It is the purpose of this inquiry to discuss the place and value of the leisure class as an economic factor in modern life . . . The data employed to illustrate or enforce the argument have been drawn from everyday life by direct observation or through common notoriety, rather than more recondite sources at a further remove . . .
-Thorstein Veblen, The Theory of the Leisure Class .
'Bankers are big spenders," Jeff Ellis observes and as vice president and co-owner of Washington's prestigious and most expensive purveyors, Ridgewell's Caterers, he's in an exceptional position to know just who some of the city's biggest spenders are. The firm does about 180 to 200 Washington parties a week.
Bankers "absolutely insist on the best when it comes to their functions, and of course, it's our business and pleasure to supply it," Ellis says. And Ridgewell's best, for a sit-down dinner with five courses "can easily run to $235 per person, with $60 to $70 of that on wines and liquors alone," Ellis says. "The ticket's high; there's no denying that, but they view it - and rightyly so I might add - as an investment, a means to an end to opening the right doors in Washington. So they'll go to great lengths to do the unusual, have us give their people something different. For example, they might have me fly in salmon from Scotland, Maine lobsters or perhaps some fresh reindeer meat from Alaska, if it's available. Filet de reindeer is very popular in Washington."
Popular perhaps, but the attitude of "let's dine tonight on filet de reindeer while the rest of the country eats $1.79-a-pound hamburger" is historically the reason men rise up against their rulers, whether it be with guns or tax proposals. Filet de reindeer is also "conspicuous consumption." That's the phrase used by Thorstein Veblen in his classic economic treatise, The Theory of the Leisure Class , to describe a social conduct which involves spending money well beyond the point of reasonable needs and wants.
Written in 1899, Veblen's work was aimed at the follies and foibles of America's nouveau riche in the latter half of the 19th century, aimed at the Vanderbilts, Goulds and Harrimans of Saratoga Springs and Newport. Could, then, Veblen's satire and sober analysis of wastefulness be useful in trying to understand or account for the habits of the well-to-do in Washington these days? Could it, with slight modification, be a "Theory of the Governing Class"?
The "leisure class," Veblen decided, was concerned with "conspicuous consumption," "wastefulness" (expenditure which does not contribute to human life or the well-being of the community) and the pursuit of "honorific occupation" (which Veblen identifies as government, warfare, sports and devout observances).
All to what purpose? Why to enhance prestige. "In order to stand well in the eyes of the community it is necessary to come up to a certain, although somewhat indefinite, conventional standard of wealth; just as in the earlier predatory stage it was necessary for the barbarian man to come up to his tribe's standards of physical endurance, cunning and skill at arms," Veblen wrote.
Theory was an overnight sensation. Beginning with, "The institution of the leisure class is found in its best development at the higher stages of the barbarian culture," the force of Veblen's dissection of a society which lionized a small class of mandarins by regarding their abstinence of manual labor as "dignified" and excessive spending habits as "honorable" has not been diminished by the passage of time.
The leisure class is in great measure sheltered from the stress of those economic exigencies which prevail in any modern, highly organized industrial community. The exigencies of the struggle for the means of life are less exacting for this class than for any other . . . The exigencies of the general economic situation does not freely or directly impinge upon the members of this class. . .
'Liquid, "available," "ready to be spent": in the pockets and under the control of our emerging "governing class," Washington's a town with money t burn. Or at least that's what one would think after reading recent articles concerning the city's burgeoning (and obviously burdensome) affluence:
"Washington: Gold Coast on the Potomac" (U. S. News & World Report); "Washington's Big Boom" (Dun's Review); "Washington: Newest City of Bright Hopes" (Christian Science Monitor); "Washington's Bustling Activity" (Financial Times of London); "Washington: Life of Luxury a Capital Idea" (Los Angeles Times).
The Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade likes to call all this media hype "the case for Washington": that while most Americans struggle to cope with the soaring cost of living, job security, taxes and recession, those of the governing class concern themselves with the price of gold, the rise and fall of the Dow Jones Index, the fluctuation of the prime interest rate or the tax shelter derived from the purchase of a $250,000 Watergate condominium.
"Well, let's put it this way," a native Atlanta busiessman now living in Washington says, "if Pepco suddenly raised their rates, that night at a typical Washington dinner party attended by, say, two ambassadors, a senator, two congressmen, perhaps an international banker, a local Washington businessman and a Washington stockbroker, the dinner conversation is not going to include someone saying, 'I wonder if I can pay my electric bill this month.' In Atlanta, that's more likely to happen. The very nature of the Washington power enclaves and the affluence here tends to isolate it from the rest of the country."
