With my new Mercatus job, I think I’ll go back to my practice of doing off-the-wall stuff on Sundays–the day of rest. I already did one today, here’s another.
While flying back from Hong Kong last September I read the Financial Times. They have a glossy section discussing objects at their website Howtospendit.com.
Then Mosqueda has commissioned many of the world’s most interesting designers to create pieces for the project. Maarten Baas has taken an old carpenter’s desk ($15,000) and done his famous burning act with it, while Matali Crasset for Nodus has produced strikingly geometric rugs ($5,900). Some of Holland’s top designers (Julius Vermeulen, Swip Stolk and the legendary Wim Crouwel) have brought out special fabrics, which have been used to upholster vintage furniture, such as the Theo Ruth & Swip Stolk chair ($6,300). There is a copper Dutch bicycle ($7,100) in an edition of 10 from Van Heesch Design, a skull sculpture ($6,700) by Nick Ervinck and a Botanica vase ($3,100) by Studio FormaFantasma, plus an amusing Naughty Bavaria pillow by Studio Job for Maharam ($415). Verging more towards art than functional pieces are Esther Janssen’s hand-sewn, leather artworks of natural disasters ($5,900), but alongside these there are also utilitarian pieces such as a steel floor lamp by Tom Dixon ($5,900) and a Piet Hein Eek chair ($7,500), as well as a stunning Camino vase by Alessandro Mendini ($7,100). A contemporary Nendo Deep Sea table for Glas Italia ($9,000), a stylish tray by Tord Boontje ($2,200) and a special Viktor & Rolf doll ($75,000) add to the curiosities.
Each new collection at Chamber will come with a limited-edition perfume. The scent for the gallery’s opening has been created by Julian Bedel of Argentine perfumery Fueguia 1833 and costs $350 for 100ml eau de parfum. Mosqueda asked Bedel, who is famous for taking his inspiration from South America and its culture (for example, a fictional library in one of Jorge Luis Borges’s short stories), to craft a unisex scent based on the experience of being in an old Louis Khan building. It is bottled in a porcelain vessel that was designed by Studio Job.
My first reaction was that if the rich need advice on how to spend their money, then maybe it’s time for a progressive consumption tax. But of course first reactions aren’t always the best, and so for months I mulled the question of how to address this issue; do I want to mood affiliate with philistine populists or reactionary aesthetes? Let’s consider a few arguments:
1. The marginal utility argument. Surely the rich receive less marginal utility from these objects that the poor would receive from an equivalent amount of money.
2. On the other hand there are externalities involved. People like me can get utility browsing the Chelsea gallery where these objects are displayed. And jobs are created making these objects.
3. But jobs are a cost. The opportunity cost of making these objects is fewer objects for the poor. Many fewer, as objects for the poor are mass-produced in southern Chinese factories. And people browsing that Chelsea gallery will also be fairly affluent; these objects do nothing for the working class and poor.
4. But these jobs are a labor of love for those who feel called to the arts. Do we really want to go back to the egalitarian 1950s, when Wallace Stevens had to sell insurance? The super rich support a large class of young artists. Right now the 21st century equivalent of Venice is being created somewhere, we are just too close to see it. (Let’s just hope it isn’t Macao.)
5. Perhaps we could tax mansions and yachts on a sort of aesthetic basis, with much higher property tax rates on faux Versailles palaces in the Hollywood Hills than mid-century modern masterpieces.
6. Are you kidding! You expect IRS agents to be able to assess artistic merit?
And so it goes. So I’m torn between these two arguments. I suppose in the end it was the perfume that tipped me over the edge. Now I’m as much a fan of old Louis Kahn buildings and infinite libraries as the next guy, but let’s consider the following hypothetical. Suppose it cost $350 to create the Louis Kahn perfume and only $250 to create a perfume that will leave you smelling like an old Louis Sullivan building. What is the marginal utility from that extra architectural cache?
So the philistine in me won out. But how are we going to get the money to the poor? Matt Yglesias tells us that our next president (Hillary Clinton) plans to run on a platform to help the middle class, not the poor. (I refuse to believe she has no idealism; rather (like Mitt Romney) she intends to lie her way into office and then tell us what she really believes.) At the other extreme, after very wisely cutting the Kansas income tax, Governor Brownback had to wreck everything by a plan to raise the cigarette tax from 79 cents to $2.29/pack. A blow right to the solar plexus of poor and working class Kansans.
The Dems want to subsidize NPR while the GOP doesn’t want to subsidize any radio stations. Who will subsidize the stations that the poor listen to?
So I’ll keep advocating a progressive consumption tax/wage subsidy to help the poor. But I’m not very optimistic. The rich have their lobbyists and the middle class has their teachers/public employee unions. No one listens to the poor cigarette smokers.
You might wonder why I am so obsessed with redistributing consumption from the rich to the poor, and so disdainful of those who want to help the middle class. I suppose it’s partly because I believe the motivations are different, utilitarianism vs. envy. Why is utilitarianism better? Consider the following from a recent piece in the New York Review of Books:
Aly’s emphasis on emotion (in this case envy) and psychology (concerning the reception of race theory), to say nothing of the topic of anti-Semitism itself, represents a significant departure from his earlier work. Here is a creative scholar who continues to grow in remarkable ways. In Aly’s portrayal the German paradox alluded to above disappears. If the Jews of Germany experienced the greatest success of any Jewish community in Europe in assimilation, social mobility, and the attainment of wealth and preeminence, they did so amid a Gentile population for which the modernization experience was more compressed, intense, and disorienting than in other countries. If envy of Jewish success was the driving motive behind modern anti-Semitism, as Aly argues, then it would be logical rather than paradoxical that the most intense anti-Semitic reaction would also occur in Germany, the land of the greatest and most visible Jewish success. This in my opinion is the most important contribution of Why the Germans? Why the Jews?
PS. Would you rather smell like this: