On the grand scale of things, frivolous consumption ranks pretty low — i.e., somewhere below the average cabinet member but above child rapists. The mission of today’s column is to tell you that this opprobrium is undeserved: there is nothing inherently wrong with frivolous consumption. And, dear reader, two points before you get agitated. One, read the rest of the column before blowing a fuse. Two, note the word ‘inherently’.
Let us begin by grappling with the concept of ‘frivolity’. After all, one person’s frivolity is another person’s necessity. If you can read this column, then you likely live in an English-speaking world where the object of most magazines is to tempt you into buying what Michael Lewis once famously described as “The New New Thing”. Obviously, not all of the magazine ads are frivolous. At the same time, there is obviously a point beyond which things just stop making sense.
In the particular context of Pakistan, there are three things (amongst many others) that are generally derided as ‘frivolous’: large cars, lavish weddings, kites. In my view, each of those three activities should actually be encouraged.
Let’s start with large cars. A well-optioned Porsche Cayenne Turbo costs in the approximate vicinity of Rs30 million if purchased new. Out of those Rs30 million, more than Rs20 million consists of taxes.
More importantly, a person can only buy a Rs30 million-car if he has a legitimate, disposable income of Rs30 million. And in order to show legitimate disposable after-tax income of Rs30 million, the average Pakistan first needs to show gross earnings of Rs50 million.
If we do the math, the net result is that a Pakistani who buys a new car worth Rs30 million, has first had to pay taxes of Rs40 million. Frankly, if I were the finance minister of Pakistan, I would give a pride of performance award to every poor sod who bought a new Rs30 million car because they would have paid about 80 per cent of their gross earnings in taxes.
Let us now move on to the subject of lavish weddings. In 1997, the federal government introduced a law forbidding the serving of food at weddings (though an exception was made for baraatis). Subsequently, the legal regime was revised to allow the serving of one dish at marriage functions.
My point regarding food at marriage parties isn’t the silliness of a law that flies in the face of deeply-ingrained social instincts or the hypocrisy or the waste of official resources spent in patrolling wedding functions. Instead, my query here is simpler: why would you want to stop people from serving food at weddings?
Food served at weddings is both produced and prepared locally. In other words, the chicken karahi served at a valima features a chicken that was born locally, raised locally, sold locally and turned into a saalan locally. At each step of the way, people made money. Banning or limiting food at weddings is, therefore, the same as banning or limiting local businesses. Why on God’s green earth would anyone ever do that?
The ostensible answer is that people really don’t want to spend so much money on food at weddings but are forced to do so by social pressures. So banning food at weddings is one way of giving relief to the lower classes.
This argument does have some merit. The problem, though, is that people weak enough to be coerced by social pressure into entertaining extravagantly, also get coerced by social pressure into giving lavish dowries and flouting stupid laws. Even to the extent that some people do get relief, the effect is minimal when it comes to the people most guilty of extravagant entertainment because, in their case, food costs account for a small portion of the overall wedding.
I come now to kite flying. Let us leave aside the arguments that kite flying is un-Islamic or that it results in an unacceptable loss of life and instead concentrate on the argument that money spent on kite flying is ‘wasteful’ or “frivolous”. My response here is simple: frivolous for whom?
The bored suburbanite who splurges on kites may well be blowing up his money. At the same time, the person selling the kites to the bored suburbanite is likely to be poor and likely to use his earnings to feed an impoverished family. Where exactly is the frivolity in that?
In effect, the ‘frivolity’ allegation assumes that some expenditures are better than others. More specifically, the assumption is that money spent on kites is inherently undesirable, as if money not blown up on kites would somehow be spent on world peace or curing cancer. This assumption is entirely unjustified because in actual fact money spent on kites is wonderful for the economy. It may come at too high a price in terms of human suffering, but that is a different debate.
Does this mean that any and all limits on consumption are unjustified? Absolutely not.
In his last book, Ill Fares the Land, the late British historian Tony Judt raged passionately and learnedly against the embrace of unfettered capitalism. His argument was that true social prosperity depended on an accepted social contract and that too great a divide between the rich and the poor had the tendency to negate that fundamental unity necessary for the survival of a society.
I agree with what Judt has to say about keeping a balance in society. However, what destroys a society is not the mere inequality between the rich and the poor, but the belief of the poor that that the rich have attained their status by abusing the political system and rigging it in their favour. Tackling the mere display of inequality, therefore, does not reduce the bedrock resentment of the disadvantaged in this society. At the same time, we already have huge economic problems in this society — problems which are not solved by continuously adopting economically stupid policies. Finally, the whole ‘frivolousness’ debate is often used to mask a dogmatic self-righteousness.
There is a middle path out there between the embrace of conspicuous consumption and killjoy puritanism. It’s about time we found it.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 17th, 2012.