Sunday, May 01, 2011

Vindications and more


-A prominent fashion blogger declares, wistfully, "Thoughts I ALWAYS think when I look through runway: '(fashion) Life must be SO DOPE when you're flat-chested.'" Another fashion writer greets the royal wedding as an end to "porno chic," which seems to amount to it being socially acceptable for women to have large breasts and not feel terrible about it. A vindication insofar as I'm always going on about how frustrating it is that a woman who wishes to look chic/understated/fashionable/whatever can't have much on top.

-Not to relaunch a debate, but this (via) is what I was trying to get at here, but far better-explained.


In the spirit of Anglophilia and romance... The "Blind Date" feature in the Guardian is spectacular. At least if you're the sort of person who finds the glimpse-into-real-lives genre, in its myriad forms (letters to Dan or Prudie, alumni magazines, wedding pages, 19th C French-Jewish newspapers, Facebook-following the not necessarily fascinating lives of acquaintances, not tuning out when someone starts a cell conversation on the bus... and, sometimes, although it's insufficiently real-person, reality TV.) The gist of it seems to be that the newspaper sets up (willing!) readers at random (or is it a dating site?), and pays for them to have a meal and then answer a series of questions about how it went.

-As with the alumni mag entries Flavia highlights, the parts of these questionnaires about which topics were discussed on the date really do, in the aggregate, paint a portrait of a subset of London society that I wouldn't know how to classify, but that does seem to get at a certain sort of person. This, despite a great deal of professional, racial, and age diversity. I guess The Guardian Reader? There's a bit of a high-cultural-capital, low-economic-capital (or presenting one's self as such) thing going on - "What did you talk about? Books, PhDs, travel, having brilliant sisters, and how posh the restaurant was."

-Who/what are they rating out of 10? How smoothly the date went? How good-looking the person was? And wouldn't it be an odd start to an otherwise fine relationship if one had gone with 8, the other 9?

-The most baffling aspect of this - and is it a British thing? a Guardian-reader thing? something specific to the fact that they're reporting back to a major newspaper? - is that almost invariably, the blind-daters do not feel a "spark," yet when asked if they'd see each other again, say some variant of, "Yes, as friends." ("Sure, as people," says one. "For a laugh, sure," another.) Why, unless they're new in town and don't know anyone, would they go out of their way, in a big city, to see people they'd had so-so blind dates with? Or is it some kind of "manners" thing, where it would be rude to say "no, never," as though it implied that they'd cross to the other side of the street if they ran into the person? A romantic equivalent of female acquaintances insisting they'll get lunch soon, when neither is interested in rounding it up to friendship? Or is it, in some cases, that the person did feel a spark, but is too embarrassed to admit it in case the other didn't, and so is playing it cool while leaving open the possibility of a second date?

-Many of the "awkward" moments stem from what seem to be logistical failures the newspaper could and probably should deal with. If the paper is paying, there should not be mysteries around who picks up the bill, nor should restaurant staff be chasing the couple out for not paying. Unless, of course, the point is to see how the daters will react to this sort of challenge...


X.Trapnel said...

Unsurprisingly, I think Ariely's comments were bad--misleading if not precisely false. Insofar as there's a grain of truth to what he's saying, it's simply the other side of the usual Keynesian-ish macro-economics claim. (Even useless activity can help maintain the sustainability of *useful* activity, by ensuring that the useless have purchasing power, at least some of which will be directed towards the socially-useful stuff. Ariely's version is just one step further back in the process--*desire* for useless things inducing activity.)

But it should be clear how limited this argument is: any kind of 'multiplier effect' you attribute to the extra purchasing power created by people working harder to afford 'bottled luxury French air' or what-have-you has to be depreciated by the degree to which these people are working at *equally* useless or destructive occupations. Ariely talks of surgeons, but this encompasses heart-bypasses as well as liposuction. In addition, of course, there are the familiar crowding-out arguments: not only is valuable human time and ingenuity being wasted dreaming up and marketing air, but smart & ambitious people are incentivized to develop the skills needed for those professions rather than others. (This parallels the point M Yggles makes about the tragedy of finance hoovering up young talent.)

