Greedy Goblin

Monday, December 22, 2008

Theory of the leisure class 3

This is the final piece of the series about the great work of Thorstein Veblen.

The previous piece was about conspicuous leisure, showing the world that you can afford living without working. Now we can meet the other form of conspicuous waste: conspicuous consumption.

In short: consuming items in a way that does not increase our health or well-being, just to show the world that we can do it.

We can see it in primitive form, typically among people who were born and raised in poverty, but got money somehow (mostly by crime). They collect and wear ridiculous amount of gold, just to show the world that they can. They even call the people to "check this out!", to demonstrate how rich they are.

However among civilized people the rules of the conspicuous consumption are not less strong, just less obvious. The keyword is "beauty". The people buy these items, because they feel inside, that the item is beautiful, while the less extravagant items, serving the purpose just as well are "rude", "primitive" and "repulsive".

The first thing we to notice is that the sense of "beauty" is highly culture-dependent and very different in different countries. If the people would have some internal sense of beauty, every person would find the same things beautiful. Strike that, "beauty" changes within the same culture in time. Sometimes this change is extremely rapid, like clothing fashion. What's considered beautiful and "must be" in one year is "ugly" and "outdated" next year. Obviously no internal sense of beauty could adapt so fast. The point is to throw away our expensive clothes. The richest people have such an "elaborate sense of beauty" that they don't wear the same clothes twice.

The feelings of "Beauty" come from unconscious schemes detecting nothing else but conspicuous waste. The purpose of "beauty" is to solve the "problem" that the quantity of consumed goods cannot be increased endlessly. However by making the item more wastefully expensive we can increase its "beauty", therefore the status coming from consuming it.

While in small, closed communities, where people know each other, conspicuous leisure is perfect to show nobility. However in a big city where we barely know each other, the observation of each other is too short to show proper amount of noble waste of time. Here the main source of nobility is the conspicuous consumption of expensive items that are visible even to the careless and distant observer. These are mostly clothes and cars. It's not uncommon among poor families to have much higher "quality" car than home, strike that to have no home at all, just a rent flat and still have a new car.

The car is a perfect example of conspicuous consumption. Its useful purpose is to let a person travel. For this purpose every serviced car is OK. Yet people tend to sell their obviously useful car (otherwise they could not use them before, or if it just broke down, no one would buy it), just to buy a new one. The price difference is completely wasted. Someone who is not driven by the unconscious norms of conspicuous consumption would use his car until it becomes broken beyond repair.

Other unquestionable proof of the norms of conspicuous consumption is the fact that people tend to consume cheaper items in private than they do in the public eye. While you invite your friends to an elegant restaurant, you eat pizza or corn flakes alone. You wear suit and leather shoes (dress and heels) at work but T-shirt and slippers at home. If the expensive food or clothing would serve your well-being you wound not deny it from yourself at home.

One more proof: the "beauty of the handmade". The machines are capable of crafting items with 0.0001 mm accuracy, so if there would be some "beautiful shape", it would be easy to craft it by proper machines for cheap. No one would buy crude, handmade items. Yet the handmade items are expensive and found beautiful and noble. Why? Not because of their shape, that's for sure. For the wasted human work inside!

So: the people have unconscious mental schemes seeking waste in the items and call this waste "beauty". They are urged to consume such wasteful items when others see them.

In WoW the perfect example of conspicuous consumption of wasteful goods are mounts. The basic faction mounts serve the purpose of traveling perfectly. The new mounts like bears, dragons are no better, but perfectly serve the person's internal wish for conspicuous consumption of wasteful items. Mammoths and motorcycles have some extra value, motorcycles are vehicles like catapults with low HP (I've read somewhere they change it next patch), and Mammoths have vendors included (like there is not a little town with vendors in 1 minute distance from everywhere).

Besides these little extra value, they both can carry passengers. This is a real value add, theoretically can save all riding cost on another. Yet, unless you charge them for this taxi service, they are nothing more than vicarious consumers, who help you conspicuously consume your wasteful goods.


Anonymous said...

I love your posts, but your choice of words and grammar often means I have to read each line twice.

Please - proof read or get someone else to read it before you post!!

Gevlon said...

@anonymous: could you point out which word or sentence is wrong? Because without it, you are just another troll.

Larísa said...

I'm fascinated by how people's desires are anything but logical and how people into marketing can take advantage of them. I attended a seminar a little while ago, where a leading person in the beverage business admitted that there actually isn't any big difference between beers. The recipe and the taste is pretty much the same. So that's why you put so huge efforts into marketing, building brands that people connect to and want to be a part of for some reason, which I guess is connected to the phenomena you describe in this article.

It's hard to be unaffected by it. I'm like that myself. There are beer brands I won't buy, no matter of price not because of the taste of the beer, but because it wouldn't fit, I would feel awkward serving it to friends, not noble enough I guess.

The more I think about it the more stupid it seems.

Gevlon said...

@larísa: get a set of BOTTLES of "noble" beers and always refill them with cheap beers. A buddy of mine does it with Champagene. He never got caught.

Anonymous said...


"They even call the people to "check this out!", see how rich they are."
"the people" doesn't flow nicely... what people?

