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GP 24 January 2007: The Cost of Things

Never Too Much.  Crooner Luther Vandross celebrates abundant love in his singing: “A million days in your arms is never too much / Never too much, never too much, never too much.”  While the delightful Roman satirist Horace counseled moderation in all things and at all times, surely there are moments when only ‘too much’ will do. Wits aplenty have urged us to go full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes: 

Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess. -Oscar Wilde 

Is anything done in moderation not a sin. -Romans 6: 8-15 

Anything worth doing is worth overdoing. -Mick Jagger and countless other overpaid pied pipers 

Excess on occasion is exhilarating.  It prevents moderation from acquiring the deadening effect of a habit. -Somerset Maugham 

Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. ... Moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. -Barry Goldwater 

‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’  Speaking from the balcony of the Rathaus Schöneberg on June 26, 1963, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy proclaimed his oneness with the people of Berlin by ending with the phrase “I am a citizen of Berlin.”  He was lifting up a people surrounded by hostility and staring down the Soviets who had starting putting up the infamous Berlin Wall in August 1961.  It was not to come down to November of 1989. 

But, as well, Kennedy was saying he was a jelly donut, since a Berliner happens to be a sumptuous German pastry.  This has given a giggle to some Germans.  Unconsciously he was acknowledging what we all knew.  His Camelot—and the nineteen-sixties throughout the West—was a time of playful excess that produced Mod ties from Carnaby Street in London, a ‘Summer of Love’ in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury, and a wave of middle class liberation and experimentation that swept across several continents.  Some 40-50 years later we are still dealing with the hangover.  And, as history unwinds, we are learning that Kennedy’s own excesses were sometimes less than playful, often downright obsessive.  After all, you can only consume so many jelly donuts before you turn to jelly. 

The Bag Lady.  A very good read by Andra Lee in the September 25, 2006 New Yorker reminds us that Americans and the West have lost neither their yen nor their talent for excess in the intervening 40 years.  As she visits a leftist intellectual gathering in Milan where the dress is rather casual, she notes that a $100,000 purse is on display.  “This sight reminded me that for the past several years we have been living in a gilded age of handbags: a rococo time of profligacy, opulence, heights of stylistic genius and depths of vulgarity, but, above all, a time of exponential proliferation and vitality.”  Lee writes on about the queen of handbaggery.  “Silvia Fendi Venturini” is “revered in the industry as the creator of such cult handbags as the Spy, the Ostrik, and last season’s B. Fendi.  But mostly she is known as the author of the Fendi Baguette, … an oblong bag about the size of a folded newspaper.”  She brought it out in 1997 and changed the handbag market forever.  “To date, Fendi has sold about six hundred thousand Baguettes (average cost: $1,500).” 

Indeed, handbag hyperbole has even been turned up yet another notch.  See “One Thing is Clear: Transparency is Big in Handbags Today,” Wall Street Journal, January 16, 2007, pp. A1 and A19.  All the couture houses are putting out rather chintzy but horribly expensive clear plastic bags—a sort of Emperor’s New Clothes-type scheme—and selling them to all the dressed-down women in blue jeans who now simultaneously communicate that they have money and yet revel in their bedraggled appearance.  Etiquette expert Letitia Baldrige finds the ‘transparent bag’ concept consummately ‘tacky,’ as she confessed to the Journal, and she had even worse things to say about it to us. 

Bondage.  “Last month (December 2006) the French accessories company S. T. Dupont introduced two James Bond ‘seduction cases.’”  The $3,880 “mini-seduction case” includes a bottle of S. T. Dupont’s own label of Champagne, two flutes, a Dupont cigarette lighter and a metal “Do Not Disturb” door sign.  The deluxe $25,800 model comes in a yard-long buffalo leather trunk and includes a setting for caviar, an ice bucket, an MP3 player with Sony speakers, a Baccarat bud vase and candles” (New York Times, January 19, 2007).  The French, a little belatedly, have gotten into Bond worship, and they are proving that their enthusiasm is of a higher order than that of the rest of the world, with expensive baubles like these and semi-serious intellectual conferences in Paris that discuss the in’s and out’s of Bond and Ian Fleming. 

