Elizabeth Currid-Halkett: Conspicuous consumption is over. It’s all about intangibles now

In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen observed that silver spoons and corsets were markers of elite social position. In Veblen’s now famous treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class, he coined the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’ to denote the way that material objects were paraded as indicators of social position and status. More than 100 years later, conspicuous consumption is still part of the contemporary capitalist landscape, and yet today, luxury goods are significantly more accessible than in Veblen’s time. This deluge of accessible luxury is a function of the mass-production economy of the 20th century, the outsourcing of production to China, and the cultivation of emerging markets where labour and materials are cheap. At the same time, we’ve seen the arrival of a middle-class consumer market that demands more material goods at cheaper price points.

However, the democratisation of consumer goods has made them far less useful as a means of displaying status. In the face of rising social inequality, both the rich and the middle classes own fancy TVs and nice handbags. They both lease SUVs, take airplanes, and go on cruises. On the surface, the ostensible consumer objects favoured by these two groups no longer reside in two completely different universes.

Given that everyone can now buy designer handbags and new cars, the rich have taken to using much more tacit signifiers of their social position. Yes, oligarchs and the superrich still show off their wealth with yachts and Bentleys and gated mansions. But the dramatic changes in elite spending are driven by a well-to-do, educated elite, or what I call the ‘aspirational class’. This new elite cements its status through prizing knowledge and building cultural capital, not to mention the spending habits that go with it – preferring to spend on services, education and human-capital investments over purely material goods. These new status behaviours are what I call ‘inconspicuous consumption’. None of the consumer choices that the term covers are inherently obvious or ostensibly material but they are, without question, exclusionary.

The rise of the aspirational class and its consumer habits is perhaps most salient in the United States. The US Consumer Expenditure Survey data reveals that, since 2007, the country’s top 1 per cent (people earning upwards of $300,000 per year) are spending significantly less on material goods, while middle-income groups (earning approximately $70,000 per year) are spending the same, and their trend is upward. Eschewing an overt materialism, the rich are investing significantly more in education, retirement and health – all of which are immaterial, yet cost many times more than any handbag a middle-income consumer might buy. The top 1 per cent now devote the greatest share of their expenditures to inconspicuous consumption, with education forming a significant portion of this spend (accounting for almost 6 per cent of top 1 per cent household expenditures, compared with just over 1 per cent of middle-income spending). In fact, top 1 per cent spending on education has increased 3.5 times since 1996, while middle-income spending on education has remained flat over the same time period.

The vast chasm between middle-income and top 1 per cent spending on education in the US is particularly concerning because, unlike material goods, education has become more and more expensive in recent decades. Thus, there is a greater need to devote financial resources to education to be able to afford it at all. According to Consumer Expenditure Survey data from 2003-2013, the price of college tuition increased 80 per cent, while the cost of women’s apparel increased by just 6 per cent over the same period. Middle-class lack of investment in education doesn’t suggest a lack of prioritising as much as it reveals that, for those in the 40th-60th quintiles, education is so cost-prohibitive it’s almost not worth trying to save for.

While much inconspicuous consumption is extremely expensive, it shows itself through less expensive but equally pronounced signalling – from reading The Economist to buying pasture-raised eggs. Inconspicuous consumption in other words, has become a shorthand through which the new elite signal their cultural capital to one another. In lockstep with the invoice for private preschool comes the knowledge that one should pack the lunchbox with quinoa crackers and organic fruit. One might think these culinary practices are a commonplace example of modern-day motherhood, but one only needs to step outside the upper-middle-class bubbles of the coastal cities of the US to observe very different lunch-bag norms, consisting of processed snacks and practically no fruit. Similarly, while time in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City might make one think that every American mother breastfeeds her child for a year, national statistics report that only 27 per cent of mothers fulfill this American Academy of Pediatrics goal (in Alabama, that figure hovers at 11 per cent).

Knowing these seemingly inexpensive social norms is itself a rite of passage into today’s aspirational class. And that rite is far from costless: The Economist subscription might set one back only $100, but the awareness to subscribe and be seen with it tucked in one’s bag is likely the iterative result of spending time in elite social milieus and expensive educational institutions that prize this publication and discuss its contents.

