Tuesday, January 18, 2011


We celebrate the democratization of luxury, but Daniel Akst (We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess) reminds us of its evil twin, the democratization of temptation. Battling one's demons has always been a problem, but the fact that so much is now "cheaper, easier and faster" means more demons for more people.

Akst quotes Joseph Schumpeter: "The capitalist achievement does not typically consist of providing more silk stockings for queens, but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort." That's the upside. The downside is that cheap calories (and microwave ovens), widely available sex and drugs along with the rejection of old taboos and self-control fatigue account for a million pre-mature deaths in the U.S, each year.

But that's not all. Shameless borrowing and re-financing (along with cheap credit) gave us the housing bubble and the financial collapse of 2008.

The book is a lively read that takes us through the various pre-commitment devices that people have invented to try to manage themselves. There are many funny passages about tatoos of the names of spouses to deter infidelities -- and the predictable and expensive tatoo removals, of which there are about 100,000 each year.

There are surely controversies that the author skirts (the number of deaths caused by second-hand smoke). Greater opportunities could as well prompt greater effort (deferred consumption) by some as it prompts greater indulgence by others.

Modernity is always a two-edged sword, but I'll gladly take it.