After last night’s annual bacchanalia, it was a pleasure to awaken groggily to Samuel Hammond’s delightful celebration of materialism, in which he channels The Preacher, known to many as Ecclesiastes, which tries to translate the Hebrew “Qohelet,” the one who calls the assembly.
It is the godless book of the Bible, disturbing in its nihilism, but it became one of the “little scrolls,” those books which are designated for use by the post-exilic Jews for public reading during their own bacchanals. This 2900 year old book was read aloud during the Feast of Booths, that gargantuan outdoor party celebrating the harvest. In short, while you are totally blitzed on new wine, engorging yourself on the fat of the land, and looking lustily upon one another, as commanded by Moses, The Preacher shouts over the landscape: “Meaningless!”
“Status competitions are our main, if not only, source of meaning in the universe.”
“So meditate if you have to, but don’t be afraid to day dream a little, too. It may fill you with anxiety, and it definitely won’t make you happy, but later in life you just might find yourself building a spaceship to Mars.”
And The Preacher:
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might, for there is no work or thought or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol, to which you are going. (Ecclesiastes 9:10 ESV)
Adam Gurri has been pestering me to write a defense of Christianity here in the hallowed halls of Sweet Talk, but I have thus far demurred, being unmotivated to do so in the midst of those who are so certain, but Sam’s stimulating post has evoked a little something irresistible.
If I may categorize (naturally, drawing distinctions simplifies, and the elements of this taxonomy will, in real life, overlap):
There are those who see the world as it is and celebrate it. Thus Samuel Hammond.
There are two classes of those who see the world as it is and mourn over it as broken.
Class One copes, meditating.
Class Two will not cope, continuing to mourn, in the hope for a restoration of what is broken. Christians define this class.
For Christians, the brokenness of the world is best mourned in the body of Christ, who stands crucified, in which Christians participate by means of the mystery of the sacraments.
This mystery is articulated by one Paul, formerly Saul of Tarsus, who persecuted the Body of Christ with all his might until he had a vision of the Crucified One, and he writes about him whom he saw:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities– all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (Colossians 1:15-17 ESV)
It is important here to note a few boundaries. This is not a refutation of the science of evolution, but it is a declaration of pre-eminence, which is offensive. Note carefully that the Christian view of creation is cast not in terms of material manifestation, which Christ says is vapor, but in terms of dominion, rulers, authorities, i.e., that rascally elusive normativity.
More than that, since the universe is held together in, with, and under a human body, the material world is transformed into a world of relational interaction. To wit: love the Lord your God with all your heart, and equally (because God is a human in Jesus, and we are in him and he is in us), love your neighbor as yourself.
A rocket-size measuring contest is the epitome of pursuing meaninglessness. Meaningfulness is measured in interpersonal relationships, beginning with the male-female relationship, which perpetuates the species, and also embodies thrones, dominions, rulers, and authorities, beginning at home, which is broken and should be mourned. Normativity dominates; it does not love, nor does it allow for distinction, only ruthless conformity, as evolution teaches: we adapt to strength, not weakness.
The relationship of a man to a woman is hopelessly weak.
As SpaceX successfully landed their 23 story tall Falcon-9 rocket in upright position, Jeff Bezos, the CEO Blue Origin (a rocket company which performed a superficially similar, but technically much less impressive feat days before), tweeted the following:
Congrats @SpaceX on landing Falcon’s suborbital booster stage. Welcome to the club!
Ouch! Within an instance, Bezos became the target of scorn for hundreds of fawning SpaceX and Elon Musk fans who derided Bezos’ “welcome to the club” comment as classless and back handed. Yet as my colleague Andrew noted at the time, “given that space exploration is mostly a billionaire dick measuring contest, petty squabbling is probably the best motivator we could ask for.”
I think this is exactly right, but I will go a big step further. “Dick measuring contests,” more generally known as status competitions, are often called “wasteful,” “zero-sum,” and “inefficient.” Yet even when those labels are technically accurate (and they often aren’t—the private sector space race, for example, is clearly socially useful), another important truth can be simultaneously true: Status competitions are our main, if not only, source of meaning in the universe.
The Anxieties of Affluence
For all the wealth controlled by the three comma club, they turn out to be relatively poor when it comes to status goods. The reason relates to the inherent positionality of status. As in a game of King of the hill, moving up a rank necessarily means someone else must move down one, with the top-most players having the least to grab on to. Climbing from second-from-the-top to “King” is thus exponentially harder than moving from third to second, forth to third, and so on. And for whomever is King, with no one above to latch on to, the only way to truly secure one’s position against the penultimate scourge would be to invent a (proverbial) sky hook.
