It’s that time of year

The goldenrod is blooming. Many people associate this with going back to school. And it is indeed that time of year.


Personally, whenever I see goldenrod I think of Thorstein Veblen. Specifically, The Theory of the Leisure Class, where he makes the following, fantastic observation:

By further habituation to an appreciative perception of the marks of expensiveness in goods, and by habitually identifying beauty with reputability, it comes about that a beautiful article which is not expensive is accounted not beautiful. In this way it has happened, for instance, that some beautiful flowers pass conventionally for offensive weeds; others that can be cultivated with relative ease are accepted and admired by the lower middle class, who can afford no more expensive luxuries of this kind; but these varieties are rejected as vulgar by those people who are better able to pay for expensive flowers and who are educated to a higher schedule of pecuniary beauty in the florist’s products; while still other flowers, of no greater intrinsic beauty than these, are cultivated at great cost and call out much admiration from flower-lovers whose tastes have been matured under the critical guidance of a polite environment.

The plight of the sad, unappreciated goldenrod provides the perfect example of what Veblen is describing. It grows wild in North America, and tends to prefer sunny areas, in soil that has recently been disrupted. As a result, it grows naturally by the side of the road, in vacant lots, or recently deforested areas. In Europe, by contrast, it does not grow naturally, and so is prized for its beauty and cultivated by gardeners. (I once saw a carefully tended patch in a flower bed in the Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris.) There it is a flower, here it is a weed.

This is, incidentally, one of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of Veblen’s view on competitive consumption. Many people think that, in order to get caught up in some form of competitive consumption, you need to be somehow “showing off” your wealth through your purchase – and therefore, to have some kind of conscious pecuniary motive informing your choice. (And so, when other consumers respond in kind, you are then forced to buy something more expensive, in order to demonstrate your superiority.) Veblen’s actual view is that people’s consumption typically reflects nothing other than their taste. Pecuniary factors enter into it only indirectly, in that people’s taste typically arises through emulation of the taste of others in their social class (or the class to which they aspire), and the modal taste of members of that class is determined, first and foremost, by pecuniary constraints.

Thus, after the passage on flowers, Veblen goes on to say:

The same variation in matters of taste, from one class of society to another, is visible also as regards many other kinds of consumable goods, as, for example, is the case with furniture, houses, parks, and gardens. This diversity of views as to what is beautiful in these various classes of goods is not a diversity of the norm according to which the unsophisticated sense of the beautiful works. It is not a constitutional difference of endowments in the aesthetic respect, but rather a difference in the code of reputability which specifies what objects properly lie within the scope of honorific consumption for the class to which the critic belongs. It is a difference in the traditions of propriety with respect to the kinds of things which may, without derogation to the consumer, be consumed under the head of objects of taste and art. With a certain allowance for variations to be accounted for on other grounds, these traditions are determined, more or less rigidly, by the pecuniary plane of life of the class.

This drives competitive consumption because, over time, people’s taste changes – largely because of emulation and reproduction of tasteful articles by members of inferior classes, which slowly renders these items or styles “vulgar” or “passé.” And so one must move on to more “tasteful” items, which also turn out to be — through some amazing coincidence — more expensive.

P.S. This is a picture of my septic tile bed… you see why goldenrod gets no respect in Canada

Comments are closed.