The PoMa paradox

Are you appalled by McMansions, $4000 barbeques and luxury four wheel drives that never leave the bitumen? Does Clive Hamilton’s book Affluenza strike a chord with you? Do you dream of downshifting to simpler lifestyle but feel you can’t afford it? If so, you could be a PoMa — a post materialist consumer.

PoMas are appalled by consumerism and overconsumption. They believe that happiness comes from relationships with friends and family rather than relationships with things. And they can’t understand why other people get so excited about big screen televisions, luxury cars or huge houses with ensuites and games rooms. PoMas place more value on experiences than on things. They try to live simply and get anxious about the impact their lifestyle has on the environment.

But at the same time, PoMas never seem to have enough money. It’s not that they’re low paid — PoMas are often senior public servants, teachers or professionals — it’s that the money just doesn’t go far enough. Despite living in modest houses, dressing cheaply, cycling to work and avoiding big televisions and home entertainment systems, PoMas are never able to feel financially relaxed.

Three things help explain this apparent paradox — the cost of housing, the cost of services and the cost of ‘moral necessities’.

PoMas want to live near the city so that they can be near family and friends, cycle to work and walk to the library. They don’t want to waste time sitting in traffic emitting greenhouse gases. The ideal place to live is close to an area with cafes, restaurants and the kind of book shop where authors go to launch their latest works.

This usually means living in a run down terrace house or a poky apartment. As a result it doesn’t feel materialistic. Often there’s no clothes dryer or dishwasher. The television and stereo are basic and the lounge room is dominated by books and children’s toys. But in the most sought after PoMa suburbs, even a house that’s falling down costs as much as an outer-suburban four bedroom home with double garage and ensuite. The mortgage can be crippling.

Materialism is about wanting things. But aside from their home, what PoMas are really interested in are services and experiences. Education, health and fitness form a big part of the lifestyle. Working life begins with HECS debt and full-time work is often combined with further study. Children need to go to decent schools and this often means private schools. And if a child is struggling, then there needs to money for coaching or a psychologist.

In a PoMa household there’s almost always someone with a food allergy or intolerance. Getting to the bottom of physical or behavioural problems is a priority and this often means seeing specialists — naturopaths, Feldenkrais practitioners, Pilates instructors or dieticians. Unexplained rashes, poor posture or sleeplessness are all likely to stimulate spending. Treatments are never one-off.

While flat screen televisions, surround sound home entertainment systems and stainless steel barbeques all seem to be getting cheaper, services just get more and more expensive. It’s not uncommon for a child’s visits to the orthodontist to cost more than a house full of widescreen tvs.

Much of a PoMa household’s spending on consumer goods is about caring for people and caring for the planet. A new car is often an unexpected expense. Although a PoMa couple might start out with a cheap secondhand hatch, the arrival of children changes things. Small cars without air bags and crumple zones aren’t safe enough for babies. So the question is now — Should we buy a Prius? In the end it’s more likely to be Subaru Outback or something with a bit more space or style. But inevitably it’s something a lot more expensive than a $14,990 Korean hatch.

Naturally whitegoods like washing machines need to be environmentally friendly. If buying the cheapest top-loader and refrigerator from Harvey Norman means consuming more water and coal than necessary, then it’s not an acceptable choice.

Food costs are also higher in a PoMa household. Who wants to feel like they ’re exploiting third world peasants every time they drink a cup of coffee? And who wants to be morally implicated in the torture of chickens? In a PoMa home coffee is likely to be fair trade and eggs free range. Unfortunately, documentary makers are constantly finding more and more examples of exploitation and environmental degradation. It started with coffee but soon spread to chocolate. And for every food atrocity there’s an expensive anxiety-free alternative available at the local markets.

While outer-suburban families are happy to shop at supermarkets and buy whatever’s on special, the contents of their shopping trolleys would provoke an anxiety attack in the typical PoMa household. White sliced bread, cordial laced with artificial colours and diabetes inducing sugar, and hamburger mince made from burping, farting climate destroying cattle.

Being a post materialist consumer means managing anxiety. Anxiety about caring for children, anxiety about health, anxiety about the state of the planet and your contribution to its demise (note: must remember to buy carbon offsets for that hiking trip in the Andes) and anxiety about whether it’s right to be taking Zoloft instead of persisting with Yoga and St John’s Wort.