If not for this zero sum (at the psychosocial level) drama, what would drive Musk or Bezos to invest so heavily in their own (quite literal) sky hooks? Bezos tweet is at least evidence that Musk’s aeronautical successes have gotten under his skin—ahh, the anxieties of affluence. But all that means is one of the world’s most socially productive people has all the more reason to wake up in the morning.
In contrast, for a middle class and median IQ American to broadcast their status relative to their peers they can always buy a bigger house, drive a faster car, learn a new talent, travel to more exotic places, or give more to charity. That is, the space to broadcast ever greater social distinction is seemingly unbounded from the top. This was the nouveau riche mindset of Elon Musk circa 1999, when he bought (and later crashed) a million dollar McLaren F1. But today, as an ennuyé riche multi-billionaire, simply owning an awesome car is old-hat, cheap-talk, something any rich CEO can do. So now he builds and designs even better cars from first principles, incidentally spurring innovation as he literally pushes against the physical and technological boundaries of keepin’ up with the Bezos.
As the McClaren incident shows, for all his self-effacing talk about saving humanity from extinction even Musk is human, and in that humanity ultimately motivated by subterranean vanity. Bezos’ only sin was to let his vanity see the light. At least he punches up.
Critics of the free market point to these sorts of positional arms races as the downfall of the neoclassical economists’ conception of efficiency. On the one (invisible) hand, competition and exchange can guide the butcher and baker to produce meat and bread for the common good. On the other hand, identical competitive forces can lead nations to the brink of nuclear war, marketing and political campaign budgets to balloon, and large SUVs to pollute the roads due to safety in relative size. That is, individual incentives need not be aligned to the collective good. (As I’ve argued before, classical liberals like Adam Smith understood this full well).
Robert Frank influentially explained markets where individual and collective goals diverge in terms of what he calls Darwin’s Wedge (or what writer Jag Bhalla variously calls “dumb competition” and “spontaneous disorder”). The term comes from evolutionary biology, where wasteful arms races are ubiquitous. In the classic example, deer evolved large, cumbersome antlers because whenever a mutation made a buck’s rack marginally larger he was able to beat out and reproduce more than his sexual competitors, passing on the trait. But since what really matters is not the absolute size of the antlers, but their size relative to the local average, competition over the trait lead sexual selection to favor ever larger antlers up to the point where the marginal benefit of a bit larger antler equaled its marginal cost (i.e. until it was evolutionarily stable).
In economics MB=MC is the mark of optimality, but here it’s clear competition in some sense failed. Male deer must now go through life with awkward bone-branches extruding above their eyes, getting them caught on trees, and generally using caloric resources that might be better spent procreating. Had the ancestors of deer somehow colluded genetically to cap the size of antlers, or else to compete along some other, less handicapping marker of genetic fitness, the entire deer species would in some sense be made “better off” through greater numbers.
But alas, genes are selfish. As the famed selfish gene raconteur Richard Dawkins himself once wrote:
In a typical mature forest, the canopy can be thought of as an aerial meadow, just like a rolling grassland prairie, but raised on stilts. The canopy is gathering solar energy at much the same rate as a grassland prairie would. But a substantial proportion of the energy is ‘wasted’ by being fed straight into the stilts, which do nothing more useful than loft the ‘meadow’ high in the air, where it picks up exactly the same harvest of photons as it would – at far lower cost – if it were laid flat on the ground.
And this brings us face to face with the difference between a designed economy and an evolutionary economy. In a designed economy there would be no trees, or certainly no very tall trees: no forests, no canopy. Trees are a waste. Trees are extravagant. Tree trunks are standing monuments to futile competition – futile if we think in terms of a planned economy. But the natural economy is not planned. Individual plants compete with other plants, of the same and other species, and the result is that they grow taller and taller, far taller than any planner would recommend.
And how lucky we are that this is the case! I am grateful for hemlock forests, flamboyant peacock tails, and even moose, the silly looking cousin to deer. Were it not for the playing out of these so-called wasteful competitions, instead of a world of immense biodiversity and wonder, life on Earth would consist in a hyper-efficient photosynthesizing slime spread thinly across the globe.
Indeed, the self-defeating hunt for relative fitness, including social (and sexual) distinction, is responsible for bootstrapping literally every one of our perceptual and cognitive faculties, including our ability to appreciate aesthetics. If not for positional arms races around sexual selection, for instance, it is unfathomable that beauty would exist at all. All creativity, when not strictly for survival, is rooted (in the sense of ultimate causation) in status games. Even the fact that I’m writing this right now.
