Problems with Plenitude

The concept of plenitude presented by Grant McCracken is intriguing and might be politically useful for libertarians ("The Politics of Plenitude," August/September). But his model would be more accurate if he would elucidate the independent concept of eclecticism. Diversification of culture by speciation of subcultures leads to development of their own orthodoxies, to which McCracken alludes in his description of George Wolfe's conflict between his blackness and his gayness. This tendency contradicts the idea that "plenitude embraces those who would otherwise be persecuted for their differences."

"Everyone must necessarily belong to many groups" is a statement of eclecticism. It is the eclectic individual, not the process of plenitude, which "resists conformity, orthodoxy, conventions, and rules." Within this descriptive framework, plenitude and eclecticism must necessarily be different, though related, concepts. The degree of subcultural speciation within a society is conceptually independent of the degree to which individuals traverse those subcultures. McCracken's "identity politics" is a corollary to this, as identity is perhaps the underlying eclectic variable. "I enjoy the Grateful Dead" and "I am a Deadhead" imply different points on the eclectic axis.

In many cultural conflicts, identity is implicit in the formulation of the problem. One must either "be" black or white, for example. Awareness of identity and the eclectic axis allows us to see the difference between "You are black" and "You have black skin." I have blue eyes, but I do not identify myself as "a blue-eye." And I am not sure which end of an egg I normally open first.

Jack Simanonok
New Orleans, LA

In his article justifying if not indeed praising plenitude, Grant McCracken clearly believes that the right needs more guidance than the left on the importance of enthusiastically embracing plenitude, by the ratio of 34 to 22 column inches of text. Bias in the media, even in REASON? Amazing!

Or perhaps the right is more upset. If so, let me tell you one important reason why this could be true, which Mr. McCracken fails to mention. It is because many aspects of the various alternate lifestyles, attitudes, or interests thriving under the umbrella of plenitude are not only tolerated by the federal and some state governments (that's fine) but are facilitated and even promoted by them. That is not fine, because anything governments do costs tax money, and the right (call them Republicans) believes with good reason that on a per capita basis it pays more in taxes and takes less out in various forms of government assistance than the left (call them Democrats).

In any event, since relatively few of the new groups or styles spawned by plenitude are perceived by the right as conservative or fiscally responsible, perhaps in part because of the media's tendency to hype the bizarre or shocking among them, the right is not amused. McCracken notes, "plenitude dispenses with permission." It doesn't do much for forgiveness either.

Teck A. Wilson
Osprey, FL

As a libertarian who is also a practitioner of what has come to be known as cultural studies, I was delighted to read "The Politics of Plenitude." But there are two issues I'd like to raise.

First, I was somewhat puzzled that an article discussing the increasing diversity of social formations seemed to represent the "left" and "right" as homogeneous ideological monoliths. The ideological diversity and fragmentation manifest on the left and the right, respectively, should discourage the practice of representing their views as being uniform. And yet, McCracken does just that. If it had come from a writer less in touch with "plenitude," I'd have written it off as an instance of oversimplification for the purposes of rhetorical economy and effect. But coming from McCracken, it surprised me.

Second, I am curious about the criteria McCracken uses to determine that teen fashion, music lyrics, and the work of Robert Mapplethorpe are "things indifferent," while line dancing is "an interesting and dynamic site for the transformation of gender, class, outlook and…politics." I am not suggesting that all cultural phenomena are significant and worthy of analysis, but the influences of fashion, music, and visual art on people's values, beliefs, and social practices should not be underestimated. For instance, the incorporation of the iconography and ideology of the Nation of Islam by some rap artists in the '80s and early '90s contributed significantly to the cultural conditions that have made the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan a renewed political force in the black community.

Daniel Smith
University Park, PA

It's incomprehensible that you believe that the social decay that has occurred over the past 30 years, referred to as "plenitude," has been a good thing. This plenitude is responsible for the current state of our society, which includes the drive-by shootings mentioned in the article. It is responsible for the increase in drug use, unwanted pregnancies, homelessness, and sexual perversion.

