This is my column today.
First, please bear with a little personal story telling. In the last two years I have had the great fortune of working for a company that keeps its head office outside of the Makati Commercial Center. This means being spared the thousand and one aggravations that come with being cooped up along with millions of other working drones within a few square hectares of precious prime property: traffic, congestion, pollution, and the lure of commercial considerations. So in a manner of speaking, I’ve been thankfully insulated from lifestyle and commercial trends.
Except when I have to attend meetings, I rarely find myself in Makati. So I have been blissfully oblivious to the new commercial establishments that have sprouted in the Greenbelt and Glorietta centers like, well, children of Filipinos who have been kept ignorant and without access to contraception methods. (I know I just wrote a really awful metaphor; sorry, couldn’t help it in light of the obstinacy of the Catholic Church to fight the reproductive health bill in Congress through any means possible).
But I finally found myself in the posh environs of Greenbelt 5 over the weekend courtesy of a friend who is into material things of dubious value but whose worth have nevertheless been shot up into the stratosphere by the signature attached to it. It was a painful reality check. Just for the heck of it, I picked up a pair of ladies’ shoes on display and inquired about its price: a whooping P45,000. I was sorely tempted to ask if the pair of shoes had magical qualities that made transformed whoever wore it into Cinderella, had it not been for what I felt was the utter ridiculousness of the whole thing.
If it was any consolation, the saleslady I was chatting up seemed to empathize and intimated that she herself couldn’t understand why such things cost 1,000 percent more than what their counterparts in Divisoria would. The quality is not the same but I doubt if the quality differential was proportionate to the price gap. But there seems to be a huge demand for these accouterments of status even if, as the saleslady pointed out, quite a number would purchase items by maxing out limits on two or three credit cards combined. Why anyone would want to slave themselves paying credit card bills for months for something that can be worn once or twice seems incomprehensible.
There was nothing—absolutely nothing—in the row of stores that we checked that was worth less than P3,000, which, if we come to think about it, is roughly the half-month take-home pay of about 90 percent of the population. I understand that these establishments are meant to cater to a specific clientele. I don’t mean to knock on free enterprise, but I am worried that no one seems to be measuring this emerging conspicuous consumption, reckless luxury spending, and ostentatious display of wealth and materialism against contemporary socio-cultural considerations.
Obviously, there are people in this country who can really afford P80,000 Jimmy Choos or Manolo Blahniks. The question is: Are their numbers increasing? Are we finally seeing the narrowing of the wealth gap in this country? Are we finally seeing the rise of enterprise culture, of value creation that trickles down benefits to the lower rungs of the social ladder? I am afraid not.
Let’s make no bones about this. We are not going through an economic renaissance wherein those who have access to newfound, albeit temporary wealth such as the windfall from the call center industry, are making society wealthier. In short, the seeming rise in personal fortunes, which is illusory to begin with, is not linked to wealth and value creation at all. Nor is it indicative of a real economic boom.
For example, the truth is that the income gap is even more widening as we speak. Just last week, my colleagues and I in the human resource management profession were locking horns trying to find a way to measure the gap between the salary of top executives and the minimum wage earners. We know it is going to be difficult, not to mention, suicidal. But the chasm in the pay gap defies any semblance of logic and fairness. There are many factors that contribute to the gap and I unfortunately don’t have the column space to discuss them today, but obviously, lifestyle considerations are a huge part of it. CEOs and senior executives have to live up to certain expectations in terms of material display of wealth and personal worth—high-rise condos, luxury cars, designer clothes, the whole shebang.
We must address these issues because they portend a number of disastrous social implications.
It was difficult to ignore the tell-tale symptoms of our new collective malady at Greenbelt over the weekend: Far too many people accessorized in iPhones, iPods, and sleek cell phones sipping designer lattes and lounging around in Havaianas. The statement is obviously more of style than substance.
We’re seeing a lot of young and not-so-young people (such as call center agents) who are splurging newfound temporary wealth who have easily latched on to the trend. It does seem that we are nurturing a generation that is not so shy to flaunt wealth—even if its temporary, people who seem to subscribe to the mantra that there is no point to having money if it is not spent on material things.
Unfortunately, we’re really all party to it. Advertising, for example, has driven conspicuous spending to preposterous levels that seemed to have perverted the real value of a lot of material possessions. It does seem that luxury shopping is now prescribed as therapy for everything—if you are happy, go out and buy something, and if you are depressed, well, go out and reward yourself by buying something just the same.
What seems clear is that wealth today is closely intertwined with personal worth (note how we often measure the value of a person, even senators and congressmen, by measuring his net worth), resulting in widespread insecurity and frustration.
How these affect the national psyche is something our sociologists should worry about.
Some of my colleagues have been advocating programs on financial planning and wealth and value creation. We must find new measures of one’s worth other than material status. This is why I must admit that I was a little gladdened by the fall of the so-called Gucci Gang because of intense criticism in the blogosphere about the ostentatious display of profligate lifestyles.
Unfortunately, mainstream media didn’t play it up because it would have offended the very people who produce their profit. But if we all play our part in impressing upon people that we are not impressed by excessive display of wealth, then perhaps we can minimize all these conspicuous luxury spending and too much emphasis on materialism that is not creating value to society at all.
Adam Smith once said: “The chief enjoyment of the riches consists in the parade of riches.” I think that’s a capitalist statement that we need to render irrelevant in this country at this point.