Sunday, March 24, 2019

When You Have Nothing Else - Status

Status causes us to spend more than we should on useless things.

Mark and I were talking about status the other day and he made the interesting comment that people who have nothing else in life often seek status.   This struck me as profound, both in observing how other people live and in my own life.

The times in my life when I sought status the most - by purchasing status items like cars and toys and whatnot, I was the most broke.  That is to say, I was living the "paycheck-to-paycheck" lifestyle that so many Americans including myself, lead.   For the life of me, I could not figure out why money was always in such short supply, even as I looked at the four cars parked in my driveway.

Status cars, status clothes, status watches, status shoes - these things are sold to the very rich, to be sure, who consider them ordinary expenses.  But I suspect the bulk of sales are not to the billionaires of the world, but to the "strivers" - the wanna-bes who want to pretend to be really rich by aping the customs of the very rich - behavior I am sure that the very rich finds amusing and only validates their lifestyle.

We plebes can't afford a mansion with security guards on 200 acres.  But we can afford a mini-mansion that is brick on the front, in a "gated community" on two acres, even if the gate is broken off and the guard shack was never manned.   Our pretend mansions look like the real thing if you sat a half-mile away and squinted in the waning light of the day.   But they are not the real thing.

But they sell like hotcakes.

Every "status" car maker (except the very high end) sells expensive status cars to the very rich.  They also sell lesser models to the rest of us.   A new BMW 7-series is a rare car, as few can afford to spend $100,000 or more on a sedan.   But the 3-series is a hot seller as any young salary man kids himself he can "afford" to buy a car that cost as much as both of his neighbor's Camrys.   Porsche sells $100,000+ super-cars, but also sells more plebian rides, such as the Boxster and Carrerra that upper middle-class people can afford.

And this is not new.  When the 911 came out, its $6500 sticker price was a little much for the average person to swallow.  But the four-cylinder 912 could be had for $4500 and outsold its big brother by 2 to 1.   You sell the image and that sells the cars.

And of course, status is a good way to move those off-lease luxury cars that no one else in their right mind would want to own.   Once out of warranty and over 100,000 miles, esoteric foreign luxury cars are very cheap to buy  - the repair bills easily exceed the sales price.

And bear in mind that "status" is more than fancy cars, clothes, and houses.  Even anti-status is status.  People who can't afford "status items" find status in other ways.  We all do it.

But why do we seek status in life?  What causes us to desire the recognition from strangers that our lives and make our existence mean something?   Because that is all status is - the desire to impress people you don't even know.

And the answer is kind of ugly.  We crave status to fill an emptiness in our lives.  We want to leave our mark in the world as meaningful and important people.  We want to distinguish ourselves from the pack, even if the means we do it in is the same as everyone else in the pack.  When we have nothing going on in our lives we find solace in status.

It is kind of sad and depressing.

But again, it depends on how you look at it.   You can run yourself down over this most human of impulses, or just realize you are doing it and try something different - while realizing that your craving of status really never disappears.

The key, I think is to realize we are doing it, and to minimize the cost of status-seeking.   Because, let's face it, half the people in the United States who are living "paycheck to paycheck" aren't doing so because they can barely afford food and rent, but because they have spent more than they should on things they really don't need.