Spent‘s Main Argument

Geoffrey Miller's The Mating Mind is probably the one book that has most influenced my thinking.  So I'll honor Miller by taking several posts to discuss his new book, Spent.  Yesterday I reviewed its predecessor, Robert Frank's Luxury Fever.  Today I give Spent's main argument, in Miller's own words:

1) Signaling infuses most human activity:

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. (p75)

2) "Consumer capitalism" marketers trick us into using unreliable signals:

The standard self-display strategy in most developed societies is to seek the highest-paying full-time employment permitted by one's intelligence and personality, and to use the resulting income to buy branded goods and services at full retail price. … As a self-display strategy, it is very inefficient. … Almost every other way of acquiring and displaying human artifacts or experiences sends richer signals about one's personal qualities. (p257) …

Buying new, real, branded, premium products at full prices from chain-store retailers is the last refuge of the unimaginative consumer, and it should be your last option.  If offers low narrative value – no stories to tell about interesting people, places, and events associated with the product's design provenance, acquisition, or use. It reveals nothing about you except your spending capacity and your gullibility, conformism, and unconsciousness as a consumer.  It grows no physical, social, or cultural roots into your local environment.  It does not promote trust, reciprocity, or social capital.  It does not expand your circle of friends and acquaintances.  It does not lead you to learn more about the invention, manufacture, operation, or maintenance of the things around you. … The alternatives listed above try to minimize retail spending not just to save money, but to maximize trait display power. (p270) …

We have wondrously adaptive capacities for human self-display – language, intelligence, kindness, creativity, and beauty – and then forget how to use them in making friends, attracting mates, and gaining prestige.  Instead we rely on goods and services acquired through education, work, and consumption to advertise our personal traits to others.  Those costly signals are mostly redundant or misleading, so others usually ignore them.  They prefer to judge us through natural face-to-face interaction.  We think our gilding dazzles them, though we ignore their own gilding when choosing our our won friends and mates.  This is an absurd way to live, but it's never too late to come away from it.  (p328)

3) We'd be better off to talk and customize more, and work and buy less:

Whenever you think you want to buy a new physical product, consider these options instead.  Just Don't Get It … Find the One You Already Own … Borrow One from a Friend, Relative, or Neighbor … Rent It … Buy It Used … Buy It in Generic, Replica, or Trickle-Down Form … Make It Yourself … Commission It from a Local Artisan … Wait Three Years Before Buying New Technologies … Ask to Get It as a Gift …

The whole valence, significance, and trait-signaling power of any given product can be radically altered by the stories we tell about it.  … Rather than buying more products, almost everyone can improve his conversational skills more effectively through Dale Carnegies's "six ways to make people like you." ….

We yearn to display our distinctive traits – our individuality, uniqueness, identity – in as many of our possessions as possible … Some new technologies of mass customization will make it ever easier for a wider range of consumers to "express their individuality" (display their traits and preferences) through products made uniquely for them. (pp258-274)

4) Laws aren't the answer; let's make better social norms:

Social scientists often reach straight for the blunderbuss of government policy whenever they see a social problem that needs fixing. … This usually leads to new bureaucracies with vested interests in perpetuating the problem … Individuals … who learn and adapt faster that governments can, always end up exploiting the hidden loopholes and incentives structures of the new regime. (p287)

Informal social norms can powerfully influence human behavior and sustain human cooperation. … It's OK to treat your neighbor as a villain if he acts like a villain.  In fact, it's your civic duty. … Rural villages needed busybodies.  Modern cities need morally assertive citizens. (pp291-2)

In most developed nations, there is a strange and strong taboo against condemning in-group members for acts of conspicuous consumption. … If our airport drinking buddies … see an ad for some new cell phone of grotesquely conspicuous precisions … and if they comment that they covet the product … I wish … we had the guts to say:

I wanted that phone once, too. … But then I thought … why? … I think we unconsciously want [to show off] … But … these products don't even work that well to show off [our good] traits. … We don't need to wrap all those costly goods … around ourselves to get respect.

