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How to Make Trillions of Dollars (raptitude.com)
284 points by froggy 2070 days ago | hide | past | web | 135 comments | favorite

This was long-winded and flawed in many ways.

To point just one flaw out: part of the argument is that the modern culture is designed by marketers to keep you unhealthy and consuming.

That's confusing, yet again, correlation with causation. It's just as likely that modern marketers are just doing what people want. That the current system of distraction, consumption, and unhealthiness is evolutionary and not some master plan of a cadre of evil overlords. Sure, it makes for a better straw man to bounce your essay off of, but it's flawed. If nothing else, it assumes a personality for a thing that quite obviously involves tens of thousands of people acting independently. Usually (almost always, really) such systems are emergent in nature.

I understand all the emotional buttons that are being pushed with this, and by all means enjoy your time reading it. I enjoy a good rant and pipe dream about "rational social planning" as much as the next guy. All I ask is to take a little time and ask "Am I being manipulated by people I should hate? Or am I being told a story and a narrative about people to hate so that I can be manipulated?"

EDIT: Of course the truth is somewhere in-between, and I didn't mean to make a false dichotomy. Most times these types of reasoning errors are simply artifacts of the way people solve problems. So, for instance, if you feel that systems are controlled from the top-down, you are more likely to see a dysfunctional system and assume that it was made that way from the top-down. Those of us who have studied dysfunctional systems can only wish that things were that simple. They aren't.

I think that is actually his point towards the end of the essay. Replace "the man" with "the invisible hand." It's the same thing anyways. The solution is to build up your own personal resistence, not to rage against any external force (according to him.)

A point which I think we can all agree.

I continue to be amazed at how many different places you can start at and end up with existentialism.

It doesn't really matter whether the current system was designed by Evil Overlords or not. The author's description of the current state of things was reasonably accurate, so the question at hand is "what, as an individual, should I do about it?"

The first step in working the system is knowing that it's a system that can be worked.

Knowing that advertising, consumerism, competitiveness, worries about job security, etc. can be safely ignored is a good start. It then follows that you can wiggle yourself some extra disposable income and a healthy disinterest in your "career". From there, you quickly get to a state of perceived freedom. Keep going and maybe you'll figure out how to be happy. (hint: it doesn't require the addition of any new "stuff" to what you already have.)

>part of the argument is that the modern culture is designed by marketers to keep you unhealthy and consuming.

Welcome to the field of Applied Psychology and Cognitive Science. Once you have reverse engineered the mind, the only practical application is manipulating it.

>just as likely that modern marketers are just doing what people want

For a TRILLION dollars we are not talking about "marketers" in the Mad Men, I-made-a-website-and-wrote-a-book, or "social media expert" sense. We are at minimum talking about behavioral psychologist PhDs and global corporate parasites like Coca Cola, Philip Moris Tobacco, etc.

In reality, those are still on the billion dollar level and not on the top of the food chain. The only trillion dollar companies I'm aware of though are financial institutions, so that would be my criticism of the article. If you really want to make a trillion dollars, you'll need to be much closer to the monetary spigot. In other words, a bank.

Neither Coca-Cola nor Phillip Morris invented their products or market segments — cola/caffeine and tobacco/nicotine have been used for thousands of years by huge portions of every population to gain access to them.

The products have always sold themselves, if anything it's the marketers and behavioral psychologists that are the parasites (on the commodity-selling industries).

> the only practical application is manipulating it

Or improve it?

Manipulation is simpler and pays better.

The proper answer is a bit longer. When you have more then one entity with this knowledge, sooner or later you're going to have an arms race. Which has, as a byproduct, all sides getting better and better.

So it's not really a question of one or the other. Having manipulation will, long term, lead to corresponding vaccination.

Hey guys, it has been too long since our last self-righteous anti-consumerist circle-jerk. This one is good! You can smell the smarminess right through the screen.

We live in a time where the individual has more freedom to do what he wants with his life than ever before. When people live longer, survive perviously unsurvivable diseases, and can get by with the least work. When the glorious knowledge produced by human advancement is the most open and attainable it has ever been. When world illiteracy, infant mortality, and malnutrition are at their lowest point. When the most people ever get a college degree and work in fields that challenge their minds.

This really depresses some people for some reason. Can't figure out why. Mostly they just seem to get a kick out of criticizing how other people have chosen to live their lives. I guess it makes them feel better about themselves to imagine the great majority of the population are rubes and they are some wise sage.

>I guess it makes them feel better about themselves to imagine the great majority of the population are rubes and they are some wise sage.

On the contrary, I identify with the article because I know how stupid I am.

I know how manipulatable I am. I know how easy it is to hijack by overclocked-monkey-brain instincts. I know how subject I am to addictive behavior. I know how far I am from my ideal self. I know how much vigilance it takes to get closer to that ideal self.

I know that I am barely conscious for most of my life. The decisions I make throughout the day are mostly automatic, governed by forces trained on habit rather than intention. To live deliberately is a nearly impossible struggle with the meager tools at our disposal, and I'd be the last person to fault anyone for not doing it, or even for not desiring to.

It is not contradictory to believe that capitalism is the most effective engine for driving human ambition towards useful goals, and at the same time, decry the perverse incentives it creates to manipulate people against their interests and to destroy the environment.

I believe that capitalism is the best way to optimize a civilization towards an objective function. I don't believe that that objective function is correct, particularly when the the people optimizing for it have the ability to change it (through brand advertising, government influence, etc.) We ignore the tragedy of the commons at our peril.

In addition, a person freely making a bad decision of their own volition is not moral insulation for offering them that bad decision in the first place.

"It is not contradictory to believe that capitalism is the most effective engine for driving human ambition towards useful goals, and at the same time, decry the perverse incentives it creates to manipulate people against their interests and to destroy the environment."

