Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Nation of Rebels III

At this point, the authors introduce the idea of "positional goods." The house you buy in a fashionable downtown neighborhood may cost you $400,000 whereas the same house out in the country sells for $50,000. Most of what you pay for, then, is not for the materials that go into making the house, but the advantages –the convenience, and prestige –of living downtown. But not everybody can live downtown. "Living downtown" is a prestige position that by definition is only available to some. Ideas like "coolness" and "good taste" are also positional goods. If you get in on the ground floor of a phenomenon like microbrewed beers, you are part of a small, select circle of coolness. But as more and more people want to gain membership to that elite club, the cachet of being in the club gets diluted. Suddenly microbrews are in every grocery store and, while the brew may still taste good, the social distinction is largely lost and it becomes necessary to find a new source of distinction. This sense of being part of a select elite of cool is largely what the business of advertising is selling you on. The counterculture taught you that by wanting to be distinctive –a radical, cutting-edge individualist–you were undermining the system that wanted you to be a faceless cog. In fact, it is largely this restless need to be distinctive that feeds the monster.

An interesting example adduced by Heath and Potter is men's shirts. The archetypal pre- counterculture shirt was the standard white oxford button -down worn by armies of 1950's businessmen - a virtual uniform of conformity. Many men in the 50's only owned two shirts that they wore for the whole week, which was why they wore undershirts. By the 70's, nobody could wear the same shirt two days in a row without being outed. Everybody had to express that they were liberated from being a cog by wearing shirts with colorful prints. But those shirts cost more, and the more distinctive they are the more they cost. And you'd better have a full set in your closet for at least a week to avoid being looked down on. The effect of the sixties has not been to undermine the consumer society with an attack of distinctiveness and individuality. Precisely the opposite has happened.

This is why so many of the spin-offs from the counterculture revolution are on the high end of the price/ quality spectrum. Organic food may be especially good for you, and it certainly makes you feel special when you buy it, but it costs more than the mass produced stuff in the rest of the market. Fresh baked bread tastes better and has more crunchy cred than the mass produced stuff, but it will cost you. Here's a description of the coffee revolution brought about by the revolution, from "The Devil's Cup", by Stewart Lee Allen: "It is probably best understood as part of the 60's rebellion against overprocessed food. Think whole wheat bread equals whole bean coffee. So it's no surprise that the specialty coffee movement was born in the counterculture capital of Berkeley, California, when a gentleman named Alfred Peet opened Peet's Tea and Coffee. They specialized in fresh dark roast coffee and were so successful that his partners soon opened their own places, like Boston's Coffee Connection, Florida's Barney's, and, of course, Seattle's Starbuck's.” Tastes better than my mother's Maxwell House? Yes. More expensive, too. And once you get used to it, it's very difficult to go back. What it's not is a blow to consumer culture.