The Language of the Stratosphere.  Our Boston Consigliere Don Beinto informs us that the zeros now get omitted in all the bon marches of fancy objects: 

So I checked out that nice looking motorcycle reviewed in your last article.  The cost of the bike (The Confederate) is well above the average income for a family in the USA. The motorcycle costs $67,500.  Their mission statement reads “Never compromise passion, intensity, time or money.”  I would argue that compromising the buyers’ money is exactly what they are doing.  Next thing you know people will be spending millions of dollars for a house. 

The lady at Confederate Motors subtly transmitted her discomfort through her
wording.  When I asked her the price she said “Sixty seven five.”  My wife who is in high-end real estate states a price for a house in Lincoln like this: “It costs two

I had a good friend who made the mistake of buying a 12 cylinder Jaguar before
they redesigned it to improve reliability.  It was in the shop monthly.  Shortly
before selling it, his wife went to pick it up after repairs, went to the check
out and was told the bill was “Twenty two fifty.”  She calmly wrote a check for $2,250.  The man behind the counter said “No, Mrs. England.  This time it is

The Don, incidentally, was talking about the high-tech, low-glitz motorcycle we mentioned in “Terroir.”  We liked the way it was merchandised.  It’s quite an art form—putting over inflated price tags. 

Our Ugly Tomato.  We went into Whole Foods the other day and bought ourselves  a gnarled looking tomato—fat and deliciously loathsome—that we thought might have some flavor, as opposed to the tasteless, sleek objet d’arts that masquerade as tomatoes throughout the fluorescent vegetable section.  This, as it turns out, seems to have been one of the UglyRipes, a taste-packed variety which all the Florida growers are trying to keep out of circulation.  Ostensibly, the Floridians feel it will ruin the image of Florida tomatoes.  We think, on the contrary, that they fear consumers will get used to nightshades that have some taste, and never go back to Florida bland.  Previously Florida farmers have been at endless pains to ban Mexican tomatoes, for equally spurious reasons.  Well, we later learned the darn Uglies cost us $4.49 a pound, all of a piece with the hardy prices that this store charges.  It was fairly tasteless besides, a metaphor for many of the luxuries we are purchasing in the 21st century. 

The Price of Booze.  Archaic, zany state liquor regulation, vestiges of Prohibition and its repeal, provides an unending stream of welfare benefits for the well-heeled liquor industry and for wine distributors.  Government has labored long and hard in this country to protect Americans from the low-cost, ample variety, and reliability that competition might bring to such industries as liquor, telephones, pharmaceuticals, and others.  Signs of this regulatory inflation abound in the South, particularly where states own the liquor stores.  An enterprising writer at North Carolina’s Independent Weekly has documented this in spades: 


Long Island

Local ABC Store

Absolut Vodka



Gordon's Vodka



Whitehorse Scotch



Johnny Walker Red Scotch



Chivas Regal Scotch



Cutty Sark Scotch



Maker's Mark Bourbon



Sambuca Romana



Amaretto di Sorono



Godiva Chocolate Liqueur



Alize Bleu



Citizens of the Tarheel State pay 20-60% more for their drams than New Yorkers.  Many of the finer brands, vintages, and other alcoholic niceties are simply not available there.  And even with these illustrious prices the ABC stores are losing money.  It makes it hard to be a cheerful drunk. As with our tomato, the price of indulgence is much too high.  Maybe our spiritual leaders have orchestrated this state of affairs to put us out of temptation’s path, but it has been a crimp to Carolina’s economy.  We have advised Southerners to lace their drinks with ice as a partial remedy to this furtive taxation. 

