Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Diary

I had been planning to write about The Theory of the Leisure Class, by Thorstein Veblen, but after thumbing through it decided that a careful reading is not worth the time. It is one of the first books written by an American academic which criticizes American culture in a broad swath. However, it was published in 1899, and practically everything in it is either unsupported by actual research or applies primarily to the Gilded Age in which he lived. While many of his descriptions of wealthy Americans still hold up if one makes adjustments for the passage of time, he overreaches and unconvincingly attempts to apply his theory to multiple cultures over long periods. Anthropology, sociology and psychology were in their infancy when he wrote, and many of his claims would not pass muster now in academic circles; in fact, Veblen's academic reputation was quite shaky while he was alive, not because he lacked the credentials, but because he was a nonconformist.

Veblen's interest to me arose through the terms and concepts that he popularized in the titles of some of the chapters of this book: "Pecuniary Emulation," "Conspicuous Leisure," "Conspicuous Consumption," "Pecuniary Canons of Taste," etc. I think conspicuous consumption is still one of the hallmarks of American society, but the way it manifests itself now isn't exactly the same as in 1899. For one thing, in relative terms, the rich in those days were richer than most of the rich today, and, for another, as an emerging economic power, the standards of behavior for the rich were undefined, and there was a tendency to copy wealthy Europeans, particularly the English. Because of changes in social norms since 1899, I don't think Veblen's precise model of the idle rich is currently in vogue among the wealthy. You can see vestiges of it in the Rockefellers, Kennedys and Roosevelts, but it has mostly died. Quite possibly, because of competition, there is more of a sense now among America's wealthy that they can never have enough money. More importantly, Americans have always liked amassing fortunes, and since American culture has to some extent come to dominate the world's imagination, those who are wealthy feel empowered to behave according to their own preferences. Rich people have a new boutique of wealth-appropriate behavior from which to choose. At the low end you have people like the Trumps, who revel in gilt interiors, steaks and daily golf; in the middle you have the Koch brothers, who think that their conservative views are the right ones for the country: they attempt to steer the political system their way; at the high end you have Bill Gates, who has become a major philanthropist, perhaps for lack of a better idea of how to spend the remainder of his life. Warren Buffett simply loves business for its own sake, and he continues to enlarge one of the largest fortunes in the world without demonstrating much interest in spending it or showing off. Buffett is a good indication of the changes since Veblen, in that making lots of money is acceptable as long as you're ethical about it and eventually give it all away. There are also younger billionaires in the tech industries who claim to want to use their wealth to make the world a better place; since they tend not to have the knowledge or insight to do that, it remains to be seen whether they will be able to succeed.

I was exposed to conspicuous consumption growing up in the late 1950's and early 1960's in a suburb of New York City. The nouveaux riches in the the U.S. had a heyday after World War II. Golf was extremely popular among the wealthy, and some of the houses in my town were in the Tudor style. The wealthier people went skiing every winter and sent their children to camp during the summer. Some of my friends and acquaintances went to prep schools during high school, probably more for their status value than for their educational value.

These days, the wealthy seem to spend their money on multiple high-end residences, with some in exotic locations, along with the associated interior decoration, wine connoisseurship, etc. Some of them are interested in high-end art, but they tend to focus on its market value rather than its aesthetic characteristics. Since they no longer have to put on an appearance of idleness, they are freed up to continue working, and one might conclude that high-income work and higher net worth have come to replace the aura of leisure as the end goal of the wealthy. Money itself has taken on so much importance that there is nothing that supersedes it. This subject could be interesting for further exploration in an anthropological or sociological context, but its scope is well beyond the resources that were available to Veblen at the time.

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