02 June 2011


Via Rick “Nixonland” Perlstein, I learn of a disconcerting article about the demographics of affluence in Ad Age, seen through the creepy lens of appetite for luxury goods.

Before the downturn, luxury marketers embraced the concept of “mass affluence.” Buoyed by fatter stock portfolios and exploding equity in real estate — and encouraged by easy credit — a larger portion of the population, mainly in the Aspiring tier, considered itself wealthy enough to buy luxury goods. But in 2011, these consumers no longer “feel rich,” and they are not particularly likely to graduate into affluence later on (and thus are not a particularly promising future market for luxury brands to seed). In 2011, those in the Aspiring tier firmly self-identify as middle class.

This article points to something that I suspect is going on in our current process of increasing income inequality. Lefties like me talk a lot about the stagnant wages and weakening security of the lower 80% or so, and the stratospheric wealth of the upper 1%, but I see a great deal of weirdness in the in-between of technocratic professionals where I live.

I'm sure that this is partly a symptom of living in left-ish San Francisco, but among folks like me I'm seeing an awareness that the unforgiving American economy is treating us relatively well combined with several kinds of anxiety. First, there's class anxiety that we directly experience in our working lives how we are the courtiers hard at work running the country for the benefit of wealthy oligarchs. Second, there's political anxiety that the majority of the American people rightly should see us as complicit in running the system that screws them. Third, there's the economic anxiety that our economic class lives on a slippery and shrinking ice floe, and it's easy to fall off of it; you see this particularly in the sense of barely contained panic parents have about their children's education.

There's also a weird frustration with what my relatively good income will and won't buy. I think I'm not alone in this. I'm conscious that not worrying about money day-to-day is a profound luxury, and I enjoy a number of small luxuries as well — more restaurant meals than are really responsible, a few nice pairs of shoes, some spiffy consumer electronics. But I cannot afford a fancy car or take elaborate vacations or enjoy many of the other trappings of “wealth.” I don't have as much money saved as I'd like. And I don't feel confident that my economic fortunes are secure in the long run.

I do indulge in one very big luxury, which is not living in the great American suburban wasteland. This not only makes my housing breathtakingly expensive, it also nickels-and-dimes me with every carrot and bar of soap. Suburban living is actually more resource-intensive than urban living, but we've made it cheaper through a whole range of public policies. It is decidedly weird that a smaller living space, relying on public transit, and encountering hungry, miserable people asking for spare change every day is an expensive luxury.

That last point is exceptionally frustrating. Being acutely aware of the systems of social injustice that I participate in, even benefit from, I make an effort to contribute to charities and such. But another one of the things which I want but just cannot buy with my relative wealth is social justice.


Rick Perlstein said...

Actually my middle name is "Samuel."

Jonathan Korman said...

A comment from Rick Perlstien!

I am totally an A-List blogger now.

Anonymous said...

WIll you please write about social justice in your next post? Danke

Alexis said...

I enjoyed your blog post. I thought you captured our (Lefties) class, political, and economic anxieties well. I would have loved for you to expand more on those ideas, and perhaps talk about whether you see a way out--and if so, how to get there or if you see the country/world devolving to a dystopian society.

Glen said...

I hadn't quite thought of it that way, but you succinctly capture some of the anxieties that I share. Because of the choices I have made in life, I have achieved a relatively luxurious lifestyle compared to the people I grew up with (i.e., my peers), but my choices are never confirmed or acknowledged when I am judged by them. Of course, I also had the fortune of starting from a culturally useful point (i.e., white male) than some of those same peers.

Cobb said...

'Social Justice' too is a luxury item. It is that thing desired altruistically by the affluent society that never faces actual injustice. This is all tangential to being 'mugged by reality' in one's age.

Justice is what one requires when one is oppressed. Social justice is what one desires, in the passive voice, when one perceives that others are suppressed.

OK, there I said it.

What remains interesting is the way in which people in society see themselves out of synch with what society is actually structured to deliver. It seems to me that the upwardly mobile and nouveau riche see this quite quickly.

Charles Frith said...

I live in the Hoxton/Camden/Brixton of Bangkok. Poor people surrounded by condominiums. They are the best neighbours I ever had. I've lived in amazing parts of the world. Bloomsbury London, Gehry Dusseldorf, Forbidden City Beijing (inside the ancient walls) etc.
These are the grooviest people.

We don't talk about intellectual stuff though. It's a worthwhile trade.

J'Carlin said...

I fear for my grandchildren who may choose chancy careers in the arts to wasting their time and money in college preparing for a worthless job supporting the rich. Those chancy arts careers should be a real choice, not a necessity.