Wednesday, October 03, 2012

On competitive consumption

I have been in the market for a new carry-everything bag ever since my cat, in order to demonstrate his displeasure with our cross-country move, peed on my old one, which was falling apart anyway after three years of constant and edifying use. (Incidentally, this bag was one of the best gifts I've ever received.) I've been hauling around my grad school tote ever since, but since it is emblazoned with the logo of a university in Boston, I do not want this to alienate my populist fellow-citizens of the UC-system, whom I would like to have as friends (please be my friends, UCSD-ers! I am not a snob! I am a yokel from the Midwest!). More importantly, it looks like a potato sack. So, I turned to the land of endless cheapness victories, Ebay, to solve this difficulty.

What I learned was that, unlike buying shoes on Ebay, another of my unrepetantly frivolous hobbies, but one which is conducted in a comparatively civilized manner, buying designer bags is like a pitched battle, if not total war. Bags starting at $5 end up selling for $95, and my shoe-buying strategy of bidding a dollar more than the previous bidder (cheapness!) is generally steamrolled by the more zealous within minutes. Moreover, I am inevitably outbid 15 seconds before the end of the auction by these same zealots, who raise their bid by just enough to cause me psychological money-spending hesitation ("should I really spend more than $60 on this thing?") that lasts just long enough for me to miss the last bid ("ok, ok, yes! I will spend! oh no! I have already lost!"). This in turn makes me even more obsessed with tracking the last five minutes of every auction, and more upset at losing every one. In short, I have lost about 10 auctions on potential new purses over the past three weeks, and each loss had made me crazier and more bitter.

But today I finally won! I adopted the strategy of the zealots, offered $20 more than the highest bid at the last second, and scored my still-under-$60 bag. And I felt a momentous and completely irrational sense of Great Victory, like what I imagine men feel when their sports teams win, even though they personally did nothing to contribute to the victory except to watch it on TV. Eat it, other Ebay bidders! I dominate! In principle, I could win every auction without this stressful competitiveness by just bidding $300 on each item, but that is inglorious. For that money, I could just go to the Coach store and buy a new bag, but that's the lazy rich person way out. Glory is when you find it, win it, and still get a deal.

Now let's hope this bag is as awesome when it arrives as my inflated perception of myself right now.


Emily Hale said...

Congrats! I hate ebay because I take being outbid at the last second personally. But is a Coach bag really that much more egalitarian than a bag from a Boston university?

Miss Self-Important said...

Bid $20 more in the last 30 seconds. Then you will win and personally insult your competition.

I think here it is. There are malls everywhere, people shop all the time, and they are really into conspicuous consumption. I have never seen as many BMWs and Mercedeses on the road as I've seen on the San Diego Freeway and in the most humdrum middle-class developments.

In the wealthy part of Cambridge, the people who were not grad students generally owned houses that cost several million dollars, but they drove small Japanese cars and wore what looked like burlap sacks (but were actually organic garments from the super-expensive little boutiques). Brand-flashing was rare; you demonstrated how with it you were through lifestyle signals like yoga and carrying around re-usable grocery bags.

But isn't sporting expensive stuff egalitarian in a counter-intuitive way? All you have to do for status is pay, and how you get the money for it is immaterial. We might say that many people "can't afford" luxury goods in some holistic sense, they can nonetheless buy them if they prioritize such expenditures and use credit. We could both right now march into a Coach store and purchase several bags at full price. We just don't think that's a good use of our limited funds, whereas many people (especially here) do. But it would take a lot more than it costs to buy a designer handbag for most of these same people to buy themselves a seat at a university in Boston. In that sense, the latter is more closed to them than the former, and so less egalitarian.

I am actually sort of fascinated by the rhetoric of "affording" things in our political discourse, since we take so seriously the burdens of paying for things like housing, medicine, and education, and we expect our politicians to be hyper-sensitive to these things and find ways to reduce their costs, but we would be horrified by the prospect of demanding that the same salt-of-the-earth middle class people clamoring for lower tuitions and health insurance premiums show us their monthly consumer spending records and demonstrate that they're not wasting money on luxuries like smartphones and Coach bags. We are big suckers for the rhetoric of "I can't afford" even though we have no real principles about what the difference is between necessary and frivolous spending.

Miss Self-Important said...

Also, Edge once told me that her mother says about the cities she's lived in something like, "In Philadelphia, what matters is who you're descended from. In Washington, what matters is who you know. And in New York, what matters is how much money you have. And I like New York best." Isn't that the same principle about the varieties of status hierarchies and the way that money is in some ways the least offensive?