My hero Peter Singer just wrote a nice little piece about conspicuous consumption called Why Pay More.
I often blog about conspicuous consumption, but rarely name it. To me, it is perhaps the most disgusting and most damaging way of being selfish. In a nut shell, conspicuous consumption is "keeping up with the Jones's" - spending resources on unnecessary or luxury items as a way of signaling status. Examples of conspicuous consumption include purchases of designer clothing/accessories/furniture, oversized living spaces/cars, pedigree companion animals, weddings, lavish vacations, and any purchase you'd want to brag about or that would impress your peer group. Think about purchases or experiences you post on Facebook. Think about your boards on Pinterest. Can you see conspicuous consumption at work in your own life?
The reason that I believe conspicuous consumption is worse than private indulgence is conspicuous consumption places social pressure on others to spend as you spend. Not only do you use your own resources selfishly, but you encourage others to do the same. Even worse, there's a "one-upping" that's expected - you spent 5 days in London, but I spent 5 days in London AND 3 days in Rome. And all that unnecessary spending could have saved lives.
Extremely large, public gifts to charity are also considered conspicuous consumption, as they raise the status of those making the gift. This is the one form of conspicuous consumption I support and applaud, for exactly the reason I stated above: it encourages others to do the same. The charitable gifts made by Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffet have made way for other billionaires to follow suit.
Conspicuous consumption is deeply embedded in American culture, self-identity, and group-identity. It is extremely important to recognize the way in which conspicuous consumption directs our spending habits, and thus "ties up" money that we should be free to give away.
To change our culture, to value compassion over selfishness and altruistic actions over "stuff", we must celebrate and elevate those who defy conspicuous consumption, like Uruguay's 'poor' president Jose Mujica. And we should feel disgusted and outraged by public displays of luxury and indulgence, not envious.