67 Comments
Comment deleted
Expand full comment

Veblen's theory is dead, or perhaps we're living in a postveblen world, a Veblen 2.0, where we've conflated the rich and the ruling and no longer know the difference. And perhaps the guise of the American dream forces society to hustle to get rich, and once they are rich, they can't shirk off the hustle mentality because it is so ingrained in their bones. It's almost as if the original intent of the leisure class is out of style, and that's why Veblen 1.0 is dead. (Don't come at me, David! These are my stream-of-consciousness thoughts! Lol, jk).

Fantastic piece, David, making me rethink and expand on my views/essays on Substack on the theme of class.

Expand full comment

This was an interesting read. Thanks David.

I’m in the UK so can’t comment on how things are in the US but you’ve got me thinking a lot about how I feel about the rich here. My feelings are very nuanced because being ‘rich’ means so many things but I find the elitist arrogance with which some of our most senior politicians conduct themselves to be highly infuriating. And it shocks me that some people can’t see this and still want to emulate.

Expand full comment

First, I already liked you and your writing, but now that I know you are a fan of Carson and Bates, I like you more. Mrs Patmore, Mrs Hughes, and Anna, maybe even Lady Edith, are my heroes.

Second, love all the insights and history you've packed into this. In 5 minutes I've learned a wealth of knowledge. 😉

Third, since watching DA, I want a valet for practical purposes. The older I get the harder it is to situate one shirt inside another.

Finally, wealth is relative? Yes there are hard numbers. Just like "hardships", how you feel your wealth is relative to you. It's a mushy argument, bur another way perhaps the class conformity has evolved.

Expand full comment

Important discussion to keep having..Americans tend to perceive their choices and social world through the filter of individualism and downplay the role of group-behavior outside of narrow recreational worlds. Income is dead as a clear predictor of behavior in social science. But, combinations of education and income can predict things like zip code, etc. Autonomy to break class rules has made all of this much messier...except at the extremes of poverty and wealth. I think a lot of journalists confuse the 1% with the upper middle class again and again. Again, Americans are just bad at social analysis, since we prefer to see individuals and personalities sloshing about in a cultural mosh pit of opportunity. Note: almost no one in the mosh pit ever winds up on stage, they just go home sweaty and groped.

Expand full comment

I like this, David, and it’s an interesting question - I casually talk about the “rich,” but that’s always relative. I think we can and should talk about economic class in the U.S., but in terms of power, I’d say that really comes down to privilege and control of key resources - such as the media and tech platforms. That’s where the real power lies, and while it’s tied to wealth, it keeps claiming to be be just like the rest of us.

Egregious consumption among the tech upper crust happens out of sight, so it doesn’t seem conspicuous - but the consuming of too many public resources is happening, especially in places like San Francisco. These are the people who talk in very loud voices in fancy restaurants wearing sweatshirts (I’ve seen it happen). They yell at waiters and step over unhoused people lying on the street. They try to control every conversation, and are not leisurely in their approach at all.

I sometimes think that the real problem and challenge of wealth comes in lack of empathy for those who struggle. You either forget your own struggles to make ends meet or you have no idea what it’s like because you grew up with money. When you’re insensitive in this way it has a chilling effect on society and what everyone can aspire to - and that’s the chill I feel now with the rise of the techno- plutocracy.

Expand full comment

Self-awareness of limitations and strengths is what matters, David, and you express that admirably. For me, empathy and compassion are a daily practice, not static qualities - and I fail my own standards all the time. But acknowledging that others come from different backgrounds and have different perspectives is my starting point - yours, too, I bet.

Expand full comment

I think the difference between the wealthy and the rest of the population is missing in here and should be noted. What work feels like vs what making money feels like. You glossed over the fact that the wealthy are free. They dabble in their interests, grow their curiosity and invest in their intuition and consciousness.

I am busy all the time and I love it. But it is at my direction. I don't have people dressing me or cleaning my house. But I do have several roombas and kids who homeschool. We all pitch in and there is very little "work" because we share it.

My life is mine to determine what I want to do with it. I have an immense freedom and people literally can't fathom what this is. I grew up in poverty and for awhile was a single parent. I worked for others and that is very different. The stress of being on others schedules is captivity. It is slavery. We still have slavery for everyone but the wealthy. Someone else owns your time. Someone else dictates what your outputs are and focus is.Your life is focused on serving up.