Perhaps most importantly, the new investment in inconspicuous consumption reproduces privilege in a way that previous conspicuous consumption could not. Knowing which New Yorker articles to reference or what small talk to engage in at the local farmers’ market enables and displays the acquisition of cultural capital, thereby providing entry into social networks that, in turn, help to pave the way to elite jobs, key social and professional contacts, and private schools. In short, inconspicuous consumption confers social mobility.

More profoundly, investment in education, healthcare and retirement has a notable impact on consumers’ quality of life, and also on the future life chances of the next generation. Today’s inconspicuous consumption is a far more pernicious form of status spending than the conspicuous consumption of Veblen’s time. Inconspicuous consumption – whether breastfeeding or education – is a means to a better quality of life and improved social mobility for one’s own children, whereas conspicuous consumption is merely an end in itself – simply ostentation. For today’s aspirational class, inconspicuous consumption choices secure and preserve social status, even if they do not necessarily display it.Aeon counter – do not remove

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning and professor of public policy at the Price School, University of Southern California. Her latest book is The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class (2017). She lives in Los Angeles.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Paula S. Fass: Hillary Clinton and the politics of motherhood

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By Paula S. Fass

It was clear from the beginning of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign that the “woman issue” was going to play a large part, with an emphasis on shattering glass ceilings. What was not clear until the convention was the degree to which this would be centered on mothers and mothering. The Democratic National Convention showcased many things, including American multiculturalism and patriotism, but nothing was as prominent as the emphasis on mothers and motherhood.

In many parts of the convention, the mothers of young people who were either victims or heroes were a featured part of the proceedings. Clinton’s most personal discussion in her acceptance speech was about her mother, Dorothy. Chelsea Clinton’s introduction was all about Clinton’s role as a mother and grandmother. The video introducing Mrs. Clinton showcased her work with the Children’s Defense Fund. Motherhood was everywhere in the convention – a glowing and effusive tribute not to women per se but to women as mothers. Not since the early twentieth century, when women’s public presence and their striving for the vote was geared toward the protection of children and families, has motherhood been so prominently featured in politics. Drawing on this older tradition, through which women influenced public affairs, Clinton spoke to ideals of protection for families and social inclusion. Clinton and her campaign hope to make these ideals just as appealing today.

Donald Trump made this an easy choice for Clinton and the Democratic Party. He has presented himself as someone who is not only self-consciously macho, but who wants to serve as a kind of disciplinarian for the society, a law and order candidate who strives to take command, and an authoritarian father who will fix what ails us as a nation. In a contrary symbolic move, Hillary Clinton presentation of herself in the guise of motherhood and her emphasis on the softer, more inclusive aspects of national culture became an almost predictable response.

But more than symbolism is at stake. As Donald Trump was increasingly portrayed during the Democratic National Convention as not in tune with American values, as ignorant of American history and untutored in constitutional principles, Democrats emphasized the degree to which our family values are also our national values. And here they had a substantial base to work from. Since the beginning of the American republic, American child rearing has encouraged a much more democratic ethos between the generations, one that saw children as having not only a role to play, but the right to a voice in family deliberations. In the family as well as in the society, Americans de-emphasized hierarchy and saw children as resourceful and independent. In a democracy, children would learn early to guide their own futures.

Since the early nineteenth century, mothers have played a much more conspicuous part in family affairs. Americans rejected patriarchy in their family relationships since almost the start of national identity and, ever since, have inscribed these views of family life as a basic resource of national life. This does not mean that there were not families where fathers emphatically ruled and were authoritarian and dictatorial, but these traits were rejected as norms of the culture. In the nineteenth century, mothers, not father were believed to guide their children toward morality and social conscience in an individualistic society; in the twentieth, child rearing advisors believed that mothers could be enlisted to make sure that children were healthy and psychologically well adjusted. In an individualistic society, with an emphasis on competition and winning, the family provided necessary ballast.

Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Convention have used this history to great effect, showcasing an American tradition of family democracy and making the strong connection between American family life and American political life. The resonance was clear in the enthusiastic reception at the convention. It will also provide the late summer and fall campaign with a substantial basis for appealing to Americans across the country. It is revealing that the first woman seriously to be considered for the American presidency (and the likely first female President) will have chosen to appeal to the public on the basis of this fundamental national experience rather than the overt feminism that she embraced as a First Lady with an office in the West Wing. Donald Trump made Hillary Clinton’s choice easy, but American history made it obvious.

FassPaula S. Fass is professor of the Graduate School and the Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child.