July 12, 2003

More Fun with Wealth and Class

Fascinating story in The Scotsman today about an interesting problem facing the luxury-goods industry: namely, that the hoi polloi are purchasing their products in bulk.

Of course, as The Scotsman's Edward Black notes, there are other problems facing the industry: war, recession and currency fluctuations. But he makes a pretty interesting point: that the fashion industry has diluted its brands to the point where they are no longer exclusive. One can hence infer -- although Mr Black does not give this as much space as I would have liked -- that this dilution is leading to decreased sales, losses, and general economic woes.

It really is fascinating stuff, at least to me. That's not only because it deals with the issue of economics, it deals with the issue of materialism in Western society.

Now the economics issue is pretty cut-and-dried. To me, the fashion houses should have either raised their prices significantly, thus kneeling to the immutable laws of supply and demand; or introduced even more exclusive goods to protect their brands. Rather, as Mr Black's story notes, they increased supply to meet the increased demand, with immediate profit as the result. They are now reaping the whirlwind of that policy.

What's more interesting to me, though, is this issue of materialism and its acute effects on modern society. Certainly materialism has always been a force in life; but it has never taken hold of us as people like it has now.

It makes sense when you think about it, in a way, for at no time in human history has mankind enjoyed such prosperity. Further, during the Sixties and Seventies, society saw fit to devalue time-honored institutions: the traditional family, respect for God, civic activities, and so on. So it is no surprise that we now live in a world where it is quite acceptable for a man's fidiuciary self-interest to reign paramount over his duties and obligations to his family, his church, and his nation.

I will admit that we can't squarely put the blame on the disasterous social policies of the Sixties and Seventies, even if they did do so much to exacerbate things. In the Fifties, when American society first became prosperous as a whole, there was certainly a new emphasis placed on materialism. Indeed, one could probably go back to 1848 and find its roots. Still, I think, there is no denying that the excessive pursuit of status, possessions and wealth is a pox on our national house -- now more than ever. How else can one explain the all-inclusive veneration of wealth in all facets of our society, whether in pop music or sales brochures or in executive-compensation packages? This was not something you saw in the Forties and Fifties.

I should note, though, that the key word there is excessive. "Money is the root of all evil," goes the old saying, but that's crap. Evil is the root of all evil.*

Money, if used wisely and properly, is a good thing. Goods and services can certainly be good things: it all depends on why you want them. If you resolve tomorrow morning that you really want a BMW 7 Series automobile, and you want it because you would love driving it, there's nothing wrong with that. If you really want that BMW 7 Series because it means you can show it off at the club and enrage Simmons in the cubicle three down from yours, that's when you enter a real hornet's nest spiritually and temporally.

Temporally -- Gad. Where can one begin?

Material things don't make people happy, but too many people think they will. Lusting after said material things, and not getting them, makes people unhappy and resentful.

Lusting after said material things and getting them makes one happy for the moment, but makes others quite unhappy if one is arrogant or a show-off. When the happiness wears off, one is not only unhappy again, but one finds it more difficult to get a raise at the office because the boss sees the new BMW one is driving.

Then, in three years you trade the car in anyway and you have nothing to show for it because you bought a highly-depreciable asset. This leads you on a quest for more wealth, because you not only need a new car, there are now looming college tuition payments for the kids and the retirement you haven't adequately saved for and so on. The lessons here? Spend less, save more, income is not wealth, the only good debt is house- and education-related: all things that any financial planner can tell you.

But there are greater dangers. Spiritually, of course, there is the matter of one's own soul. Avarice, as Dante noted, was the appetite that can never be satiated and grows as you feed it. That cycle continues until it consumes one's being. As if that wasn't bad enough, avarice sparks deeper sins: envy, for one. And envy, at least in the world-view of we here at The Rant, leads to pride, the worst sin of all. It gets worse, too, because you're not just ruining yourself; you're helping corrupt others who aren't as blessed in this life as you are. I would submit that this matter is the gravest of all.

Related: Lileks on Anthony Burgess, and Burgess' views about the teachings of St. Augustine and Pelagius. If you haven't read this Bleat installment, you must. It will not only give you a new appreciation for Mr Burgess' writing, but a right-thinking perspective on the human dynamic.

* Full disclosure: I have to think someone figured that out long before I did; so if you've seen it and know a citation, let me know.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at July 12, 2003 06:59 PM | TrackBack

The entire quotation is: "For the love of money is the root of all evil. (1 Timothy 6:10)" So, just as you said, it isn't the money, but the want for it.

Is the quest for truth just lust? I spend many hours reading solely for the acquisition of additional knowledge (or so I have been able to convince myself). There must be some distinction between material and intellectual goods. If not, I know many guilty of avarice, including myself.

Posted by: David Sledge at July 13, 2003 01:17 AM

It appears there is a fine line that separates innocent, noble reasons for acquisitiveness and the crass consumerism/conspicuous consumption you speak of.

I'll admit, my reasons for going back to school and getting my degree ("bettering" myself) were entirely materialistic. I'm tired of living in apartments--I want a house. I'm tired of getting around on bicycles and used cars and motorcycles--I want a new car, with a warranty.

I'm tired of merely dreaming about doing track days on a sportbike, or taking long, lazy two-up weekend trips on a sport-touring machine--I want to buy my dream bike. I'm tired of not being able to afford nights out, or good food, or broadband. I'm tired of unexpected bills taking huge chunks out of my careful budget.

At this point, it really is all about the Benjamins. Oh, I'm not seeking greater status or looking for a way to inspire envy in my buddies. But I went back basically so I could buy *things*. I had enough of the alternative, not being able to buy much of anything.

And you see, my self-interest is leading me to become a productive member of society (a comprehensive financial planner, by the way), an earner and a consumer. Resources will flow my way, and I'll spend those resources on a number of products. In short, greed is moving me to become productive, as it does for so many others--this collective greed allocates the resources efficiently, as if by an invisible hand.

I resent status-seekers (such as the RUBs--rich urban bikers or folks in their fifties who've never ridden a motorcycle in their lives and go out and buy the biggest Harley available for their first bike, because they're trying to buy into some sort of manufactured image) as much as you, but I wouldn't go so far in condemning all conspicuous consumption.

Also, a select few material objects have made me genuinely happy (while I owned them, which I suppose is the catch)--my RX-7 and one of my motorcycles, for instance. I *loved* those things.

Posted by: Kevin White at July 14, 2003 01:40 AM