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Reply for Chris Gregory

Hi Chris,

Sorry about the delay.

So, to your points:

First off, yes, “buying” status can be rational. It’s true that all we’re actually buying, ever, is feelings (even food gives us the feeling of not being hungry). And yes, it might make sense to buy expensive sneakers for the increase in status they give us, even though we know they’re just sneakers. But that’s hardly the extent of our irrational economic decisions. What about the fact that sellers know to package things with round edges? Or design cereal boxes so the mascots lock eyes with kids? Or put flowers near the front of the store? Or remove the dollar sign from the price? (Facts conveniently collected here, with sources to follow up on).

Then you said that it might be better for the poor to buy elocution lessons rather than food, even though that seems irrational, because it’s better in the long term, and that the problem may be that the poor aren’t in a position to be “irrational” like that. There are a couple of problems with that.

First off, it’s a good demonstration of how the thought that we’re basically rational beings dovetails with the idea that your problems, if you’re poor, are on you. You’ve made the wrong decisions. That’s certainly true in some cases. But today, the middle class is falling back into the underclass. Presumably their elocution hasn’t deteriorated. In fact, many are quite articulate. There are large social, governmental, and economic forces at work, and blaming people for making the wrong decisions misses the larger point. (And meanwhile, rich people who can’t spit out a complete sentence don’t seem to have any problem). Second, even if we set things up so that your status in life was completely determined by the self-interested rationality of your decisions, this would create a society where sociopaths, or in the best case very weird people, rose to the top. We’re humans and make the “wrong” decision all the damn time.

And finally, there’s this:

I have to say that I think that if you do believe that people are irrational then that leads to some pretty dark places.

Well, yes. But avoiding that thought because it’s upsetting isn’t rational. So, you’re demonstrating that we think irrationally.

The rational thing to do is to take ourselves as we are, not as we wish ourselves to be, and work with that. Specifically, that would mean setting things up to make rational thought easier (so, more restrictions on advertising, especially to kids) and policies that counteract our predictable irrationalities (Social Security is a good example–conservatives say that it simply interferes with our own ability to rationally plan for our futures, but the fact is that we won’t put aside enough, because we’re not rational; that is, I process “me in the future” as a different person than “me,” and screw him.)

Anyway. That’s all I got. If you want to reply, reply here rather than Twitter (as you said, 140 characters doesn’t do it for some things).