Sunday, July 3, 2016

How Weird is Status?

How did stainless steel appliances morph from commercial kitchens to status items?
Status is an odd thing and I talk about it a lot here, as it has a way of draining your bank account for no real apparent reason.   We spend two or three or ten times as much money on things in order to impress people we don't even know.

Now, granted, it is nice to have a house with "nice things" in it.   A house that is calming and peaceful and beautiful.   But oddly enough, status items are often just the opposite - garish and ugly and loud and stress-inducing.    And they are particularly stress-inducing when you stress yourself financially to have them.

But what is a "status item" and how do they become one?    It is odd, but we as humans often ape (poorly) the actions of others to obtain perceived status.   And most of the junk you may crave as status items has its roots in ridiculousness.

For example, take the stainless-steel $3000 refrigerator.   You can spend thousands of dollars today on a refrigerator, and that's not even getting one with a television in it, or WiFi, or a little camera that shows whats inside it (I kid you not!).    They don't refrigerate food better, of course, and often they are far less reliable and don't last as long.   A basic two-door refrigerator can last decades.   These high-end fancy appliances with digital readouts go to the junkyard when their electronic control panels fail.

But all that aside, why did stainless steel become a "thing" in the first place?    Historically, commercial kitchens used stainless as it was easy to clean, lasted a long time, and was considered sanitary.   It didn't rust or corrode and held up to the severe use of a commercial kitchen.

Back in the 1960's or 1970's even rich folks had white appliances.   But a few of the very wealthy - who had servants - had in-house commercial kitchens in their mansions, as they would occasionally host 200-person parties that needed to be catered.   I recall when growing up, going to a rich friend's house and they had a kitchen larger than my living room, complete with a HOBART commercial dishwasher, the giant stainless-steel Wolf range, and built-in SubZero refrigerators.   It was a restaurant kitchen, basically.   Practical for an 12-bedroom mansion with servant's quarters, perhaps.   Not so useful for the three-bedroom tract home.

In the 1980's, people started reading these home magazines that showcased expensive homes.  Prior to that, magazines like "Better Homes and Gardens" were less about mansions and estates than about middle-America and its tastes.   Today, it is all about designer homes, of course.   And as the plebes read magazines like "Veranda" and saw the insides of the estates of the "Rich and Famous" on television, they would see these commercial kitchens and think, "Gee, I would like to have stainless steel appliances just like the rich people have!"   And Norm and Dave on This Old House reinforced this notion by showing how you could afford an ordinary refrigerator made in stainless steel.

And pretty soon, it became a "thing".

Even stuff as lowly and practical as a bicycle is subject to this sort of aping of status.   When I was a kid, you had a bicycle and it had one speed, or maybe a three-speed hub.   It had fenders to keep the rain off you, and a basket to carry your crap.   They were heavy, dumb, cheap, and pretty durable.

But the racers in Europe had lightweight bikes with no fenders, 10 speeds, and "rams head" handlebars.   And it wasn't long before they became popular in America.   But the versions that the plebes bought at Sears or Western Auto were hardly racing bikes, with cheap riveted derailleurs and welded steel frames.  They were just bikes styled to look like racing bikes and as practical means of transportation they left a lot to be desired.   Cheap steel rims bent easily and there was no place to store your gear.   Hit a puddle and you were sprayed with water.   But we all had to have them, because, well, status.   You wouldn't want to be caught dead with some old English 3-speed bike, no matter how practical it was.

Today, the same is true with Mountain bikes.   At least their wide tires and soft suspensions provide some advantages for the average rider.   But most are just bikes styled to look like mountain bikes and not really equipped to handle a downhill ride.

A Wal-Mart "mountain bike" may be OK for riding local flat trails, but certainly is not a serious bike for going down the side of a mountain.

Once again, we are victims of style and status.   More appropriate bikes for daily use do exist, but we eschew them in favor of the look of a serious mountain bike, even if it leaves you with a posture that is uncomfortable for daily riding (there are ways of fixing that, of course).

It is what I call the "Z28 Effect".   Back in the 1960's, General Motors offered on the Camaro, a special racing option for Can Am racing, known as option Z28 (GM's option sheet uses letters and numbers to designate options for their cars).   It featured a 5-liter engine (not the largest available), no heater or radio, no automatic transmission, no air conditioning, no sound deadening, and not even nice wheels (dog-dish hubcaps on steel wheels).   A set of headers was thrown in the trunk for dealer installation.

