Category Archives: Economy

…Now with the Power of Science!

I ran into a funny piece of advertising recently. It was for a facial cleaner or some similar product, and the product read, in big friendly letters (as part of the advertising on the front of the package):

Now with “science-y jargon blah blah“!

Okay, so I’m just paraphrasing the semantic meaning here. But, I’m pretty sure that we weren’t supposed to understand what it meant, just be impressed with its efficacy.

Science As Authority

Luckies Doctor
If “Science” says it, it must be true!

Using the idea of “Science” (the cultural construct) as a way of establishing authority in ads isn’t anything new. Even since science started being something that we listen to, instead of something we learn to do ourselves, marketers have been using it to affect our decisions.

Remember, in a perfect world, scientists have every obligation to share their data with other scientists. This is done for the sake of improving the world of science — to strengthen the academy. But for those of us on the outside — and with the incredible complexity of scientific research today, that’s almost everyone — we just have to take their word for it.

The New Alchemists

Gold Bars
Can science navigate the shoals of temptation?

The majority of scientists today work outside of the academy. They are in the employ of (not to put too fine a point on it) merchants. These merchants are themselves in the employ of shareholders, themselves. There are times, we can imagine, that this might present conflicts of interest.

It’s a trade-off. With much of research funding coming from private hands, and those hands being bound by (fickle) shareholder obligations, we’re making great strides in areas like consumer electronics and pharmaceuticals.

Patent wars are the result. And patent litigation is probably desperately against the scientific method at its core. The scientific method, at its root, is a collaborative method; that is its power.

But “scientists” working for private ends have a business model of making their patron happy as they try to create wealth through their knowledge. We’ve seen this model before — it’s the way that alchemy functioned in the pre-scientific era.

Are Bureaucrats a Necessary Evil, or Unsung Heroes?

” Excuse me, could I say something? I think we would all like this victory to go out to all the other guys, and I’m talking about the people in this city who are super good at their jobs but never get any credit. Like the lady in the DMV – that’s a rough job. “

We’ve all been to the DMV. We’ve all come face to face with faceless, ungraspable bureaucracy, where the person in front of you only has the authority to say “no.” But the truth is that bureaucrats, like lawyers and police officers, suffer from a terrible reputation that is often undeserved.

They’re frustrating because we don’t know the rules of the game. But their job is to enforce those rules. And without those rules, culture falls apart. Does that mean that every bureaucrat out there is a kindhearted individual? Heck no. But they are the human embodiments of a system that most days, keeps the food moving and the people fed and the kids educated and the transportation system working and the power on.

If we don’t know the rules of the game, that doesn’t mean it’s fixed. And they’re not usually the ones who made the rules and laws anyway. They give a face to faceless bureaucracy. And sometimes that means that we don’t see them as people.

The “Soulless” Bureaucrat

While we can imagine a world where people all choose to do the “right” thing, the reality is that most people, on most days, simply find it expedient to cut a few corners. This wouldn’t be a problem, except that there are seven billion human primates in the world, and we’re not really all that inclined to get along.

It’s easy for us to think about police officers and lawyers as enforcers of law. But there is another force in the rule of law: the quiet, often derided and underestimated bureaucrats. They are the ones who make sure that the “t”s are crossed and the “i”s dotted. While police might be the “hands” of law, and lawyers the “mind,” the solid “body” of governing relies on these people.

We often think of bureaucrats as powerless, and they show up in fiction as petty tyrants or, more rarely, kind guides. And often they are, indeed, personally powerless. But they are, at the same time, necessary cogs in the machine of governance. Every organization moves ahead on paperwork, and these are the masters of it.

Red Tape Is Better than Anarchy

When we think of everyday people as free-willed, freedom-loving, and out to accomplish great things, then the lowly bureaucrat is too easily seen as some kind of villain. But when we remember that all people are really territorial primates not always given to solving their problems for the greater good, we see the need for people who give their lives to making complex systems work.

