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Conspicuous non-consumption

Perhaps about fifteen years ago, Americans rediscovered that they could run barefoot. Some found that it helped with certain recurring injuries of theirs. You might think this would be terrible for shoe companies, but you underestimate the resourcefulness of the modern corporation. Shoe companies merely figured out how to market shoes for a person to run barefoot in. They look like this.

Vibram shoes

Now, it is hard to find shoes that aren’t “minimalist” in some way. (Separated toes are not necessary.) Stop for a moment and appreciate the significance of this. Shoe companies appropriated a trend to stop using their product to sell even more shoes. And the minimalist versions often need to be replaced more frequently. This is a huge business story that escaped notice, but it is not exactly a surprising story. Companies always seek to invent things to sell to people, even when what people are clamouring for is to be freed of companies.

Remember the Tom Hanks bit from You’ve Got Mail about how the variety of choices at Starbucks allows a person to assert their identity through their beverage choice?

Your car isn’t the subject of a bit. It actually does assert your identity.

Luckily, there is no one best identity available. Some people will guffaw at a Ferrari in favor of the Ram Laramie Longhorn Edition. Others will gravitate towards the Mercedes S-class.

barefoot runner

But those are the things you are supposed to want. There is a large and growing segment of the population who want something different than would be considered traditionally best. They seek to go beyond the game by not buying what they think companies think they are supposed to buy.
That’s why Julia Roberts drives a Prius.

If you want to consume, companies will happily sell you things to consume. If you want to not consume, companies will invent things to sell you to support that desire. That doesn’t make you or them bad. That’s just a description of what happens. And, yes, your 1995 Mazda 323 functions the same way as the used t-shirt from the thrift store. And that’s OK.

You don’t get to pick whether you play the game. Society will do it for you. Your consent was never requested. You are the kid with his arms firmly crossed in the middle of the playground who has been tagged “It” yelling out that you’re not playing.

Sorry. You’re still It. And doubly so if you have consciously decided against having a car.

It is possible that you simply happen to not have a car, particularly if you are young. But perhaps you go further and aggressively disown a car. Not owning a car is the pinnacle of your selected game. You one-upped Julia Roberts.

Minimalists might not own a lot of stuff, but they sure do own minimalism as an identity. Becoming Minimalist has over 250,000 monthly readers.

You ought to know how this song ends. Companies will sell minimalism to you.

Alex Dykes:

At $13,270 the Smart sounds like a great idea. Until you look at the price and discover a Nissan Versa sedan is 10% cheaper, seats 150% more people, carries more stuff, gets better fuel economy and has a transmission that doesn’t shift like a drunk 14 year old learning to drive a stick.

Alex misses the point of the Smart. That it seats fewer people, carries less stuff, and has a crappy transmission are all features. Those are key selling points. The Smart allows the buyer to aggressively not have extra seats. Taking out those seats is the same as Gap fading its jeans: a reason to charge more. To Alex’s traditionalist sensibilities, more and newer is better, but less is more in a way that matters to customers of Smart.

Smart car

The Smart car is for people who want their vehicle’s cheapness to be pitched as a status symbol. A Versa might actually be a cheaper, better car, but it doesn’t communicate that you have chosen cheapness as a virtue rather than simply having bought a cheap car.

Photo credits: Wikimedia Commons

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198 thoughts on “Conspicuous non-consumption

  1. Is this sort of like conspicuously green consumption?

    I must admit a high level of admiration for a shoe company figuring out how to sell shoes to people who want to run barefoot. Diabolical and deeply clever.

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    • If I was to run barefoot around the city, I’d worry about getting glass in my feet.
      Shoes are helpful, man.

      Vik,
      I need a car like I need a hole in the head. Who buys depreciating assets and is happy about it?

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      • Phillip,
        Nah, that was the military. National Security is impacted by the loss of our capability to make light infantry vehicles.
        [Note: I don’t know that the military actually stepped in here, but I do know that they would have, if needed.]

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      • Who buys depreciating assets and is happy about it?

        Most of the ~50% of the US population that lives in the suburbs. Yeah, if you’re careful there are places where you can manage by foot, bike, or transit, but for the most part you need a car. And all of the ~22% that live in rural areas. It’s part of the price tag for living in those places. I intend to keep my current vehicle until it dies (or I do, which is actually a possibility these days) and figure the straight-line depreciation is about $60 per month.

        The people who really take a hit on depreciation are the ones who insist on a big gaudy new vehicle every three years. Of course, one has to assume that they’re “happy” about it, since they keep making the same choice over and over.

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      • Michael,
        Not all the people way out in the boonies have cars (the amish).
        The “drive it off the lot” hit is pretty significant.

        How many people are truly happy to buy a new car? You don’t sound like you’d be.

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      • I think most of the people who insist on a new vehicle every three years have moved to leasing. Leases have gotten fairly cheap since manufacturers have found they can later sell them as certified pre-owned without incurring as much a markdown as a consumer would.

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      • The Amish and similar groups are an insignificant part of the rural population. They get publicity far out of proportion to their numbers simply because they’re so different. Some communities are taking a “between” path — they don’t own or drive vehicles, but they hire vehicles and drivers for various purposes. And lease land to outsiders who can own/operate electric equipment such as refrigeration to meet standards for storing milk until it’s collected for transport to a processing facility. My wife grew up near the Amish community centered around Yoder, KS — over the years, you see fewer and fewer horse-drawn carriages on the county roads there.

        I don’t enjoy buying new cars, but recognize that, where I’ve chosen to live, vehicles are necessary and owning the right vehicle is the lower cost way of meeting the need.

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      • Leases have gotten fairly cheap since manufacturers have found they can later sell them as certified pre-owned without incurring as much a markdown as a consumer would.

        This is a really cool win for everybody. It’s a very tidy solution to the “Market for Lemons” problem.

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      • TF, True it does to a large extent solve part of the lemon problem for at least leased vehicles. Also, the manufacturers tend to give warranties with them, which further placates potential buyers.

        Personally, I’ve never been tempted to buy such cars largely because they don’t seem all that much cheaper than the new ones. But for a lot of buyers the savings might be worthwhile.

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      • Mom had a pair of those permanently grafted to her feet! Funny brand name though, very obscure, Calluses(TM) or some such. You probably haven’t heard of it.

        Still, very tough & durable! She stepped on a thumbtack once, didn’t realize it until she started tapping on the kitchen floor as she walked.

        Mom was minimalist before minimalist was cool.

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    • Yeah, I know runners who wear them. It’s because they don’t like bleeding from their feet. The world is built for shoes — there’s not a lot of places the average Joe can run where you’re not risking at least brambles, if not far worse.

      I just went with shoes that are ‘minimalist’ in the sense that they’re regular running shoes, just not balanced or padded to force a heel strike. They’re..’neutral’..for lack of a better word.

      Then again, ever since I had plantar fasciitis I’ve used custom inserts (worth the cash!) and gotten all my shoes from a good running shop nearby. It takes about twice as long to find a shoe, but half their clientele is dedicated runners and the other half are people with foot problems.

      They’re VERY good about finding shoes that work with your foot, your gait, any problems you have, and what you want to do with them. Beats grabbing a random pair from the store hollow.

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      • I went to a fancy schmancy running store and bought whatever they recommended and the inserts and hated them (the inserts, not the shoes).

        Regarding cuts, I run with my dog (see avatar left), and one time he got a piece of glass stuck in his paw. I had to carry him all the way back home, which wasn’t much fun for either of us.

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      • My inserts were custom — as in, done at my podiatrist’s office using a mold of my foot. Took me about two weeks to get used to them (and one had to be sent back and altered a bit, as it wasn’t fitting right) but they’re fantastic.

        Then again, I had PF. I’d already done shots, stretches, more shots, packing, and ultimately ended up needing surgery (which is absolutely the last resort — anyone who tries to go straight to it? Find another podiatrist) so anything that cut down on the chances of getting it again?

        Yeah, count me in. I think it was 400 for the pair (insurance doesn’t cover them) but they’re good for 10 years or so and worth every penny.

