On how the marketplace of ideas has been ransacked


I wrote this essay expanding on an essay a few years back; I believe it still rings true.

I taught AP English for 15 years, and each year I would pass around a wonderful editorial by Stephen Bayley regarding the futility of what the great thinker Thorstein Veblen called “conspicuous consumption. Blayley’s writing is upscale and challenging for AP students more accustomed to tweets and Facebook photo captions.

His message is, however, quite powerful, and I include his essay piece by piece, to suggest how the consumerism of things has become the consumerism of ideas, with all the shallow, ‘musturbatory’* self gratification intact.

COMMENTARY Los Angeles Times April 1, 2004Thorstein Veblen2
_Deep-Fat Fryers in Deep-Seated Desuetude_
Ultimately, all this stuff we buy is a waste. By Stephen Bayley

It’s time to revive Thorstein Veblen, nowadays a neglected figure.

His “Theory of the Leisure Class” (1899) is in that strange category of books both unreadable and immensely stimulating. Veblen established the notion of conspicuous consumption — the process of social climbing by buying things. Chapter Six is about the “pecuniary canons of taste,” or how money describes us. As Bob Dylan said, it tends to swear rather than talk.

I would posit that our current political climate creates much the same behavior. The thin veneer of our civility is becoming as translucent as our façade of wisdom. We have adapted the age old tradition of showing off with stuff, into a Ben – Hur chariot race of pretentious political pontification. Our thoughts no longer speak well of us, instead, grandmothers and young people swear at each other online in ways that would make both blush if uttered in person.

A political economist, Veblen was called the last man who knew everything. He spoke 25 languages but understood best consumer desire and the perverse commercial logic that powers it: “Invention is the mother of necessity” was his marvelously cross-wired coinage.

Indeed, we are led to believe that our polarization was of necessity, yet why now? Why not fifty, or a hundred years ago? Young people have always joined a cause; it is part of claiming autonomy over one’s schema; it is identification with ideas that will elevate your status with peers and separate you from those unfashionable ‘others’.

Teachers and professors have always yearned to mold young minds into copies of their own egos. Yet over the last twenty five years, professors particularly, have sought to redefine their vision of utopia into the social imperative. They do this through exaggerating, or even inventing injustices, defining them as causes, then as necessities. The second technique is to use individual events as not just emblematic, but as the all encompassing definition of the issue. A questionable police shooting must mean all cops are racist. etc.

We all have a guilty secret about the things we buy but never use. They inhabit a dark part of our imaginative lives — not F. Scott Fitzgerald’s dark night of the soul where it is always three o’clock in the morning, but the space under the stairs, where possessions consumed in the passionate delirium of cupidity accumulate to mock us. Sex has its post-coital tristesse1, consumerism has its post-purchase melancholy. A recent study showed that the majority of machines emerge from the chrysalis2 of their four-color polysealed packaging only to retreat into wretched desuetude3. All subjective experience shows that deep-fat fryers, bread machines and ice-cream makers, to offer only a few examples, are quite literally useless for the purpose intended. They sit redundant in cupboards, telling stories about us, like 19th century servants chattering about their masters above stairs. Perhaps, one muses, this treachery is their true function.

Like the “delirium of cupidity” we call impulse buying, people glom onto ideas that may be quite questionable indeed, especially when friends have similar ideas. It’s a quick life lesson that an open display of agreement ensures a seat by the warm fire, with friends and various possible gratifications, while questioning, much less disagreement, means banishment to the outer darkness of cold, and pain…. Social media ensures that such an exile includes hounding by former friends and even strangers. Such “treachery” may not be intentional, but it is there.

Our poverty of abundance originated in the 1950s. The idea — then novel — was that continuing acquisition of supposedly ever-better-looking, ever-better-performing material goods made life perfect. Anyone who has actually driven a ’57 Thunderbird knows the pitiable fragility of this vision, but for a moment Detroit defined this version of the American Dream with industrial thoroughness. The carmakers introduced the annual model year, a travesty of “progress” because the changes were superficial. Social critics, including Vance Packard, whose “The Hidden Persuaders” (1957) and “The Status Seekers” (1961) picked up where Veblen left off, called it “planned obsolescence.” A General Motors executive said, “We have not depreciated last year’s cars, we have appreciated your mind.”

This is the heart of the matter. Political arguments today are not of ideas, so much as the individual events I alluded to earlier. Each event is elevated into a metaphor, with scope Shakespeare would envy. These metaphors, these memes, these rants, both confirm our views, and our biases.

They are clear, simple, and wrong. The faults of the other side are generated anew with each new event, and web sites both decry the wrong, and describe how the faithful must think and act in response. Even the mind of the reader is now ‘appreciated’ by the conspiratorial arrogance of the author- ‘you are better; you are one of us.’

