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I think there's a lot in this, but it's only half the story.

The missing element is that economic theory is set up to account for positional transactions while hiding environmental and social costs.

This might seem obvious, but it's the reason why costs are hidden that defines what's really happening.

Let's say I buy a new MacBook Pro. I get instant kudos for its shininess, and my status rises - people will assume I am a person of taste and discernment because I'm not running Windows on a crappy old Dell, and this makes give me a sip of social nectar I wouldn't get otherwise. (Especially  if I couldn't even afford the Dell, and had to buy the even more crappy laptop on special offer in the local Woolworths.)

But I pay no penalty for the environmental and social costs involved in producing my shiny new toy.

Is this bad? No - it's good. I get the benefits in return for some token fiat symbol shuffling. Smeone else pays the real costs. And I get twice the positional boost.

Not only is my laptop shiny and refined and modern, yet also elegant and functional and expensive (by implication, just like me) but I've successfully offloaded the physical consequences of my choice to some other location, where I don't even have to think about them, never mind live with them.

So - the real basis of positional calculus isn't status defined by material goods, but status defined by freedom from consequences. The more my positional status increases, the more freedom I have to act like a self-absorbed narcissist.

The goods I own aren't a cause of that - they're the social signal which marks the extent of my irresponsibility.

This is usually called 'freedom' - and it's the Randian freedom to act like a teenager who doesn't want to deal with anything or anyone who says 'No, you can't do that.'

The inevitable result is the kind of monster we can see everywhere now - largely, but not exclusively, on the right. Because if the real social aim is that kind of 'freedom', their behaviour is rewarded, and they can't help but prosper.

Positional economics won't change until explicit, socially signalled irresponsibility stops being a core value.

Unfortunately we don't have any narratives for personal or collective responsibility that have real maturity or nuance. (Middle class guilt doesn't count, I think.)

So to make a change we'll need a new economic system which quantifies consequences, and a new social narrative which turns responsibility into a positional value.

This might sound impossible, but a good first step is better child rearing, with wide social mixing, and explicit lessons in the morality of consequences and responsibility.

by ThatBritGuy (thatbritguy (at) googlemail.com) on Sat Oct 20th, 2007 at 08:13:10 PM EST

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