It was meant for racers only, but soon word got out that the ultimate and rarest of Camaros was a Z28.   And pretty soon, people were clamoring to have this rare and unique car, even though it was not a very comfortable car for daily driving.   "I want a Z28!" the buyers would say, "But with air conditioning, automatic transmission, and an AM/FM radio!"

And General Motors, sensing a market opportunity, did just that, offering fully pimped Camaros with the Z/28 moniker (now with a slash) to the masses.  What was once an option package designation became a model brand.   And once again, consumers are aping the actions of others, without really understanding why they are doing so.

Name a status item, and chances are, it is subject to this effect, in one way or another, usually by design.   By now, you should know that diamonds are carefully marketed and the supply controlled to create demand for them as "luxury" items.   The diamond industry invented the diamond engagement ring and created the myth that diamonds are rare and coveted, when in reality they are plentiful and useful only for industry.   In terms of attractiveness, they are rather ugly compared to colored stones.   But we are all convinced they are desirable, so they are.

The joke is, of course, that today we even covet costume jewelry.   When I was a kid, rhinestones were considered the ultimate in tackiness.   They were called paste, glass, or costume jewelry.   And folks who wore such trash were looked down upon.  Today, we call them "Swarovski Crystals" and they are considered the height of luxury, at least by some, who actually pay a premium for them.

Others, however, realize that from more than a few inches away, a piece of glass and a piece of diamond look pretty much the same, and they embrace "costume" jewelry for its appearance, not its status, value, or collectability.

Cars are a prime example.   The whole "SUV" thing exploded from the 1980's when four-wheel-drive became a "thing" and ordinary people decided they needed a rugged "off road" vehicle to drive to work every day.   People would think they were having radical off-road adventures every weekend!  Those lamers in their sedans don't know what they're missing!

But of course, the SUV buyers quickly tired of rough suspensions, live axles, and plebeian interiors.   And pretty soon, nearly every car made was called an "SUV" and came with (or was available with) some kind of all-wheel-drive (without those messy and hard-to-use levers, of course!) and leather seats and soft rides and whatnot.   Since none of them ever went off-road, it really didn't matter if they didn't have any off-road prowess.

And so on down the line.   People buy an iPhone or a Macbook because of the Apple logo on the back.   They are worth twice to ten times as much as other brands, we are told, because they are.   But try running half the programs available for a PC on a Mac - you just can't, particularly games.  There is really no inherent advantage to a Macbook or an iPhone just as there is no real advantage to owning a stainless steel refrigerator.   All you have are bragging rights, which are worth nothing.

So, why do we do this?   And we all do it, so let's be honest right there.   Even if we are paddling in a canoe, we look down our noses at those in a rowboat - never mind the 50-foot yacht next door.   It is human nature to want to be unique, different, special, and above the soiled masses.   We all do this, go get over it.

Even being anti-consumption is a status symbol, or can be.   And when it comes to status symbols, the reality is, it doesn't matter whether other people perceive you to have status, so long as you believe it to be so.

So what is the point in all of this?   Well a few things.   First, realize when you are buying status or worse yet, aping status.  Because status costs you money, and if you can avoid that, you can save yourself a lot of dough, even if the housewives on your street will snicker at you for having a plain white refrigerator or an ordinary sedan.

Second, you can save a boatload of money if you can avoid status, or at least seek out things others are overlooking because of status.   Right now, automakers are giving away cars because everyone wants an SUV, even though most SUVs never, ever, ever go off-road.   If you really look at your automotive needs rather than status desires you can score a better deal on a vehicle that costs less to buy and gets better gas mileage to boot (and won't have expensive AWD repairs down the road).

And it is not like you will be living a deprived life, either.   Rather, you just won't have bragging rights with your brain-dead neighbors, as they sip their Starbucks while texting on their iPhone while driving their overwrought SUV - all while hopelessly in debt.   In the long run, who is really better off, you or them?

Because that is the real problem with status - people strive for status and often bankrupt themselves doing it, either literally or morally.   Even if they can "make all the payments" on their collection of overpriced junk, they are under-funding their retirement or working harder than they should, just to have "things" they never have a chance to use.

And I say this from experience.   Having fancy things is indeed nice.  But when you have to work long hours to have them and never have a chance to enjoy them, what exactly is the point?