Rich? Baller? Having a mid-life crisis? Who cares? As long as they know you’re above them, that’s all that matters.
There is a fantastic, albeit cryptic and challenging, book by the famed economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen called The Theory of the Leisure Class. In it, he first describes the emergence of the “leisure,” or ruling, class in tribes, and how that ruling class of warriors symbolically maintained their upper-class status. Later, Veblen proposes, argues, and defends the theory of conspicuous consumption, which is the theory that the upper class wastes copious amounts of money on (technically, economically useless) goods and services just to attain or maintain their status in society.
I read this book in my senior year of college in a (required) History of Economics class. Written in 1899 while he was at UChicago, Veblen was obviously talking about the white upper class of the US, the Astors and Rockefellers of society. But I never realized until now how much it has grown and applies to my generation…even me.
Looking around my class on the 8th floor of Chafee Hall, we were divided. On one side were the rich kids from Jersey and Westchester with their brand new Lexuses and M3s, the newest cell phones, newest MacBooks, and designer clothes and shoes. The other side were the Talent Development kids from inner-city, who couldn’t afford the power cord to the MacBook. I sat somewhere in the middle: rich enough for the rich kids to talk to me, but poor enough for the poor kids to respect me. And every time Jersey came in with a new something, the not-yet-released new gadget, expensive sneakers, we would all oooh and aaah, while Westchester would try to one up him.
Now that I’m out of college, and I’ve joined the working class and am earning a meager salary, I see how we are all conspicuous consumers without even realizing it. I purchased an Infiniti when my Nissan was getting too old to commute 100 miles per day (RIP Sil-80). Why did I buy a luxury line when an old Honda Civic would have the same features and probably slightly better gas mileage? Why do my cousins always seem to be getting new clothes from chic trendy stores? Why do my friends always seem to be buying the latest electronic devices…just to upgrade them again in a year?
Really, a car is for transportation; clothes are to keep you covered, and a cell phone is to speak to other people, an MP3 player is to play music, and a computer is to compute. Last year’s model does it just as well….maybe with fewer features, but it’s not the features we’re really going after here. It’s the status. It’s the “I have enough money to blow on the exact same thing I bought last year, and it has more functions I’ll never use….but I still have it!” It’s the “I can afford more than one of these.” It’s the “Look at me, I’m better than you.” And most of the time, we buy these things and justify it with “needing” it, without even realizing that we actually don’t, and the new camera, or new jewelry will function more as a status symbol than what its intended function is. And our new whatever has to be better than Joe Schmoe’s next door, even if Joe Schmoe makes a fraction of your salary. Somehow over the past hundred years, we have all unconsciously become closeted conspicuous consumers!
It’s sad to admit, but I almost feel as though this is our fate. We have become a society of subconscious one-uppers, at times taken to extremes. We try to outdo each other, even just a little, and even though there may be a million people that are worse off, we fixate on the inevitable someone that is smarter, faster, richer, and better. Keeping up with the Joneses might as well be a sport that eventually runs us both mentally and financially into the ground. It would be nice to be happy with what you have, but if that’s impossible, maybe the Joneses will let you borrow their new toy.