No Rest for the Wealthy

Daniel Gross in The New York Times:

Gross-500 The financial meltdown has sent the literary-minded scurrying back to the classics for insight and succor. The dastardly exploits of the Ponzi artist Bernie Madoff call to mind “The Great Gatsby” or “The Way We Live Now.” At a time when hard-core free-marketeers like Richard Posner are questioning the efficacy of capitalism, the works of Karl Marx are being fished out of the dustbin of history. Most classic critiques of capitalism are much-mentioned but little-read, the sort of books people routinely cite without really knowing what’s in them. In the interest of understanding our suddenly imperiled passion for private jets and $5,000 handbags, I recently dusted off — literally — one of those classics, Thorstein Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class,” published in 1899.

In the book, Veblen — whom C. Wright Mills called “the best critic of America that America has ever produced” — dissected the habits and mores of a privileged group that was exempt from industrial toil and distinguished by lavish expenditures. His famous phrase “conspicuous consumption” referred to spending that satisfies no need other than to build prestige, a cultural signifier intended to intimidate and impress. In this age of repossessed yachts, half-finished McMansions and broken-down leveraged buyouts, Veblen proves that a 110-year-old sociological vivisection of the financial overclass can still be au courant. Yet while Veblen frequently reads as still 100 percent right on the foibles of the rich, when it comes to an actual theory of the contemporary leisure class, he now comes off as about 90 percent wrong.

More here.