Eco’s ‘How to eat ice cream’

A friend recently gifted me a vintage copy of some of Umberto Eco’s essays translated to English. One of the essays, titled “How to eat ice cream,” opened with an anecdote Eco said was based on his childhood. In the story, there was an ice cream vendor who sold regular cones for two cents and ice cream pie cones for four cents. Eco said his parents and grandmother would buy him which ever type he requested, but there was a limit. Young Eco envied the neighbor children who would parade down the street carrying a regular cone in each hand. But whenever he asked for four cents to buy two cones, the adults would flatly refuse and tell him that he could have a pie cone instead. As an adult, he mused:

[…] I realize that those dear and now departed elders were right. Two two-cent cones instead of one at four cents did not signify squandering, economically speaking, but symbolically they surely did. It was for this precise reason that I yearned for them: because two ice creams suggested excess. And this was precisely why they were denied me: because they looked indecent, an insult to poverty, a display of fictitious privilege, a boast of wealth. […] And parents who encouraged this weakness, appropriate to little parvenus, were bringing up their children in the foolish theatre of “I’d like to but I can’t.” They were preparing them to turn up at tourist-class check-in with a fake Gucci bag bought from a street peddler on the beach at Rimini.

The parenting method must have worked because he became Umberto Eco. What Eco recognized was that his parents had inoculated him against false consumerist behavior. The preventative measures were not against the so-called consumerist society but ostentatious display, the process of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

Around January 2018, there was a meme floating around social media. It said something along the lines of “Entrepreneur: someone who lives a few years the way most people won’t so that they can spend the rest of their lives living the way most people can’t.” I very belatedly discovered Carl Schramm’s 2004 book The Entrepreneurial Imperative. Schramm identified the 1950s as the time when American society ceased valorizing business ownership and virtuous risk in favor of material security. As part of the “security first” mentality, children and young people were openly discouraged from seeking independence or from being different in a positive way. The world was one of ossification and stagnation, even as the federal government and media pushed a strong Keynesian message of “consume to grow.” On a side note, now that I think about it, Keynesian economics resemble the children’s video game Snake: one guides the snake to food so that it will grow but eventually it becomes so big that it bites itself – Game over.

Even given the massive propaganda effort put into promoting Keynesian theories, scapegoating “consumerism” or “consumerist society” is a form of escapist thought, a dodging of responsibility. Eco spotted the cause and effect nature of being a parvenu. The desire for “fictitious privilege” creates a set of priorities that cause one to spend his wherewithal thoughtlessly. In turn a “boast of wealth” strategy leads to “’I’d like to but I can’t’” through ensuring that there is no money when real opportunity arrives. The world becomes one of abundant middle as the effort to possess everything spirals.


  1. Texas sues California Josh Blackman, Volokh Conspiracy
  2. Explainable governance Robin Hanson, Overcoming Bias
  3. Possessed by the past Noah Millman, Modern Age
  4. The problem of consumerism Nick Nielsen, Grand Strategy Annex


  1. Media criticism and left wing nostalgia Jessica Werneke, Not Even Past
  2. Wealth isn’t a blob of consumable stuff Don Boudreaux, Cafe Hayek
  3. Camp of the Saints and right wing nostalgia Chelsea Stieber, Africa is a Country
  4. The eclipse of the natural law Nathaniel Peters, Law & Liberty

A hypothesis implied by Galbraith

pp. 171-172 of Competition and Entrepreneurship has J.K. Galbraith asserting, “that independently determined consumer desires [do not] dictate the pattern of production. The ‘institutions of modern advertising and salesmanship…cannot be reconciled with the notion of independently determined desires, for their central function is to create desires–to bring into being wants that previously did not exist.'”

Beyond the obvious first step (recognizing that consumers’ desires could not possibly be determined independently of the market process), this raises an interesting hypothesis: Advertisers should a) recognize that they’re selling snake oil and consume significantly less than similar people, or b) be particularly excited about the prospects of new and exciting products generally. In either case advertising should affect them differently than regular consumers and they should consume a different amount than consumers generally. At the very least, their consumption patterns should be different from regular consumers in the particular goods that they are advertising.

The criticism of advertising as socially wasteful (i.e. using up resources without actually making consumers better off) may hold up if evidence is found in support of the above hypothesis. In the case of pattern ‘a)’ it may be clear that advertising is manipulative and anti-social. But in the case of pattern ‘b)’ or the null (advertisers buy the same junk as the rest of us) we either have to abandon the criticism of advertising or come up with some ad hoc story about how everyone is stupid and their preferences shouldn’t matter.

Consumerism and Christmas

You all may recall that after 9/11 Osama bin Laden explained his orchestration of the terrorist deed that murdered some 3000 innocent human beings as payback for America’s materialism. (His anti-materialist rant is routine – a good discussion of his views may be found here.)

