Who needs positional goods?

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I enjoy the Piketty debate. Finally, there is long-term data that supports the widespread feeling that society is becoming less equal – not so dramatic that would spark riots, but in a way that fosters a growing unease that the distribution of “wealth” and “capital” is really unjust and has – most important of all – nothing to do with personal merits.By Pearson Scott Foresman [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The latest argument in defense of this status quo (I read it in one of the last Economist issues) goes like this: yes, the distribution of wealth and goods in society is unjust. But what is so unequally distributed are only “positional goods”, stuff that conveys your social status – cars, watches, boats, bling-bling -, whereas everything that is truly important – food, housing, basic medical care – is available to absolutely everyone.

The overall message of this argumentation is: let the rich people chase after their ephemeral positional goods – it is nothing you should complain or be jealous about.

It really makes my blood boil. There is some truth in the argument that positional goods are, in a philosophical, zen-buddhist sense, unnecessary bullshit goods – if you own a Swatch or a Panerai should not make such a big difference, after all, both are able to tell the time correctly; and a Dacia does the job of transporting you from A to B as good as a Mercedes. However, this view completely neglects the convertibility of positional goods and money: positional goods are a store of money, of very real value and freedom. When you’re well-heeled and your offspring desperately needs some extra thousand Euros (for a trip to Asia or whatever), selling your inconsequential, superficial Omega Seamaster will yield a surprising amount of substantial and solid cash, and selling your holiday house in Smaland can easily pay for several terms of Harvard education.

Someone who owns no or few positional goods may or may not be a wise guy, what he clearly is is: someone who can not afford to reconsider bad decisions made early in his life, someone who can not get a second, different, better education, who cannot move to another prosperous country and start anew, who is not able to set up his own company (and I don’t mean being a hairdresser, nail polisher but companies that need real investment), someone who has no ability to be „upwardly mobile“.

Positional goods are not just superficial – they are also potential “f* you money”. To everyone saying it should not be problematic that their  distribution in society is so unequal: yeah – f*** you too.

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