Are you more than a consumer? “The Once and Future Liberalism” and some answers

This is one of the most insightful thing I’ve read about an unattractive feature of American society: we put an “emphasis on consumption rather than production as the defining characteristic of the good life.” It’s from “Beyond Blue 6: The Great Divorce,” where, in Walter Russell Mead’s reading, “Americans increasingly defined themselves by what they bought rather than what they did, and this shift of emphasis proved deeply damaging over time.” I’m not convinced this has happened equally for everybody, all the time, but it rings awfully true.

Which brings us back to the point made in the title: are you producing more than you consume? Are you focused on making things, broadly imagined, instead of “consuming” them? Is there more to your identity than the music you like and the clothes you wear? (“More” might mean things you know, or know how to do, or know how to make.) Can you do something or somethings few others can? If the answers are “no,” you might be feeling the malaise Mead is describing. In Anything You Want, Derek Sivers writes:

When you want to learn how to do something yourself, most people won’t understand. They’ll assume the only reason we do anything is to get it done, and doing it yourself is not the most efficient way.

But that’s forgetting about the joy of learning and doing.

If you never learn to do anything yourself—or anything beyond extremely basic tasks everyone else knows—you’re not going to lead a very satisfying life. Almost as bad, you probably won’t know it. You’ll only have that gnawing feeling you can’t name, a feeling that’s easy—too easy—to ignore most of the time. You can’t do everything yourself, and it would be madness to try. But you should be thinking about expanding what you can do. I’ve made a conscious effort to resist being defined by what I buy rather than what I do, and that effort has intensified since I read Paul Graham’s essay “Stuff;” notice especially where he says, “Because the people whose job is to sell you stuff are really, really good at it. The average 25 year old is no match for companies that have spent years figuring out how to get you to spend money on stuff. They make the experience of buying stuff so pleasant that “shopping” becomes a leisure activity.” To me it’s primarily tedious.

But this tedious activity is everywhere, and in Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, Geoffrey Miller describes how companies and advertisers have worked to exploit evolved human systems for mating and status in order to convince you that you need stuff. Really, as he points out, you don’t: five minutes of conversation does more signaling than almost all the stuff in the world. Still, I don’t really take a moral view of shopping, in that I don’t think disliking shopping somehow makes me more virtuous than someone who does like shopping, but I do think the emphasis on consumption is a dangerous one for people’s mental health and well-being. And I wonder if these issues are also linked to larger ones.

A lot of us are suffering from an existential crisis and a search for meaning in a complex world that often appears to lack it. You can see evidence in the Western world’s high suicide rates, in Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning (he says, “I do not at all see in the bestseller status of my book so much an achievement and accomplishment on my part as an expression of the misery of our time: if hundreds of thousands of people reach out for a book whose very title promises to deal with the question of a meaning to life, it must be a question that burns under the fingernails”), in Irvin Yalom’s Existential Psychotherapy (especially the chapter on despair), in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, in All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age, in The Joy of Secularism: 11 Essays for How We Live Now, in the work of Michel Houellebecq. I could keep going. The question isn’t merely about the number of responses to present conditions, but about what those present conditions are, how they came about, what they say about contemporary politics (Mead makes the political connection explicit in “The Once and Future Liberalism: We need to get beyond the dysfunctional and outdated ideas of 20th-century liberalism“), and what they say about how the individual should respond.

People respond in all kinds of ways. Despair is one. Fanaticism, whether towards sports teams or political parties or organized religion is another, with religion being especially popular. You can retreat to religious belief, but most dogmatic religious beliefs are grounded in pre-modern beliefs and rituals, and too many religions are surrounded by fools (did Heinlein say, “It’s not God I have a problem with, it’s his fan club”? Google yields many variations). Those kinds of answers don’t look very good, at least to me. You have to look harder.

