The Purchases We Make

In their book The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about “conspicuous consumption,” a term coined by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen who lived about 100 years ago. Simler and Hanson write, “When consumers are asked why they bought an expensive watch or high-end handbag, they often cite material factors like comfort, aesthetics, and functionality. But Veblen argued that, in fact, the demand for luxury goods is driven largely by a social motive: flaunting one’s wealth.” The other pieces of the argument, the good performance of the item, the colors we were dying to have, and the durability of the product might be the true reason we made a purchase in some instances, and that allows us to make those excuses even though they only describe part of our behavior. A big part of Hanson and Simler’s book focuses on the idea that we use these types of excuses to justify our actions. Further, they argue that our behaviors often signal something about ourselves implicitly that we don’t want to say explicitly.

 

In the case of luxury goods the thing we are signaling is our wealth. Our wealth demonstrates our financial resources and can be used as a proxy for our social capital and human value. Our wealth may give others insights into our skills and abilities to do hard things, helping us stand out against a crowd. And, our wealth may reveal our deep social connections or our family’s high status, two social traits that certainly helped our ancestors pass their genes on in small political tribes.

 

The problem today, however, is that we don’t admit this is what we are doing with our purchases, and as a result we face major negative externalities from our consumptive habits. We spend a lot of money on unnecessary luxury goods, and many people go deeply into debt to signal that they are the type of person who would own a certain type of luxury good. Our unyielding desire in the United States for ever further and greater consumption leads us to buy larger houses that we have to heat, faster cars that use more energy, and to own more clothes that will take millions of years to break down thanks to the new synthetic fibers we use to make them. Our consumption and our drive to continuously signal our wealth and social value, some would argue, is poisoning and heating our planet to dangerous levels.

 

Simler and Hanson don’t focus on the externalities of our signaling behavior in their book, but they do acknowledge that they are there. The authors simply make an argument that most of us would rather ignore. That we do things for selfish motives and reasons we don’t want to talk about. This is important if you are an economics, sociology, or policy researcher because you need to understand what people are really doing when they rally politically or make economic decisions.  For the rest of us, in our daily lives, we can take a lesson from Hanson and Simler that stems from an awareness of our self-centered behavior. We can think about our signaling behaviors and ask if conspicuous consumption is really worthwhile. We can step back and ask if the ways we signal our wealth help or hurt the planet, and we can start to make decisions with positive externalities and attempt to avoid the negative externalities I mentioned above.

Individual Circumstances

For many of us, things in our life and our mental states begin to break down when we look around and compare ourselves to others. We can be perfectly happy on our own, enjoying our own flow of life, but when we see the neighbors buy a new car, when a friend posts vacation pictures on Facebook, and when a family member gets a promotion, we suddenly feel inadequate. Conversely, when we have overcome obstacles it is easy to look at everyone else who has not been as successful as us and look down on them, criticizing them for not being as strong as us and for not making the smart decisions that we had to make to get to where we are.

 

In my first example of comparing ourselves to others, I am referring to jealousy and envy that we can feel relative to others. Our status in the world will always be relative, which means that as someone else does better, our status relative to  that person is in a worse position. There is no global status meter ranking us all, but we unconsciously rank our status against one another all the time. It is stressful, and it is also all made up. Recognizing our status comparing impulses and choosing not to allow these impulses to drive our lives will free up our mind, our goals, and what we feel we must do to show that we are just as successful as other people in our orbit.

 

The second example from the opening paragraph of comparing ourselves to others is something I have been thinking about more recently. Once we become successful, I would argue that we have an incentive to over-hype the obstacles we faced and to make it even more challenging for other people to follow in our footsteps. If I had come from nothing and succeeded, and a hundred thousand people after me also came from nothing and found success, then my achievements would look smaller. If, however, I came from nothing and achieved great success and suddenly found myself in a rare group of individuals with very few other people able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps, then my accomplishments would look even more impressive. What I did to achieve success may not have changed, but how it is perceived will change based on how many others also become successful. We have plenty of incentives to build up our story, trump up the obstacles we had to overcome, and to then criticize those who don’t make it. We shouldn’t believe the story we tell ourselves, because it is probably and exaggeration and will likely make life unnecessarily challenging for others, just so we can hold a special place in our own minds and in the eyes of society.

