Mr. Spock: May I say that I have not thoroughly enjoyed serving with humans? I find their illogic and foolish emotions a constant irritant.
Scotty: Then transfer out, freak.
- Star Trek (1968)
"Want to fool around?"
"I have a headache."
"I'm just not feeling sexy--"
"How about $100?"
Multiple choice question: At this point, your girlfriend would have:
A. Slapped you
B. Left the room
C. Told you to gather your things, including the toothbrush, and leave
D. All of the above
And she'd be right to do so. You'd have to be a sociopath to even attempt that exchange. Because however generous the offer - even if it were $5,000 - you're relegating her to "product."
You probably assume, like me, that most people immediately understand the impropriety of such an offer. And we're probably right. But the "most" there gets smaller every day, and the ranks of those who'd see nothing at all wrong with it, though still a minority, are growing. Rapidly.
Look around you. What isn't commoditized, monetized, broken into economic units that can be traded? Almost every element of our existence is negotiated, negotiable. All but a sliver of our interactions are better categorized as bargains, barters - an endless series of what the terminally merchant-minded would describe as "opportunities" upon which one might capitalize. Life as game theory, with the list of things we considered too important to commercialize shrinking by the second.
The justice system? Binding arbitration is replacing actual trials, and in the criminal realm, prisoners are shipped off to privately run prisoners which maximize their profits by figuring out the minimum amount of food a human needs to not have an Eighth Amendment claim.
Health care? Follows a business model encouraging excessive unit consumption. Even the latest health care reform had almost nothing to do with health care, but instead focused on health insurance and financing.
Higher education? Introductory classes are taught by graduate teaching assistants and cheap adjunct instructors. Universities routinely try to poach professors from other schools. Following the recent scandal with the University of Virginia’s administration, the school had to make more funds available for retention bonuses because other schools immediately began making offers. In law schools, administrations are essentially just buying a professor’s future publication stream. And that publication stream is increasingly outsourced to low paid research assistants.
War? The production of military equipment is little more than middle/upper-middle class jobfare program and a means of buying re-elections with a steady supply of pork, while the actual killing of enemy combatants is being handed off to private mercenaries.
The list of examples goes on forever. Everything's for sale.
The market mentality eats all, and as it does we replace our social behavior with market rationality. Why not pay your girlfriend for sex? She could use an extra hundred, or five hundred, to cover some expenses. And she has sex with you for free. Where's the loss in paying her to have it with you when want it but she doesn't? It's only logical. Win/win, no?
Rationally, the only argument she could muster against taking the deal is that it might devalue the commodity she's offering. And if she were a rational actor, she'd probably want to marry the kind of guy who earned enough to casually offer $500 for sex. He'd be a good provider. Probably earn enough to allow her to stop working, in which case she'd minimize effort expended to obtain the lifestyle she wants - the definition of an optimal trade. Selling cheap now could decrease her chances of getting Mr. Right to the altar later, the sort of error a shrewd consultant would recommend against.
Imagine how a suit from McKinsey would analyze the offer made to that propositioned girlfriend: "I recommend you reject it. You'd be risking medium to long term dollars to collect short term nickels. And there's not even a 'time value of money' argument to be made. The spread's just too wide. Hang in for the ring. Unless, of course, he starts offering $50,000. Then the numbers might work."
That's cold, creepy, disturbing. That's also free market thinking at work. It's how a trader's mind works as he uses what he thinks is superior information, or analysis, to profit at cost to the other side of a bargain. How a CEO looks at eliminating labor to increase short term shareholder value. How a lawyer making a specious claim justifies manipulating a jury with misleading or emotional arguments. Commerce cares about gain, quick gain most often, and nothing else. "It's just business, you understand."
Except when it isn't.
When it's human interactions where what used to be known as decency, or carrying one's self with some level of grace, was the rule. Sounds quaint now, almost naive, to suggest something other than rational self-interest ought to govern us in personal spheres. It's not. The Chinese wall between the dry, predatory things we're compelled to do for money, and the fascinatingly unpredictable things we do in our personal lives, is an essential boundary in a functional, non-sociopathic society. In an interesting society... the only kind in which any sane person would want to live. And that wall is teetering on collapse.
I don't know where the line is between what's properly negotiable and what isn't. Having been schooled in a profession flooded with practitioners carrying the moral compass of a monitor lizard, I'm not sure I'm qualified to even opine. But I do know such a wall exists, and as ragged as it might be, if we keep pretending it isn't there. If we persist in replacing considerations like decency with ruthless rational analyses in which one's self interest is not only paramount, but the sole point of concern, we risk making everything a commodity.
