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Wednesday, Sep 21, 2005

In the course of making a semi-controversial point in this New Yorker column about gas taxes, James Surowiecki makes a far more radical one: “Of course, in political terms the gas tax’s virtuessimplicity, transparency, immediacyёare vices. Politicians prefer complex systems that allow them to satisfy particular constituencies, reward supporters, and disguise the true costs of things. And, strangely enough, voters implicitly prefer indirect taxes to direct ones.” This seems to imply that the current tax system allows fat cats to shelter most of their money while the average Joe gets stuck with the costs of keeping the state running and performing such functions as pumping trillions of gallons of water out of a major coastal city and making sure old people don’t die for want of medical attention. Another case of the habitus—tax dodges are an upperclass entitlement that doesn’t even resister with them as an ethical quandary. Of course you find whatevre ways you can to minimize your burden. Of course you hire accountants to cook your returns with deductions and dubious business expenses. Of course charity matters only as a write-off.


But why is it, then,  that the wealthy are always pimping ultraregressive flat taxes, which are nothing if not simple? The danger is mistaking simplicity with fairness. That which is simple may seem democratic, in that anyone can understand it, but it is rarely fair. In a society as complex as ours, justice, it seems, will always require elaborate and near arcane systems of adjudication. Just as transparent, simple, readable prose may have the effect of simplifying and stultefying thought, so a simple tax system may have the effect of legitimizing an unfair social structure in the name of ease.


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Tuesday, Sep 20, 2005

At airports, the security check is now a rite of passage so elaborate as to assume metaphoric resonance. After shedding one’s garments, after elaborate preparations, after difficult decisions regarding what must be left behind, after saying goodbye to the loved ones who cannot share the voyage, after much wailing and gnashing of teeth, one crosses over and sails beyond the horizon, passed the point of no return, and emerges reborn on the other side (where, if one is fortunate, one can put on one’s belt before one’s pants have fallen down). This powerful sense that there’s no going back might be one of traveling’s most exquisite thrills, and that feeling is strongest for me when I’m squatting on the tiles, putting my shoes back on, wondering what kind of magazines I’ll look at in the newsstand, wondering how much will be extorted from me for a bagel and coffee. For me, when I finally make it to the hermetic space beyond the X-rays and metal detectors, it seems I’ve already arrived at my true destination, the blissful nowhere, that place where I’m definitively severed from all my ties and cares. I’ve escaped the quotidian of my life, and entered into the quintessential liminal space, where everything is provisional and where no one is truly home (that silly Tom Hanks movie notwithstanding). Because when we travel, the specific place seems to matter, but what we’re really searching for may be that particular state of mind, that disorientation that comes from being separated from your known routines and conveniences and thrown upon your own wits to make do, to be free from the responsibility for choices—what Schwartz goes on about in The Paradox of Choice—and be free to enjoy limits, limits on what you know to do or eat, limits on where you can go. Traveling seems to be a way of going beyond one’s limits, but it’s actually a way of artificially imposing them on yourself, of making yourself ignorant again after all the accumulated knowledge and strategies of everyday life begin to clutter and stifle one’s mind. These strategies—where to find breakfast and lunch, where to park a car, what to read in the newspaper, etc.—are ultimately imprisoning even as they enable us to function; they function by closing out the myriad possibilities that confront us at every turn. The whole point of the quotidian is to prevent things from happening.


Ideally, traveling opens all the possibilities while simultaneously lowering standards, making us tolerant and thus open to new experience. This expansive mood strikes me once I’m reborn beyond the security wall. (I suppose this happens to others as well, and this is what makes them talkative when they sit beside you on the plane or at the little airport bar.) This is why it makes no sense to me when people plan trips meticulously, and try to take the security of their everyday life with them on their journey. You surrender precisely that feeling of security the moment you pass through the security check point—that’s the meaning of that rite, which transforms the meaning of security to something quite different.