"Things keep getting better and better in Washington," says Doug Poretz, the Metropolitan Washington Board of Trade's pied piper, whose public relations firm, Poretz and Jaffe, is paid to lure new business to the downtown area with honey-sweet demographics stressing the District's "recessiion-ressistant, inflation-insulted" good life. "These are our halcyon days," Poretz boasts gleefully, "especially as things get grim everywhere else."
That should come as no surprise. Washington has always been separated from the bulk of the American economy, growing fat while the rest of the country remained lean. The first "boom" on the Potomac came with the Civil War during which the city doubled its population; World War I and the Great Depression brought on other big spurts of economic growth, as more and more emergency problem solvers came to town to work for the federal government. After their government stint, most stayed. The New Deal, developed in part to rectify the spectacle of economic inequality that Veblen dramatized, led to a frenzied burgeoning of the federal government. Massive federal spending - likes of which the country had never seen before - spawned a panoply of social reforms; it also spawned a governing class. With so many bureaucratic positions created, prosperity was bequeathed to Washingtonians in perpetuity.
"In most major cities you see street vendors selling hot dogs, peanuts or ice cream," a now classic Washingtonian magazine promotion brochure of a few years ago touted to would-be adveritsers, "in Washington there is a pushcart vendor selling quiche Lorraine, pate, hummus and fine cheese. But that's the way it is in Washington - expensive tastes and the money to afford them. Even in the middle of a major recession."
Poretz is particularly proud of Washington's track record during the 1974 recession, which almost paralyzed "real America." He revels "that while the recession was taking its toll around the nation, metro Washington residents had a free ride." Small wonder, with the federal government now employing some 360,000 people in the metropolitan area and its corollary "service industries" of devout observers (Veblen's phrase in contemporary context) providing an equal number of Washington jobs.
"It's not really that Washington's economy is recession proof," Poretz says, "but employment is more stable in Washington than anywhere else in the country. The likelihood of the government going out of business is ridiculous."
As a result of Washington's stable job market with its generous salaries (and automatic pay increases for civil servants) it's hardly astonishing that the per capita ($8,454) and family median income ($22,991) are the nation's highest.
According to Sales and Marketing Management, Inc., an economic survey organization which watches consumer purchasing power across the coountry, the Washington area, including Montogomery and Fairfax counties (which in 1977 had the highest proportion of households in the country earning more than $25,000), had take-home-pay of $24.6 billion dollars and ranked second in the nation in retail sales per household.
Why do the six Mercedes-Benz dealers of the metropolitan area advertise "there never was a better place than Washington?" Because in a year of energy turmoil and predicted $1.50-a-gallon gasoline, Washingtonians keep buying cars. Last year metropolitan residents spent $2.1 billion at automotive dealerships and related stores.
Is it any wonder Washington is the leading new car market in the country with almost a million households owning at least two cars? It is also the fastest growing luxury car market in the country, with nearly half of those households having spent more than $5,000 for their automobiles, among them almost 12,000 chaps "who have come up with their own energy policy" (as a spokesman for Mercedes-Benz of North America puts it) by buying Mercedes-Benz diesels.
Have you tried to buy a house in Washington recently? According to the latest figures supplied by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, the price in 1978 for an "existing home" in the Washington area averaged $80,100 (the mean new home price was $72,900). But any non-statistician house hunter can tell you that figure doesn't accurately represent the real estate market here. A Capitol Hill real estate agent recently said that in Georgetown, the Kalorama area, on Foxhall Road, in Cleveland Park or Glover Park, $80,000 buys nothing. On Capitol Hill, he said, an unrestored house could be found complete with "no new wiring, no plumbing, probably considered unlivable, as is, but asking between $80,000 and $90,000." The realistic asking price for anything "decent" in the District is now priced at more than $100,000. And housing in Washington will probably get more expensive in the near future. The National Association of Home Builders says not to expect the price of housing in the metropolitan area to do anything but escalate.
Why? "People are willing and able to pay the prices. We don't know how, but they do."
Washington is bullish no investments too, ranking second among the nation's top markets in the number of shareholders per thousand households, with a half-million Washington area residents holding shares in companies listed on one of the major stock exchanges. Over a quarter of a million of them own stocks, bonds, mutual funds or other securities valued at more than $10,000. A vice president of Merill Lynch says, "I often tell our young stockbrokers that there's no office in the country like Washington because they could walk out our front door and stand on the street corner and 50 percent of the people who walk past them are good candidates to buy stocks."
