Supple Demand

14 11 2007

The setting was the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum’s ground-floor bathroom, and Dave Kraus and I were waiting for our other friend Matt to finish his deed in one of the tall black stalls. The conversation started innocuously, dealing with the usual topics of urinal etiquette, life after college and DC girls. But, as Matt extended his stay, our discussion moved into a more heady direction, tailing into the peculiarities of life in this country.

Kraus said he was alarmed — something not entirely unusual in a public bathroom. He had been doing a lot of thinking, he said, about the way that media and other influences have crafted Americans. He lamented how private it’s made people, how the ‘basic hierarchies’ in life have been destroyed.

But the most resonant problem to him was how Americans have been split into two sects dictated by life goals. On the one side stand a small number of producers. On the other stand the consumers, which is to say the bulk of the country. In place of religion and nature and the generally transcendent thoughts that have heretofore characterized societies, consumption has provided the overarching American superego its lone sense of meaning.

(I thought it quite the fitting discussion to be staged in the only place where production occurs as a direct result of consumption, and not vice-versa. Think about it.)

Kraus is correct, if not a little too reductive, in his duality. Certainly, you could argue that any society could be broken down into such categories. But in America, it seems to require very, very little effort to conceive of such a dichotomy: in our world, we are agents who either add or subtract from the world. And currently, he scales are tilted heavily to the latter.

But what’s more is that, in America, the consumption becomes the chief occupation in life. We work so that we can later consume more and finer things. Production falls subservient to consumption; its value lies in its capacity for economic agency. We create so that we can purchase our rightful piece of the pie — or gadget, adornment or real, actual pie. It’s a striving that occurs ad infinitum.

This process is something like what Marx called reification, the transformation of all things visible and invisible into commodities. In such a system, the abstract becomes tangible, a thing upon which a price tag can be fixed. Our qualities cease to possess any intrinsic value — instead, they’re thrust upon the market. Your intelligence and wit, in other words, are worth only what they’re, well, worth. In late-stage capitalism, everything’s a good to be bought and sold.

However, this duality need not be an entirely bad thing. If we begin to see ourselves as either producers or consumers (of course, there is an inherent cocktail of both in each person), we’re forced to confront the validity of our own existences. With our modern capabilities, we all have access to production. And while it might not be innovative or entirely useful, if we begin to see our lives as a combination of pluses and minuses, maybe we could end up better for it.

Or with at least less cumbersome credit card debt.

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3 responses

14 11 2007
Justin

The US is the most productive country in the world. Remember that rendered services count as production.

To say that things lack intrinsic values because they have a price does not for me compute. Don’t they have a price because of their intrinsic value? Do we value currency because it is currency or because it can be traded for things that we value? I’m not sure how to understand an abstraction that is made tangible by another abstraction (currency). Are not the truly intangible concepts such as love, devotion, mirth, or wit by their definitions not capable of being bought?

As for adding and subtracting to the world, how do you propose measuring this in any way that is not entirely subjective and variable? What exactly are we, as Americans, subtracting from the world? How is this subtraction somehow more egregious than the subtractions of other nations?

14 11 2007
scheity

Agreed on the US’ overall productivity. However, it’s also the most consumptive country in the world. That’s a wash, I’d say.

But also, nowhere was it said that anything lacks intrinsic value just because it’s attached to a price tag. I’m saying that things are now considered useless (how many people are forgoing families for careers?) because they’re not profitable. What I’m saying is that, in the overall schema of American life — like in Death of a Salesman — ‘all you got in life is what you can sell.’

Let’s take Mastercard, with the ‘Priceless’ campaign. This thing costs this much, this thing costs this much, this intangible thing is priceless. The embedded message is that, yes, of course, you can purchase this priceless moment: it’s the sum of its parts.

15 11 2007
Drew

Americans consume the most because America has some of the most productive industries in the world. It is our marginal productivity that allows for high wages and these high wages allow for high standards of living. The more productive an industry you work in, the more you’re going to get paid. Simple economics.

Our monetary system plays a huge part too in why many Americans over-consume. Credit is unimaginably easy, especially from the near illegal credit-card industry.

I have more to say but I have a huge econ test tomorrow and I need to get back to studying.

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