Monday, January 7, 2019

Liberal Materialism

If your worldview is built on the notion that the deprived must be made whole - that wealth-distribution curves represent inherent repression (via specific or institutional racism, classism, misogyny, etc), you will angrily bridle at the observation that "money can't buy happiness"...or any other assertion that perspective trumps circumstance.

Extreme left-wingers would use Marxist vocabulary to scorn this notion as a bourgeois effort to anesthetize workers so they can be easily exploited. More moderate liberals would frame it less formally, but the thrust might be similar: people who feel deprived should never be told to smile and accept. Fuck that, and fuck you.

This meme has hardened into bedrock, though the goalposts keep shifting. "The Poor" no longer connotes sick/hungry/homeless misery. As the First World has grown vastly richer (in terms of comfort, security, health, information, leisure time, entertainment, travel, communications, etc.), there's far less wretchedness. You, yes you, are unimaginably wealthy. So inequality, in itself, has become the new stand-in for "deprivation".

There's good sense in condemning the truly extreme income inequality currently afoot, but if you've been watching the goalpost readjustments, the big picture is apparent: until we all have Macmansions and Playstations - until we're all equal - the work will not be complete. The ditziness of that mindset doesn't bother me nearly as much as the shallow materialism.

For a child of the 60s, it’s all disorienting. Liberals are supposed to be the anti-materialist hippies! Happiness is a matter of perspective, not circumstance. Internal riches - freely available to all - kick ass, while external riches (above/beyond basic needs) lead to jadedness and depression. Some of the poorest people I've ever met have been vastly more happy, equanimous, and wise than many of the wealthiest people I've ever met (does Donald Trump - with all the assets and power one could ask for - strike you as healthy, happy, and content?). The key to happiness is to want what you get rather than get what you want, and to learn to cease one's perennial neurotic sniffing around for what's missing.

That's my hippy side speaking, which is supposed to feel liberal! Yet such anti-materialism is anathema to the current Left. To them, such notions stem not from wisdom but from an out-of-touch, smugly comfortable white middle-aged male who's got his and preaches deprivation from his high-handed conviction that he knows what's best for the rest of us. Spirituality's a crock (our political enemies call themselves "religious", so to hell with both babies and bathwater from that angle) and introspection's worthless. Only materialism can satisfy. It's a foundational human right! We fight not for bread and shelter for the disadvantaged, like our righteous forebears, but for their right to smart watches and Beemers. The have-obscenely-much will be compelled to share their Riedel stemware with the have-slightly-less-obscenely-much. Vive la revolution!

I find this all so baffling that I have little to say (aside from reaffirming my Centrism)...but I will point to a parallel.

The arrogant, irritating, opaque, uncivil but inarguably brilliant Nassim Taleb has been Twitter raging for a while now about the meaninglessness of IQ testing, which he considers unrigorous pseudoscience. He's wrapped up his arguments in an academic paper that, as usual, loses me the moment it descends into fervent math...which Taleb would insist makes me a blithering idiot.

Taleb's very much against the metric of IQ, but he also scoffs, generally, at the sort of rotely calculative faculty IQ aims to measure. He puts far more stock in the approach of "Fat Tonys", his term for street-smart, inarticulate, clever/resourceful wiley SOBs who thrive only when they have "skin in the game", as opposed to the weenies who traffic in sterile academic hypotheticals.

The irony is readily apparent: Taleb is a brainiac who deprecates brainyness; an intellectual elitist raging against intellectual elitism. Predictably, he's drawn criticism from people who see him as poo-pooing the very faculty that brought him success, thereby "keeping the people down" or whatever. That line makes no sense at all here, but, to return to my point, this is the trendy response to anyone who dares to devalue the overvalued from a position of experience.

For example, I recently spotted this vapid and snarky interjection in Taleb's timeline:
It's funny to see someone with a genius level IQ like Taleb literally deny the importance of the metric, when he himself no doubt has a very high IQ, and would not have the cognitive abilities or success he enjoys without it.
...and I tweeted back:
Short people assume tall people have it good, and will snark at tall people insisting otherwise.

See also "Our Albatrosses are Red Herrings".


Display Name said...

Wow thanks for this food for thought on a dreary January day in the northeast. Feeling a bit dazed and off to tjs to buy lasagna fixings. I'm of the Jersey Italian school where great lasagna starts with leftover meatballs from the night before. All I can think of right now is that people who are brilliant at math and can only find careers in teaching make bad math instructors for those of us who mostly suck at math. 'scept algebra. I had an algebra teacher who loved math so much that she wanted everyone to jump in the pool. And we mostly did even in the deep end. She wanted to teach math rather than be good at math.

Anonymous coward said...

I got a long post, this is part 1 of 2 I think. I used to be a liberal hippie/hipster type. Money does not matter, why bother to get a job or seek money in anyway. Then, through life experience I learned being poor causes me unhappiness. Furthermore, I am not alone, overall richer people are happier than poor up to a point. From memory I remember a graph of happiness and income and the happiest people made $161,000 is the average for when more money doesn't make you happier.

I beg to differ about money buying happiness. Money can sometimes buy happiness in my opinion. I do not think a huge 70 inch television would bring me much happiness. Yet, not being able to afford a dental cleaning or a cavity filled will cost in the long run. Same with skipping a flu vaccine since you cannot pay. The flu hospitalizes many people each year and even kills some.

"Worldwide, the flu results in three million to five million cases of severe illness and 291,000 to 646,000 deaths annually" Jaber

I am sure the flu caused Alani Murrieta and their family much grief. Being poor is stressful. Balding care tires, house in disrepair, inadequate health, and veterinary care.

