Megan has an elegant review in the Wall Street Journal of Shinny Objects and Against Thrift, two new books on Consumer Culture and Inequality
A couple of notes. First, its perhaps the highest praise to Robin Hanson that these few lines shocked me
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.
As I read those lines I had two reactions, the first was “oh yeah I got that from Robin” and the second was, “wait a minute there is some alternative belief system about these things.”
The more substantive comment I want to make though is to note that I have such trouble getting these discussions. It really seems like something is being talked about and its virtually indisputable that the participants are attached to the conclusions that are drawn but I can quite make out what its all about.
For example Megan writes
Like their forebears in this robust polemical genre, neither Mr. Livingston nor Mr. Roberts gets us much closer to answering the essential questions: What makes American consumers spend as they do—and is it a bad thing? For some thoughts on these matters, I’d suggest turning to James B. Twitchell’s "Living It Up" (2002), a wry account of the author’s own complicated relationship with luxury brands that explores the moral and psychological aspects of our free-spending ways without seeming to be a paternalist rant against the folly of BMWs. "The pleasure of spending is the dirty little secret of affluence," says Mr. Twitchell, a professor of English literature and advertising at the University of Florida. "The rich used to do it; now the rest of us are having a go." He is keenly alive to the risks—and occasional risibility—of American-style consumerism. But he never pretends not to understand its undeniable appeal.
What is all this supposed to mean?
First, that a relationship with luxury brands can be complicated – I get this because I see people having strong emotional reactions about these things.
But, what moral and psychological aspects of our free-spending ways? Is there really something to be explained here? We marshal resources with the intent that they should be enjoyed. What would be the point to people constraining their enjoyment of them. Why are we doing any of this then?
And, why should the pleasure of spending be a dirty secret and of affluence, no less? The poor don’t want to buy things? Are we to suggest that people should not shop in public? Is the act somehow obscene?
And, what are the risks of American-style consumerism? Is there a safer form?
I know that people mean something by these things because they keep talking about them and act as if they understand one and even disagree with one another. However, this whole matter is just deeply, deeply bewildering to me.