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Monday, Sep 19, 2005

Marginal utility (the concept, not this blog) be damned! According to last Thursday’s Wall Street Journal, Gillette has a lot riding on its newest “shaving system” set to debut next year. The groundbreaking innovation? This new razor, the “Fusion,” will have five blades, besting the Schick Quattro by one. Why cut the same beard hair once when you can pretend to cut it five times? Five razors would seem to mean that you’re five times more likely to cut yourself, but apparently Gillette is expecting most men to be going with the “more is inherently better” sort of thinking. The law of diminishing marginal utility suggests we’ll be less interested in paying more for the next unit of something, since it will be that much less useful to us. So an entirely unnecessary fifth blade should have little success in attracting consumers. But never underestimate the power of marketing. Marketing manages to shift things by making the utility of a razor come not in the form of a close shave (that would be pretty unimaginative, like thinking the utility of a car is in its getting you from one place to another when everyone knows its a lifestyle signifier) but in selling an enhanced form of manliness or novelty. And it also phases out its old razors and leaves you with little choice: “Each launch is underwritten with a huge advertising campaign, and Gillette rolls out the new blades at a hefty price premium to its predecessors. The company then gradually raises the prices of its older razors to persuade men to switch to the new model.” So the ploy is right out there in the open. Gillette uses ads to create the illusion of a product improvement, then makes everything else more expensive to dupe men into making the leap to a new product whose only real difference from the one they already used is that it is more expensive. This kind of calls the notion of the autonomous consumer into question as well. Many men will buy the Fusion out of their own “free will” after seeing a barrage of ads during the Super Bowl and the NCAA Final Four and after noticing that it’s not such big leap in price from the Mach 3, especially since you’re getting 2 more blades—a 40% increase in shaving power! Free will is experiential, a pleasant sensation for us to reinforce our sense of ourselves as unique and important, but it has nothing to do with reality, when much of our marketplace behavior, in the aggregate, is anticipated well in advance. Shopping is largely our chance to consume “free will” as a kind of product while fulfilling those “needs” industry has set out for us. Shopping is the magical procedure by which conformity becomes a sublime exercise of our autonomy.


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Monday, Sep 19, 2005

Perhaps it’s time for a moratorium on the tattered teddy bear photo from disaster sites. I can remember seeing several different tattered teddy bears in the photos from New Orleans, culminating in the moldy stuffed animal on the cover of the Sunday New York Times. The image has become a visual cliche, a lazy way of pointing out the harm done to children in their innocence—that is, children fortunate enough to already have begun their life’s work of collecting objects made precious by personal emotional investments. While it seems to be a way of eliciting sympathy for children, it’s more a way of normalizing the child’s (and our own) love for property. It dramatizes and eulogizes the destruction of property whie masquerading as a memorial for shatteered innocence. The image highlights the emotional content that’s presumably been transferred to the stuffed animal, reinforcing the normality of having deep emotional attachments to commodities, while shielding us from the real tragedy of human loss of life. The tattered teddy bear is in some ways a substitute for photos of dead children, a visceral tragedy that we both couldn’t bear to see and wouldn’t be able to take our eyes away from.


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Friday, Sep 16, 2005

We are prone to thinking of convenience as an expansion of our capabilities: We become more efficient at identifying and fulfilling our needs, therefore we fulfill more of them, and therefore we are more happy. By this logic, convenience maximizes a quantity of satisfaction. But actually convenience is a reduction—it alters our wants and needs to only things fulfilled expediently, coarsening our desires and leading us to neglect needs requiring a more complex effort to fulfill. Those complex needs provide much a greater quality of happiness, satisfaction that resists quantification because the effort to pursue them can’t be separated from their reward. Like meaningful work, these activities are their own reward, and they gain nothing in satisfaction by being made more efficient or convenient. Convenience turns qualitative experiences into quantitative ones; that’s its function. It provides consumers with a rationalization for why all experience is becoming commodified.


Quantifying happiness and maximizing convenience go together, complementary strategies for forwarding an ideal of happiness that suits not individuals but corporations,entities that make a profit from efficiency. It is in the interest of corporations that we elide their interest in efficiency with our own interest in happiness. Our personal well-being becomes a product, something we are trying to manufacture like a commodity through the most efficient means possible. We think of our well-being as the sum of desires, all basically ephemeral, fleeting and trivial, rather then as the investigation and development of the intensity of a single will. Better to love someone deeply and inconveniently than to buy a series of consumer goods that ultimately add up to nothing.


As a utility, convenience is parasitic, it claims as its own some of the pleasure originally afforded by what has been now made convenient. The result is that the orginal activity loses that much of its ability to give pleasure, while convenience has become that much more central to one’s existence. In this way the iPod becomes more important than whatever you happen to play on it. Music is diminished by whatever joy you take in its delievery system (the novelty of having so many music choices at your disposal makes all those choices more meaningless, and makes the substance of those choices that much less important). So the speed of life, and its attendent stress, continually increases, all in the name of pleasure.


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