Are We Losing the Ability (or Willingness) to Think Conceptually? (Or: Is Avocado Toast Always Avocado Toast?)
As a society are we losing the ability to think conceptually—that is, in the abstract and through the application of a consistent principle to multiple and varied fact sets—as opposed to specifically and by reference to only the situation immediately before us? This article that I came across today in the print version of Money magazine has prompted the question:
Avocado Toast Is a Constitutional Right! Right?
I recall hearing this millenial-avocado-toast story some time ago in real-time, and of course my reaction was a virtual high-five to Mr. Gurner, whom I otherwise have no knowledge of. But almost as soon as my virtual praise ended, I began hearing the chorus of detractors. Angry voices: “don’t tell us or them what we/they can eat! We like our avocado toast!”
Most of the voices in opposition to Mr. Gurner’s comments were emotive, simply reacting with irrational emotion to someone pointing out that what they were doing was, well, dumb. (Argue all you want, but if you spend $23 for avocado toast and coffee every day while at the same time complaining about not being able to afford housing, you are at best irrational and at worst, dumb.) And I can at least understand emotional behavior—it’s part of the human condition, and while it can often be counter-productive and certainly economically harmful, it is what makes us human and binds us together in a common experience. (I experience very little of it, which makes for great financial decisions, but also often isolates me from my more emotional cohorts. Which is almost everybody. But let’s leave that for another day.)
But what the Money writer did in this piece was different. And more insidious. Ms. Calfas undertook the ostensibly academic and learned approach of quantifying how many avocado toast splurges it would take to accumulate a down-payment on a house. It would take 68,690 of them, she concludes, if you are buying in the Boston area (using median real estate data from Trulia.com). Damn! That’s a lot of avocado toast! It’s an ass-ton of avocado toast, to use a technical term. And so the unavoidable implication is that Mr. Gurner’s comment was misguided, and that he’s an out-of-touch rich guy that wants to deprive you of one of life’s simple pleasures, just to be mean. So avocado toast for everyone!
But surely Ms. Calfas understands that Mr. Gurner wasn’t talking strictly about avocado toast, right? I mean, she did some fancy math to convert avocado toast costs to down-payment figures, and she is a writer for a widely circulated personal-finance magazine, so at some level she must have grasped the fact that avocado toast is simply one example of spending and consumption behavior that when exercised all day, every day, would impair wealth-building and the ability to buy a house. Because people that regularly spend $23 on avocado toast and coffee probably don’t limit their profligate spending to just that one item. I don’t feel like I’m thinking on a higher plane here; this isn’t quantum physics. Right?
And yet this piece was pushed out as is, and with a fancy graphic of avocado toast rising to the sky, undoubtedly excusing some poor millennial out there today to continue on as a spendthrift while complaining about not being able to afford housing—all with the implicit approval of one of the country’s most widely read personal finance publications.
So are the writers, editors, and readers of Money magazine too dumb to think abstractly and conceptually, outside of the four corners of literal avocado toast? Not likely. Have they willfully or potentially subconsciously refused to think conceptually—at least in situations where the resulting conclusion and principle leads to short-term discomfort? Maybe.
Note: For a somewhat related discussion see my earlier post on the objectivity of math.