May 14, 2008
High living may be giving way to an age of frugalityPosted in International Economy · 27 comments ·
This week, news that Christian Laboutin — designer of his famous red-soled heels– was in Dublin, coupled with the opening of the movie “Sex in the City’ in London, made me think, why do women wear high heels?
I’ve always been intrigued by women’s fascination with high- heeled shoes. Why do so many totally rational, intelligent women become illogical and unstable at the sight of a pair of Jimmy Choos? Even more intriguing is why do women wear high heels at all? It must be hellish to be cantilevered at a most unusual angle by shoes that look as if they are designed to hurt rather than to wear.
As a typical man with a cowardly low pain threshold, I am consistently amazed at what women will put themselves through on a Saturday night. It’s not uncommon to hear our wives or girlfriends say things like, “I hope the restaurant’s not far coz my feet are killing me”.
Why would anyone, willingly, wear a pair of shoes that hurt? We’re not talking about an annoying rubbing sensation here. Orthopedic surgeons regularly refer to the fact that constant wearing of ‘killer’ heels can lead to joint, feet and back problems.
Yet women keep putting themselves through the pain barrier, why? One simple reason is that taller people get laid more. Humans value height, we find it attractive and therefore, women in heels are more likely to be fancied then those in flats. Also, men like what high heels do to a woman’s shape: by forcing girls to arch their backs, high heels push their boobs and bum out, accentuating the positives.
Apparently, this is all Darwinian, in the sense that we like each other to look healthy, fertile and fit because when we are looking for a mate, we want that mate to be as healthy as possible in order to have children. So it is easy to see why women in heels have an immediate advantage over those without. Unfortunately, any advantage that heels can confer will be eliminated if all women wear high heels. When everyone gets heels, women suffer not to stand out but just to keep up!
Now consider the ‘high heels’ dilemma in a greater context. The ‘keeping up’ conundrum affects almost every consumption decision we make. One of the best places to see this process — which US economist Robert Frank likens to an ‘arms race’ in his new book, ‘The Economic Naturalist’ — is to think about the makeover of the Irish kitchen.
In recent years, despite the fact that our families have become smaller, Irish kitchens have become colossal. Irish kitchens are now on steroids, bulked up, pushed out and over-extended. During the boom, because stamp duty made moving house and trading up prohibitive for many, people focused on upgrading their existing houses with an explosion in extensions.
An interesting recent phenomenon has been the emergence of ‘the island’. When we were kids, an island was a geological occurrence, like Lambay or Achill. Today, an island is a stand-alone sink and hob in the centre of these new giant kitchens. But like high heels, it is only a great advantage if no one else has an island. When islands become the norm, the relative advantage and the feel good factor associated with them diminishes. Once this happens, people driving to break away from the herd will pitch for something else, like, for example, a carp pond!
But carp pond envy will set in sooner than they think and, in no time, vast swathes of suburban Ireland will become home to all classes of exotic fish. Interestingly, the exotic fish craze is not that unusual. In ancient Rome, at the height of the Republic’s powers, wealthy Romans became obsessed with exotic fish collections.
Apparently, the type of fish you kept said something about the type of person you were. Unfortunately, all go the same way of the high heels; all advantages are condemned to be wiped out by others trying to keep up.
This might explain why so many studies reveal that when countries get richer, the societies do not appear to get happier. The ‘high heels’ conundrum gets the better of all of us. The data reveals that for poor countries like Ireland in the 1980s, increases in income make people much happier. This is pretty easy to understand: if you never had a car and then you get one, the joy of traveling around where you want and when you want rather than waiting for the bus to take you to a specific place at a specific time, makes you happy. Now that you have a car, the extra happiness you get out of owning a better car falls. It’s the simple idea of having too much of a good thing.
The reason all of this matters is that for many people in wealthy countries, the ‘high heels’ conundrum means they are working harder and longer and yet do not seem to become any happier. So why are we doing it? Why do we keep up these appearances and continue with the rat race?
The slowing economy gives us an opportunity to reassess the values of the society we have created. When things become a little bit less frenetic, maybe we will start to look at happiness, rather than possessions or output per head for the basis upon which to judge whether the society is successful of not.
Such a period of reflection might also be forced upon us by events. You don’t have to be a genius to figure out that Ireland’s boom was facilitated by the three Cs — cheap money, cheap energy and cheap labour (in the guise of immigrants). The first two Cs have now disappeared and the third one seems to be leaving of its own accord.
Without these cheap resources, the idea that the rich world can continue to grow and grow doesn’t stack up. We are faced with a Malthusian proposition where the demands of an ever-increasing world population are smashing into the reality of finite resources, making the very idea of limitless spending almost immoral.
As a result, we may be on the cusp of a value change in the western world, where frugality may well become the new extravagance. A greater appreciation of the environmental inconsistencies facing us might cause overspending to be viewed distastefully, like overeating. Such neo-puritanism could easily take hold as the ‘high heels’ dilemma becomes more obvious to everyone. Maybe the lesson from the ‘high heels’ conundrum is: one pair of Manolos good, 30 pairs bad.