State officials not the only conspicuous consumers
Date Released: Wed, 30 October 2013 12:59 +0200
If we think that flashy and wasteful spending is the invention and sole property of the government, we have not been paying attention.
Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan’s plan to restrict spending by officials and politicians was greeted by a predictable chorus, which denounced it as symbolic and not enough to convince government critics. All of which is true, but ignores the likelihood that the cuts were meant only to be symbolic and were not meant to placate the critics.
The National Treasury presumably knows that it will take more to address our economic ills than ending government credit cards and banning alcohol at functions. Gordhan probably aimed to send a message to the rest of the government and to disillusioned African National Congress voters, not to the government’s critics in the media.
The reaction also missed two crucial points. First, "conspicuous consumption" — spending on luxuries to show others that you are a person who matters — is one of our key problems and so it needs special attention. Second, it is not the government’s problem alone. On the contrary, those who use government posts to flash money are simply imitating others.
On the first score, we are living with avoidable workplace conflicts because many aspire to own goods they cannot afford. On the second, we have this problem because the dominant messages in this society tell us that the person who is worthy of respect is the one who owns things. These messages are not sent out solely by those in the government who use public resources to fund consumption — they are so widespread that they are part of the fabric of the society.
Nor were these messages invented in 1994 — they are more than 100 years old. It began when "Randlords", the grandees who owned the mines, built mansions in Johannesburg to signal their wealth. Those who were excluded by this public show of riches mobilised against them — only to behave in the same way when they won inclusion.
During apartheid, a Pieter-Dirk Uys play, Die Van Aardes van Grootoor, made precisely this point. It depicted an Afrikaner family that began life in poverty but, after the victory of the National Party in 1948, gradually acquired greater wealth. The country bumpkins of the first generation give way to descendants who wore Paris fashions and spent millions on Swiss beauty treatments. Uys’s accurate portrayal has been mirrored since 1994 as the new political leadership has gravitated to the same lifestyle as the Van Aardes.
Both waves of new arrivals did not invent ways of flaunting wealth — they imitated those who had excluded them. That does not excuse them: they were not forced to react that way. But it does mean that the problem is far too deep-rooted to be blamed only on one actor. If it is to change, many of the messages sent out by private actors will have to change too. And, no matter how limited the government’s symbolic gesture may be, it is an attempt to break the pattern in which people consume not because they need to but because they want to be admired.
Commentaries ignore the deeds and words in the private realm that contribute to the problem because they are wedded to a view in which only public power holders have to account for their consumption. In this view, what private actors have, they earned by their ability and hard work. Society did not make them rich and so has no business telling them what to do with their wealth.
This might just be credible if the economy consisted entirely of small businesses owned by individuals and families who built them by the sweat of their brow. But it is out of kilter with a real economy in which the major actors are corporations that were built by many and are therefore a product of the society in which they operate. What they do affects us all and so they are responsible to all.
Private actors who send messages into society that shape others’ behaviour are obviously also responsible for what they say and do.
If we ignore the role of private actors in creating the culture in which credit cards are passports to esteem, we will continue to live with the problems caused by judging people by what they own rather than what they contribute. We will also ensure that initiatives that aim to address the problem by changing private as well as public behaviour will be trashed — witness the hostility that greeted the idea of a voluntary freeze on salary increases by business and government leaders. And so those at the top of the society will continue to tell the rest, by deed and words, to aspire to things they cannot afford.
This economy does not have anywhere near the resources needed to ensure that everyone can enjoy the lifestyle to which a few exhort everyone to aspire.
The actions and words of those at the top can help steer us to a more workable path — if we no longer see the government as the sole problem and solution.
BY STEVEN FRIEDMAN
Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy.
Article Source: Business Day