They’re not glamorous heroes, and there are almost never TV shows about their wacky adventures. But they are the everyday people who bring complex systems to life. Their job is to help us all get along with the world.

Bureaucrats don’t chase down criminals and they don’t change the law — but these are the everyday enforcers who make sure that we have car insurance, drivers licenses, and roads to drive on. They make sure that our food is clean and that records are kept. In short – they work to make sure that we get to keep living in civilization.

Money, the Miser, and the Power of Symbols

Hoard of ancient gold coins
A hoard of ancient gold coins

Anthropology, by focusing on the “other,” attempts to understand the full range of human experience in the world. Without anthropology, we focus far too easily on aspects of our own culture as if they are true.

By training people to look outside of our own cultures, anthropology allows us to differentiate between what is normative in our everyday lives and what is fundamental to all humans.

There are many things that we “believe” are true of all people, even though they are products of culture. For example, many people have a deep-seated belief that all of us want money, or need money, and that driving belief is core to who and what people are. But such a statement is based on a number of underlying assumptions, such as the belief that we’re individuals, and that money is somehow “real,” and that trading our time and effort for money is something that crosses all cultures.

The Kula Ring

Kula bracelet
In the Kula exchange system, all of the valuables are “non-use” items, often pieces of jewelry like the one pictured here.

We can step back from the idea that money is real and universal, and realize that we’re making certain assumptions. If we rewrite these ideas outside of culture, we come up with something more like, “people give away things they value less for things that they value more. The details of those exchanges depend on cultural values.”

Money isn’t a thing in and of itself. It’s just a metaphor for certain kinds of power and social status. As part of culture, money isn’t a thing so much as it’s a symbol — a shorthand for larger concepts. Money is a tool, and tools are part of culture rather than a priori of it.

If we go back and look at the research of the first anthropologist to do long term fieldwork, Bronislaw Malinowski (1884 – 1942), we’ll see that the Trobriand Islanders work to gain certain items for trade, and then give those items in trade to others, through the “Kula ring.” We discover that money is not the root of anything, but simply one means (albeit a powerful one in many cultures) as a medium of exchange and reciprocity.

By looking at the Kula ring we can realize, though sometimes with difficulty, that some “things” in culture aren’t really things at all. They are instead physical representations of relationships.

An Old Aesop

Aesop was probably born around 620 BCE.

This “truth” isn’t really anything new, even in Western culture. You might remember the famous fable of Aesop about the miser who kept his gold buried in his garden.

The miser would leave his house and dig up his gold to look at it. It made him feel good about himself to think “I am a rich man.” Then one day, the gold was gone, stolen. His neighbor took one look at the situation, and suggested that he bury a rock, and go look at that instead. Gold that wasn’t used wasn’t worth more than a rock.

The moral of the story was that wealth that is not used is of no use to anyone. Wealth is about relationships and exchange. The story’s a reminder of something that’s easy for us to forget when we’re caught up in everyday life: that our symbols are “only” symbols.

Anthropology goes further, though. It also reminds us that symbols can be incredibly powerful — not in some intellectual way, but as representations of the relationships between people.

It’s not even fair to refer to them as “only” symbols. Wealth, career, knowledge, and faith are all symbols, but they are also very real. They affect how we live, how we think, and how we relate with others. These symbols affect how we make decisions, how we talk, and whether we’re listened to.

In other words, symbols aren’t “only” anything. If the natural sciences have shown that physical laws are the most powerful force in the universe, then anthropology has show that culture comes a close second.

Does It All Really Come Down to Economics?

In Western intellectual circles, it is sometimes easiest to argue convincingly if we base our underlying assumptions on the material world. By using the material world as a base — often materialist philosophy, economics, and positivist science — we speak a “lower” truth . It’s a trend worth noting, especially when we talk about such topics as modern rhetorical techniques.

One common assumption, often used as a tool of analysis in the social sciences, is the idea that cultural decisions are made for economic reasons. This relates to the concept that ideas can only be judged based on their results, and that the most basic level of analysis is the material world.