Extremely well put.

"manipulate people against their interests and to destroy the environment."

What system doesn't do this? If it's not a corporation manipulating people against their interests, it's the government.

"a person freely making a bad decision of their own volition is not moral insulation for offering them that bad decision in the first place."

If a person can't freely make a bad decision, it means they have less freedom. It's also interesting, because many "bad decisions" are subjective. Would you consider allowing a woman to have an abortion a bad decision? How about drinking alcohol, smoking cigarettes, or eating fatty foods?

All of these in one way or another are bad decisions, but I wouldn't want to be prevented from making them.

I don't think that it is the benefits of unbridled consumption that have people down. It is true that we live in a time that has amazing medicine, food, and communication.

The problem is that the oil, plastic, space for garbage, fertilizer for food, etc - the resources that our "amazing world" depends on - may not be unlimited. The depression sets in when you realize that with adequate foresight we could have enough amazing to get the benefits but without running our society into the ground; if only people had such foresight.

For most of the "conspiracy-nut losers" I think that your conjecture about the rubes and the sages makes sense. But for the thoughtful minority who believe in technology and consumption but also fear the excess of greedy monopolists, there is a real pearl of concern, it seems.

> We live in a time where the individual has more freedom to do what he wants with his life than ever before.

I'm not sure about that. Sure, we have infinitely more ways to work and play today, but freedom? I imagine that a US citizen from 200 years ago may be in awe of our advances in technology and medicine, but they'd likely be aghast by the erosion of our personal freedoms.

I wish I knew the source of the original shtick (it sounds like Paul Harvey), the one that goes something like this: Today's free man rises from bed, turns on his UL-approved lights, eats his USDA-stamped eggs and bacon for breakfast while watching his FCC-blessed TV, brushes his teeth with FDA-approved toothpaste, climbs into federal-safety-approved car with state-mandated insurance, to work at his OSHA-approved workplace, to get his state-taxed paycheck....

The original is so much more eloquent, but it certainly makes a farce out of the concept that any of us are truly free any more. Every facet of our daily lives is controlled by layers of regulation.

Heaven forbid you were a woman or black back then.

Furthermore, if you don't want to take advantage of regulations and consumer protections, you're more than welcome to raise your own damn pigs and build your own lamps in your home workshop.

As a 6th grader, I used to whip out my Swiss army knife to sharpen pencils in class, and as a young-adult I would pack that same knife onto airplanes.

Industry isn't the only thing that's more and more regulated anymore.

Mostly they just seem to get a kick out of criticizing how other people have chosen to live their lives.

Doesn't it make you sad that a huge number of people are unhealthy, unhappy, die prematurely from perfectly preventable reasons or just plainly do not have any slightest idea about what to do with their lives?

That's especially sad because it happens at the times when there are the most possible opportunities available to almost anyone.

Of course, I understand the common response - "but shouldn't they just live the lives they choose and who are you to tell them what to do with their lives".

This is reasonable and true, but I'm still sad for some reason.

I recognize the diversity of the human experience and I understand that not everybody would be happy living my ideal life. This respect for the choices of my fellow humans often puts me out of step with passionate idealists who feel contempt for folks who live in a manner outside their dogmatic parameters.

Living in Silicon Valley while growing up in the South East, being an Atheist and coming from a religious family, being a programmer and rubbing shoulders with MMA fighters and fans, and associating with Indians, Chinese, Europeans, Israelis, South Americans, and Africans in school has reduced my instinct to judge people who live according to systems of values different from mine. I guess I am broken in that way.

Don't get me wrong, I'm trying not to judge people too. I just find it incredibly hard to comprehend some things - how can people choose to not care about their health, their future etc.

On a conscious level I know that I should respect their choices, on a subconscious it just still doesn't make sense to me.

Which I think is the original article's point - we're living in what should be a time of plenty, but just having plenty isn't enough if you sacrifice everything else to get there.

You confuse criticism of freedom with criticism of stupidity. Some people just want higher standards of critical thinking. Is that so childishly anti-progress, or whatever you'd call someone like me, who thinks people should be maybe just a little smarter about what they consume? You come off as dogmatic yourself in defense of consumerism. Capitalism can still exist if people aren't stupid sheep, you know.

It also makes people do drugs. Such as frozen pizza.

I wonder what evolutionary psychology has to say about this phenomenon. Why is luxury so goddamn depressing?

It's the paradox of choice, as written about in many places. Give people many choices and many options and they will be, on average, less happy. Someone who assumes the only way to be is by being a subsistence farmer is not so unhappy.

Modern industrial civilization has developed within a certain system of convenient myths. The driving force of modern industrial civilization has been individual material gain, which is accepted as legitimate, even praiseworthy, on the grounds that private vices yield public benefits, in the classic formulation.

Now, it has long been understood, very well, that a society that is based on this principle will destroy itself in time. It can only persist, with whatever suffering and injustice that it entails, as long as it is possible to pretend that the destructive forces that humans create are limited, that the world is an infinite resource, and that the world is an infinite garbage can.

At this stage of history either one of two things is possible. Either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests, guided by values of solidarity, sympathy and concern for others, or alternatively there will be no destiny for anyone to control. As long as some specialized class is in a position of authority, it is going to set policy in the special interests that it serves.

But the conditions of survival, let alone justice, require rational social planning in the interests of the community as a whole, and by now that means the global community. The question is whether privileged elite should dominate mass communication and should use this power as they tell us they must -- namely to impose necessary illusions, to manipulate and deceive the stupid majority and remove them from the public arena.

The question in brief, is whether democracy and freedom are values to be preserved or threats to be avoided. In this possibly terminal phase of human existence, democracy and freedom are more than values to be treasured; they may well be essential to survival.

