How Thorstein Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption” explains the rise of The Donald
Conspicuous consumption is back. Forget hipster shabby chic. Ignore Prince Charles’s much-patched shooting attire. Instead observe The Donald. Shortly before his Inauguration, billionaire Trump complained about the White House. It looked pretty spiffy last time I visited, but unlike his Trump Tower maxi-apartment, it is apparently small and scruffy and lacks such obvious necessities as solid-gold door handles and bathroom taps. And the furniture and fittings in Air Force One are nowhere near as flashy and expensive as those in Trump Force One, a larger and more modern aircraft.
Now we learn that Johnny Depp spends £24,000 a month on fine wines, “flown to him around the world for his personal consumption” in his 14 chateaux, ranches and assorted mansions. As for Sir Philip Green with his yachts, or those Russian oligarchs: “When you got it, flaunt it!”, to quote The Producers.
The collapse of understatement made me turn again to Thorstein Veblen, the brilliant but maverick American economist who came up with the concepts of conspicuous consumption and conspicuous leisure in his 1899 cult classic The Theory of the Leisure Class. It is a glorious read, the only work of economic theory which makes me laugh out loud. For a century his ideas were out of fashion because he was tearing apart what became orthodox economics, based on the nonsensical idea that “economic man” acts always and only in his economic interest. Like the increasingly influential new wave of critics of economic orthodoxy, he involved sociology, anthropology and psychology in his analysis of decision-making. The super-rich, he says, buy costly and grossly overpriced things they don’t need or even want, just because they can. They flit pointlessly round the world, taking part in time- and money-consuming leisure activities they often don’t like or understand, for the same reason.
What they are doing, according to Veblen, is using waste to signal their power, prestige and status. And the rest of us strive to copy those billionaires, not out of need or pleasure but in a futile effort to raise our status. Hence, I suppose, the rise and rise of expensive branding, and of rip-off pseudo-branding, exemplified by cheapo “copy Rolexes”. In Veblen’s phrase, we have created “a society characterised by a [systematic] waste of time and money”. And perhaps that helps explain the rise and rise of Donald Trump, king of bling.