Veblen: lawn = cow pasture

In The Theory of the Leisure Class, Thorstein Veblen briefly tackles the lawn:

Everyday life affords many curious illustrations of the way in which the code of pecuniary beauty in articles of use varies from class to class, as well as of the way in which the conventional sense of beauty departs in its deliverances from the sense untutored by the requirements of pecuniary repute. Such a fact is the lawn, or the close-cropped yard or park, which appeals so unaffectedly to the taste of the Western peoples. It appears especially to appeal to the tastes of the well-to-do classes in those communities in which the dolicho-blond element predominates in an appreciable degree. The lawn unquestionably has an element of sensuous beauty, simply as an object of apperception, and as such no doubt it appeals pretty directly to the eye of nearly all races and all classes; but it is, perhaps, more unquestionably beautiful to the eye of the dolicho-blond than to most other varieties of men. This higher appreciation of a stretch of greensward in this ethnic element than in the other elements of the population, goes along with certain other features of the dolicho-blond temperament that indicate that this racial element had once been for a long time a pastoral people inhabiting a region with a humid climate. The close-cropped lawn is beautiful in the eyes of a people whose inherited bent it is to readily find pleasure in contemplating a well-preserved pasture or grazing land.

For the aesthetic purpose the lawn is a cow pasture; and in some cases today — where the expensiveness of the attendant circumstances bars out any imputation of thrift — the idyl of the dolicho-blond is rehabilitated in the introduction of a cow into a lawn or private ground. In such cases the cow made use of is commonly of an expensive breed. The vulgar suggestion of thrift, which is nearly inseparable from the cow, is a standing objection to the decorative use of this animal. So that in all cases, except where luxurious surroundings negate this suggestion, the use of the cow as an object of taste must be avoided. Where the predilection for some grazing animal to fill out the suggestion of the pasture is too strong to be suppressed, the cow’s place is often given to some more or less inadequate substitute, such as deer, antelopes, or some such exotic beast. These substitutes, although less beautiful to the pastoral eye of Western man than the cow, are in such cases preferred because of their superior expensiveness or futility, and their consequent repute. They are not vulgarly lucrative either in fact or in suggestion.

Public parks of course fall in the same category with the lawn; they too, at their best, are imitations of the pasture. Such a park is of course best kept by grazing, and the cattle on the grass are themselves no mean addition to the beauty of the thing, as need scarcely be insisted on with anyone who has once seen a well-kept pasture. But it is worth noting, as an expression of the pecuniary element in popular taste, that such a method of keeping public grounds is seldom resorted to. The best that is done by skilled workmen under the supervision of a trained keeper is a more or less close imitation of a pasture, but the result invariably falls somewhat short of the artistic effect of grazing. But to the average popular apprehension a herd of cattle so pointedly suggests thrift and usefulness that their presence in the public pleasure ground would be intolerably cheap. This method of keeping grounds is comparatively inexpensive, therefore it is indecorous.

Veblen is suggesting the lawn is a particular kind of status symbol, a connection to nature and a particular level of economic standing. Plus, this is a particular kind of Western urban adaptation of nature: have a little patch of grass and an animal, all standing in for a real connection to nature and a symbol of owning more expansive property. All of this sounds Bourdieuan: the lawn is a particular expression of class status and training.

Harvard historian addresses McMansions and inequality

A historian in Harvard’s Business School discusses McMansions and its connections to inequality in an extended conversation here. Some good stuff in this conversation including how top-end consumers are driving the recent comeback of McMansions, a shout-out to sociologist Thorstein Veblen and his idea of “conspicuous consumption,” the idea of a national consumption tax, and how capitalism finds a way to move forward, including creating some inequality.

This is a reminder of the kind of smart and lively conversation that is possible on public radio…

How the megarich live in London: in the shadows

A profile of a newer housing development in London suggests the megarich live in secrecy:

The secrecy extends to the media, many of whose members, including myself and the London Sunday Times’s and Vanity Fair’s A. A. Gill, have tried but failed to gain entry to the building. “The vibe is junior Arab dictator,” says Peter York, co-author of The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook, the riotous 1982 style guide documenting the shopping and mating rituals of a certain striving class of Brits, who claimed Knightsbridge’s high-end shopping area, which stretches from Harrods to Sloane Square, as their urban heartland…The really curious aspect of One Hyde Park can be appreciated only at night. Walk past the complex then and you notice nearly every window is dark. As John Arlidge wrote in The Sunday Times, “It’s dark. Not just a bit dark—darker, say, than the surrounding buildings—but black dark. Only the odd light is on. . . . Seems like nobody’s home.”

