Big Bangers Indeed

Ken Masugi’s long post about “The Big Bang Theory” (the TV show, not the theory) at the LibertyLaw site deserves more notice than just a link in our Picks section.  Do read it; it is philosophical-scientific-cultural criticism at its best, with a special bonus of James Schall.

I’ve been meaning to comment on BBT myself, but keep putting it off.  BBT is clearly the best TV science fiction comedy since the original Star Trek series in the 1960s.  (Yes, I did say “comedy series” about Trek: TOS; has there ever been a show that has given us as many enduring laughs than TOS?  Simple scientific proof: compare William Shatner to any other space ship captain.  QED.  I rest my case.  Don’t even get me started about the complete travesties that were the Trek TV series revivals in the 1980s and 1990s.  Ugh and double-ugh.  Piccard can keep his Earl Grey tea, and his UN General Assembly mentality.)

So one night I’m catching the beginning of a BBT rerun while quaffing my nightly dram of Laphroaig and preparing dinner, and I overhear Sheldon Cooper let fly with the following:

There’s an economic concept known as a positional good in which an object is only valued by the possessor because it’s not possessed by others.

At this point I perked up my ears, because . . . no, it couldn’t be, could it? Does someone on the BBT writing staff actually know the obscure book where this term originated?  The answer, after a dramatic pause, turned out to be Yes.  Sheldon explained:

The term was coined in 1976 by economist Fred Hirsch to replace the more colloquial, but less precise “neener-neener”.

No way!  Wow.  Who says TV is a vast wasteland, anyway?  Aside from the great Fred Siegel, myself, and a small handful of other very nerdy fans, Hirsch’s Social Limits to Growth is a forgotten classic because it was way ahead of its time, but it explains a lot about why affluent people particularly on the two coasts today are not just indifferent to economic growth, but positively opposed to it in many cases.  (This book is so out of print that for some reason the Kindle version is quoted at $57.  Though this could be an inside joke that only Hirsch fans will get.  Talk about the ultimate positional good in bibliophilia.)

Sheldon’s summary that the argument is a better version of “neener-neener” is amazingly accurate; another way of summarizing Hirsch’s thesis is that our problem today is not that people want to “keep up with the Joneses,” but want to “keep ahead of the Joneses.”  And the best way to do that is to keep the other Joneses down.  Upper middle class people, Hirsch predicted, would come to see further economic growth as a threat to their well being, rather than something from which they and everyone else would benefit.  This is one reason why contemporary liberalism, which as recently as John F. Kennedy prized growth, is today indifferent to the idea, when it is not actively opposed in practice.  Cue Keystone, or just about everything California does.

So I still think there’s a place for a sitcom about Washington think tanks, where a clueless wonk explains in a bold new policy paper how we can reduce traffic fatalities through the simple expedient of putting a razor-sharp 10-inch knife on every auto steering wheel, sticking out directly at the driver.  It would work!  Ryan Stiles would make the perfect John Lott.  In fact I can see Sheldon Cooper testifying on the idea before Henry Waxman.  Cue the lights!