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      • I went through a lot of different shoes before settling on the Vibram Five Fingers. The first few trips out with them were enlightening. After about a quarter of a mile, some muscle somewhere starts screaming for mercy and you stop for the day. After a while, my gait was improving and I was developing a lot of strength in my feet and lower legs. I guess the problem was that the corrective shoes were hiding the underdeveloped muscles and just letting me pound away on it until something else hurt rather than forcing me to stop and build the strength and springiness I needed. After a few months with the minimalist shoes, I found I could wear a whole variety of shoes and be fine.

        Not sure I’d recommend them for ultra marathon runners, but they were a good training program, and as others noted, you end up with a lot less blood on the floor after a run if you don’t go “really” barefoot. They’re also super comfortable (if you happen to have a foot shaped like the shoe maker’s concept of what a foot should be) and you feel like a little kid walking around in public places with no shoes on. Fun.

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  2. Great essay. I always thought the point of those shoeless things are for people who would be afraid to run barefoot because of shards of glass and other painful objects. Me, I will stick with sneakers.

    As I’ve mentioned a million times, I’ve always thought anti-consumerism on the left was a weird cause. Mainly because it seems targeted at certain industries and not others and there are all sorts of psychological and tribal issues involved. In my eyes, spending thousands of dollars on tattoos or computer/video game stuff is equivalent to someone who spends thousands of dollars on handbags, clothing, wine, or whatever.

    Try telling this to an anti-consumerist or anti-materialist and you will get an earful. They will tell you about how tattoos and video games are ethically and morally superior because they are about individual identity and encourage geeky eaglitarianism as opposed to fashion or wine which are unethical industries that exploit foreign workers and make people feel bad for not affording the latest fashions and body myth issues. Wouldn’t the world be better if we all wore geeky t-shirts, non descript jeans, and chucks? Never mind that video game systems are manufactured in factories with poor labor conditions, the industry and culture does have a well-documented sexism problem, and everyone getting a random Asian character and saying it has deep spiritual meaning to them is non-sense.

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    • NewDealer,
      My problem, generally, with “fashion” is that most people lack style and charisma, and try to make up for it by purchasing “whatever’s in”. I’d have just as much problem with someone being … so pretentious, and non-discerning… if they were doing it with anything else.

      I buy Appalachian Jug Wine. Because I like it. I don’t do it because other people like it, or because it will raise my status, or make me look cool. Because, um, it really doesn’t. It’s not considered classy.

      I’d far, far, far rather find someone who actually thinks about what they’re doing (be it handbags or capirote or Freddy Mercury Moustaches), and I think I’d learn a ton by talking with them.

      Problem is: such folks are hard to find.

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      • Most cosplayers don’t have the right body types to really look like their character but geeks still things its cool. Even if most people who strive to dress fashionably really can’t pull it off, it really shouldn’t be denounced. People like looking good.

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      • Kim,

        I disagree.

        Charisma is relative and subjective and can often be based on interest. Yes, there are people like you describe who don’t have much personality and act like the
        “cool kids” at a suburban high school. But fashion can equally be about art and design and it is fun to notice all the details and intricacies of design.

        The best fashion is often about subtle details or doing takes of stuff.

        http://gentrynyc.com/collections/all-footwear/products/stanley-alpine-brogue

        These shoes might look like an ordinary wingtip to some people but I think the choice to make them out of green leather is interesting. They can be dressed up or down and look equally good with a gray suit or a pair of jeans/cords.

        Now this is different than people going for mainstream luxury brands like Louis Vuitton or Gucci or Prada or Coach but even those companies have interesting stuff that is not ultra-branded and immediately recognizable.

        There are plenty of geek conversations which are highly enjoyable to the participants but to me seem rather dull because they mainly seem to consist of quoting scenes from various movies, novels, TV shows, and graphic novels on a never ending loop.

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      • Lee,
        Oh, I’m not saying people shouldn’t try to look good!

        I’m saying I hate copycats and syncophants, and there
        are TONS in “fashion”.

        Of course, I also understand that clothing doesn’t make
        the man. Attitude, bearing, etc, etc. (Insert the famous
        anecdote about a woman general, looking like the
        secretary until everyone had arrived. Square shoulders,
        look everyone in the eye, and suddenly everyone realized
        “oh, that’s the general”)

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      • NewDealer,
        Someone who really enjoyed fashion would be equally at home discussing:
        http://megamitensei.wikia.com/wiki/Tomoe?file=P4-TomoeGozen.png
        as looking at those wingtips.

        (Personally, I find a lot more interest in Persona 4’s designs — though that may be that I understand the cultural touchstones a bit better).

        I don’t claim to be a fan of fashion, but I’m interested in how those shoes are tied. Is that purely aesthetic? Is it a reference to an older mode? Does that play into the novelty of the shoe itself?

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      • I disagree. Why should I be interested in discussing magna and anime if I do not watch or read it and don’t care to. The shoes are tied in a way for display at a store. People generally switch the lacing once purchased or when trying them on. Why does everything have to be geek-friendly or centric. I don’t find the scene to be as equal or universal and friendly as its proponents make it out to be.

        http://www.fieggen.com/shoelace/displayshoelacing.htm

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    • I want to disabuse the audience of any notion that I am saying that you should not wear shoes and instead go barefoot. As the commentariat has noted, there are actual benefits to wearing something that will prevent you from getting cuts. I don’t judge the people who wear the shoes or the companies that make them.

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    • My comments seems to have been eaten.

      Why should I be equally at home discussing anime and magna? Why should I care to if I don’t watch much anime or read much magna? You make it seem like there is a moral requirement for everyone to be a geek and like geek things like anime and magna.

      I don’ think the world would be a shiny happy kindergarten if we all liked stuff like anime, manga, gaming, SF, Fantasy, Filk, etc. It is not a more ethical subculture than any other subculture despite what people in said subculture seem to think.

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      • NewDealer,
        no, you mistake me Entirely.
        I say that if you like fashion, you ought to enjoy discussing the design choices for that outfit. I’d say it’s a pretty good design, myself — feel free to disagree (fair warning: saying it’s awful because it was done for a video game will get you put into the “poseur” category).

        I don’t think zic’s husband, who is an avowed music afficianado and practitioner, would fail to analyze and critique ANYTHING that is musical. Even background music, or the use of sound effects to create mood in a video game. Those may not be “traditional” music — but they’re useful sources of inspiration, if nothing else.

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    • Spending money on luxuries and entertainment is spending money on luxuries and entertainment. There are certainly valid moral questions about how much money we spend on those things when using our money in other ways could save people from starvation, disease, and ignorance, but the type of luxuries and entertainment is generally a matter of taste, not morality or ethics.

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  3. This is slightly off-topic, but within the sports medicine world the whole notion of barefoot running is fraught with controversy. There are studies that seem to support both sides of the question.

    For my part, I’m sticking with shoes.

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    • Yeah, I stayed away from it for those reasons. I mean, the “pros” listed are pretty awesome but I’ll wait for it to get settled. (Although it does seem a LOT of the cons can be boiled down to ‘Idiot runner decided to replicate his normal run barefoot/minimal shoes like he’s run that way all his life. Instead of, you know, starting from scratch to recondition his feet and legs to an entirely new stride and movement pattern like a SANE PERSON’).

      Screwing up your feet sucks. Everything takes so much longer to heal because, you know, you walk on them.

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    • Clancy’s coworker is something of an expert on barefoot running (he was at the Boston Marathon, though wasn’t injured). He’s written books on it and such. He sells special shoes, so he’s not all about shoelessness, but I’d never heard of it until recently.

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    • Interesting! What do the claims say on each side?

      I find paleo-arguments to be kind of silly. Maybe humans were meant to live as hunter-gatherers or in things that resemble the Shire but those days (if they ever existed) are long gone and we need to work with the fact that we have 7 billion people and civilizations.

      This is a debate I get into with friends on the extreme left or ultra-environmentalists who like to spin dystopian fantasies about civilization collapsing because of climate change and imagining resource wars that kill billions.

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      • They essentially compare injury rates between standard shoe runners vs. barefoot or minimalist shoe runners. Some studies show more injuries in the former, some in the latter. It’s far from a settled question, and the benefit is still ambiguous.