 

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, Colin Wright writes the following, “Don’t compare your efforts to that of your peers. Everything you do should be customized for your individual circumstances.” We never know all of the challenges that another person faces. We never know what advantages another person has in life. And ultimately, for ourselves, neither of those things matter. What does matter is whether or not we are making efforts to be well-rounded individuals and whether we exist in society for ourselves or with the goal of making all of society better for everyone. Comparing ourselves to others in an attempt to monitor who is working hard, who is cheating, who deserves what they get, and who is high or low status will simply burn us out and lead to negative thinking and negative interactions with others.

Living With Others

I often think about status and about how we act to try to increase our status. When human beings were evolving and we lived in small tribes of 50 to 250 people, status mattered quite a bit. Higher status people were able to reproduce and pass their genes along, while lower status people were not able to reproduce and pass their genes on. As Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson explain in their book The Elephant In The Brain, we evolved to be status seeking machines, constantly aware of our status relative to others.

 

Today, this drive for status can be dangerous and drive us to act in ways that are more harmful toward ourselves and others than we often realize. Housing is an example that is coming to mind for me right now. Pressures to show our success lead to desires for houses with big common spaces for entertaining, even if we only host a party once every two years, and many people live with mortgages that max them out to afford the extra (and unnecessary) home space. In a race for status and signaling our wealth and importance, we are often willing to strain our finances to move up the social ladder.

 

What is worse, is that status is relative. For me to have more status among my co-workers or a group of friends, other people must necessarily lose status. Someone with more status than me will undoubtedly feel their status diminish if my status rises and begins to equal their status. The work we accomplish, the success we achieve, and the people we are, can fade away when we focus on status, and many of us we have experienced the desire to destroy another person’s life to either maintain or enhance our status.

 

Thich Nhat Hanh thinks this is a problem in his book The Miracle of Mindfulness.  Hanh discusses the ways that meditation can help us live a more mindful and intentional life, and specifically, he writes about the ways that we can improve our relationship and values. Writing more about actual life and death he says, “We can no longer be deluded by the notion that the destruction of other’s lives is necessary for our own survival.”

 

His advice is something we should apply to our selves when we think about and recognize our drive for ever greater status. At a certain point, we have to recognize how much our actions, thoughts, and decisions are driven by status, and we have to find a way to value ourselves outside of our relative status position. By doing this, we can live at ease with others and it will no longer be necessary to tear someone down for us to rise on the social ladder and feel better about ourselves. It is not necessary for us to ruin another person’s reputation and destroy their social status for us to live a full and meaningful life. Just as we should value the other person’s physical life, we should value the other person, and allow them to pursue status while we focus on providing real value to the world.

Clinging to Advantages

Over the last few weeks I have been very critical of American society and how we have treated black people and failed to live up-to ideals of freedom and equality for all. I have scrutinized white culture and politics and how our nation developed a system of mass incarceration that treats people differently based on race, and then hides behind ideas of colorblindness to deflect charges of racism and discrimination. However, it is important for me to address the human nature which drives the behaviors and attitudes of our majority population and dominant culture, so that I can better understand how we arrived where we are today.

 

In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander writes, “it seems that an aspect of human nature is the tendency to cling tightly to one’s advantages and privileges and to rationalize the suffering and exclusion of others.” I have written about John Biewen and his podcast Seeing White, and one of the key take-aways from his podcast was the understanding that racial discrimination followed economic exploitation. When our nation was not yet independent, we did not have genetic science, and we did not have complete working ideas of evolution and biology. In the United States wealthy European settlers enslaved black people for economic gain, and to justify that exploitation, stories, myths, and the idea of what would become the basis for “race” came into being. We would not have race and the creation of a caste system if people were not exploiting humans for economic gain in the first place. This system was never authentically understood or based on reason or science, but based on myth and the self-interest of those whose privilege provided advantages.

