Originally written for The Spectator by Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy & Mather Group UK
Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but middle-class rules now require that every dinner party cheeseboard must contain at least two cheeses which aren’t very nice. Typically one will be a veiny French cheese which is not as good as Stilton; another may be that foreign thing with rind on it which isn’t nearly as good as Cheddar.
I was baffled by this for a long time, until I realised that these cheeses are not bought to be eaten, but to signal the sophistication of the occasion. Economists might call them Veblen cheeses. (One day someone should make an inedible cheese called Veblenne. They’d make a fortune.
There are many forms of consumption today where — dress it up all you like — it is obvious the main value lies not in the intrinsic value of the thing itself but in signalling the refinement of your taste. This increasingly creates a kind of feedback loop where people are driven to absurd lengths to gain competitive bragging rights.
Take travel. A week ago, I asked for a show of hands in a London lecture theatre. As I suspected, more people in the audience had been to Machu Picchu than to Lincoln cathedral. What I didn’t expect was the ratio: over three to one.
I was once offered a trip to Machu Picchu myself, but decided it was one of those places Dr Johnson called ‘worth seeing, but not worth going to see’. Why endure a long flight and altitude sickness to see some rubble in the Andes when for £40 I could take a daytrip to one of the world’s architectural masterpieces where the only discomfort would be finding the tea shop had closed? It seemed a lot to pay for posting a photo to Facebook saying ‘Hey, I’m next to some stones’ before collapsing with hypoxia. But what do I know?
Later in the week I learned a relative at boarding school had been vetoed by his parents from joining a school snorkelling trip. Seems mean? It was to Fiji. ‘Jeez,’ I thought, ‘In the 1970s we thought it was a treat to be taken to Penscynor Wildlife Park with a dank sandwich and a Wagon Wheel.’ Actually that’s not quite true: we didn’t think it was a treat — in fact we thought it was a bit shit — but I’m certain there wasn’t a Fiji alternative on offer.
Perhaps the reason for the increasingly bizarre expenditure patterns of the rich is simple. No one has invented anything useful and expensive since about 1950. My grandfather was a GP in a mining town from the 1920s to the early 1950s. There was a host of innovative things he could afford which his neighbours couldn’t. A fridge, a washing machine, a dishwasher, a radio, a television — and, most important of all, a car. These things were mind-blowingly expensive by modern standards but they were life-changing stuff.
Nowadays there are no sensible equivalents. You can buy a fancier car — but even then you hit the law of diminishing returns early on. Yes, it’s nicer to travel at the front of the plane than the back — you get a big seat, and the kind of vast table which makes you wish you’d packed a double-breasted brown jacket and a map of Poland — but an economy ticket still takes you to the same place. There’s nothing the rich alone can buy that makes the same difference as owning a car does. So they buy houses and cheese.
Someone needs to invent something to fill the void — and fast. I would settle for a single-person pilotless drone for about £80,000. Otherwise more and more of our GDP will end up squandered on school trips to Fiji and the purchase of nastier cheese.