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In-conspicuous consumption

October 12, 2008

Picture 5With the economy tanking and many Americans re-evaluating their spending, conspicuous consumption has come under some fire.

While the cause is surely unhappy, this latter effect must happen to the delight of nearly every bred-in-the-bone WASP, everywhere. Consumption is not a sport! Nothing pains our people more — in the way one is pained by watching even a stranger make a critical error — as over-eager spending. It will be obvious to even the least observant reader that this blog must pan such behaviour. Unnecessary accumulation, with the aim to impress others, is not our way, and it can be and has been ultimately unhealthy for a society.

Amy Vanderbilt, in the 1952 introduction to her redoubtable etiquette book, put it succinctly:

I have a respect for people who do things with their brains and with their hands, who are not afraid of hard physical and mental work. I respect, too, people who are unpretentious yet mannerly, considerate and honest, forthright yet kind and tactful. I dislike display and foolish expenditure in the sense of what Veblen called ‘conspicuous waste,’ that is, spending to impress those who have less, as well as to impress associates. I dislike chi-chi.

Ms. Vanderbilt is squarely on target. Real value is created and judged by what one can do with one’s skills, how one contributes positively to our civilization. Buying, at best, is a by-product of our activity, not the primary focus of it. Shopping is not self-expression.

Two articles in particular caught our eye. The first, in The Wall Street Journal, is entitled “Is Bling Over?” We hope so. The second, by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, makes the facile but not baseless comparison between the present United States and ancient Rome.

WSJ: IS BLING OVER?
NYTimes: ARE WE ROME?

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