"...every people would find the same things beautiful."
every person, surely?

Only a couple of examples, since I do not mean to troll, and I do genuinely enjoy your posts (its the first thing I do when I get to work, before I read my email). It just seems you'd benefit from reading your post twice before you publish it. The spell checker doesn't make sure you've got the right words or a comfortable sentance structure. :)

You're a fantastic poster, I just think that clumsy english somewhat discredits your otherwise very intelligent and insightful viewpoints.

Sorry to sound trollish, I mean no offense :)

Gevlon said...

@anonymous: "every people" fixed. Feel free to point out EVERY error, I fix them all. BTW I run spellchecker on it, however it cannot find "every people" or such. I'm not native English speaker, and of course my English needs further polishing. Any help in that is appreciated.

Anonymous said...

Love your posts. Very thoughtful, though I can't say I always agree with you, but that's ok (that's even part of the fun!).
I must take exception with your extreme economic pragmatism toward some of the more "beautiful" aspects of humanity. From a pure scientific and logical perspective, I guess it would be practical for us all to live in a technological utopia where excesses are not needed or encouraged. I disagree, however, that such a world is not only possible, but even preferable to one in which humans are encouraged to work on "beautiful" things, as opposed to machine built, mass produced items to turn us all into "Normal" humans. I would rather starve than reduced to this economically prudent, stale lifestyle.
As far as mounts go, I love all the different mounts that are available, and i want more mounts available in future releases. I want items that i can equip that set me apart from all the other taurens gathering around the orgrimmar mailbox. It doesnt mean I need to show everyone I am rich, just that I am unique and not an NPC.

Gevlon said...

@big_shammy: the machine-utopia is a nonsense, not because of the lack of beauty, but because of the lack of progress. It's the new and unique thoughts that make us unique, and not mounts. BTW who is more unique (different from others)? You with your 50 mount or me with just 1. Who is more different from the masses?

Anonymous said...

Please note, I did not say I wanted to possess more mounts, I just wanted more mounts to choose from. I think I only have 3 mounts at the moment on both my high level characters (regular ground, epic ground, regular flyer). Consumerism and individualism are polar opposites, imo.

I am still getting the sense that technological progress, and economic progress seen in the light of our current technological path, is something you are aiming for in your philosophy. I would rather see more of a return to more primitive archetypes. Take what little we have learned through technology and throw out the rest which is by and large destructive to societies instead of accepting "technological progress" as it stands today as an inevitability.

Tesh said...

What baffles me is the desire to prove to others that you are unique (or special, or beautiful, whatever). Letting others define your worth that way is destined to be an endless and ultimately fruitless task.

Of course I see that effect in society at large, so I do not dispute that it's there... I just don't understand or embrace that mentality.

Oh, and Gevlon? For someone to whom English isn't a primary language, you write more intelligently than most native English speakers that I've had the misfortune of dealing with. Please keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

now i'm confused. i was going to comment @anonymous that GG's endearing grammatical foibles were obviously in-character (he's a Goblin, right?), and is one of my favorite things about his blog(aside from the fascinating topics and well-reasoned opinions).

now i'm not sure if he's goofing on anonymous, or not?!

unpredictability, another reason i never miss a single post.

the opportunity for conspicuous, wasteful consumption, whether you deem it "art", "religion", "gaming" or any other non-productive endeavor, is what makes being human right now one of the most amazing and awe-inspiring experiences possibly available in the entire universe.

Kinzlayer said...

Dear Sir,

Good read.

Cuthbert said...

I think a lot of the drive of consumerism is to FEEL unique, although everyone else is doing the same thing. If you drink Mountain Dew you are EXTREME. Things like that.

One of the most ironic things in the states is that there is a brand called INDEPENDENT. You see a lot of rebels walking around with a shirt with the word independent, just like everyone else.

And there is nothing at all wrong with that. People have choices in the marketplace, and if it makes you feel better to buy vanity items, then good luck to you.

Gevlon and I are polar opposites ideologically I think, but how rad is it that he is doing a series on Veblen and everyone is reading it.

I drink Killian's by the way. Blindfold me and I'll bet you dollars to doughnuts that I can tell the difference. :)

Anonymous said...

The new mounts like bears, dragons, mammoths and motorcycles are no better

Motorcycles can take a passanger, so you can drive someone to someplace. They also have their own HP. So they have a value above and beyond the normal horse. That value might not justify the materials cost, then agian it might.

The mammoths not only take passengers but come with vendors (or at least a reagent seller), which can be VERY useful if you happen to not have enough runes of teleport, or kings, or whatnot. You can also avoid having to trave back to a city to sell off grey items. One could estimate the value of the greys saved per day of farming and get an estimated number of days to pay the 20,000G cost. With some northrend trash going for a few G per stack you might manage to get a value of less then "many years".

No idea bout the other mounts though. (personally I have exactly 4, my normal mount, my epic bought where I could get it cheapest (Iron Forge), the epic from the pally spell (not because I figued 17G was super cheap, but I don't like looking at unlearned spells each time I train), and my flyer -- so I'm not the ideal person to quiz on "mount collections").

Gevlon said...

@stripes: you are right, the value of motorcycles and multi-passenger mounts are included