Sunday, November 27, 2011

Being consistent in anti-materialism

Though less openly contemptuous of the spendthrift masses than many of his fellow scolds, [Baylor marketing professor James A. Roberts] still exudes that particular sanctimonious anti-materialism so often found among modestly remunerated professors and journalists.

Here are some of the things that upset him and that "document our preoccupation with status consumption": Lucky Jeans, bling, Hummers, iPhones, 52-inch plasma televisions, purebred lapdogs, McMansions, expensive rims for your tires, couture, Gulfstream jets and Abercrombie & Fitch. This is a fairly accurate list of the aspirational consumption patterns of a class of folks that my Upper West Side neighbors used to refer to as "these people," usually while discussing their voting habits or taste in talk radio. As with most such books, considerably less space is devoted to the extravagant excesses of European travel, arts-enrichment programs or collecting first editions.

One of the running themes of the economist Robin Hanson's excellent blog is that arguments like the ones found in these books are actually an elite-status proxy war. They denigrate the one measure of high-visibility achievement—income—that public intellectuals don't do very well on. Reading "Shiny Objects," you get the feeling that he is onto something.

Consider the matter of status competition. Mr. Roberts, like so many before him, argues that conspicuous consumption is an unhappy zero-sum game. But this is of course true of most forms of competition: Most academics I know can rank-order everyone in the room at a professional conference with the speed and precision of a courtier at Versailles. Any competition, from looks to money to academic credentialing, both consumes a lot of resources and makes many of the participants feel bad about themselves. Why, then, does the literature on status competition always tell us that we should redistribute capital gains or inheritances and never tell us that we should redistribute academic chairs or book contracts? 
--Megan McArdle, WSJ, on the need for a more coherent philosophy of good consumption