Archive for the The Ideal World Category

Is eating escargot obscene?

I’m fond of pontificating about the “economic way of thinking.”  About how there are only half a dozen ideas that matter in my principles course, but these half dozen are critical.   That were these few ideas understood by even half the voting and consuming population, we’d be free of 99 percent of the idiocies that come out of the White House and the Congress, out of the corporate executive suite, and out of academic faculty meetings.

Okay, I wax hyperbolic.

It would only be 93%.

Of the half dozen ideas, number one for me, by far, is the notion that all choices have opportunity costs.   (So much so that “opportunity cost” is the only term whose definition I insist every student memorize, the only concept I guarantee will “be on the exam.”)

But number two, and the one most likely to get me labeled as an apologist and worse, has to be the virtues of market-based trade.

And, if truth be told, I am an apologist for trade. At least if you use apologist in the way it has been used to describe C S Lewis writing about Christian belief in books like Mere Christianity.  I am an apologist if an apologist is someone who, having spent a great deal of time thinking about the reasons for his belief, makes no apologies for believing as he does.

I am well aware that markets are economic institutions with flaws.  But I have thought long and hard about the arguments for and against, and, in my unapologetic opinion, it’s not even close.  Markets win.

Today I want to give part of that apology.  And I’m going to start from a place of trading which would appear to argue against my claims of virtue:   the expensive restaurant.

In a recent post I spoke of my trip to Grand Rapids.  Perhaps the most memorable part of that trip were the two meals I had at a fancy restaurant called the 1913 Room.  Now if you’ve ever seen the prices of high end meals in places like New York or Los Angeles or Miami or London, what I am about to reveal about my charges to American Express those two evenings won’t surprise you.  But unless you are a serious foodie, what I spent will likely appall you.

The first meal, eaten alone over a period of two-and-a-half hours, ran with tip to $167.47.  The second, taken in the company of several other foodies who, having heard my stories of the first, invited me along for another go, took over 4 hours.  And set me back a cool $209.58.

Two meals.  One person.  $377.05.

Now, when I relate this amount to friends, family, colleagues, I generally receive three responses:

Response #1:  Are you nuts???

To this one, I can only say, probably.  Lots of people have interests that cost them over $350 that I consider borderline nuts— traveling to Nascar races, say, or filling a basement with workout equipment or going to the opera. I’m no less nutty.

Response #2:  Isn’t that rather extravagant?   Again, I have to say, probably.  Especially given my income level and my net worth.   I’ve never been particularly good at holding on to my money, and this is further evidence on that proposition.  With my income level, it’s very extravagant.

Neither of these first two criticisms bother me. Each time I chose how much to spend, I did so fully cognizant of the personal consequences of the choice.   Bluntly put, if it turns out that it’s a dumb thing for me to have done, if it was extravagant, *I* bear the costs.  I’m the one who may have to pay interest on my Amex card until the meal is fully paid for.  I’m the one who has people thinking I’ve got dumb hobbies.  I’m the one who doesn’t get to spend that $350 on books or groceries for several weeks or on real estate or on whatever.

But there’s a third response I’ve received, and that one does bother me.

It’s the response that says spending $200 on one meal is obscene.  That says I’m morally flawed because I’m conspicuously consuming when people are being laid off, when children are starving in Kenya, when there are hundreds if not thousands of ways of spending that money that would be better for the world.

Am I morally flawed?  Of course.  My belief in that proposition is at the center of my Christian faith.  (If I were not morally flawed, I would not need Jesus and His grace.)

And I have to admit that yesterday, when I watched part of a “Feed the Children” infomercial, I felt a bit guilty for not having more funds to give.  Gluttony is a sin.  Extravagance is not a good character trait.

Extravagance isn’t just bad for my bank balance, it’s bad because it is an offense against God.  To me this is the truth a fortiori under Response #2.

But when I, or people like I, get accused of obscenity, it’s not just a variation on Response #2.  It’s rarely that criticism from Christian theology.  They’re not claiming I offend God by eating escargot de la bourgourgnine, bison sous vide, and filet au poivre.

No, they’re claiming an offense against society.  Against the economy.  Against my fellow man.

And *that* argument reflects both bad economics, and bad moral philosophy.  It’s the kind of argument that has yielded the continuing economic idiocies of mercantilism and that encourages the judgmentalism of Phariseeism.

It reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what is going on economically when I buy that meal.

Take the escargot, for example, the only item I actually ordered on both visits.