~Noam Chomsky, from "Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media" 1992

>"Now, it has long been understood, very well, that a society that is based on this principle will destroy itself in time.

Bullshit. A society based on the principles of the free market will create unprecedented human health and prosperity[1].

Anti-capitalists are anti-human. I wonder if the billion or so people that climbed out of poverty over the last decade thanks to global capitalism would change Chomsky's mind at all. But I doubt it, considering how invested the man is in being a spokesman for a flawed worldview. It seems to me that anti-capitalism is a symptom of simple ignorance of basic facts about world economic development.


> "Now, it has long been understood, very well, that a society that is based on this principle will destroy itself in time.

> Bullshit. A society based on the principles of the free market will create unprecedented human health and prosperity[1].

Those two things are not mutually exclusive.

Sure. And nobody has proven that Jesus or Vishnu won't come back and destroy the world for its sins, either. Positing a future apocalypse that will envelope the world unless everyone adopts your pet religion has a long pedigree.

Now I think you're going too far. The point above says that you can use capitalism to benefit the world around you. Instead of spending $3 million on a car, you can spend $3 million on businesses in a 3rd world country. In the end everyone wins instead of you alone.

There was a society based on the principles of the free market - Victorian England. It wasn't so great for most of the population there - pitiful wages, child labour, pollution, poor houses, squalour and misery.

Free market? Sure, it's a great idea, but minimum wage laws, workplace safety, pollution control and so forth have all done just as much for our health and prosperity.

Are you kidding me? Victorian Britain was the most prosperous country on Earth, at the time. Sure, the average Brit had it much rougher than they do today, but that's not a valid comparison. Give me one country that had it better during the 19th century than Victorian Britain!

Sure, they were more prosperous on average, but the poor were much more worse off than the poor in rural areas.

It's also impossible to say whether the prosperity was due to the free market and lack of regulations, the industrial revolution and development of steam power or the rise of the middle class and their increased free time/income.

I suspect that mostly it was technology, similar to what's happening in developing nations right now, rather than any free markets.

"the poor were much more worse off than the poor in rural areas."

Do you have any support for that assertion? The poor themselves decided en masse to move from village to city at the time, which seems to indicate the contrary. Yes, in the city they were also much more visible to literate observers who would write about their misery, but who knows what those same observers might have exposed if they had lived in a village instead. The people who knew both sides of the situation, certainly seemed to vote with their feet for the industrialized cities. We see the same phenomenon at work in China nowadays.

> The poor themselves decided en masse to move from village to city at the time

In many cases they hardly "decided"; they were en masse kicked off the land, so had no real choice. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inclosure_Acts

That's the standard Marxist analysis, but it's been refuted since, by Armstrong and others. The Enclosure Acts "kicked" very few people off the land. What they did mostly was to transform poorly utilized common land (marginal pasture, forests, and even some "tragedy of the commons"-style arable land) into extremely productive privately owned plots. The food production increased immensely as a result, which allowed bustling cities and industries to be well supplied. The general prosperity of society increased immensely, while previously starving peasants moved into the cities to become well-fed, but poorly-housed, poorly-clothed etc. workers (at least in the first generation). Even these deficiencies were remedied quite fast, and by the end of the Victorian period, manual laborers would commonly go around town dressed in what today we'd call a business suit.

I'm not arguing that the Enclosure Acts reduced the prosperity of society in aggregate, merely that one of their direct results was that "previously starving peasants moved into the cities" wasn't a free choice on the part of the peasants in many cases. They may have even ended up better off in doing so, but that's different from whether it was voluntary. I don't think you need a Marxist analysis to come to the conclusion that the Enclosure Acts didn't have a neutral effect on the pace of urbanization; it's what you find in standard mainstream histories from folks like Spielvogel as well.

Mostly I don't think it's at all clear that "being poor in the city working in a factory" would actually be preferred over "being a peasant farmer" given conditions of the time, if it were truly a free choice. In the United States at around the same time, you find many people choosing to leave cities to become subsistence farmers on the frontiers, because the Homestead Acts made it a viable option. If the UK had taken the enclosed land and distributed it via a Homestead-Act style process, would British peasants have chosen that option?

The comparison with the US is not appropriate, as we're talking about very different cadastral situations. The US has, at the time, a wide open western frontier, with enormous quantities of fertile arable land freely available. Britain is a country in which all the reasonably fertile land has long been brought under cultivation. Enclosures apply to marginal land (marshes, poor pasture), in which a few semi-squatting, destitute "cottagers" eke out a very desolate existence. This land can be made fertile, but only with a huge investment of capital (e.g. draining). The way the enclosure act works is that the cottagers are paid some meager compensation in exchange for their grazing rights. The landowner then gains exclusive access to his own land, which now becomes profitable for him to invest in, and transform into very productive arable land. Will the landowner work all this land by himself and eat all the produce? Obviously not. Some of the cottagers are hired locally, as farmers on the newly productive land that requires a workforce. Others move to the city, where the price and availability of food become much better as a result of the improvement. Whichever choice they take, they are no longer half-starved, and at least they have a chance to work for a better future. The alternative you seem to be proposing - dispossess the landowner, distribute the marshes among the cottagers - is not practicable, on account of the large amounts of capital needed for improvement, which only the landowner can reasonably obtain.

This being said, I think we agree on two points: the Enclosure Acts increased the pace of urbanization (but I believe it was by providing cheap food, not forced relocation), and they also increased the prosperity of society in aggregate. On my side, I argue that this prosperity registered a net gain for both landowners and the poor classes.

