Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The GDP Is Too Damn High

One thing I've been thinking about a bit is the way that institutions fight over the territory of our lives.  I think the best way to explain my thought is by example.

Once upon a time the Church held a near-monopoly on sexual gratification.  For devout Catholics, the only sexual gratification that was permitted was sex within a Church-sanctioned marriage.  The effect of this was that people might be drawn into the Church for reasons that had little or nothing to do with spirituality.  If you lived in a traditional Catholic area, you might give the outward appearance of being a devout Catholic, with the goal of obtaining access to sexual gratification.  The Church exacted a kind of tax on you—an actual tax, in the case of tithing, but also a tax in the form of requiring you to conform your behavior to the dictates of the Church.  To some extent this functioned to promote social welfare, since it acted as a constraint on antisocial behaviors like lying and stealing.  It also provided for some degree of redistribution of wealth.

Today, in the United States, it is the market that plays the role traditionally played by the Church.  Sexual gratification isn't strictly allocated by wealth, but there is a definite correlation.  Certainly if we are speaking of long-term sexual commitments, the rich have continued to obtain them while poor and middle-class communities have by and large learned to do without.

Note the full sweep of this parallel.  Men (and to a lesser degree women) participate in the rituals of capitalism for reasons that have little to do with a desire for the things that the market explicitly provides.  They are like cynical worshipers, except that instead of paying a "tax" in the form of avoiding sin, attending church services, etc., they pay a "tax" by accumulating far more wealth than they otherwise would.  They "go to market" not just to obtain toothpaste and diced tomatoes and movie tickets, but to obtain sex and affection.  They dare not stray from the dictates of the market, for the same reason that a member of a traditional Catholic society would not have dared to question the divinity of Jesus.

You may think that I am exaggerating, but I don't think I am.  Imagine if a scientific study reliably established that peak sexual success is obtained at an income of about $150,000 per year, and that anyone earning over $1 million a year essentially can't get laid no matter what.  Do you think that we would observe men working their asses off for big bonuses?  (We might observe the opposite.  During yearly evaluations, bankers would heap derision on themselves, in the hopes of keeping their bonuses small and thus preserving their ability to get laid.)  Would anyone want to run a hedge fund?  Would anyone even want to play professional football?  And I think the same would be true, to a lesser extent, if sexual success merely leveled off at $150,000 and everyone knew it.

The world I am describing might be a worse world than the one we live in.  There are some positive social effects from the hypertrophied economy we have built.  It could be our insatiable appetites are the only chance that poor societies have to pull themselves out of poverty.  And technological advance may be much faster than it would otherwise be, with all kinds of spillover effects for our quality of life and our knowledge of the world around us.  The market gives and it takes away.  It is possible that income inequality would be worse in a low-GDP world because tax revenues would be so much lower.  (But then, a lot of inequality is probably market-driven in the first place.  This is not an easy question to answer, and probably not an important one to think about.)

Anyway my point is really that the market has accomplished its enviable place atop the pantheon of our institutions without most people really noticing it.  The Church was fairly blatant in its efforts at monopolization, and the state loudly proclaims its primacy within its sphere (protesting too much, I think).  But the market is content to let its assumptions and its prejudices seep into our lives until we don't recognize them as alien from ourselves, and then we grind away at work to feed its parasitic appetite.