Response #1 is obvious:  “Snails?  Are you kidding me? You *are* nuts, Wade.”  :)

And, all I can say, is, if you’ve never had good escargot (and this restaurant’s version is the best I’ve ever had), you don’t know what you are missing.

So is Response #2:  “Five snails.  A bit of garlic and lots of sizzling-hot butter.  Ten bucks plus tip???”  Well, I consider myself an above average cook.  And I’m not afraid to try things in my own kitchen:  Despite living in  Iowa, I’ve done sushi.  But I’ve never tried to do escargot.  But, still, it’s a point.  Two bucks a bite is, well, two bucks a bite.

But response #3?

Look closer at what goes into getting that escargot to my plate.  You need a waiter.  And not just a guy in a white shirt and black pants, but someone who knows enough about food to answer any questions or make recommendations about “exotic” food, and someone who can coordinate multiple complicated orders simultaneously and still get that dish in front of me at just the right time as not to disturb either my dining pace or the conversations at our table.

And then there’s what has to happen on the other side of the kitchen door.  The undercook who probably was tasked with the dish’s primary preparation.   The person who checks each dish before it goes out.  The chef who ensures that the snails are of the proper quality, who wanders the kitchen ensuring quality control, who writes (and rights) the recipe.  The dishwashers who ensure that all the dishes are clean and available.

And I haven’t said anything about the sommelier, about the people who are removing the plates as I and my dining companions finish, about the bartender, about the maitre d’restaurant.

And that’s just the people at the 1913 Room.   What about the people who harvest the snails?  Who package the snails?  Who transport the snails between place of harvest and place of purchase?  Who provide the fuel for that transport?  Who churn the butter?  Who make the pans in which the snails are cooked?  Who glaze the dish the snails are served in?   Who clean the napkins and tablecloth stained with the butter that drips off between dish and mouth?

When I paid the 1913 Room for my snails, I traded my $10 for all those other services.  To get to the point where I could get the snails and all the rest of the meal for $200, hundreds of trades had to take place.  And each and every one of those trades could only take place if each party to the trade felt that the trade would make him/her better off.  Waiter, sommelier, maitre d’, farmer, truck driver, oil refiner, dairy employee, all the rest — every last one of them traded something of less value to him for something of more value.

And therein lies the problem with an awful lot of arguments against “conspicuous consumption.”  When I consume my escargot (which with all that butter, trust me, cannot be done in secret!), I’ve got dozens, no hundreds of collaborators.  If you want to judge what I do as immoral, fine.  But can you judge me without similarly passing judgment on all those collaborators?

Because that’s what they are.  I didn’t hold a gun to their heads and say “feed me fancy snails.”  Heck, apart from the waiter and a couple others, I couldn’t tell you even the first name of any of the people involved.  No, each of them decided they wanted to be waiters and chefs and truck drivers and all the rest.  They decided.  Not me.

And when you add in all those interconnected decisions, it’s no longer obvious that the $200 meal is a socially bad thing.    Not unless you are willing to go beyond saying “Wade is wrong” to saying “All those collaborators in a system that serves snails to idiots like Wade are also wrong.”

Now I’ll be the first to admit that I’m pretty arrogant about some things.  Pride seems to be a real occupational hazard from having taught economics for the better part of two decades.  But my arrogance pales compared to those who decry conspicuous consumers on the “simple” grounds of wasting resources, etc.

Feel free to call my hobbies silly.  Feel free to call me extravagant.  Feel free, even, to point out the virtues of temperance and the evils of worshiping snails instead of God.  Feel free to call me an idiot.  Each of those criticisms have merit.

But don’t judge my consumption of snails as a social evil unless you can back up a claim that you know better.

And not just that you know better than me.  That takes no work at all.

But better than those hundreds of people in the snail supply chain.  Better than the thousands of people in the supply chains of napkins and dishes and black pants and wine and … well, I hope you get the point.

And if you think you can back up *that* kind of claim about the social coordination of value,  then I’m sorry.   Er, apologetic.

Because I’m afraid you may have an even bigger problem with hubris than I do.


Today I start a new category on the blog.  Called “The Ideal World”, it is to be a place for unfettered optimism.  It’s a place for exploration of what would be cool if it happened, not another place to talk about what can’t happen for thus-and-so reason.  It’s a place for thinking about dreams and wishes and what-the-world-could-be-like-if-all-the-idiots-would-go-away.