Happy, well-fed, unevicted peasants don't riot: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enclosure#Enclosure_riots

And people in the east end of London were most certainly not well fed: http://london.sonoma.edu/Writings/PeopleOfTheAbyss/chapter25...

Please try not to be so knee-jerk dismissive of everything that doesn't fit into your free market viewpoint.

While acts of enclosure were an old custom in Britain by the time of the industrial revolution, the discussion here was about the effect of those acts at the time of the said industrial revolution, i.e. late 18th century. The last riot that your link mentions ("the Newton Rebellion was one of the last times that the peasantry of England and the gentry were in open armed conflict") happened in the early 17th century.

I was refuting your earlier points specifically about the enclosure acts themselves:

> The Enclosure Acts "kicked" very few people off the land ... previously starving peasants moved into the cities to become well-fed

Your description makes it sound like some peaceful transition, followed by massive prosperity, everyone happy and singing, but the reality is pretty far from that.

> The poor themselves decided en masse to move from village to city at the time, which seems to indicate the contrary.

You have the same mechanism at work today, in slums in India, South America and so on. The draw is the possibility of being better off and having more opportunity than you would in a rural area, but it doesn't always end up that way.

But we're getting off the point, which is that a free market doesn't give you "unprecedented human health and prosperity" - the best that you can argue is that it's one of the preconditions (but not the only one).

> Do you have any support for that assertion?

How about an eyewitness account, from 1902:


Victorian England is definitely a good candidate, yes. But for an example of a "free market" society that is nearer in time and space to modern Americans, read Upton Sinclair's _The Jungle_ : http://search.barnesandnoble.com/The-Jungle/Upton-Sinclair/e...

You couldn't pass a minimum wage law in Victorian Britain that would raise the Victorians' living standards to that of today. Labor simply wasn't productive enough to sustain living standards like ours. People were poor because society as a whole was poor.

All a minimum wage law does is allow a society to shift its chosen point on an unemployment/wage tradeoff curve. However, increases in labor productivity shift that curve outward (this is usually because of technological progress and capital investment). It is because capitalism has shifted the curve outwards over time that we are so much more wealthy, not because minimum wage laws have slightly shifted our position along the curve.

If labor productivity weren't near as high as it is, then you could pass all the laws and regulations in the world and it wouldn't make us as rich as we are now. Anti-capitalists fundamentally misunderstand the process of wealth creation.

I suggest you also look up my comments on the ill-argued anti-libertarian "Victorian England" blogpost that I am assuming you are referencing from when it was submitted here.

Nobody said anything about raising living standards to that of today. I'm not sure exactly how you got there, and I'm also not sure how you or the overcoming bias article you linked got to free markets causing the reduction in poverty. The free market's been around for a bit longer than six years, so I'd say it's more likely to be a rise in technology (particularly mobile phones and solar power) rather than global capitalism.

And never mind a minimum wage law - Victorian England would've been a much more pleasant place with some sort of health and safety law, restrictions on child labour or a functioning welfare system other than slave labour in the poor house. Did you read the People of the Abyss link that I posted earlier? There's some scary stuff in there:

I worked at Sullivan's place in Widnes, better known as the British Alkali Chemical Works. I was working in a shed, and I had to cross the yard. It was ten o'clock at night, and there was no light about. While crossing the yard I felt something take hold of my leg and screw it off. I became unconscious; I didn't know what became of me for a day or two. On the following Sunday night I came to my senses, and found myself in the hospital. I asked the nurse what was to do with my legs, and she told me both legs were off.

There was a stationary crank in the yard, let into the ground; the hole was 18 inches long, 15 inches deep, and 15 inches wide. The crank revolved in the hole three revolutions a minute. There was no fence or covering over the hole. Since my accident they have stopped it altogether, and have covered the hole up with a piece of sheet iron . . . . They gave me £25. They didn't reckon that as compensation; they said it was only for charity's sake. Out of that I paid £9 for a machine by which to wheel myself about.

(from http://london.sonoma.edu/Writings/PeopleOfTheAbyss/chapter17...)

25 pounds is about 6 months wages for the loss of both legs, and he has to buy his own wheelchair! How much productivity was lost to society because that factory and others like it didn't take enough care of its workforce? And yet you and the rest of the HN libertarian echo chamber are trying to convince us that the only thing necessary for happiness is a free market?

Give me a break.

From what I understand, there were child labour laws, and when they passed the result was that children were no longer able to work in the respectable factories, so instead they ended up in dangerous, illegal establishments. Of course, child labour in general was nothing new.

All a minimum wage law does is allow a society to shift its chosen point on an unemployment/wage tradeoff curve.

That's not the only thing it does, depending on the elasticity of various prices and wages. Another thing it does in some situations is increase the total share of money going to laborers while decreasing profit margins of their employers. This may or may not lead to the employer laying them off, depending on what the profit margins were to begin with; if they were very high, such that the post-increase margins are still nice (just not as nice), it's still rational to continue to employ the newly more expensive labor.

Consensus among economists these days on minimum wages is a lot more nuanced than it might've been 50 years ago, anyway. A majority of economists still think that they're on the whole a bad idea, but most would want to know what kind of economy you're talking about before giving specific predictions about their effects. The fundamental shift driving the "well, generally X, but it depends" view is a realization that economies can be quite far from classical equilibria, for quite long periods of time, in which case policies don't necessarily have the effects classical economics would predict.

>A society based on the principles of the free market will create unprecedented human health and prosperity

The living standards of black slaves in the Americas increased over time as well.

I wonder if the millions whose standard of living increased under slavery would change your mind that slavery is bad? It seems to me that anti-slavery is a symptom of simple ignorance of basic facts about world economic development.

It's much better to work 16 hours for a $1 in your pocket than to do whatever you've been doing for the last 100,000 years. Those unfortunate poor people, someone should tell them how unhappy they are!