        And my big argument against the whole “how we were ‘meant’ to run” idea = pavement.

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      • So, um, what do you do about the people who are crazy? Do you lock them up?
        (note: this is running under the theory, I emphasize Theory, that something in the paleo diet made these traits actually adaptive. Maybe it ameliorated the crazy, maybe they’re just crazy because they’re missing a critical nutrient).

        “Live with it” seems like remarkably selfish advice, if you’re not the one who has to live with it.

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      • Effectively, the best argument seems to be: “You run barefoot differently than you run in shoes, especially modern ultra-heel padded shoes that promote landing on your heel. That’s not a natural stride for most people, so it’s probably not that great for you”.

        There’s studies and stuff, even some bio-physics stuff about shock absorption and tendons and kinetic energy and whatnot, but boiled down it’s “Modern running shoes change most people’s strides, and you end up running in a way that is likely to cause certain injuries”.

        That’s the…non-gung-ho version. And unlike paleo-arguments in general, there IS something to be said for your body’s basic movement designs which I think is more convincing than a lot of ‘what’s natural’ and ‘what isn’t’.

        My take is really that there’s something to be said for designing running shoes so they don’t encourage landing on your heels so much (but not necessarily running with foot gloves though). I sincerely doubt it’s a cure for all the foot ills of runners, especially when some runners throw themselves into it without considering they’ve conditioned their body to run one way and now expect it to perform identically in a totally different way.

        You’re ALWAYS going to hurt yourself and cause injuries if you push your body too far and too fast, without letting it adapt. Heck, people run into that problem just moving from jogging on treadmills to streets — because treadmills have a lot more ‘give’ than concrete. Going from thickly padded shoes where you always land on your heel to running mid-foot or front is gonna just murder your shins and feet if you don’t start small.

        Whether it’s all that much better for your feet, I dunno. It’s probably not any worse. We managed running barefoot (or in unpadded moccasin style shoes or boots) for millions of years. The ground was probably a bit softer though. :)

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    • I have the ultimate method of avoiding this conundrum altogether: I don’t run. Or rather, I only run short distances, like sprints.

      I do have a pair of Vibrams Five Fingers that I use for weight training and HIIT and I do like the extra sense of connection to ground/stability. It’s very tactile.

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      • Rest assured, I am not doing anything strange with your fingers.

        And as you mention below, the portability of the Vibrams, and minimalist shoes in general, are great. They take up much less space in a bag.

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      • I only jog because my doctor looks at me with sad, sad, doctor eyes and expresses concern over my fitness levels.

        And I jog on a treadmill. Slowly. ‘Lumbering’ is probably more apt.

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      • So, this is something that is off-topic, but about which I’d love to talk.

        If your goal is maintaining a minimum level of fitness and a healthy weight (yes, I am being completely pre-body acceptance right now), how useful is running? Some people really like running, but I see a lot of people running who don’t particularly look like they’re enjoying it and who look like they’d be better served in the gym doing squats and burpees.

        I find Crossfit to be really goofy in its excessive attitude and constant self-reflection, but at least it has gotten a lot of people to see the benefits of strength training.

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      • jr,
        You need to do some cardio. Seriously, it’s a good thing.
        However, running is excessively stressful on joints.
        I climb stairs, I hike, I walk up Cardiac Hill.

        Strength training is fine, but — how often do you need it?
        “Carry 50lbs home from the grocery store” isn’t strength.
        It’s endurance. (Also stupid. Still paying for it days later.
        Endurance Training is a bitch).

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      • JR,

        Swimming is good, if you have a convenient pool. Or a gym with one. It’s a nice, full body workout and excellent for the heart and lungs, it’s low impact. Swap between breaststroke and freestyle and you’re gold.

        I’d be doing that rather than jogging if I could, but I use a treadmill so less impact problems than running streets.

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      • When I’m in a good flow, I love running. I crave it. But if you see me at mile 10, the look on my face may say otherwise.

        If I could play pickup ball regularly, I’d bet its a better workout that a long run. But its hard to find a regular run. If I had time/money for Crossfit, I’d probably do that… But without all the Facebook posts. I also do weight work, but running is nice because it’s cheap, can be done independent of others, and is portable.

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      • There’s also raquetball. Hard to find courts these days (most gyms converted them to rooms for spin class or hot yoga or whatever — much more money for 30 people in a room than two), but it’s excellent cardio.

        Assuming you and your opponent are even vaguely competitive.

        It’s pretty much flat out sprints every 10 seconds. You don’t go far, but your heart keeps having to kick it into high gear every time you’re up.

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      • If your goal is maintaining a minimum level of fitness and a healthy weight (yes, I am being completely pre-body acceptance right now), how useful is running?

        From the research I’ve seen, the effect of exercise on weight is very questionable. But the effect of exercise on fitness and health is well-established, and running…is exercise.

        There are probably activities that are “better” than running in some ways. Maybe you would be better off doing burppees, but personally, I think we spend too much time thinking and researching what exercises to do according to what plan and schedule and not enough time just doing whatever exercise is available and convenient even if it isn’t ideal.

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      • I hate to quote the Freakonomics guys again (because I tend to find them overly simplistic), but they did a podcast on the “best exercise” and ultimately found that whatever exercise you’re going to do is the “best one”. If there is a better exercise but which you won’t do, it’s of little use.

        I find this true for me with regards to running. I’ve learned the basics of how to run with proper “barefoot” form, but I have no interest in spending months doing 100M jogs to perfect the form. My current running style causes me no pain or discomfort and I like doing it. So while there might be a technically better form, it would not be an improvement for me because I simply wouldn’t do it. It’s a discipline issue, I know, but nonetheless, it’s how I am.

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    • I use shoes, though they are sometimes more “minimalist” than what I used to buy simply because that’s what the running shoe companies are selling.

      I do have a pair of floppy kind of shoes (though without the individual toes) that are convenient to take if I travel.

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      • Perhaps near the water, so people can take a dip to cool off after their run; someplace sunny, where people could work on their tans…

        We’ll call it “B33CH” (kids love that newfangled text-speak). We’ll make a mint.

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      • Ah but with the beach you still have the problem with the sand being hot or shells potentially cutting off your feet. A lot of Americans live no where near beach to. Its all fine and well if your on the East Coast, West Coast, or Hawaii but what about the Mid-Westerners.

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      • …but what about the Mid-Westerners.

        Yep. I can’t speak to tribes farther east, but the Plains Indians before the Spanish (accidently) introduced horses walked or ran everywhere. And wore two-part moccasins, with soles made out of thicker tougher leather. If you ever hike across a more-or-less original-condition part of the Great Plains, you notice that there’s a lot of hard sharp things to step on.

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    • Yes, I do, but my city has accommodating spaces. They are generally paid, so you get a full car length whether you need it or not.

      I do acknowledge ease of parking as a benefit of the Smart car as I acknowledge avoiding cuts as a benefit of wearing minimalist shoes. There are few products that really have absolutely no benefits beyond their conspicuity. A Prius, after all, does actually get good gas mileage and a fancy purse will hold things (and sometimes hold things slightly better).

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      • Well, being in Boston, I’d love to have that car for parking, although I detest parking in general and take the train whenever I reasonably can. (Which is also good for my fitness since I end up walking far more.)

        I think those toe-shoes look positively ridiculous. Seems a lot of those “life hacker” type dudebros wear them. About which, to me that crowd seems less minimalist and more — uh — well — don’t quite have a good word for them. Usually when I’m among such people I steer the conversation toward math.

        I love my expensive handbags. They’re pretty.

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      • I love my expensive handbags. They’re pretty.

        My attitude on this has shifted somewhat recently. If you’re going to be wearing something, or carrying it around with you on a regular basis, why not make it something that you think looks nice?

        I’ve found myself spending more on shirts than I thought I would. Mostly because there are only so many shirts I can wear. I might as well wear ones I like and sometimes that spark conversations (“You’re a fan of the Blue Beetle? Me too!”). It’s a pretty minor expense in the greater scheme of things.

