The Stone Age
June 1, 1999
With Responses From
Jun 1, 1999
6 Min read time
What these economists have trouble with is not consumption but taste.
"Trophy homes, diamonds of a carat or more, granite countertops, and sport utility vehicles are the primary consumer symbols of the late 1990s." -Juliet Schor
Oh, my God. Things are worse than I had thought. Sure, I knew there were too many Gucci handbags around. And I knew that, as I drove my gorgeous two-ton Volvo to work, I was seeing entirely too many of those ugly 4,000-pound SUVs on road. Ditto those too-big diamonds and trophy homes. But before reading Professor Schor's piece, I did not know about all these granite countertops. Where the hell did they come from?
What students of Ivy League economists soon realize is that, just as shoppers on Rodeo Drive have "home brands" around which they concoct a consumption constellation, so too do academic Eeyores have their own objets fixe. John Kenneth Galbraith had his Cadillac tailfins, Robert Frank has his Patek Philippe wristwatch, and now Juliet Schor adds the granite countertop. Veblen made first claim on the trophy house.
Look, how come it's okay to lay a slab of granite four times the size of a countertop over the body of dead Uncle Louie, carve a few dates in it, and then leave it alone for years, while it's a sign of a really urgent problem-the dreaded "luxury fever"-when the slab appears in the kitchen where it can actually be used and-gasp!-enjoyed?
I realize that to focus on these two words-granite countertop-may be to willfully neglect the Big Points of Schor's article. What about all the other stuff: debt, status anxiety, mass media manipulation, and simple fair play for those poorer than we? I focus on the minute particulars because it's on specific items of consumption that the "we must control it" argument rests. Or so it seems to me.
You see, from my point of view, what these academic economists have trouble with is not consumption but taste. Buy a rare edition of John Milton's Comus for $400,000 (which, thanks to Xerox, has almost no scholarly value) and you won't hear a peep from the lefties over in the Econ department. But buy a videocassette of Debbie Does Dallas for four dollars, show it on your big-screen TV in your entertainment center with the Bose wrap-around speakers, and all hell breaks loose.
Don't even think about doing this if you are poor. The consumption police will be at your door. The first word they will use is waste. Then they'll say you can't afford it. You're already maxed out. But coming next is the most interesting word, and it should always ring a bell. The word is luxury. When you hear them use this word, grab your credit cards and head for the hills.
Luxury is a word like "predator" or "weed." There is no such thing in nature as a predator or a weed. You hear the word, however, just before someone reaches for the gun or the spade. Mark my words, the next word you hear after luxury is ... tax.
We are not the first generation to encounter this. It started with the Greeks, then the Christians had a go at it. But if you really want to see it played out splendidly go read the raging battle in the eighteenth century, with Adam Smith and Bernard Mandeville on one free-market side, and Tobias Smollett and Henry Fielding on the "we have an urgent problem here" side. Or if reading is not your style-thanks to the evil ways of that nasty Mr. Television, who has filled us with insatiable desire-you can tune in to the show by looking at Hogarth's engravings. Start with the disputed Taste in High Life and work your way to A Harlot's Progress, A Rake's Progress, and finish up with Marriage à la Mode. Little wonder sumptuary taxes continued up through the Industrial Revolution and still appear in bits and pieces.
• • •
So what’s to be done about our "urgent" problem? Not much. Try to tax and shame it into behaving properly if you want, but history shows it won't work. The market keeps humming along, occasionally breaking down, and then rebuilding itself. Fear and greed do their thing. Downshifters will downshift, upshifters will upshift. Then they'll reverse gears and do it all over again. Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves. Like it or not, the market will do a pretty fair job of inflicting the penalties of living too long in the lap of luxury.
But more to the point, what can be done about those Ivy League economists and their "New Politics of Consumption"?
Here's my take-two-aspirin-and-see-me-in-the-morning prescription. Professor Schor should:
1. Rent Steve Martin's The Jerk (1979);
2. Paste the graph below over her keyboard; and
3. Read Anthony Trollope's The Way We Live Now (1875).
Source: Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, 1997
She'll learn from watching The Jerk that even jerks know that we don't buy things, we buy meanings. Consider that if we drink the advertising, not the beer, maybe it's the advertising we're after. She'll learn from the graph that more often than not what we once condemned as luxury has become necessity for a reason-it's good stuff, even though granite countertops may cause a temporary problem along the way. If you look at the graph carefully, you'll see there's a nifty little welfare system built right into it. The rich may start the process, but the poor benefit. And she'll learn from Trollope that a world in which social status is based on bloodline, church pew, and the name of your club is not so hot-especially if you're Melmotte, the newcomer, a Jew. And this is nothing compared to how much mobility you'll get if you are a woman, a black, an entrepreneur, or just a working stiff. Consumerism is not pretty, but it beats the alternatives put forward so far.
So far I've focused on the minute particulars: the granite countertop and all that I think it represents about "inappropriate" consumer taste and "appropriate" economic judgment. Let me end metaphysically, like the poet Shelley, "pinnacled dim in the intense inane."
To me the problem is not that we are too materialistic, but that we are not materialistic enough. If we knew what goods meant we wouldn't be so susceptible to, so needful of, the addition of meaning. Marketing wouldn't work. Madison Avenue would close down.
But instead we know stuff is important. We love having things. Exchanging things. Hoarding things. Stealing things. Even economists call them "goods and services." Of course we fetishize objects. How the hell do you think they get meaning? That meaning is so important that we willingly go into debt to get it. Especially when we are young.
Although modern consumption may share a few characteristics with Victorian consumption (i.e. tuberculosis), it is not a disease to be controlled by Drs. Tax and Shame. It is a response to life as we are living it. When you think about consumption from this point of view, you realize that it is not objects, even luxury objects, that are the problem. It is the meaning of life that has become perplexing in a world bereft of bloodlines, family pews, social clubs, and the like. Face it: you are what you consume, not what you make. You are the logo on your T-shirt, not a descendent of a Mayflower passenger.
What we lack is not a politics of consumption so much as a religion of consumption. Not to sound too eerie, but the development of that religion is precisely what we are now experiencing. The more we have of this stuff, the more important it has become. It is a little unsettling, to be sure. To me too. But it's not all bad, not by a long shot. In fact, relative to other systems, it's really quite fair.
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