 

The quote from Alexander reminds us that we cannot just be critical and cast a judgmental eye on those who push back against our challenges to racial injustice. To a much greater extent than we ever truly recognize, we act more out of our own self-interest or our perceived self-interest than we act based on reason and altruistic values. I do not believe that the world is zero-sum, and I think you can cut behind popular views of the world as being win-lose to see ways in which we all grow and benefit even if we appear to be giving something up. However, the loss of status, the loss of social privilege, and even the loss of economic advantages can truly feel like a loss if you view the world as zero-sum. Giving up any of these things produces short term pains, and the payoffs are often far away and hard to recognize. Asking one group to give up their advantages and privilege may be necessary to ensure longterm stability within a population and may lead to greater economic prosperity for all over a generation or two, but the individual who must give up status and power may feel as though they have given up more than others, and they may feel attacked and victimized.

 

This is a challenge we must work through as a society. As we ask white people to step away from privilege, we must find a way to demonstrate that we are not attacking them personally or punishing white people for having been successful in our traditional system. Often times overall wealth and privilege is not as important for an individual as relative wealth and privilege. If you have more status among those around you, it does not matter that you are less wealthy and less powerful than those you will never meet or see. This vision needs to be shifted so that we look not at our status relative to those around us, but instead look toward stability and opportunity for humanity as a whole, recognizing that we, and our children, can still be prosperous and important, but in a larger system that depends on human connections more than it depends on individual wealth and success.

Our Careers

A real challenge for many people today is understanding how we should think about our careers and the jobs we do. Growing up we are told to go to college and to get a great job where we don’t have to work too hard. Along the way we watch people take jobs that sound important and impressive and often without realizing it, we develop an understanding that having a  job is less about earning a living and more about standing out and finding something that fulfills us and gives us meaning.

 

This pressure and drive toward a career that is about more than just earning money feels like a relatively new phenomenon to me, though I’m sure people have been confronting these challenges for ages. When I look around I see that young people today must balance the need to make money with pressure to become important and reflect their status through their career. At the same time, their position must appear to be desirable, interesting, and lucrative.

 

What is often lost, is that the career is not the sole factor in determining whether an individual is successful, and it is not the only factor in determining whether someone is happy. Senator Cory Booker’s mother gave him this advice on this the day he officially became a senator. In his book United, Booker shares what his mother told him on the day that he stepped into one of the most impressive and easily ego inflating careers in the country, “Don’t get carried away with all of this … Remember,  the title doesn’t make the man, the man must make the title.”

 

We must remember that having a fancy title and having a job that sounds important will not lead to happiness and will not lead to us becoming the person we always imagined ourselves to be. Stepping back and recognizing that our drive for fancy job titles is simply a desire to build our own ego and become carried away in thoughts of our own greatness will help us step back from the career drive that blindly shapes the direction of so many people’s lives. In a recent episode of the Rationaly Speaking Podcast, Julai Galef’s guest Robert Wright shared a similar thought. Speaking about leftover parts of human nature in our brain, Wright stated,

 

“The other thing I’d say is that some of the things are valuable to people. Like, they facilitate social climbing … But that presupposes that social climbing is itself good for you. That’s an argument you could have. …

 

And so it might encourage questioning, “Well, why the relentless pursuit of social status?” I mean I understand why I have it. Status got genes into the next generation, so I have the thirst for that … That doesn’t mean, if upon examination I decide that the quest for status, especially again, in a modern environment that may be different from the one we are designed for, if I decide that that’s actually not making me happy anyway, then some of these illusions are actually not even useful.”

 

Wright directly addresses social climbing as a status marker that developed when we lived in tribes as a way to help us pass our genes along. We live with a drive for status and today status is represented in our careers and rewarded financially. Wright’s argument, and the sentiment that Booker’s mother shared, is that simply having a title does not lead to argument or reflect that we are somehow better than others, it just raises our status which can be damaging if our ego becomes too inflated.

 

We may not be able to escape the reality that people today judge each other based on the work they do, but we can always remember that what is important is how we do that work, how we live our lives outside of work, and whether we are a well rounded and balanced individual in our time within and outside of our career. Simply having a title or being lucky enough to have a good job does not define who we are as a person or give our lives meaning. It is our actions and our intent that matter.