Wednesday, March 19, 2008

ECON 260: Comment Thread for 3/21

Do you think that forms of social consumption (or consumption with limited intrinsic value) are actually "worthless" (i.e., they don't lead to lasting improvements in welfare/happiness)? In particular, do you think these types of consumption play an important (perhaps necessary) role in facilitating and maintaining social relationships (something we know produces lots of happiness/welfare)?

Social consumption does not lead to any unique happiness that could not be achieved by some non social form of consumption. I strongly believe that most social consumption today is the result of advertisements and the exploitation of our "mental environment" in the aims to increase corporate profits. Even "green magazines" are littered with devices that you need in order to become green. This is why corporations will never be the solution to creating a sustainable environment, because they always need to be promoting extravagant levels of social consumption.
I believe that these types of consumption are important to how society functions. With out all the complex ins and outs and ups and downs, we would be stagnant as a society and never see change. These sorts of consumptions have value, just not the sort that we are used to seeing. Without the snob who always want to be different and better, we would never see advances in any field, be it fashion, science, technology and so forth. Without someone who wanted to stand out, changes would never occur. The people who lead others into these are the conspicuous consumers. These are the ones that want to be doing what the snobs are doing, but are a few steps behind. They change what they are doing to what the snobs are doing and in doing so lead the bandwagon with them. This is the engine of social change.
I agree with kiel, I don't think social consumption is necessary for lasting happiness. I also don't agree that without consumerism society would be stagnant. While it certainly does lead to development in some sectors, I don't think promoting a consumer culture is the only impetus of social change.

I think that these types of consumption do play an important role in facilitating social relationships because we have developed into a culture highly concerned with this type of consumption, however I also don't think this necessarily means it has a positive relationship with welfare in the long-term. As Goodstein points out happiness is relative, "Exceeding the consumption norms established by one's peer group, family, and personal expectations appears to be the material route to happiness." This suggests that depending on forms of social consumption for increased happiness can only lead to a rat race society.
I think that social consumption does have great value to many people. Not only is it likely to ease social relationships, but it provides a sense of control of your environment that many find necessary to be satisfied. If you grew up less well off, the ability to purchase exactly what you want, be it the perfect tool for a job or a great sweater, gives you not only aesthetic pleasure, but also the knowledge that you worked, earned, saved, and were able to get just what you wanted, making a decision based on pleasure as well as cost effectiveness, does give a degree of happiness. It will not change your life or even make you as happy as nonmarket goods, but it does provide some happiness and that should not be discounted entirely.
I think that social consumption can and often does lead to lasting improvements in welfare. However, I also think that there may be an alternative path to these lasting improvements that would not necessitate a lot of the negative impacts of social consumption. I agree with Lillie Mae that social consumption with all those snobs and conspicuous consumption often motivates advances for companies to create better products, even if this advancement is just a better sound quality from your radio which you can hardly even notice. Nevertheless, this competiveness does lead to lasting improvements. But what would an alternative path to reaching these improvements be, and are these improvements even that important?
I'd also like to add in that the clothes we wear, things we buy, do end up forming a part of who you show yourself to be and are perceived as, however incorrect or minor a part it may be. The identity/personality of a person is not static, and objects we purposefully surround ourself with are physical representations of abstract ideas. How faithful the communication of an abstract idea varies, as does how much pleasure you gain from social connections, but generally speaking, actions (your clothes, pragmatism of consumption) speak louder than words (I claim to be like so and so).
Bryce has a good point at the start, social relationships are a big part of happiness (whatever that relationship is, whether its having friends or being the coolest person around. So social consumption should have a lot of value for happiness (social consumption- social status- social relationships- hapiness)

BUT, there are lots of kinds of social consumption, and there's a good chance they are substitutable. Instead of a giant hummer or the newest iPod you could also have bone carvings, a big garden, the most eco-friendly hybrid. There's plenty of ways to make "consumption" sustainable (maybe not with corporations, right Kiel?). So social consumption could and should still go on.
All social consumption has limited intrinsic value, because without the society where the consumption occurs, that consumption is worthless. In other words, you can't look better or distinguish yourself from others without the social context in the first place.

At the same time "society" is a very vague term. Where does it end? At this point, we are so widespread and such social beings that we can't really separate ourself from society. In that sense, social consumption does have intrinsic value--there is always a context for social consumption.

Social consumption definitely plays a role in maintaining social relationships--it is the basis from which we form relationships and interact with each other. We use our social capital, and our valuations of others' social capital, every time we interact with someone else.