Materialism is an intellectual version of “might makes right.” It throws aside Western culture and replaces it with a devotion to a lowest common denominator that must be true in all times and places.

The Influence of Karl Marx

Karl Marx
Karl Marx, 1861 (1818-1883)

If you’ve suffered through 6th grade history (I had an awesome 6th grade history teacher — Thank you, Mrs. S.), then you probably know Karl Marx as one of the two writers who came up with The Communist Manifesto. And if you’ve spent much time in the social sciences, then you’ll be aware of his contribution there: the idea that pretty much everything is determined by what are effectively materialist and economic factors.

Marxist analysis” is a reaction to Hegel’s dialectic. Hegel’s dialectic is the dialectic of ideas: two ideas clashing, and then eventually unifying into one.

Marx argued that the process of clashing and then unification would take place not in the world of ideas, but in the material world. This was a major philosophical change, but what we want to take away is this: Marxist analysis is materialist.

The worldview of Marxist analysis rejects both religion and intellectualism as valid worldviews. The traditional mind/body/spirit division of Western thought is thrown out,  and everything is subordinated to the material.

Rhetoric and Analysis

While Marx and Engels’s conclusions are, from a modern perspective, ridiculously Utopian, it’s their reliance on the material as a source of authority that is their lasting contribution to Western culture. It’s a complete rejection of the philosophical history of the West — similar to the one that was going on in science (writ large) at the same time.

Any time we see an argument that compares two ideas’ values based on their material consequences, that’s at least partly Marx’s influence. In fact, any time we make an argument about how something will play out in the “real world” (material world), we’re leaning on Marx’s philosophy for support — and we probably don’t even know it.

Marxist analysis is a useful tool in some ways: by moving our analysis to the “material,” we theoretically make it possible to add less cultural bias to our analysis. But there’s a flaw the arises as soon as we start to actually believe in the materialist model.

All analysis happens in the world of ideas. If we argue “it’s true that the world of ideas is secondary to the physical world” (as Marxist analysis does), then we’ve just shot ourselves in the collective foot. If the underlying assumptions of our analysis determine that analysis is unimportant, then where do we go from there?

Coming Full Circle

I believe the answer is that we need to challenge the materialist assumptions that we make. We need to remember that Marxist analysis is a tool (a scientific tool at best and a rhetorical tool at worst), and not the one and only effective model of the world. While such analysis can be useful, we need to leave it subordinate, and not reify it as the one true model of the world.

Marxist analysis, like materialist science, cannot do more than tell us the way things are (and, I would argue, lends only one perspective). Such perspectives can be incredibly useful, but don’t even begin to touch on what we should do with our knowledge.

Even if we argue Marxist analysis reveals truth, knowing “the Truth” doesn’t tell us what’s “Right.” For that, we (as Westerners) will continue to rely on Western culture.

[I’m starting a new reading project: Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars (in translation). You can find my ongoing comments on my What I’m Reading page.]

The Evolution of Shopping

Interior -- Mall of America
How did it come to this?

A couple of years ago, as I wandered through the bowels of the Christmas season, it occurred to me to wonder why American shopping malls look the way they do.

I’m not talking about strip malls, or those fancy outdoor malls, but the good old “standard” (to my mind) mall, the playground of the typical 80s childhood.

The Mall of America. Every Westfield mall ever. Call them what you want, but these indoor malls are more than just markets. With their catwalks lined with stores, they’re shopping districts, meeting places, controlled environments, and icons of our cultural identity.

Recreating History

To understand why these malls are designed to look the way they do, we need to look into the past to see what shopping was like in the pre-mall era. If we go back just a hundred years, we see cities with shopping districts. Small shops lined the streets, and people could easily walk from one store to the next. The roads of course, were available for horses, and eventually cars as well.

"Things change, people change, hairstyles change, interest rates fluctuate." Hillary Flammond Top Secret!
“Things change, people change, hairstyles change, interest rates fluctuate.” Hillary Flammond Top Secret!

