It’s Raining Men. Hallelujah. Hosanna in the Highest.

Happily, my dear chum Adam finds much of my prattling about sacred spaces useful, if not exactly on-point. His criticism is an excellent one on the semantics of the thing. When I went a-rummaging through my lexicographical rucksack for a word that adequately covers what I wanted to describe, the nearest thing I could find was “sacred.” The trouble with this choice is that the antonym of “sacred” is “profane”, and the associated mood affiliation problem plagues the word choice.

Look people, no one goes to a crack den to preach the gospel. The errant faithful do go to a crack den to commune. Specialized vice is just as targeted, just as focused as specialized virtue.

So I agree with Adam that “sacred” is a lousy choice of words. What I want is a word that identifies a sense of separation from the mundane. Imagine Maslow’s Pyramid standing before a dark pond. The peak of the pyramid, bearing the inscription “Self-Actualization” is inverted in the reflection, perhaps the hieroglyphs scan as “Self-Abasement”, a corrupted ideal, but an ideal nonetheless. Instead of a rosary, the neck of the subject is encircled in an obedience collar; instead of a cassock, a gimp suit. It ain’t sacred, but neither is it profane. Or maybe it’s profane+, a negative one instead of a zero, so to speak.

As for Adam’s other criticisms, I agree that the existence of a physical location is irrelevant, but the OP was an effort to tease out why it is that strip clubs have unorthodox employment relationships with dancers. The club property itself is somewhat incidental to the value created between the performers and their clients, but time and tradition have appended rights of residual claimancy to land and the property thereon. In this one case (at least) these rights fail to properly reflect either the commercial or the “sacred” (and I’ll keep using this word until a better one occurs to me) transaction at hand.

And for this passage:

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.

Forgive me, dear readers, but I had intended this to be my exact point the whole time. The peak of the pyramid, as well as its dark reflection, yield special value to both buyer and seller that can’t be easily explained by prosaic market valuation techniques alone. That’s why they’re rents and not mere revenue. There’s something intrinsically special about the brand affiliation, about the chemical pleasure, about the joy of transcendence that you don’t obtain with cheap imitators or hollow posturing. You don’t get drunk on the communion wine, and methadone is nothing more than a mock turtle dragon. There are rents in the depths of those dark waters, and that’s exactly why we warn our kids to stay away from the edge.

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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.

Sacred Spaces

Press play before you begin reading.

As you listen to the ambient echoes of Messrs. Leeb and Fulber ca. 1994 wash over you, I want you to briefly close your eyes an imagine a sacred space. Describe it quietly to yourself. Is it austere? Serene? Placid? Momentous? Spiritual? If you are a confirmed Catholic, does it feature the Stations of the Cross? If you are a MOT, is there a Torah carefully hidden from view? If you serve the Emperor God, do you see an Imperial aquila overhead?

Perhaps you imagine dim neon lighting and loud house music. I asserted recently that a strip club could rightly be considered a sacred space of a sort. What I mean by that is that such a venue has one and only one correct use, and to use it for other purposes is, well, uncomfortable. How would you feel about using a strip club as an AARP bingo hall? How would you feel about using a mosque as a place of polling?

If you’ll grant me some leeway with my language, it is exactly this single-use characteristic that uniquely identifies a sacred space (I’d offer that if a sacred space contains a religious element, it becomes a holy place). So, yes, a tabernacle is a sacred space, but so is a bedroom shrine to Rainbow Dash, and so are secular monuments. If you squint a little at Neil Gaiman’s characterization of America in his novel American Gods, so are roadside attractions. After all, you go to roadside attractions for the specific reason of witnessing sacred American kitsch, not to eat, not to use the restroom (though you may perform these activities incidentally).

Contrast an Apple Store with a Wal-Mart. Apple has meticulously crafted its brand to mimic the sacred. When you walk into a place that boasts an electronic altar staffed by self-anointed “geniuses”, the parallel to Hellenic oracles is inescapable. Wal-Mart, contrarily, is altogether profane: it does not even momentarily pretend to be anything other than what it is—a mundane place of commerce. Squealing kids are not shuttled out of a Wal-Mart by red-faced parents. (Nearly) anything goes.

What import hath sacred space? Well, in economics, we call the return to a fixed asset a “rent”. Land is a fixed asset, so the returns to owning land is called “rent”. Political privilege is a fixed asset, so the returns to owning a senator is called a “political rent”. I’d say that it might be analytically useful to isolate sacred rents, to help understand why we see some of the peculiar institutional arrangements we see in the world. Tithing, for example. Tithing is a big part of those religions that have thorough systematic theologies. Catholics and Mormons tithe, Friends and Old World Mennonites do not. If the gathering place itself, as well as the institutions and organizations supporting it provide sacred rents, tithing is how the priesthood captures those rents. If the worship hall is naught but timber and glass, with the sacred space existing between the parishioner’s heart and the Word of God, then there is no intermediary to capture the rent.

