I could tell you how many steps make up the streets rising like stairways, and of the degree of the arcades' curves, and what kind of zinc scales cover the roofs; but I already know this would be the same as telling you nothing. The city does not consist of this, but of relationships between the measurements of its space and the events of its past...A description of Zaira as it is today should contain all Zaira's past. -Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

Monday, May 30, 2005

Class and Consumerism

The New York Times has been running a very interesting series on class in America. Yesterday's installment, When the Jones Wear Jeans, talked about the fact that it is no longer easy to tell who is wealthy and who is poor by the things people buy. Credit has made expensive goods accessible to those who cannot afford them, and global advertising has made those items desieable. In the past, people competed with "Jones" in their own neighborhood...in other words, their own social and economic class. Now "luxury" is within sight of all (if not within budget). Likewise the rich may dress down, but distinguish themselves in the services they can afford and buy...frequent manicures, facelifts, nannies, exclusive vacations.

Interestingly, yesterday's Times also had an article (in a completely different section) about how American teenagers want (or need, to the teens) more and more expensive techie gear--iPods, DVD players, fancy cell phones. Since the teens themselves do not work, they pester their parent for the stuff, and often get it. So we are apparently breeding this level of consumerism in people with no incomes whatsoever...some parents did say no, or made the kids choose between items. But the overall picture makes it look gloomy on kids learning value and tradeoffs and affordability. Sometimes Kurt and I feel like we have less stuff (not that we are lacking) than some of our peers...but at the same time we pay off our credit cards every month.

With my interest in developing emerging markets, I do occassionally worry that we are working on breeding the same type of consumerism in other countries, where it isn't affordable. (I can take a bit of a moral high ground since my company is primarily B2B, not B2C, but still...). I'd like to think we are creating and marketing things people really do need, which will eventually help them economically. Hopefully we won't create a world full of people running on overextended credit just so they can buy fancy American goods.

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