Many would say, "That's great. The truth of humanity is we're all solely self-interested actors seeking to amass the most resources, and the sooner we recognize that, and behave accordingly, the better. Life should work like a trading floor." I can see the logic behind this. Life would be a lot easier if you could walk into a bar, say "What's your number?" to someone and have that person understand it means, "How much to sleep with you?" If it became acceptable to so distill all of our actions to simple bargains, things would move a hell of a lot more smoothly. We wouldn't waste so much time entangled in the red tape of human emotions and the capricious behaviors they cause.
But as logical as that sounds, it's ultimately self defeating. When everything's a commodity, nothing's exotic. Nothing's beyond valuation. And what can be easily valued is inherently less interesting - less desirable. It becomes a medium of exchange, something to be used, or accumulated, then traded away for something else, or discarded. And anyone who's been there knows - the endless run of zero sum games that go with the "life as a series of barters and bargains" view quickly becomes tedium.
We are animals, craven ones, and our better angels are far less frequent in appearance than we'd like to believe. That's a reality with which man will always struggle, and for which there is no cure. The real concern I see in us turning into a nation of traders, perpetual commercial operators, or whatever else you might call those afflicted with the 24/7 merchant mindset, is our degrading into a country of dullards. In a world of nothing but coldly rational actors, life's predictable. No unplanned success, no unforeseeable failure. No great unknowns, and with that, no hope of surprise.
I can't count the occasions on which I wished I could simply trade $100, or $500, to get into a cute girl's pants. Dispense with the perfunctories, save all the effort. But then I'd be getting exactly what I paid for, and nothing more. No thrill of the chase, no risk of the unexpected.
Qua. That little word you learn when you study professional responsibility or the law of agency gets to the heart of the problem of commodiziation. Roles matter. Intercourse with someone qua sexual partner is sex. Intercourse with someone qua business partner is little more than advanced masturbation.
Why we need to remain vigilant against the creep of market-think into our personal interactions. This is especially important for members of the legal profession, which has turned almost entirely into the legal business.
A profession straddles the division of commercial and personal affairs. Money changes hands, and the practice has to stay in the black to keep operating, but aside from those essentials a dignified profession is more like dating than pimping. You’re supposed to keep your bills reasonable, even if that means not maximizing profits. You’re supposed to train the next generation, even if that means training your competition. You’re not supposed to layoff first year associates to keep equity partner shares in the seven figures, and you’re not supposed to exploit the weak market to get free labor from people desperate just to get the experience and reference.
Why does this matter? A job’s a job, right? You’re just there to make some bucks, so who cares that you’re maximizing the bucks? Because it used to be that before it was a job, it was a career. It meant something. As once-learned professions become more about business they’re less fulfilling. They become about marketing and billable hour unit production. That’s no way to spend 50-70 hours of your week, and if you see nothing wrong with that then there is something wrong with you. You’re losing your humanity, becoming more machine than man, twisted and evil.
And it will creep in to the rest of your life. When you’re okay spending a third or half of your waking life as a white-collar factory line worker, treating your own time as a commodity, you’ll see everything else in the world as an adversarial negotiation. You’ll be the asshole who doesn’t tip a waiter while on vacation because you’re never going back to that restaurant again anyways. You won’t have hobbies or play any sports, because without making money, what’s the point? You won’t laugh at dirty jokes, unless you paid for a comedy show, in which case you’ll force out extra laughs to maximize your laughs per dollar. You won’t hang out at a bar, have a few drinks, and hit on the hot blonde when she walks in because you’ve already run the numbers and know that by the third date you’ll be out more money than it would have cost to just get a hooker.
That last bit should be good for me though, right? Less competition. But it’s not. As quick as men are to commoditize everything, the epidemic seems to be hitting women even harder. Men at least have our inherent immaturity pulling us back towards the world of fun for the sake of fun. Women take much easier to cold calculations (stereotypes about mathematic proficiency aside). More dullards in the world means fewer interesting men to compete against, but even fewer interesting women worth competing for.
This is why we need to shore up that weakening Chinese wall, wherever it lies, between our commercial selves and our actual selves. On one side of the wall we make money. On the other, we live our lives. Let the market-side logic take over completely as we've been doing and soon we'll be a nation of insufferable bores. Worse, we’ll be a nation without orgasms, because no matter how much money there is on the demand side, you can’t commoditize the orgasm supply. Yes, your cam-whore is lying when she says there’ll be a cum show at 10,000 tokens. You’ll get a fake, and you’ll know it’s fake. By turning every interaction into a business deal that’s where we’re headed, a nation of dullards in meaningless jobs and not a genuine orgasm to be found.