But Ariely's "argument" is even worse than the typical Keynesian version, because of the narrative underlying it, encapsulated in his 'consider a world without marketing' paragraph. It's quite reminiscent of English industrialists demanding wage ceilings, claiming that unless at the verge of destitution, the lazy proles would barely work at all.

X.Trapnel said...

I should make clear that there's an important truth to the normal Keynesian claim; but Ariely's moving one step further back, and removing the key qualifications. Which is to say, he's not just talking about mobilizing unemployed labor (even in the service of useless projects); he's valorizing the *fruits* of useless labor itself, purely on a (psychologically) absurd claim that humans need ever-more-sparkly baubles to induce them to (productive) labor. Again, shades of dark-satanic-Millian liberalism here; though here, instead of a pessimism about human nature that expresses itself in the belief that only fear of starving on the street will keep the proles working, you've got the view that only a thirst for sparkly baubles will keep them working. Both versions are false to human psychology; both say something ugly about those who hold to them.

Phoebe said...

First version of this comment disappeared, so...

To reiterate, I'm not trying to relaunch the debate. You know what Keynsian means, I know vaguely who Keynes was and what he represents (and will not do the bloggy thing of Googling to pretend I knew in detail all along), so you win. What was "vindication" was not that Ariely proved me right once and for all, but that my uninformed thoughts are apparently supported (more or less) by someone who at least gives the impression of being informed.

Where I'm unconvinced, if we must discuss this, is on this point: " It's quite reminiscent of English industrialists demanding wage ceilings, claiming that unless at the verge of destitution, the lazy proles would barely work at all." That is basically saying, humans deserve no decent standard of living, which is a far cry from saying that a good amount of beneficial work gets done because those doing that work appreciate that doing what they do allows them to buy Louboutins. So, for the record - I, at least, was suggesting the latter, not the former, and I don't see these as one and the same. There's no reason a basic standard of living couldn't be compatible with bottled-air-lust - seems to work for parts of Europe.

Phoebe said...

Also, I would not be at all surprised if they did sell bottled French air in Paris, at the parapharmacies.

X.Trapnel said...

Yeah, as you can imagine, I find the alternative-meds stuff ... dispiriting.

I should have been clearer about the difference between the two claims about motivation; I think I did a bit better at the end of my second comment. I do agree that the sparkly-bauble story is less clearly vicious than the dark-satanic-millian story. My reaction was probably--objectively speaking--excessive. But what makes the sparkly-bauble story of motivation extra frustrating--to me at least--was the blindness to an entirely different relationship between useless-stuff and lack-of-motivation: if your job isn't obviously contributing in any real way to human welfare, you may not exactly be chomping at the bit for overtime. Ariely's response is, "but look! Shiny!" Another response is, "maybe more jobs should involve productive work."

To speak purely of surgeons, Ariely's example: my sense of things is that many of them actually work *too hard*, in terms of hours per day, with deleterious effects on patient health. This is most obviously true of residents, but if TV is to be believed, there's also the (to me psychologically-plausible) reason that being a surgeon is intrinsically quite rewarding--you're playing God, saving lives!--and you get caught up in the work.

X.Trapnel said...

Which is to say: they don't need baubles to keep the operating rooms humming.

And Ariely's an academic; he should know better. He's a part of the West's 2nd-oldest institution organized around thoroughly non-pecuniary incentives (which is far from saying no incentives at all).

And with that, I'll get back to reading SSTLS and feeling even more grumpy-old-mannish.

Phoebe said...

"if TV is to be believed, there's also the (to me psychologically-plausible) reason that being a surgeon is intrinsically quite rewarding--you're playing God, saving lives!--and you get caught up in the work."

I don't know. I've had doctors who clearly cared about their work, and also clearly parlayed that into, say, shoes far more expensive than my oh so productive life as a grad student could bring about. This is actually something I've noticed on "House" and found mildly distracting - in theory all the characters would be making good salaries, yet they mostly live like... grad students, basically, with roommates, with no materialism. And I think it's intentional - we're meant to view them as purely doctors, purely interested in solving puzzles, saving lives, more one or the other depending which character. When, in reality, a doctor would, often enough, be that way while also caring about the summer house that being on House's team could provide.

