Monday, December 23, 2013

So how much are you paying for the privilege of overpaying?

We're just about done with this year's installment of Conspicuous (Superfluous) Consumption on Parade, but it still seemed like a good time to reprise a column I did for the Los Angeles Times a few year back. I urge you to read it, and think about all of the goods and services you buy that would fall under the umbrella of the phenomenon the piece describes. And keep in mind that my reasoning still applies even if you're buying necessities that are larded with all sorts of frivolous/pointless bells and whistles.

Report back?

13 comments:

Markus said...

Thanks Steve. Christmas is the perfect time of year to remember the Parable of the Pendant. People spending so much money on so much crap - I'll sit this one out!

Steve Salerno said...

Parable of the Pendant. I like it.

You think if I wrote my own secular bible, it might sell?

Also kinda bookends The Gospel According to Ralph Lauren, which is another one of my pet peeves--courtesy of preacher Joel Osteen, who claims that "God want you to be rich!"

roger o'keefe said...

Steve, I took issue with you when you published this originally, and I take issue again now. I don't agree with your lowest common denominator worldview. It suggests that we're all supposed to be content with a subsistence level of existence, whereas I much prefer an outlook that emphasizes striving for continuing success.

But you know that, and it's Christmas, so let's be friends. Happy holidays from your favorite Right Wing curmudgeon!

Steve Salerno said...

Roger, as I recall you missed the point then and you missed it again now. Striving for what? To have useless jewelry? To spend more than you have to for everything? To accouter yourself with trappings that prove nothing except the fact that you like to waste money? To organize your life around the idea of showing off?

But you're right; it's Christmas, so let's be friends, wink.

Anonymous said...

Very nice. An interesting and even, important spin on our consumer culture.

Jenny said...

Christmas friends, how special. :) I have to say I enjoy the friendly adversarial banter around here, especially since it is keeping the conversation going. I was having dinner yesterday with my husband and our neighbors, a delightful couple, and suddenly we found ourselves talking about politics and religion. Great way to ruin a meal? Well, I was making the point that we might be better off ditching the terms "conservative" and "liberal" since they are often more divisive than unifying. My husband (who is a fan of Joel Osteen) looked at me and suggested I might want to "wind it down." Wait. You mean to say if you're going to talk politics, don't go there... go here... instead? No. Takeaway lesson here: the most efficient way to wind up your wife is to tell her to wind it down. ;)

Merry Christmas!

Jenny said...

I remember that article. During a recent visit to the mall, my husband and I stopped in an upscale jewelry store. He found a spectacular white-gold bracelet dotted with tiny diamonds and with a unique mechanical stretch-to-fit band, just gorgeous, and it ought to be -- at more than $3,000. Here's the thing: my husband wanted to buy it for me! My mind started going to all the other places $3,000 could take me and I just refused the "gift" because it is not something I would be happy to own. I guess values are like that, though; we each have our own, and who knows how we arrived at them.

Steve Salerno said...

Jenny, the other day I went to the "clearance" section of the Ashford.com site, and was aghast that the first listed item, a silver bracelet, was "on sale" for the low, low price of $84,000 and some change. I found this so upsetting--that such a thing even exists--that I tweeted about it.

Roger, did you give that bracelet to your wife for Xmas...or were you loath to buy anything on sale?

Jenny said...

I guess even the very wealthy appreciate a good bargain! One part of me loves that my husband wants to buy something beautiful and expensive that he can enjoy seeing as I wear it. At the same time, there's something very trophy-wife-ish about the whole idea of a financially powerful man adorning his woman with showy gems and other outrageously priced items. Just what is this really about, I wonder. Of course, everyone's situation is different. Thirty years ago, I was independent and "living the dream" as a single woman.

One summer when I was still in college, I can remember buying myself a lovely diamond and ruby birthstone ring, using money I earned as a camp counselor. It cost just about as much as I made that summer. I discovered the ring in a jewelry store on the square during one of the "town runs" I had been assigned. In a way, that task was humiliating because I was a junior counselor and not at all "chatty" the way they wanted me to be, so they gave me what turned out to be a job that relieved me from the stress of talking it up with the 12-year-old girls in my care. Anyway, back to the ring (which I never would have found if not for the town run gig), I cherished that lovely item for what it represented. So, at the end of the day, I suppose items (expensive or not) come to symbolize very individualized things.

At this stage of life, I do not earn an income and my husband makes a pretty good salary as a highly specialized electronics engineer. I appreciate the fact that through his hard work, I was allowed the opportunity to quit my job and be a stay-at-home mother for most of our daughter's childhood. I also appreciate the fact that we live a pretty comfortable life, all things considered. Would I like to earn my own money again? Yes, but it's nice not to feel pressured into doing it. Well, there may be social (as well as internal) pressure to have financial independence again, but if that is going to happen to me it will be driven by something other than money.

Anonymous said...

While in the modern era (since industrialization) there has always been lavish spending by the rich, up till relatively recently (1970's-80's?) you got what you paid for. There was a basis for the cost of an item and it was more or less correlated to the intrinsic worth of an item. But I think what is discussed in this article is a byproduct of what has happened to our economy/market as a whole. There was a manipulative, hostile takeover of the genteel WASP and in its stead the middleman, the trader, has become the ruler. We saw mergers and acquisitions in the 1970-80's and the shyster-esque business of buying and selling businesses (See The Lucky Sperm Club on the Business Desk PBS Newshour site). Today the highest priced stock is in companies with no real P/E ratio and no tangible product. The whole tech industry makes Ashford.com look thoroughly rooted in reality. Dow Jones & Co. has become Ponzi Madoff & Co. This whole sham is then continually propped up by the shysters in the Fed who electronically transfer $85 billion per quarter to their friends at Goldman Sachs, et al.

Steve Salerno said...

Well put, Anon. It's a giant house of card-players--except the house always wins.

RevRon's Rants said...

A quote by Roger J. Corless, from his book "The Vision of Buddhism: the Space Under the Tree" (though often mistakenly attributed to George Carlin) comes to mind, "Trying to be happy by accumulating possessions is like trying to satisfy hunger by taping sandwiches all over my body."

People have been fooled into believing that the value of their possessions is an indicator as to their value as humans. It only follows that the purveyors of those possessions would do whatever they can to confer greater value to their goods, and in a brilliant ploy, they astronomically inflate the prices of their goods. Consumers pay the higher prices, then praise themselves for their sophistication.

The question arises as to whether the purveyors' inflationary tactics are *in response to* consumers' collective delusion, or an intentionally-implemented prerequisite to that delusion. Chickens and golden eggs, as it were.

And to those who would claim that the inflation is a product of rising production/labor/regulatory costs, I would suggest observing the earnings trends of the ultimate recipients of that economic largess: stockholders and upper management. It is no accident that corporate earnings and executive compensation have so significantly outpaced the earnings of the vast majority of consumers.

Such disparity is simply not sustainable, as history has repeatedly shown, yet those who are at the top of the earnings food chain are loath to see the trend reversed, even if only by a minuscule amount. A worrisome stalemate, especially if history does repeat itself.

Jenny said...

Good points, Ron. We don't always get what we pay for either. I'm thinking of a resort hotel on the bay where my husband and I stayed two nights this week, in what is apparently off-season. It was great; we almost had the whole area to ourselves. Our room was discounted because we stayed on weeknights; but the closer to summer, and especially on weekends, the more they charge for that room. At the height of tourist season, we'd be paying at least four times what we paid this week, plus we'd be irritated by the noise and crowds. I can't imagine anyone thinking that would be worth the money, but maybe it's a status thing. Or maybe there is other social pressure to be present at peak times, I don't know.