Chomsky is not anti-capitalist in the sense of proposing some particular complete replacement of it (as one might infer from your comment). He carefully avoids what is not well understood. Would you say capitalism is perfect? No, of course not. Then surely you will allow people to criticise it.

"Either the general population will take control of its own destiny and will concern itself with community interests..."

So, he understood this very well? I must conclude so since he didn't avoid it. So he could tell me with precision when a "general population" has taken control of "its own destiny"? Whether "it" has "concern[ed] itself with community interests"? Generally, you can provide some measure with which I can find out if Chomsky is right or wrong in these statements?

I think not. Chomsky "carefully avoids" nothing; he treads heavily, makes a lot of noise, and kicks up a dusty fog.

> A society based on the principles of the free market will create unprecedented human health and prosperity

Only for a limited time as the natural resources are also limited. We don't have another Earth. The total standard of living existing now for humanity is not sustainable.

I've often found it funny how two sides often use the exact same argument against each other, almost down to the wording: most anti-capitalists specifically charge capitalism with taking the human element out of the equation.

Hans Rosling's 200 Countries, 200 Years, 4 Minutes http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jbkSRLYSojo

Concisely sums up everything good about free-market capitalism.

>A society based on the principles of the free market will >create unprecedented human health and prosperity agreed , but only for 0.005% of the population

I've seen the effects of "rational social planning" by the enlightened and would rather go with the flawed individual freedom crowd.

You do understand that he's not speaking of a centrally planned government, right? Chomsky specifically advocates as close to direct democracy as possible.

I didn't get that from the above quote, but I haven't read Chomsky. I just have quite a bit of problems with people believing that the group is always right compared to the individual, and I got the group vibe from the above. I admit my interpretation could be in error.

No worries, I haven't read as much Chomsky as I should either.

His views are obviously nuanced, but he's most often described as an anarcho-syndiclist: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anarcho_syndicalism

The main problem with your interpretation is not that the group is better than the individual, but that then the group _imposes_ that view upon the individual. There's a big difference between cooperative decision making and a dictatorship by an 'enlightened few.'

> I haven't read as much Chomsky as I should either. [emphasis added]

See?! Now they've convinced you that to be fulfilled you have to read Chomsky!

I should. I should read lots of things. Reading more is good for you.

However, in this case, what I meant was, "I really should read more Chomsky before attempting to claim that I am fully and accurately representing his viewpoint in an argument."

but have you seen the effects of "rational social planning" by the unenlightened?

They said they were enlightened, but I admit to having my doubts.

I grew up in a socially-planned town. The problem is in the practicalities of the execution of a large project, by people who just consider it a day job, competing against the corrupting influence of local personal interest. The product of the planning wasn't exactly a macbook pro.

The question is, taking all that in to account and conceding that it is (1) true, and (2) a real problem how will we do better?

Some would argue there is no point in doing better. Some would argue the "we" is populated by stupidity that knows almost no bounds, and the only solution is to join the ranks of the Man on the quest to the mythical (in a probably hyperinflationary environment) trillion dollars. Cash in while the shit house goes down.

> Cash in while the shit house goes down.

Now that is depressing.

Surely there must be a way out. If there is one thing that I've noticed as a pattern over the years then it is that mankind will only get off their collective asses when it is proverbially speaking 1 minute to twelve (or even 1 past).

That gives me some hope that our considerable intelligence will be brought to bear in time of need and that we will actually deal with these problems, but first we need to be forcibly kicked out of our comfort zone.

Historically the house going down was the prelude to building a bigger and better house. The problem is that it sometimes took as much as several centuries to recover from the house going down.

True, the basic problem I have seen with people that present views such as Chomsky's is that I have yet to see an alternative to free market capitalism that doesn't have worse problems (in my opinion) than any problem pointed to by those such as Chomsky.

And we never will so long as we never try.

The above is a very concise version of my thoughts, thank you. There are a lot of problems with democracy, stemming from the dangers of mob rule. For instance, there are some strong arguments that a senate operating behind closed doors would be more effective at ignoring special interests and working together than otherwise. The writers of the constitution did just this (they swore secrecy of anything they talked about in the convention to avoid voter backlash) [1]

This is why they initially wanted health care debates behind closed doors - the lobbyists can make much more use of transparency than the uninterested voter can. Fareed Zakaria wrote a lot about this in The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad.

[A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution by Carol Berkin]

reminds me of a Carl Sagan monologue from Cosmos:

"Those worlds in space are as countless as all the grains of sand on all the beaches of the earth. Each of those worlds is as real as ours and every one of them is a succession of incidents, events, occurrences which influence its future. Countless worlds, numberless moments, an immensity of space and time. And our small planet at this moment, here we face a critical branch point in history, what we do with our world, right now, will propagate down through the centuries and powerfully affect the destiny of our descendants, it is well within our power to destroy our civilization and perhaps our species as well. If we capitulate to superstition or greed or stupidity we could plunge our world into a time of darkness deeper than the time between the collapse of classical civilisation and the Italian Renaissance. But we are also capable of using our compassion and our intelligence, our technology and our wealth to make an abundant and meaningful life for every inhabitant of this planet."

so intelligent, inspirational and full of hope, but listening to it 30 years later I can't help feeling bummed out, as it seems as though our civilization has chosen its path.

also, Idiocracy.

That's an inspiring quote. But it is flawed. It is designed to instill passion and motivation in the listener's heart. But it is missing a virtue which is a strictly necessary ingredient for making an actual positive impact on the world: subtlety.