Social decay is evolutionary, and the idea that a single factor will send society over the edge is incorrect. When I was young, growing up in the '70s and '80s, I believed my parents were overreacting to the music, clothes, and hair length of my generation. As I mature I see the wisdom of their arguments. Back then, homosexuality was considered deviant. Today it is considered acceptable, but pedophilia is considered deviant. I wonder if your concept of plenitude would hold and even embrace those people who find it natural for them to have sexual relations with young children. Would a society that fails to protect its children in the name of plenitude be acceptable to you? Where does it stop? If people don't need "permission" to behave inappropriately, they will.

I believe a group of people has a right to set the rules for coexisting in a community. If people choose to not live by those rules, they are free to leave that community and start one of their own, not to impose their own rules on the rest of that community. The group has the right to decide how much plentitude it considers acceptable for its community.

Unfettered plenitude is not a good thing. I suppose that the Roman Empire overdosed on plentitude and it killed the society. My fear is that our society is destined to the same fate.

Wesley C. Hand Jr.

Grant McCracken replies: I agree entirely with Teck Wilson. Plenitude needs no government encouragement or subsidy, and any such program now in place should be dismantled. The anthropological fact of the matter is that plenitude has extraordinary generative power and can be relied upon to throw off new and more social species without help from anyone. This is, I guess, good news and bad news for the right. Subsidies may be eliminated, but this will do almost nothing to blunt the cultural experimentation we see on every side.

Daniel Smith is right (and characteristically clever) to note a contradiction between writing about plenitude on the one hand and continuing to use the monolithic categories "left" and "right" on the other. This objection was anticipated with cunning footnotes (#252 in Plenitude 1.0 and #521 in the new version, Plenitude 2.0) which observe that this is an unavoidable problem. Until political discourse catches up to the new social dynamism, we have to use the old categories of analysis. Plenitude 2.0 is, among other things, an invitation for political theorists to construct the language that makes it possible to talk about our new social realities with new agility. (On matters of political theory, I am obliged to admit the limits of my disciplinary competence. More exactly: What do I know? I'm an anthropologist.).

I liked Wesley Hand's observation so much I built it into Plenitude 2.0 as an illustration of one of the prevailing views of our society, and the very thing that Plenitude is designed to address. Before we commit to the unmistakably plausible and tempting notion that the sky is falling, let us be certain we have done our ethnographic homework. What looks like chaos may merely be complexity. Or, as the Santa Fe Institute has endeavored to observe for other purposes: Chaos may not be so chaotic after all.

Plenitude 2.0 is an experiment in plenitude, and I hope readers will feel free to contribute to the discussion of these and other issues at www.cultureby.com, where the book is available for free.

Time Is Money?

I wholeheartedly subscribe to W. Michael Cox and Richard G. Alm's central thesis in "Buying Time" (August/September), but I must quibble with their methodology. Cox and Alm argue that the wonder of capitalism is how many products improve over time while becoming significantly cheaper, to boot. The metric they utilize to substantiate their claim is the concept of work hours. For example, they write that "in 1919, earning enough to buy a three-pound chicken required two hours, 37 minutes of work. Today, it's down to 14 minutes." This analysis, so far as I can tell, compares pretax wages at two different points in time. As we all know, the tax on wages has changed dramatically since the turn of the century. To compare pretax wages, then, is to compare apples and oranges.

Even in different countries at the same point in time, the idea holds. Country A's average hourly wage could be $10, while Country B's could be twice that. We would not, from this information, be able to infer that in Country A a worker has to work two hours to buy a $18 shirt, while the Country B worker need work only one hour. After all, if the tax rate on wages is 10 percent in Country A but is 60 percent in Country B, then A need only work two hours to buy the shirt, while B would need to work two and a half. This contradicts the results obtained by looking at pretax wages. Though the disparity in tax rates may not always be that large, the principle holds. Of course, in different times and in different places, other taxes might apply which would also change the metric. The proper way to measure the time needed to purchase a product is to look at after-tax income. Capitalism's wonders are constrained, then, by the increase in wage taxation, and taxation generally, over time.

