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:
2) "Consumer capitalism" marketers trick us into using unreliable signals:
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) …
3) We'd be better off to talk and customize more, and work and buy less:
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)
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:
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:
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.