Mike Kueber's Blog

May 21, 2015

A world-class consumer

Filed under: Economics,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 11:13 pm
Tags: ,

Last week, I got into two separate philosophical arguments with two of my best friends over whether it was wrong to spend a lot of money on materialistic things.  The arguments were prompted by an anti-religion Facebook attack on a Houston pastor living in a $10.5 million house.

Neither of my friends thought it was wrong for people to spend boatloads of money on themselves, although one friend who was brought up in the Catholic/Jesuit tradition believed such spending was inappropriate for a man of the cloth.  And the other friend, more of an Evangelical guy, begrudged the Houston pastor as a charlatan.

I disagreed with both of my friends on the general practice of spending lots of money.  I don’t recall when, but at some point in my life, I came to the opinion that it was sinful to use an inordinate share of the world’s resources.

I guess this philosophy started with my Catholic upbringing.  We were taught that it was admirable for priests to take a vow of poverty.  Then a few years later during high school and college in the 60s and 70s, I was taught the evil of conspicuous consumption.  Although that concept had been around since the 19th century, it reached the height of ridicule in the 60s. And finally during law school in the late 70s, there was an oil crisis with long lines at the gas pumps and talk of rationing.  During that time, a person did their civic duty by self-restricting their use of gas, and many even considered this a patriotic duty because of our nation’s reliance on imported oil from the Middle East.

In the past few years in San Antonio, my philosophy have been reaffirmed in the context of water usage.  Because our city seems to be continually on some sort of drought restrictions, there is community pressure to reduce water consumption.  The local paper, the Express-News, does its part by periodically doing an article that exposes the biggest private water users in town, with headlines shouting that the profligates are using 10 to 20 times as much water as a typical household.  Not surprisingly, those exposed are apologetic and promise to do better in the future.

Because of all of these life’s experiences, I have gradually settled into a position that ethical people shouldn’t feel entitled to deplete an inordinate amount of resources, even if their income or inheritance allows for it.  It isn’t just oil and water that are limited resources.  Our entire economy produces a limited amount of resources, and in that context it doesn’t seem fair or just to consume 10 or 20 times as much as a typical household.

So, what are successful people to do with their good fortune?  Obviously, they could use it to help others, but if philanthropy is not in their nature, they can retain the capital as productive assets.  As Thomas Piketty pointed out in his classic book, Capital in the 21st Century, the world economy remains out of balance with too much labor and not enough capital, so increasing our savings rate will help everyone.  Plus, with a healthy estate tax, larges estates will provide government with a relatively painless way to fund the necessary governmental services.

In Downton Abbey, the aristocratic Dowager Countess haughtily attempted to justify her use of servants:

  • An aristocrat with no servants is as much use to the county as a glass hammer.”

In her mind, providing employment to servants was a noble thing for aristocrats to do.  I love Countess Grantham in the TV show, but her thinking is outdated.  Employing a slew of servants to wait on you is, not only demeaning to them, but also corrosive to you.  As Jean Knight sang a big hit in 1971, “Mr. Big Stuff, who do you think you are?”

December 21, 2012

Conspicuous consumption

Filed under: Culture — Mike Kueber @ 11:17 pm
Tags: , ,

Conspicuous consumption is defined as the acquisition and display of expensive items to attract attention to one’s wealth or to suggest that one is wealthy.  When I was going to college in the 70s, conspicuous consumption was one of those things that our generation promised to marginalize, and since then I have tried to do my best to wage war against this indefensible behavior. 

In the 90s, whenever friends (or even acquaintances) pulled out an American Express card, I invariably challenged them about their status-conscious conduct.  In the 00s, whenever they moved into a 4,000-sq.ft. mcmansion, I asked them how they used all that space.  And whenever they talked about buying a Mercedes or BMW, I grilled them about what was special about the cars.  Unfortunately, I suspect I failed to alter any minds.

In constrast to conspicuous consumption, there is theoretically a possibility that something less expensive is junk while something more expensive will actually last longer or serve you better.  That is why Levi in the mini-series Centennial spent the extra money to get a better team of horses to go West with.  But nowadays I think most expensive items include a conspicuous-consumption surcharge that renders them bad values.

As Christmas approached this year, I started thinking again about conspicuous consumption and decided to refer to my Bible – Wikipedia.  There I learned that my generation did not discover either the concept or the term.  Indeed, the term was first used in 1899, although at that time it was directed exclusively toward the behavior of the nouveau riche.  Several decades later, the concept was extended to the middle class by economists who suggested that conspicuous consumption might provide motivation and an insatiable desire:   

  • “… changes in the style of life, made feasible by the economics of the industrial age, had induced to the mass of society a “philosophy of futility” that would increase the consumption of goods and services as a social fashion; an activity done for its own sake. In that context, ‘conspicuous consumption’ is discussed either as a behavioural addiction or as a narcissistic behaviour, or both, which are psychological conditions induced by consumerism—the desire for the immediate gratification of hedonic expectations.”

Coincidentally, several weeks ago I blogged about a book titled How Much is Enough, which deals with the apparent failure of successful capitalism to improve happiness. 

In addition to providing a solid discussion of conspicuous consumption, the Wikipedia article describes some related concepts:

  • Invidious consumption.  This is a specialized sociological term, denotes the deliberate conspicuous consumption of goods and services intended to provoke the envy of other people, as a means of displaying the buyer’s superior socio-economic status.
  • Conspicuous compassion.  This term emerged in the early 21st Century, describing a variant consumerist behavior wherein one makes public disclosures of financial contributions to charity not due to altruism but rather to attain social status. 

Last week, shortly after I had pontificated on this subject, someone asked me about the ostrich-quill Lucchese boots that I was wearing.  Although I could have make some specious defense about the strong, yet soft leather, I simply responded with, “Touché.”