Acton Institute Powerblog

Capitalism: It’s what all the cool kids do

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I grew up in a very small town. Our fashion purchases were limited to the dry goods store (yes, it still went by that name) which carried things like Buster Brown shoes and sensible sweaters, or the grain elevator, where you could buy durable overalls for farm work.

As someone who eagerly awaited Seventeen magazine every month and witnessed the birth of MTV, you can imagine my fashion dilemma. The closest mall was 70 miles away. I needed Calvin Klein jeans, Candies heels and Esprit tops like, now.

Steven Quartz, a philosopher and neuroscientist at Caltech, along with Anette Asp, a political scientist and neuromarketer, feel for me. In The Atlantic, Bourree Lam talked with the two about the connection between “cool” and capitalism. Quartz and Asp, believe, in as sense, that capitalism created “cool.” First, though, Quartz says there are four myths linked to capitalism (or what some would call “consumerism”) that their research shows to be false:

First, that it doesn’t make us happy. Second, that it relies on instilling false needs in us because it’s contrary to our real nature. Third, that it erodes public life.  Fourth, that it’s primarily about “stuff.”

Asp also says that equating “cool” with expensive is another myth. We may perceive an iPhone (which is relatively expensive) to be “cool,” it’s value its not with the price tag, but rather with social perception. (This would explain the “cool” factor of the “grunge” fad in the ’90s.) Quartz:

The brain processes cool in terms of its impact on our social identity. Cool is more about the social life of products than their functional properties. It can fetch a premium (Apple is a good example), but it doesn’t have to be expensive—finding a retro shirt in a thrift shop can also be cool. Specifically, we found that it impacts a part of the brain known as the medial prefrontal cortex. This is where our social identity and our social calculator is located.

The two looked to the invention of “cool” (think James Dean) in the 1950s. In an era of great economics satisfaction, why were people looking for something else?

It doesn’t make any sense in some ways. People were enjoying higher standards of living, more discretionary income, so why start rebelling? We saw that it was because the competition for the limited status of a traditional social hierarchy was getting too intense. It was the right conditions for the rebel instinct to ignite, and it started to drive consumption through rejecting the traditional routes to status and creating cool new lifestyles.

And thus was born my need for a boom box, cassette tapes of Bruce Springsteen and Joan Jett, and a penchant for baggy, acid-washed jeans. If your kid is driving you crazy for the next “cool” thing, blame free market economics.

Read “How Capitalism Created ‘Cool'” at The Atlantic.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.