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      • If you’re going to be wearing something, or carrying it around with you on a regular basis, why not make it something that you think looks nice?

        It’s really easy for men to feel indignant about the cost of handbags. It is just bag, isn’t it? And then they’ll go buy a $45,000 BMW because they are going to be using it every day after all.

        It took me a long time, but I’ve finally accepted that if I don’t understand why someone bought something it’s probably a problem with my own understanding of their situation than a problem with them or what they bought.

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      • Vikram,
        this is all a part of the “women are more for looking at” than for actually being functional members of society.
        Of course, we can all tell that men designed women’s underwear… (if you can’t, ask a lady. when she’s done laughing, she may explain).

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      • long have I been jealous of women’s purses. When I’m working, I can carry a briefcase. But socially, men by convention do not carry their objects and tools around. My wallet is hugely thick with stuff I use only occasionally and I’ve had to develop a complex ritual of stuffing and periodically checking my pockets for keys, electronic devices, sunglasses, etc. since this the only male-appropriate way to carry around stuff. “Man-bags” just don’t cut it socially. Belt holsters for cell phones look dorky and there are only limited situations in which wearing tool belts is socially appropriate.

        My friend has an idea that is a half-joke, half-brilliant solution to the problem: bandoliers of pockets. Masculine (because they reference weaponry and are worn close to the body), practical (you could easily access things in the pockets of the bandolier), and at least sort of ergonomic. Downsides would include huge vulnerability in physical confrontations, and visible dorkiness as you give the impression that you’re impersonating the president of a banana republic.

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      • visible dorkiness as you give the impression that you’re impersonating the president of a banana republic.

        Did I ever mention the Halloween that I decided to go as Fielding Mellish, but everyone naturally assumed I was Fidel Castro?

        I think my only less-understood costume was the year I went as Harvey Birdman, Attorney at Law. I even had business cards!

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      • The thing I’ve never figured out about womens’ clothing is the use of a single nebulous number to describe its dimensions. Men get measurements in inches along critical dimensions. Easy. Women, who have a more complex set of shapes and contours to deal with, get one unitless number with absolutely no standardization. Good luck.

        Of course, I’m hearing that mens’ clothing is starting to do the “vanity sizing” thing where they make something with a 38 inch waist and mark it as a 36 so you feel like you’re thinner. I wish nothing but suffering on whoever came up with that idea.

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      • Agreed, — my ego may be pleased in the store but the lie will soon enough cost me a very cramped gut as my belly expandeth to ever-greater proportions based upon my thought that I can relax a little bit with the portion control under the mistaken belief that now that I can fit into a smaller size.

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      • Yep, those are the man-bags of which I wrote earlier. Too big and bulky, and still dorky looking. I also tried using a smaller camera bag for a while. Wasn’t particularly utilitarian (perhaps I chose the wrong one) and the strap was constantly winding up in an awkward and unflattering position.

        Backpacks are another idea, as long as I don’t mind looking like a creepy middle-aged college student.

        So I’m back to lots of stuff in my pockets and a wallet that’s fat with a bunch of things that aren’t money.

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      • Burt,
        Way better than my Kelty, which had the unfortunate effect of looking like I was wearing a picnic basket on my back.

        v,
        why do I have the sneaking suspicion you could pull that look off? ;-P

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      • that’s a load of crap on ‘man bags don’t cut it.’ It’s that your comfort with a man bag doesn’t cut it.

        My recommendation: go find a really nice leather computer case/brief case with a shoulder strap, and start by carrying that. It will help ease you into comfort carrying a man bag. Because that’s the real key to pulling any look off; feeling good about it and confident. If it doesn’t give you a bit of a swagger, somebody will notice the discomfort and be a jerk.

        Cultivate the swagger.

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      • you are likely right with your more precise description of what’s going on. There are times that I like to think that I don’t care what other people think of my appearance, but that too is a load of crap. (That my wife teased me about carrying a “purse” didn’t help, of course. I’m going to stop caring about what she thinks, as opposed to what anyone else on Earth thinks, last.)

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  4. You don’t get to pick whether you play the game.

    Yeah, you do. You don’t get to choose what game other people think you’re playing, but fish them. To me, there’s nothing more boring and inane than Tom Wolfe-style characterization by listing possessions.

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    • True, you can adopt that attitude. But others will nevertheless score you. If you’re independent enough you won’t let that bother you, but the required level of independence is more often claimed than actually held.

      “I don’t care what people think” very often means “I still care deeply about what some much smaller subgroup that’s not in the mainstream thinks.”

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      • Here’s what you wrote in the OP:

        You don’t get to pick whether you play the game. Society will do it for you. Your consent was never requested. You are the kid with his arms firmly crossed in the middle of the playground who has been tagged “It” yelling out that you’re not playing.

        It seems to me you’re confusing a person’s intentions to play the game with a judgement from others that someone is actually playing the game. I mean, it’s a logical truth that I either have a car or don’t have a car, and given the theory in question understands either of those options as entailing that I’m intentionally signalling some behavior or other, then it’s logically necessary (like a priori true) that I’m playing the signalling game. That seems like a pretty strong claim, no?

        I mean, look: Veronica just gave a perfectly reasonable, non-signalling based reason to buy a Smart car, yes? Would that refute the strong version of the theory? Lots (and lots) of people buy cars for purely utilitarian reasons, or purely aesthetic reasons (or whatever) which have nothing to do with signalling. The fact that you can analyze their behavior in terms of a desire to signal something to others implies, to me anyway, that the theory – or one version of the theory – isn’t empirically based.

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      • This might be area where all things are true and there is no correct answer.

        Vikram has conceded that there are practical reasons and purposes to many if not all purchases from the five finger running shoes to Smart cars. My mini-cooper is very practical for city life. It also has a cool factor. I like both the practical and cool factor aspects.

        The same is true for my love of craft beer. I do think it does taste really good. I am also probably making signals about being cool and knowing that mass produced stuff is no good.

        There is also a broader point that people who like to make snide comments about materialism and consumerism and how people are corporate sheep for liking their purchases are probably hypocrites and going through a phase.

        I don’t expect everyone to be into the same things but that does not make people who dislike fashion morally superior to people who dig clothing. It is not unethical to strive and have ambition and want things that are well designed and aesthically pleasing (which is a completely subjective value) over being content with whatever.
        There are nice things that I want and I am willing to work for them. This might make me a silly yuppie in the eyes of many but I don’t care.

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      • It seems to me you’re confusing a person’s intentions to play the game with a judgement from others that someone is actually playing the game.

        Yes, that is a fair critique of the phrasing I used. I think we’re on the same page now that it would have been more precise for me to say that everyone is ranked as if they were playing regardless of how enthusiastic or apathetic they are towards the game.

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      • Vik,
        except they aren’t. Some people are rich, others aren’t. People grade your game based on your means, no?
        Still, it is possible to play the game of “ordinary shmo” even if you are rich.

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    • This is an important caveat to the post. To say that everyone is playing the game, even those who aren’t playing is a fairly accurate statement, but it papers over a whole lot of nuance and meaningful difference.

      You can have two people engaged in the exact same activity and one can be completely sincere and the other can be an absolute poseur. More, sometimes it’s really difficult to tell the difference and sometimes it is plain as day who is who.

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      • This is a good point. I’ve been told by people “I can tell you are sincerely into fashion, art, design, theatre, high culture, etc” as compared to others who are poseurs about it.

        I think certain interests and activities often get attacked more frequently for being seen as tools of being in the realm of poseurs and usually this is high culture stuff. “You don’t sincerely like Truffaut movies or abstract art, do you?” is a common refrain.

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    • In our society, you can opt out of materialism and consumerism only up to a point. Complete off-the-grid self-sufficiency is not a realistic or practical possibility. You need at minimum food, clean water, sanitation, clothing shelter, medical care. And internet access and tech stuff if you’re going to post on Ordinary Times. This means at least some participation in the world of consumer transactions.

      There are likely economic, physiological, and hedonic advantages to be realized in opting down. But opting out is just not going to happen any time in the foreseeable future.

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    • I know what all the marketing people are thinking right now too, “Oh, you know what Bill’s doing, he’s going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market, he’s very smart.”

