economics

Dostoevsky and the “Pride of the Poor”

It seems intuitive that a consumerist system would benefit from a high level of general prosperity within its population. Such prosperity would, in theory, provide citizens with more resources to spend within the system, and their level of success within that system seems like it would incentivize them to stay invested in it. Despite these obvious arguments, I’m beginning to doubt that this is really the case; in fact, I’m beginning to think more and more that such an economic system benefits from having at least a segment of the population mired in abject poverty.

I started thinking about this because of a passage from Crime and Punishment. An extremely poor, recently widowed woman is donated a small yet relatively significant sum of money. Despite her destitution, she decides to spend a seemingly unreasonable chunk of it on a funeral banquet that seems rather extravagant given her economic situation. Dostoevsky theorizes about why anybody would do this, arguing that it could be “that singular ‘pride of the poor’,” which causes “many poor people [to] strain themselves to their last resources and spend every last copeck they have saved in order to be ‘no worse than others’ and it order that those others should not ‘look down their noses’ at them.” (Dostoevsky, Penguin Classics, 451-52)

This is a woman who cannot afford to feed her children, whose stepdaughter resorts to prostitution to prevent the family from starving. The twenty roubles that she is gifted would be pocket change to some people (including some of her neighbors within the same apartment building), but to her, that sum is nothing short of temporarily life-changing. Given these facts, it may be easy to read this passage as a criticism of this particular woman; however, the fact that Dostoevsky frames his observation as a theory about the “pride of the poor” rather than about the pride of this widow is significant. It becomes an observation on one of the psychological effects of a money-driven society rather than a character analysis of Katerina Ivanovna. Her plight is the plight of anyone that resides at the bottom rung of a consumerist, status-driven culture, and her irrational compulsion towards frivolous spending in the face of crippling poverty is shared by them as well.

This “pride of the poor” is the exact reason that a destitute portion of a population helps to sustain a consumerist culture. These people, through no fault of their own, are often ironically the system’s most invested devotees. Because this segment of society exists within a culture that prizes reputation and material success above all else, they try desperately to prove to their peers, to those above them in the hierarchy, and to themselves that they, too, are making it, that they, too, have staked out their place within the system’s machinery and have found some degree of prosperity. Of course, this isn’t actually the case, but when material prosperity is the only benchmark of success that a person has known for their entire life, then what’s to stop them from spending every last resource that they have at their disposal to at least appear materially wealthy? This dedicated lower segment of society sets an example for societal investment, providing the rest of the population with a model and a warning: engaging in material culture is a requirement, not a choice, so do everything you can to succeed within the system.

This is, of course, a generalization. Not every member of a consumer society’s lowest caste tries in vain to play the part of a successful person, and those that do are not at fault in the least. It’s not my intention to stereotype an entire economic class, and I don’t think that this was Dostoevsky’s intention, either. The crux of the issue is that material culture ensnares people of all levels of prosperity; the “pride of the poor” is just a single prong of its machinery.

The Implications of Cheapening Movie Tickets

I’ve always bought into the idea that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And yet Moviepass, which has generated gallons of drool at the maws of hundreds of thousands of moviegoers, has still not revealed its Achilles’ heel. Unlimited movies in theaters for ten dollars a month (which, where I live, is cheaper than a single movie ticket) certainly sounds too good to be true, but it really does work, and I’ve been milking it as much as possible. Maybe its failure is inevitable, but for now it remains an exception to the rule.

And it’s certainly gotten plenty of coverage for its seemingly supernatural ability to break the rules of economics. The service was plastered all over film forums and news sites when it announced its new pricing plan, and a quick Google search as of this article’s writing garners countless listicles and opinion pieces that are still being written about its astoundingly low cost. And although I sound like a corporate shill, I can’t stress that fact enough: the cost really is astoundingly low. Someone like me can easily drive the per-film price down to a dollar fifty. But I think these articles touting the service’s cost are focusing on the wrong thing. Yes, Moviepass is changing the way we pay for movies, but I also think it has the potential to fundamentally change the way we watch them.

Movie theaters have always been a place of collective reverence. There are people who disregard the tacit social codes that usually keep audience members from staring at their phones for the entirety of the film, but for the most part these rules are obeyed. Beyond the fear of irritating everyone else in the audience, however, I think the price of entry drives people to actually focus on the film. A movie ticket, popcorn, and a drink can easily cost upwards of twenty dollars — most people want to get their money’s worth out of the experience, so they give the film their full attention.

But if you look at what’s happened with services like Netflix, people are willing to put a film or TV show on in the background and dedicate their attention to it only partially. This is because it’s so remarkably cheap. Someone who watches two hours of Netflix a day (which is easily attainable for many users) pays about twenty cents per hour of entertainment. Someone paying the traditional movie-and-popcorn price in theaters pays ten dollars per hour, or fifty times what someone pays to watch The Office in the comfort of their own home. That is a huge disparity in cost, and it certainly shows in the level of attention the average viewer pays to a film when watching it in a theater compared to when they watch it on a streaming service. I’m guilty of this myself; it can be hard not to casually check my phone when I’m watching a film that costs next to nothing alone in my living room.

Granted, theaters still have social pressures to keep audience members away from external distractions, but I think the cheapening of tickets thanks to services like Moviepass will wear away at the power that these tacit social mores hold. Part of the reason I get annoyed at audience members who talk or text during a film is that I paid a hefty sum for an experience that they’re detracting from. If that sum is reduced, isn’t it possible that people will feel less zealous about maximizing their own experience, enabling the desire to talk or text to override the desire to get their money’s worth?

In the 40s, sixty percent of Americans went to the movies at least once per week. Moviepass could have the potential to bring film back to this level of cultural prominence, which is a wonderful thing. The problem is that the world of 2017 is filled with far more distractions than the world of the 1940s. While the accessibility of the theater experience may skyrocket, the experience itself is at risk of being heavily diluted. Right now, it’s impossible to tell if this tradeoff will be worth it.