Canine Economics in One Lesson
Thoughts on needs, desires, and living a meaningful life.
Dear Reader (including those of you hiding from the gazpacho police for crimes against soup),
One of the things I love about dogs is that they are immune to much of the drama and nonsense of human society. Every now and then people ask me, usually in a jokey way (I hope!), whether my dogs’ Twitter popularity has gone to their heads. I can report with great confidence that it hasn’t. If I could offer Zoë a billion followers on social media, or a ham sandwich, she would inhale the sandwich whole—assuming it had no tomatoes on it—before I could even load my PowerPoint presentation. And a minute later she would say to me, “Didn’t you say something about giving me a ham sandwich? You owe me a ham sandwich. If it makes it easier, you can hold the bread.”
The old line, “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog”—which Harry Truman didn’t say—gets at an elemental fact about the greatness of canines: They don’t give a crap about how much you make, how famous you are, or how you vote.
But there are areas where dogs have stuff in common with humans. Like us, they’re social creatures. Some people use them as pack animals which, except for the little barrel of brandy St. Bernards probably never carried, I always thought was a poor use for dogs. But they are most definitely animals that want to live in packs. Humans do, too. More on that in a minute.
One aspect of dogs’ pack mentality I find endlessly entertaining falls under what I sometimes call “dog economics.” Specifically, if you’ve ever spent time at a dog park, you’ve likely seen a bunch of dogs chasing one dog that has a stick. Now, as far as I can tell, there’s nothing particularly special about the stick, though who am I to (hu)mansplain the merits of one stick over another to them? The heart wants what it wants. Still, the key attraction of the stick in question is that one dog has it. And as a matter of logic, ontology, epistemology, and conventional physics, if one dog has a given stick—let’s call it stick A—then no other dog can have it (I’m excluding various “assistant branch manager” scenarios). There are often literally thousands or tens of thousands of other sticks nearby, but the dogs don’t care. They don’t want stick B through stick ZZZZZ—they want the stick the “it” dog has.
Like most dog owners, I’ve often relied on the work pioneered by the economist Thorstein Veblen and the economics writer Fred Hirsch when discussing this phenomenon. It was Veblen who introduced the idea of conspicuous consumption. People spend money on some things not for their intrinsic value, but for the status they confer. For instance, cars have intrinsic value—they get you from point A to point B faster than most of the available alternatives. An AMC Pacer or a used Kia satisfy the same transportation needs a luxury car does. Much of the value in a Bentley or Porsche derives from the signal you’re sending that you can afford a Bentley or a Porsche. My friend Vin Cannato used to have a beat-up Honda Civic, and we would joke that it employed miraculous stealth technology: It rendered its inhabitants essentially invisible to attractive women. (Note: If you read this as an invidious comment on the materialism of the fairer sex, you should either lighten up or immediately convene a graduate level seminar on this toxic masculinity.)
Hirsch coined the phrase “positional good” to describe things that by their very nature imply “I’ve got this, which means you don’t.” As Sheldon Cooper summarizes in The Big Bang Theory, “There's an economic concept known as a positional good in which an object is only valued by the possessor because it’s not possessed by others. The term was coined in 1976 by economist Fred Hirsch to replace the more colloquial, but less precise ‘neener-neener.’”
Very expensive things are scarce—that’s usually, but not always, the main reason why they’re expensive. There can be only so many houses on the shore of a beautiful lake, so part of the high home prices on the shore comes from that natural scarcity. And part of it comes from the intangible status one gets from buying such a home. Unlike gold and good flan, diamonds really aren’t that scarce, which is why Big Diamond keeps so many off the market. The stick in the dog park is a positional good in a different way, not because it is intrinsically scarce, but because one dog possessing it means others don’t.
(This, of course, is the logic behind non-fungible tokens but I have no desire to write anything else about NFTs save to ask readers for suggestions for how I could come up with one that I can sell for huge quantities of money before the fad implodes like Jerry Falwell Jr.’s reputation as a Christian leader.)
Of course, it’s not just sticks. Services can be a positional good, too. Zoë can be sleeping happily in a puddle of sunshine, but if she detects that I am rubbing Pippa’s belly or attending to Gracie’s demands, she will get up and demand her portion of scritches from me. The economics and associated politics of scritch-and-pats inequality are one of the defining aspects of my daily domestic life. It’s not sufficient for me to say, “There’s more than enough love to go around.” The distribution of love is governed by the relative scarcity of my time and the number of hands I have available to meet the demand.
The nature of desire.
I got to thinking about this because I happened upon this column by David Brooks, in which he extols the late French intellectual René Girard, who wrote that, “Man is the creature who does not know what to desire, and he turns to others in order to make up his mind.” This is what made me think of dogs. The dogs chasing the possessor of stick A are relying on the desire of others to shape their own.
So while I think Girard erred in overlooking, as so many philosophers tend to do, the question of canine lifestyle—Antisthenes and Diogenes notwithstanding—he was certainly on to something. Girard argued that many of our desires are, if not socially constructed, then socially influenced. Teenagers want certain fashionable status items—certain brands of sneakers, coats, glasses, cars, etc.—because other teenagers want them. Lots of grownups do too.
Humans are “mimetic” creatures who take their cues, starting from infancy, from the desires of others, Girard argued. “We would like our desires to come from our deepest selves, our personal depths,” Girard said, “but if it did, it would not be desire. Desire is always for something we feel we lack.”
