Editor's Choice

Irrationality and shopping "addiction"

As the scare quotes in the title of the post indicates, I'm skeptical of the notion and prevalence of "compulsive shopping," an affliction detailed in this WSJ story in light of such sufferers' unusual vulnerability within our current economic climate. The notion of a shopping addiction seems another manifestation of how we tend to pathologize and medicalize phenomena that may have a cultural explanation -- that way we make these conditions seem natural if unfortunate rather than products of a culture we can and should change. But I guess that makes me a heartless scourage to the 8.9 percent of Americans who are allegedly afflicted. The WSJ article is full of poignant (if not risible) anecdotes about compulsive shoppers who feel compelled to collect shoes amd can't resist the promise of a sale:

Saks Fifth Avenue this season offered 12 months of no interest and no payments for people who spend $2,000 or more in a single day, a deal that Mr. Shulman says is like a "crack dealer saying, 'Come here, try a sample.' "
Such stories are good for rationalizing our own compulsive shopping behavior -- whatever foolish and unnecessary purchases I've made lately pale in comparison to these, and as pleasant as it can be to score a bargain, I don't find myself jonesing for that pleasure. So I have nothing to worry about! And at the same time we experience the vicarious thrill of letting no obstacle stand in our way of our getting whatever stuff we want.

Anyway, this interview with psychologist Peter Ubel from Scientific American's Mind Matters blog offer a more sober and less sensationalistic look at the relationship between mind and retail, tracing the various ways the classical economists' presumption of rationality fails to reflect the ways people actually behave. Rather than pathologize shopping addiction, Ubel frames compulsion in terms of precommitment -- deciding a measur eof resistance in advance and adhering to it, à la Ulysses vis-à-vis the sirens:

One reason we humans don’t always behave rationally is because we have limited will power. We know that exercise is good for us. We understand that junk food is bad. But we cannot follow through on our rational desires. We plan to run for 30 minutes, but after 10 we get off the treadmill, and convince ourselves we are a bit stiff today. We try to cut down on empty calories, and then grab a handful of M & M’s from a candy bowl, almost unaware of our action. No single M & M caused anyone to have diabetes. No one experienced a heart attack because they were 20 minutes short of their exercise goal. And yet our lives, our waistlines even, are the result of thousands of such decisions and behaviors.

To improve ourselves, we have to act like each M & M matters. Like each decision has important consequences. To do this, it helps to make rules and follow them. Commit yourselves to no candy, no desserts, and you’ll become more mindful of M & M bowls. Run outside, rather than inside on a treadmill, and you’ll be forced to finish your running loop. Tell a friend you’ll walk with them for 30 minutes this afternoon, and you’ll be forced to show up.

Want to save more money? Have some money automatically deposited into a savings account that you cannot access easily through ATMs, debit cards or checkbooks. Sometimes the best way to behave better when you are weak is to impose martial law upon yourself when you feel strong.

This passage gets at an irony, a contradiction, in consumerism. Consumerism proliferates on the basis of the ideology of choice; we believe that thanks to consumerism, we get to make meaningful choices in the marketplace all the time and these extend and enrich our identity. But in fact, these choices tend to become reflexive, unconsidered -- we fail to recognize their important consequences, or at least misconstrue them. The more retail decisions we make, the less important any one of them seems to our lives generally. We feel the meaning slipping away from us, our identities diminishing. One response is to force ourselves to make more choices in search of that diminishing meaning at the very moment we need to be taking decisions out of our own hands, or better, locating meaning in some other aspect of our lives. So consumerism basically prompts us to value choice more while making our choices in practice less meaningful and significant. So suddenly we are left wondering why our choice of blueberry over boysenberry jam hasn't had a lasting impact on our existential weltanschauung.

Cover down, pray through: Bob Dylan's underrated, misunderstood "gospel years" are meticulously examined in this welcome new installment of his Bootleg series.

"How long can I listen to the lies of prejudice?
How long can I stay drunk on fear out in the wilderness?"
-- Bob Dylan, "When He Returns," 1979

Bob Dylan's career has been full of unpredictable left turns that have left fans confused, enthralled, enraged – sometimes all at once. At the 1965 Newport Folk Festival – accompanied by a pickup band featuring Mike Bloomfield and Al Kooper – he performed his first electric set, upsetting his folk base. His 1970 album Self Portrait is full of jazzy crooning and head-scratching covers. In 1978, his self-directed, four-hour film Renaldo and Clara was released, combining concert footage with surreal, often tedious dramatic scenes. Dylan seemed to thrive on testing the patience of his fans.

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Inane Political Discourse, or, Alan Partridge's Parody Politics

Publicity photo of Steve Coogan courtesy of Sky Consumer Comms

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"I evolve, I don't…revolve."
-- Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge began as a gleeful media parody in the early '90s but thanks to Brexit he has evolved into a political one. In print and online, the hopelessly awkward radio DJ from Norwich, England, is used as an emblem for incompetent leadership and code word for inane political discourse.

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The show is called Crazy Ex-Girlfriend largely because it spends time dismantling the structure that finds it easier to write women off as "crazy" than to offer them help or understanding.

In the latest episode of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the CW networks' highly acclaimed musical drama, the shows protagonist, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), is at an all time low. Within the course of five episodes she has been left at the altar, cruelly lashed out at her friends, abandoned a promising new relationship, walked out of her job, had her murky mental health history exposed, slept with her ex boyfriend's ill father, and been forced to retreat to her notoriously prickly mother's (Tovah Feldshuh) uncaring guardianship. It's to the show's credit that none of this feels remotely ridiculous or emotionally manipulative.

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To be a migrant worker in America is to relearn the basic skills of living. Imagine doing that in your 60s and 70s, when you thought you'd be retired.


Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century

Publisher: W. W. Norton
Author: Jessica Bruder
Publication date: 2017-09
Amazon

There's been much hand-wringing over the state of the American economy in recent years. After the 2008 financial crisis upended middle-class families, we now live with regular media reports of recovery and growth -- as well as rising inequality and decreased social mobility. We ponder what kind of future we're creating for our children, while generally failing to consider who has already fallen between the gaps.

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Gallagher's work often suffers unfairly beside famous husband's Raymond Carver. The Man from Kinvara should permanently remedy this.

Many years ago—it had to be 1989—my sister and I attended a poetry reading given by Tess Gallagher at California State University, Northridge's Little Playhouse. We were students, new to California and poetry. My sister had a paperback copy of Raymond Carver's Cathedral, which we'd both read with youthful admiration. We knew vaguely that he'd died, but didn't really understand the full force of his fame or talent until we unwittingly went to see his widow read.

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