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I’m going to take my happiness report in a different direction this month. I’d like to respond to an article that popped up regarding the way “the rich” spend their money. I saw it on BBC, entitled “The New, Subtle Ways the Rich Signal Their Wealth.” Originally it was written for Aeon and entitled “Conspicuous Consumption is Over. It’s All About Intangibles Now.” By any title, this article represents what I perceive as a growing resentment toward the rich. Toward me, in other words.
I encourage you to read the article, but I’ll summarize it here.
The rich are getting sneaky. They used to separate themselves with the conspicuous consumption of luxury goods for all to see — fancy TVs, cars, and handbags. But now, luxury items are widely available to the masses. So, to set themselves apart, the rich are increasingly spending on inconspicuous social and cultural status symbols: education, health, and retirement.
This kind of privileged spending activity is subtle but “pernicious,” benefitting rich families while excluding the middle class.
And here’s the concluding paragraph: “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.”
So Penny, you might be wondering why I’m talking about this in my happiness report. Here’s why. We have a high household income ($260,000), and I’ll grant that we are more or less rich. I’ve written extensively about how I prioritize my spending, both for optimal happiness according to my values and for the benefit of my family’s financial security (in 3 easy steps!). The above article is essentially saying that my way of spending is harmful (“pernicious” was an interesting word choice) as a form of class warfare and social privilege.
In short, I’m part of the problem.
Ok, well … let’s grant for a moment that I’m unknowingly part of an elitist conspiracy to oppress common folk by eating free range chicken and saving for college. How could I take action to distance myself from such a dangerous subculture? How could I prove my desire to be on the side of fairness and equality?
Should I take my kids to McDonald’s and tell them that one day, if they live long enough on nuggets and soda, they could ignore higher education and work behind the counter? Should I blow their college money on a Porsche in the hopes that they will make a career out of filling it with gas? Would I then be regarded as a more moral and less pernicious rich person?
I have another theory. Maybe the rich are just discovering that luxury doesn’t bring happiness, and that the best way to build a stable family environment is to promote health and education. And maybe that’s a good thing.
I think you, Penny, are proof that this way of life is not exclusionary. You have a family of 6, you have a relatively low income, and you still manage to prioritize healthy food and good schools. As a rich guy, there’s nothing about this that bothers me — I’d wish this sort of lifestyle on anyone in any social class. I’d be happy for your family to be as healthy and as smart as you can be. Why would I be threatened by that? Eating vegetables and reading books are not zero sum propositions. Amazon just bought Whole Foods — is there any doubt that organic fruit will soon be just as available to the masses as fancy TVs?
Needless to say, I think the article’s argument, or at least what it’s implying about harmful class-based behavior, misses the mark. It might even be mostly illogical nonsense. That said, I’m not ignoring it. There’s a growing perception that society is just not fair, that the rich are doing well while everyone else is struggling. There’s an undercurrent of anger from the have-nots toward the haves. Forget that I grew up solidly middle class, a farm boy from a small town — now that I have a high income, there’s a sense out there that I am the enemy. I want to understand why.
In the meantime, I’d be a fool to stop eating healthy food and investing in education. Along those lines, the kiddos graduated from preschool this month. They have a few weeks before summer camp starts, so we’re juggling work schedules and trying to keep them busy with swimming and playing and some medical checkups for public school Kindergarten and so on. You know, pernicious parenting stuff. It’s what we do to maintain our elitist lifestyle.
It’s also quite tiring — the kids are pretty crazy without the structure of school.
4 out of 5 smileys.
PS — I’d be curious to hear from you or from other personal finance bloggers about what they think is going on in this article. Am I missing something?