Yet, anecdotal evidence from both sides of the Atlantic seems to suggest that something deeper may be going on. When the era of cheap Chinese manufacturing started, English‐speaking elites didn’t seem particularly cheerful — at most, they grudgingly acquiesced to the new low‐cost alternatives that had reached Western markets. In the present era, in contrast, they embrace frugality as something cool. What is more, we see culturally‐induced frugality in areas where there have been few fundamental shifts in the underlying supply chain.
One of our favorite culinary personalities seems to be making her living by educating people how to use leftovers in the kitchen. Food trucks and simple ethnic dining are becoming genuinely exciting dining options — not just a humble source of sustenance on the go. People seem to bike more, instead of driving cars. Hey, even the pope takes a bus. Finally, doing one’s shopping at eBay or in charity stores is not stigmatized, in fact it’s seen as desirable.
In contrast, how much is sheer wealth or conspicuous consumption being rewarded? When I look back at my time in London, I don’t get the impression that swanky residences and Bentleys of Russian oligarchs and Saudi princes were buying them a lot of goodwill with local residents. Far from being met with admiration or even envy, they were generally seen as signs of bad taste and mental immaturity.
True, the embrace of frugality seems to be an elite phenomenon, and may not extend beyond large cities and folks with university degrees. Conspicuous consumption and display of wealth may get you ahead in many places around the planet, even in the developed Western world.
Regardless of how strong is the cultural shift towards frugality, the implicit assumption used by Veblen, Layard and Frank — namely that people compete for status along just one relevant margin, namely income — sounds no longer convincing. As Will Wilkinson wrote in a policy paper on happiness research six years ago,