I sometimes try to alternate the subject matter of books I read to avoid getting stuck in a particular rut (not that it can’t be enjoyable, I was happy as a child just reading Greek mythology). “Spent” is not only a change in topic, but a radically different voice and one that rubbed me the wrong way. I suppose I’m not the target audience since I’m neither a halfway knowledgeable participant in consumerism nor a detractor of it, but I’m judging him the standards of other scientific popularizers rather than Christian Lander. I’m sure Miller thinks he’s funny, entertaining, witty, engaging and so on and he intends to signal the hell out of that. I find him annoying. The book contains no end-notes or foot-notes, and while he claims to have supporting material on the book’s website there’s no way to know whether a particular claim he’s making will have any support or how one might find a citation. As far as I’ve gotten there are occasional references to studies that have been done, but these are very infrequent. For a psychology professor, he hardly seems more rigorous than Malcolm Gladwell. If confronted with my complaints he would probably pull a Jon-Stewart-two-step and say he’s just having fun, but I’m not having fun and think he’s wasting a lot of my time he could have spent informing me. The following vent is for the purposes of getting gripes off my chest and the reader is likely to find less satisfaction in reading the disjointed nitpicks than I do in writing them. Hence, they are below the fold.

Miller frequently says things to the effect that the only alternatives the average person has (and his detailed representation of an average person worse off than a cavewoman could well be completely unrepresentative in numerous ways, I have no idea and Miller of course provides no data) are suicide or anti-depressant medication. I know there has been a large increase in the prescription of such drugs, but I am confident that the large majority of people neither take such drugs nor commit suicide. In another bit attempting to show how much better cavepeople had it, he imagines selling some characters modern products. Two of his examples pissed me off because he relies on premises that undermine the holistic past vs present comparison. He acknowledges modern combat shotguns as genuinely better than anything available at the time and highly desirable to a hypothetical caveman, but his far-seeing caveman realizes it will just result in an increase in destructive inter-clan fighting (never mind that modern warfare is substantially less lethal even with and possibly because of our technology). The attempt to sell a refrigerator for mammoth meat is shot down because he has arbitrarily declared that France’s nuclear power plants don’t exist here. The modern economy is extremely intertwined, as shown by Leonard Reed’s pencil or the more recent toaster. Modern shotguns come together with police forces and militaries that prevent the constant warfare which is endemic to the primitive life he is hailing (he seems to regard fighting as more enjoyable than modern office work), so a representative American does not get that kind of enjoyment out of a military-grade shotgun while we do enjoy electricity. And due to the interconnections I mentioned, you can’t really pick and choose.

I’ve mentioned earlier how almost everyone (not Sam Dolgoff!) likes to portray themselves as the happy medium between two (or perhaps more) wrong extremes. Miller does something similar here when he contrasts anti-consumerist ideologues with pro-consumerist ones. But I don’t think they’re really symmetrical, since few people really go much into pro-consumerist argumentation outside of Slate/Reason contrarianism. He mentions a number of Austrian economists as pro-consumerists, but most of them arose out of the late 19th century habsburg empire and were not really focused on the modern issue of “consumerism” discussed by post-industrial. Hayek did respond to Galbraith on induced demand by responding that very few of our desires our “innate” and uninfluenced by the broader culture, but even this was more a judgement of industry rather than lifestyle. He has also listed the W.T.O as an opposing ideological group to anti-consumerists, but I doubt most of their economists would regard themselves as such. His pro-consumerists are pro-capitalist (or at least proponents of a particular neo-liberal variant), and Miller makes plain that he is as well. His fandom of certain products makes it uncertain that he even has much qualms with the consumerism he argues is an illusion fostered on us by marketers.

Miller places a big deal on marketers, saying the second (first was Cosmides & Tooby and the gang) big event that changed his intellectual world was when a group of hip spiky-haired marketers arrived at a conference where he and other psychologists were feeling ignored by economists, who focused on revealed-preferences over surveys. Methinks he was taken in by the self-marketing of these marketers, decided he wanted to be one, and proceeded to magnify the importance of his new vocation. What he says about marketing often seemed inconsistent, but I suppose that’s inevitable when you make it anything and everything. He says the world (the planet’s ecosystem even!) is dominated by marketing, and that’s a good thing. I was amazed that he could say something as stupid as his claim that Marxism is rendered irrelevant because marketing research means companies try to please consumers. Marx’ indictment of capitalism is not about how it fails to satisfy (Miller switches between arguing that they discover or create) consumer demand. Rather, the inexorable logic of capitalism leads to declining profit opportunities which force capitalists to squeeze their immiserated proletariat ever tighter until class consciousness develops amid the cycle of spiraling economic downturns created by the system’s internal contradictions*. Miller points out that in the past there was more of a focus on the factors behind supply rather than consumers, and that was true of not only industrialists but Marx and the Austrians. This didn’t change because some revolutionary marketers discovered market research. Rather, it was Adam Smith’s point about the division of labor being limited by the extent of the market. There were a small number of goods pretty much everyone wanted, most beyond that was unaffordable. Thank James Watt, not Bernays.
*I haven’t actually read Marx, but I don’t go writing books claiming that he’s rendered irrelevant by marketing.

Miller veers from praise of marketing (he even tries to fit democracy under its umbrella) to indicting marketers for their ignorance of evolutionary psychology. They’ve been at it for a while and I’d guess they know what they’re doing well enough, even if they do sling silly sounding pop-business books full of stupid buzz-words. If there’s evidence that Miller is a better marketer, he makes no mention of it. He also indicts consumers for buying into the claim that marketers make about the signals sent by their products, specifically because other consumers will not buy the signal the purchaser is attempting to send! That sounded contradictory to me. What is the actual correlation between product displayed and the traits Miller thinks are interesting? Do potential mates care more about your stable genetic traits than your wealth and/or status? I have no idea, since he doesn’t present data but creates amusing stereotypes (whose accuracy he has no interest in supporting). I think it’s an important point whether the signals are actually informative, but Miller must assume his readers don’t care whether he has anything to back up his spiel.

I thought it idiotic that he said it was pointless to send shallow signals through consumption because your important relationships will eventually discover “the real you”. Try showing up to an important job interview dressed as I typically do (now that my job is somewhat more secure): you will never get a chance to show them what a good employee you are. People are not going to invest their time on each potential person, so we all need to buy a suit because not wearing a suit signals that you are very atypical.

Finally, “emo kids” are not analogous to Marxists, anarchists or hippie utopians. Emo began as a musical offshoot of hardcore punk with a focus on subjective experience rather than politics, and has since morphed into a broader teen subculture style or affectation. There are other irritations I may remember or discover as I continue to read, but I felt it appropriate to close with something as insubstantial as Miller treats his book.

Advertisements