Am I going off the rails if I say that at this point "signaling" is a religion? For those of you who have been spared contact with the dismal science, signaling is a word that sophists, economists, and calculators use to reduce more or less the entire spectrum of human action—from parents kissing their children goodnight to people using acute accents in the word "résumé"—to a bloodless exercise in utility maximization. If I should choose to open the door for passersby or ask my elderly neighbor if she needs help carrying her groceries, I am thereby, according to the Signalists, conveying relevant information about my productive capabilities and my consumption-related habits to fellow players of the economic "game" in which we are all engaged 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, from womb to tomb, and accumulating "social capital."
The worst piece of signaling-related rubbish I have read in a long time ran last week on the website of our former paper of record, at a blog called The Upshot. Damon Darlin wrote an essay there in which he argued that parents who bring babies and toddlers on airplanes should feel obligated to provide their fellow passengers with "goody bags" full of things like chocolate bars and gum. Darlin admits early in the piece that he doesn't really care about the contents of the bag:
Certainly the goody bag is essentially worthless — a few candies and a set of earplugs make up the typical lagniappe. But you, the harried parent, use it to do what economists call signaling. You are letting the recipients know you care about their happiness, whether you really do or not.
Does that sound as sociopathic to you as it does to me? Basically what he is saying is, "Look, moms and dads: I don't care about your trinkets. What I care about is your obeisance, which must be made manifest." This is not about caritas or even its secular bastard child politeness. It is about letting parents and children know where they fall in the order of things vis-a-vis other specimens of Homo economicus—as if this weren't perfectly obvious already. That it is basically impossible for middle-class people to raise large families in New York and Washington, D.C., is no secret. These metropolitan areas are designed as playgrounds for 20-, 30-, and 40-something manchildren like Darlin, people who like brunch and tapas and dogs and (sterile) fornication and have opinions about prestige cable dramas; they are places in which even children themselves are regarded as luxury goods to be enjoyed in moderate amounts by the prudent and affluent and carted about in strollers that cost more than many poor people's cars and sent to premium daycares to get a leg up on their peers, with whom they will be competing one day for entry at Ivy League schools. It is a state of affairs as depraved as it is banal.
I would be lying if I said that, should I ever find myself on a plane with my daughter sitting next to Darlin, I care whether she screams her head off the entire flight or sits quietly on my lap. Either way, he won't be getting any Snickers or Juicy Fruit from me. I wonder what that signals?