Wound up by dissatisfaction

19/06/2013 § 3 Comments

American author David Guterson gave a high school graduation address that stirred up emotions, at the time and later on line. Why? Apart from some of the actual content — about which more in a moment — Guterson broke the cardinal rule of graduation addresses. You are supposed to tell the kids that they are bright, shiny things off on a great adventure, special people with special destinies (our Board Chair insists on reciting Oh! The Places You’ll Go to our graduands). Guterson told them they were the same as everyone else, that their existential struggle was the stuff of human thought and literature since forever.

Two ideas from the speech are challenging for economics.

The first challenge is about the individual versus the collective:

Stop thinking about yourself every second of every day, which only produces boredom, dissatisfaction, fear, dread, anxiety, and hopelessness. Put yourself away and begin to find freedom.

Guterson points to the Enlightenment and its emphasis on the individual, and says that this emphasis has been misplaced. Instead, selflessness is the key to happiness.

This is a challenge to economics, which relies on methodological individualism. The behaviours and decisions of individuals form the basis for microeconomics; it is how economists make sense of the world.

There is an easy enough way to link the two ideas, of course. If individuals decide that their preference is to be selfless, then their individual decisions will reflect selflessness, and we can have other-regarding methodological individualism. But if individual preferences get tied up with others’ preferences, it becomes a lot harder to describe and analyse where the system is going.

Also, and perhaps more importantly, it becomes harder to talk about an individual-focused economics if people decide that we should think about ourselves as selfless. Despite the issues and mistakes with economics, it does help explain the social world. If economists are ruled out of the discussion because we have the wrong Enlightenment-derived individualistic focus, then we cease to be relevant. Like I said, it’s a challenge.

Issue number two: anxiety.

While each of us is relentlessly busy chasing after his or her personal hopes and dreams, our very sophisticated modern economy is busily exploiting the psychological and emotional vulnerabilities elicited by this state of affairs. It is an economy that motors along on your dissatisfaction, that steams ahead only if it can convince you that something is missing in your life.

I have an image of a wind-up economy powered by the rubber band of dissatisfaction. We wind ourselves up with anxiety, which then plays out in our actions and purchases. It’s a good question, and one that economists answer by assumption: what is all this running around for? Answer/assumption: because we do it, we must like to do it, so it produces satisfaction.

But, of course, that’s not really our personal experience, is it? Guterson said it one way: you are supposed to be unhappy in ways that service the economy. I think it was Joan Robinson who said it a different way: price is an index of desire, not satisfaction. We want something, so we are willing to pay for it, but that price doesn’t necessarily represent the satisfaction or happiness that the consumption produces. A third way is Freudian: Jacques Lacan developed a theory that the satisfaction of desire is, in fact, impossible; desire structures people’s thinking and emotions, their being.

Of course, this is incredibly dangerous territory. If prices don’t index satisfaction and consumption doesn’t produce happiness, then absolutely any intervention by well-meaning people is justified as ‘producing true happiness’. By turning our back on individualism — on the belief that people know what’s best for them — we are potentially turning toward the worst collective abuses.

Guterson’s speech is challenging. Read as a plea for greater self-awareness, it provides some nice advice for young adults not to get too wrapped up in the world, not too different from Ecclesiastes 1:2. Read another way, though, I’m a bit worried where he would take us.

Update: If you needed any proof that unhappiness/dissatisfaction/anxiety is fodder for marketing, look no further than the recent fashion spread from Vice: suicide as artful backdrop for clothes.

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§ 3 Responses to Wound up by dissatisfaction

  • Owen says:

    Having recently read Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow I would tend to agree with Guterson. However, when it comes to paternalistic policies those same biases and heuristics apply to those designing the policies, and they are another step removed from the information required to reach an informed decision. Therefore, its hard to see how well-meaning policy makers could realistically improve on the decision making. I do think that modern mainstream economics has done itself a disservice by focusing on abstract mathematical models that try to be free of value judgements, instead of grappling with the realities of actual human behavior and relevant aspects of moral philosophy.

  • Owen says:

    I have been reading alot of this blog too, which has been rather enlightening over the misuse of the invisible hand metaphor among other things: http://adamsmithslostlegacy.blogspot.co.nz/2013/06/a-most-welcome-post-on-truth-about.html

  • You make an important point — heuristics and biases apply to the people making the policies as well. But Slovic has shown that experts are pretty poor at estimating their own biases and ignorance, and then there’s always the Dunning–Kruger effect. That all leaves me concerned. Sure, individuals may not always do what’s best for them, but what is the alternative?

    Good to see Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments being referenced. I haven’t read it, unfortunately, but had a colleague who was very interested in how Wealth of Nations was derived from it.

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