Yet as the writer of the above piece notes, anti-materialism is a common theme among most religions. Sure, the idea that human life is about preparation for an after-life — a spiritual life superior to the mundane one we can lead here on Earth — is central to religions.

In the West, however, many religions have made peace with the mundane elements of human existence so there tends to be a less avid denunciation of materialism, which is how the idea of being seriously concerned with living prosperously here on Earth is usually designated. After all, the Christian God is both human and divine (in the person of Jesus).

Destruction of life is generally deemed to be a sin for Christians, whereas, as bin Laden has noted, the love of death is central in his version of Islam. As one account has it, “This originated at the Battle of Qadisiyya in the year 636, when the commander of the Muslim forces, Khalid ibn Al-Walid, sent an emissary with a message from Caliph Abu Bakr to the Persian commander, Khosru. The message stated: ‘You [Khosru and his people] should convert to Islam, and then you will be safe, for if you don’t, you should know that I have come to you with an army of men that love death, as you love life’.” This account is widely recited in contemporary Muslim literature.

Yet despite the Western theological tradition’s more friendly attitude toward the mundane, nearly every Christmas leaders of Christian denominations tend to revert to the original, anti-life doctrines by condemning commercialism. The latest Pope followed the previous one by lamenting the “materialist” approach to celebrating Christmas. They referred to “the dead-end streets of consumerism,” according to newspaper reports, chiding people everywhere for what the report calls “being caught up with consumerist pursuits.”

Ironically, the Pope issued his proclamations from St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. If you have ever visited the Vatican, as I and millions of others have, you would know it to be one of the West’s, if not the world’s, most opulent places. And as to consumerism, the gift shop dominates the entrance to the Vatican, where one is invited to spend great sums of money on various small or sizable trinkets. Commerce flourishes there, believe me, as the Vatican cashes in on the desire of many of the visitors to take away some reminder of their having been to that historically and theologically significant place.

Of course, even apart from the Vatican, the Roman Catholic Church, as well as others within Christianity, often excel in ostentatious display of riches – one need but go to high mass on Christmas Eve to witness this.

And why not? That is how human beings tend to celebrate what they value highly, by honoring the occasion with gift-giving. And gift-giving necessarily involves commerce – most of us aren’t skilled at the crafts that it takes to create the various gifts we wish to bestow upon those we love and cherish. I personally bought airline tickets for some of my family members and a computer for another, in part because I have no airplane in which to fly them where they would like to go and no factory and expertise to make a modern, up-to-date computer. To obtain these gifts, I rely, as do billions of others, on commerce.

So why then would Popes besmirch consumerism and commerce? Beats me. (And remember, also, that “materialism” is ultimately a nonsense term – nothing we purchase is simply material but embodies the creative intelligence – indeed the creative spirit – of many human beings!)

So, I urge all Popes to change their message and to have a more generous understanding of all who make use of commerce in our celebration of Christmas!

Shopping in communism versus capitalism

In a narrative portion of his latest (and characteristically riveting) novel the author has written the following sentence that prompts me to wag my finger at him a bit. “Now it was a Western-style shopping mall stuffed with all the useless trinkets capitalism had to offer…” Daniel Silva, The English Girl (2013). The sentence reveals something very important about capitalism as well as Silva’s apparent failure to understand it.

Silva was contrasting the Soviet style, drab, grey shopping center with the more recent type that have been springing up in Russia and the former Soviet bloc. Yet instead of showing appreciation for the mall with its great variety of trinkets, which include both what he can consider useless and the useful kind, he appears to show disdain for it.

It is precisely the fact that such malls include thousands of trinkets, some useful to some, some not, that makes capitalism so benevolent. Unlike the Soviet Union and its satellites, where only what the leadership deemed to be useful got featured in shopping malls (such as they were), in Western-style malls millions of different individual and family preferences are on display and for sale, aiming to satisfy the huge variety of tastes and preferences.

I recall many moons ago there was a fuss about the popularity of the Pet Rock! It was — may still be — a trinket sold as a novelty item. I remember defending it from its disdainful, snooty critics, arguing that there may well be a few people for whom it would be suitable gift.

Say your grandfather worked in a mine or quarry and now on his 80th birthday you want to get him something not quite useful but meaningful! He has everything useful already, so you pick the Pet Rock for him. It would make a nifty memento! Might even bring tears to his eyes.

For millions of others it would indeed be a “useless trinket” but not for old granddad. And for every other item that author Silva may consider useless, there will be someone who finds it touching!

That is precisely what individualism implies. Something Marxists cannot appreciate since for them only what advances the revolution counts as useful. Individuals as such, with their idiosyncrasies, do not count for anything! And capitalism rejects this misanthropic doctrine, which is why the enormous variety of goods and services is part of it while under socialism and communism only what is proper for the revolution makes sense to produce!

I wish Mr. Silva had indicated some of this as he derided those Western-style shopping malls. Even if he cannot find something useful for himself in them, he can at least appreciate them as contemporary museums of possibilities.