Next, is the lack of power, the power to influence others. With a poor k-12 education from being schooled in a rat infested school with inadequate heating/cooling you are unlikely to get into a good college. From there your chances of being a powerful and influential person as in mayor/governor/senator is low.

Then, there is economic upheavals, the stock market crashing, natural disasters, job losses to automation, outsourcing, and yes even illegal immigrants. Money acts as a fortification against such events. Wealth won't protect against all, an unlucky wealthy couple recently got killed in a helicopter accident. Yet, wealth is a mitigating factor against the above events. If you have a large stockpile of cash you can simply wait out a bad economy.

Furthermore, classism is real, if you constantly get your clothes dirty from a manual labor job you will have to replace your clothes often to avoid classism. Simply washing your clothes more often is often not enough. Even if you could wash your clothes more often that will cost additional resources.

Anonymous coward said...

Part 2
Finally, how do you even separate inequality from poverty? For example, lets say two people are competing for the same job. The first candidate has graduated from a plush series of private schools in k-12. Candidate number one has gone to expensive summer camp for their major, graduated from a prestigious college, has ample money to spend on appearances and transportation. The first candidate arrives to the interview on time, well groomed, and with awesome merit.

Candidate number two went to an under funded public school, with underpaid teachers, rats, inadequate climate control, no summer camp, a cheap community college degree, little money to spend on appearances and transportation. Candidate two arrives to the interview late gets pulled over by the police because the car veers slightly into the other lane because the car is so old, scruffy, and with low merit.

Who would you choose if you were the interviewer? Which would be best for the company? Like Monopoly the rich get richer and the poor poorer as the first candidate is chosen and the second is out competed.

Final note and food for thought. Imagine a world where machines do almost everything. In other words a general intelligence A.I. develops the tech for a massive automation revolution. Why pay someone even half of minimum wage when a machine can do it for less than $1 an hour at 500% times the speed? You wouldn't. Hiring someone for that job would be a form of charity.

Only the most meritorious would be chosen for the few jobs humans could perform more cost effectively than machines. Inherently the highly meritorious people would possess more power. Think of children at a basketball game, do you want to be the person scoring and being cheered or the person always on reserve never being chosen because you cannot shoot a hoop for the life of you? Almost all children would want to be the person scoring and being cheered.

Yet, I find it difficult to separate wealth from merit, in the sense that a rich child who really wants to be good at basketball can probably nag their parents into hiring a personal trainer which will in turn increase the child's basketball merit.

Bulletin list summary.
1. My personal experience has taught me poverty causes unhappiness.
2. Scientific interviews agree, $100,000 annual income is the ideal amount of income.
3. Merit and wealth are inseparable, merit causes wealth and wealth causes merit.
4. Power over others and wealth are closely linked. A poor person is unlikely to have much influence over the system and important decisions as opposed to a mayor or governor.
5. People want to feel important and to have merit. Wealth can buy merit.
6. We are interconnected a person who has more wealth to buy more merit can out compete someone with less money thus less merit leading to a monopoly game cycle of the rich getting richer and poor getting poorer.

Unknown said...

I have to agree that money may not buy happiness, but this argument is a distraction from the point that a certain base amount of money is required to ensure the essential needs of life: health, food, stable housing, etc. Even a $15/hr minimum wage isn't enough to ensure this in many parts of the country.

Any time wealthy people make arguments against high taxation, the part of the argument that is left out is the one that speaks to these essential human needs being neglected. Wealthy people have had these needs meet many times over and are no longer concerned about them.

I wonder how different our country would be if tax rates we paid were based upon net worth instead of earned income. This would even out the playing field for millions of Americans, enabling those who truly need the money more to keep their whole paycheck.

Anonymous coward said...

"Unknown said...

I have to agree that money may not buy happiness, but this argument is a distraction from the point that a certain base amount of money is required to ensure the essential needs of life: health, food, stable housing, etc. Even a $15/hr minimum wage isn't enough to ensure this in many parts of the country."

I think the point of the original post is bar raising. That before we were worried about starvation, as in death from lack of food now we are worried about hunger insecurity.

What is food insecurity?

Food insecurity describes a household’s inability to provide enough food for every person to live an active, healthy life. Food insecurity is one way we can measure and assess the risk of hunger. In the United States currently, 1 in 8 people struggle with hunger.

Here's another definition of food/hunger insecurity.

"In 2006 the U.S. government replaced “hunger” with the term “food insecure” to describe any household where, sometime during the previous year, people didn’t have enough food to eat. By whatever name, the number of people going hungry has grown dramatically in the U.S., increasing to 48 million by 2012—a fivefold jump since the late 1960s, including an increase of 57 percent since the late 1990s. "

Finally, there is a correlation between food insecurity and mental health problems. A growing number of studies show support for a positive association between food insecurity and poor mental health in developing countries. This may just be a correlation/causation fallacy, but I think it is safe to conclude food insecurity may cause mental health problems and we should not just ignore this association.

As for Leff's op, I thought of another response.

."In terms of sheer comfort (money mostly buys comfort), you are far better pampered than any historical king or emperor, with your indoor plumbing, central heating, automobile (and highway system), overabundance of food and entertainment, nearly-assured personal safety, EMS, and broadband Internet. Julius Caesar would have swapped places with you in a heartbeat. "

This is a not as bad fallacy. Yes, we are far richer, but we still have a long ways to go before achieve utopia.

Logical form of not as bad fallacy.

People in 500 A.D. often died of starvation which is worse than hunger insecurity.
Hunger insecurity is therefore unimportant.

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