Monday, June 08, 2009

Conspicuous conspicuousity

This evening, we fly to Ireland for summer in a little cottage we have owned for 30 years. I never know what we'll find in the way of internet access; our corner of our village may be the last place in Ireland to get broadband. I won't be here tomorrow. Hopefully Wednesday.

Somewhere early in my education -- was it an undergraduate economics course? junior seminar? -- I was required to read Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899 by the University of Chicago professor of economics. All I remember directly from the book is that it was a swamp of virtually impenetrable prose. But our professor told us what it was all about, and insisted that Veblen's thesis should be part of the furniture of every educated mind.

It was Veblen who invented the term "conspicuous consumption," and who described a class of people who make lots of money doing nothing useful -- just pushing money around. If Veblen's analysis still applies, personal worth in American society today is measured by one's ability to spend $25,000 on a prestige watch or $2000 on a designer handbag. The more expensive and less utilitarian an item , the more it announces that one has arrived in the tribal elite.

In the current economic and environmental crises I am surprised that we haven't seen Veblen quoted more often on the op-ed pages. To Veblen's economic analysis we might today add a theory of the celebrity class -- our compulsive adulation of beautiful people from the world of entertainment (mostly) whom we reward far out of proportion to any tangible benefit they add to society. Which is to say, our conspicuously-consuming tribal elites seem to play a welcome role in a society that almost uniformly aspires to conspicuously consume. We don't resent those $25,000 watches and $2000 handbags because we want them too.

I do not, of course, remove myself from those who aspire to more of the material accessories of life than are necessary. Readers here will know that I own three homes in three lovely locations (total cost $200,000), when one would surely do. I try to keep my environmental footprint low (and, believe it or not, the three homes help, with nature supplying heat in winter -- Exuma -- and AC in summer -- Ireland), but I also know that I am more affluent and consume more than the vast majority of people in the world, and if all 7 billion of us consumed as much as me (or any of my ardent conservationist friends) the planet would go to hell in a handbasket PDQ.

Every now and then when I aspire to greater wealth, my spouse asks, "Chet, what do you want that you don't have?", and I am hard pressed to answer. So I'll settle for this. An Apple laptop. A new pair of jeans every year or two. A bottle of halfway decent wine with dinner every evening. A daily hour on the Path. An occasional starry night.

And, now, having patted myself on the back so effusively, I think I will supplement the next evening's bottle of wine with a tumbler of outrageously expensive port.