Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Peacock's Tailpipes

A luxury car is a way to advertise earning power. Only people with a lot of money can afford to waste so much of it on something so useless. It's like the peacock's tail; only the supremely fit can afford to expend so many of their resources in such a display.

Much like the peacock, luxury cars' tails display wastefulness. Cheap cars get good mileage. Luxury cars get bad mileage. More fuel consumption means more exhaust. Ordinary cars have a single, smaller tailpipe. Some pickup trucks have two, or one larger one. Luxury cars usually have 2 and often have 4. They advertise that their owners don't need to worry about the cost of gasoline; they can burn as much as they want.

We as a society conserve only because we have to. Conservation is otherwise contrary to our values. Luxury cars demonstrate what we truly aspire to, and that is to waste. Waste is the ultimate luxury. One day, perhaps there will be high-mileage luxury car. When that happens, you'll know that we've found something even better to waste. I hope it's something we can afford.

Addendum: I am aware of high mileage exotic cars like the Tesla. Those exist in such small numbers that they don't matter.

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Blogger Rich said...

In general, I agree, but I think Lexus' very early hybrid might serve as a counterexample. The early part is important because it was designed before green was a status symbol.

July 23, 2008 at 2:34 PM  
Blogger Ketan said...

Hybridization costs extra. It saves money on gas, but you pay more upfront. That seems like a wash.

July 23, 2008 at 4:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since when is driving a fancy luxury car "waste"? Per's very first definition of waste:

to consume, spend, or employ uselessly or without adequate return; use to no avail or profit; squander: to waste money; to waste words.

Waste is defined by lack of return. But the wealthy who drive such luxury vehicles are getting more than ample return on their money.

The reason is that we're a very wealthy society. Even the middle class has not just enough to meet their needs, but plenty left over for entertainment, and even some degree of luxury.

So what do the wealthy do with their money, if they have plenty leftover even after having spent on everything they can really want/use? Spend on goods that advertise their wealth. And what better way than a luxury car?

So, far from being "waste", it's actually accomplishing something meaningful for the buyers. Having a luxury car, when seen that way, is as meaningful to them as having a monster SUV is for your typical suburban family of 3. And when it comes down to it, your average lexus gets far better gas mileage.

And as to conservation, we don't conserve because we have to, we conserve because we perceive it's beneficial to. There is quite a difference. One implies lack of choice. The other, that there are better choices for resources. In that sense, the rich are no different than the rest of us, other than by the degree that their resources exceed their needs.

August 19, 2008 at 11:15 PM  
Blogger Ketan said...

Good points all. I would say that it's waste from the perspective of the buyer because they're paying for capabilities they aren't using. How many Porsche owners ever even break 100 mph? Yet they're carrying around that extra engine weight and burning that extra gasoline without ever getting the return. Knowing that they could go 150 mph if they wanted to doesn't seem like sufficient justification. So at least from that perspective I think it's reasonable to say it's wasteful. By analogy, I can leave all the lights on in my house even when the rooms are empty; I would benefit because I would never have to deal with light switches, especially in the dark. I derive some benefit from using energy above and beyond the bare minimum, but I am still quite comfortable calling it wasteful.

Further, in practice we use a looser definition of the word "waste." Consider the cliche of the starving children in wherever when you throw away uneaten food. People "waste" their talents and their lives all the time; I don't have a problem using the word that way.

Also, I would say it's a waste because the costs of gasoline aren't fully internalized. Burning gasoline has costs in terms of pollution and other emissions that aren't adequately captured in what you pay at the pump. The more gasoline you burn, the higher the cost that is inflicted on me. I'm willing to tolerate that cost when people seem cognizant of it and modify their behavior to minimize it. I'm not so tolerant when they seem to ignore those consequences.

Finally, while the original post was somewhat judgmental (and this comment is very much so), my main point was about the tailpipes as display. People with money can ignore the dollars-and-cents calculations of energy usage that people with less money cannot. Luxury cars with 4 tailpipes announce that ability to everyone.

August 20, 2008 at 4:00 PM  

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