The modern mall grows out of exactly this experience, but provides a controlled environment. The open streets are replaced with a covered area, and cars are kept out, allowing for more foot traffic.

Catwalks and levels corral shoppers and direct them this way and that. The upper levels take advantage of the enclosed space to create a three-dimensional assault on our senses.

But if you walk through these malls with a little imagination, you can still see traces of their earlier history. You’l walk down faux roads, looking in shop windows as each store tries to entice you inside with colorful displays. Although the walking areas are empty of cars, they are still as wide as roads, giving a sense of openness while still keeping us safe and enclosed.

A key difference between these malls and traditional urban shopping districts can be found in the level of planning that goes into them. The malls, as businesses themselves, are carefully managed.

As we walk through a mall and look at the variety of colors and shapes, advertisements and messages, there is a certain sameness to them. Like the suburbs they serve, they do what they can to keep out undesirables, promote a certain uniformity, and support a Western-influenced middle-class lifestyle. Perhaps more than almost anywhere except television, they promote visions of “self” and “other” that are nearly wholly mercantile and commodified.

Herd Mentality

Buffalo herd
Humans aren’t herd animals, but we are social animals. Sometimes it looks about the same.

I haven’t been a fan of shopping malls since I was young and they were places of excitement (and video arcades). But then again, I doubt that I’ve ever done too well as a “target market.”

There was always something that seemed artificial about the malls. They were too controlled an environment. With their own security, and a level of organization that made urban planning look downright chaotic, they lacked that sense of organic growth of more open shopping districts.

Today, as I walk through these malls, these mock-shopping districts, I sometimes imagine that it is an earlier time. Like “proper” women of sixty years ago wearing gloves in public, everyone wants to look dressed up — though it may not be a formal middle-class look.

Nonetheless, in a mall, all the primate games of competition for wealth and status are on display. It can be seen in everything from fancy jewelry and revealing clothes to the latest fashions and t-shirts that proclaim “I’m with stupid.” (Maybe they don’t know the old saying that “you can judge a person by the company he keeps…”)

And through it all, kids move in packs through these malls like street urchins once did. Maybe they’re not the desperate throwaway children they once would have been, but the mall becomes a playground run by merchants and marketers.

If the urban shopping district of yesteryear was like a black-and-white film, today’s are like the IMAX experience of shopping. Marketers, with every psychological gambit and every trick of the trade, vie for attention and create a sense of need.

During heavy shopping times, especially between Black Friday and Christmas, the place is awash with five senses’ worth of stimulation. The music is calculated, the stores have signature scents, and the images are designed to create a sense of need.

Winslow Homer - Shooting the Rapids, Saguenay River
“Shooting the Rapids” — This is what shopping feels like!

Of course, you’ve almost certainly experienced Christmas shopping as well — but like shooting rapids, you might not have taken the time to really look at the scenery. Beyond the five senses, there is a also a sense of urgency; It comes off the press of humanity, and goes beyond just scents, sights, and sounds.

To the primate within, if you can imagine it, mall shopping is like being one of a panicked herd of buffalo in a corral. There is a sense of purpose, but the purpose is barely understood. Except in the American mall, it’s many groups swirled together, and all the hunters want is attention…and the sale.

The Promise — and Cost — of a College Education

Higher education has changed shape in the past fifty or so years, and the rate of change only seems to be increasing. To paint with a broad brush, we’re moving from a liberal-arts curriculum to something that looks a lot more like vocational training.

There was a time, not so long ago, that a college education was the ticket into a middle-class life, and this is a promise that many people still believe. It is the carrot held out to get students, young and old, to devote years of their lives to study. But at the same time, as the cost of education has increased, and more and more of the U.S. population takes advantage of the educational system, the focus of college seems to be changing.

College as an Investment

The cost of a four-year education is currently north of $150,000, and the savvy shopper is asking about the return on investment for such an expenditure. On the flip side, many careers that used to be vocational now require a 4-year degree just to get in the door. More and more people are going into debt just to get a toe into the job market.

Lightmatter chimp thinker
Is it the power of education, or the prestige of graduating?

While a college education is often required for a career (or even just to get a job), the pay scales have not adjusted for the increased cost of getting in. And more than ever, what we choose to study is looked at not just as a skill set, but as a label, a defining part of who we are.

College has moved more and more toward vocational training. That’s not the colleges’ choice; it’s been driven by market pressures — both the job market itself and the increasing cost of education. Education, as education and not vocational training, is out of favor with many people. Yet education for its own sake is a very middle-class value. The change in education is just one of many examples of how the middle class is shrinking — not just financially, but culturally as well.

Even when schools are touting their ability to teach us how to think effectively, that’s not what many employers are looking for. In the new era of computer-assisted human resources and quick online application for jobs, having the exactly right credential can get your resume looked at.

Social Class and Education are Linked but Not the Same

The three-component theory of stratification, also known as Weberian Stratification (Max Weber 1864 – 1920), says that stratification can be based on wealth, prestige, and power. Educational systems have traditionally been used to grant certain types of prestige. That’s why we call people with Ph.D.s “Doctor” — it’s a way of recognizing their status.

Traditionally, the education system in the U.S. (and elsewhere) has interacted heavily with other prestige systems, including those associated with ascribed status. Or, to put it more bluntly, people were more likely to go further in education if they were rich, white, and male.

That’s changed in recent years, with many previously under-served populations gaining access to college-level education. Problem solved, right? Three troubles have crept up on us in this period of transition.

1) It Was Never Just Education

The first is that while access to higher education has gone up, its value was traditionally a synergy with ascribed statuses. But despite greater and greater access to higher ed, the U.S. still struggles with classism, racism, and sexism.

While our image of the college graduate is of someone with access to the halls of power, educational prestige alone has never been enough to counterbalance the other (less savory) cultural aspects that open doors.  The promise of a college education has been overstated precisely because we’re often unwilling to admit the power that social networks play in short-term job applications and long-term career growth.

2) More Graduates, Fewer Careers

While the number of people who, on paper, “should” have access to the middle class is growing, the actual size of the middle class has been shrinking. That means that more and more people are spending their money to get a chance at a middle-class life, but the number of “winners” is going down. Oddly, the cost of education has not (yet) been falling to mirror this glut in the market for college-educated people.

The continued rise in educational cost is partly because it’s “the only game in town.” We have to pay to play this lottery, because there are few routes to the middle class outside of jumping through the right hoops. Sure, maybe the rare person can skip a few steps through native talent, but that’s not the way to bet.

3) Prestige as a Unified System

In our rush to remove racism and sexism from America’s mind, we’ve managed to deeply institute classism as the defining prestige system — and further, to define class more and more through wealth and access to resources.

This trend (toward using money as a more important measure of a person’s social worth) has led to a deeper institutionalization of class. At the same time, social mobility in America doesn’t live up to our myths about it. In fact, some have argued recently that the new upper class, the 1%, have pulled the ladder up behind themselves.

We sometimes seem to have lost the other prestige systems that used to counterbalance the assumption that “wealth = prestige.” In other words, we need to remember the value of education isn’t only measured in cash at the end of the day. It’s measured in good decisions that benefit the country as a whole.

When we undervalue parallel systems of prestige and rely on money as the only yardstick of status — as exemplified by the idea that the value of an education can be measured by the paycheck it leads to — we’re the ones who end up paying the cost. And that cost is far more than $150,000.

Truth Vs. Trend

Spy Vs. SpyThere is often a difference between what “everyone” believes and the truth. Some of social science models of behavior include assumptions of feedback loops that allow us to quickly modify our behavior to be in tune with the reality of situations.

Feedback loops take time, aren’t 100% accurate, and are subject to manipulation. Even pursuing the truth is (for many people) only as useful as long as it serves other goals. And sometimes pursuing a commonly held untruth is more personally profitable.

