or exploitation. I’m sure productivity would increase and anyway it would be great fun killing the Kulaks.

The website for the Global Language Monitor has its list of the top words of 2010 including spillcam, Vuvuzela and  Sarah Palin’s refudiate.

In Reason.com John Stossel argues that Natural Is Not Always Better

 Finally in The Guardian John Crace give George Bush’s Decision Points the digested read treatment.


Science and its discontents

November 14, 2010

My memories of science at school are not particularly fond ones. I was very much a product of what CP Snow has called the two cultures, the sciences and the humanities. Now though I have a very different attitude. I didn’t have an epiphany; it was more a gradual realization that understanding science was essential to understanding the modern world. I don’t think I am the only person who feels this attraction to science, as we can see from the boom in the publication of popular science books over the last two decades.

I love the methodology of science. Its three fundamental assumptions are:

  1. There is a reality that exists independently of our own minds.
  2. Things happen according to natural laws, not at the whim of a conscious agency.
  3. Nature’s laws can be known with an ever greater degree of confidence.

 

What I like about the scientific method is the way it is open to change. If you can provide evidence, then you will be able overturn the established truth. There may be opposition but in the end truth will out. If only this could be applied to other areas of life.

Science faces many challenges from both left and right. There is the campaign against the teaching of evolution, which is not a phenomenon confined to the USA – Islamic scholars also oppose Darwin’s theory. Evolution may be a theory but it is scientific fact. Here there is a misunderstanding of what scientists mean by theory. When I say “I have a theory” I am generally engaging in some speculation. Scientists use this for a systematic explanation and prediction of empirical phenomena. A theory must be testable and falsifiable.

The opponents of evolution are not interested in searching for the truth. No amount of evidence would convince them because they see it as incompatible with their religion. The Onion satirised the absurdity of the arguments:

“As the debate over the teaching of evolution in public schools continues, a new controversy over the science curriculum arose Monday in this embattled Midwestern state. Scientists from the Evangelical Center For Faith-Based Reasoning are now asserting that the long-held “theory of gravity” is flawed, and they have responded to it with a new theory of Intelligent Falling. Things fall not because they are acted upon by some gravitational force, but because a higher intelligence, ‘God’ if you will, is pushing them down,” said Gabriel Burdett, who holds degrees in education, applied Scripture, and physics from Oral Roberts University”

Science is also being attacked from a very different perspective – the postmodernists. Suspicion of universal knowledge is surely the defining characteristic of this thought system.  And modern science, the embodiment of the idea of universal knowledge, has become a favourite target of postmodernist critics. Their hostility to science is based not on any perceived abuses but on its underlying logic.

For postmodernist thinkers science is not about searching for truths. These truths are socially constructed. I do find it very hard to be objective about these postmodernists. I am a pomophobe; I think that postmodernism is a gigantic intellectual fraud. They use complicated words to say nothing. I don’t want to be racist but French thinkers do seem to specialise in this kind of verbal virtuosity. In this sense science is anti- intellectual. It distrusts pure reason, demanding instead the production of objective fact. The fundamental question we have to ask about postmodernism is: what does it add to the sum of human knowledge? 

In previous posts I have mentioned how physicist Alan Sokal was able to get a hoax article, Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity, published by Social Text, a journal published by Duke University Press. Sokal himself summed it up beautifully:

“Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)”

The problem is that a lot of postmodernist writing is beyond parody. That’s why the Sokal piece was so believable. Looking on the internet it’s not too hard to find the real thing. Here is one typical piece I found “Deconstructing the evidence-based discourse in health sciences: truth, power and fascism.” Here is a sample of the writing:

It is becoming increasingly evident that an unvarying, uniform language – an ossifying discourse – is being mandated in a number of faculties of health sciences where the dominant paradigm of EBHS has achieved hegemony. This makes it difficult for scholars to express new and different ideas in an intellectual circle where normalisation and standardisation are privileged in the development of knowledge. The critical individual must then resort to resistance strategies in front of such hegemonic discourses within which there is little freedom for expressing unconventional thoughts. Rather than risk being alienated from their colleagues, many scientists find themselves interpellated by hegemonic discourses and come to disregard all others. Unfortunately, privileging a single discourse (evidence-based medicine (EBM)) situated within a single scientific paradigm (postpositivism) confines the researcher to a yoke of exactly reproducing the established order.

 We believe that a postmodernist critique of this prevailing mode of thinking is indispensable. Those who are wedded to the idea of ‘evidence’ in the health sciences maintain what is essentially a Newtonian, mechanistic world view: they tend to believe that reality is objective, which is to say that it exists, ‘out there’, absolutely independent of the human observer, and of the observer’s intentions and observations. They fondly point to ‘facts’, while they are forced to dismiss ‘values’ as somehow unscientific. For them, this reality (an ensemble of facts) corresponds to an objectively real and mechanical world. But this form of empiricism, we would argue, fetishises the object at the expense of the human subject, for whom this world has a vital significance and meaning in the first place. An evidence-based, empirical world view is dangerously reductive insofar as it negates the personal and interpersonal significance and meaning of a world that is first and foremost a relational world, and not a fixed set of objects.

Science, like any human enterprise, is imperfect. However it is the best way we know of understanding reality. Maybe the problem is that it’s very real. When it does good, it is a wonderful tool for the advancement of mankind. But when it issued for malevolent purposes, the consequences can also be terrible But science is one of humanity’s greatest achievements. Carl Sagan put it best: science is a candle in the dark, shining a light on our world allowing us to see beyond the superstitions, ignorance, fear, and magical thinking that have accompanied us throughout our brief stay on this mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.