Such mini-sermons might sometimes fail by seeming too direct, offensive intimate, or weird.  But they might often succeed.  (pp294-5)

5) But let's adjust a consumption tax to compensate for side effects:

It might be fair and reasonable to impose a higher consumption tax rate on products that impose higher "negative externalities" (costly side effects) on society and the environment, so government programs can offset those side effects. … [So let's tax cigarettes] to cover the expenses of caring for the increased umber of lung cancer and emphysema cases, … [and tax pineapples for] wear and tear on the nation's transport infrastructure. … [Let's subsidize] home insulation (to minimize global warming), airbags retrofitted to older cars (to minimize costly injuries), and vocational training (to minimize unemployment). … [Tax ammunition since] each round of ammunition has a slight chance of falling into the wrong hands and killing someone. …

The consumption tax rate should also be high for service industries that impose costly side effects on society in the form of obesity (fast-food restaurants), noise pollution (concrete demolition), or false hope that delays medical or psychiatric treatment (purveyors of Christian Science, Scientology, homeopathy, or vibrating phytoplankton). … [Tax fish for] the true full price that their fish eating imposes on endangered stocks. … There would be no consumption tax on used items sold through the secondary market. (p312-21)

6) Here is Miller's most detailed example of his brave new world:

These tactics … might seem inefficient to economists [who say] … If a male lawyer who can bill $300 per hour can buy a new shirt in ten minutes from Neiman Marcus for $100, rather than searching through a thrift store for forty minutes to buy a used shirt for $5, he should. … [But] If the lawyer spent fifty minutes browsing GQ magazine to see which leisure suits are in fashion, twenty minutes choosing which one he prefers, ten minutes calling local stores to find out who has it in stock, sixty minutes driving to and from Neiman Marcus, and forty post-purchase minutes defending his GQ reading and shirt purchasing against his wife's aesthetic skepticism, then he's really spent three hours on the shirt purchase. … 

By contrast he could have driven to the nearest thrift store, used its logical arrangement of stock by garment type, size, and color to quickly identify some interesting shirts, tried them on, picked one, and bought it, in a total shirt-purchase time of about one hour. If his wife doesn't like the shirt, no problem: it only cost $5.  It could be burned impulsively on the barbecue to display his respect for the wife's superior aesthetic judgment, and she would love him for it, and they would have connubial canoodling for two whole hours, and he would still come out ahead.  Plus the whole episode would make a great dinner-party story.  (pp270-1)

Later today I'll say which of this I think is gold, and which is schlock.

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  • Will Pearson

    While I find the anti-consumerist slant seductive, I disagree with the way he presents things.

    I don’t for example think humans in general care about showing how individual we are. I think there is a desire to conform as well. I’m thinking of fashion in pre-consumerist days. The victorians saw each other in stove pipes hats and sober suits and decided that they wanted to signal the sobriety and industry (and associated wealth) that those clothes signalled.

    I’d say that what advertising does is manufacture new ways of signaling that are to the benefit of the corporations.

    I don’t think we ignore corporate lead signaling as much as he suggests. People still go wow about expensive cars and gadgets (and expensive clothing for other people).

  • Carl Shulman

    Commentary on the book’s neglect of group membership:
    http://akinokure.blogspot.com/2009/05/why-logos-and-why-are-teenagers-more.html

  • http://thomblake.com Thom Blake

    “While I find the anti-consumerist slant seductive, I disagree with the way he presents things.”

    Just for the record, then, I should mention:

    While I find the anti-consumerist slant repulsive, I agree with much of what he says.

  • http://atheorist.livejournal.com Johnicholas

    Cliffhanger endings?! I thought this was a serious idea-filled blog, not an episodic thriller!

  • Tony Powers

    Robins trying to compete with all the season finales.

  • http://profile.typepad.com/riemannzeta Michael F. Martin

    Interesting, but all over the place.

    On (4), the distinction between legal and social norms is continuous and not discrete. Legal institutions are constitutive of social norms and vice versa.

  • Evil Mutant

    One thing the book (or at least your selections from it) miss is that often high end goods are actually better; not just better because they send signals, but better because of their functions.

    When I fly on my own dime, I buy online from cheapoair.com, but when I fly for work I fly first class. I will tell you from experience that first class is actually better. The seats are more spacious, have better cushioning, and are more ergonomic. You are just much less stiff after the flight. You get to show up to the airport later since first class has its own security line that is much shorter, and you get off the plane first since you are in front. We only live so long, spending one less hour in an airport is pretty nice.

    At some level of wealth it would without a doubt be worthwhile to fly first class even if you had to wear a mask on the plane and were legally barred from ever mentioning it. There is enough of an intrinsic quality gap that it would be worth it with no signaling value. Sure, some more expensive items are lower in quality than the cheep items they replace, but overgeneralizing to fit a pet belief is an easy trap to fall into. You can’t just assume that all consumption of luxury goods is signaling.

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