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  5. The Freakonomics guys wrote about this, I believe referring to it as Conspicuous Conservation. They discussed people who put solar panels on the shady side of the house because it faced the street and other such silliness.

    However, I think you are wrong that one can not opt out of the game. Will people judge me because of what I put on my feet or what I drive or what I wear? Sure they will. I can’t opt out of that. But I can opt out of making choices with a deliberate intention to signal.

    Case in point: I own a green jacket that apparently has a Ferrari logo on it. I say apparently because I do not know what the Ferrari logo looks like. I own this jacket because a friend left it at my apartment and rebuffed my attempts to return it. But I like it. It fits well, is lightweight enough for spring wear, and I think it looks good. One time, I was out wearing it and a guy came up to me excitedly, “You should see my [insert name of something to do with Ferraris here].” “Huh?” “Your coat [pointing at logo].” “That horse thing?” “Yea. It’s the Ferrari logo. I’m a big Ferrari guy.” So big in fact that other people who worked with the guy (he was a museum docent) came up and said, “Wait until Bill sees this coat!” “This horse coat?” “This Ferrari coat!”

    So, those people were getting a signal that I didn’t send them. They received it but I didn’t send it. The extent to which they might adjust their behavior towards me because of the assumption that I’m sending it is out of my control.

    Like the kid playing tag. Everyone can insist he’s it. But if he walks off the school yard and goes home, their insistence will ultimately mean nothing.

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    • Not if you get punched or actually harassed, it doesn’t.
      My husband has a shirt, A Boston Shirt, that he can’t
      wear outside the house (it was cheap, a random shirt
      from woot.)

      What does the shirt say?
      “Ain’t no party like a boston party” (with, naturally, a teabag on it).

      It wasn’t made to be a teaparty shirt.

      It’s still not advisable to wear outside. Even to fuck with people’s heads.

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  6. While it’s certainly the case that “opting out” is “opting in” to something else, I’d argue that there are some important distinctions. Conspicuous consumption isn’t evil, but it does arguably have negative effects and has comparatively few social benefits. Even when for the most vain of reasons, minimalism can encourage conservation. A Smart might be a status marker, in its own way, but it can represent a more socially beneficial status hierarchy than a Mercedes. The same applies to a Prius.

    Of course, minimalism and expense can be rolled into one. Wherein a person spends a whole lot of money on something most people can’t afford and says “See? I care about the environment more than other people do!” But that’s still better than “See? I bought a Mercedes because I can afford the finer things.”

    I have no comment on the shoes other than the above about my wife working with an authority on the area. She bought shoes from his store that don’t look like the ones listed, though are minimalist in the sense that they are lightweight.

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    • Even when for the most vain of reasons, minimalism can encourage conservation.

      Totally agree. If someone trades in their car for a bike even in part as a move within a status game it’s still a car off the road and a person getting some exercise.

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  7. The Smart allows the buyer to aggressively not have extra seats.

    Great line. It’s easy to imagine someone using that line to pitch the product to investors.

    Designer/marketing guru: “Here’s some drawings and specs on a new idea we have.”

    Investor: “Hmmm. It looks like a ridiculously tiny car lacking passenger room or carrying capacity that gets worse fuel efficiency than comparable sedans. Why would anyone want to buy it?”

    D/PRG: “Because it allows people to aggressively demonstrate their commitment to minimalism.”

    Investor: “At a higher price with lower utility? {{engages in some mental calculations involving very abstract concepts including double negations at a very meta level}} Yes. YES! Of course!”

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      • That’s what the story highlights, actually. That you think the word “utility” is defined exclusively in terms of subjective preferences doesn’t mean I have to use it that way. :)

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      • That you think the word “utility” is defined exclusively in terms of subjective preferences doesn’t mean I have to use it that way. :)

        Nor does it mean that I have to refrain from pointing out error.

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      • Is not “utility” the following:

        A class of variables in a set of models that sometimes do a mediocre job of matching the world, but that have no obvious, independent meaning outside of how the interact with other variables in the model.

        To me that sums it up.

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      • It’s only an error if you believe the word “utility” is unambiguously defined in terms of subjective preferences.

        And so by definition, it is an error. That some people can’t wrap their minds around the subjectivity of utility–that they somehow foolishly imagine a world where everyone gains the same amount of utility (or disutility) from some good or service–is not a good reason to suggest they may be correct; rather, it is the very error itself.

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      • James,

        Here’s the first sentence on the Wiki Utility page:

        Utility is usefulness, the ability of something to satisfy needs or wants.

        According to that definition, utility is a property of an object (or state of affairs) which can in turn be subjectively valued (wanted, desired, rejected, etc) by individuals. Utility is not identical to wants and desires (which are emotions and/or beliefs) , nor is it identical to expressions of wants or desires revealed by expressed preferences.

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      • “Utility is usefulness, the ability of something to satisfy needs or wants.”
        According to that definition, utility is a property of an object

        No, your interpretation does not follow, because of the critical importance of the terms “satisfy,” “needs,” and “wants”. The same object may satisfy your needs/wants but not mine. Or it may satisfy both of us, but satisfy you more than me. And yet the qualities of the object have not changed. So an object’s usefulness (not a good definition of utility, but we’ll get to that) is itself subjective, even though the object’s qualities are objective, because one of us may have (more) use for the object than the other does.

        Also, you cut off the definition too quickly. The sentence immediately following the one you quoted says,
        Utility is an important concept in economics and game theory, because it represents satisfaction experienced by the consumer of a good.

        Utility, as it notes here, represents individual satisfaction.

        Further quoting you,
        Utility is not identical to wants and desires…
        Of course not, and of course I never said so. The very idea is ludicrous–a want or desire indicates a lack of utility, a need for more utility.

        nor is it identical to expressions of wants or desires revealed by expressed preferences.

        In fact it roughly is. To cite from your own source again,
        In the simplest sense, economists consider utility to be revealed in people’s willingness to pay different amounts for different goods.

        Wiki also has a page for “marginal utility,” properly defining it as “the marginal utility of a good or service is the gain from an increase or loss from a decrease in the consumption of that good or service.”

        “Marginal” utility is a nonsensical concept in reference to an object whose objective qualities do not change, but is perfectly sensible in reference to a person whose needs, desires, satisfaction-of-use can change. So again we see that utility is in reference to the individual who uses the object, rather than the object itself.

        We call also look at the Concise Encyclopedia of Economists (entries written by economists willing to put their name on them–god only knows who’s been tinkering with any given Wiki page). It has not entry specifically for utility, but in the entry for microeconomics, it says,
        people try to get the most from what they have to sell, and to satisfy their desires as much as possible. In microeconomics this is translated into the notion of people maximizing their personal “utility,” or welfare.

        Utility is personal welfare. I have a friend who’s allergic to bananas, which I love to eat. A single banana, with no change in its objective qualities, has vastly different effects on our “personal ‘utility,’ or welfare,” so the utility must be dependent on something other than just the banana’s objective qualities.

        And from the article on neoclassical economics, written by a different economist,
        Buyers attempt to maximize their gains from getting goods, and they do this by increasing their purchases of a good until what they gain from an extra unit is just balanced by what they have to give up to obtain it. In this way they maximize “utility”—the satisfaction associated with the consumption of goods and services.

        Utility is satisfaction. Again, that’s a personal and subjective attribute.

        I do not comprehend why this is such a bugaboo for you, why it is so important to assert a concept of objective utility for which you have not produced a logical argument. You have done a fine job of arguing that objects have objective characteristics (not that I’ve ever been in opposition to such a claim), but have not demonstrated that any particular set of objective characteristics have the same value for any two people, or even for any one person at all times.

        In conflating the objective qualities with utility itself, you have ignored that the same objective qualities do not always even have the same effects–if eating a banana can result in great utility for me, but great disutility for my friend, then the banana itself cannot have utility. It can only have objective characteristics that enable some, but not all, people to gain utility. (In the same way, a windsurfer relies on the objective qualities of wind to produce speed, but we would not say that the wind “is” speed.)

