I like the phrase “conspicuous consumption.” It sounds neat. It has the gritty feel of reality. The words snarl and spit at you with the hard Cs and the popping Ps sliding along the icy Ss.
It feels like a skater slipping into a wall. The words cannot be good. They bear some malevolent message. They are loud. They are proud. They are noticed.
No one really wants to admit that they participate in conspicuous consumption. It just sounds like something a good person would not do. It has the same feel as tax evasion. Who, me? I would never do such a thing.
And yet there is a subtle appeal to the practice, a point of personal privilege about it. Who, me? I would never, but…
Conspicuous consumption is a phrase coined by the economist Thorstein Veblen in 1899.
He was describing the behavior of the nouveau riche of the 19th century who had gained wealth from the Industrial Revolution. They used their wealth to buy things that showed their power and status in society.
Later, the phrase came to describe the emerging middle class in the 20th century, who often bought things to show their status.
They bought to impress or to outdo their neighbors. They bought bigger homes, bigger cars, more things, especially unnecessary things, to show the world that the consumer was someone with clout and money.
Soon a whole economy was based on attracting consumers to purchase things that they really did not need but gave the impression of status and wealth. The consumer society was born. Conspicuous consumption was the norm. Who, me?
I remember my first big indulgence in conspicuous consumption. I had a 1973 RX3 Mazda that was paid off. Karen and I went to Charlotte, N.C., for a night on the town.
We stopped by a car dealer on the way back. There was a baby blue 1976 Dodge Charger SE with a white interior and bucket seats on the lot. We test drove that car and began to bargain with the dealer.
We debated and discussed and pondered if we should buy it. We decided not to purchase the vehicle and headed toward our little economy car.
Then the salesman said, “Yeah, you are probably right. You can’t buy steak on a hamburger income.”
I was sliding on ice about ready to crash into the wall of conspicuous consumption. Who, me?
Hamburger income? Who does he think he is? So we got out of our paid-off car and marched right back into the dealership and purchased that four-barrel Charger at the height of the gas crisis in America.
I still don’t know if I felt shame or fame as I drove off that lot, but conspicuous consumption had another victim.
I did not participate in Black Friday. I hear it was hectic and purchases were up this year.
One lady pepper-sprayed others in line so she could get ahead. Fist fights broke out in other stores. Those are dramatic reports but maybe they express the intensity of conspicuous consumption.
My daughter-in-law observed one family leaving the store with four big screen TVs. Really? What will you do with four?
And now the early sales are creeping into Thanksgiving Day. Sales start at midnight in some stores. It won’t be long before stores will be open on Thanksgiving Day all day.
Will that really be a big deal? It will if you value rest and family. It will if you value holidays that celebrate gratitude and the birth of Christ.
Conspicuous consumption consumes like a ravenous beast. It devours everything that enhances life. It takes family members away from each other when they need time together.
My son had to go in to work at 8 p.m. this year on Thanksgiving Day. He really could not relax all day because he had to prepare his day around work.
The beast devours family traditions and the comfort of rest. Even consumers need time to rest.
We are built for Sabbath and when Sabbath does not come, we collapse or crash or burn. We need to pause from the consumption and the labor and spend time recharging our spiritual batteries and family relationships.
We can make radical choices this Christmas season. We can decide to fight conspicuous consumption.
Maybe we can buy only what we need and give the rest we would have spent on our wants to charity. We can spend less and give more. We can participate in Sabbath and attend church this Advent season.
We can decide to book fewer engagements and block out time for our family to play games together. We can engage in family devotions. We can use the Advent wreath to light the Advent candles. We can sing carols together and visit those who are homebound.
Let’s start a new tradition: a tradition that ignores the pressure of conspicuous consumption.