On layaways, one-click drunk shopping, and being an idiot

Philosophers are idiots. Evidence for this claim abounds. First off, we’re easily confused. Because of this, we spend much of our days asking for explanations concerning the most elementary truths. Second off, we don’t readily understand topics that everyone else immediately gets, so we’re always asking people to slow down and show us again how they got to where they got. Third off, we can’t seem to remember very much. As a result, we need to be reminded of the meanings of words and then reminded once more after we’ve forgotten them again. Third off, we can’t seem to get a handle on technical terms. Only after having heard them parsed in laymen’s terms might we have a sporting chance of making some sense of them. Fourth off, we can’t manage to get our minds wrapped around complex topics. Whatever is complex, we seem to think, must be made simple before it can be looked at and held in mind–that is to say, before it can be lost again. In conclusion, since the dawn of time, we’ve been idiots.

(Come and knock on my door? I’ve been waiting for you?)

So attractive is this picture of the philosophical life that I can’t help but ask: Would you care to be an idiot with me, if only for a morning? Let’s be idiots together and have a look at a few things the smart people are saying about wealth and buying.

Last night I read the New Yorker column titled “Delayed Gratification,” a column on economics written about once a month by the journalist James Surowiecki. Surowiecki points out that the idea of layaways is making a return, in some cases replacing the idea of buying large items with credit. As I understand it (dimly, very dimly), a person who wants to purchase, say, a washer and drier agrees to pay the store in regular installments until the item is paid for in full. Once it’s paid off, the washer and drier is delivered to his home. Hence delayed gratification: want now, work to secure it, and get it later.

My first thought: I like that! There’s something here about being committed to what you want and about remaining committed to making it your own. My second thought, a deduction: I can imagine that the individual buying something on layaway must have already determined that, among the set of possible items she could purchase, this is the one she thinks is best to work toward the having. Hurray for her.

My third thought: Confusion sets in. The idiot in me can’t make out how this picture of prudent homo economicus differs in any crucial respects from the spendthrift, debt-ridden homo economicus. Both want the same things (i.e., they strive for the same final ends). It’s just that they use different means (techne). The difference is that the first one shows restraint (sophrosyne) whereas the second one chucked his out the door.

My fourth thought: Why are we talking all the time about self-control, self-restraint, etc. etc.? Why aren’t we talking instead about whether our desires are really worth having? Whether these desires are essential? (Do you really need a big screen TV with the plasma thingie?) Whether these items really factor into leading a fulfilling and meaningful life? The idiot in me, the idiot I am remains stumped. If only we inventoried our set of ownmost desires, he thinks, and found that many of them weren’t essential, then wouldn’t the self-control talk be beside the point? Moot. Wouldn’t the need for self-restraint many times go away?

My fifth thought: A note to self: Replace “delayed gratification” with “completeness here and now.” As I say, I’m confused by complexity and don’t get what other people get.

(Assuming you’re still reading…) I opened yesterday’s New York Times to the Business Section (now, there’s common sense all over the place!) and read the front page story, “Online Merchants Home in On Imbibing Consumers.” Wow, what a title! “Imbibing” seems like a fancy pants word for getting drunk  and “home in on” for “attract” or “allure.” So: People who’ve got stuff to sell are trying to attract the kinda drunk people to buy the stuff they’re selling.

What explains the increasing prevalence of drunk buying? Too many Rieslings and lots of Smart Phones. With the Smart Phone (my phone, which was not so smart, went bye-bye, by the by), an individual can buy stuff with one-click shopping. When they’re at home after a long day of work. After the bars close on the weekends. Can buy all kinds of shit right there at their fingertips. So to speak.

Perhaps it’s time to consult the expert. Shall we? Quoting:

“In a shopping context, alcohol would lift people’s moods and make them feel more relaxed,” said Nancy Puccinelli, an associate fellow at the Oxford’s Saïd Business School who studies consumer behavior. “If we see a product and we feel good, we will evaluate the product more positively.”

I’m not quite with it, but I vaguely get the sense that the expert above has said something sorta commonsensical and also sorta obvious. (The expert is training to be an idiot, though she doesn’t know it yet.)

Call me stupid, but why have we have construed leisure time in terms of consumption? Why would we want to live in a world in which we spend our free time drinking wine next to our laptops, then buying crap on our laptops or Smart Phones, then regretting some of these purchases once we’ve sobered up? (No, the answer is not self-control. See above.)

I don’t see how the “delayed gratification” story is all that different from the “buy now Zinfandel” story.

In conclusion: One of my goals in life is to keep being an idiot. This shouldn’t be that difficult.

5 thoughts on “On layaways, one-click drunk shopping, and being an idiot

  1. I like this a lot, Nancy. A budget is another name for a story of our lives together. A *good* budget says or implies all of the following:

    1.) what we care most about. (We care about food. Good. We care about walking along the water, so we’ll have to pay rent in this area in order to make that possible.)

    2.) what is just, i.e., how we ascribe relative weights to our cares. OK, so we value X and Y but how much for X, how much to Y. X more than Y? And, ultimately, have we got A, B,…, Y, Z all in harmony?

    3.) what virtues we embody in the process of budget making. Do I care about trivial things? That’s not good. Are you being nit picky? That’s not good, either. Or are we caring for each other, during our deliberations, even as we acknowledge *what* we care for together (1. above), even as we harmonize ourselves together (2. above), and all the while imagining what life we’d like to nurture and further together?

    My 2 cents.

