You’ll count heap big coup with your tent-city neighbors when they see you packin’ pelts and poles instead of tarps and old hoardings. Whatever the campsite equivalent of curb appeal is, you’ll have it with your very own teepee.
The density of social relations necessarily complicates economic transactions, but the results from this are not necessarily positive or negative, just difficult to predict or extrapolate from. In some cases, social relations become social capital — the golf games among the power elite; the inside information passed at lunches. In some case they engender sweetheart deals between contractors. They preempt excessive lawyering. In other cases they constitute an insulating web protecting a community from outsiders. Social relations prompt mimetic purchasing, determine the relative value of positional goods and the degree of conspicuous consumption, the general usefulness of consumerism in signaling. (If no one sees you in your American Apparel, was it worth putting it on?) Social relations likely amplify the biases identified by behavioral economics. All these contingencies play into how goods are priced, contracts are drawn up, and arrangements are settled — rendering supply-demand-equilibrium models much less useful in explaining actual economic behavior.
The suppliers in markets for health insurance and mortgages (and so on) have reason to keep their products complex and their customers ignorant, and will continue to produce more complexity and call it innovation, moving the goal posts as consumers struggle to educate themselves. That in turn gives us consumers incentive to hop off the learning treadmill and either hire an expert, opt out and subsist as a second-class citizen, or resign ourselves to be taken advantage of by a variety of fat cats.
For the shock troops who have been drafted into doing the teaching at nonelite universities — the graduate students and adjunct professors — there may be troubled times ahead, as the demand for their labor is consolidated in various online-education sites. If community-college students are to become clients, and college can be supplanted with watching videos of old lectures and exchanging emails with a generic instructor out in the cloud of computer servers, then fewer adjuncts will be necessary (and those university departments that have traditionally taken in large number of grad students to teach undesirable undergrad courses will shrink — and perhaps as fewer are accepted into literature programs in graduate English departments, the topics of dissertations will become less ludicrous). Adjuncts could find themselves in the same situation as reporters, as local colleges go the way of local newspapers — to extinction.
The latter particularly — knowledge work — would seem to throw a spanner in the distinction Nussbaum wishes to draw between pursuing knowledge for a job and pursuing it for more edifying, spiritual reasons. In an era like ours, in which work and play become increasing entangled (and not necessarily for commendable reasons), it’s hard to see how knowledge pursued for a career’s sake isn’t also knowledge pursued for one’s own good. Americans are famously beholden to the idea of self-actualization through work. That’s why they work harder, work longer and take less time off than their counterparts in other advanced nations. This mentality, though it might to some extent be rooted in Americans’ national character, hasn’t exactly been discouraged — and, indeed, had even been helped along — by corporations. So naturally thought about the whole of one’s life will at the same time be thought about one’s career; the two are in many cases indistinguishable, because, according to the master narratives of primetime one-hour dramas, advertising, and corporate in-services, reaching career benchmarks and reaping the fruits thereof, they tell us, are expressive of a life, in a very real yet vulgarized Nietzschean sense.
Neoliberal political economy is nothing less that a coming-of-age story, complete with the requisite struggle against parental authority. To the state is born a little bundle of joy, the market, which the state does everything to nurture and protect. After a period of toddling and awkward youth, the market develops into a brilliant, multi-faceted creature. At this point, the state, incapable of appreciating the free-market’s many deep and subtle complexities, becomes more of a hindrance than a help, overweening in its abiding impulse to interfere in its child’s affairs — for the child’s own good, naturally. Against this parental impulse the market asserts its freedom, and eventually wins it. The novel practically writes itself.
Maybe the answer lies in a vibrant, robust ancillary economy devoted to aesthetic and cultural development. We can beautify, and beautify more, while keeping people busy in the bargain. This way they can give the lie to snooty ol’ Keynes’ presumption of their having no special talent. It will, of course, require great many more stimulus dollars than have heretofore been disbursed, but I, for one, would rather see fortunes go to starving artists and out-at-the-sleeves scholars than to fat cats.
Who are the people of Walmart, really? Are they truly deluded sorts who invite our sneers by jealously clinging to the trappings of their hair-metal glory days against the better advice of the fashion industry? Yes, many of them are gun-toting hicks and dentally challenged methheads, but they’re also the victims of a system of economic relations that forsakes broadly shared prosperity for the blasé depredations of crony finance. They’re overweight, undereducated untouchables, a contingent so abject and so abandoned to their low, catchpenny existences that they’ve even forfeited the right not to have their pictures snapped by snot-nosed postcollegiate pricks. Indeed, this accursed share of humanity is one of the few things still made in America.
Within the context of democracy, our indifference can be made to seem like dignified political participation, while those inflamed with the passion to address problems are seen as dangerous maniacs who want to “punish” us with change. Usually, in consumer capitalist society, change is only perceived as nonthreatening and natural if it is belched up by the market under the guise of healthy competition, as something new and improved to beat existing options. The only permissible revolutions are commercial ones.
The perception that higher education has become an increasingly elaborate and costly hustle is perhaps to be expected in era when no one’s ever quite sure if her pension is perched on a Ponzi scheme that’s ready to blow. In an economy in which few actual things are made, and in which more experiences, services and social relations are monetized, value calculations begin to admit more variables, and people become more suspicious.