On Wealth

Sometimes the New York Times gets it wrong, as with Bruce Bawer’s recent ridiculously myopic piece asserting that Norway is not a rich country because Norwegians bring their lunches to work. OK, I’ll go a step further: this isn’t just myopic, it’s stupid. Percentage of the population in Norway living below the poverty line: zero. Yes, that’s right: zero percent poverty. Percentage of the population in the U.S. living below the poverty line: twelve. Yes, that’s right: nearly one out of every eight people in the U.S. lives in poverty. One in eight, Bruce. The Gini index of the distribution of family income as a measure of a nation’s economic inequality goes from 0 to 100: if income in a country is distributed perfectly equally, the Gini index is zero; if income in a country is distributed with complete inequality, the Gini index is 100. For economic inequality, Norway scores a 25. Gini index for the U.S.? 45. Yeah: our national economic inequality is on a par with that of Kenya, Uruguay, and Uzbekistan. Apparently, Bawer is happy to see 2.3 million homeless Americans, as long as he can get himself a lunchtime cheeseburger at Applebee’s.

And sometimes the New York Times gets it right, as with Guy Trebay’s recent Fashion & Style piece, “Who Pays $600 for Jeans?”: the answer apparently being, “Lots of people.” According to Trebay, “blue jeans have suddenly shed their proud proletarian roots and turned into what retailers call a status buy,” and so-called “luxury” denim is now common: “jeans with price tags of $200 are now everywhere.” But what does $200, or $300, or $400 get you in a pair of jeans? In part, it gets you — and this is where things get, economically speaking, kinda freaky — “special treatments that abrade, distress and generally torture a pair of trousers until it has achieved just the right luxuriantly ratty patina of something that has been dragged behind a truck.” OK, let’s think this through: jeans are a classed economic artifact, but their class status is changing. Barry Schwartz is quoted in the article as pointing out that “Every consumer decision now carries with it class and status implications in a way it didn’t used to.” Indeed. But when one pays for jeans that are marked as being no longer new — as having a history in that “luxuriantly ratty patina”; as having an age — then one is paying for work time made fabric. Their value is a quality realized in the time and labor (performed by someone else, not the wearer) that produced their experiential history, and their value is then publically displayed as a $200 (or $300 or $400 or $500, you get the idea) badge of class distinction. As Trebay notes, it’s “like the punch line to some elaborate Veblenesque joke”: these jeans represent the commodification of everyday lived experience in precisely the same way that paid housekeeping services turned the labor of housework into economic labor, and in precisely the same way that offering term papers for sale made the labor of education into economic labor. Luxury denim makes experience itself — the embodied passage of time — economic. Consider, then, the article’s closing quotation from Lawrence Scott: “No matter how good the wash or the detail or the label, if it doesn’t look good on a behind, it won’t sell.” Indeed, and that’s the message: class, via your body, is destiny. Even if it costs a lot more.

So, class, your homework: using quotations from these two articles, as well as from Harry McClintock’s “Big Rock Candy Mountain” and the Dead Kennedys’ “Kill the Poor”, compose a brief essay describing why America Is Number One.

4 thoughts on “On Wealth

  1. Bill

    Interesting posts–thanks for the links to the NYT articles. I appreciate the inclusion of the Dead Kennedys in this pseduo-assignment. The entire “Fresh Fruit…” album speaks to the intersection of consumerism and civic responsibility. Brilliant, brilliant record. I’ve used “Kill the Poor” and “Let’s Lynch the Landlord” in class to talk about representations of class…the latter especially provoked a nice discussion of the uses and ethics of various punk iconography (Nazi images, “lynching” as resistance?!, etc.). But my fave track–Jello’s social commentary aside–has always been “Stealing People’s Mail,” which I can’t listen to without laughing out loud.

  2. mike Post author

    Hey, another rhet-comp blogger interested in class issues — cool! Thanks for the comment, Bill, and I’ll be reading your weblog with interest. And yeah, the DKs were one of my favorite bands in high school, largely because of Jello’s hilariously caustic wit.

  3. Nels

    Well, the byline “Bruce Bawer” says it all. I’ve learned never to read a word that follows. While I do have one of his books on the shelf, it’s because I had to see if for myself.

  4. K

    What are your thoughts on how conniving some of the guys of Enron were? I got to tell you, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room totally opened my eyes about the depths of their deceit.


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