Monday, July 16, 2012

A Man of Wealth and Taste

Are sales of souls euvoluntary? Before you think I'm asking a silly, facetious question, consider that animistic religions are alive and well in many of the poorest regions of the world. Europeans and their kith have long strove to quell the native religions, be it by bell, book and candle, by the sword, or by the slaver's net. Behind the entire sordid history of the intersection of Rome and the rest of the world is the Faustian trope.

Poor kid, hard on his luck, but with ambition and talent trades his immortal soul for a chance to grab the brass ring. Maybe it's playing a mean trumpet, maybe it's batting .400, maybe it's EGOT, maybe it's bulls-eyeing womp rats in your T-16 back home. Whatever the prize, there's a deal struck at midnight at a crossroads, perhaps in the presence of a dead cat in a burlap sack. The contract is occasionally voidable (See, eg. Treehouse of Horror IV), but typically ends with Italian poets paying you a visit under the watchful care of the author of The Aeneid.

More to the point of our interests here, the idea of selling one's soul to the Devil is an important metaphor for meteoric success. Up until the death throes of manorialism and feudalism, wealth was inherited. The craftsman, the draftsman and the monger earned a humble boodle through the sweat of their brow, but the rags-to-riches superstar was almost entirely novel. No daughter of an Italian car design engineer could hope to have her stage name known by billions-with-a-b of her contemporary humans. That Marlowe wrote (well, okay, popularized in English) Faustus at about the same time his buddy Bill Shakespeare was tearing it up at The Globe is probably no accident.

These days of course, deals with Mr. Mephistopheles vary greatly from the boilerplate of centuries' past. A determined young person can gain fame by publicizing a lewd act with an athlete. A bespectacled software engineer can earn more than the GDP of Togo. The son of a wool trader can grow up to have his finger on the button that can send hot nuclear death around the globe in minutes (and also to hit innocent people with golf balls while he wasn't falling ass-over-teakettle off airplanes). I have a suspicion though that the deal-with-the-devil meme lurks in the back of people's head when they see examples like these. How can anyone look at a boy band (I apologize that I am unable to list any recent examples in this category) and think for a second that they earned their record sales the same way as did Daltrey, Townhsend, Entwhistle and Moon.

But there's really no question that people voluntarily elect to watch The Jersey Shore and they actually plop down mommy and daddy's cash to buy One Direction albums. People attend the GOTJ (don't Google that if you don't already know what it stands for) without any threats of physical violence. All of the individual transactions that end up with the name "Kardashian" as part of my cultural lexicon are all legitimate and voluntary, even if the economics behind this sort of tournament game aren't immediately visible to the everyday consumer. What we see are juiced-up tan drunkards stumbling around and barking their groceries on "Music" Television, earning millions for acting like talentless human flotsam. This is intuitively difficult to square with the presumed relationship of virtue to reward.

So I ask again: is it euvoluntary to sell your soul? Many people want the rich to pay their fair share (which seems to mean higher marginal income tax rates, kind of a logical leap, but it is what it is), which suggests to me that folks suspect that there are some negative externalities just aching to be compensated. I will offer the suggestion that this is balderdash. I acknowledge that popular culture may share some features with common pool resources: it is certainly non-rival and it's mostly non-excludable, but to make a pollution-type argument, you'd have to make the claim that you're forced to consume it regardless of your participation in the market. Now, when Chevy Chase was mocking Gerry Ford on SNL, it might have been the case that cobbling together one's media consumption from a huge a la carte menu was fairly costly for the Σx/n American, but today's cultural filters are cheaper than ever. I am confronted by an embarrassment of riches in even highly specialized niches of entertainment. I am only slightly exaggerating when I claim to have over a dozen FPS zombie shooters in my Steam account (just picked up Dead Island as part of the Summer Sale). My attention is scarce, just like everyone else's, so to the extent that Snooki is wealthy, she has earned her bank balance by offering willing viewers a product more valuable than whatever else they might be doing with their scarce leisure time. If she's sold her soul, then by gum, so have all the people who have chosen to tune in.

Thinking about it, I find that, once again, this sort of returns to a matter of aesthetics. We can look at something and say, Good Lord, that <thing> is worthless. How could anyone possibly enjoy <thing>, let alone pay good money for it? To borrow a powerful idea from economics, the answer is specialization and trade. The very selfsame elements that build wealth. A "free" Spotify account that allows me to listen to Schubert and Leaether Strip also allows my co-workers to listen to Michael Bolton and Nickelback. This is a feature, not a bug. Selling your soul in the sense that a person can earn more money by conducting voluntary transactions is a boon to humanity. Monetary success is an afterthought; the real benefit is that successful people have improved the lives of many millions of others, however slightly. If this is selling your soul, then history may have seriously misinterpreted the role of the Prince of Lies.

I am willing to consider that selling one's soul in exchange for political authority is worthy of Biblical condemnation.

[draft not proofread, please excuse any typos]

1 comment:

  1. I think the aesthetic point is an important one. As much as I like to remind others to put their economist hat on when discussing means and ends, I still find it objectionable that Rob Dyrdek is as successful as he is.


Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?