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      • Let me add that on these types of subjects I’m not in the business of finding definitions that appeal to me for reasons other than that they help explain the world better than some other definition. There’s a reason the economics profession takes the view that utility is subjective, which is that it’s far more parsimonious explanation of human behavior than is the assumption of objective utility. If that hammer has objective utility, but I gain more welfare from its use than you, then there is still a critical something that is subjective, and the value of that hammer to me is within that area of subjectivity. Economists call that area “utility.” If you prefer to use utility to refer to the objective characteristics of the hammer, fine, I guess, but a) you won’t really be able to effectively engage in conversation with anyone who uses utility in the normal sense of the word, and b) you’ll still need to address the issue of the subjective value an individual experiences from utility-as-objective-characteristic-of-object to explain human behavior–it’s still the important issue that needs to be understood, so all you’ll have done is applied the standard term to something different, without having in any way rebutted the critical concept of subjective value. A rose by any other name, right?

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      • James, I find very little ti disagree with in that comment, which makes me think that we’re attributing views to each other than neither of us hold. Well, that’s pretty par for the course on that score.

        I do think you’re wrong in when you say, or imply, that utility just is revealed preference. Or as you say “roughly”. That’s just wrong. Here’s the quote:

        In the simplest sense, economists consider utility to be revealed in people’s willingness to pay different amounts for different goods.

        The logic of the sentence structure (as well as the semantics, I’d say) are inconsistent with you’re interpretation. If utility is the thing being revealed, then utility cannot be the revelation. Those are distinct things. We can infer subjectively determined values from individuals revealed preferences, but the thing they value is a property of an object (or state of affairs), and the object so valued has utility insofar as that individual believes it achieves their values.

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      • Stillwater,

        The only view I am attributing to you is that utility is not subjective, and I only do so because you keep arguing that it is not subjective. Stop making that claim, and I’ll stop attributing that position to you.

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      • For what it’s worth, I’m going to throw my hat in on the “utility is subjective as measured by the consumer” side. A lot of economic thinking breaks if you try to make it work as an intrinsic property of the item.

        I know economists sometimes talk about intrinsic value, but they’re still ultimately referring to a property that is subjective from person to person. If utility was truly intrinsic to the good, you wouldn’t experience things like diminishing marginal utility (or even a concept of marginal utility at all).

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      • Troublesome Frog and James,

        The definition of “utility” I quoted is the following: Utility is usefulness, the ability of something to satisfy needs or wants. Whether or not we view that property as intrinsic or not (and it seems to me that since it’s an ability (or what should be called a “capability” more accurately, it seems to me) and therefore a possibility, that property might be intrinsic) the definition itself includes needs and wants which are properties of individuals.

        I’m not sure what view you guys think I’m expressing here, but in all these comments I’m using the standard economic definition of the term, and that definition entails that utility is not identical to revealed preferences.

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      • James,

        Rereading your comment, this caught my eye:

        people try to get the most from what they have to sell, and to satisfy their desires as much as possible. In microeconomics this is translated into the notion of people maximizing their personal “utility,” or welfare.

        If individual I is attempting to maximize his personal welfare, and when presented with a choice between A and B he chooses A, we say that A has higher utility for I than B. That is, A satisfies I’s wants and desires more than B does. That analysis invokes the standard definition of the term (so far as I know), the one I quoted, and presumably the definition that you’re rejecting.

        How would you analyze I, A, B, utility and welfare differently than I am?

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      • If individual I is attempting to maximize his personal welfare, and when presented with a choice between A and B he chooses A, we say that A has higher utility for I than B. That is, A satisfies I’s wants and desires more than B does. That analysis invokes the standard definition of the term (so far as I know), the one I quoted, and presumably the definition that you’re rejecting.

        Oh, for Christ’s sake, we’re going down your rabbit hole of idiosyncratic Stillwaterisms again aren’t we? Look, it’s simple: utility is what the individual gets out of something (or else the concept of marginal utility makes no sense), it’s not a quality of the object. The object makes gains in utility possible, through its usefulness, but utility is the satisfaction, the welfare gained, from use of the item.

        As long as you insist on seeing utility as inhering in the item itself, instead of what welfare gain we get from the item–a welfare gain that differs, forthe same item, between you and me–you are not thinking like an economist.

        If we say an item “has utility,” it’s just a shorthand way of saying “I–personally, subjectively–experience an increase in utility when I use this item.” You’re confusing the shorthand version for the more technical understanding, it appears, and reifying “utility” of objects that in fact do not have objective degrees of usefulness or value, but are only useful, valuable, in proportion with our subjective gains in utility from using them.

        I have no interest in going further down the rabbit hole with you on this.

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      • Damn, I feel sorry for your students.

        You’re confusing the shorthand version for the more technical understanding, it appears, and reifying “utility” of objects that in fact do not have objective degrees of usefulness or value, but are only useful, valuable, in proportion with our subjective gains in utility from using them.

        No, that’s not what I’m doing at all. Utility – as per the definition – is a relational property between an object or state of affairs and individuals, one that’s mediated by wants and desires and expressed by acting according to ranked preferences. That you can’t understand what I’m saying doesn’t mean it’s not clear or intelligible.

        On the other hand, you wrote

        If we say an item “has utility,” it’s just a shorthand way of saying “I–personally, subjectively–experience an increase in utility when I use this item.”

        which is unintelligible unless we say it’s circular. According to the accepted definition, one I agree with, the phrase “has utility” is short hand for “A has utility for I” and expresses a relation between an object and a person such that having/possessing/using/etc that object satisfies a persons want or desires.

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      • This is what I wrote way up thread before you exploded into a predictable rage:

        the thing they [an individual] value is a property of an object (or state of affairs), and the object so valued has utility insofar as that individual believes it achieves their values.

        OK, the second “values” should really be wants or desire.

        Here’s what you wrote in your diatribe:

        [objects] are only useful, valuable, in proportion with our subjective gains in utility from using them.

        Sound like we’re saying the exact same thing.

        I dunno, bro.

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      • I’ll throw out one more comment, not that it’ll do any good to clear things up between us. You wrote,

        [objects] are only useful, valuable, in proportion with our subjective gains in utility from using them.

        OK, fair enough. My question is this: how do you define “utility” as it’s being used in this sentence? If you define it along the lines of desire satisfaction or something similar, then we’re actually in agreement. If not, then likely not.

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      • Rage! Diatribe! Feeling sorry for my students!

        Pretty good stuff there, Stillwater. Of course you’re not my student and are a bit foolish for assuming I respond to them the way I respond to you.

        Funny that twice now you have become confused in thinking that we are in agreement. What an adept way to persuade me that you understand what you’re talking about.

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      • James,

        This all started with you’re assertion that I made an error by thinking that that utility isn’t subjective. My response was that it’s only an error insofar as utility is (as a matter of fact) a) univocally defined in terms of b) subjective preferences. I concede (as I always have in these discussions) that defining utility in terms of individual wants and desires is perfectly legitimate. (Hell, that’s just, plusorminus, throwing in happiness, or pleasure/pain, or whatever, the conventional definition of the term.) My criticism is that a) it’s not the only definition of the term and b) defining, analyzing or providing an account of utility in terms of subjective preferences is a logical error. The concept of a preference, it seems clear to me, crystal clear in fact, can be analyzed in terms of utility (which is in turn analyzed in terms of wants and desires) but not the reverse.

        Now, if any of that strikes you as wrong or areas where we disagree, then that’s fine, because we do disagree about this stuff. It’s also the same disagreement we’ve had for going on a year now as far as these concepts and their use in analyzing, explaining and justifying various policies and judgments is concerned. The part I find odd is that you seem to consistently misunderstand what I’m saying rather than responding to it and correcting what you appear to think is a trivial error. Well, that and the inevitable display of rage.

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      • Chris feels sorry for me (for being chronically “dickish”), New Dealer feels sorry for my family (for having to live with me), and now we find Stillwater feels sorry for James’ students.

        There sure is a lot of compassion around here. Touching, really.

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      • Ah, the “utility” debate blooms anew.

