Monday, May 5, 2014

The Unbounded Obligation to Shop, The Deadly Virtue of Uncalled-For-Thrift, and My Price-Comparison Doppelganger


I was making dinner last Saturday and I went to cut up a red pepper and I couldn't get the price sticker off. I scraped and scraped as I ran the thing under hot water, and bits of red pepper and bits of paper got under my fingernail, and I got really irritated, and I got to thinking of all the other times I've been driven crazy by not being able to get sticker residue off a thing or not being able to open a package or whatever. Patricia struggles with modern packaging.

Thinking about packaging and its discontents got me thinking about what the purported solutions to such problems are supposed to be. There's a certain kind of thinking that would tell you that these are the kinds of problems that have market solutions. Markets self-correct: if you don't like some aspect of some product you can find a similar product with a different product and voilà! Like a magic show or a montage in a movie, next week I'd be standing in front of the same sink in the same kitchen with the same glass of cabernet and the same expression on my face but I'd be washing a red pepper with an improved sticker.

Thinking about this movie-land capitalist solution got me thinking about what would be required for this to happen in real life, and I started picturing a world in which each little grocery store like the one on my corner carried otherwise identical red peppers but they each had different stickers -- a situation that would allow me to express my consumer preferences for sticker types. I pictured what I would have go to through to find out the red peppers were all the same except for sticker types, and to find out that the stickers themselves varied, and how I would have to go to every store and sample all the red peppers to see which sticker I liked best. This is a task anyone could certainly carry out -- assuming they didn't have a job to go to, a family to take care of, or healthy meals to prepare, and assuming they didn't want to do anything else with their lives beyond exercising consumer choice, like read books, play the piano, hang out with friends, or think about things.

Thinking about my doppelganger in this other world running around shopping and comparing options reminded me of this post on Naked Capitalism, originally by Corey Robin, talking about how "how much time and energy our capitalist world requires us to waste" reading up on things, keeping track of multiple accounts, looking for opportunities and comparing options -- a burden that, because they don't have accountants and personal assistants to do it for them, falls way more heavily on poorer people.

Thinking about the burdens of participating in extreme capitalism reminded me of the time we were renewing our mortgage (it's a Canada thing; don't worry about it) and we had a mortgage broker, who is someone paid to help you find the best deal for your needs, but who makes money from the bank, so the customer doesn't have to pay. You can imagine someone's glee at this concept: they have to help you find a good rate, so competition will be enforced! In fact the broker was fixated on the irrationality of preferring a fixed rate mortgage to a variable rate mortgage -- a preference I formed knowing it might cost me more dollars overall but preferring to have the peace of mind and predictability of a fixed rate so I could pay attention to other things, like reading books and talking to people and not thinking about my bank account.

Thinking about this choice I'd made to possibly not pay as little as possible reminded me of this paper I encountered last year on "Reclaiming Virtue Ethics for Economics" and how it included an argument about the importance -- the moral value, even -- of competitive shopping. The paper cites Mill associating the willingness to pay more with "indolence," and in its own formulation, say that "the the inclination to shop around, to compare prices, and to experiment with new products and new suppliers must be a virtue for consumers."

Thinking about the idea of virtue ethics for economics reminded me of another part of that paper, where they talk about the importance of having respect for the taste's of one's trading partners, and how that means partly "don't do this really dumb thing this guy did once where he referred to his own product as crap" but which also seems to mean that trying to give to people things they themselves want -- the authors say it's important to respect the preferences of the customer. And I thought again of the question I'd had at the time I first read the paper, which had to do with advertising, because in the version of capitalism we actually live in you'd be forgiven for thinking the businessperson's main goal is inducing in the customer a desire for something they didn't think they wanted, so that you could sell it to them. Were the authors committing themselves to the idea that advertising was immoral?

Thinking about the virtuous shopper whose boundless energy would propel her from store to store to find the most value for the best price reminded me of this Roz Chast cartoon I have on  my office door of the "Seven Deadly Virtues" with the one panel about "Uncalled-for-thrift" where the woman is saying "Dented Cans of Peas, only thirty-nine cents!" and I thought about how passionate I am about avoiding uncalled-for-thrift, how it's been such a big part of my life, about how even when I was a waitress and made no money, I preferred to wear the same clothes all the time and take the bus and be a little wasteful to scrimping and saving and comparison shopping and buying dented peas so I could afford some bourgeois thing like a bed frame or whatever.

As I finished chopping the red pepper I looked up over the kitchen counter, thinking about the deadly virtue of uncalled-for-thrift, and my friend said, "What's wrong? You have such a serious expression on your face," and I said, "Oh, I was just thinking about some things."

1 comment:

Daniel said...

Thanks for the link to that excellent paper by Bruni and Sugden!