Recently a friend sent me an award-winning marketing book as a kindness. It’s called Trading Up: Why Consumers Want New Luxury Goods — and How Companies Create Them. The book starts with a marketing case:

Consider Jake, a thirty-four-year-old construction worker earning about $50,000 a year, whose passion is golf. It took Jake a year to save enough money to buy a complete set of Callaway golf clubs — $3,000 worth of premium titanium-faced drivers, putters, and wedges — although he could have bought a decent set from a conventional producer for under $1,000…. “The real reason I bought them,” he told us at last, “is that they make me feel rich.”

I’m thankful to my friend for her kindness, but this book is depressing. The entire premise makes me sick. People who earn $50,000 can’t afford $3,000 golf clubs. Even the authors of the book admit that no one needs to spend so much on golf clubs.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t blame Jake. He’s just the mark in the scam. My beef is with the people who are smart enough to do something important in this world, but rather choose to figure out how to dupe Jakes.
What’s so bad about working hard to sell unnecessarily premium golf clubs? It’s an ethically impoverished way to spend the dividend we are receiving at the peak of our nation’s prosperity. In other words, with bridges falling down; with children uneducated, malnourished and unimmunized; with one billion people today trying to find clean water to drink …. why are we spending so much effort and brains on figuring out how to sell people crap they really don’t need?

As a consumer society, we consume. That is how we measure our innovation in society: our ability to consume in ways that others have not yet considered. That is how we measure our standing in society: our ability to consume beyond others’ ability to consume. That is how we transfer our values to our kids: by buying them things rather than making things with them or playing with them.

How empty it all seems.

Consider the meaning: To consume is to destroy or expend by use; use up; to eat or drink up; devour; to destroy, as by decomposition or burning.

When the archaeologists sift through our suburbs, will we be known as the Consumer Age? Are we really willing to be so little more than a Consumer Society? Nice legacy, dude.

What will you say when your grandchildren gather around you in your final years and ask this question: “Hey, Gramps/Gramma, you were alive when America was at its most prosperous! How did you invest that great dividend? What did you do with all the money?”

I’d rather live in a Productive Society, during an Age of Surplus.

What role do you play in this game? The following article from The Wall Street Journal, sent to me by Marty Saperstein of Saperstein Associates, suggests how the game is played. The WSJ Fashion Journal’s Christina Binkley writes of “The Psychology of the $14,000 Handbag; How Luxury Brands Alter Shoppers’ Price Perceptions; Buying a Keychain Instead.”

What is too much to spend on a suit? The question weighed on Barry Schwarz as he scanned the racks at Boyds men’s store in Philadelphia, which were laden with $3,000 Brioni suits. "Their prices were just out of the world," recalls Mr. Schwarz, a professor of psychology at Swarthmore College. We’ve all been there: A window display or a recommendation lures us into a store — and we face unexpectedly astronomical price tags. It seems to happen more often these days as many luxury brands — selling everything from $14,000 Ralph Lauren handbags to $899 Bugaboo baby strollers and $6,900 Beefeater barbecue grills — push their top price points higher than they’ve ever gone before. What’s priced below falls into that ever-expanding category: “affordable luxury.” Some people cut and run when confronted with prices that seem crazy. But many of us experience a sudden emotional-mathematical transformation. We set a new ceiling for a “reasonable” price. Disinclined to go all the way to buy the trophy, we instead settle for a consolation prize.

When shoppers are confronted with prices they can’t afford, a smart retailer will “move you right along to where you can salvage your pride,” says Dan Hill, president of Sensory Logic, a Minneapolis consulting company that helps companies explore their sensory and emotional connections with customers. Pride, Mr. Hill points out, “is a mixture of anger and happiness.” That pretty much describes the whole shopping experience at those moments when we’re outpriced (anger), then soothe ourselves with a smaller splurge (happiness).

Soothing yourself by consuming? Perhaps there’s another way to find meaning in life. One that produces Good, rather than simply devouring goods.