06w47:1 Cool Economics

by timothy. 0 Comments

As I mentioned in the Goodreads sent out on October 16th, I’ve prepared a transcript of the Ideas episode Economics and Social Justice, which was released today as a podcast.

Despite Mr Sacco’s acceptably flawed English, I found this to be a remarkably good listen, and I especially liked his take on what the Toronto School would call the Economics of Positional Goods. By this I mean that Mark Kingwell has been known in the past year to talk of positional goods which is borrowing from the work of his fellow University of Toronto philosophy colleague Joseph Heath, who presented on his book, The Rebel Sell two years ago with his co-author Andrew Potter, a transcript of which I made available on Goodreads some time ago and herein again for obvious thematic reasons.

In addition, because Sacco mentions in his presentation that there is a strong incentive in our culture toward stupidity, since it makes you a more pliable consumer, I was reminded of Alvin Toffler’s talk which was broadcast on TVO’s Big Ideas on September 30th. His talk was for his new book, Revolutionary Wealth where he argued that we have formed a new civilization, one I would argue which is unhealthily obsessed with the pursuit of a string of digits; Sacco would argue that we have tied our identity to these digits, administered by banks and governments, and see them as measures of our potency. Toffler argues that our society’s structures have fallen out of sync, where business is moving at an extreme rate, adapting readily to and creating change in our world but education is the dinosaur, not having kept up the pace and still teaching a curriculum designed to produce efficient factory and corporate workers.

Sacco thinks we need to invest in ourselves – that is educate ourselves – in order to remove ourselves from the rat race of competitive consumption which is tied to what he calls the economics of identity. What’s a little shocking is how this new and cool theory of economics – the economics of identity – is really rather old school. In an essay found in his Collected Works (which I tried to get on Goodreads last year but they wouldn’t let me), Northrop Frye wrote:

Still, the problem of leisure and boredom is an educational problem. Education may not solve it, but nothing else will. Schools, churches, clubs, and whatever else has any right at all to be called educational, need to think of educating for leisure as one of our central and major social needs. And education is a much broader business than studying certain subjects, though it includes that. Television, newspapers, films, are all educational agencies, though what they do mostly is more like dope peddling than like serious education. Education reflects the kind of society we have. If society is competitive and aggressive and ego-centered, education will be too; and if education is that way, it’ll produce a cynical and selfish society, round and round in a vicious circle. Intelligent and dedicated people can break this circle in a lot of places if they try hard.

What makes boredom boring? It’s not just a matter of not being busy enough. Take a girl who’s dropped out of college because the slick magazines told her she wasn’t being feminine unless she threw her brains away. What with running a house and three children and outside activities, she hasn’t a minute of free time, but she’s bored all the same. Being bored is really the feeling that there’s something missing inside oneself. When someone gets that feeling, his instinct is to feel that something outside him can supply what’s missing. This is what inspires the chase for what are called status symbols. A man struggles to get an expensive car or a mink coat for his wife in the hope that people will judge him by these things instead of by himself. One trouble with these things is that they wear out so fast. In fact, our economy partly depends on their wearing out fast. As soon as anything is recognized to be a status symbol, it begins to look silly, and we have to start chasing something else. Suppose a man wants to collect pictures, not because he likes pictures, but because it’s an approved thing to do. He’s soon fold that certain kinds of pictures are fashionable and others aren’t. But as soon as he’s got his house filled with canvases a hundred feet square covered with red paint, the fashion changes to pop art, and there he is with last year’s model of status symbols. It’s the same with all the distracting activities. A man is bored because he bores himself.

That was circa 1963. When Sacco speaks of ‘compensatory consumption’ he’s really talking about people trying to buy their way out of boredom.

But, you know, we do buy our way out of boredom all the time: we buy computers to do websites and Goodreads with, and we buy books to read which stimulate and educate. An Educated Imagination is what Pier Luigi Sacco is really calling for, and to that end here is some content by which to further that pursuit. – Timothy


Economics and Social Justice | CBC Ideas
“Pier Luigi Sacco teaches the economics of culture in Venice. He’s interested in concepts of post-industrial economics, co-operative enterprise and game theory. In a discussion recorded in Vancouver, he and social commentator Avi Lewis, talk about changing theories of economics as key to narrowing the gap between rich and poor.”Podcast link:http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/ideas_20061120_1221.mp3

The Rebel Sell | Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath
“So the desire to conform, this idea that we’re all trying to conform, fails to explain the compulsive nature of consumer behavior, why we keep spending more and more, even though we’re all over extended, even though it doesn’t bring anybody any happiness in the long run. So the question is why do we lay the blame for consumerism on those who are struggling to keep up with the Jones’? Because the fault would actually appear to lie with the Jones’. They’re the ones who started it all, by trying to one-up their neighbors. It’s their desire to stand out from the crowd, to be better than everyone else, that is responsible for ratcheting up consumption standards in their community. In other words, it’s the non-conformists, not the conformists, who are driving consumer spending.”

Revolutionary Wealth | Alvin Toffler
“The co-author, Alvin Toffler, came through Toronto recently promoting the latest book in which the Tofflers again divine the shape of things to come. The book’s title is Revolutionary Wealth and is an attempt to show how our traditional economic categories are subject to changes wrought by digital technologies. If you suffer from future shock already, this talk is not likely to assuage it.”

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emailed by Timothy on Monday 20 November 2006 @ 10:15 PM

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