Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On "Spent" by Geoffrey Miller ***

When I initially finished this book, I thought it had turned out different from what I had thought it would be, but in thinking on it some more, I realized I didn't really know what I thought it would be. The work of an evolutionary psychologist, Miller attempts to try to explain common thinking in our consumerist society on evolutionary terms. On the face of it, this is not a work I could find much use in, its basic premise being one that doesn't fit with my worldview. Not being a secular evolutionist, I don't see man's consumerist traits developing from a prehuman state. But on the level of consumerism evolving out of our own human culture, I can certainly follow many of Miller's arguments and can agree with some of his ideas.

Central to Miller's argument is that we spend conspicuously to "signal" to others that we are appropriate material for mating. Miller says his book won't discuss purchasing purely for personal pleasure, as it is outside the focus of his study--but this proves also to be something of a drawback, since ignoring such spending naturally creates a certain bias in any conclusions that are reached. Nevertheless, with regard to signaling, psychological studies, as Miller notes, show that men tend to spend more conspicuously when trying to impress a woman; women, by contrast, tend to give more when trying to impress a man (so much for the stereotype of women being bigger shoppers).

Our spending, in turn, demonstrates what kind of person we are. The middle portion of the book focuses on how spending dovetails into intelligence and five basic personality traits, which Miller essentially sets out as openness, conscientiousness, agreeableness, stability (i.e., less prone to worry), and extraversion. How we spend demonstrates how agreeable we are, how stable, how open, and so on. Compatible suitors notice this and take appropriate action.

My own test showcased me as being +3 open, 2 conscientious, 0 agreeable, 0 stable, and -3 for extraversion (on a scale running +4 to -4). And in here is where many of Miller's personal biases (which he is at least open enough to explain in his two chapters of introduction) come to the fore and where for me personality tests and personality typing, while always interesting, fail to render anything terribly useful. As a morally conservative guy, according to Miller's assessment, I should have come out somewhere in the negative zone of "open," but because Miller attaches certain other characteristics to openness, somehow morality and creativity become connected. Likewise, Miller--an avowed secular liberal--makes snide remarks and reaches rather absurd conclusions about persons based on religious beliefs or political stances. Hence, Democrats are supposedly individualistic and open, while Republicans are not. However, that while one might argue that liberals tend to be more individualistic when it comes to certain moral issues, one cannot claim that they are that way overall; after all, it is Republicans who tend to be for "small government," not Democrats. Such would suggest to me just the opposite of what Miller asserts. While painting liberals as pluses in almost every category of personality, and conservatives as negatives in almost every category, Miller ends up stereotyping vast segments of people and actually showcases his own close-mindedness.

Beyond that, there is the issue of self-assessment on what are subjective categories. Take conscientiousness. I think most people would rate me highly there, but I rate only moderately. Is this because that's where I belong or because of a poor assessment on my part (after all, being a perfectionist, I tend to qualify every answer I give)?

Miller jokes throughout the book. His often self-effacing humor is pleasant, but it takes away from one's ability to know just where he is serious and where he is not. Toward the end of the book, he proposes that every person get personality assessments and post them for others so that the need to display such traits through consumerism would be eliminated. But as noted above, would such personality assessments even be reliable? Who's writing these tests and determining what constitutes "agreeable" or "extraverted"? And Miller himself acknowledges, after several pages proposing this ridiculous plan, that evolution itself would probably make such trait display impractical. After all, women often like bad boys and men often like neurotic women even when they know that such suitors aren't good for them. A written assessment isn't going to stop someone from making a bad choice--because in the end, why we enjoy spending time with someone often isn't rational.

Miller than launches into another possibility for reducing consumerism. Somewhere in here, I missed the part where consumerism was necessarily bad. Perhaps, Miller established that in the introduction, but if so I'd forgotten it, after his long discussion of how we are mostly socially and genetically determined through evolution (Miller is a purveyor of fatalistic naturalism if there ever was one--for me, it is downright depressing to think that humans don't have free will; indeed, I would say we mostly do make choices based in the social milieu from which we derive, but I like to think that we can sometimes make choices that constitute real change and not just a fatalistic fall to predetermined character traits). Of course, Miller does raise points for why limiting consumerism would be beneficial to society--at the very end--after his long discussion of how to limit rid of it, but one wonders why he waits till afterward.

The benefits are something that, indeed, society would find useful. Essentially, Miller tries to attach "true" costs of consumerist impulses to products rather than allowing long-term costs to go hidden. In other words, a cheap house that wastes more energy than a more-expensive one would, in Miller's ideal world actually end up costing more--in the short term as well as in the long. In this way, we would be less prone to build heavily polluting cars, to take up cigarette smoking, to eat fast food--because the short-term expenditures would be pegged to their long-term benefits and costs.

Miller's solution to this is a consumption tax. His most-favored tax seems to be one that varies the tax based on the particular product. Hence, a locally grown organic apple might cost thirty cents, while a agricultural-conglomerate-produced kiwi imported from New Zealand (after taking into account all the energy expended to ship it and the insect repellent and man-made fertilizer used to raise it) might cost three dollars. Sounds great. But who's going to assess what is to be taxed more and what is to be taxed less? And how are we going to collect such a tax? Talk about a governmental nightmare. Is Miller serious? You'd have political parties arguing as much as they do over climate change now arguing over the tax to be levied on every single product on the market, and you'd have corporations lobbying to get lower taxes, claiming a lower environmental threshold than might actually be. And sure, computers these days are amazing, and can scan items with barcodes such that every item could have its own unique tax--that works for big corporations. But what of the small farmer or the small store owner who doesn't run the inventory of a computer or whose computer system dates back ten years? In the end, Miller's ideal society comes off reading like that in Bellamy's national socialist utopia in Looking Backward--simply ridiculous.

But that doesn't mean I don't give Miller credit for proposing big and bold ideas. That he certainly has. And in such ideas, there can sometimes be something useful at the core or on the edges. And hey, I'm up for thinking about personality assessment any time, even if I remain skeptical about its actual value.

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