Making Things Simple.  “Making Things Simple: The Marketing of Complexity,” The Conference Board Review, January-February 2007, pp. 39-44, more or less makes clear what so many of us know.  Many of the products and services in the marketplace are designed to reach into our affluent pockets, but are not made to satisfy our wants and needs.  The incredibly complex VCRs that Johnny Carson used to complain about are just one example.  But today the cellphone, with its many functions, and utter trashiness, is the perfect symbol of excess.  It has buttons you can’t read, wears out and malfunctions too easily, has gobs of doodads you don’t need, vastly overcharges you for the use of inexpensive bandwidth, and is plain hard to operate.  It is foisting on you a product you don’t want, and you cannot get what you want—even at a high price.  Over-designed and under-useful is the foundation of this age of excess.  It’s fun to imagine that when some new race of people unearths our remains in 50,000 years, the diggers will be mightily puzzled to understand why we surrounded ourselves with so many useless gadgets and other Rube Goldberg inventions. 

A Different Planet.  We have come a long ways since the New Frontier.  In that era we partook of an excess of spirits—rather than of addictive consumption.  We have moved from the colored strands of beads offered in the Haight-Asbury to European couture for Heidi Fleiss along Rodeo Drive.  Now the price of ‘too much’ is ‘too high.’  Perhaps the follies of youth become the psychoses of old age.  Then it was playful excess; now it’s competitive materialism decked out in stress.  The result seems to be pathetic license instead of greater, joyful liberty. 

That’s not to say that hundred thousand dollar handbags, sixty-five thousand dollar motorcycles, eighty-five thousand dollar watches, and five-dollar tomatoes can’t give us a few laughs.  Indeed, they do.  But they do seem like excess baggage that weigh us down.  It’s time to be hitting the road again—without such burdens. 

Drink to the Lees.  If we are to counsel excess, then, let’s put aside hoarding, and listen to Ulysses, the ancient Greek traveler.  As he speaks through Alfred Lord Tennyson: 

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Match’d with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me. 

I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
Life to the lees…. 

We must have an excess of adventure, do more things than time allots us, be outrageous creators rather than dull consumers.  And leave all the stuff behind. 

P.S.  It was said that Freddie Coos, the owner of a long-gone establishment in North Beach called the Old Spaghetti Factory, was asked what he would do in the event of an atomic attack.  He said he would rush down to Shreve’s, a high-end San Francisco jeweler, bedeck himself with jewels, and sit in the biggest chair he could locate.  “That way,” he ostensibly remarked, “They’ll think I was a great king when they dig me up in a 1,000 years.” 

P.P.S.  Caesar, in his Gallic Wars, aptly referred to baggage as res impedimenta

P.P.P.S.  It’s not just products that have become useless and complex.  The consulting industry makes a living by complicating the problem and by devising intricate solutions that can never see the light of day.  We’re often brought in to advise chief executives about the elaborate proposals of professional-service providers in order to boil them down to the quick and doable. 

P.P.P.S.  Wine distributors and state liquor-store factotums remind us of the riposte given by Army sergeant majors if you should make the mistake of addressing them as “sir.”  “Don’t call me sir,” they will say, “I work for a living.”  Both featherbed occupations only exist because government has said we need them. 

P.P.P.P.S.  Back in 1957, Vance Packard came out with Hidden Persuaders, a pop tome, often derided since, that dealt with the subliminal tactics companies and their advertisers use to induce consumers to buy, buy, buy.  Obviously he was talking about mere kid stuff, and the merchants of fluff now have us eating—more expensively—out of their hands. 

P.P.P.P.P.S.  Retailing itself is changing in so many ways that we can hardly keep count.  Many retailers are migrating up market, since the cash registers are not ringing hardily enough with just middle-class purchases: even Wal-Mart has made a run at fashion apparel with scant success so far.  Paris Hilton excess is the outgrowth of small, segmented marketplaces.  The very concept of the mall (162 on big ideas) is troubled, putting a little pinch on the specialty chains that populate them.  Oddly enough, the department stores are staging a comeback.  See “Wal-Mart on the Rack.”  Ultra specialized businesses have become much more viable with the advent of the Internet which you can read about in “Rum and the Fancy Food Show,” where we discuss the Long Tail.  The mood of retail marketing has changed as seen in Japan’s luxury emporiums where the base color of high fashion has shifted away from casual black to very ordered grey.

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