That’s not because the apartments haven’t sold. London land-registry records say that 76 had been by January 2013 for a total of $2.7 billion—but, of these, only 12 were registered in the names of warm-blooded humans, including Christian Candy, in a sixth-floor penthouse. The remaining 64 are held in the names of unfamiliar corporations: three based in London; one, called One Unique L.L.C., in California; and one, Smooth E Co., in Thailand. The other 59—with such names as Giant Bloom International Limited, Rose of Sharon 7 Limited, and Stag Holdings Limited—belong to corporations registered in well-known offshore tax havens, such as the Cayman Islands, the British Virgin Islands, Liechtenstein, and the Isle of Man.

From this we can conclude at least two things with certainty about the tenants of One Hyde Park: they are extremely wealthy, and most of them don’t want you to know who they are and how they got their money.

This reminds me of Veblen’s idea of conspicuous consumption where the rich spend or waste money to show that they can. In other words, the rich often want people to take notice of their wealth and status. But, this London development suggests the opposite: some of the megarich today want to stay hidden. Why is this? I wonder if it has to do with modern society where having lots of money is not always viewed positively, particularly when tied to particular industries or practices such as storing money in tax havens.

Argument: environmentalism something the wealthy can pursue “to the exclusion of everything else”

Here is an interesting argument (to be clear, in a conservative outlet): environmentalism is something the upper class pursues because it no longer needs industrial progress.

In turning down Keystone, however, the President has uncovered an ugly little secret that has always lurked beneath the surface of environmentalism. Its basic appeal is to the affluent. Despite all the professions of being “liberal” and “against big business,” environmentalism’s main appeal is that it promises to slow the progress of industrial progress. People who are already comfortable with the present state of affairs — who are established in the environment, so to speak — are happy to go along with this. It is not that they have any greater insight into the mysteries and workings of nature. They are happier with the way things are. In fact, environmentalism works to their advantage. The main danger to the affluent is not that they will be denied from improving their estate but that too many other people will achieve what they already have. As the Forest Service used to say, the person who built his mountain cabin last year is an environmentalist. The person who wants to build one this year is a developer…

What finally focused my attention on the aristocratic roots of environmentalism, however, was a chapter in Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class. Although the book is justly famous for coining “conspicuous consumption” and “conspicuous waste,” there is a lesser-known chapter entitled “Industrial Exemption” that perfectly describes the environmental zeitgeist. Veblen posed the question, why is it that people who are the greatest beneficiaries of industrial society are often the most passionate in condemning it? He provided a simple answer. People in the leisure class have become so accustomed affluence as the natural state of things that they no longer feel compelled to embrace any further industrial progress

But that was not the point. It is not that the average person is not concerned about the environment. Everyone weighs the balance of economic gain against a respect for nature. It is only the truly affluent, however, who can be concerned about the environment to the exclusion of everything else. Most people see the benefits of pipelines and power plants and admit they have to be built somewhere. Only in the highest echelons do we hear people say, “We don’t need to build any pipelines. We’ve already got enough energy. We can all sit around awaiting the day we live off wind and sunshine.”

Environmentalists have spent decades trying to disguise these aristocratic roots, even from themselves. They work desperately to form alliances with labor unions and cast themselves as purveyors of “green jobs.” But the Keystone Pipeline has brought all this into focus. As Joel Kotkin writes in Forbes, Keystone is the dividing line of the “two Americas,” the knowledge-based elites of the East and West Coasts in their media, non-profit and academic homelands (where Obama learned his environmentalism) and the blue-collar workers of the Great In- Between laboring in agriculture, mining, manufacturing, power production and the exigencies of material life.

So the argument here is the wealthy of all political stripes are generally opposed to industrial progress, not just liberals or conservatives?

I wonder how much this explanation differs from explaining resistance to certain projects in terms of NIMBYism. When NIMBY is invoked in response to unwanted projects, existing residents can throw out a lot of reasons to oppose the project. Two reasons are commonly thrown out: safety and environmentalism. In a typical suburban situation, a new subdivision is going to be built on open land adjacent to another recently built subdivision. The current residents then complain about the open space that they is going to disappear, losing sight of the fact that their own neighborhood was just recently built on open land as well. If the above argument is completely true, then those existing residents would say, “we don’t need any more new houses. There are plenty of older homes for people to live in.” Is this exactly what happens or are they willing to let houses be built somewhere but just nowhere near them?