If you are motivated by addressing humanity's long-term challenges, please do not attempt to bludgeon others into being more thoughtful or compassionate. Instead, learn first how human society works. Learn how to motivate social change in the least destructive way (all change is costly to someone). Learn why people oppose you, and what their interests are, and try to come to a common ground. Don't go off half-cocked. Learn subtlety.

Nobody talks about subtlety. It is an under-appreciated virtue, and one of the most important.

Idiocracy is an entertaining movie, but it's not a very accurate critique of society: http://xkcd.com/603/

Also, don't be disheartened by the continual persistence of stupidity and triviality. There are amazing things happening all around us, never forget that. For two generations human civilization has had the unprecedented capability to cause the near extinction of mankind, and yet that hasn't occurred. Measure that in the context of history, it's fairly remarkable. Meanwhile, war is becoming less common (honestly, check the data), more and more people are getting lifted out of poverty every day, amazing innovations are occurring continually, and we continue to reach for the stars. There will always be setbacks from time to time, but you shouldn't let that dishearten you.

Within the next 30 years there is every reason to believe that there will be more developed nations, fewer people in abject poverty, yet more communication between peoples around the world, and perhaps even hundreds of people living and working in orbit and off-Earth.

This struck a chord with me. Recently (and more or less intuitively), I got rid of pretty much everything I own to charities, friends and relatives. A couple of graphics workstations, home entertainment system, mountain of business and philosophy books, clothes, TV's, etc. Everything bar a bed, clothes, writing material and some basic kitchenware.

The outcome is the anti of the "typical person" inventory on that page. I feel healthier, more motivated, my work life balance has shifted, I'm socializing more and getting involved in more community / business opportunities. The sudden understanding that I don't need technology, media or a mountain of knowledge / reference to succeed at my goals is completely liberating, and I feel much less resistant to change.

The additional time, clarity of thought and free cash is quite mind blowing, it's basically re-oriented my life completely. No magic bullet, but it feels like a step in the right direction.

"The things you own end up owning you" - Fight Club

The book/movie takes anti-consumerism to a grand finish, but I think there is a definitely a continuum and that most people are too far towards the consumerism side. The real problem is that people equate having stuff with happiness. My issue is I look at people who have a lot of stuff and they seem to spend all their time and money on maintaining said stuff. Owning a boat is probably the prototypical example.

Years ago I owned nearly nothing. My apartment living room consisted of a couple of deck chairs and a small TV. My bedroom had a bed and the office had a small desk with my computer on it. There is great freedom in knowing that I could leave and the only thing I would need to grab would have been my computer. My life hasn't changed very much today, except I would add my camera to the list of things I would also grab.

Another thing to note is that it's not just owning things, but also the attitude you take towards what you own. Owning some nice things is fine, but you can't let them control your life. You have to remember that they are just things.

The maintenance aspect is the biggest hidden cost I think.

Your last point is interesting - one of the guys that used to mentor me in meditation often said that the attachment to not having things is just as painful as the attachment to having things. It's a true point.

That's an interesting point to the attachment of not having things. I might have been on that path until a previous girlfriend brought me back towards balance in the other direction. She convinced me to buy a couch and replace my plastic deck chairs. :)

I was thinking more along the lines of how people act differently with stuff. A personal example would be my dslr camera. I purposely bought the least expensive that I could get away with, but still have the basic features I wanted (used nikon d60 if you're curious). I take it everywhere and use it all the time because I don't worry about it getting broken or banged up. Obviously I'm not going to toss my camera out the window, but I'm also not going to go nuts if bangs on a rock while I'm hiking. Things are just things.

Contrast this with a friend of mine who bought a d3 (~$10k!) and a bunch of lenses that go for over $2k. He rarely ever uses the camera. It's like he's afraid to mess it up. In my mind his camera is owning him rather than him owning a camera.

Well, personally my strategy is to try and get things to pay for themselves. I bought the most expensive camera I could in the hope that some day I could sell a few photos. Passive income is, after all, the holy grail. So if I'm taking photos for a hobby anyway, maybe this hobby can start paying for itself. I wouldn't want to engage in an expensive hobby that didn't even have that potential.

Unless there is a certain feature you needed a more expensive camera for (higher fps for sports photography for example) photos are much more the photographer than the camera. Glass is a much better place to spend money than on a camera body.

The professional photographers I know or even the guys who just sell pictures on the side use relatively inexpensive equipment compared to what is available for sale.

I have heard the somewhat crude expression, "If it fucks, flies, or floats, rent it."

> Everything bar a bed, clothes, writing material and some basic kitchenware.

And since you're posting here it seems at least one computer, unless you're writing this in an internet cafe of course.

Office PC. Realistically, job and career wise, I'll uptake a home computer again at some point, but only when the habits associated with the old ones die off.

That's pretty brave and inspiring. I am not sure I could do that again, I've 'rebooted' a couple of times and it takes a long time to find a new path. And inevitably you always end up with lots of stuff again, it has a way of creeping up on you.

Emigrations are a good way to realize what you can do without.

And then a few years later you look around and wonder how it happened again.

Yeah, the maintenance part is possibly the hardest aspect. It's also killed typical socialization in my own home, except for people that genuinely enjoy just sitting, sipping tea and talking.

I was pretty stuck anyhow (progress wise), so if it takes a couple of years to gain new momentum, I feel it's time well spent.

A few people asked if I was heading overseas, the more people that do, the better an idea it sounds like.

So, are you heading overseas?

To travel, yeah. Baby steps, it'll be my first time offshore (at 28 years of age)

Is sitting around a TV socializing?

In all honesty Tyler Durden summed it up much more succinctly, "Working jobs we hate to buy shit we don't need."

