I’ve recently been thinking about how we measure the successes and failures of the market. As Robert Lane points out in the magisterial The Market Experience, we have little idea of how well market success actually correlates with individual utility or development. Moreover, work, often modeled by economists as a disutility that must be compensated for, is in fact a primary source of meaning and self-esteem for many employees.
But I want to stick to the consumption side here, and more specifically, purchases of stylish things. As Robert Frank and Cass Sunstein have observed, â€œIn many contexts, consumers find themselves on a positional treadmill, in which their choices do not really make them happier or better off, but instead serve largely to keep them in the same spot in the hierarchy.â€ For example, if one applicant buys a designer suit before an interview, he may well look better than all the other applicants; but if all applicants do the same, no one gains any advantage, and each is out the cost of the suit
Both Tyler Cowen and Virginia Postrel have critiqued Frank’s point of view. Postrel argues that the social criticism of positional dynamics unfairly minimizes the benefits arising out of such competition: “In [Frank’s] view, we would all benefit if men could agree to wear cheap, ugly suits and spend theri money on more important, more substantial things.” She then compares Frank’s proposal to a 1950s British Board of Trade policy of discouraging ornate and beautiful furniture. (If my time in England was any indication, the scheme succeeded brilliantly.)
Unfortunately, this gets Frank all wrong–he’s really for more social spending on things like education, public transit, and health care. But Postrel gets more convincing as she rhapsodizes about the beauty, the aesthetic pleasure, generated by designer goods. Postrel argues that such goods attract us as “visual, tactile creatures,” and not as Hobbesian monads seeking power after power over others.
But Postrel would be a lot more convincing if she didn’t stud the rest of the book with accounts of panicked worry over appearance. Here’s one characteristic passage:
Exposure creates escalating demands….Nowadays the bathrooms have to bigger and better, even more luxurious; so do the house and yard and, indeed, the whole neighborhood….A friend tells me that his wife had always been a ‘naturalist’ who scorned plastic surgery–until one of her friends got a face-lift and looked just great. Now she’s contemplating surgery, too. (59)
Or just consider this review of The Devil Wears Prada, a movie where stylistas endlessly fall over themselves to justify fashion:
[In a key scene,] Andy defends why she buys cheap, comfortable clothes that arenâ€™t designer brands. Miranda counters by explaining how Andyâ€™s cerulean blue top is the trickle-down effect of millions of hours and dollars spent in the high-end industry. But what the woman is really doing is systematically detailing why she is smarter, classier and more motivated than those around her.
In Postrel’s world, individuals buy fanciful or stylish things to express who they are, never (or only rarely) to keep up with the Joneses. She celebrates a consumer society that lets us pay anywhere between $8 and $450 for a toilet brush (with many gradations in between). But she never seems to look behind the demand for such gewgaws. She projects her (no doubt sincere) aesthetic enthusiasm on all manner of purchases, and seems to think this interpretation absolves them of any participation in a signaling system designed to permit instant communication of one’s degree of solvency by the clothes one wears and the decor one chooses.
Which leads to my final point. In Postrel’s classless world, it doesn’t matter if you choose the $14 Oxo brush (“sleek and modern in a hard, white plastic holder”) or a brushed nickel contraption at $400…though you might be thought a bit dowdy for opting for “Rubbermaid’s basic plastic bowl brush.” In fact, the quasi-Kozlowskian deluxe brush buyer gets praise for supporting a design economy.
But these expensive tastes have a cost, as Amartya Sen and other economic theorists have noticed. They lead to consumption, not investment. That’s a lot of “brushed nickel” that could have been diverted to…well, something more appropriate than a toilet brush! In Postrel’s world, self-expression is the ne plus ultra, and virtually any expensive taste is self-validating as a manifestation of such authenticity. But on many religious traditions’ accounts of the ethics of consumption, they distract us from the kind of intellectual, familial, communal, and spiritual pursuits that are the hallmarks of a life well-lived.