Also, if this argument is correct, then those who aren’t as wealthy will end up throwing environmental concerns under the bus when push comes to shove?

h/t Instapundit

McMansions and the “inconspicuous consumption” of the 1990s

One aspect of McMansions that is frequently discussed is the tie between such houses and larger patterns of excessive consumption. Here is a quote from a CEO of a Pennsylvania construction company that does just this:

“The new-home industry will have to respond to the market for smaller lot size and efficient home construction,” Wagman said. “We’re past the building of McMansions. That type of inconspicuous consumption is so ’90s.”

To be honest, I didn’t quite know what this term “inconspicuous term” meant. I know what conspicuous consumption as it is a common sociological term first introduced by Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 work The Theory of the Leisure Class. So I went digging around Google for the meaning of this term and how it relates to Veblen’s term. This piece from The Economist in 2005 argues that conspicuous consumption is now much more complex in wealthy, Western societies and so inconspicuous consumption still shows off wealth but in more subtle ways:

As well as traditional conspicuous consumption and “self-treating”, Ledbury Research identifies two other motives that are driving buying by the rich: connoisseurship and being an “early adopter”. Both are arguably consumption that is conspicuous only to those you really want to impress. Connoisseurs are people whom their friends respect for their deep knowledge of, say, fine wine or handmade Swiss watches. Early adopters are those who are first with a new technology. Silicon Valley millionaires currently impress their friends by buying an amphibian vehicle to avoid the commuter traffic on the Bay Bridge. Several millionaires have already paid $50,000 a go to clone their pet cat.

Who knew that spending lavishing to show off one’s wealth and status had become so difficult? In 2008, Virginia Postrel says something similar:

The shift away from conspicuous consumption—from goods to services and experiences—can also make luxury more exclusive. Anyone with $6,000 can buy a limited-edition Bottega Veneta bag, an elaborately beaded Roberto Cavalli minidress, or a Cartier watch. Or, for the same sum, you can register for the TED conference. That $6,000 ticket entitles you to spend four days in California hearing short talks by brainy innovators, famous (Frank Gehry, Amy Tan, Brian Greene) and not-so-known. You get to mingle with smart, curious people, all of whom have $6,000 to spare. But to go to TED, you need more than cash. The conference directors have to deem you interesting enough to merit one of the 1,450 spots. It’s the intellectual equivalent of a velvet rope.

As for goods, forget showing off. “If you want to live like a billionaire, buy a $12,000 bed,” says a financial-planner friend of mine. You can’t park a mattress in your driveway, but it will last for decades and you can enjoy it every night.

So we’ve moved away from garish displays of spending to more exclusive but somewhat more hidden ways to display wealth.

If we return then to the quote from the construction CEO, what exactly was he getting at? A few thoughts:

1. If he is adhering to a similar definition as The Economist piece or Virginia Postrel, then he is suggesting that McMansions were a more subtle display of wealth. But it seems that a lot of the criticism of McMansions comes from the idea that the owners are trying (desperately) to flaunt their wealth in the form of their large, garish house. So is McMansion buying a conspicuous or inconspicuous act? Might there be different opinions if we talk to the buyers/owners of such homes (after all, people need to live somewhere) versus McMansion critics (but people don’t have to live in mass-produced, poorly designed homes)?

2. He suggests that the inconspicuous consumption of McMansions took place during the 1990s. The late 1990s is where the term McMansion started to take off but the houses themselves seemed to receive the most attention from roughly 2000 to the start of the current economic/housing crisis. Perhaps the 1990s get singled out here because of a good economy in the latter half of the decade but much McMansion building and purchasing was still taking place until recent years.

(3. I wonder if he simply didn’t mean to say “conspicuous consumption” and said “inconspicuous consumption” instead.)

(Amazon also has a 1997 book that uses this term as a title: Inconspicuous Consumption: An Obsessive Look at the Stuff We Take for Granted, from the Everyday to the Obscure. Interestingly, it is written by Paul Lukas, the mind also behind Uni Watch, a blog with the tagline of “The Obsessive Study of Athletics Aesthetics.” It appears Lukas is still writing about the same topics for but I haven’t seen his material featured in years. When it was more prominently featured, I would read his thoughts quite often.)

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.