Rather than pursuing social status, the PoMa consumer is building a life around relationships and experiences. And spending on goods is often focused on ‘moral necessities’ — goods which are essential for family safety, environmental responsibility or good world citizenship. The PoMa lifestyle isn’t materialistic but it is expensive. Too expensive to allow anyone to quit their job, grow vegetables, write a novel and take care of the kids full-time … although that often seems like an attractive idea.

Note: This all began as a response to a post by Andrew Norton — Do people mistakenly prioritise money-making in their lives? Like Andrew I’m sceptical about the idea that many people overwork because they mistakenly think more money will make them happier.

This entry was posted in Uncategorised. Bookmark the permalink.

33 Responses to The PoMa paradox

  1. davebath says:

    Don – great post.
    I haven’t seen “moral necessities” used to describe something that could be subject to a GST or obtained with a credit card before. Is this usage yours?

  2. Don Arthur says:

    Dave – I don’t remember seeing anyone use ‘moral necessities’ this way before. But it’s possible.

    The post itself is inspired by David Brooks’ approach in Bobos in Paradise. The name PoMa is a bit of a homage.

  3. Jacques Chester says:

    I expect you will be roundly denounced at LP for this.

  4. Patrick says:

    I’m so happy to be a boring old-fashioned consumer, especially since I don’t think I could afford to be a PoMa!

    But I smell a false dichotomy when you contrast pursuit of social status and the ‘PoMa’ consumer life.

  5. Caroline says:

    Boy oh boy. Major hoop jumping exercise involving calculator to get here just to say:
    Poma = same fear, different manifestation. (I was just going to say different style, but as its been such a pilaver getting this far, I may as well use up a few more syllables.

  6. Tel_ says:

    But I smell a false dichotomy when you contrast pursuit of social status and the PoMa consumer life.

    Agreed. It is merely social status within a different political circle. Each group of people have their own “precious things” that are needed to elevate them within the group. Social status can, by definition, never be cheap because if everyone has it, then it can’t be status. When you have a political group firmly committed to cooperative communalism, non-materialism, and non-competitiveness they have to be stealthy about where they hide their “precious things” under layers of hypocrisy and self-deception (I exaggerate, but hopefully the point comes across).

    The luxury four wheel drives were a consequence of tax incentives slanted towards agricultural vehicles, so the entire Eastern Suburbs of Sydney took up “agriculture”. Another failure of government attempts to manipulate human nature with selective tax incentives — the people who would have bought a nice Mercedes sedan, now buy a bigger vehicle that is more dangerous to everything else on the road and eats more fuel.

    I know of other reasonably well educated people who compete with each other on the basis of how few hours of work they can do and still get by. Working is a base activity and the only true attainment of status is by not doing it. Fits perfectly with Australia’s “progressive” tax system that discourages income, and also with Australia’s capital gains tax that discourages investment. At least this is a refreshingly honest approach to the problem of status definition, albeit a somewhat self defeating one.

  7. Ken Parish says:

    I think Patrick has hit the nail on the head. What both materialist consumers and PoMas appear to be seeking is status/acceptance/admiration of the social group with which they identify (or aspire to identify). We are tribal creatures (though to varying extents). Materialists seek status in social groups which judge people’s worth by their material possessions etc, whereas PoMas seek status, well, in the eyes of other PoMas. How green is my valley? How large is my carbon footprint?

    However, my occasional self-analysis has never managed to reach a convincing explanation as to why neither of these stereotypes fit me and Jen. We probably have a fairly respectable carbon footprint because we cycle most places, but it isn’t to seek status in the eyes of PoMas; it’s because it’s more convenient because it avoids parking problems and Darwin is fairly flat, it’s fun and it keeps us fit. Despite this, we could never achieve admiration in the eyes of PoMas, because I occasionally fail to resist the temptation to write inflammatory letters to the local paper advocating things like canal estates, high rise development and nuclear power. I am appalled by McMansions but only because most of them are really ugly and badly designed. I don’t object to luxury 4WDs (we own a battered Hilux ute and a Mazda6) but am appalled by the idiocy of Clive Hamilton.

    Why am I a social misfit? Why don’t I care? Would Feldenkrais help? Then again, maybe stereotypes about materialist consumers and PoMas only fit the more obtuse members of society in any consistent, predictively useful way. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence and self-awareness will recognise the social pressures around them and the superficial judgments often made about them, and adjust their behaviour and choices in an ad hoc fashion to the extent that they care about those things (which is likely to vary both over time and situationally). Most of the time I don’t care much at all, but I’ve always been more of a loner than a joiner so maybe I’m an atypical example. Most people are more social than Jen and me. However, I suspect many if not most bloggers also meet the “not very social” description and therefore don’t really fit either the consumerist or PoMa social stereotype.

