14 August 2013

Missing the Point; Oprah and the Handbag

This week, Oprah Winfrey recounted an experience on a shopping trip in Switzerland. She asked a clerk in some ritzy boutique to show her an ultra-designer handbag with a $38,000 price tag. The clerk suggested that she might want to look instead at something less pricey. The moral of the story, I believe, was that the store clerk automatically thought that a “woman of color” could not afford the $38,000 purse.

Wrong assumption, of course – needless to say, Oprah is ├╝ber wealthy.

There has been a lot of “Isn’t this awful?” reaction. Oprah herself has downplayed it, saying that she was making the point, not portraying herself as some sort of victim.

By the way, I don’t think anybody can legitimately pick on Oprah. She started out with intelligence and talent, added hard work, got a couple of breaks, and has ascended on her merit.

And I suppose the racial assumption is a legitimate point and one that we need to recognize.

There’s another point, however.  It seems rather more basic and itself considerably important: A $38,000 handbag? And we’re taking that seriously?

People with the means to do so can buy whatever they want, whenever they can afford. That doesn’t mean that these purchases are rational nor that they add favorably to an economy. 

Thorstein Veblen coined the term “conspicuous consumption” for the process of spending money to impress. I think he meant “to embarrass favorably,” although for my part I am really impressed all to hell about a $38,000 handbag. I’m impressed that it is a belly laugh absurdity and I am impressed that anybody would look at such a thing with $38,000 worth of admiration. Mind you, I bet the leather and other materials are absolutely top-notch and that the craftsmanship and stitching are things of beauty.  But $38 grand?

Rolex and Philippe Patek watches and such like also are things of beauty and marvelous miniature machinery, as well as being useless and rather ridiculous given what is available with timepieces these days.  Quartz crystals made mainsprings a touch passe.  You really want to impress somebody that you had $50,000 for a watch? Why not impress somebody that you bought a really good watch accurate to a second per century for 500 bucks and then funded some charitable organization with the other $49,500.

Or buy 1000 watches at $50 each and give them to a high school.  Teaching youth the value of punctuality locally sounds to me like a better investment than funding European watchmakers.

This is not to denigrate quality goods. It is indeed a better idea to buy something well-made than something shoddy. But if a $38 handbag it’s okay and a $380 handbag is outstanding, that doesn’t make $38,000 handbag magnificent.
Somewhere around 500 bucks, the logic goes on a lunch break.

Who knows, maybe this whole polemic is because I’m not rolling in riches.   Maybe if I gather together $100 million in my pocket, I would start buying ridiculous stuff, too.

I just hope not.

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