Today’s entry won’t go that far out there (at least not in my opinion), but I fully expect this category will eventually include discussion of things no more likely than my having a meaningful relationship with Jessica Biel or travelling faster-than-light to a galaxy, far, far away (with or without Jessica Biel).  Unlike the rest of the blog, it won’t be a place for either commenting on the coolness of the world or for railing about the things in life, the job, family, business, or  government that suck.

Trust me, there will be plenty of opportunities for pessimism and other discontents, both mine and yours, dear readers.

But not when you see “The Ideal World” in the post’s title or category listening. When those three words appear, it means a conversation where I’m not interested in the costs or the negatives or any of the rest of what Edward de Bono calls “black hat” thinking.  I have no problem with black hat thinking on the blog generally — I practice it frequently and encourage commenters to do the same.  But, as the preacher of Ecclesiastes might put it, for everything there is a place and a time.  And the place and the time for the negatives is elsewhere.  That’s all.

I do this because, believe it or not, too much of anything, even critical thinking (the usual label for “black hat” thinking), is a bad thing.   And because sometimes we don’t have to forever make the same “either/or” kinds of choices that pure black hat thinking leads us toward;  “both” is possible more often than people raised on a constant diet of “but…” and “what about…” and “you can’t…because…” realize.

All of us have certain modes of thinking and analysis that we prefer, that we apply as “defaults” even without knowing we’re doing so.   Interestingly — and this is part of de Bono’s wisdom , not just in his Six Hats® methods but in his Lateral Thinking™ methods as well — it takes adding a new constraint to the thinking process to liberate us from the unseen costs of those defaults.

So, if you want, think of each entry in this category as being an illustration of the benefits of occasional use of a “no black hat” constraint on thinking.  A way, however small, of helping us see the limitations of the tools of “reason” by refusing to use them.
*    *     *

So on to the first entry in the category …

In an ideal world I would only teach those from whom I have much to learn.

This probably seems backward to many.  My guess is that if I did a survey of my teaching colleagues from Luther, Central, Kirkwood, and Iowa, asking them about what kind of students they would consider the “best”, a regular response would be something on the order of “I want students who are interested in learning and willing to do the tough work that true learning entails.”

And sure, I’d rather have students interested in learning than students who aren’t.

But this is a question about the ideal world.  And just having students willing to learn isn’t enough for an ideal world.  In an ideal world, I’d want those willing-to-learn students to be people I as the ostensible “teacher” have most to learn from.  For two reasons.

First, in an ideal world, education is not a one way street, travelling from those with it (the teacher) to those without it (the student).  It is a place of two-way traffic.  A place where both gain value.  A place where both are teachers and both are learners.

It’s the same reason I’m such an advocate for trade:  it’s mutually beneficial.  It’s a way where both parties give and get value.  It’s not a place where one person must be reduced to the servant of the other.

The old moral teaching states that it is better to give than to receive.  Well, yes, I suppose.  But it is better still to do both.

It’s better for me. I learn stuff I wouldn’t have otherwise learned.

But, and this is the second reason, it’s also better for my students.  The more I’m put in a position where I’m a learner, the more I’m going to be in a position to identify (in the sense Kenneth Burke talked about) with my students. I’m going to be a better teacher because being a learner (and having all the needs, distractions, prejudices, virtues, and vices that come along with being a learner) is going to make it more likely than I’m going to reach them.  More likely that the value I have is going to get across to them.

In an ideal world, my students are those who could be my teachers.

*    *     *

But is this ideal world idea a good thing?  After all, not all of my students are going to be wise or knowledgeable about the things I want to learn more about.   In fact, a big chunk of my students aren’t even going to be interested in the things I want to learn more about.

True.  But I’m convinced that when my teaching has improved most when I’ve been learning a lot from my students; and it has stagnated most when I have been learning very little.

I’m convinced that my attention to learning-while-teaching has improved my attention to their learning-from-teaching.

And you know what?  The more I emphasize learning-while-teaching, the easier it is for me to find students from whom I can learn a lot.  And, by comparing what I don’t know to what they do know (instead of my teacher’s default of comparing what I know to what they don’t), I not only realize more about what I have to learn, I learn more about what I have to teach.

It doesn’t make logical sense.  But that’s part of why I think it helps to imagine the ideal world.

Because in the ideal world — just like in the everyday life of the real world — things don’t have to make logical sense.

They just … you know … is.

All content of this blog, except comments added under names other than "Wade," are copyright © 2008, 2009 Wade E. Shilts