  8. patrickg says:

    Crikey Don, way to generalise (you too Jaques).

    I think there’s some interesting insights here (especailly about the nature of services vs. goods), but they’re buried under a heap of Bernard Salt shenanigans: crafting new demographics from nothing more than the smell of a burnt latte and some cliches.

    Now if you’d care to link to some statistics backing this up, I’m all for it.

    Ken: However, my occasional self-analysis has never managed to reach a convincing explanation as to why neither of these stereotypes fit me and Jen.

    You answer this question yourself in the next paragraph – these stereotypes don’t exist (at least not in a statistically significant way) in such beautifully clean delineations.

    I’m more generous (or more miserly depending on how you look at it) in ascribing motivations and characteristics to my fellow citizens, not just my fellow bloggers. People do all kinds of things for all kinds of reasons, and at the risk of sounding somewhat libertarian, I’m more inclined to trust their perception of their own reasons than my own, especially when I haven’t even met them!

    Don something else you haven’t focussed on enough in your imagined classes is the household debt burden between the two.

  9. Jacques Chester says:

    Crikey Don, way to generalise (you too Jaques).

    I know … but it fit so well into LP’s jihad against Kerr and the Oz.

  10. James Farrell says:

    Like Andrew Im sceptical about the idea that many people overwork because they mistakenly think more money will make them happier.

    But that’s not what the post is about, is it? The post is about how status is achieved differently from one subculture to the next. However, as you rightly observe, the status game is a zero sum game, so in the aggregate we gain nothing by playing it. By contrast, utility from family and friends is not a zero-sum game. Therefore we’d be happier if we allocated more time to that. Nothing in the post contradicts that argument (though for all I know you might have refuted it on Andrew’s thread).

    Perhaps you’re making a worthwhile point about innner-city middle class hypocrisy, and the folly of shallow notions of materialism, but it doesn’t seem a very original point to me.

  11. Andrew Norton says:

    James – Status in the sense of standing in the community isn’t zero sum. Provided you meet its norms everyone can have status. Even where status has a zero sum aspect there are so many status systems that the same individual can be low in some and high in others. Most people are sensible enough to steer clear of things that they aren’t so good at and towards things that they can do.

    The Hamilton spend less time at work kind of argument wrongly assumes that work is a disutility, when for many people it provides friendship, achievement and a sense of purpose. I suspect many people rightly judge it better than the domestic chores that wait for them at home.

  12. davebath says:

    Thinking about the discussion of status seeking (and the PoMas might be only judging success by their own criteria of goodness, not compared to others, except as to lay guilt on themselves), I’m reminded somewhat of the open source movement and that version of a gift economy.

    rms gives us GNU, larry gives us perl, linus gives us…. well, these guys are all in the pantheon.

    The urge to research, and give people the results of your research (whether in science, tech, sociol or whatever), or the calling to teach are similar examples.

    Is the PoMa seeking merely a diminution of guilt, or by buying “moral necessities” rather than “immoral” goods, providing a “gift” to the community.

    If these are all examples of types of “gift economy” (and the PoMas actually bring this to the material world rather than just information), and these ARE significant to the big picture of how resources move, are economists doing an appropriate amount of research into gift economies?

  13. Patrick says:

    I suspect many people rightly judge it better than the domestic chores that wait for them at home.

    Or, they would rather spend an extra x hours a week doing something they find at least mildly interesting, or at the very least is likely to contribute in some way to their future earning capacity/social status, and pay someone else to do the chores that they don’t.

    I agree with nearly everything Ken said and indeed a lot of his comments apply to my family, aside from the part where we are presently driving one of the (I’m pretty sure) 10 biggest cars in the world, which we love :) The cycling is dead-on though – I ride to work and the park, walk or ride to the shops when practicable, etc, but it is nothing to do with carbon footprints!

    My fundamental gripe with people like Hamilton and their obsession with the disutility of work is how wrong it is. As Andrew Norton suggests, what kind of perverted society would we live in if no-one had to work?

  14. Thanks for the post Don.

  15. James Farrell says:

    Even where status has a zero sum aspect there are so many status systems that the same individual can be low in some and high in others.

