A change in showing off wealth status

Andrew Potter

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Tess Vigeland: The days of flaunting a corporate jet or rolling through town in a Hummer seem to be behind us. But according to social critic Andrew Potter, we're finding new ways to assert our status, and it goes beyond Recession Chic. In his new book "The Authenticity Hoax," Potter calls into question why people shop organic, buy distressed designer jeans and make their own compost. He's with us to answer those questions. Welcome to the program.

Andrew Potter: Thank you very much. It's great.

Vigeland: What is conspicuous authenticity?

POTTER: Conspicuous authenticity is in a sense a successor form of status seeking to the old conspicuous consumption that we're all familiar with. This idea that you demonstrate how rich you are or what good taste you have by having a big house, or having a nice car, having expensive clothes and so on. Over the last 30-40 years as we've become wealthier as a society, it's become less socially acceptable to just simply show off how rich you are, and what we do now is we show off that even though we have all the stuff -- a nice house, a nice car -- we're not really spiritually connected to any of it. And so what we do is we engage in practices and experiences and consumption hobbies that I call conspicuous authenticity.

Vigeland: What are some examples of that?

POTTER: Things like volun-tourism or eco-tourism, the idea that you're not just go traveling somewhere, you're going there to actually help out the locals. Or you're going there to help preserve the planet.

Vigeland: What's wrong with conspicuous authenticity? What's wrong with eco-tourism?

POTTER: One of the problems is that like all, what economists call positional goods, it's valuable only to the extent to which other people can't really have it. Or that it becomes something that you can access only by being quite wealthy, or by actually having social connections that no one else does. I mean it's like back during prohibition the only way you could get liquor was through social connections. So it ends up sort of being almost a more pernicious form of status seeking, because it makes it seem like you're actually better than other people and not just simply better connected.

Vigeland: Well, you know, along those same lines, you also talk about the one-upmanship that comes into play here, keeping up with the authentic Joneses, especially when it comes to being authentically environmentally friendly. You say there's this trend toward competitive anti-consumption.

POTTER: The idea is that you have to show that you're not actually connected to the stuff you're buying. But I think the way it gets really interesting is in the various ways people are downgrading their houses. You know, you get these amazing stories of people putting no-flush toilets in their condominiums in Manhattan, or mud floors in their house. To prove you're more authentic than everyone else, you have to live like some third world, poverty-stricken aboriginal. It's quite remarkable.

Vigeland: Have we ever led truly authentic lives? I mean, obviously, there's always back in the day. But was there a back in the day?

POTTER: I think not. I think all nostalgia is always nostalgia for the present, so the nostalgia you feel is just simply a projection of your own current unhappiness. And I just think focusing on some mythical authentic is probably a wrong path to go down.

Vigeland: Would you call yourself a conspicuous authenticititous?

POTTER: Oh absolutely, and it's sort of the embarrassing part of all of it is that it's actually quite hard to get away from. I mean I spent far more money than I had, I just put it on a big credit card a couple of years ago, to go on a big canoe trip in the northwest territories of Canada to spend time away from technology. And that kind of stuff we all do it, we all like it. What I'm trying to point out is that it might not necessarily make us happy, and it's certainly is a lot easier to do when you can at least put something on your credit card.

Vigeland: Andrew Potter is the author of "The Authenticity Hoax: How We Get Lost Finding Ourselves."

POTTER: Thank you so much for having me. It was fun.

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