Prosperity creates era of $2300 down pillows

Greed isn't just good. It's now hip.

In the 22nd century, historians of the United States may write this about our era: "It was a time of such ostentation that New York's Russian Tea Room featured a 15-foot see-through revolving bear filled with live fish."

They may note that the mass-market Company Store catalog offered $2,300 pillows full of down hand-gathered in the wild.

"Many popular TV shows had 'millionaire' in their title," they'll say. "Ringo Starr, a youth icon of the 1960s, became a pitchman for the brokerage house Schwab."

The chapter title? "The Day Trader Age."

Nearly nine years after it began, the long-running economic boom of the 1990s and 2000 has wrought profound change in the role that wealth and possessions play in American culture.

Dotcom billionaires have replaced investment bankers as the masters of our collective universe. Huge SUVs have supplanted mere minivans as the soccer parent's wheels of choice.

The nature of today's wealth creation, which always seems to involve software or cell phones or something best viewed in Netscape 4.5, lends it a benign image not found in previous booms, say some historians.

In a recent USA Today poll some 70 percent of college students said they plan on becoming rich. Greed's not just good - it's hip.

"What's interesting about the culture of [today] is that we talk about money in a way that is so unproblematic," says Daniel Borus, a cultural historian at the University of Rochester in New York.

One obvious reason that wealth now plays an unprecedented role in the mind of America is that there is more of it to think about than ever before.

Between 1995 and 1998 median family net worth rose 17.6 percent, to $71,600, according to Federal Reserve figures released this month. Ten years ago the comparable figure was $59,700.

And a lot of that money is rolling out the door for new gas grills and pickups. Total consumption has been going up 3 or 4 percent a year since the mid-90s.

Spending on luxury goods is rising some four times faster than that. Just look at the sales curve for Porsches, the muscular sports cars beloved by golf pros and successful real estate agents. Porsche sold 3,700 autos in the US in 1993. Last year? Almost 21,000.

The average house size has increased 10 percent since the mid-1980s. SUV sales have tripled in the past seven years.

"We've never seen consumerism and the shop-'til-you-drop mentality as great as it is now," says Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y.

This doesn't mean that indulgence is something new in America, unseen before the advent of cell phones that ring with the opening notes of Beethoven's Ninth.

The last Gilded Age

It was during the nation's last Gilded Age, the latter years of the 19th century, that New York society matrons pioneered the practice of buying two seats apiece at the opera - one for them, and one for their day's purchases.

The era's excesses were such that in 1899 a grouchy Norwegian-American academic named Thorstein Veblen coined the phrase "conspicuous consumption."

Fortunes were made to be flaunted, wrote Mr. Veblen in his "Theory of the Leisure Class." "No merit would accrue from the bare necessities of life," he wrote. "In order to be reputable it must be wasteful."

One hundred years ago, only a thin veneer of society could afford to conspicuously consume. Today a much deeper strata of Americans look to goods for emotional or cultural reassurance.

Few of us can afford to build a recording studio on our yacht, as did Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. But many can pay for a lease on a Lexus, or a Grand Cherokee.

Bottled water is just, well, water in a bottle. But it can still be a symbol of status. At Starbucks, coffee costs twice as much as at a no-name carry-out, yet it's only $1.45.

"The '90s have seen the rise of what I call 'opuluxe,' luxury on the cheap," says James Twitchell, a University of Florida English professor and author of books on US materialism. "A huge number of us can have it, even if only for a short time."

Mr. Twitchell argues that possessions are increasingly important because the old markers of middle-class place - religious affiliation, political leanings, school ties - have all become less important.

In this vacuum, the purchase of a triple latte becomes an act of self-definition. "Consumption is what we have," he says.

Or nonconsumption, as some prefer. Not everyone is attracted to a life of "shoppertainment" (a phrase used, without irony, by the Mills chain of discount malls).

Take Kathy Sessions, a Bethesda, Md., consultant on the educational grantmaking process. She's cut back on work to spend more time with her kids, six-year-old Beth and three-year-old Robbie. They borrow books instead of buying them, go to puppet shows instead of the mall, and talk about the power of ads.

"We're not spartan," she says. "We just try to be intentional about our choices."

More Americans are opting for such a lifestyle, insists Betsy Taylor, director of The Center for a New American Dream, a Takoma Park, Md., organization.

Chasing Bill Gates

At the same time, she says, more and more people are chasing Bill Gates. Media coverage of Internet success stories and stock prices has made many feel guilty that they're not really rich.

"People who a few years ago felt relatively OK in their position on the economic ladder don't feel that now in relation to these young dotcoms," she says.

Others note that the drive for status and possessions predates the invention of the Palm Pilot by thousands of years. High culture - art, music, etc. - may yet have its own revolution if young dotcom millionaires turn to philanthropy in their older age, as did Gilded Age giants.

"After all, you wouldn't have had the Renaissance without wealthy patrons," says Tim Burke, a cultural historian at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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