Reminds me of the Vampire Weekend song Kids Don't Stand a Chance. Particularly the verse:

  I didn't like the business
  But that was at first glance
  Your pillow feels so soft now
  But still you must advance
In particular I think he hits it perfectly on the head with the idea that 'the man' just doesn't know any better and is part and parcel to the culture. 'the man' are just the individuals who are particularly adapted to this way of life and thus succeed in it.

Illustrated even nicer by this comic: http://buttersafe.com/2011/01/27/traps/

Start with quadrillions of dollars and invest in airlines.

Human civilization (and not just our current iteration) is like a gigantic, uncontrollable beast. It tramples thousands underfoot, growing fat on their fears and impossible dreams. Some people may be riding up on top, out of trample range, but they're still riding on top of a gigantic, uncontrollable beast with no real aim other than its own continued survival.

Not much to be gained from blame or envy. Just try to set a good example. It might help, over time.

Well, look. I decided that I will get rid of the useless things in my life. Books and papers, trash, and so on.

I also decided to save and not consume much. Therefore, I resort to making homemade sandwiches and finding water bottle.

A few days ago, I made a pencil holder out of a discarded soda can. Why the hell not?

There are cool things that I want to buy. But, they're mostly for making cooler projects.

I am a prosumer. I find it fun to make stuff and sell stuff just so I can make much more interesting stuff to sell.

The Man's strategy? Did he even really exists? What's there to blame and be envious?

The intellectual life is worth more than the cars, the fancy houses, and 2 1/2 kids. Things are in itself an interesting intellectual exercise. Selling them is merely a way to keep points about which is the most interesting things to the most people.

From your comment it seems that your are advocating an "intellectual life". Isn't this the same old consumerism, just a changing real goods for virtual ones (aka information)?

Hardly, because for your life to be intellectually interesting, you must discriminate between information. You're choosing not what people will think of you, but what is interesting to you.

I'm sure most people at least in some way try to develop interests in certain areas so that other people find THEM interesting!

You should read "What Technology Wants" by Kevin Kelly.

He investigates these sorts of things, talking about how it is now impossible to be separate from civilization (even the Amish are dependent upon civilization at large to support their lifestyle). And he starts to talk about how we can cope with that, and engage with it on our own terms, in a constructive manner.

"A single, lifelong customer who lives his life spending the way you want him to is worth six or seven figures. A single one."

Let's say that "lifelong customer" spans 47 years (aged 18-65). In order for him to spend seven figures s/he would have to spend $1750/month. And, depending on what they're paying for, a lot of that won't be profit...

So not sure why it's worded as if everyone should realise that a single life-long customer is worth a huge amount, chances are, for most companies/people, they won't be.

I don't fully agree with your math. Mine is potentially no better, but:

A single customer, spending $500/year on whatever it is you do, wherein you make 5% compounding profit off of their $500/year, nets $100,000 in 45 years. I feel that's a bit more realistic of an approach.

I wasn't taking interest into account in my example.

5% profit of $500/year is $25/year. I'm too lazy to work out compound interest over 45 years considering that a new $25 is being added each year, however:

45 * $25 = $1125

If you invested $1125 for 45 years at an interest rate of 4%, you'd end up with $6571. (And investing $1125 over 45 years gets you more back than only adding $25 a year to the investment.)

Obviously it's possible to do better than 4%, but I would suggest that, then, however you are investing the money is "how you are making money", not "having a lifelong customer".

So, have I completely misunderstood your example, or was your maths way way off?

His math is not off, I get about the same using http://www.moneychimp.com/calculator/compound_interest_calcu...

When he said 5% profit he meant 5% interest. Result depends on the figures you put in, but if you can get people to spend hundreds of dollars on your business every year of their life, you are probably in possession of a mechanism providing interest well over 12% or 15% annually. Which makes the value per customer much higher.

IKEA is one of the companies that successfully transformed the culture of one or several nations to their own benefit and routinely creates lifetime customers from infant to the grave.

Ah, assuming a profit of $500 does make the maths make sense.

But $500 profit a year from a single customer is way above the average for the majority of businesses.

So it follows that the majority of businesses does not make trillions of dollars either. :)

Still, there are several businesses that are making on average over $100-500/year profits on me. More or less my bank, car maker, gas station, energy company, furniture store, favorite soda brand, supermarket, fast food chain... what else? Scary thought.

Your bank might not be. They are often just acting as a middle man and lending money to you that they borrowed from the bond market, taking the spread as their admin expenses.

I think my math was right (unless my compound interest calculator was wrong) but I did make a typo - the investment would have to be $600 per year at 5% compounding interest, not $500. Sorry 'bout that.

He would have had to assume a 15% rate of return in order to yield $100,000.

By that logic, a customer whose NPV is $100 is "worth" $13150.

I think the article is correct but phrases the lifelong customer part wrong.

The habits of a single life-long customer divorced from everyone else whose spending is absorbed by a single player might not be worth a million - EDIT: maybe 50k with interest (being very generous).

BUT if a small player has "in hand" said habits, they could be worth much more sold to the larger players. The larger players can direct the consumption of this consumer to convincing counterfeit items (margarine instead of butter, Budweiser instead of a decent beer, etc). This gives them much higher profit margin. These larger players can also us the single consumer's habits as a model for ten other people's habits.

And naturally it feels nasty discussing things this way...

So I think the "amortized" control of single consumer's habits might conceivably be worth about a million.

Wow, well put. There is of course no Intention of The Man to ingeniously swap margarine in for butter, but the gravity of profit margins will tend to pull reality that way. It usually does.

I'd bet you five bucks that whole foods has better margin on it's "whole" butter than the safeway where I shop has on it's cheap off-brand margarine.

But that doesn't change the overall situation.

