On Sunday I reviewed Frank's Luxury Fever, which advocated taxing "conspicuous" relative to "inconspicuous" consumption. I noted:
Frank offers no evidence whatsoever that the activities he dislikes and wants to tax in fact cause more inefficient status-seeking than the activities he likes and wants to subsidize.
But soon after I reported on data others have collected on this, and summarized their implications for policy. This morning I gave the main argument from Geoffrey Miller's new book Spent:
Signaling infuses most human activity.
Consumer capitalism marketers trick us into using unreliable signals.
We'd be better off to talk and customize more, and work and buy less.
Laws aren't the answer; let's make better social norms.
Let's also adjust a consumption tax to compensate for side effects.
On point 1, I completely agree; Miller's detail here is golden; spectacular really. And points 4 and 5 make a lot of sense. But points 2 and 3 are, alas, schlock.
Frank and Miller seem to dislike pretty much the same activities, but while Frank complains that we use them to "conspicuously" show off, Miller admits pretty much everything we do shows off. Miller complains instead that showing off via purchases is "redundant" and "misleading" and not as "efficient," "rich," and "unique" as other ways to show off.
Yet like Frank, Miller offers no evidence whatsoever that the signals he wants to discourage cause more inefficient harm than the signals he wants to encourage. Specifically, Miller offers no evidence that:
We are on net better off if our signals correlate more with our key features.
Richer or more unique signals are more correlated with our key features.
Talking or customizing more, or working or buying less, make our signals richer.
Talking or customizing more, or working or buying less, make our signals correlate more with key features.
As with Frank, it doesn't even occur to Miller that we might want such evidence; the harms of consumer capitalism just seem so obvious.
Miller's main instinct seems to be that our signals should be more "natural", i.e., more like the mix of signals our distant ancestors used. He claims
The Central Six traits … [are] almost everything worth knowing about everyone else. (p284)
and says we learn these traits (IQ + the big five personality traits) so well via "natural face-to-face interaction" that the added signals in our jobs and purchases are "mostly redundant or misleading."
But consider Miller's instinct as applied to athletic ability. While our distant ancestors probably learned a lot by watching each other hunt or dance, random variations in who hunted or danced what when made it hard to discern fine ability differences. This is probably why, when density allowed, humans invented games and leagues, with level playing fields, neutral rules and referees, and ability-matched teams.
It is exactly because "unnatural" organized sport signals are less "unique" and "rich" than natural athletic signals that such sports let us better discern fine athletic ability differences, especially among the most able. And those who refuse to compete send the bad signal that they expect to lose. This seems a far more plausible explanation of the popularity of sports than sport marketers tricking us into wasting our time on sports. Similarly, our many other unnatural competitions, such as for various jobs, seem plausibly ways to discern finer distinctions than natural interactions allow.
Also, I doubt Miller's "Central Six" are really almost everything worth knowing about folks, or that we only need to signal to our close associates. Not only do we also need to signal six more (age, sex, gender, fertility, health, and athleticism), but the ability to command resources and social status matter, and are not reducible to these twelve traits. In addition, signaling loyalty is nearly as important to humans as signaling ability. As others (here and here) have said, many of our products let us show our devotion to our family, our buddies, our cohort, our profession, etc.
Miller claims ads today are coy about signaling to avoid being proven wrong:
While [advertising] must hint at the signaling functions of conspicuous consumption, it must never make quantitative claims … Such explicit claims about a product's trait-signaling power could be proven false all too easily. (p85)
But a much simpler explanation is that humans generally prefer to think they are not trying to show off.
Finally, consider the remarkable coincidence between the policies Miller considers favored by his evolutionary analysis and his prior political inclinations:
I'm a secular humanist, an antiwar internationalist, an animal-rights environmentalist, a pro-gay feminist, a libertarian on most social, sexual, and cultural issues, and a registered Democrat – in other words, a typical psychology professor. (p32)
My simple explanation: we are all inclined to think society would be better off if it emphasized the signals that make us look good. As I said about Robert Frank:
At that summer barbecue, maybe Frank would rather we all sat transfixed by his articulate lecture on the politics of status, without being distracted by the host's shiny new grill.
Added 20May: Vaughan notes that we subconsciously notice a lot more than we consciously notice.