Conspicuous consumption during a recession

Trying to make sense of how recent events like the lavish wedding of Chelsea Clinton, the furor over Michelle Obama’s trip to Spain, and other similar events, can take place during this recession, Bella English of the Boston Globe turns to the concept of conspicuous consumption.

Sociologist Juliet Schor comments:

“It’s adding insult to injury at a time like this when so many Americans are suffering such extreme economic pain,’’ says Juliet Schor, a sociology professor at Boston College and author of “Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth.’’ “Those kinds of conspicuous displays of wealth undermine everyone else. They make us feel poorer and less satisfied with what we have.’’

Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption. According to Veblen, consumption is not just about buying necessities; it is about projecting an image and establishing status. The wealthy intentionally are wasteful in their consumption in order to show that they can afford to be wasteful.

Schor is expressing what the people toward the bottom of the economic ladder feel when the rich show off their riches. Should the rich cut down on their spending in times like these? Or perhaps they could draw less attention to themselves? My guess is that if one has the money, one is going to spend it whether it is a boom time or a down time. The only barrier to this may be a popular backlash – if the consumption actually leads to decreased status (rather than increased status), it may not be worth it.

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