Last time, I tried to show the larger implications of our fondness for Monk. This time, I want to take the argument one step further, this time right into the teeth of economic assumptions. (This is no idle metaphor. I have no illusions about the limits of my knowledge when I tread on the patch of another discipline especially one so productive of illumination as the field of economics.)
The argument so far:
1) popular culture shows a new sympathy for those afflicted with psychiatric symptoms (i.e., Monk),
2) we are inclined to suppose that a range of psychiatric conditions somehow apply to ordinary individuals,
3) this is, I think, a symptom in itself. It seems to me we are now rather frantically casting about for ways to characterize reformations and deformations of the self as these are occasioned by a newly dynamic world,
4) we would do better to start again, cast off the DSM paradigm, and look for a new model that does a better job of capturing how and why the self is changing (and just say “no to the pathologizing),
5) complexity theory offers us one new model for the self. It says that any creature is more adaptive to a dynamic environment when it allows a new complexity, multiplicity, messiness, and changeability. The new symptoms of the self are, in this view, adaptive responses to the world. Indeed, they are the very structural characteristics we would expect the self to assume as it learns to live with a highly various, changeable and unpredictable environment. In order to live in his world, we are taking on the characteristics of the world.
6) one of the characteristics of the human CAS is, I think, the ability to entertain simultaneously a number of “preference registers and the ability to skip back and forth between them. (I used as my example here a friend of mine who has three bosses, one coming, one going and one competing, and she must entertain all of their different points of view, when she is on the job and know when to evoke one and suppress the others, or how to finesse all three.)
I see now that this has some interesting implications for economics. Thanks to Prestopundit, I read a post by Donald Boudreaux. Donald makes the following point about ‘transitive preferences.
Preferences are transitive when the following is true: If John prefers apples to bananas, and if he also prefers bananas to cantaloupe, then John prefers apples to cantaloupe. Despite the hoity-toity jargon, the concept is straightforward. It’s also an assumption that clearly applies to everyone.
Heres the problem. If the newly complex consumer is entertaining multiple registers of taste and preference, it is possible that s/he will prefer, to use Dons example, apples at one moment and cantaloupe the next. Or to use a more concrete example, lets take Brooks interesting book Bobos in paradise. Brooks suggests that baby boomers are cultivating a very particular duality of self definition. Sometimes they see themselves as bourgeois. Sometimes they see themselves as bohemian. In the first instance, one set of preferences applies. In the second, a very different one does. Still more concretely: sometimes we eat out at the most sophisticated and expensive Italian restaurant, sometimes we prefer a humble coffee shop.
This is another way of saying that not only is there a variety of taste and preference across consumers, there is a variety within any given consumer. This variety doesnt only come from the lifestyle hybridization of the kind that Brooks identifies. It can come from the archeological accumulation of preferences that build up in each of us. We have our present tastes and preferences, but because we are moving through an ever more rapid change in these tastes and preferences, it is not unheard of for us to return to recent patterns for a moment. We could call this nostalgia, but this is a term that is now so outdated it has a certain nostalgia of its own. It posits one set of former tastes and preferences that we return to occasionally. The archaeological model says, no, actually we end up slipping back and forth between recent patterns without a passage “down memory lane. We are not so much “going back in time as we are skipping about in our near history. The concrete example: until I hit the cooler at my local grocery store, I am not certain whether I will reach for Becks, a long time favorite, Keiths, a new enthusiasm, or Molsons, a favorite of the middle term.
I dont know what to do with this. And of course I understand that it is, as my father would have said, a “mugs game to point out inconsistencies in the economic paradigm. In point of fact, this paradigm remains so robust as to put the rest of the social sciences to shame. (It never ceases to amaze me when my McGill students, who are anti-economic to a man and a woman, will happily and with no sense of contradiction engage in economic man behavior.)
But I think this might be a “muddle in the muddle as the late University of Chicago anthropologist David Schneider used to say. And if I am right to think that as the world becomes more various, as choice becomes more multiple and as the consumer cultivates or endures more and more taste and preference registers within, we are looking at a problem that will not go away.
Notice that I am not saying that the consumer has ceased to be rational. Merely that he or she has several rationalities going on at any given moment. Somehow we have to take account of the many compartments of taste and preference within the consumer.
Boudreaux, Donald. 2004. Sound Assumptions. Tech Central Station.