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A few days ago Alex attempted to be a voice of reason in the “debate” about the symbolism and status-seeking involved in the purchase of many environmental goods. The case of the Prius was used as an illustration. Here is one point he made:

Despite this, I must speak in defense of Prius buyers. Sure, the Prius and especially the Chevy Volt might be purchased in part as a positional good motivated by status-seeking. But hybrid critics tend to be silent on all the exorbitantly priced luxury clones of normal brands purchased for similar status reasons.

Maybe we only criticize the people from a different ideological tribe  (i.e. environmentalists) instead of the very wealthy in our tribe who indulge in much more conspicuous consumption.

A simple point or two on that, and then onto the point of my post. I think in an attempt to be reasonable and self-critical (which I hope he learned from me!) Alex has gone a little too far. Way back in my less erudite days (is that even possible!) I wrote this as I started this blog. The point being that this is an empirical question and my sense is that there is NO differentiation in the tendency toward conspicuous consumption based on tribal affiliation. Anecdote surely supports this. Al Gore’s $9 million ocean-front mansion comes to mind, as do the many lavishly rich towns, homes, cars and country clubs throughout the People’s Republic of the Berkshires. A second point on Alex’s observation is that it was not my intention to discuss positional goods and status seeking — rather I was making the point that I always do … that some of what you hear about the “environment” has nothing at all to do with the environment. Consider the case of Prius buyers as another case study.

OK, but onto more interesting things (and related to Alex’s observations). Did you hear a typical defense of “locally grown food” that resembles, “local foods just taste better!”? I have. And I sympathize with it – the stuff that comes out of my in-laws’ garden tends to be delicious. This is a major objection people have to “factory farms” that produce massive amounts of food with the help of generous baths of petrochemicals and genetic modification. But think about that for a moment. The objection to the production of massive amounts of cheap food (which as we’ve discussed before is extremely good for the environment due to the savings of land use it allows for) are not coming down to their environmental impacts (some still do make those claims but they are less prevalent today, particularly given the research on chemicals and cancer and the health impacts of GMO food) … but rather the objections are coming down to aesthetics. Never mind that some fresh, juicy, ripe local tomatoes may be more expensive than factory farmed alternatives – that is not the point for now. I would venture to guess that the folks who get really worked up about locally grown food tend to reside in different tribes than me – but I also assert that these folks like their local tomatoes for more than mere status reasons.

Ignoring the economics behind food taste (if people really wanted tasty food, are we seriously to believe that greedy profit seeking corporations would not try to sell that to us?), it seems to me yet again that what is nominally dressed up in a pretty green dress turns out to be something quite different. Tasty food has nothing at all to do with the environment. Nothing. And the appeals to tasty, ripe, red, pretty, local tomatoes seems to me to smack of the very same elitism that disturbs Alex when he criticizes old, white conservatives for buying their Cadillac CTS’s with gold-plated trim. What is different about the two? Certainly in the case of the tomato afficionados, not only does their vocal support for local food intimate to me that they actually don’t care about getting cheap food to the masses (or at least don’t recognize the importance of that) but that their support of local food is typically coupled with the hope that “we” move to more “sustainable” methods of local food and eliminate the idea of the factory farm. In other words, their preferred solution rules out cheap food for people. I don’t seem to think that the luxuriating of Mr. Moneypants is on par with this. If you want to buy a gold-plated Escalade, you may be “wasting” your own resources, and it may divert some resources away from the production of Dodge Darts  , but their selfish concern with their own status does not come attached with the demand that “we” stop making cheap cars for the masses and instead start making more “tasty” cars.

I have little sympathy for using status-like arguments in defense of particular classes of people. Maybe little is not the right word. None sounds about right. Now, I’m going to go finish my lunch of … local tomatoes (got ’em up at Orbaker’s Fruit Farm this Sunday), they go nice with some oil and balsamic and mozzarella.

5 Responses to “Fresh, Juicy, Ripe, Local Tomatoes”

  1. J Storrs Hall says:

    I think a major point is being missed here. Both the Prius and Cadillac owners are signaling that they have done good for others. The Prius by saying “I am reducing my impact on the environment.” But the Cadillac by saying “I have a lot of money in the bank.” Why, you ask, is the latter a signal of good? It’s because having money you haven’t spent yet is not just a sign, but an actual accounting, that you’ve done more good for others than they’ve done for you.

    The question then is, “Whose signals are more likely to be true?” You can lie with the Caddy if you busted your budget to get it and really don’t have a lot of unspent money. You can lie with the Prius if the green catechism is wrong in enough detail that the benefit to the environment is less than the amount of money you save on gas.

    We call someone “smug” if their attitude (and signaling) is false; otherwise we call it “having the warm glow of satisfaction for having done the right thing.” Calling someone with a Prius “smug” implies that they are either lying or deluded about how much good they’re doing, net, for others. The higher the price of gas, the more likely that they are.

  2. J Storrs Hall says:

    ps — this should be obvious, but I must add that money is a sign that you’ve done good only in an honest free market system of voluntary exchange. If you’ve stolen or counterfeited the money (whether privately or officially), you’re in effect lying.

  3. Harry says:

    My tomatoes peacefully coexist about twenty feet from a field of Monsanto RoundUpReady soybeans. They are better than any one can buy anywhere at any price.

  4. aarmlovi says:

    Wintercow:
    —Hey wait, I wasn’t necessarily criticizing old white people! I was articulating the symmetry of signaling between ‘flashy’ rich people and ‘flashy’ environmentalists. The resentment of Ethicans in Ithaca is the opposing-tribe criticism I had in mind. Even if an Ethican Prius owner is being smug, that’s no worse than being a smug luxury car owner. And conversely, being privately Ethican is just as innocent as being a private luxury car owner. Tolerate them both or resent them both.

    —“I have little sympathy for using status-like arguments in defense of particular classes of people. Maybe little is not the right word. None sounds about right.”

    Happy to hear it! I take that to mean you’re in the “tolerate them both” camp. We shouldn’t worry too much about normal levels of smugness no matter what tribe it’s in.
    You’re also right that there are other considerations beyond status that true idealists, true adherents to the articles of sustainability are following. And they’re willing to impose those ideals not for status reasons, but because of genuine faith/genuinely believed aesthetics. It just happens to be dangerous to everyone else’s well-being, as are all ideologies tolerant of centralized attempts at preference modification.

  5. Harry says:

    Watch out with the old white people comments, Alex! Were you referring to John Gotti? (Mr. Gotti to you and me both.)

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