Thursday, January 29, 2009

Dalton Conley's "Elsewhere, U.S.A."

Dalton Conley is University Professor of the Social Sciences and Acting Dean for the Social Sciences at New York University. He also teaches at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Service, as an Adjunct Professor of Community Medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and he as a Research Associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. His essays have appeared in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Forbes, and Slate, among other publications. His previous books include Honky; Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America; and The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, BlackBerry Moms, and Economic Anxiety, and reported the following:
On page 99 (spilling over from bottom of 98) I discuss how “the purchase” has displaced the gift relationship in today’s economy. In the classic anthropological text, The Gift, Marcel Mauss describes the “potlatch” in which primitive societies would exchange shells or other gifts around in a great big circle before throwing the lot into the sea. The gift promotes social solidarity by binding the recipient to the giver through the responsibility to reciprocate (and to treasure the gift – hang the proverbial picture on the wall when they visit). By contrast, the modern agora – ­or marketplace­ – with monetary exchange relationships for everything (think Craigslist) undermines that social economy by pricing the formerly priceless (despite what the credit card ads claim).

This is but one way that the rapid expansion of markets has changed the texture of social life in recent years. The second way I point to on page 99 is the ubiquity of the “winner’s curse” thanks to the proliferation of auction sites (think eBay and Priceline). The winner’s curse is a term that economists use to describe the fact that the so-called winner of an auction is actually the loser, since s/he paid too much – by definition – given that s/he outbid the wisdom of the market, which sets value & price.

These are two tidbits in a book meant to explain the new texture of social and economic life in today’s Elsewhere Society and how we got there.
Read an excerpt from Elsewhere, U.S.A., and learn more about the book at the publisher's website.

Visit Dalton Conley's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue