Michael Hanson
Business in Review

Exile on Main Street

By, 12/17/2010

Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior – Geoffrey Miller

Exile on Main Street (1972, Deluxe Remastered Edition – 2010) – The Rolling Stones

 

Life – Keith Richards and James Fox

 

Those dirty, filthy riffs. Those twangy, mangy licks. Those dissonant, pungent, partial chords. Keith Richards embodied rock and roll's 1960s transition: bearing the new standard like a Young Turk and simultaneously paying homage to the roots of it all—Muddy Waters, Memphis, London and the mods, man! A hallmark of great pop artistry, particularly in music, is to be archetypal yet impossible to replicate.* And to this day, nobody really ever sounded like the Stones. You know it's them in a bar or two.

 

But like all pop iconoclasm, it wasn't just the art—it was the symbol. Keith Richards represents an indelible slice of Baby Boomerism, his life an embodiment of a whole generation—namely, its Dionysian dark side. This is reflected brilliantly in his autobiography, Life, one of the best books of its kind. Not because the drugged-out stories are so great (we've heard ‘em all by now anyway), but Richards writes like he plays—it's rhythmic, punchy prose that moves on the page like a song. If you need a break from the newspapers and business books, this is a great choice.

 

Or you can get the Stones experience via different senses by picking up the recently remastered album, Exile on Main Street. It's further down the line in their musical development from early hits like Satisfaction, but before they really kicked into high gear with Wild Horses and You Can't Always Get What You Want. Richards is totally free on these tracks—it's a folksy, bluesy mix of jams. The whole thing has a primordial feel to it.

 

As I made my way through these, I also happened to be reading Geoffrey Miller's new book, Spent, about the evolutionary psychological underpinnings of consumerism. Exile on Main Street—the title alone—has its similarities:

 

Always took candy from strangers,
Didn't wanna get me no trade.
Never want to be like Papa,
Working for the boss every night and day.

 

If that isn't a nutshell view of how folks view today's debt (candy), protectionism (trade), and Baby Boomers' general relationship to their parents' as Greatest Generation (Papa), I don't know what is. And then, today's general mood about the economy:

 

Feel so hypnotized, can't describe the scene.
It's all mesmerized all that inside me.
The sunshine bores the daylights out of me.
Chasing shadows moonlight mystery.
Headed for the overload,
Splattered on the dirty road,
Kick me like you've kicked before,
I can't even feel the pain no more.

Miller's book reaches back to this visceral, Stones-like place: positing, as most evolutionary psychology books do, that the key to understanding consumers is looking at how their brains are wired. That is, humans, like all animals, live to mate, and consumerism is at heart a ritual of display—showing how "fit" we are to attract the best mates. It's all very sex, drugs, and…well, you get it.

 

This view makes a lot of sense, and Miller has done the most complete job to date enumerating humanity's instinctual need to make a display of itself and how that translates into modern consumerism. He takes Steven Pinker's ideas about instinctual behavior forward, even as he harkens back to Carl Jung's archetypal psychology. There's all sorts of interesting tidbits about how we gauge intelligence, why being conscientious is ultimately a show of good genes, and so on.

 

But, as with most books of their kind, this one often goes too far. Certainly, instinct represents one shade of consumerism (and a significant one at that), but it's not the whole thing. Sorry, I didn't get my iPhone just to show off to the world or my girlfriend—it's just a really awesome gadget that makes other things like email and mobile internet way easier. And it's fun. 

Also, there's no concept of progress here. Miller spends the introduction arguing that a cavewoman of millennia ago is probably as happy or happier than we are today. I'll buy the notion that psychologically the world is more complex and difficult now, but the simple reality is that innovation and capitalism has taken much of humanity to new, better heights. I'd rather have my psychological neuroses than be in danger of starving (or being eaten myself!). 

That said, Miller describes the concept of marketing in a way most do not, but is pinpoint correct: Marketing is not simply advertising, marketing is understanding what your clients want/need and being able to deliver that product. Marketing is the most important part of business acumen for an executive; it's not just for Mad Men. The only other place I can recall this vital business lesson articulated so well is Ken Fisher's first book, Super Stocks, going all the way back to 1984. 

Also, Miller spends a good deal of time explaining that "fitness" displays have many false signals. Much ostensible virility, like what kind of car a guy drives, actually doesn't prove the case at all, but tries to by proxy. This idea correlates very nicely with how many (to my view) can be fooled by what good investments really are. A true, "fit" investment is something that produces value, like a share of stock in a profitable company. But stuff like baseball cards, artwork, heck, even gold (for the most part), isn't productive. Their value is assigned completely by human psychology—those human desires. Which doesn't make them worthless by a long shot, of course, but if you take out the psychology, you don't have much. Even Picasso's worth is in the eye of the beholder. But though market prices gyrate, owning a share of a great company ultimately has a more tangible claim to value because the firm produces useful goods and services and, unlike a Picasso, adjusts to customer tastes (back to that marketing thing!). Maybe that seems like semantics, but give me the productive company any day as an investment. 

The most important lesson of Spent is that the popular current view of "the consumer"** is wrong. All this hand-wringing in the media about "when will the consumer come back…they're all tapped out!" is sheer nonsense. Human demand is eternal—it cannot be satiated, only stifled for brief periods. It will return because it's inherent to who we are—it doesn't need to be "stimulated." What needs stimulus in a recession are the suppliers—incentives to make goods for people to consume. There will always be folks to buy things if the products are marketed competitively. 

That was the whole crux of the Rolling Stones. They didn't just get lucky. In archetypal rock star fashion, those guys played till their fingers bled, performed for empty halls, lived in poverty and only for the music for years. All that "market research" showed Mick and Keith how to write great songs people wanted to hear. From there? You know the story. Rock and roll was never the same—but no chance it was just Tumbling Dice.

* One of the great innovations Richards brought to mainstream rock was alternative tuning. He would tune his guitar to an open "A" chord, allowing him to play many chords only partially fretted. This effect created dissonances and atonal results that helped produce his signature sound.

** Minor pet peeve: Who ever decided it was "the consumer"? Basically all media says it this way. Isn't it just "consumers"? There isn't one giant person opening their maw to consume all things, is there?

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*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.

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