Archive for December 25th, 2009

Gifts that tell good stories

| December 25, 2009 | 1 Reply
Gifts that tell good stories

Geoffrey Miller has written an extraordinary book, Spent, that challenges us to recognize that our ubiquitous efforts to decorate ourselves and others with goods and services are primarily to project image and status. (and see here and here) “Many products are signals first and material objects second.” The result is that we often engage in a vast orgy of spending mostly to look good in the eyes of others.

What does this have to do with Christmas? We humans are also creatures who are always looking for shortcuts. Many of us have deliberately chosen to work long hours as part of “career” choices in order to make more money. Most of us who have who have made extra money as a result of those long hours at the office would much rather burn off some of that money at a store than to spend our severely limited amounts of time creating goods or providing services. We’d like to believe that our gift-giving is a display of our good intentions and of who we are, but as Miller points out, the store-bought gifts so many of us buy serve only to display only a narrow range of qualities regarding who we are:

Buying new, real, branded, premium products at full price from chain-store retailers is the last refuge of the unimaginative consumer, and it should be your last option. It offers low narrative value–no stories to tell about interesting people, places, and events associated with the product’ design, provenance, acquisition, or use. It reveals nothing about you except your spending capacity and your gullibility, conformism, and unconsciousness as a consumer. It grows no physical, social or cultural roots into your local environment. It does not promote trust, reciprocity, or social capital. It does not expand your circle of friends and acquaintances. It does not lead you to learn more about the convention, manufacture, operation, or maintenance of the things around you.

Retail spending reveals such a narrow range of traits: the capacities to earn, steal, marry, or inherit wealth, and the perceptual memory and media access required to spend the wealth on whatever is advertised most avidly now.

(p. 271 ff). Those who procure gifts with a moment’s thought or two, and with the help of credit cards, often fail in their attempts to impress. Retail spending pointedly fails:

[a]s a costly, reliable signal of one’s dedication to a particular person (in the case of gifts), or to a particular acquisition (in the case of things bought for self display).

Miller reminds us that creating something yourself speaks much more loudly than a premade thing purchased at retail. The proof is that gifts which require personal time and creativity make much better “stories” to tell to family and friends.

I largely agree with Miller, though I think that retail spending can make a compelling story in some circumstances. For instance, what if someone has limited financial means, yet digs deeply in order to purchase a nonfrivolous gift that another person truly needs (e.g., assume that someone of limited means provided a student with books that were desperately needed for a coming semester).

During the Christmas season, however, Miller’s version of retail spending is a common occurrence. Most of us patronize retail stores in order to send out ready-made gifts. This much is not disputed. What can be disputed in an interesting way, is why . Many people would claim that we give gifts to each other because we “care about” or “love” each other. Miller’s writings dig several levels deeper, recognizing that we are human animals who have come equipped with deeply felt needs to display our traits to each other, and that we resort to retails gift giving to serve these deep urges. In other words, Miller resource to biology rather than folk psychology:

Biology offers an answer. Humans evolved in small social groups in which image and status were all important, not only for survival, but for attracting mates, impressing friends, and rearing children.

(p. 1). During this Christmas season, and at all other times of the year, it is fascinating to re-frame the widespread displays of gift-giving as anciently-honed and deeply-rooted biological impulses geared to ensure survival.

For more, consider this post, entitled “Shopping for Sex” and this post on The Church of Stop Shopping.

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Spending priorities of the United States

| December 25, 2009 | Reply
Spending priorities of the United States

The Intelligence Daily puts the national defense budget in perspective. It is expected to hit almost $1 Trillion dollars in 2010:

The U.S. spends more for war annually than all state governments combined spend for the health, education, welfare, and safety of 308 million Americans.

Economist Joseph Stiglitz and finance authority Linda Bilmes offered these statistics in their book, The Three Trillion Dollar War:

“The Pentagon’s budget has increased by more than $600 billion, cumulatively, since we invaded Iraq.” With its 1,000 bases in the U.S. and another 800 bases globally, the U.S. truly has become a “Warfare State.” Today, military-related products account for about one-fourth of total U.S. GDP. This includes 10,000 nuclear weapons. Indeed, the U.S. has lavished $5.5 trillion just on nukes over the past 70 years.

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