When I, on rare occasions, make it to the gym for a work-out, my playlist generally includes industrial, metal and rock. I find that bands like Tool, Nine Inch Nails, Rage Against the Machine, Rise Against and Marilyn Manson satiate both my desire for energy and food for thought. Recently, I was struck by the lyrics of Tool’s song “Hooker with a Penis,” off the album Ænima (according to an interview the name comes from the words ‘anima’ – ‘soul’ and ‘enema’ – the procedure).
The song begins by describing an encounter with an OGT (Original Gangster Tool, someone who liked the band “before they were big”):
I met a boy wearing Vans, 501s, and a
Dope Beastie t, nipple rings, and
New tattoos that claimed that he
The first EP.
The young man criticizes the band for selling out:
And in between
Sips of Coke
He told me that
We were sellin’ out,
To the man.
And Keenan responds brilliantly:
Well now I’ve got some
A-dvice for you, little buddy.
Before you point the finger
You should know that
I’m the man,
And if I’m the man,
Then you’re the man, and
He’s the man as well so you can
Point that ****in’ finger up your a**.
The argument continues:
All you know about me is what I’ve sold you,
I sold out long before you ever heard my name.
I sold my soul to make a record,
And you bought one.
And ends with a brilliant indictment of consumerism:
All you read and
Wear or see and
Hear on TV
Is a product
Begging for your
So, shut up and
Buy my new record
Send more money
**** you, buddy.
I confess that I smile right before the chorus because I know I’m about to hear smackdown, a perfect syllogism:
Major Premise: “The man” is defined by the aggregate decisions of numerous consumers.
Minor Premise: You are a consumer.
Conclusion: You are the man, and he’s the man and she’s the man as well, so point your finger up your a**!
A similar point was made by a recent episode of South Park where the boy’s discover why awful television shows stay on the air: because people watch them (another episode, “Something Wal-Mart Comes This Way,” contained a similar premise with Wal-Mart). On it’s face, it’s simple argument – when we as a culture complain that our politicians are terrible, our movies misogynistic, our news trivial, our society divided – we can blame no one but ourselves. When we lament “Gangum Style” and Lady Gaga remember that we’re the man, and she’s the man as well, so point that finger up your ass. But is it possible that there’s more to the story? Is there a man manipulating our tastes? John Kenneth Galbraith argues in The Affluent Society that, in fact, corporations use advertisers can manipulate taste: The individuals wants, though superficially they may seem to originate with him, are ultimately at the behest of the mechanism that supplies them.
George McGovern, echoing Galbraith argues, that advertising can “brainwash the consumer,” because, “no one was ever born with the taste for huge automobiles.” As the late David Foster Wallace notes, the consumerist society leaves ever individual feeling alienated and self-conscious. This state leaves them willing to buy any product, “begging for your fatass dirty dollar.” Consumers all lulled into a state where they are encouraged to “shut up and buy my new record.”
As it happens, this argument is an old one. Adam Smith feared that, manufacturing processes would leave men, “stupid and ignorant,” incapable of “relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation.” Veblen feared conspicuous consumption, Marx saw the capitalist system “contriving” needs, Hume and Keynes believe that irrational “animal spirits” overcame the rational man. Plato and Aristotle believe that only reason could save man from his endless appetites. I point out this long history because most economists assume that humans act rationally; they argue that when we have no reason to lament Gaga because we choose her, and if we didn’t want her we could easily choose otherwise. But is it really that simple?
For the answer to that question, I turn to behavioral economics, a popular blend of social psychology and economics (Dan Ariely, Cass Sustein, Vernon Smith ). Their have been numerous studies in this field that demolish our conception of ourselves as rational actors. We don’t save enough, we don’t understand the value of money, we stick with the default option, we can’t choose between two options. That’s why we have the government step in. Steven Rhodes finds that smokers are actually more likely than non-smokers to support taxes on cigarettes. Social Security is really just a program that forces us to save. Many people give a company $100 dollars that will be given to a charity they dislike unless they meet fitness requirements. Could it be that the government should encourage us to read Shakespeare instead of Grisham?
John Stuart Mill argued that society should use government to elevate taste, because, “men often, from infirmity of character make their election for the nearer good, though they know it to be less valuable.” Robert Jastrow writes,
It is as if two mentalities resided in the same body. One mentality is ruled by emotional states that have evolved as a part of age-old programs of survival, and the seat of this mentality is in the old-mammal centers of the brain, beneath the cerebral cortex. The other mentality is ruled by reason, and resides in the cerebral cortex… the reptile…
Nietzsche made the same point when in The Birth of Tragedy he presented all of human history as a war between the Dionysian and Apollonian principle. Philosophy, history, psychology, biology, neurology and emerging economics all confirm that man is at war within the self. Add religion:
Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.
One of the newest “market-failures” is short-term thinking – on the part of investment bankers, corporations and citizens. The government can correct it; with programs like social security, sin taxes and graphic ad campaigns. In a sense, corporations can create demand where it doesn’t exist by appealing to the reptilian, the flesh, the Dionysian within us. We succumb, though we don’t want to. Tool’s lyric should be, “Before you point your finger you should know that I’m the man, and you’re impulses are the man, and her impulses as well, so you should lament your shortcomings!” What does this mean for art though? It means we should listen to Mill, or Frank Knight,
The chief things which the common-sense individual actually wants is not satisfactions for the wants which he has, but more and better wants. The things which he strives to get in the most immediate sense are far more what he thinks he ought to wan than what his untutored prompt.
Amartya Sen notes the ultimate cause of the problem, writing, “much of the empirical work on preference patterns seems to be based on the conviction that behavior is the only source of information on a person’s preferences.” It’s not. And for too long we’ve assumed that.
Thus, the government has a legitimate role in promoting the arts, putting on plays, encouraging us to partake in the nobler pleasures. The government can foster a higher level of debate through NPR and public programs and we can enjoy plays, prose, news, movies and paintings that are not, “begging for your fata** dirty dollar,” because the motivation is not “buy, buy, buy my record.”