This isn't to say that we 'need' to consume in the ridiculous over the top ways we see today--clearly we've outdone ourselves many times over with hummers, iphones, etc. But social consumption definitely plays a strong role in social relationships, by simple virtue of the way we make those relationships.
I think that social consumption for fads and whatnot is fairly worthless in that if there are any social benefits, the social problems created are probably larger.
If the "want" of the general public could change from material things to an actual drive to be active in ANYTHING, it seems that society would be better off. Then again, perhaps the material world... that of People magazine and the latest jean fit... could be an opiate of the masses. The government tends to benefit from such things, and other people could, too. So no, I don't think social consumption has any worthwhile benefits and I think it ultiamtely turns people into puppets.
Firstly, I would like to consider the original question: Does "worthless" actually correspond with non-lasting?

I would challenge that hardly any improvements in welfare are everlasting, or static. As we have discussed, perception of one's welfare is largely relative. It has to do with one's perception of themselves in comparison to their past self, as well as their idea of their future self, and others too. So on that note, just because something has limited intrinsic value doesn't make it worthless, it just makes it fluid, temporary.

In this case, consumption of all sorts plays a role in facilitating and maintaining social relationships. Consumption is context dependent, and is not static from one time window to the next. In some cases, a business suit and a hair cut is necessary in achieving positive social welfare (Take that, LC!). Other times, it may not be.

Lastly, I would like to suggest that consumption in itself is valueless. The type of consumption that society deems acceptable may be the biggest obstacle to sustainability. For example, consuming a panoramic vista or twenty minute walk is not negative. Unfortunately, they don't facilitate as many fruitful social relationships as consuming a new car or IPod, as many of my classmates have suggested. I don't think consumption habits will change, and to that effect, I don't think railing against corporations and businesses is positive. Instead, we should encourage ourselves to think creatively about how to meet people's consumption needs while responsible producing goods that don't produce more harm than good.
If we believe that group identity has positive social value (which is suggested by the universal tendancy to organize into groups), then social consumption also has value, as one of its primary functions is to let group identification scale across large numbers of individuals. Instead of needing to interact with others to declare yourself part of their group, you can simply purchase similar or similarly-branded goods, identifying yourself to the world and to the other as someone with similar tastes. The tendancy of corporations to espouse philosophies, ideals, and lifestyles lets consumers of their goods create entire identities based simply on the brand of t-shirt they wear. This may appear to be a flawed system by some, as consumers may choose the convenience of a prepackaged identity over the "authenticity" of one they create themselves, but the success of these corporations indicates that this is a tradeoff people are willing to make.
If social consumption only makes us happier relative to those around us, then it appears that one way to escape the rat race is for each of us to buy a buddy a beer!
I would have to agree with Rachael Lipinski and Lillie Mae that elitism surrounding consumption - or snobbery - could lead to long run increases in societal welfare, spurring advances in science, technology, the arts, education, and more. These advances would open a Pandora's box of societal welfare. However, in society there does have to be some inequalities, where some people do not have max welfare and where these people continual try to keep up with elite examples of what should be achieved, or what is trendy, etc. Like Lillie said, this is what advances society - and I do think it increase welfare on some levels.
After reading the other comments here, I was particularly interested in kiel and jasin’s notes and the thought of making consumption sustainable and corporate responsibility. I am fascinated with the booming hype around green consumption and whether such consumption really is an oxymoron (as individuals may repeatedly throw out old “unsustainable” products to landfills and quickly purchase the new slimmer or eco-friendlier product) or if there are benefits in the sense of opening a door for an individual's attention towards larger environmental issues? Though you can buy Patagonia’s organic cotton pants or the latest eco-this or that, this type of consumption may be related to indulgence, guilt, or an act to be keep up with the latest new green fad. Someone may be made happier from the social attention brought by being part of the green group and buying organic fruit shipped from the other side of the planet. You could go out and buy the newest hybrid car, which may make you happy for personal reasons or social status, but now with critiques surrounding the unsustainable production of these hybrid batteries and cars, I wonder about the true extent of making consumption greener.
I agree with Marissa. However, social consumption can lead to happiness in the long run. I'm basing this purely off of my observation, but moving on, buying the latest trend or being in fashion leads to greater confidence and often a sweeter outlook on life.

The culture of consumption is firmly in place in America and while it does have its downfalls, I think it is beneficial to embrace it while the trend is "going green", I suppose.
Social consumption can increase happiness in the short term and is therefore not actually "worthless." There is however, there is a point where the marginal increase in happiness falls. I believe this point is much lower than many people believe. Social consumption above this level is basically useless. I also believe that this type of consumption plays a role in facilitating and maintaining social relationships. Still, I am not sure how big this role is. The most meaningful connections in social relationships can be made without consuming anything at all.
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