    That’s to be exactly what I’m saying, Andrew, except I said it the other way around: even when there are many status systems, it’s still a zero sum game.

    Of course, competitive games usually aren’t zero-sum. There can be only winner in a tournament, but it’s still good for everyone to play sport. The fun is in the striving; it’s not whether you win or lose…; etc. But that’s exactly why we try to inculcate in our kids a balanced attitude to sport. Likewise, it seems sensible to asses whether, in our respective subcultures, we might be collectively running on a status treadmill.

    On another point, both you and Patrick say that Hamilton assumes that work is disagreeable. Is that really true? As I recall, he has a lot to say about the importance of work satisfaction. I can’t believe anyone who thinks about happiness in any depth could overlook the fact that many people love their work. Many don’t, though, and there is another group who get a kind of utility that isn’t good for them, like the gambling addict and the alcoholic.

    These are all important issues, but as I said, this post doesn’t really address them. It’s just about how dopey it is to despise ‘materialistic’ lifestyles, based on an arbitary definition of materialism that emphasises durable goods over non-durables and services.

  16. Gummo Trotsky says:

    …what kind of perverted society would we live in if no-one had to work?

    If my memory of a years ago reading (and re-reading) of Brave New World serves me right, the book doesn’t depict a world where ‘no-one has to work’: as I recall it, it depicts a future society organised into castes (Alpha, Beta, Gamma & Delta), produced by in-vitro fertilisation and gestation with pre-natal manipulation of the foetus to produce the traits appropriate to each caste. Deltas, the lowest caste of industrial workers, were kept stupid with liberal doses of ‘alcohol in the blood surrogate’ of the artifical wombs in which they were raised. All castes ‘worked’, even the Alphas. If you want a more sympathetic (but by no means idealised) depiction of a society where no one has to work, the place to look is in the Culture novels of Iain M Banks – the latest Matter is a cracker.

    If working weren’t a disutility, no-one would be paid for doing it – instead they’d pay for the privilege of doing it. Yes, for many people it provides ‘friendship, achievement and a sense of purpose’ – the last largely because in our culture work is the purpose of life. The first two aren’t intrinsic to work: they’re externalities, a product of the working environment not the work itself.

    Very witty and cutting post, Don.

  17. Andrew Norton says:

    James – Hamilton does mention fulfilling work. But as in his well-being manifesto (also published in his book Affluenza) he then goes on to to say that there should be a maximum 35 hour working week.

    In my review of the evidence, there is no basis whatsover for saying that this would lead to an increase in well-being.

  18. Richard Green says:

    It is quite fortunate that there are great levels of utility in work, in some occupations more than others. It is also fortunate that, especially at the upper levels, much of the status that a person can get from work comes from non pecuniary factors.

    This is probably why taken as a whole the empirical work on labour supply elasticity in regard to income is surprisingly weak. It’s not all about the money (or at least, people are fairly capable of balancing according to their leisure-money goods preferences).

    I say it is quite fortunate because it means that progressive tax schemes aren’t nearly as distortionary as they could be. The higher up the income ladder you go, the more likely an occupation as a large product of non pecuniary utility, such as professional fulfillment or status. The higher taxes on income aren’t taxing these quite large incentives, so funding can be gained for necessary state functions with a minimum of distortion.

    And I am being provocative, but I’m not being facetious. It is fairly sad to see the points made in this in post/comments limited to a tribal battle between one tribe and another. A clashing of mishmashed shibboleths isn’t going to get us anywhere.

  19. Patrick says:

    Richard Green, they are some good points.

    James, in short I think Hamilton only really appreciates woodcarving and fishing as work. But some guotes:

    But why would we want to work more? Hadnt we always striven for more time to devote to the things that mattered more?

    despite the accumulation of evidence that showed that long hours of work are linked to lifestyle illnesses such as obesity and cardiovascular disease, as well as certain psychological disorders including sleep disturbance, substance abuse, depression and anxiety

    Having shorter working hours is a choice. People accept lower incomes in order to enjoy more leisure.

    In that particular speech, the last quote comes just after an absurd comparison between France and the US. Only be conveniently asserting earlier in the speech that taxes do not affect work and by ignoring the laws that forbid work in France can he reasonably speak of the different choices people in both countries make.
    The earlier quotes are the most significant though. (April 2008)

    ‘Growth fetishism’ is redolent with the implication that we only work longer because we are stuck on the materialist treadmill, or in the gilded cage, or what-have-you, as demonstrated by his praise of down-shifting:

    They are choosing fulfilment over money or, as I say elsewhere, rich lives instead of lives of riches.