I think part of the answer has to lie in temperament, attitude, and finding a way to be more than a consumer. For a very long time, people had to produce a lot of what they consumed—including their music, food, and ideas. I don’t want to lapse into foolish romanticism about the pre-modern, pre-specialized world, since such a world would be impossible to recreate and ugly if we did. People conveniently forget about starvation and warfare when they discuss the distant past. Plus, specialization has too many benefits—like the iMac I’m looking at, the chair I’m sitting in, the program I’m using to write this, the tasty takeout I can order if I want it, the tea in my kitchen, the condoms in my bedroom, or the camera on my tripod. For all its virtues, though, I’m increasingly convinced that specialization has psychic costs that few of us are really confronting, even if many of us feel them, and those costs relate to how we related to meaning and work.

According to Mead, in the 19th Century, families “didn’t just play together and watch TV together; they worked together to feed and clothe themselves.” Today, disparate activities drive specialization even within the family, and family life has become an increasingly consumption, status-oriented experience. To Mead, “If we wonder why marriage isn’t as healthy today in many cases, one reason is surely that the increasing separation of the family from the vital currents of economic and social life dramatically reduces the importance of the bond to both spouses – and to the kids.” We’ve gotten wealthier as a society, and wealth enables us to make different kinds of choices. Marriage is much more of a consumer good: we choose it, rather than being forced into it because the alternative is distressingly high resource diminishment. Charles Murray observes some effects this has on marriage in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, since getting and staying married has enormous positive effects on income—even if “the vital currents of economic and social life” conspire to make spouses less dependent on each other.

Kids are less economically useful and simultaneously more dependent on their parents. It also means they’re separated from the real world for a very long time. To Mead, part of this is education:

As the educational system grew more complex and elaborate (without necessarily teaching some of the kids trapped in it very much) and as natural opportunities for appropriate work diminished, more and more young people spent the first twenty plus years of their lives with little or no serious exposure to the world of work.

It starts early, this emphasis on dubious education and the elimination of “natural opportunities for appropriate work”:

Historically, young people defined themselves and gained status by contributing to the work of their family or community. Childhood and adulthood tended to blend together more than they do now. [. . .] The process of maturation – and of partner-seeking – took place in a context informed by active work and cooperation.

In the absence of any meaningful connection to the world of work and production, many young people today develop identities through consumption and leisure activities alone. You are less what you do and make than what you buy and have: what music you listen to, what clothes you wear, what games you play, where you hang out and so forth. These are stunted, disempowering identities for the most part and tend to prolong adolescence in unhelpful ways. They contribute to some very stupid decisions and self-defeating attitudes. Young people often spend a quarter century primarily as critics of a life they know very little about: as consumers they feel powerful and secure, but production frightens and confuses them.

I’m familiar with those “stunted, disempowering identities” because I had one for along time. Most teenagers don’t spend their adolescence becoming expert hackers, like Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates, and they don’t spend their time becoming experts musicians, like innumerable musicians. They spend their adolescences alienated.

I’m quoting so many long passages from Mead because they’re essential, not incidental, to understanding what’s going on. The result of an “absence of any meaningful connection to the world of work and production” is Lord of the Flies meets teen drama TV and movies. Paul Graham gets this; in one of my favorite passages from “Why Nerds Are Unpopular,” he writes:

Teenage kids used to have a more active role in society. In pre-industrial times, they were all apprentices of one sort or another, whether in shops or on farms or even on warships. They weren’t left to create their own societies. They were junior members of adult societies.

Teenagers seem to have respected adults more then, because the adults were the visible experts in the skills they were trying to learn. Now most kids have little idea what their parents do in their distant offices, and see no connection (indeed, there is precious little) between schoolwork and the work they’ll do as adults.

And if teenagers respected adults more, adults also had more use for teenagers. After a couple years’ training, an apprentice could be a real help. Even the newest apprentice could be made to carry messages or sweep the workshop.

Now adults have no immediate use for teenagers. They would be in the way in an office. So they drop them off at school on their way to work, much as they might drop the dog off at a kennel if they were going away for the weekend.