    1. Of course.

      My philosophical/sociological main premise is that ‘ideas’ and ‘figures’ are at home in certain local dwellings during certain moments in history but not ‘at home’ or ‘native’ to our settings. (Let me try to be even vaguer now…)

      Take the ‘Bohemian artist.’ This figure emerges in Greenwich Village before WWII during a period in NYC when 1) coffee culture was alive and well, 2) rents in the Village were quite low, 3) literary magazines were able to pay their freelance writers reasonably well because generally educated readers were subscribing, en masse, to the NYer, to Life, and to other magazines, and 4) the ‘Bohemian’ was able to surround himself or herself with fellow artists and co-creators. For a time, the funding model was in harmony with the way of life. Which is not to say that things were perfect, only to say that there was a way of keeping their feet on the ground and going along in the right direct nicely. In a word, the model worked, worked tolerably well.

      Well, what happened? Social reality changed. Since then conditions 1-4 changed but, sadly, the concept or ideal of the Bohemian life has not. So, many artists hold onto the conception but not the reality. Hence, a lack of wholeness, a lack of integration within and without. So, you see lots of people talking about ‘being writers’ today, living in Bushwick (low rent), but without the thriving lit mags (funding model), without the community, without a certain ‘intellectual infrastructure,’ etc. etc. It’s a conceptual problem that few have REALLY thought through but many have lived through. Still live through and live out.

      OK, that was only one case. Other ideas or conceptions I’ve discussed elsewhere: e.g., the end of the career, our concept of success, our outdated understanding of work/life balance. These concepts were once ‘native’ to certain social soil, but they’re not anymore, and many are still suffering as a result.

      Now the figures of the Interns and the Volunteer. Roughly, I’d say that they make sense in ‘local settings’ but not as a ‘global’ solution to the lack of funding problem. I guess that’s pretty obvious.

      Well, we have to see the Intern as actually being the sad ‘byproduct’ of a hollowed out neoliberal plus not-for-profit world. Thin organizations. Lean. Not much funding. The Intern is parasitic on the failing academic institution (not uncommonly, she–and she’s often a she–gets credit for interning, on an organization to which she is not quite a part, to which she does not really belong, and from which she may not necessarily get much valuable work experience or viable recommendations (at least there’s no guarantee here); and on her parents who are funding her interning, say, at the art museum; on the non-profit’s lack of funding which is ‘showing up’ in the competitive hiring of interns who are doing work for free; etc. It’s as though the Intern were the modern version of the once workable, at home medieval Apprentice.

      In some respects, the same goes for the Volunteer. Native to local dwellings, not to long-termism. Her native soil is *short-term-ism* or help-as-I-can-ism or pitch-in-ism because I believe in my community. Not long-termism. I know lots of people who are long-term Volunteers at non-profits. Trouble is, they’re dependent, financially, on their wives, partners, parents, etc. So the Volunteer of the long-term sort can’t help but be self-divided (lack of wholeness). Believes in the cause but can’t integrate the non-profit’s mission/ideals with its inner reality. Torn. Out of joint. Not at home. Etc.

      If Interns & Volunteers remained local figures helping for a time and going for a time and if we were willing, in more cases than at present, to pay them to put food on the table and to pay for getting to work (etc.), then I wouldn’t hold back my wholehearted hear! hear! But, I suppose, were this to be the case then we might stop calling them–thankfully–Interns and Volunteers but co-workers, members, friends, helpers, companions….

  2. 3 thoughts by way of reply.

    One, the claim could be read ironically. (Socrates as ironist).

    Two, the claim could be taken at face value. (Socrates as a kind of idiot). In the etymology you point to, the idiot is commonly identified with the uneducated, ignorant person; the layman; the non-professional; the pleb; etc. Strictly speaking, a philosopher is none of these. Roughly speaking, though, the philosopher is kinda ‘idiotic’ in that he keeps asking questions that other, professionally educated people take for granted. There is something ‘idiotic’ and quite amusing about asking, “I got everything you said when you were talking just now, but I don’t have a clue what you mean by ‘for'”?

    Three, before the modern age and the professionalization of philosophy, philosophers kept company with fools, ignoramuses, buffos, itinerants, children, and jokesters. All tried to see things differently, turning and turning about.

    That said, I’m happy being a moron, though, and I don’t need reminding of that! Exhibit A: My life. Exhibit B: See also: my life.

    Blessed New Year to you and your wife, Antonio!

  3. After I wrote my reply to your initial “what’s the deal with 2 figures” question, I realized that I’d done some sloppy reasoning right at the point when I’d begun to say a few things about volunteers. My 1st thought was to go back to the post, do some editing, unsloppify the muck–in a word, to make *immediate* amends. My second thought, “Let the uncharitable post stay where it is. Show people your errors. And then do it right if you get a chance to write a 2nd reply.”

    I read your reply as a further urging to make amends. So thanks!

    Right. So, the sloppiness is a result of my failure to distinguish between kinds of volunteers. A term of art: “sustainable volunteering” and “unsustainable volunteering.” You rightly point out cases of the former, and I was thinking, in my previous reply, of cases of the latter.

    A good case of sustainable volunteering: a woman regularly chipping in at the church to which she belongs. She loves the place, the people, etc. She believes in caritas, in openhearted giving to what is good, to ensure that this good can remain good. She doesn’t want to to be a free rider.

    A clear case of unsustainable volunteering: a man in his mid-20s to mid-30s works *full-time* for a non-profit that can’t, as yet, pay its full-time staff. Provided that the funding comes through, things may change. A quasi-promise made by the organization. I talk with a lot of young people who fall into “unsustainable volunteering” category. This figure is not in its ‘native soil.’


    On the distinction between interning (bad) and apprenticing (good), see Ross Perlin’s short LQ piece, “Of Apprentices & Interns”: http://www.laphamsquarterly.org/roundtable/roundtable/of-apprentices-and-interns.php

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