Wednesday, July 8, 2009

The Theory of the Blackberry Class

In the Times last week, Daniel Gross revisited The Theory of the Leisure Class, the most famous work of Carleton College's most famous alumnus, Thorstein Veblen. Though much of what Veblen wrote continues to be relevant today, Gross notes that conspicuous leisure no longer seems to be a preferred way for people to display their wealth. Indeed, quite the opposite:
In the contemporary money culture, to be at leisure, to be idle, is to be irrelevant. After Bank of America acquired Merrill Lynch, John Thain, the former chief executive of Merrill, was pushed out, in part because he insisted on going skiing at Vail over Christmas and wanted to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos amid the company’s continuing crisis. A great many people can afford not to work and could spend their time shuttling between multiple homes, eating fabulous meals and playing golf. Yet they continue to work around the clock. Of course, the private jet, the BlackBerry and the Internet allow people to do all of the above. But among Type-A, self-made members of the leisure class, there’s a sort of reverse prestige associated with leisure. At Davos, which is filled with conspicuous consumers, the only people who ski are the journalists.
Ezra Klein has an explanation: unlike in Veblen's era, when tycoons derived their income from capital, their contemporary equivalents - investment bankers, CEOs, professional athletes etc. - are the beneficiaries of increasing disparities in labor income. Klein writes:
Veblen, who died in 1929, saw a large overclass that earned most of its wealth through returns on capital. Essentially, their money made money for them. Which gave them time to hang about and conspicuously consume. In the period after his death, that overclass shrank substantially, first because the Great Depression battered them and then because the New Deal disadvantaged them. But by the start of the 21st century, they were back. At least in terms of wealth concentration. Their money, however, wasn't coming from capital returns. It was coming from wages and salaries. They were -- gasp! -- working.

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