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The Return of Conspicuous Consumption 

Wednesday, Mar 15 2000
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The leisure-class look: Eduardo Lucero green silk blouse and chartreuse beaded lace and Lycra capris.

My favorite moment-that-never-happened in Campaign 2000 came in one of the earlier Republican presidential debates, when Governor W., asked to name his favorite political philosopher, answered: “Christ.”

At that point, debate moderator Tom Brokaw might have followed up in one of two directions. He could have prodded Texas’ Number One Son on whether he’d meant, “Christ! I don’t know any political philosophers!” Or better still, he could have asked, “Does that mean you agree with Christ that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven?”

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The sentiment behind the latter question, of course, is not often voiced these days, whether at W. fund-raisers or on network newscasts or, well, much anywhere. We are once more in a Gilded Age, a time of conspicuous consumption and, indeed, conspicuous investment.

Conspicuous consumption is nothing new, of course; it’s been nearly a century since social commentator Thorstein Veblen came up with the phrase after surveying the lives of 1900’s rich and famous. What was nouveau about that generation’s riches, he concluded, was their gleeful abandonment of their parents’ Protestant thrift and simplicity, of the old notion that it was okay to make money, but not to flaunt your wealth. Work, to the vulgarian vanguard of 100 years ago, was no longer its own reward.

In our new age of conspicuous investment, however, work has all but vanished. Who talks about what they do anymore? Proper party chatter is all about where one invests, what new hot stocks and offerings are out there to be grabbed. Moreover, with the Nasdaq soaring ever higher as the Dow continues to sag, even the objects of investment are increasingly divorced from the world of work. Companies that actually employ people who make things or provide services — General Motors, Coke, AT&T, Procter & Gamble — limp along these days if they’re not tanking altogether. It’s the companies that promise to provide services in the bright e-future of tomorrow to which today’s conspicuous investors flock, even if the current balance sheets of these start-ups look ghastly. We’re way past Veblen now: Only saps immerse themselves in the daily grind of work; and only saps invest in companies that are immersed in the daily grind of work.

Which, I suspect, is why consumption is more conspicuous than ever. Our newly minted e-millionaires can’t really point to any corporate profits or big-selling products that underpin their fortunes — just soaring stock values and insane price-to-earnings ratios. Not until they buy the palazzo, the tiara, the Ferrari SUV and ostrich-skin coat is there anything remotely tangible about their wealth. Through the ownership of the world’s priciest things, they can know they are not — entirely — dreaming.

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