Unfortunately, this proposal is tricky to clearly test empirically. You could make a little list of sacred spaces (including, perhaps retailers like Apple) and test land valuation in their vicinity, but it’s pretty tough to control for covariates, and it’s a question-begging exercise for the most part anyhow. But maybe you can sort of test it out yourself on your own. Find your sacred space and ask yourself how much you’d have to be paid to perform a profane act there. Ask yourself how much you’d be wiling to pay someone else to stop performing a profane act there. If your answer is greater than zero, you’ve got yourself an estimate of what the sacred rent value is in that place. Once you have that number in mind, maybe you can start thinking about why it is the huffly-puffly types in the Bay Area are all twisted up about profane Google bros invading their sacred granola-and-wookiee Mission District. Their mere presence is offensive, even if the individuals have committed no unseemly acts. Ditto US Soldiers stationed in Saudi Arabia.

Ditto lots of stuff. Also interesting to think about is how sacred institutions coevolve with sacred places. I’ve a few thoughts on that too, but this is already wordy enough, so I’ll let my fine fellows here at ST chime in with their own thoughts.

Blessings to all y’all.

The Virtue of Pickup Artists

In a recent discussion on whether moral philosophy can be useful, redditor Minutenewt had the following to say:

Do you wish to get rich? Do you wish to obtain the best looking women? Do you wish to lead a life of indolence punctuated by greed and rapacity? Then no, moral philosophy will only hold you back.

I think this gets it backwards. In my experience, my most successful friends are also some of the kindest and most conscientious people I know. Meanwhile, my loser friends take flagrant short cuts, and seem willing to expend all their social capital on short-term gains.

That’s not a successful strategy for the 21st century economy, where reputation sticks, and automation is driving up the premia on humanity’s remaining comparative advantage: sociability. Likewise, in the mating market, women seem to value confidence and extroversion, not being an anti-social jerk contrary to popular wisdom.

Take the writer Neil Strauss as a case study. To be perfectly clear, Strauss is a bald, nerdy looking guy who, when he laughs, makes weird chortle noises through his nose. Nonetheless, he is also an expert “pickup artist,” and author of The Game.

Now, while The Game was destined to become a kind of bible for rapacious creeps, I think of Neil Strauss as being in some sense maximally virtuous. That is, he uses an applied understanding of human nature and a high degree of meta-rationality to calibrate virtuous behaviours (self control, discipline, courage) toward — at least one definition of — flourishing.

You may not like his aims, but in the abstract Strauss is simply an expert in human persuasion. He picks up women by using euvoluntary techniques that make the women in question want to pick up him:

If there was anything I’d learned, it’s that the man never chooses the woman. All he can do is give her an opportunity to choose him.

Ethical argumentation works on the same principal. As Hume showed, prescriptive rhetoric lacks access to an ultimate “moral ought” to give itself foundation. And yet, it still has sway over human action. This can only be because effective arguments hit on the right moral aesthetics, encouraging a shift in perspective and motivation.

As further evidence that Strauss is a virtue ethicist in disguise, in a recent interview on the Tim Ferriss Podcast he was asked to name the one book he loves so much that he gives copies away. His response: On the Shortness of Life by the infamous stoic Seneca the Younger. What does stoicism have to do with picking up women? Evidently, quite a lot.

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Continue reading “The Virtue of Pickup Artists”

of Scarcity and Abundance

Abundance does not eliminate scarcity. Until we’ve licked the problem of scarce attention and limited time, each of us is bound by the hard constraints imposed by our wee mortal existences. 

Whether sacred, profane, or both, cultivating virtue is costly. The technology of rhetoric is to reduce these costs to the consumer. Aesop was the original Amazon, making virtue as easy as dozing off in mommy’s lap with a cautionary tale in your ear. Tale-weavers today continue in this tradition, mining storytelling tropes to sell modern rectitude, endlessly recycling pre-fab bits of cultural organs and connective tissue, all the while passing on hints about what the audience should avoid or aspire to.

“Do we need a new eudaimonia” is, I think, the wrong question to ask. A better question is, “what can we do as storytellers to help our audience make virtue less expensive?” I don’t think this cheapens virtue in a particularly perverse way, but I do acknowledge that this electronic abundance sure changes the relative prices. 

Permissionless innovate your way to #phronesis. Be the #thinkfluence you want to see in the world.

Epicurus on Coping with Abundance

Sam argues that our historically unprecedented levels of wealth changes the equation for virtue and vice. Humanity has for nearly all of its existence lived on the knife-edge of starvation, and it only makes sense that norms and instincts developed under those circumstances would not necessarily set us up for success in a wealthier world.

