Friday, August 26, 2016

“Can we love?” More on commodification

I read today’s Diane Coyle post on commodification of services which is (to some extent, Diane says) a reply to my earliest post, but to be honest I do not see how it is a reply.

I basically agree with almost all that Diane writes today (here).

But note that my two posts (here and here) had, if I summarize them quickly, two key points.

Primo: Gig economy with one-off deals and extremely fast turnover of labor breaks the relations of confidence and trust that are often established between people (buyers and sellers). If my tax driver changes all the time, dry cleaner stays in his job one week, my professors fluctuate quarter by quarter, it seems to me obvious that this type of flexibilization of labor market ---while probably leading to gains in productivity—reduces incentive to establish longer term relationships and thus to invest in being “nice”. It does not mean that I am going to be rude to a waiter and throw a plate at him, but it means that I am not going to invest in a chit-chat that otherwise I would. And he/she would behave the same. To put it in  economic terms, it does not pay to be nice (high fixed cost) if you keep on having only one-off relationships. (Incidentally, it is not too different from today’s culture of hook-up. While it probably increases freedom and sexual pleasure, it surely does not contribute to relationships.)

Secundo: My second post (here) dealt with the intrusion of marketization in family relations. I used the examples of food consumed, individually and outside of home not together over a dinner table, and of external tutoring of kids. Both were activities previously done by parents and they I believe tended to make relations between family members closer. But now these ties no longer exist, replaced by purchased food and purchased tutoring.

My third example was living alone which again comes with higher income and is something that people really love to do and so they choose it whenever they can afford (I do it, most of the time, myself). But is it helpful for relations? I think, not.

I think that both points are so incontrovertibly true that only due to some misunderstanding can we reach different conclusions. This is why I wanted  to clarify them here.

I enjoy discussion with Diane because I think that we have very similar basic opinions. Perhaps the difference is that I often see advances in marketization or in income as not 100% improvements in all human dimensions.  In a most economistic way, I think we always gain some and lose some. Sure, by our choice (say, to hire tutors or to live alone) we show that we care more about having a bathroom and a kitchen to ourselves or not to be bothered too much with kids’ homework which makes us probably lead happier lives as individuals. But we lose some, in lessening the ties with other people.

At the end, as in Herzog’s new movie “Lo and behold: the reveries of an interconnected word”, we can ask: “Can we envisage a life as automatons purely exchanging services and goods without seeing each other (ordering pizza, cleaners, shirts on the Internet), talking to people only on the web, eating solo, listening to music alone with first-rate audio speakers etc. and just having every single activity be a market transaction”. Yes, we can, the modern IT wizards say. But then Herzog asks “Can we love?”.

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