First you bought butter whose "realness" and "wholeness" wasn't in question and didn't cost extra. Then you bought margarine that "better" and cheaper. Only then you realize that you were being sold a unhealthy (trans-fat-filled) fake. So you people went and bought yet another product, "whole", "real" butter!

As far as margins go, they're being chased down by competition, which exactly there always needs to be new products, as above.

>As far as margins go, they're being chased down by competition, which exactly there always needs to be new products, as above.

This implies that there are usually competitors willing to accept a lower margin for a largely similar product; in food, I'd compare Trader Joe's to Whole Foods in this role.

Really, this (producing a largely similar product at lower margin and lower price) is the tactic I'm attempting to use, as well. The margins most large companies have, once you account for their economies of scale advantages, must be staggering, (that, or the inefficiencies inherent to being a large company where the people who make the decisions have no contact with the people who own the company are staggering.) which means there's plenty of room for the generics to have a go at bringing prices down.

you missed the whole point of this article, he wasn't talking about actually starting a single company that is going to make trillions of dollars. He was talking about the system and culture in which we live

I'm not arguing with the entire article, I'm arguing with a mathematic statement he made within it.

reminds me of a story i just read by charles stross: http://www.bestsf.net/presents/RogueFarm.html

about a future in which bioengineering allows individuals to become self sufficient (adding photosynthesis to their genome, for example). this causes the economy to collapse as many consumers no longer depend on society.

And indeed, once people are self-sufficient, why would they care if the economy collapsed?

The only problem with the scenario is if/when wars between the self-sufficient farms erupt.

That was a good read. Thanks!

The best articles can take a hackneyed concept (the ills of materialism) and still manage to say something worth listening to. This is one of those articles.

I can't decide if this article is pure paranoia, depressing as hell, or inspiring.

Excessively anthropomorphizing the Man is a quick way to sketch civilization, but leads to a failure to understand it deeply. If I were going to put a word on it, it would be glib. Sort of Malcolm Gladwell-ish. It's not necessarily that it's wrong, it's just so incomplete a view that it might as well be wrong.

The term "The man" may be glib in many cases, but if we understand that "the man is us" then we reach some place more fundamental.

Heidegger has a fascinating analysis of this phenomena, which he calls "Das Man" or "The They". Most of the time, all of us are "the they" instead of being authentically ourselves.


Note: if you decide to read Heidegger, it may take as much time as a television habit.

"may be glib in many cases"

I agree with you in general, but I think this is one of the "glib" cases in the original post. Buying into "vs. the Man" is, ironically, one of the Man's main tools in the contemporary US; there are entire ethnic cultures in the US being held back in no small part by the belief they are being held back by the Man, which in turn requires them to be externally rescued by the don't-look-too-closely-just-believe-we're-not-the-Man-Man.

There's truth in the "Man" analysis, but the escape is to transcend the narrative, not engage with it. (The synthesis of the man/vs. the man thesis and antithesis, I suppose.) Which I doubt you disagree with, I'm just being explicit.

I thought it was inspiring.

EDIT: Why? Because I've never thought about it from that point of view before. It doesn't necessarily make his point true, but it's interesting nevertheless.

It was all of the above for me, quite a rare combination. I think I'm going to read the whole blog and I have no idea how I did not come across it before.

Whichever it is, it sure doesn't belong here.

I would say, don't get too hung up on the "the Man" aspect of the article. For me, the most profound part was the one about keeping people wanting useless gadgets more and more and thus keeping them in jobs they hate. People can easily live with much less and do work that will allow them to be much happier.

From what I've seen, higher earning potential doesn't correlate well with happiness.

In the study I heard about from a family member it correlates strongly up to a threshold, say $90,000 for a family of 3-4 living in the midwest (ex-Chicago, etc.), but thereafter increasing income doesn't increase happiness (and possibly erodes it).

Yes, obviously having a very low income would come with worries, but above that, as you said, there's not much correlation...

Yes, what has been found is that anything below $60,000 is strongly correlated with unhappiness, but it flattens out above 60 annually. This was in a TED talk, probably one by Hans Rosling.

The entire article rests on the assumption that the things which are produced in order to be consumed have no value-- or at the very least, that, as more of them are produced, the total value in "the system" doesn't increase. While this is undoubtably true for many things, is it true for all of them?

I mean, sure, I can't accept that enormous piles of consumerist junk manufactured every year don't really represent the creation of much value. But that isn't everything, and, I'd argue, it is dwarfed by the enormous amount of valuable materials, goods, and services that are produced.

In order for this kind of invective to carry in weight, one has to implicitly agree with the hidden assumption that the trillions of dollars of goods and services produced every year represent essentially no value to human beings.

And that seems to me to be a pretty ridiculous statement.

"...create a nation of people who typically: [....] have learned, through the media’s culture of blame-mongering, that the key to solving public and private issues is to find the right people to hate"

It's funny that someone could write that as part of a scathing critique of consumerist culture and yet not see the irony of it.

There are things that are a lot worse than materialistic, shallow, consumerist culture. Specifically a moralistic, prudish, puritanical culture which is at every point so very concerned with what is the best for everyone else. At least consumerist culture is easy enough to escape and ignore.

Personally I have no problem with consuming stuff for entertainment.

I just don't kid myself that consuming a poem through oral tradition in a field without electricity would be somehow more noble/satisfactory.

You can call Chuck Palaniuk an overrated writer all you want, but this is what Fight Club is about and did a good job of illustrating.

"First, start with hundreds of trillions of dollars..."

I'm not a fan of Chomsky, but I completely agree that all too often we "go along" with ways of life that are sold as "normal," but which are in fact unhealthy and unsustainable.

absolutely brilliant piece. and i agree with his perspective. i've thought almost exactly the same thing for over 2 decades now. it is extremely rare to see someone say it, and say it so well.

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