Killing time in a mall recently, I wandered into an upscale jewelry store. My gaze quickly settled on a pretty sterling silver pendant, which I thought might make a nice gift for my granddaughter's birthday. Because it bore no apparent price tag, I had to violate J.P. Morgan's famous maxim and ask. Old J.P. was right: I couldn't afford it. Not at $1,195.
Later that day, I was in a Wal-Mart, and out of curiosity I stopped by its jewelry counter. I saw another sterling silver pendant, which, to my untrained eye, was remarkably similar to the first one, and every bit as pretty. And this one had a price tag: $39.
And I wondered, so what was the purpose of that $1,195 pendant? After all, it doesn't "do anything" that another pendant can't do. In truth, it doesn't do anything, period.
However, that pricey pendant most assuredly does serve as a symbol of an unfortunate quirk in American buying habits. We are a nation that specializes in producing and consuming items that have little purpose except to facilitate extravagance, and it's a proclivity that hardly begins or ends with jewelry. Millions of us insist on paying a great deal of money for goods that would cost little or nothing in a world where everything was ranked strictly by functionality.
Although bemoaning taxes is the true national pastime, the one tax nobody really considers is this "vanity tax": the difference between what a thing needs to cost (to fulfill a given function) and what it ends up costing (after being artificially inflated by imperatives besides function).
In the case of a car, for example, the vanity tax is what you pay over and above what you need to pay to be conveyed safely, efficiently and economically. In the case of the pricey stiletto heels, the vanity tax is the premium women fork over for the privilege of being uncomfortable. It costs more to own a shoe that does a worse job of doing what a shoe is supposed to do.
Although the desire for glitter and glitz is nothing new, we spent the 20th century elevating the practice to an art form, steadily and successfully detaching value from function. That process continues apace into the 21st century, even as the nation's financial infrastructure stands on ground as shaky as the San Andreas fault.
This bastardization of value now drives whole industries that are profitably engaged in making products of little use. Scores of other industries enable buyers to pay more than they'd have to if all they sought was a functional car, coat, appliance, handbag, golf club, etc.
The ultra-high-end camera, for example, provides no added advantages that are likely to be noticed by someone who isn't already shooting at the Richard Avedon level. And as for audio quality, costly home theater systems exceed the hearing capabilities of all but a fraction of those who own them. We'll even insist on paying for things that can be had for free, or nearly so, like bottled waters.
Defenders of such buying practices rhapsodize about freedom and striving -- but the freedom to strive for what? To have a piece of shiny metal dangling from your neck? To own a car whose full capabilities can only be appreciated by driving it illegally?
What makes this more than a whimsical topic for armchair discussion is that vanity buying isn't just some silly national idiosyncrasy. The notion that value is something apart from function may be bankrupting America. The pseudo-industries that survive on vanity taxes are as insubstantial as the products they create, and thus -- like the overbid property values of a few years past -- are far more susceptible to collapse.
One can plausibly argue that the U.S. economy, as now structured, is a hostage to the consumers' willingness to pay excessive sums for products whose benefits are psychic and imaginary. It's not beyond the realm of possibility that our already weakened financial system would crumble tomorrow if Americans began consuming products based on utility alone. America simply doesn't produce enough things that have a straightforward function and perform it well, things that make a tangible, measurable contribution to the forward progress of society and the species.
We hear a lot about recession-proof occupations -- nursing, for example. These jobs are recession-proof because we can't realistically manage without them. America needs more recession-proof products, and Americans need to refocus their spending habits around those products. In contemplating a purchase, we might ask ourselves: Does it actually do something? Does it do it better than the previous version? Or does it just make me feel good to own? And: How much am I paying for amenities that aren't a part of the product's basic job description?
We'd do well to embrace the idea that the most valuable things are those that have the most significant uses -- and making your neighbor green with envy doesn't qualify. A good, reliable toaster is worth more than any pendant at any price.
Steve Salerno is author of "SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless."