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Time was when rich folks were fat and rural

December 18, 2005

Listening to Verdi's La Traviata for Sunday night entertainment, I'm charmed yet again by the scene when the lovers Alfredo and Violetta decide to move to the country and out of the city, no matter what the cost. Everyone is scandalized by this decision to live so luxuriously instead of choosing the cheaper route of city living. Then it turns out that the the maid, Annina, reveals that Violetta has pawned her jewels to keep the house. Alfredo leaves for the city to try to raise money to pay her back, and one disaster after another occurs.

This is essentially the reverse of today, when the family is scandalized by a decision by a young couple to move to the expensive city, and when they get into financial trouble, one or both return to the country to raise the money to pay the debts.

The opera is set in France in the 18th century, about the same time that you see all those portraits of distinguished gentlemen who look rather, well, large and proud of it. This is not hard to understand in times when access to vast amounts of food was the luxury of the rich and the non-necessity of the exercise to work it off was also a luxury. But today when everyone eats like a king and ever more people have desk jobs, the tables have turned.

So here we have two passing cases when what appears to be a pure fashion decision turns on economic considerations that have, in turn, influenced our sense of class and social standing. After all, there is nothing inherent in the nature of things that would suggest that is is always better to be a thin city person rather than a fat rural person. Given the right circumstances, and the reverse would be true.

Mises was right that economics is the very pith of life!

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