Personal service is still an element of great economic importance, especially as regards the distribution and conspicuous consumption of goods . . . there supervenes a division of labor then whose life is spent in maintaining the honor of those of leisure . . . putting in evidence their ability to sustain large pecuniary damage without impairing their superior opulence . . .
In short, Washington's in the money.
"Yes, I'd say that's an accurate appraisal of current Washington demographics," says Tony Harriman, manager and vice president of Neiman-Marcus' Washington store, leaning back in his executive swivel chair, lips slightly pursed, fingertips lightly touching, contemplating this morning - as he does every morning - the Washington language of Mammon.
"Now because of who we are, there might be some people who would feel intimidated or hesitant to shop here," Harriman says, smoothly eyeing the interviewer's five-year-old suit. "For instance, I bet you don't realize that we also carry dresses that someone like yourself might be interested in buying, in the $50 to $75 range. Remember, Neiman-Marcus is first and foremost a store of style. It's simply that style these days costs money."
An engraved plaque hangs on Harriman's wall proclaiming, "The Philosophy of Neiman-Marcus." What is it? "Well, to begin with, our customers tell us what they want is very fine, quality merchandise, so for this we search around the world. This diversity of goods plays an important role in the store's unique personality and reputation. Then, the design of all our stores - both the interior and exterior - is like no other store in the world. We spend a great deal of money on our interiors to create the proper atmosphere. All our floors, for example, are imported terrazzo tiles of Ivorio Sienna marble; we ownn the quarry in Italy.
"But I would say the most important aspect in Neiman-Marcus' philosophy is distinguished, personalized service. An interesting difference is that all our sales personnel are on commission instead of salary, as in other department stores. This makes the crucial difference as far as we're concerned, because this way each of our sales people are individual entrepreneurs, with a vested interest to make sure our clientele are always satisfied. In fact we pride ourselves on going out of our way to provide that extra effort, the little things, but ones which really make an appreciable difference. There's a lot of disposable income in Washington," Harriman concludes, "we just want to make sure people spend it at Neiman-Marcus."
Harriman went on to say that he "was very pleased with Washington's big spenders" (though he declined to identify them and seemed horrified that someone should asked) and to say that Neiman-Marcus had exceeded their "first year's goal for Washington significantly" with metro area residents disposing of their dollars for "high-fashion, antiques, silver, art work, fine jewelry (priced from $50,000 to $500,000) and luxury furs," including one widely discussed sale, a $120,000 lynx coat. Business in Washington has been so good, in fact, plans are underway to open another Texas-size citadel of conspicuous consumption in the Virginia suburbs.
Could people really be spending that much?
"They are spending at a rate," Harriman said, "that indicates to me Washingtonians have no worries whatsoever about the economy." Harriman paused, then added, "and obviously that makes us very happy, very happy indeed."
It is hoped that no one will find his sense of literary or scientific fitness offended by recourse to what may at times appear to be a callous freedom in handling vulgar phenomena . . . whose intimate place in men's life has sometimes shielded them from the impact of economic discussion
Washington society loves to talk about money - as long as it's other people's. Yet there is a great deal of secretiveness attached to revealing one's own spending habits. "Oh my God," one socialite exclaimed when approached. "I'd rather talk about my sex life than how I spend my money. That's a terrible invasion of privacy."
Any conversation with knowledgeable Washington observers on this city's big spenders was held - at their insistence - strictly on a "background" or "off the record" basis. "It would be literally political suicide if I gave you names," caterer Ellis said when asked who some of his elite clients are. For all their reluctance to be quoted, most society sources were ebullient in telling tales of lavish expenditures by their "friends."
Take, for example, the identity of the owner of the $120,000 lynx coat, purchased from Neiman-Marcus.
Although most Washington socialites either knew first-hand or had heard of the purchase - and might have been happy to own the coat themselves - no one "could" or would disclose the buyer's name. Claiming, "You know I'm terribly devoted to her . . . I couldn't live with myself if I thought I was the one who put you on her . . . She'd know I told you and then I wouldn't get invited to anymore of her lovely parties."
The relation of the leisure class to the economic process is a pecuniary relation of acquisition . . . The conventions of the business world have grown up under the principle of parasitism . . . Their office is of a parasitic character and their interest is to divert whatever they may to their own use . . . the immediate end is the greater facility of peaceable and orderly exploitation . . .