    But how many people only downshift because they already have a fortune in the bank? (ironic note, in that same speech he puts the overthrow of the Shah in the same sentence as the fall of apartheid and the iron curtain, not sure if he had reflected enough on that one).

    I think his comments on downshifting reflect that he inevitable sees work as a means to the end only:

    In the last decade we have seen the emergence of a new demographic, the downshifters, those people who have voluntarily decided to reduce their incomes and win back time to devote to activities they regard as more worthwhile than making more money.

    (February 2005)

    And if I have understood properly, the ‘Genuine Progress Indicator’ rewards less work. In a world where more people worked a bit longer and employed nannies and cooks, assuming and otherwise static labor market, unemployment would decrease but GPI also would decrease, subject again to my understanding.

    But I think the real quote is this one:

    Traditionally, indigenous people have understood that the support the natural world provides to their survival must be repaid by nurturing and recreating the land each day. In this way there is a mutually sustaining cycle between humans and their natural world just as there is for each creature that plays its own unique role in the reproduction of the cosmic cycle. In modern guise, this is perhaps the central insight of ecology.

    Here I think we see what he understands to be meaningful ‘work’ – because I don’t think he really accepts that ‘office work’ or ‘factory work’ can deliver ‘meaning’. In very marxist fashion, I think he pines for the reunion of the worker and ownership of the product, and despises the atomisation of work. I

  20. Patrick says:

    forgot to finish back where I started, by stating that he would doubtlessly be as skeptical as you or I of the indolent life, but that I really don’t think he conceives of what most people actually do as being ‘meaningful’ work. Thus downshifting is always positive, because necessarily one is shifting from the less meaningful to the more meaningful.

  21. Andrew Norton says:

    Patrick – Hamilton does indeed quote Marx in Growth Fetish, but I think he is driven by pre-modern ideas rather than Marxism. I tried to track some of the history here.

  22. Patrick says:

    Hmm, the descriptions in that review sound pretty similar to my recollection of Marx’s stuff about the alienation of the worker from the product. Then again, I can’t say I have ever picked Marx up since 2nd year uni! What exactly do you see as being the difference (between the Marxist idea and ‘pre-modern’ ideas)?

  23. Patrick says:

    Apart, I guess, from the magical relationship with nature stuff – I agree that this remains a dominant force in his thinking, btw, even if he glosses over it a bit more – that is why I called my last one ‘the real quote’.

    But practically, the marxist bit sits neatly over that, doesn’t it?

  24. Andrew Norton says:

    Patrick – I agree that the Marxist part sits neatly. There are strong parallels between the historical left and right reactions against the modern liberal and capitalist world, which are shown up strongly in Hamilton’s broader worldview. These days, the conservative right is largely reconciled with capitalism while still somewhat uncomfortable with the decline of spirituality and rise of sexual freedom. The radical left has things the other way around, comfortable with cultural change (apart from a few feminists, who want to reregulate sexuality) but opposed to capitalism. But both threads of the argument are present in Hamilton’s work.

  25. Tel_ says:

    As Andrew Norton suggests, what kind of perverted society would we live in if no-one had to work?

    Zardoz is the story where they are all bored out of their noodles for want of any purpose.

    rms gives us GNU, larry gives us perl, linus gives us. well, these guys are all in the pantheon.

    The urge to research, and give people the results of your research (whether in science, tech, sociol or whatever), or the calling to teach are similar examples.

    Stallman is by no means a wealthy man, he does what he does because he believes in it, not because he enjoys high pay. Given that the only meaningful economic definition of “work” is activity that you get paid for, Stallman would be an example of someone who deliberately works much less than he could do, in order to pursue other activities (probably you can’t call this leisure, but economics has no category for activity that is neither work, nor leisure).

    But how many people only downshift because they already have a fortune in the bank?

    Some downshift because they are intelligent enough to recognise that they never will have a fortune in the bank. Whatever particular skill that they possess (no doubt something very significant to themselves) is not valued by today’s job market, and they are unwilling to reconfigure themselves to make better money with some different skill. Thus, they work enough to stay alive and spend the rest of their time doing what is important to themselves.

    Humans are multi-dimensional, whereas economic analysis is one dimensional (everything converts to dollar value). Thus, the economist sees someone who is a genius in recreating medieval pottery as equally worthless to someone who is a genius at smoking bongs and skateboarding — neither of them can get a job above minimum wage.

