Politics from the Palouse to Puget Sound

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Wal-Mart, Xbox 360 and Snobbish Hypocrisy

Throughout time, the wealthy have engaged in conspicuous consumption. When rich teens spend $1,500 on a handbag, it’s considered “good living” and “classy”.

Marketers focus on the children of upper-middle class parents who have lots of cash to burn. These spoiled kids are somewhat benignly referred to as “spendthrifts” and “consumer junkies” in need of some parental guidance.

In any case, there is little pontificating from the liberal media or the leftist elites. But let a crowd of working class people line up at a Wal-Mart, and commentators start frothing at the mouth. Following every Black Friday, newspaper columnists and bloggers decry the “mindless materialism”, “crass consumerism” and “greed for cheap Chinese crap/junk/garbage” exemplified by the long lines and shoving at Wal-Mart Supercenters across the county. Whenever the lumpenproles try to get their share of the good life, the revolutionary class howls in protest.

In contrast, I have hardly seen anyone condemn the “Midnight Madness” that accompanied the launch of the Xbox 360 (which included some Wal-Mart stores). Oh, there have been jokes about the “geeks”, but no moralistic denunciations. Bill Gates himself was at a Best Buy in Bellevue when the store opened at 12:01 AM on November 22 to sell the new Xbox. One buyer had been in line for 77 hours. The story was similar all over the U.S. and Canada. There was even a celebrity-filled, invitation-only gala in a hangar in the desert of California. Gosh, it’s not greed, it’s just a clever marketing strategy.

At a Maryland Wal-Mart (of course, the elites will mumble), where 300 people had waited in line for as much as 12 hours for an Xbox 360, a fight broke out that took 10 police officers to end. The store had to stop selling the video game console.

Why no outcry? Why no accusations that Microsoft "drives up community policing costs"? In my opinion, it’s simple snobbery. The Xbox 360 is expensive ($300-$400, plus $50-$60 for each game). Microsoft is a “name” brand. The people lined up to buy the Xbox 360 were for the most part young, well educated and affluent. According to Ziff-Davis, the average family income of a video gamer is $62,000. The average Wal-Mart shopper tends to be older, less educated and less affluent (average family income of $40,000, below the American average of $43,000). The goods they can afford to purchase lack the cachet of the Xbox. For example, there has been much sniggering about the $399 laptops Wal-Mart was offering, yet that is the same price point as the Xbox, which is basically just a computer itself.

I agree that many of our young people seem to be engaged in vacuous material pursuits and there is generally too much spending and not enough saving by American consumers. But those are discussions best suited for the pulpit or around the dinner table. I don't need the intellectual and cultural elitist arbiters of taste passing judgement on, or even worse, trying to restrict, how I choose to spend my hard-earned dollar.

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