Beyond biology, the same story explains the artistic and cultural diversity created by market societies. While there are no doubt those who think the classical era represented a pinnacle of cultural achievement, a stationary point at which we should have made every effort to hold in perpetuity, this is nothing more than the golden age fallacy. Instead, the greatest classical musicians were only great because they superseded their predecessors and contemporaries by chasing the same ephemeral distinction as Elon Musk and the white-tailed deer, and as such were contributing to a self-defeating cultural churn that baked-in its own impermanence. This holds true today, as dozens of musical and artistic genres have been invented, grown steadily popular, and then “mainstream” and stale as their social cachet dries up.
Ironically, it is often those who are most critical of neoclassical economics that still seem wedded to its narrow and lifeless conception of optimality. Rather than moving beyond the Samuelsonian allocation paradigm to one based in creation, innovation and discovery, they thus double down on the dangerous illusion that positional status competitions can be easily muted or improved on by a central planner (the “design economy” referred to by Dawkins). While there’s obvious merit in blocking literal arms races, tweaking the tax deductibility of marketing expenses, and so on, I always worry whenever I read calls for a general luxury tax, or other excoriations of variability in the type and quality of consumables.
In the extreme, this thinking is what underlied the Marxist-Leninist ideology that transformed Mao’s China into a literal “Nation in Uniform.” A bit earlier in history it also motivated the Soviet government’s attempt and failure to make the luxury goods used by the petite bourgeoisie available to one and all. Rather than try to “eliminate” bourgeois values, in contrast, a capitalist society is healthy precisely because it enables a nation of rebels and the inequality that implies.
Resistance is Futile
One thing neoclassical economics did get right is non-satiation. Humans can never be fully satisfied: not with our mates, not with our station in life, nor with this final draft. However, this is not because we have neat, monotone preferences, but rather it’s because relative status has shaped every corner our psyche.
Buddhism rightly teaches that this dissatisfaction, called dukkha, pervades all of existence. As Buddha supposedly once said, “I have taught one thing and one thing only, dukkha and the cessation of dukkha.” But why? If resistance is futile, why not embrace it. Satisfaction is over-rated anyway. What person has ever achieved any kind of success or excellence without being tortured by anxiety, stress, or self-consciousness?
Of course Buddhists, like Stoics, would presumably question my definition of success. Maybe if we all meditated daily and simply learned to lower our expectations we’d learn to be satisfied with poverty. Yet we ran that experiment and we self-evidently were not.
Rather than be zen about our lack of zen, even Buddhist practices have ironically become (or was it not always?) their own dimension for pursuing social distinction. Don’t forget, Veblen’s magnum opus on status goods was called “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” and what could be a greater advertisement of belonging to the leisure class than the ability to sit absolutely idle for hours out of every day.
I don’t deny that meditation can be incredibly useful for reducing and controlling the stresses and anxieties of civilization. But if you’re a fan of meditation you should also not deny nor feel shame in the bourgeois half of your BoBo paradise. You are not above consumerism or hedonic treadmills. On the contrary, you are a leading light, an early adopter, an innovator in waste.
Otherwise, a monomaniacal focus on achieving nirvana (the state when all attachments and dukkha have melted away) simply becomes an agent-centric example of the social planner’s protoplasmic conception of optimality. At the same time, I recognize the futility in my own attempt to disillusion you, dear reader. As Mises wrote, human action is predicated on “theexpectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove or at least to alleviate felt uneasiness.” It just turns out that that expectation is as mistaken as it is incorrigible.
So meditate if you have to, but don’t be afraid to day dream a little, too. It may fill you with anxiety, and it definitely won’t make you happy, but later in life you just might find yourself building a spaceship to Mars.
Isn’t it obvious that online media would overtake print media? Wasn’t it a forgone conclusion from the moment that Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web that Newsweek (the print edition) would be supplanted?
As AG noted, the market for newspapers was a brutal and competitive market. That market was an information processing machine, cycling through business models and exploring unknown reader demand curves to eek out whatever profit could be found.
But then the web was invented, and we see an explosion in the market reach of media producers combined with a lowering of costs in producing media right down to “pocket change”, as this very blog’s existence is proof of. The print media’s information processing machine was immediately out-classed by the online media’s information processing machine in every meaningful respect. More business models, more content, more readers, more advertisers great and small.
As far as I’m concerned, the only question is when print products achieve the same sort of museum quality that we now reserve for illuminated manuscripts or telegraph machines, not if. Online media has more experiments and more failures, more quickly launched and more quickly gone. The online information-processing juggernaut is both broader in scope and faster in execution than anything print can muster, as a basic property of its technological medium.