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Consumerism? Why People Spend on "Useless" Status Symbols

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At the height of her scam, con-woman Anna Sorokin, alias Delvey, filled her hotel room with shopping bags from various clothing boutiques in New York City. According to the hotel receptionist whom Sorokin targeted first as a confidante, and later as a mark, some of the staff, including the receptionist, saw this behavior as proof of the former’s monied status. However, the two brands which the receptionist remembered and cited in her media account are not indicative of wealth, and therein lies the reality of consumerism.

Most memorably, the receptionist mentioned the Supreme brand, which she had personally interpreted as particular proof of Sorokin’s money. The brand is an off-shoot of skateboarder urban culture and possesses a following sufficiently fanatical to cause consumers to camp outside store doors for 24 hours, at the cost of sleep and work, before a new release. The price of their products is greatly in excess of their quality and clothing type since the brand specializes in hoodies, t-shirts, caps, etc.

The cost ranges from approximately $42 to several hundred dollars for a single item. For example, Business Insider found that an ordinary faux-fur coat made by a single manufacturer cost $300 in a conventional clothing store, but $1,000 when marked with Supreme branding and sold at outlet. To explain the brand’s outrageous popularity, the parent company manages the market by keeping a very short supply and, through a series of well-constructed advertising campaigns, has succeeded in associating the brand with street culture, i.e., with youth, hipness, and “cool,” but also with general sloppiness.

Among the aware, Sorokin’s affinity for the Supreme brand would have been proof that she was not what she pretended to be. The brand is high fashion for a certain subset of the common masses, the very group from which Sorokin sought to disassociate herself. The group to which the brand appeals is also one of those least able to afford its prices in a practical sense.

In turn, this dichotomy between consumer base and price has caused Supreme to become the poster-child of “consumerism” for the social justice, anti-capitalist warriors. In their narrative, the brand is a perfect example of how some vague, sinister force compels young teenagers through early 30s males (Supreme’s primary support demographic) to stand in line all night for a chance to spend beyond their means.

The spending difference, with those least able to afford high prices spending the most, is not new. In his The Road to Wigan Pier, George Orwell wrote about how the 1930s English working-class unnecessarily raised their cost of living through buying canned meats and powdered milk, even when fresh dairy and meat were available in abundance and were much cheaper. He even went so far as to speculate that the working-class actually believed, from conflating price with quality, that they were emulating the upper-classes, which ironically preferred fresh food and therefore had a lower cost of living. In Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance had many anecdotes illustrating this dichotomy. There are two particularly informative ones: 1) his family had a $300 minimum spend on toys and other unnecessary sundries per child each Christmas, but in his Yale-educated wife’s family each child received two or three books and maybe a practical clothing item; 2) his parents had insisted, before he was born, on buying a seven-bedroom McMansion [this is a derogatory term in American parlance which indicates a pre-fabricated house that is poorly made], which came with a massive mortgage and therefore restricted socio-economic opportunity, but his wife’s parents raised their five children in a practical three-bedroom house and later had the funds to send all five to top universities.

There are valid sociological questions here: why would a working-class family with only two children insist on buying a seven-bedroom house when an upwardly mobile middle-class family with five children makes do with three bedrooms? Economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo researched the question for their book Poor Economics and came to the politically incorrect conclusion that such decisions stem from misplaced material and psychological value systems, rather than from actual ignorance. Citing an example of the fight for water sanitation in India — where despite knowing the necessity of clean water, villages won’t install water mains because the castes don’t wish to share. Hence effectively condemning residents to poor health and related economic irrelevance — the academics argued that only an internal decision to change can provide escape from “poverty traps.”

It is also possible to extrapolate another explanation, beyond that of misdirected values. In her book The Sociopath Next Door, Dr. Martha Stout, a psychiatrist-psychologist specializing in issues relating to the psychopathic spectrum, identified obsession with status and a willingness to spend to the point of bankruptcy on material status symbols as sociopathic traits, relating to the sociopath’s misplaced assessment of his place in the world. As a result, the sociopath is prone to spending needlessly on goods of low quality or value, in a vain effort to signal status, much the way Anna Sorokin filled her lodgings with Supreme shopping bags. Dr. Stout also argued that it is possible for an entire society, or strata of society, to exhibit sociopathic behaviors if that is what is learned through environmental osmosis.

Considering these factors, the anti-consumerism debate must be reevaluated. The assumptions behind the anti-consumerist attitudes pave the way for normalization of sociopathy at worst, or the condoning of poverty traps at best. This is because the “consumerism” narrative turns buyers into victims. In turn, such a narrative feeds into a sociopathic worldview because, as Dr. Stout explained, it is very important to sociopaths to believe that they are victims. An identity which the people studied by Banerjee and Duflo were also overly eager to embrace. For the anti-consumerism warrior, there is no freedom of individual choice; “People think they have no choice” could be the anti-consumerist’s anthem, ignoring that, of course, people do have a choice. The difference between spending $300 and $1,000 is a choice, a choice which people make freely.

The proportional response, if we are to maintain a free society, is to deny all credence to the consumerist argument. This is not to say that the consequences would be pain free. It is indeed highly painful to watch rural village children die from waterborne disease; it is painful to see an ambitious young American feel thwarted because his parents preferred material possessions and superficial status signaling over saving for his education; it is painful to see sections of the population suffer from poor health due to food purchase choices.

However, it is important to consider that all of these people have chosen, consciously or unconsciously, to embrace the values which have led them to their condition. No external power has forced them to place undue importance on banal, or insipid, purchases, or to have exclusionary priorities. And since free societies also are respectful societies, in that people’s choices are not dictated to them, it is necessary that we allow them to live with the consequences of their value systems, whilst also releasing ourselves from any feelings of guilt or culpability in the matter.

Originally published by the Austrian Economics Center.

Mary Lucia Darst graduated from Columbia University with an MA in History and Literature. In addition to working as a writer and researcher, she is an active classical musician.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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