Sprinkler systems, Viagra, 4WD.

by CarlD

What do these things have in common? They’re all, in the context of contemporary consumer society, expensive preparations for unlikely contingencies.

I’ve covered the (responsible) hedonism side of consumerism already in the mirror, mirror post. Consuming stuff as such is obviously the essence; fiddling with what’s consumed exactly and according to what rules and standards is a matter of niche.

But it’s struck me for some time that there’s another side to consumption, what might be called the ‘risk management’ side. Here, what’s being purchased is not so much a thing as a relationship with the world.

(Veblen, Bourdieu and conspicuous consumption cut across both categories, so yes, I am aware that every ‘thing’ we buy and/or consume also has symbolic value as a statement in a conversation with significant others about our status. That’s not what I’m talking about yet.)

The immediate prompt for this thought bubbling to the surface was a story Rachel read this morning during coffee+newspaper time about a renovation project down in Fayetteville NC. There are some lovely old brick buildings there that are being urban-renewed – apparently at enormous cost, because the owner of one was talking about the inspectors coming out, noodling around with the discrepancies between original building code and new code, and ultimately requiring $500k-worth of redundant sprinklers. His quote was something like, “I tell people now that they’ll drown before they burn.”

Now, I suppose I’d rather drown than burn if I had to choose. But the main thought I had when she was telling this story is that this is a lot of money to spend on something that might, but probably won’t happen; in a world where many people still live without indoor plumbing of any kind.

This dredged up all my old thoughts about SUVs, which may be pleasing to my friend the Compulsive Pedestrian. They’re big, expensive, hard to drive safely, and use a lot of fuel. All of this seems like a bad idea to me, but when I ask people why they drive them, I get some interesting answers. For one, they hold a lot of people. So if all your friends wanted to go somewhere all at once, they would each drive their own SUV could all pile in for a nice carpool, yay. They’re also big, heavy and powerful (possibly your friends, definitely the SUVs), which means that in the event of some kind of carjacking emergency or road rage situation you can crash and roll over many times kick some ass and get home safe. Finally, they have 4wd (four-wheel drive), which means that if you happen to get a yen for the great outdoors you can drive on roads to the paved campground, then drive much deeper into the woods to disrupt serene nature access nature’s wonders in style; if it snows you can get a false sense of invulnerability and become a hurtling menace to all conduct your life normally; and if there’s some sort of nuclear or bacterial apocalypse you can be killed and have it stolen by someone who knows how to use a gun better than you off-road your family to safety in the wilderness.

In short, the appeal of SUVs is that they are (questionable) insurance against highly unlikely contingencies. Rolling gated communities, I sometimes call them. The luxury of insulation from life’s little insults. The farther away we can push the unlikely danger, the better (and more expensive). Look at how much the U.S. is spending in Iraq – hundreds of billions of dollars to date – to intercept the vanishingly-unlikely contingency that Saddam or al-Quaeda could seriously hurt us with WMDs.

I’m suggesting that the amount we can spend on preparing for increasingly unlikely contingencies is some kind of direct index of our wealth and power. Viagra can probably hang as an example of what I mean without too much comment. Apparently one makes the likelihood of actually needing it significantly higher if one uses it with hookers. I invite suggestions about other consumption practices that fit this description (the unlikely contingency thing, not the more likely with hookers thing).

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2 Comments to “Sprinkler systems, Viagra, 4WD.”

  1. @Carl I’m liking your writing style. Maybe it’s just me or maybe it’s just because I got an insufficient sample before, but I sense that you’re “finding your blogging voice” through this, your own, blog.
    Not sure I can help you with the contingency thing. I’m not wired that way and I tend to missed many of the things you described.
    But one thing it made me think about is how scammy some insurance principles can get. Not all insurance and, having been raised in a social democracy, I take social security for granted. But the type of corporate insurance system which, like those SUVs, give people a false sense of security. An insurance consultant told me about life insurance being irrelevant unless you have kids and/or a house. This was after years of discussion about life insurance with someone who cared deeply about me getting it.
    Actually, speaking of houses… It’s a whole chapter which should be opened. This whole idea of “having your own house.” I mean, I get it. I understand why people need private houses. But I think it’s been overblown. For some reason (maybe because I read a lot of French literature of the Romantic era), the Parisian «hôtel particulier» concept keeps coming back to my mind.
    There’s the whole chapter of “culture of fear” to be opened. Maybe later.

  2. Thanks, Enkerli. Back atcha. I love your comments because you open the conversation up with your perspective and insight.

    You’re totally right about the scam at the heart of insurance. Risk management through risk spreading is one of the key enabling developments of modern capitalism, of course. But at the personal level the basic principle of insurance is a bet against yourself. Your prudence only pays off if something bad happens. The insurance company is betting that fewer bad things will happen to you than you think, and they have better intelligence of those rates.

    Of course bad things do happen. But the more of one’s life is organized around anticipation of bad things happening and bets against oneself, the more fundamentally anxious life must be. Which is, of course, a vicious circle. The ‘culture of fear’, exactly.

    Social security is not actually insurance. It’s investment. Old age will happen with 100% certainty, so you’re not managing risk. In general there’s something odd about treating as “insurance” things that are sure to happen. Those things should just be paid for. Health care is another example.

    Anyway, SUVs and Viagra and overthrows of Saddam are not ‘only’ insurance; you do actually get the thing you purchase in each of those cases. Their value as insurance is only enacted in comparison with other possible purchase options.

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