Saturday, November 18, 2006

Could the pursuit of more no longer be the pursuit of happiness?

For real though. It's been a pretty simple equation for as long as life has existed. More = Better. Most = Best. It has a certain . . . how to say, symmetry to it, n'est-ce pas? By the way, that's French for ness-pah. Anyway, I'd like to suggestthat we may be reaching the point where this little truism no longer works. The first thing that comes to mind is science fiction. Like in the deep future in Orson Scott Card books, where they have interstellar travel but some people choose to live on (or are born on) planets with pre-modern technology levels. Instantaneous interplanetary communication co-exists with horse and buggies, etc. Another good example is that old saw that crops up in sci-fi movies all the time and probably comes from Blade Runner: The futuristic city in which there are rickety old food carts and old guys making wonton soup or udon or whatever flavor of low-tech Asian cuisine current events suggests we'll all be eating in the future.
But how do we get there? Marketing. Marketing is, for some reason, a more palatable idea in the U.S. than the more general, more accurate social engineering. Someone will have to market for inefficiency. Take the small business versus big business conundrum that is in the process of turning our whole country into a personality-less consumer wasteland. Some coalition of small businessmen will have to scrape together the money to put out ads to claim value for the non-Walmart, not so low-price, not so one-stop-shopping small business experience. That's the only way to convince the country at large that it is gaining something by shopping at privately owned stores, for example personal service, regional flair, a prosperous middle class, etc. Unfortunately, the question remains, where are a bunch of shit-heel small businessmen going to get the money, let alone the skill and will to put together such a massive cooperative effort, if they can't even figure out how to cut their prices.
Here in Korea, people are a little bit behind the U.S. in the More doesn't equal Better department. For example, in the U.S. we love to shop at warehouse stores and by Army-sized drums of everything that keeps or can be frozen, but in Korea, where fresh food is a higher priority than in the U.S., people apply the same "bulk shopping saves me money" philosophy to things that don't keep and ought not be frozen, like fruit. My mother in law bougt me a box of 70 persimmons (you'd like them if you tried them) and threw in an equal sized crate of clementines. And twelve huge bunches of grapes. On the same day. Also, my wife doesn't eat clementines. So I ate almost nothing but fruit for the last two weeks. It was interesting, because typically fruit is a lxative, but clementines have some kind of weird binding power, so my body has been somewhat conflicted, so to speak.
Anyway, I am convinced that some day, some brilliant economist will come up with the field of optimal prosperology. As I imagine it, the field would be fiocused on finding the exact amount of something that provides the owner with the maximum amount of pleasure. For example, I believe that I never appreciated fruit as much in America, where it is cheap, than I do in Korea, where it is fairly expensive. Therefore, I get more pleasure out of an apple when I pay more money than when it's free. When I lived in Japan I once had a gift apple that cost $10. It's a Japanese cultural thing: the apple is bought to be given as a gift, so the price is high. When you receive the gift apple, you get the value of an excellent grade-A apple and the knowledge that the person who gave you the apple values you that much. That may have been the best apple I ever had.
But I couldn't eat $10 apples every day. So I would hire an optimal prosperitologist to determine what price-per-apple would gve me the maximum amount of satisfaction-per-dollar.
On the flip side, a price too high can set up an unacheivable expectation of pleasure. When I left New York, a pack of cigarettes was $5, a single cigarette therefore cost 25 cents. I argue that a single cigarette cannot possibly provide 25 cents' worth of pleasure. When I came to Korea a pack of cigarettes cost $1, and a single cigarette was thus 5 cents. I would say that a person spending 25 cents to smoke is more likely to enjoy that cgarette an appropriate amount. The 5 cent cigarette smoker has a high likelihood of siucking the whole thing up without savoring the flavor for a moment.
Thus I posit that everything has a maximally satisfying price, that this price will one day be determinable, and that we will be able to use these estimates to create the most sensible public policy and obliquely planned economy possible.

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