In these days of austerity, there is a good deal of moralizing about other people’s consumption habits, in particular, about “conspicuous consumption,” or the purchase of goods to display higher social status. Much of the criticism seems to be directed at poor people. Tressie McMillan Cottom (TPM Cafe: Opinion) challenges the claims that such purchases are irrational or immoral, citing “empirical evidence that women and people of color are judged by appearances differently and more harshly than are white men”:
Why do poor people make stupid, illogical decisions to buy status symbols? For the same reason all but only the most wealthy buy status symbols, I suppose. We want to belong. And, not just for the psychic rewards, but belonging to one group at the right time can mean the difference between unemployment and employment, a good job as opposed to a bad job, housing or a shelter, and so on. Someone mentioned on twitter that poor people can be presentable with affordable options from Kmart. But the issue is not about being presentable. Presentable is the bare minimum of social civility. It means being clean, not smelling, wearing shirts and shoes for service and the like. Presentable as a sufficient condition for gainful, dignified work or successful social interactions is a privilege… In contrast, “acceptable” is about gaining access to a limited set of rewards granted upon group membership.
Read more here.
Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption made me think of why many people are in debt. With money that they do not have, they tend to splurge on brand names and feel some kind of satisfaction after their purchase. Without thinking that they have gone broke, all society cares about is “fitting in” and how they are looked at. If a wealthy friend of yours posts a picture of themselves wearing Christian Louboutin heels (which are the most uncomfortable shoes) people will praise them and their friends who see the picture might even end up buying the same $600 shoes, although they cannot afford it. People will also go out of their way to buy fake Louboutins or any heels with red bottoms. It’s all about fitting in and it doesn’t come cheap. Even new “hipster” looks do not come cheap–in order to have that “bum” look consisting of loose shirts, ripped jeans, and cozy oversized sweaters there is a price to pay for that outfit, about $80. In my opinion, I think most of us are guilty of conspicuous consumption whether you like it or not. That’s just how society has raised us.
Veblen defined conspicuous consumption as the use of money or other resources to display social status — but this is done in myriad ways or styles. Seeing hoodies around town displaying the image on the left, I couldn’t help wonder what Veblen would make of this trend — expensive, branded apparel that literally carries the message that status costs money and implies that money buys status. What do you make of this trend? Is there anything new about it?
The above reference to swag refers, of course, to swagger, but “swag” is also a slang term for free stuff (as depicted in this report from Gawker, “I Went to the Pre-Oscar Celebrity Gifting Suites and All I Got Was This Sense of Disgust“). How strange that this term has such radically different meanings in different communities…or is there some common ground?
In today’s society Veblen’s idea of conspicuous consumption is evident everywhere. In my opinion this is one of the biggest ideas or factors that define the American class system and make the lower class feel like the lower class. Veblen’s idea of conspicuous consumption states that people use money and other resources in which they have to display their higher social status than others. What’s ironic is that this often happens with people within the same class in which they compete to make themselves seem of a higher social class than their piers. Often times people do this buy purchasing high-end name brands to wear as clothing, jewelry, watches, and even can include such extensive items such as cars and houses. Why settle for a BMW if you can have a Mercedes? And why settle for a Mercedes if you can have a Tesla?
Veblen’s idea revolves around the concept of what he refers to as Veblen’s goods in which refers to commodities in which people’s demand for these products increase and simultaneously the price for these products increases as well. This violates the typical law of demand, in which would state that the price of these products would decrease. However since we are talking about high-end items, these companies want to make sure their products are not available to just about anyone, and if knowing this they can raise their prices to continue to only present itself as a high-end product or a way to tell some ones social class.
Veblen presents interesting ideas and concepts about conspicuous consumption. It’s amazing that so many Americans are so self-absorbed within themselves that they are willing to purchase anything regardless of the price to make them to look of a higher social status or class. It shouldn’t matter about the brand of your clothes or car, however it should matter that you are able to pay your bills on time, have a family that loves you, and staying in good health. Your family isn’t going to love you because you own a Michael Kors watch, however they’re going to love you for you and that’s how it should be.
The Wave Wedge, $5,095 Neiman-Marcus
In the ‘$5,000 for a Pair of Sandals: The Rich Are Different, Right Down to Their Shoes,’ (AlterNet), Sara Robinson wonders: ‘In a world where kids are starving and ice caps are melting, how can people spend $5K on shoes?’
Pulitzer Prize-winning financial writer David Cay Johnston offers some answers: “We’ve reached a point where this very, very narrow band of people — the top 1 percent of the top 1 percent — has these incredible amounts of money coming at them constantly from their investments. But they pay relatively light taxes compared to people who work and have big incomes but make nothing like they’re making — and they have literally no place to put this money…They have more money than they have any utility for…Money at a certain point loses all meaning, in the same way that if you are unbelievably beautiful, it loses all meaning and distorts what you do.”
The worst part? Taxpayers may be picking up part of the tab.