In a famous scene of the movie The Dark Knight, the Joker asks a mobster: “Why so serious?” In another scene, he burns a huge pile of cash just to send a message to the city of Gotham. In my opinion, good movies always try to send a message; a question or thought that keeps lingering long after the movie has finished. Sometimes, these thoughts find resonance in a very different area, such as an economic theory from more than a hundred years ago. Was the Joker actually a critical economist? Did his message convey more than love for absolute chaos?
Born in the city of Dordrecht, I moved to the posh region ‘t Gooi at the age of six. With its large villas, high density of nice cars and lush scenery, the physical contrast could not have been any bigger. While I would be awed by a single Porsche on the way to school in Dordrecht, even a Lamborghini could not impress me much in my new town—so to speak. Nevertheless, I got used to the new scene pretty quickly.
What I did not get used to, however, was the associated mentality. Back then, I knew almost nothing about the place I was moving to. I simply observed my surroundings with a stranger’s eye. Apparently, people (or at least a significant group of people) were rather wealthy as they were well-dressed, drove around in shiny cars, and openly talked about money. It became clear that people were doing well for themselves. Yet, to me, it wasn’t clear why they had show it to everyone so much.
Over time, I started to accept this odd habit and didn’t pay much attention to it. Until I read a chapter in Robert Heilbroner’s The Worldly Philosophers about a very strange yet brilliant economist. His name was Thorstein Veblen and, according to the respective author, he was a complete weirdo. Veblen, unaccustomed to the American way of life in the mid-nineteenth century, was able to dissect the socio-economic structures that dominated the society he was living in.
One of them was what Veblen called the ‘leisure class’. People who belonged to this class were rich, idle, and most of all conspicuous. In America, this group mainly included the new capitalist entrepreneurs. They not only busied themselves with making profits, but they were also obsessed with displaying their success and wealth to others. At the same time, members of the leisure class looked down upon hard work; to be free from the toils of work was a sign of competence and privilege. Workers, on the other hand, would envy their masters and tried to emulate them.
Sounds familiar? Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with making money and claiming credit for one’s success. Neither are rich people necessarily lazy. What I do find objectionable is the shamelessly conspicuous display of wealth and material superiority by people who happen to have a lot of money—celebrities and sport stars are an obvious example. Veblen aptly compared the leisure class to barbaric warlords who’s single goal was the seizure of goods so that they could live out their days in idleness. He was convinced that consumption for purely conspicuous motives was economically harmful, as resources were wasted on the irrational and insatiable desires of an essentially unproductive class.
Veblen was someone who did not take things for granted, as he constantly questioned the common explanation for certain behaviour—like why the rich were so conspicuous. Perhaps you need to be a bit weird in order to see things differently and more clearly. In this sense, I think the Joker sent us a very clear message.