Our education system sets this mindset and women have the easiest time breaking free thanks to children. I had high needs children and I had to look at the future for them and realize the cost of we did not figure out how to teach them to make their own way. The deprogramming that must be done to learn to make your own path and life takes average people a decade to undo. This is why schooling is required at 5. They start you in others schedules that young. It is not to educate. We all learn naturally. Especially today with the abundance of information.

I work with profoundly gifted creatives. I help them deprogram from the system so they can find their creative genius. The most intelligent die under the schedule of others. They turn on themselves like a wild animal does when brought into captivity. We pathologize this as autism or ADHD. Really it is the schedules we maintain which are simply to much for someone whose IQ is above 150. Their higher taking in of inputs makes them crazy if they can't process them all and understand. This is why we cap the testing of IQ at 145.

This is the difference between being wealthy and not. It is owning your own thoughts. It is creating your work on what interests you. It is living at the pace you want or can live.

We exault the wealthy. We think they are super human. They are not. They destroy the people with extreme talent and make us put them in there. Steve Jobs was profoundly gifted with autism and it killed him working so much. His anger outbursts are all normal for ASD people with too much on their plate. You will find the most amazing people die young from their schedule being too much. They die of cancer, ALS, in my case epilepsy almost did me in. Anything neurological can be added here as well as all the chronic illnesses. This is why the PG creatives die young. This is why you have to go outside the system to find out if you are one.

The wealthy may "work" a lot but they live lives without the toxic stress of being under the thumb of others or the system. They take many vacations, they sleep enough. They decide what they will do each day.

They enslave rest of the population and destroy the sustainable model we should have moved to or stayed at to main healthy ecology just to maintain their wealth.

Expand full comment

I think that every group, however it's members are selected, will have a number of good and evil souls, stingy and generous, kind and cruel and so on. All these characteristics are matters of character and heart, having nothing to do with wealth, nature of one's employment, geographic location, etc. I have met lawyers whom I trust and do not. I have met carpenters I'd welcome in my home and not. In every group, this mix will exist because the grouping does not determine or result from such traits. Even among the clergy, some are of better heart and intent than others.

Expand full comment

Another vote for Carson!

Expand full comment

I see the poverty around me, not the wealth. The wealth - luxury class killed the American Dream.

Expand full comment

Really interesting post David. I hadn’t thought to interrogate the “luxury beliefs” argument, but you’re right that it doesn’t stand up. Maybe the way to understand all this is really macro conceptions of identity. Veblen was dealing with a model of wealth that was primarily aristocratic, about handed-down wealth - so work would be viewed as a sign of not being truly wealthy. Our “meritocratic” system means treating work as a necessary gateway to wealth, so much of our conspicuous consumption is actually about showing how hard you work.

Expand full comment

Important to keep in mind that Veblen was writing in a period of enormous income inequality in which the general population had no recourse. In the Panic of 1907, Pierpont Morgan bailed out the United States as an individual. Income tax was still six years away. Hereditary aristocracies still ruled in virtually every country in Europe and the financial aristocracy ruled in the US. In other words, the wealthy had little or nothing to fear from ordinary people. That was soon to change. We underestimate the impact of World War I on the ruling class, as well as art and culture, but when it was done, previously powerless segments of society had become a force to deal with. (Russia scared the willies out of everyone else, but Italy, Germany, Austria, etc.--even the UK--had upheavals of their own.) These new power groups have grown in size and sophistication. As such, the willingness of the super rich to flaunt their wealth and thereby become targets has diminished. Some still do, but most, if their names get in the news at all--Harlan Crow, Richard Uihlein, for example--evoke a "Who's that?" I would postulate that within their circle, their consumption is every bit as conspicuous, but they make a much more concerted effort to keep a low profile with the general public.

Expand full comment

I honestly don’t know where I land on this yet...I’m going to have to keep thinking. But you’re doing a good job of convincing me to give downton a try!!

Expand full comment

Great essay as usual David! - I also agree that Veblen is dead, and Rob Henderson's argument is flawed. The trouble with all these types of "poll-based" and "index" or "coefficient" based arguments in economics and politics is that the flaws in the data are so glaring that it's hard to make a conclusion from any of them. Working more from first principles (as you have done) is sometimes a better strategy.

Expand full comment