What happened? We’re up against a hard one here. The cause of this problem is the same as the cause of so many present ills: specialization. As jobs become more specialized, we have to train longer for them. Kids in pre-industrial times started working at about 14 at the latest; kids on farms, where most people lived, began far earlier. Now kids who go to college don’t start working full-time till 21 or 22. With some degrees, like MDs and PhDs, you may not finish your training till 30.

But “school” is so often bad that 30% of teenagers drop out—against their own economic self-interest. Only about a third of people in their twenties have graduated from college. What gives? Part of it must be information asymmetry: teenagers don’t realize how important school is. But the other part of the problem is what Graham describes: how dull school seems, and how disconnected it is from what most people eventually do. And that disconnection is real.

So, instead of finding connections to skills and making things, teenagers pick up status cues from music and other forms of professionally-produced entertainment. Last year, I was on a train from Boston to New York and sat near a pair of 15-year-olds. We talked a bit, and one almost immediately asked me what kind of music I liked. The question struck me because it had been so long since I’d been asked it so early in a conversation with a stranger. In high school and early college, I was asked it all the time: high school-aged people sort themselves into tribes and evaluate others based on music. In college, the first question is, “What’s your major?”, and in the real world it’s, “What do you do?” The way people ask those early questions reveals a lot about the assumptions underlying the person doing the asking.

Now: I like music as much as the next guy, but after high school I stopped using it to sort people. Why should high school students identify themselves primarily based on music, as opposed to some other metric? It’s probably because they have nothing better to signal who they are than music. It would make sense to discuss music if you are a musician or a genuine music aficionado, but I wasn’t one and most of the people I knew weren’t either. Yet the “What’s your favorite music?” question always arose. Now, among adults, it’s more often “What do you do?”, which seems to me an improvement, especially given its proximity to the questions, “What can you do?” and “What do you know?”

But that’s not a very important question for most high school students. They aren’t doing anything hard enough that errors matter. And in some ways, mistakes don’t matter much in most modern walks of life: they don’t cause people to die, or to really live, or do things differently. So finding a niche where mistakes do matter—as they do when you run your own business, or in certain parts of the military, or in some parts of medicine, or as an individual artist accountable to fans—can lead to a fuller, more intensely lived life. But that requires getting off the standard path. Few of us have the energy to bother. Instead, we feel underutilized, with the best parts of ourselves rusting from disuse–or perhaps gone altogether, because we never tried to develop the best parts of ourselves. That might explain, almost as much as my desire to tell stories, why I spend so much time writing fiction that, as of this writing, has mostly been fodder for agents and friends, and why I persist in the face of indifference.

Individuals have to learn to want something more than idle consumption. They have to want to become artists, or hackers, or to change the world, or to make things, all of which are facets of the same central application of human creativity (to me, the art / science divide is bullshit for similar reasons). For much of the 20th Century, we haven’t found “something” in work:

Since work itself was so unrewarding for so many, satisfaction came from getting paid and being able to enjoy your free time in the car or the boat that you bought with your pay. It was a better deal than most people have gotten through history, but the loss of autonomy and engagement in work was a cost, and over time it took a greater and greater toll.

A friend once told me about why he left a high-paying government engineering job for the hazards and debts of law school: at his engineering job, everyone aspired to a boat or a bigger TV. Conversations revolved around what people had bought or were planning to buy. No one thought about ideas, or anything beyond consumption. So he quit to find a place where people did. I mean, who cares that you buy a boat? Maybe it makes getting laid marginally easier, at least for guys, but that time, money, and energy would probably be better spent going out and meeting people, rather than acquiring material objects.

I’ve seen people who have virtually no money be extraordinarily happy and extraordinarily successful with the sex of their choice, and people in the exact opposite condition. The people with no money and lots of sex tend to get that way because of their personalities and their ability to be vibrant (again: see Miller’s book Spent). Even if you’re bad at being vibrant, you can learn to be better: The Game is, at bottom, about how to be vibrant for straight men, and the many women’s magazines (like Cosmo) are, at bottom, about how to be vibrant for women. Neither, unfortunately, really teaches one to be tolerant of other people’s faults, which might be the most important thing in the game of sex, but perhaps that comes through in other venues.