        I take my view from Quine: a variable in a model can sustain no meaning outside the boundaries of that model. Since economic models abstract (utterly) human psychology, as a result any variable related to human psychology (including agendas, dreams, and desires) will be impoverished.

        But the pundits of economics are undeterred. When pundits uses terms such as “revealed preference,” they obscure the limits of his model, and listeners assume they have stated some truth about people, instead of facts about simplified agents in tractable models.

        The value of the model is an empirical question.

        Anyway, I find the models provided by economics to be quite good. I certainly do not consider myself hostile to them, and I hope we use them to our benefit. But the market fundamentalist insists the model is a whole truth instead of a tentative guide.

        There are ways economic models will prove insufficient. Figuring out what those are is a matter of wisdom and experience.

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      • Since economic models abstract (utterly) human psychology, as a result any variable related to human psychology (including agendas, dreams, and desires) will be impoverished.

        I encourage you to read the economic–public choice–literature on agenda-setting and achievement. I recommend as a starting point, William Riker’s chapter on “The Flying Club.”

        But the market fundamentalist insists the model is a whole truth instead of a tentative guide.

        It seems a pity that one can hardly mention economics around here without someone tossing out the dread phrase “market fundamentalist.” Economic discussions that do not involve market fundamentalism, either via advocacy or via the assumption of its shadow, are fruitful, if we would just make them possible.

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      • Mike is describing the “rational actor” model as I hear it discussed, but that is no doubt by those wretched “market fundamentalists” — none of whom are here, evidently, but how their shadow looms.

        But yes, to your point (and the one above), I’m sure professional economists have better models available than what you’ll hear from your typical online ninny-libertarian —

        About which, look, I know some online trans feminist activists who sometimes say very silly things, things that are at their root correct, but stated according to a clumsy theoretical model. I want to sit those women down and say, “Hey, love, it’s more complex. Let’s talk.” So I feel your pain.

        But my gripe is not with professional economists working in policy. They have their own fights, usually with other professional economists working in policy. (Since it seems a general agreement is not to be found.) No, I’m more interested in the people I end up talking to, in the day to day, many of whom do seem to believe precisely what Mike has said. They end up saying very silly things that are at their root utterly broken.

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      • I sat in on an econ class one time and the professor presented an example wherein his brother said he wouldn’t spend more than $X on concert tickets. He bought them for less than $X. He was then offered significantly more than $X in exchange for the tickets he had in hand. The professor asked whether his brother was rational. The students debated the question, but as I saw it, the question was flawed. Suppose the brother simply underestimated how valuable the tickets were to him? Maybe he said he wouldn’t pay more than $X but he was never confronted with a situation where he could have put this statement to the test. Upon being presented with a similar but not identical situation, he opted not to sell his tickets. As such, his actions indicated that he valued the tickets at greater than $X. Or, more precisely, his actions indicated that he valued the tickets he held in his hand at greater than $X. So rather than drawing conclusions about rationality and irrationality, why not just conclude that the brother underestimated how much he actually valued the tickets?

        As I see it, the term “rational” tends to do a lot of heavy lifting in economic conversations with an often unclear sense of what is actually meant by the term.

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      • The Bayesians seem to have a lot of fun spelling out what “rational” means, and while I’m not quite ready to join their little circus, they do seem on a better track than what I hear from economists.

        (I wonder if there are Bayesian economists. I mean, can you image being stuck at a cocktail party next to that guy, when he is in the mood to share!)

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  8. Also, as far as Smart cars go, it’s worth pointing out that they used to get better mileage than the Versa and similar cars. The Versa in particular used to get rather poor mileage for its class. The mileage on most light cars has improved (leading me to the begrudging admission that CAFE standards aren’t actually useless). Smart is falling behind.

    There are still advantages to a Smart, though, if you live in a dense city. Parking, for example. I don’t know that I would trade it for storage space, but that’s something.

    The one that burns me is the Mini Cooper. That’s the one where people spent exorbitant amounts on minimalism. But they are classy looking.

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    • To my memory the Smart was always just class-competitive with mileage, never really better. But I haven’t looked that up.

      they are classy looking.

      I think you answered your own question on the Mini Cooper. I don’t know a single person who wanted one whose reason why wasn’t its styling.

      What I really don’t get are the bigger Mini Coopers like the Clubman and Countryman. They took a car whose main feature was being cute and small and tried to make bigger versions of them.

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      • IIRC, when the Smart was introduced 15 years ago, it came in at the low end of the price range and the high end of the mileage range for its group. It was a demonstration that you could get to a particular mileage point on the cheap if you were willing to accept a tiny automobile. More importantly in the big picture, it was (and is) a car that gets people to think about the idea that the vehicle they own is overkill for 90%-plus of the trips they make in it. Same thing for the electric version — an affordable (after incentives) electric car built with tech available today that covers a lot of the trips the typical urban/suburban driver makes.

        I thought about one when I needed a new car five-and-a-half years ago (wife gave my Civic to our younger child). I wasn’t quite willing to go that far, and ended up with a Honda Fit — somewhat bigger, somewhat lower mileage. And at least so far, reliability that will be the basis for family legends. 66 months on, I’ve replaced the wiper blades multiple times, the tires once, and need to replace the battery, but otherwise it’s been oil changes and inspections — zero other maintenance. Oh, and a recall to replace the power window switch in the driver’s door because it wasn’t as waterproof as Honda wanted (dealer mechanic: “If you can get the original wet enough to short out, you already have bigger problems.”).

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    • There is a Fiat dealer within walking distance of my home, so my neighborhood is now overrun with 20-somethings driving Fiats. That is a pointless little car. I rented one once (not intentionally, it was just all they had left), and it was like driving a box.

      They also have a bigger version of the little Fiat.

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      • We rented a Fiat 500 on a recent vacation. It was like driving a little tiny garbage truck. Terrible acceleration and handling and appalling visibility. If your car can easily fit into the bed of a pickup truck, there’s no reason it should need a convex driver’s side mirror that looks like it was stolen off of an 18-wheeler. But the Fiat 500 does.

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      • The dealership is cleverly located, because just north of my neighborhood is another neighborhood fiiiiiiiilled with students and the recently graduated, precisely the demographic at which Fiats are targeted.

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  9. I generally agree with Vikram that its not really possible to drop out of the consumer game. The only exception would be members of particularly anti-Materialist religious groups like monks or nuns of various monastic orders and the Amish. The few tribes left in the wild places of the world might also be an example. Most people are materialist and consumerist about something. It might be high fashion or it might be body art but they are using goods and services to express their identity in some way. To really drop out of the game requires a lifestyle that most people aren’t capable of.

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  10. And, yes, your 1995 Mazda 323 functions the same way as the used t-shirt from the thrift store. And that’s OK.

    It’s worth recognizing that people buy these things due to lack of money, or a preference for not spending their money on themselves, and not necessarily to be ‘hipsters’.

    I don’t own a car because I haven’t got my license yet, and have always lived in places where you can get around by transit. Plenty of people don’t own cars because they can’t afford cars.

    And there are people who limit their consumption because they think their money is better used on other things – I recall your post about how we don’t “believe” in poverty because we don’t devote a ton of our income towards decreasing it. There are people who do believe in it and prefer to use their income to do good rather than spend it on themselves.

    Dismissing anyone who doesn’t engage in conspicuous consumption as posing and primarily interested in presenting a certain self-image is a cynical way of dismissing a lot of people who are either 1) genuinely poor and/or 2) trying to do good with their money.

    (Something like the Smart is another matter.)

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    • One can argue, albeit cynically, that trying to do good with one’s money is itself a form of consumption and that your signalling your virtue by doing so. I believe that Jason posted something about most charity being self-regarding in this nature because a lot of it goes to administrative costs.

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      • There’s a lot of variation in how you define “administrative costs”. If you’re defining all pay to employees as “administrative costs”, then for some projects that could be most of the costs. For example, if your project is training Tanzanian farmers in new agricultural methods, and you’re hiring Tanzanians to train them, is that “administrative costs”, or project costs? If you’re running a vaccination project, does paying the doctors who give the vaccines count as “administrative costs”, with only the purchase of the vaccines themselves being accounted as direct project costs?