David M. Primo
Stanford, CA

"Buying Time" was great! Yet it omitted any reference to the costs associated with the provision of government services. Especially informative would be the annual costs associated with running Congress, or the White House, or the federal judiciary. Or the average costs associated with the trial and incarceration of a capital felon. Or the cost per inmate of our state and federal prison systems.

A review of such costs might give clues to why, in the face of your good news about the cost of food, shelter, and life's goodies, we seem to feel neither especially rich nor financially secure.

Albert B. Hall
Friday Harbor, WA

I have worked the building trades since I was 16. I think my case probably parallels those of most tradesmen.

In 1972 I bought a new pickup and paid $2,200 for it. My wife's new sporty red import was less than $2,500. Our "starter" house was a brick three-bedroom, one bath, and cost about $10,000. All of these major purchases were handily covered by the $4.80 per hour I was making driving nails. I don't think I have lived as well since.

Today, a comparable pickup is $22,000 and a similar new home is over $90,000. There is not a carpenter swinging a hammer today who can draw the $48 per hour it would take to make those major purchases with the same 1972 dollars. (It doesn't stop there. The first beer I bought at Luckenbach was 27 cents, plus 2 cents deposit if you took the bottle with you. Today they're $2.50.)

In 1991 I bought a six-year-old "work truck" for $3,750 from a used car dealer. Nothing special, just a plain Jane, low-mileage lease turn-in. Last spring I looked at several 1991 lease turn-ins; the same make, model, and condition as the 1985 model I bought, only six years newer, and they were priced between $12,000 and $13,000. To buy one of those trucks with the same dollars of seven years ago, I would have to be making close to $65 an hour. How much would a house cost if the trades made that kind of money? Perhaps things are better than they were in 1919. Perhaps basic food items and certainly electronics have declined in "real cost" since 1970, but overall, measured in dollars or time, my lifestyle is not as good as it was in 1972.

Hoppy Hopkins

W. Michael Cox and Richard G. Alm reply: David Primo and Albert Hall have their math right. If we used take-home pay, rather than wages, the work time required to purchase today's goods would be higher. Income and payroll taxes are higher than they used to be, rising from 5 percent of wages in the early 1950s to 21 percent today. Comparisons over time, however, are a two-way street. We ignored taxes, but we also omitted fringe benefits. Today's workers take more of their compensation as health insurance, vacation, holidays, retirement plans, and other non-wage income. The extras rose from 19 percent of wages in 1953 to 44 percent today.

Including these benefits would make today's goods and services even cheaper in work time. Data for taxes and benefits aren't available before 1950, a fact that would make long-term comparisons impossible. What's most important, adjustments for benefits would outweigh those for taxes--so we'd find that modern consumers are better off.

It's not entirely clear, moreover, how to adjust for higher taxes. Excluding them altogether would make sense only if public finance were the equivalent of flushing money down the toilet. That's an extreme view. Granted, some government spending may be wasteful, ranging from inefficiently provided at best to worthless at worst. Even so, the public surely benefits at least some from roads, law enforcement, national defense, and other expenditures. Deciding which government spending is worthwhile entails value judgments. It might be a fine exercise in the theory of public finance, but it would obscure the main point of our article. The goal was to show how the competition and innovation fostered by the free-enterprise system drives down the cost of living, allowing consumers to get more for their money.

Hoppy Hopkins's mistake lies in using one person's experience with just two items to suggest that the early 1970s were better for consumers. We never intended for our conclusions to apply to every American and every product. In fact, we singled out two products that cost more: health care and higher education. We suggested that quality improvements account for at least part of the increase in their real prices. Similarly, starter homes and pickup trucks have improved since the early 1970s, justifying higher prices. We have no information on the specific houses and vehicles mentioned in Hopkins's letter. Our analysis uses average wages and the prices of prominent products, with enough examples to suggest that falling real prices is a dominant theme of the American economy. In that context, we stand by our findings. The cost of a Ford car fell from 4,696 hours in 1908 to 1,638 hours in 1955 and 1,365 hours in 1997. The cost of an average new home went from 7.8 hours per square foot in 1920 to 6.5 hours in 1956 and 5.6 hours in 1996.