I don’t wish to deify Mead or his argument; when he says, “There was none of the healthy interaction with nature that a farmer has,” I think he’s missing how exhausting farming was, how close farmers were to starvation for much of agricultural history, and how nasty nature is when you’re not protected from it by modern amenities (we only started to admire nature in the late eighteenth century, when it stopped being so dangerous to city dwellers.) It’s easy to romanticize farming when we don’t have to do it. Likewise, Mead says:

A consumption-centered society is ultimately a hollow society. It makes people rich in stuff but poor in soul. In its worst aspects, consumer society is a society of bored couch potatoes seeking artificial stimulus and excitement.

But I have no idea what he means by “poor in soul.” Are Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates “poor in soul?” Is Stephen King? Tucker Max? I would guess not, even though all four are “rich in stuff.” We’ve also been “A consumption-centered society” for much of the 20th century, if not earlier, and, all other things being equal, I’d rather have the right stuff than no stuff, even if the mindless acquisition of stuff is a growing hazard. The solution might be the mindful acquisition of stuff, but even that is hard and takes a certain amount of discipline, especially given how good advertisers are at selling. I would also include “politicians” as being among advertisers these days.

Contemporary politics are (mostly) inane, for the structural reasons Bryan Caplan describes in The Myth of the Rational Voter. So I’m predisposed to like explanations along these lines:

Nobody has a real answer for the restructuring of manufacturing and the loss of jobs to automation and outsourcing. As long as we are stuck with the current structures, nobody can provide the growing levels of medical and educational services we want without bankrupting the country. Neither “liberals” nor “conservatives” can end the generation-long stagnation in the wage level of ordinary American families. Neither can stop the accelerating erosion of the fiscal strength of our governments at all levels without disastrous reductions in the benefits and services on which many Americans depend.

Most people on the right and the left have “answers” about contemporary problems that miss large aspects of those problems or the inherent trade-offs involved. A lot of the debate that does occur is dumb, sometimes militantly and sometimes inadvertently, but dumb nonetheless. As Mead says: “We must come to terms with the fact that the debate we have been having over these issues for past several decades has been unproductive. We’re not in a “tastes great” versus “less filling” situation; we need an entirely new brew.” Yet we’re getting variations on old brews, in which liberals look like conservatives in their defense of 1930s-era policies, and conservatives look like conservatives in their veneration of 19th century-style free-market policies. Only a few commentators, like Tyler Cowen in The Great Stagnation, even try earnestly to identify real problems and discuss those problems in non-partisan terms.

This post started as a pair of links, but it ended in an essay because Mead’s essays are so important in the way they get at an essential aspect of contemporary life. If you’re a writer, you can’t afford to ignore what’s happening on the ground, unless you want to be, at best, irrelevant, and I wonder if one reason nonfiction may be outpacing fiction in the race for importance involves the way nonfiction sidesteps questions of meaning by focusing on real things with real effects, instead of how people can’t or won’t find meaning in a world where most of us succeed, at least on a material level, by following a conventional path.

Naturally, I also think about this in the context of fiction. A while ago, I wrote this to a friend: “Too much fiction is just about dumb people with dumb problems doing dumb things that the application of some minor amount of logic would solve. Bored with life because you’re a vaguely artistic hipster? Get a real job, or learn some science, or be a real artist, or do something meaningful. The world is full of unmet needs and probably always will be. But so many characters wander around protected by their own little bubbles. Get out! The world is a big place.” Mead, I think, would agree.

It’s hard to disentangle the individual, education, acquisition, ideas, society, and politics. I’ve somewhat conflated them in my analysis, above, because one inevitable leads to the other, since talking about how you as a person should respond inevitably leads one to questions about how you were educated, and education as a mass-process inevitably leads one to society, and so forth. But I, as an individual, can’t really change the larger systems in which I’m embedded, though I can do a limited amount to observe how those systems work and how I respond to them (which often entails writing like this and linking to other writers).

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