In other words, the truth isn’t sexy.

Feedback Loops Take Time

When we believe things that aren’t true, and we either share or act on that information, eventually the world will let us know. That’s a feedback loop. But it’s important to recognize that feedback loops aren’t instantaneous.

To start with a simple, even silly example:

A cup of coffee, black
I take my menko black.

Let’s say I wake up one morning believing that coffee’s not called coffee anymore; it’s called menko. I get up and make myself some menko: no feedback since I don’t even read the label.

Next, I’m talking to some people and I mention that my menko is great, and that I really need my menko in the morning. Sure, these people think I’m weird as heck, but they might not say anything. They might just think, “Smile and nod at the strange man waving a coffee cup.

Worse, the people I’m talking to might figure it out from context, and give me feedback, “Yeah, yeah, I need my menko in the morning, too.” Maybe they even think it’s a brand name, or something.

Finally, I head to a coffee chain and ask for a small decaf menko with soy milk. Maybe, just maybe, this kind stranger will let me know that I’m using the wrong word. It’s their business, and it’s in their interest.

Eventually, someone will give me feedback: the word is coffee, not menko. But that takes time, and it takes someone willing to make the effort to correct my mistake.

Some Feedback Loops Are Bigger Than Others

On a larger scale, the social feedback loop is pretty important for checking information. Most people, normal people, don’t do independent research on everything. Instead, they look for social feedback on “facts.” As long as our beliefs are common enough to “work” for our purposes, or at least don’t get in the way of our goals, we’re not going to get feedback to correct them.

Bransfield Iceberg
How about some iced menko?

The menko example is pretty silly, and it’s a situation where negative feedback’s going to come pretty quickly. But what about larger questions, like “Is there such a thing as human-caused climate change?”

Climate change isn’t a topic that really fits well with social feedback. All that will tell us is whether our friends believe that the world is getting warmer. If, instead of relying on specialists (you know, the science-y folks with their labs, samples, and data), we subject the information only to social feedback loops, we’re going to have to wait until things have gotten so bad that nearly everyone has a terrible story of climate change that they want to share.

Most people don’t use scientific data in their everyday feedback loops, relying instead on existing connections–social, political, religious, and so forth–to inform their opinions on topics. In most situations, this doesn’t matter all too much. The data we receive socially is good enough, especially as we primarily act socially, anyway.


Sometimes, the acceptable “facts” are at odds with the actual facts. This happens all the time. Let’s say that we work for a company, PerkyCorp, which prides itself on having an awesome corporate culture. It’s always a party and everyone gets along. But somewhere, hidden in the recesses, something is wrong.

“I’m Cassandra, the Archetype of the Bearer of Bad News, and I approve this message.”

While everyone at PerkyCorp is busy getting along awesomely, and getting promoted for being good team players, decisions might be getting made that are taking the company off the rails of competitive success. What? How?

If everyone’s busy getting along, and getting rewarded for it, there’s no advantage for them to close the feedback loop. Now–there are two sides to this:

  1. Being part of any group, from a  business to a political party, involves a certain amount of “drinking the Kool-Aid.” As long as things don’t get too bad, the social-feedback loop is going to be the primary method of decision making. If the Kool-Aid tastes awful, those who can smile while they drink it will rise to the top.
  2. People who choose to address burgeoning problems do so at their own peril. Making changes in the group, assigning responsibility, and generally being hierarchical is seriously un-fun.

Solving problems that a group doesn’t know they have doesn’t make someone a devoted employee with the interests of the company at heart (even if they are)–it makes them a Cassandra. Being a Cassandra with data and proof isn’t good enough, either. If PerkyCorp can’t see that the feedback loop’s closing around their collective necks, telling them isn’t going to help.

In short, if the PerkyCorp’s GroupThink isn’t telling them that there’s a problem, trying to solve the problem isn’t saving the day, it’s harshing their buzz.