Hence the fateful appointments we have all made in car showrooms or appliance megastores. Here we can see consumer behavior that is wonderfully odd — entirely predictable and utterly irrational. There is a tragic poetry about all of this. We buy things and anticipate happiness, but the truth is the merchandise cruelly ridicules us. Cars equipped with “performance” that cannot be (legally) used. Home computers with memory sufficient to run the economy of Luxembourg. Deep-fat fryers we cannot be bothered to plug in after one failed experiment with tempura. The things we want are weapons in our struggle for psychological survival — absurd, sometimes beautiful, almost always wasteful, sad.
Subjective experience shows that deep-fat fryers, bread machines and ice-cream makers, to offer only a few examples, are quite literally useless for the purpose intended. They sit redundant in cupboards, telling stories about us, like 19th century servants chattering about their masters above stairs. Perhaps, one muses, this treachery is their true function.

We can predict with some certainty that children raised on indolence, structured sports activities, video games, and schooling designed to prevent any but positive, ego building experiences – will fall for any idea that suggests their own superiority. We have bought into ideas that look ever so sexy, and as any are adopted, their failure must be from some external cause, like any failure in childhood was a result of some unfairness, or perhaps ‘oppression’.

How to deal with this terrifying trap that objects lay for us? Eliminate as many of them as possible. My favorite method is a test: the Absence Factor. It was devised by Jeremy Bullmore, former chairman of the London office of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. You consider any object and give it a value from 0 to 100, depending on your estimate of how much you would miss it in a crisis. Thus, the giltwood chinoiserie Louis XVI harp4 in the drawing room, to say nothing of the deep-fat fryer in the kitchen, scores very low, while an ample supply of Kimberly-Clark’s signature product — if in a gastroenterological crisis on, say, a train in Gujarat — scores very nearly the maximum possible points. Simple pleasures rarely disappoint.

Indeed, simple ideas, though as bland as a baked potato, tend to work. Those spicy ideas like ensured equality of outcome, and wealth redistribution burn like Venezuelan Pabellon Criollo going in, but a look at the starving populace of Caracas tells you – they also burn coming out.

*Psychologist Albert Ellis coined the phrase for peoples’ tendency to expect a perfect life.

1 chrysalis: a cocoon; a tadpole- relative to a frog

2 tristesse: sadness

3 desuetude: A state of disuse or inactivity

4 giltwood chinoiserie Louis XVI harp – an antique harp with gold plated ornate wood carvings.


In the essay/blog- I include this picture. I saw this boat on a broken down flatbed back in 1980. I was too poor to own a camera, and so could not take a picture then, but tracked down the owner through the maritime registry and he was “happy to oblige anyone who gets it”. The boat’s name is the Thorstein Veblen- the man who coined the phrase “Conspicuous Consumption”

Thorstein Veblen

  1. There are 300,000 items in the average American home (LA Times).

  2. The average size of the American home has nearly tripled in size over the past 50 years (NPR).

  3. And still, 1 out of every 10 Americans rent offsite storage—the fastest growing segment of the commercial real estate industry over the past four decades. (New York Times Magazine).

  4. While 25% of people with two-car garages don’t have room to park cars inside them and 32% only have room for one vehicle. (U.S. Department of Energy).

  5. The United States has upward of 50,000 storage facilities, more than five times the number of Starbucks. Currently, there is 7.3 square feet of self storage space for every man, woman and child in the nation. Thus, it is physically possible that every American could stand—all at the same time—under the total canopy of self storage roofing (SSA).

  6. British research found that the average 10-year-old owns 238 toys but plays with just 12 daily (The Telegraph).

  7. 3.1% of the world’s children live in America, but they own 40% of the toys consumed globally (UCLA).

  8. The average American woman owns 30 outfits—one for every day of the month. In 1930, that figure was nine (Forbes).

  9. The average American family spends $1,700 on clothes annually (Forbes).

  10. While the average American throws away 65 pounds of clothing per year (Huffington Post).

  11. Some reports indicate we consume twice as many material goods today as we did 50 years ago (The Story of Stuff).

  12. Currently, the 12 percent of the world’s population that lives in North America and Western Europe account for 60 percent of private consumption spending, while the one-third living in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 3.2 percent (Worldwatch Institute).

  13. Americans spend more on shoes, jewelry, and watches ($100 billion) than on higher education (Psychology Today).

  14. Over the course of our lifetime, we will spend a total of 3,680 hours or 153 days searching for misplaced items. The research found we lose up to nine items every day—or 198,743 in a lifetime. Phones, keys, sunglasses, and paperwork top the list (The Daily Mail).

  15. Americans spend $1.2 trillion annually on nonessential goods—in other words, items they do not need (The Wall Street Journal).

Of course the interesting thing is that democrats will climb on their moral soapbox over all of this consumption but, at the end of the day, to press for a real change in attitude will bankrupt the tax receipts of U.S.A. Inc. and the social state it supports…