[This little essay was originally posted February 26, 2010 and then was lost when Network Solutions was attacked by malware and "misplaced" my database. I wanted to get it back in circulation. Apologies to those who have seen it before. Special apologies to those who left comments on the original post. There were some beauties. Thank you, Network Solutions for being entirely uncooperative, unreliable, and unrepentant.]
Picture yourself in the hinterland of British Columbia.
You are many hundreds of miles from Vancouver.
You are in the middle of nowhere on a stretch of road so desolate it feels like something out of an X-Files episode. (Cue the X-Files orchestra for that eerie theme music.)
There’s a mining camp at one end of the road and a mining camp at the other. Most everyone here get an hourly wage. And the wage is generous. (These rough necks are paid like princes. Who would come to this god forsaken place otherwise?) And because there is nothing much to do here, the roughnecks work extra hours, most days and even Sundays. Add "time and a half" and "double time," and it’s not long before these people are worth a bundle.
Periodically, they head for town. For most the destination is Vancouver, many hundreds of miles away. Guys, they are mostly guys, will hitchhike for a while. And they take buses when they must, and eventually they say, "F*ck it, I’m buying a car." And they do. They buy a Buick with all the trimmings. And away they go.
The trouble is, the guys have been drinking since they left camp and by this time they are often blind drunk, and so, well, it’s not uncommon to come off the road and wrap the Buick around a tree.
And here’s the weird part. The guys don’t get the Buick fixed. They just keep going. What they have done to the Buick captures what they do for the remainder of this trip to Vancouver and for the duration of their stay there. Make a hash of things.
The "skid row" in Vancouver is there to greet them. The card sharks, hookers, and bars are seasoned tourist professionals, skilled at various kinds of value transfer. It will take a couple of weeks. But eventually our guys will wake up in a gutter without a dime.
And here’s the other weird part. They will brush themselves off, and go back to the hinterland. Some will do this many times over several decades. Which is way there are so many rusting cars on the roads of the interior of BC.
From an conventional point of view this is deeply irrational behavior. Why endure the privations of life in the bush, and the exertion and the danger of this kind of labor, unless you are going to keep some part of what you earn? Surely, the point of coming here is to earn your way out. Not to spend your way back in. But the hinterland is a prison to which inmates keep returning by choice. In a sensible world, people would come here just long enough to make enough to buy the motel, dry cleaning store, or bowling alley that will release them from wage labor forever. But no, they take their stake and they squander it. These guys seem bent on destroying wealth.
Which brings us to Pirates. I know you were waiting for the Pirate passage. I’m reading a nice little book called And a Bottle of Rum by Wayne Curtis. Here’s a passage.
Which brings us back to British Columbia, and an aboriginal practice called "potlatch" when rival communities would take turns dumping Hudson Bay blankets and other valuables into the Pacific ocean. One of the explanation for this practice is that it is undertaken as a very deliberate act of wealth destruction. ( I don’t know the literature here as well as I should so I am penciling these data in provisionally.)
This destruction of wealth is a wonderful thing. Wealth for miners, pirates, and perhaps aboriginals is charged with potentiality. To keep this wealth is to do its bidding. Once you’ve made a small fortune in a logging camp, some convention says, you must leave the hinterland, pay that motel, and "start a new life." Which these loggers and miners devoutly do not wish to do. Hence those trips to town. These loggers are fighting demon wealth.
Our loggers, miners, pirates (and aboriginals?) are defending their way of life. They are destroying the money that threatens it. They can see the potentiality of all this wealth, they can feel the cultural instructions embedded in it, and they are damned if they will give in it. Better, easier, truer to their life missions, to piss this money away.
Actually, there is nothing irrational about this behavior. It has a job to do and it does well. But there is no economic model that came help us retrieve the rationality of this behavior, I don’t believe. To do this we need to look beyond "rationality" narrowly defined, beyond "interest" and "benefit" as it is usually construed. We need to capture the culture that supplies the meanings that shapes the lives that demands the destruction of wealth the results in all those rusted Buicks. There’s a method to the madness. In fact, it isn’t madness.
Indeed, under carefully scrutiny a lot of economic behavior, even the b to b variation thereof, is not fully rational. But when the economists find things that do not find the paradigm, they insist these are "irrational." Um, but surely there is a grey area in between. That economic actors are not rational doesn’t mean that are irrational. The trouble is that the idea of rationality is so narrowly defined is to leave much of the human experience out of account. It is true that actors are sometimes not rational but they are almost never not interested. They are always driven by an idea, a concept, a preference, an "interest," and almost always this idea, concept, preference or interest comes from culture.
So when Adam Smith excises culture from the proposition in a sense he assumes what he means to prove. And he leaves us with a model that can’t explain new Buicks any more than it can rusted ones. I mean if transportation is the object of the exercise, there’s an awful lot chrome that doesn’t seem germane. And no, we may not put the model on life support by evoking status competition and conspicuous consumption. Nice try, Mr. Veblen but there are so many more cultural meanings besides status at issue in any give Buick that you did not so much rescue the model as cleared the way for a more thorough going assessment of its insufficiency.
I guess this post is my way of saying there is a lot of learn from loggers, miners and pirates. It’s just so very difficult to get them to come in for guest lectures.
- Posted on: Fri, Feb 26 2010 3:23 AM