ELIZABETH CURRID-HALKETT, associate professor of urban planning, USC’s Price School.
This op-ed originally appeared in the New York Times on Nov. 10.
In 1899, the sociologist Thorstein Veblen scathingly critiqued what he called the “conspicuous consumption” of America’s upper class. The rich were so obsessed with their social status, he wrote, that they would go to gratuitous lengths to signal it. His famous example was silver flatware: handcrafted silver spoons, though no more “serviceable” than and hardly distinguishable from aluminum ones, conferred high social rank and signaled membership in what he called the “leisure class.”
A silver spoon is no longer a mark of elite status. Take the nation’s top 10 percent of households. The top 1 percent — those making more than $394,000 annually — are today’s version of Veblen’s leisure class in terms of wealth, but they are not the biggest buyers of silver flatware. Instead, households in the rest of this high-earning cohort — those making between $114,000 and just under $394,000 — take the silver prize.