  26. Dilettante says:

    Hi all – I came here via hearing Don interviewed on Radio National this arvo. Pity the interviewer didn’t actually ask any really insightful questions around Don’s idea.

    Firstly – it’s amazing to see just how strongly people interpret this post via their own prejudices. The anti-environmentalists see it as satire, as “one of our boys sending up those stupid hypocritical greenies, yeah!”. It seems to me the post is really quite neutral as to the moral value of the proposed PoMA outlook, except for the ‘theres almost always someone with a food allergy or intolerance’ comment which seems a bit of a cheap shot.

    Anyway, for me the interesting question is _why_ “flat screen televisions, surround sound home entertainment systems and stainless steel barbeques all seem to be getting cheaper, services (and well-located housing) just get more and more expensive”. Ideas?

    I would argue that good urban planning, and a genuine political challenge to neoliberal doctrines, would make it easier to become less materialistic and still live in a good area and look after your family’s health. The Netherlands and Scandinavia are by no means perfect societies but they offer a lot of ideas to look at in this respect.

  27. Jacques Chester says:

    Humans are multi-dimensional, whereas economic analysis is one dimensional (everything converts to dollar value).

    Not quite. Economists say (I generalise) that a) every valuation is subjective, b) most exchanges are due to differences in those valuations, and c) the emergence of a common medium of exchange is a natural consequence of many exchanges.

    Thus, the economist sees someone who is a genius in recreating medieval pottery as equally worthless to someone who is a genius at smoking bongs and skateboarding neither of them can get a job above minimum wage.

    Again, no. The economist is saying that in general, other people in the society / economy place little value in medieval pottery, bong-making or skateboarding. Sorry, but that’s just how it is, nothing personal.

  28. Patrick says:

    Anyway, for me the interesting question is _why_ flat screen televisions, surround sound home entertainment systems and stainless steel barbeques all seem to be getting cheaper, services (and well-located housing) just get more and more expensive. Ideas?

    Are you kidding? Raw materials might get more expensive but the services embedded in these devices are partly automated and partly performed in far lower-cost countries than this, plus technological progress generally makes it easier to make things all the time (more efficient techniques, etc).

    Services are hard to make such big changes in – but see outsourcing, and consider consumer/banking/travel websites as a service: paying bills is a lot cheaper now than it was in the days of writing cheques and posting them and reconciling them (let alone the days of going to the banks and post-offices yourselves!).

    Hmm, is this pottery? Is this a skateboarder? I believe that those this reinforces Jacques’ point.

  29. Don Arthur says:

    Humans are multi-dimensional, whereas economic analysis is one dimensional (everything converts to dollar value).

    Tel – I think this is a really important point. Welfare economics has a serious problem with valuation. The problem is ‘incommensurability‘.

  30. Don Arthur says:

    Dilettante – I agree, the goods vs services question is one of the most interesting questions. And I think it gets to heart of why critics like Clive Hamilton misunderstand the problem.

    John Quiggin explains this better than anyone in the Australian blogosphere. It has to do with something called the ‘Baumol effect‘:

    To simplify drastically, the Baumol effect arises when productivity growth is more rapid in the goods-producing sector than in the service sector, and particularly in the provision of human services, including health, education, culture and recreational services … Since labour and capital are mobile between sectors in the long run, wages grow at much the same rate in both sectors, so the price of services has to rise relative to the price of goods.

    In the US, Elizabeth Warren and Amelia Warren Tyagi explain why it’s not the lust for material goods that’s forcing American families to devote more time to earning money.

    The PoMa delusion is the belief that everybody else has been duped by advertisers. That people buy more and more stuff thinking it will make them happy but in the end are left feeling unfulfilled.

    But the truth is, a lot of families are short of money for exactly the same reasons PoMas are short of money.

    The problem is about to get a lot worse. Because governments are heavily into in the business of providing services, politicians have a dilemma. To avoid a decline in the quantity and quality of services they’ll need to tax us more. (Population aging will make this problem worse.)

    Alternatively, they can shift the burden onto consumers (eg you get a nursing home bed and the bank gets your house). And once people are slugged with the extra cost of self-funding what they expected to get in return for their taxes, they’ll be unwilling to pay even more tax.

    Hamilton seems to think that we can afford all the health and education we want if only we give up the flat-screen tvs and stainless steel barbecues. I think this is a dangerous delusion.