Virtue and vice as Aristotle understood the terms were preserved to the present thanks to Christian scholars who continued to write within the tradition. The Christian version, however, like Christianity itself, was meant for everyone; Nietzsche famously referred to Christainity as a “slave religion”; Deirdre McCloskey, a Christian herself, spoke of Christian virtues being “peasant virtues”.

Originally, however, the Hellenistic schools that developed a eudaimonistic concept of virtue were comprised primarily of the well-to-do (McCloskey thus refers to their continued influence on us in the form of “aristocratic virtues”).  While their wealth was nowhere near ours, they did experience genuine affluence, and developed their ethical theories in that environment.

Consider Epicurus, who history remembers as a hedonist. Epicureanism, unlike the moderns who inappropriately use the label, was not so very far from Stoicism in a number of regards, a fact recognized by later Stoics such as Seneca. While Epicurus made pleasure synonymous with the good life, he also radically redefined the word “pleasure”—to the point where the Cyrenaics, who were actual hedonists, referred to Epicureanism as “the philosophy of a corpse.”

Why consider Epicurus in the context raised by Sam? Epicurus was fixated on what we might call long term thinking. Boredom was not his enemy as much as pleasures that we might indulge in today that could hurt us later. Thus, there’s nothing wrong with indulging in eating delicious food—unless we become dependent upon having such culinary quality in order to be happy. Since humans, in general, do tend to develop expectations in line with our typical day, an Epicurean approach to food is perfectly consistent with eating mostly bland things in order to avoid being disappointed in the long run.

It may seem ironic given the popular perception of Epicureanism, but the ataraxia of Epicurus may be one of the best guides for moderns seeking to cope with abundance.

Virtue After Abundance

Our sense of virtue evolved in the context of groups living under immense scarcity. Consider the virtue that one shouldn’t be overly self-indulgent (because resources must be rationed). Or the suggestions against taking on debts (r > g for foragers, so borrow wisely). Even honor, that most sacred virtue, seems to work particularly well in environments where “a man’s resources can be thieved in full.”

How should, say, “hedonistic self-gratification” look to a sensibility sculpted by absence? More than a vice, for our ancestors it was solipsistic to the point of immorality. Today still, commentators from religious conservatives to anti-consumerist liberals continue to treat hedonism as an anti-virtue despite economic abundance. Even among the strongest followers of self-gratification, there is a self-awareness that something about hedonism is at least figuratively satanic.

Of course, our virtues and vices needn’t be connected to the facts on the ground of the contemporary environment to be things we still hold valuable. In this sense, modern civilization made all values vestigial and many of them, like the scarcity mindset, potentially maladaptive. At the very least, many of our past vices have lost their edge. Character flaws once thought immoral are now deserving of respect.scarcityCleanliness is next to Godliness” is my favorite example of a virtue as opposed to moral act, in particular for how ubiquitous it is in theology. “Be clean” and “Don’t kill” are both statements of value however hygiene is self-directed while murder is directed at inter-relations between selves. For religious fundamentalists there’s no distinction between virtues and morals, so they happily label homosexuality, masturbation, drug use, blasphemy and so on as equally sinful and dirty.

There are some immediate political implications of this realization (beyond re-branding the “moral majority” the “virtuous majority”). For instance, in this light the Straussian critique of liberalism as leading towards nihilism had it backwards: abundance enabled classical liberalism to enshrine individualism and laws that strive only to abridge human freedom in order to correct interpersonal harms, not individual character flaws or poor showering technique.

Of course, “no man is an island” is still true. There are many personal vices that are apt to spill over into the public domain, which ponces may want to regulate to varying degrees. I could only support this if personal values were not directly imposed on others (piety may be virtuous, but forcing others to be pious is theocratic).

Liberals since Mill and Bentham generally opposed regulating virtue. They said: ingest, do, believe and feel what you will as long as it doesn’t interfere with my ability to do the same. Yet they never said “murder, slander, vandalize” because these are decidedly inter-personally moral in nature.

Our psychology may be social, but the largest unit of psychological consideration is still an individual’s mind – the subject in subjective. Communitarian political systems and puritanical societies aren’t immoral a priori. It all depends on the sincerity of the citizens, how institutionalized the values are, and the nature of transaction cost. If you live in a Buddhist commune but your favorite book is The Virtue of Selfishness, it only becomes illiberal when you’re not permitted to leave.

Meanwhile, the five best scarcity-mindset coping mechanisms according to this psychologist read like they were written by an ancient stoic. Go figure.

A great conversation about this post is happening on Reddit here. This post, and Sweet Talk itself, is about creating conversations, so I’m highly grateful for all the constructive engagement.