        Another example: it’s pretty much invariably better to buy material goods in-country (or at least in-region) whenever possible, rather than shipping them from the United States or Canada. The goods are cheaper, and it stimulates the economy of the country where you’re working, whereas bringing in external goods means you’re essentially ‘underselling’ them by importing something and giving it away for free. But if you do this, your cost of goods is going to fall – and thus, everything else equal, the proportion of your spending that goes to “administration” is going to rise.

        Peoples’ and organizations’ definitions of “administrative” costs often aren’t clear or consistent. On the whole, many thing about how aid is done have improved relative to earlier decades: most organizations make deliberate efforts to buy things in-country, it’s now uncommon to ship food aid overseas, and organizations keep track of whether their projects are successful – not just “how many schools did we build?” but “are more students going to school? are they learning more?” etc. – so that they know what’s working and what’s not and can make changes if something isn’t working. The cost of that monitoring is another thing that gets bundled in under “administrative costs”.

        There are a lot of excellent organizations with a strong record of results in international development. We don’t know if aid raises countries’ GDP, but we do know that it has saved and improved a lot of lives in the developing world.

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    • It’s worth recognizing that people buy these things due to lack of money, or a preference for not spending their money on themselves, and not necessarily to be ‘hipsters’.

      Recognized. My parents sold their ’91 Camry last year, and they are (ahem) not hipsters.

      But it was still certainly part of their identity. You can’t drive a car for 23 years and avoid that.

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      • “But it was still certainly part of their identity. You can’t drive a car for 23 years and avoid that.”

        Really? We’ve owned one of our cars for 9 years (well, Zazzy owned it all on her own for two years, and then we sort of shared it for two years, and now we’ve officially shared it for five years). The extent to which it is a part of our identity only goes so far as what it symbolizes about the way in which we view cars (almost exclusively as a means to transport people and goods from point A and point B) and the way in which we make major financial decisions. While those are no doubt parts of our identity, I don’t think any of us would define ourselves citing either area. So it is only a part of our identity insofar as every single thing we do is a part of our identity. Which doesn’t really tell us all that much.

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      • To elaborate. I’m not a car guy. I don’t care much about what I drive so long as it safely transports me and whatever I have with me where I need to go. But I feel like the implication you are making is that I make conscious decisions about cars to communicate my lack-of-car-guy-ness to people. But this isn’t true. At all.

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      • Kazzy, you make a fair defense, and I have to admit that I don’t really feel much of anything for my wife’s car, which is actually our car, but you can tell what I think about it by saying that it is my wife’s.

        I do make the claim that by not selecting a flashy new car, you are saying something about your priorities in a visible way. And I believe you when you say you’re not advertising the fact, but I would argue the message is being sent regardless of your intentions one way or the other.

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  11. Few comments:

    Hipsters? Frickin hipsters!

    Smart car. Has anyone see it operating in a non city driving situation? I have. It looks and feels like a death trap. It’s hard to been seen in it and it looks jittery at 60mph. No way I’d drive it and I’ve ridden in one. I work with a gal that has one and she drives it all the time to work…on highways. She’s also German and knows how to drive (having driven real race cars and bikes) I still think she’s crazy.

    Damn hipsters!

    I’ll second a few comments above–I’m not signaling. I’m buying stuff I want, not to advert my status, my privilege, my whatever. I buy it because I like it and or I perceive it gives me value for the cost. What other people think doesn’t matter. The only few people who do matter are people I know and care about…so that rules out like 99.999999% of the global population.

    Finally, frickin hipsters!

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  12. Conspicuous consumption is about signaling your net worth to the world. Plain and simple.
    In my neighbourhood, real men drive big Big BIG trucks. Even if they never carry anything but bags of sand in the winter so they don’t slip and slide around. Priuses and Smart cars are for sissies.
    Living minimally seems to be associated with a form of economic treason… we’ll ruin the economy if we live simply.
    I’ll recycle this old old old video just because I can…

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    • Conspicuous consumption isn’t *only* about signaling. Taping a gold bar to your forehead isn’t interchangeable with using high-status goods. There is a huge variety of goods that communicate status, and they each do so in very particular ways that have deep meaning for those who consume such things.

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  13. If you want to consume, companies will happily sell you things to consume. If you want to not consume, companies will invent things to sell you to support that desire.

    Unless the process of non-consumption you’re describing involves not buying the products developed to “support non-consumption,” (really, developed to support signaling non-consumption, though you’d have to get someone to characterize it that way for that to be an accurate charge – really really, they’re just trying to signal something about the way they consume, not their prowess at not consuming or consuming less, with such purchases), I’m struggling to see how this is a story of non-consumption, conspicuous or otherwise. It’s a story of conspicuous consumption designed to send particular messages about choices being made. It’s worth pointing out (as you did) that frequently these kinds of products are relatively expensive, so that in the terms we use to gauge the degree of someone’s consumption ($s), it’s not really lesser degree of consumption that’s being done (for the sake of signaling or practical utility or whatever) at all.

    And in most cases, I don’t think the message is non-consumption or minimalism. It’s just a statement about what’s a good product given X lifestyle. You want to protect the soles of your feet but you’re convinced that the structure of the foot is the best foundation for running – so what you’re saying is, ‘Look, I have this belief about how the foot is evolved for running, but there’s all kinds of dangerous and gross stuff on the ground, so I spent $170 on these form-fitting running socks,” or, “Look, I never leave the city and I like to be able to fit into tiny spaces and pose like I get great gas mileage when it’s just slightly better than average, so I bought a Smart.” It’s still a very large dose of singaling/conspicuous consumption, but it’s not some oxymoronic version of it – it’s just the same old conspicuous consumption. I have a hard time people really think they’re singalling minimalism or non-consumption by driving a Nissan smart. They’re just buying a particular car and showing it off like Americans have been doing for almost a century.

    But where the consumption actually isn’t happening – as in the case of non-car-owners – on what basis are you so sure you know what is going on with those decisions? Certainly some people do this to signal, but that’s not news, is it? Not everyone does. Apparently young people can not own a car without it defining their identity. But when do you stop being young? And what about all the people who live in New York City for whom it makes literally negative sense to own a car at any age? Obviously, anywhere where non-consumption is being displayed conspicuously for signaling purposes, well, then – there – it is. Likely, that includes anyone who subscribes to Become Minimalist. But that doesn’t establish that everyone who doesn’t own a car is doing that.

    Now, if your point is that everyone draws conclusions about people from what they carry around with them by way of products, and that that fact means that everyone’s de facto playing the game you’re talking aqbout, well, what a mundane observation. We all confront the question of how much we care about what people think about us based on what they observe about our consumption. Whoop-de-doo. That doesn’t mean that lots of people don’t not have cars (or other common items that a large majority of people do own but some people don’t, like a television) because it really doesn’t make sense for them to own a car. For some of them, intentional signaling certainly may play a role in their decision, but for others it really doesn’t, at least very little. (Is that what you deny? Prove otherwise!) What’s the big story here? Did we not know this already? Why do we care in a renewed way?

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    • This comes off harsher than I meant it to. Nothing wrong with making the point. I just wonder if I’m missing a novel underlying point here, or if we’re just looking to re-confirm a point of shared reference, i.e. that there’s a performative aspect to many of our consumption choices.

      Merry weekend!

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    • Now, if your point is that everyone draws conclusions about people from what they carry around with them by way of products, and that that fact means that everyone’s de facto playing the game you’re talking aqbout, well, what a mundane observation.

      Actually, yes, that was one of my main points. :)

      I have a hard time people really think they’re singalling minimalism or non-consumption by driving a Nissan smart.

      I take it you mean the Smart car, which is not actually made by Nissan. Your explanation is that buyers say “Look, I never leave the city and I like to be able to fit into tiny spaces and pose like I get great gas mileage when it’s just slightly better than average…”
      I acknowledge that the parking spot thing is semi-plausible–though I have my doubts. Posing like you have great gas mileage, however, is the conspicuous non-consumption I am referring to in that example. If you were to ask someone to brainstorm for examples of conspicuous consumption, I would guess you might ask 100 people and not one of them would mention the Smart.

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