Phoebe said...

And now that I've seen your second comment (SSTLS=?)... Yes, even academics, who do not go into the line of work to buy sportscars, have motivations that count as not-so-noble. They're more along the lines of leisure time (well, unstructured time) and travel opportunities, the latter being, in its way, materialistic.

X.Trapnel said...

SSTLS = Super Sad True Love Story, the Shtyengart book.

My point isn't that academics or doctors are immune to materialistic motives, it's just that both the example he chose, and the other example he ought to know best, ought to actually cut against his argument: both are traditionally regarded as socially useful occupations, whose remuneration has historically been [usually seen as (correctly or not)] less than what the practitioners would be capable of attaining elsewhere, despite the long hours involved. Which ought to make him think a bit.

Note too that unstructured leisure and travel are versions of "play"--which I do consider a fundamental human good--that do *not* depend nearly so heavily on marketing as bottled air.

My basic point is that "more work" (absent consumption value) is only an unmitigated good for the economy/the world/the future if it's *productive* work in a deeply value-implicated way: if it, at a minimum, increases the productive forces available to humanity in the future. (This is most easily seen when we think of, for example, extracting and burning non-renewable resources.) He gestures towards this with talk about innovation, but to avoid circularity (innovation in ad-blocking extensions to help consumers avoid seeing the innovations in advertising they're exposed to!--or, less humorously, financial 'innovation'...) one must go deeper.

X.Trapnel said...

I should make clear--esp. given some commentary about the royal wedding--that I want to stay far away from anything in the neighborhood of "sports are an authentic expression of deep human needs; fashion and weddings are trivial wastes of human potential!"--sexist nonsense, yes. (As it happens, I think a good deal of fashion advertising is closer to some Platonic Form of Art, than it is to the hypothetical Bottled Air--what I hate about Glamour is the articles!)

I think we need to be pluralist and open-minded about the values we use in assessing economic structures and contributions, but value matters. I'm pushing back against Ariely's attempt to do a Slatey-contrarian "even worthless things are worthy!"; I don't mean to be putting much argumentative weight (on this particular blogthread) on which values are the right ones to use.

Phoebe said...

I think the "correctly or not" needs to be front and center - temperament, talent, the kind of work a person is willing to do, it all enters into who does what, and I'd say that no, the typical humanities/social sciences grad student does not have the potential to be an i-banker without at the very least redoing ages 16-present, while the typical math one might, but might lack the social skills or the will to work those hours. (Rereading Bobos in Paradise, Google Books-style, for an unrelated reason, I noticed a line about this - about academics thinking they nobly rejected other paths, when realistically, not so much. Not on board with the whole book/whole Brooks oeuvre, but this bit made sense.)

I'm glad you're not coming at this from a pro-sports and anti-fashion angle. I do think, though, that anti-materialism can often go this route, given that "material" brings to mind, well, material, but also given that personal adornment of any kind represents excess and vanity in a way that a flat-screen other people might not even know a guy has does not. And I will break the news that "travel," for female academics who study France, even ones far less material-enthused than this one, involves the occasional awe-struck trip to the sales.

X.Trapnel said...

Perhaps I've gotten things too far from the big picture. Ariely's claiming that our 'natural' cupidity isn't enough to movitate us to produce as much as we ought to. Reread this bit: "Consider for a moment a world without marketing hype. One in which there’s nothing you really desire beyond what you need to live." The second sentence just doesn't follow from the first, and I'm honestly baffled that a psychologist could possibly think it would. Humans are meaning-making creatures, endlessly inventive and curious and eager for new stuff and new ways of handling old stuff.

[As for the specifics of the Bobo bit--I wouldn't want to say every starving adjunct writing instructor with a comp lit PhD and 99% GREs could be a 400k banker, no. Most, however, could have been reasonably upper-middle-class businesspeople, for whom (so my informants in the business sector claim) the ability to communicate well with text is quite important. But I think all of this is a bit of a side issue.]