Friday, March 16, 2007

Conspicuous consumption or conspicuous saving?

Tyler writes about how Veblen has come back into vogue. Veblen saw status-seeking as essentially inefficient. (And he thought engineers could somehow fix this? The arrogance of his generation continues to astound me.) I think status-seeking is always about accumulation of that which is scarce, be it SUVs, Chinese art, or economic knowledge. It's never been fashionable to accumulate air. Status-seeking increases demand for that which is scarce, and so induces production, which mitigates the effects of scarcity, i.e. high prices.

Veblen found the "conspicuous consumption" of the Gilded Age repulsive. I guess the flourishes of Victorian architecture offended his Scandinavian sensibilities. But think of how this period stands out amongst the blandness which preceded it. How much of colonial architecture is really striking? Monticello, you say. I say it's an out of proportion rip-off. As is Mount Vernon. There are a few notable ante-bellum mansions in the South, and New Orleans is exceptional. That's where the money was. But my sense is the North was really lacking in this department, e.g. the row houses of Philadelphia are today the only boring thing about that town. The Gilded Age came along to fix all that, and status-seeking was the mechanism.

That we're able to still enjoy Victorian architecture means this wasn't really conspicuous consumption, it was more like conspicuous saving. I think this is typically the case with status goods, because much of what we produce is durable. Even when we blow a bunch of money on an SUV, which looses 20% of its value when driven off the lot and then quickly becomes a pile of rust, it serves to advance technology. When we splurge on an expensive meal, it spurs the invention of recipes. When we get PhDs in literature or, dare I say, economics, where probably most dissertations are only ever read by the dissertation committee, still some of them will change the world.

In short, I suppose knowledge of Veblen has become too scarce, and so status-seekers have become his exponents. Thank God the engineers haven't prevented it.


Max said...

Yo. How's it going? Speaking of conspicuous consumption, Nick and I have shiny new Bonnaroo tickets? It's the new black. Do you have one? If not, you better get a move on. Like NOW.

I'll be in DC on April 9-16. See you there.

Will McBride said...

Glad to see someone is still reading this, if only to send me personal messages. Yes, I've got my Bonnaroo ticket. And I will be blogging about it.