  31. galaca says:

    Hmmm… I’d like to give you the benefit of the doubt Don, but I would be more impressed if you could point to statistics or survey data to confirm the existence of this new group of people. As it is you take as a given that they exist and then impute to them all sorts of motivations and attitudes without any evidence that I can see.

    I can’t help feeling this is yet another article sneering at inner-city lefties. The sentence “In a PoMa household theres almost always someone with a food allergy or intolerance” does seem a bit of a giveaway.

    I’m sure you don’t care what I think, but for me to take you seriously, I’d like some evidence please, otherwise I’ll have to conclude that you’re just recycling right wing prejudices.

  32. Tel_ says:

    a) every valuation is subjective,
    b) most exchanges are due to differences in those valuations,

    I have no problem with either of these, but economists ignore all the cases where exchanges do not occur, or where those exchanges are non-dollar exchanges. Thus, the resulting picture is not the world, but a projection of the world onto the one dimensional surface of dollar valuation.

    c) the emergence of a common medium of exchange is a natural consequence of many exchanges.

    Hmmm, there’s nothing particularly “natural” about a central currency created by decree of a central authority and backed up with physical force. I would argue that the currency of accepted status within some subculture would be a far more “natural” form of exchange between cooperating individuals. The fact that dollars can be exchanged on a worldwide market whereas status tends to only be recognised within a limited group is quite rational — the status is useful as a currency precisely because it is NOT transferable outside the group.

    The economist is saying that in general, other people in the society / economy place little value in medieval pottery, bong-making or skateboarding. Sorry, but thats just how it is, nothing personal.

    But which “other people” are we talking about here? Yes, I know that with pretty much any endeavor there will be someone making money out of it somewhere (and searching the net will turn up lots of weird stuff for sale) but despite those fringe cases, probably the vast majority of artistic talent remains amateur and gets little or no financial reward. Similar with religious / spiritual / philosophical skills or other things that are non-mainstream and difficult (not entirely impossible) to market as a career option.

    My point is that, given one global market where all things are exchanged by dollar value, many skills and services will not be exchangeable at all because the potential service provider values their skill at a much higher rate than the global market does. Thus large numbers of abilities will remain latent. However, within a restricted community of like-minded individuals, people will be able to enjoy exchange of the things that they see as valuable but which the broader market does not. For this to happen requires a transaction that cannot be converted to global currency.

    For example, some communities consider you “high status” if you have been in that community a long time. There’s no way to buy or sell this, you simply have to join and then wait. If there was a system allowing individuals to trade their position, it would completely defeat the purpose having such a measurement.

    Suppose (for argument’s sake) , I feel it is of great importance that everyone believe in God. I’m hardly going to pay them dollars in exchange for having them believe harder. On the other hand, within a circle of believers, I would be quite likely to bestow appreciation upon someone who is particularly devout. I may even offer one of my very valuable relics (such as a splinter from the true cross) to show how impressed I am.

    Welfare economics has a serious problem with valuation. The problem is incommensurability.

    Thanks for the link, I’ll take a while to study that one. As for welfare, I tend to think you get better results by handing out necessities in physical form than you do from handing out money. If a man is hungry then give him some food, if he is cold then give him shelter. If he earns his own money, then of course he is welcome to spend it how he sees fit. I recognise that the modern world sees exchange of dollars as the universal answer to all problems, I see it as merely a good answer to some problems, and largely useless for others.

  33. Don Arthur says:

    Jaques – I’m interested in your comment that:

    Economists say (I generalise) that a) every valuation is subjective, b) most exchanges are due to differences in those valuations, and c) the emergence of a common medium of exchange is a natural consequence of many exchanges.

    I think this is fine if all you’re doing is trying explain what’s going on in the market.

    But I think Tel’s right to say that not all relationships between people are relationships of exchange. There’s a tendency amongst some economists (eg Gary Becker) to extend economic analysis well beyond the market.

    The other problem is that economists sometimes slip from positive to normative accounts. Instead of just explaining economic activity they start to prescribe.

    These prescriptions are usually grounded in welfarism and consequentialism. And the frustrating thing is that people who make these normative assumptions don’t recognise that they’re controversial — that rational, well-informed people might disagree with them.

    One of the controversies is over valuation. Personally I find Isaiah Berlin’s arguments about pluralism persuasive. I don’t see how valuation (normative) can be done using a single metric.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.