Sacred Identity, Wicked Arbitrage

Last week, our own Sam Wilson suggested that strip clubs might be sacred spaces, Apple stores might be like churches, patriotism might also share this quality, and wrapped up by surveying some economic and political implications of it all. To summarize: politicians are like Apple, Apple is a religion, religions are like strip clubs. Let it never be said that we shy from controversy here at Sweet Talk.

Sam focuses on the single-use nature of sacred spaces, and how this generates economic rents. The clerisy are the residual claimants on those rents, and the parishioners are the source of income. Over the screams of “PROFANING ECONOMIC DEVILS” that are provoked from such sentences, you have to admit there’s something there (though not everything). The resources which have sustained the Catholic church for centuries did not come from nowhere. Though the church often engaged in commerce, that was not, by and large, how it supported itself—or more accurately, how it was supported.

Still, I’m not sure I agree with Sam that it’s the single-use aspect that has much to do with it, nor that it needs to be single-use—or that there being a physical location is all that important.

What I’m driving at is hinted to by our friend David:

Participation in a ritual is a scary thing because the boundaries between individual and community become less-defined. Those lines which are drawn with a black permanent marker suddenly become gray chalk, smudged, imperceptible. Perhaps, as you look around while you are participating in a ritual, the boundaries are coextensive, and the self is absorbed into the community. Some days that is a welcome moment.

Daniel C. Russell speaks of virtue as being “embodied.” He draws on the literature on bereavement which contains endless examples of people speaking of the loss of a loved one as feeling like losing a limb—and, amazingly, amputees who make the reverse analogy. Real love, virtuous love, is a love so complete that you make your loved ones a part of your life, a part of who you are.

David’s ritual that melts us into the community does a great deal of work of internalizing not only the values of that community, but in a way, the community itself—it becomes part of who you are. Though given the relative sizes involved, and the fact that a community can persist long after today’s members are dead, perhaps David’s got the right of it in saying that it is we who are internalized by it.

Alasdair MacIntyre speaks of communities of “uncalculated giving.” He does not literally mean that no calculation is involved—people have to be prudent and make sure they don’t bankrupt themselves and leave everyone dependent on them in the lurch. He means that the extent of the possible obligation to one another is uncalculated. Certain relationships are sacred and we will do whatever we can to help the people involved, giving as much as we can and for as long as is necessary. We do so because of a debt to those who have supported us, the extent of which is not quantifiable. In MacIntyre’s vision there is a certain symmetry between parents who have a perfectly healthy, well behaved, and smart kid who grows up to be successful, and parents who have a kid who is crippled or incapacitated in some way that requires a great deal more direct care and time. The symmetry comes from the fact that we know the former would be called upon to perform the duties of the latter if the circumstances were the same, and so the child of the former has a debt of equal “weight”—or more accurately, equally unweighed—as the latter child. The latter parents are nevertheless honored, held up as paragons of parental duty and virtue, but the symmetry is there.

What does all of this have to do with Sam?

I think he is onto something, but I’m just suggesting that there’s more. And not just more in the sense of ethical implications, but more from the point of view of the economist. There’s far more going on than single-use sacred spaces.

When parishioners offer their money to the sacred, they aren’t paying for a service rendered. They are providing support for something that is a crucial part of who they are. This can often be masked by actual services rendered here and there—and the sacred brand of which Sam speaks is inextricably linked with profane objects imbued with its wonder—computers, laptops, media players, smartphones, tablets. But the cult quality that Apple has managed to cash in on is derived from a body of faithful for whom the presence of the shining logo in their lives is a small but important piece of who they are. Apple’s success since the iPhone has actually shrunk the importance of this group—but they’re still out there. Believe me.

This is also the quality that helps one straddle, perhaps even cross the threshold from customer to patron. It is the basis of Kevin Kelly’s theory of 1,000 true fans, a phenomena I have seen in the wild and participated in myself.

At the end of all this, I have to say that I think that Sam’s initial example is actually misplaced. It’s not because I’m a prude who thinks strip clubs are evil, but because it seems clear to me that the sacred is something that people want to shout from the rooftops about, while strip clubs are generally a down-low sort of affair. The rent that such spaces command may be the arbitrage value of going where angels dare not tread; the wages of sin if you will. Being plainer about it, the very fact that people find stripping distasteful, and want to be discrete about being a customer to such establishments, shrinks the competition in a similar way that the intrinsic desire to be an actor creates an surplus of talent in that industry.

I see this in my own industry. Those sacred brands of which Sam speaks will never, ever spend a dime advertising on a porn website, despite the many, many—many—eyeballs that can be reached there. Bountiful fields of eyeballs, left unbid on by the deepest pockets. As a result, those who are content to advertise there pay bargain basement rates by comparison.

The sacred and the profane mix, are internalized and segregated, in complex and interesting ways, with implications for philosophers, theologians, and economists alike.

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