Demographics

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Read: Stuffocation

A downside of reading ebooks is that you cannot briefly skim the whole book to get an idea about its content, the argument the author wants to make. Yes, the table of contents can still give a clue about this. Yet, somehow with an ebook it is less likely that I will consult the table of contents (again) once I have “turned” the pages.

Hence, while reading Suffocation (as an ebook) I often wondered why the author would now discuss things like the Streisand effect, or whether he sees a future in our society for whatever he was discussing at the moment.

Wallman builds his argument slowly, carefully. Yet, without telling his reader the big picture up front. Only after a chapter, at the end of it, or even only after several chapters, it becomes clear what Wallman wants to say, why he tells what he just told, what the purpose of all the (anecdotal) evidence is. At the end, everything is obvious.

Wallman identifies a problem: Stuffocation. Materialism in the sense of buying (too much) stuff, conspicuous consumption. After the all the unclutter and simplify-your-life books and articles that seem legion nowadays he does not need to spend too much time and effort to make and explain this point. He then discusses three potential solutions: minimalism, regression to simple living, and medium chill (a result of satisficing with rather modest aspirations). They all ain’t it.

So, he identifies a common core and a less anti-materialist solution to Stuffocation, all the stuff that clutters our homes and makes us miserable, that seems more likely to catch on. Experientialism, conspicuous spending not on lots and lots stuff but lots and lots of memories (and some high-quality stuff that helps to have a great experience).

All in all, this conclusion does not seem to be very controversial. Or original. Psychologists like Gilovich and Dunn arrived at the conclusion that spending money on experiences is making people happier than spending money on consumer goods much earlier. On the other hand, Wallman asks (and answers) whether this shift in spending on goods to experiences would be viable, whether people would change their behavior in large numbers to have a lasting effect on the economy. Of course, the anecdotal pieces of evidence still hint a the current stage of this idea’s dissemination and adoption: It’s still very, very early. Right now, experientialism seems something that is mostly for the financially (very) well off. Though, of course, these may be exactly the people who feel the most “stuffocated”, who have reached the end of material scarcity, and for whom time has become the ultimate scarce resource.

So, despite all the shortcomings there were a few parts of the book and ideas for which I am happy to have read Stuffocation.

For instance, I was surprised to find a(n interesting) discussion of the economic concept of GDP in the book. While Wallman’s perspective seems to be rather anti-business (“captains of consciousness”) he quite correctly points out: (only) what gets measured gets managed. Hence as long as there is no widely accepted replacement (or at least complement) for GDP that captures well-being the progress of society will be measured as the increase of the monetary value of the goods and services produced and sold and not as the increase in its citizens’ well-being, their quality of life.

And, Wallman gave a nice summary of why conspicuous spending on experiences is better in the sense of likely to make people happier than conspicuous spending on stuff. With stuff, it is almost always easy to rank what is the better (as a proxy the more expensive) thing. With experiences the cost may not serve anymore as a proxy for the quality: a “cheap” experience may still be great. Hence, there is less of a feeling of being behind, less pressure to upgrade and spend more.

Read: Inferno

It is interesting that I would unwittingly pick up two novels in a row with a plot motivated by the malthusian catastrophe. Since one was a science fiction and the other is rather a mystery novel they can be hardly compared. The moral dilemma caused by the problem (of overpopulation) and the proposed solution are (even) less satisfactorily discussed by Brown. He does neither reveal whether he considers the malthusian catastrophe a present thread (I do not) nor does he (openly) hint at his own position regarding the villains solution.

Yet, the villain is somehow de-demonized. Hence, maybe, Brown hints at his position after all.

After about two-thirds of the Novel the protagonist learns about several layers of deception that he had to experience during the past few hours. The reader learns he was deceived as well. The mystery of the novel is thus the result of being fooled by the authors. There is no intricate web of clues, no chance that the reader cold solve the mystery. Brown just deceives his readers. Honestly, I was quite annoyed.

The bottom line is, Inferno and Brown disappoint on more than just one level.

Read: The Age of Aging

Here is another popular science book that is related to my official professional interests: demographic change and age specific behavior in economic and political contexts. George Magnus did a nice job in collection data from various sources and present them in a way that non-scientist can see what is going on. Unfortunately this is about the only positive thing I can say about this book.

Most of its content really boils down to the results of some opinion polls that are linked to population projections and aim at picturing a dire future. I have to admit that Magnus does not aim at creating a dooms day panic, nevertheless he mostly wants to raise concern, to make you worry. Little room is dedicated to where actual chances of demographic change may be hidden.

I am a bit concerned about the links of current behavior of certain demographic groups and the resulting projections due to their different growth dynamics. First, the assumption of stable behavior of certain groups, i. e. stable preferences and stable opportunity sets within these groups, is too simplistic. And second, a simple multiplication of current types of behavior with projected (given the stability of behavior) population frequencies neglects any evolutionary dynamic that may alter the behavior. The quality of these projections is rather questionable. On the up-side, Magnus acknowledges these possible shortcomings on the very last pages of his book. Though by then, the reader may already be convinced of the imminent demise of his favorite way of living.