Luxury Fever Cools Off

An article in today’s Wall Street Journal about the collapsing market for expensive wine provokes an essay on luxury goods. (Click here to read previous posts on wine and the economic crisis.)

Conspicuous Consumption

In his 1999 book Luxury Fever: Money and Happiness in an Era of Excess, Cornell economist Robert H. Frank analyzed the economic consequences of  the status-driven arms race that has raged for some years among the group that I call the affluenza. I guess affluenza is both the social class and the disease that afflicts them rolled into one.

The affluenza don’t simply consume goods and services, they use them to construct identities much as the singer in the video above (see note). Identity building is a complex process (ask the parent of a teenager) and sometimes an expensive one, too. You need to send status signals to others, of course, and you’ve also got to convince yourself. The acquisition and display of consumer goods (including but not limited to luxury products) is one aspect of identity building. Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” to describe it.

Private Choice, Social Consequence

Affluent consumers purchase increasingly expensive and scarce commodities as a way of telling others (and convincing themselves) of their status and taste. Robert Frank was concerned about the rise of luxury fever because of its boundless ability to soak up resources that might be better used somewhere else.

If you are just buying a car for transportation, for example, you can get pretty much what you might need for less than $30,000 (much less, in fact). But if you are building a self-image or staking out a place in the social pecking order, then the sky is the limit, both in terms of the car itself and the gadgets, accessories and so forth. Pretty soon you’ve got enough automotive wealth parked in your garage to feed and clothe a small Africa village for several years.

Luxury fever isn’t a new phenomenon. Affluent citizens of renaissance Venice engaged in competitive conspicuous consumption that threatened to bankrupt the city and its great families. In desperation, sumptuary laws were enacted to protect the citizens from their own excessive zeal. Such conspicuous displays as the number of rings that women could wear in public were strictly regulated.

To this day the gondolas that ply the waters of Venetian canals must by law be painted plain black — a regulation that dates back to the era when elaborate and expensive decorations threatened to sink both the boats and their owners “under water.” I think about sumptuary laws whenever a Hummer fills my rearview mirror.

Positional Goods

Robert Frank isn’t the first economist to express concern about luxury fever. John Maynard Keynes wrote his famous essay “The Economic Possibilities of our Grandchildren” in 1930, in the depths of the Great Depression. Keynes’s main point in the essay was that the temporary problem of the Depression would eventually disappear leaving a bigger problem, which Keynes called the Permanent Problem: how to live a rewarding, fulfilling life.

Keynes meant the essay to both calm panicked citizens and to inspire them to think beyond their wallets and purses to bigger issues that matter more in the long run. I have been thinking a lot about this essay recently, since 2009 bears a family resemblance to 1930.

Keynes thought that we would be getting to that point where the economic problem was fading and the permanent problem being solved right about now. He thought we would be rich enough, most of us in the developed world, to have enough stuff to satisfy our needs and be ready to think about more important matters than material goods. He put a number of conditions on this forecast, however, and one of them was that we would get over our interest in positional or status goods — that we would get over luxury fever. But I guess he was wrong.

Luxury Fever Cools

Or maybe I am being too hasty. “Luxury Wine Market Reels from Downturn” is the story in today’s Wall Street Journal. It reports a collapsing market for high end wines in the United States with lower sales, discounted prices and the prospect of industry consolidation as the wine market shakes out. Some of these wines are the sort of rare, expensive luxury products that have an irresistible appeal to the affluenza. Their value goes beyond what’s in the bottle to the people who long to own them.

The collapsing luxury wine market is bad news for the wineries, distributors, retailers and restaurants that earn a living on luxury wines. Good news for bargain hunters and collectors, I guess.

And possibly good news for our grandchildren. The decline in luxury wine sales is probably simply an exaggerated reaction to the economic crisis and this market will likely bounce right back when the economy starts looking up. But maybe, just maybe what we are seeing here is a reassessment of the economic and social role of fine wines, designer clothes, and other luxury goods.

I’m not saying that luxury goods will disappear, but if they become a mere end in themselves, not a means to a more complicated  psychological goal, then they will lose a little of their toxic social effect. Perhaps the economic crisis will change public perception of conspicuous consumption and encourage individuals to define identities in the ways that Keynes imagined. It’s a long shot, I know. Or maybe it is just a beginning.

Video note: Elton John and Tim Rice wrote this song for their Disney musical Aida. The cartoon characters are from the Disney series Kim Possible. Enjoy!

7 responses

  1. You are right we consumers are facing a crossroads in the choices we make for everything.

    It will be interesting watch the decision making for food and wine. We have two extreme positions available for both categories.

    One is the turf dominated by large global manufacturers of food and wine products. These are price and distribution driven. Rarely, touched by the human hand, except the whiteboard in the confernce room where they begin their journey.

    The other is large as well, but more in numbers than scale. Throughout the world there is a very large community of true hands on, artisan or small producers of foods and wines. They are exactly the opposite.

    For consumers, crafting identies, in this new economy their question is, who do I support with my dollars?

    Those buying on price will often default to the global conglomerates. For those willing to know the origins of what they consume, will be willing to pay a little more and choose foods and wines from real people in real places.

  2. Friday’s Financial Times reports that Champagne sales have taken a nose-dive.

    “Consumers are bypassing champagne in favour of cheaper sparkling wine, as Rémy Cointreau yesterday reported a 40 per cent fall in sales of its bubbly brands due to “difficult worldwide trading conditions.”

    “France’s second-largest spirits group attributed the fall, which mainly affected its Piper-Heidsieck and Charles Heidsieck champagne brands, to a drop in demand within France and also a drop at airports worldwide.”

    Read the full story here

  3. In my opinion, smaller quantities of higher quality products is certainly the key to self improvement. For too long now markets have been driven by price and the time has come for a quality revolution.


    Spencer 🙂

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