I’m not sure I agree entirely with this definition of desire. I’ve never thought that there is as sharp a distinction between wants and needs as a lot of intellectuals and psychologists—never mind Marxists—claim. I think the Venn diagram between necessity and desire has a lot of overlap. But for our purposes it’s fine. In this sense, gratitude is the mode of thought that tells us to appreciate our satisfied desires and drives us to protect such things so we do not lack them. You don’t have to love every moment of family time to know that you’d have a hole in your soul if it went away. There’s nothing wrong with knowing that money doesn’t solve everything while also understanding that it solves a lot of important things, whether you call them needs or desires.
Indeed, economic abundance is great. For most of human history people fought, struggled, bled, and died to meet the first two rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Just getting food, water, shelter, warmth, and security was often a full time job. Some people think prosperity doesn’t help us check the boxes of the higher needs—esteem, belonging, a sense of accomplishment, “self-actualization,” etc. But that’s not true. A prosperous economy (and the division of labor it generally requires) actually creates more paths to pursue happiness on your terms. In a feudal or tribal society, there just aren’t that many job openings for the stuff that might make you happy. Sure, if threshing wheat or burying the dead is your idea of a great life, you’d do fine in 12th century Saxe-Altenburg. But if you want to be a novelist, an accountant, or a manatee wrangler, good luck finding an opening on ZipRecruiter.
Moreover, modern prosperous economies give people the wherewithal to spend more time with friends and family while pursuing other sources of meaning and satisfaction, like reading, travel, amateur bovine taxidermy, etc. All of the folks on the left and right nostalgic for economies of bygone eras seem to have convinced themselves that subsistence farmers, coal miners, steel workers, or even serfs had all the opportunities in the world to find fulfillment in their copious free time.
That said, where I think Girard tells us something important is that not all socially influenced desire is good or healthy. One of the great evils of social media is the way it makes us think that other people are leading a better and more fulfilled life than they really are. Teenagers in particular spend an inordinate and unhealthy amount of time convincing strangers on Instagram that they’re living their best life rather than just trying to live a good life.
But man, I want to write about the problems with social media even less than I want to write about the 2022 midterms.
Perhaps the chief complaint about the free market is that it doesn’t provide the sense of meaning and belonging we all need and desire. This has always struck me as an unfair criticism, like saying the problem with forks is they make terrible flashlights. The free market isn’t supposed to provide those things, at least not directly. To the extent it has any role in that stuff, it’s simply supposed to make those things easier to find and easier to enjoy. That’s the challenge of economic abundance. It puts the onus on those of us who benefit from it to figure out for ourselves what we want because we don’t have to spend as much time pursuing what we need just to survive. For some people this is a glorious and wonderful feature of prosperity for which they are grateful. For others such freedom is too heavy a burden, so they go about life letting the crowd define what is important to them or demanding that the government make up for what the market cannot provide.
I brought up Diogenes and that other guy sort of as a joke. You see, cynicism—not the dyspeptic mood but the philosophy—derives from the word “cynic” or “dog-like.” It’s a longer story than we have room for here, but it started as an insult and became a badge of honor. The cynics embraced the idea that they were dog-like by pointing out that dogs have a lot of stuff figured out. They’re loyal to friends and family and don’t give a whit about fashion.
There were a lot of drawbacks to cynicism as a philosophy (I can do without the public defecation and fornication) but it had a lot going for it too, starting with the emphasis it placed on pursuing eudaimonia—or a fundamentally meaningful and good life.
Figuring out on your own terms what is worthwhile and good is neither hyper-individualistic nor selfish. It’s the beginning of wisdom and meaningful happiness. Because while there is no single answer to such questions for everybody, all the answers involve being part of some larger enterprise and giving some part of yourself over to it, whether it’s your family, your friends, your faith, your business or some combination of all of the above. And if that means that every now and then you just want to run around with a stick in your mouth, that’s okay too.
Various & Sundry
I don’t want to be morose. But I think one of the reasons I’ve been in this contemplative frame of mind this week (see Wednesday’s G-File, now available to the masses) is that this week marks the 11th anniversary of my brother Josh’s passing. I don’t talk about him as much as I do about my late father, in part because while I miss them both, Josh’s life ended far too soon and far too unhappily and it still pains me to bring him up. I still feel those pangs about my dad, but he lived a full life, and it’s easier for the gratitude to eclipse the melancholy.
This is probably not the best place to mark Josh’s passing, but it’s what’s available. I think it’s hugely important to keep the memory of those we loved alive, and that is done by talking—or writing—about them. I used to talk about him a lot when I would see his wife, Chantal, but we just marked the one-year anniversary of her passing. So at least for my own sake, I just want to say how grateful I am to have had them both in my life for as long as I did.
Canine update: So the girls were very happy to see me when I came back from Florida yesterday. Alas, there was no welcoming committee video, because I came home when they were out. I was taking a nap when the Fair Jessica opened the bedroom door to let them in to say hi. They jumped on the bed like it was Christmas morning and licked my face in true cynical fashion. They’re digging the warm weather today and they don’t understand why I need to write this “news”letter. Pippa, by the way, doesn’t understand this distinction between needs and desires, which is why I ordered more tennis balls for her. It’s very sweet how many people have come to rely on my morning dog tweets and I do feel guilty when I can’t provide fresh content. Fortunately, the Fair Jessica is usually happy to help feed the beast(s)—literally and figuratively.
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