Monday being the help's day off, Libbie Moody Thompson answers the door herself, dressed at 10:30 in the morning in a bright red and violet Galanos day dress, pearls and diamonds.
As she hung a coat in the closet, there was a glimpse of lynx hanging beside sable and fox. The quietness of the pale blue drawing room with its many individual seating areas, famous faces cauhght in clusters of silver frames, fresh cut flowers, Steuben objets d'art and 19th-century paintings evoked a high-priced sanctuary.
Libbie Thompson came to Washington from Texas in 1933 with her husband Clark, who had just been elected to the House of Representatives. She is from the Moody oil family; the estate of her father, William L. Moody Jr., was valued at $400 million when he died at 1954. Once she was a gossmaer tuxedo-and-pink-silk girl, the kind Fitzgerald wrote about, who danced through life with champagne in her slipper. Now she is a regal old lady whose sight is failing, living with her 83-year-old husband in a rambling brick mansion on Massachusetts Avenue part of the year, in Galveston, Texas, the rest.
It was quickly apparent that she receives few visitors these days, other than those who attend her now infrequent parties. She loves t reminisce about an earlier Washington society, the time Eleanor Roosevelt summoned her to the White House to scold her about not attending some of the expected, accepted Washington rituals the way the young, pretty, rich wife of a new congressman should "in those days." She deplores the fact that calling cards went out of fashion; everything in Washington society has gone down hill since. "Things were so different then," she says wistfully, "people in society knew how to behave. Now Washington has such a mercenary element to it. Why I'm forever getting these so-called 'invitations' to this event or that asking for $100. Rude is what it is. I just throw them all away the moment they arrive . . ."
Mrs Thompson's soliloquy is interrupted by the telephone. It is someone at Neiman-Marcus, she tells them she'd like them to find her a "simple black dress." When she returns the subject turns to fashion and Neiman-Marcus. The lynx in the closet is mentioned. How did she come to purchase it?
"Oh, that's my lynx jacket you saw in the closet," she says, "you must have heard about my lynx coat - that's full length. Well, actually it's a rather amusing story of how I came to acquire it. To tell the truth, I really didn't think I needed another fur coat, but one day the telephone rang, and it was Neiman-Marcus' vice president of furs, David Wolfe, and he said, 'Libbie, I'd like to take you and Clark out to dinner.'
" 'What do you want me to buy now?' I asked. 'Nothing Libbie, I just want the pleasure of your company,' he said. So we went out to dinner and not a word was mentioned that evening about me buying anything. Then about a week later, David called again and said, 'Libbie, do you know how badly you need a new evening wrap? I've seen what you're wearing.'
"Well, frankly I was quite taken back, but what would you have thought if someone said that to you? And my eyesight is not what it was, so I thought perhaps he's right. So I said: Well David, what do you have in mind? And he said, 'Libbie, don't worry about it, I have just the thing for you. I'll send it right over.' And it turned out to be the lynx coat. Wasn't that nice? They're just so good to me at Neiman's. They're always thinking about me." Mrs. Thompson pauses for a moment. "Unfortunately, I don't have as many opportunities to wear it these days. I've only worn it once, but still, as David says, it's nice to have in case an occasion arises when I'll need it. You never know."
As the interview ends, Mrs. Thompson once more expresses her opinion that Washington society has changed for the worse in the last 15 years or so. "Besides losing the calling cards, we've had to suffer that corporate crowd. I tell you, if they keep on the way they're going, they'll soon replace the embassies and the administration for official entertaining in Washington. Nouveau riche," she says reprovingly, "but then we've always had to deal with them. Think they can buy power with a dinner party. A dime a dozen . . ."
The priestly servitor of the inscrutable powers that move in the external world came to stand in the position of a mediator between these powers and the common run of unrestricted humanity; for he was possessed of a knowledge of the supernatural etiquette which would admit him into the presence . . . What was learned was how to make oneself indispensable to these powers, and so to put oneself in a position to ask, or even to require their intercession in the course of events . . .
The last influx of the true elites of the governing class may well have arrived enmassee with Mrs. Thomspon and the New Deal 45 years ago, but "that corporate bunch" of lobbysists and their trade associations started coming to town with the advent of Ralph Nader and his consumer advocates. That is, according to James P. Low, a man who has watched their invasion with great interest.
Low is president of the American Society of Association Executives, the trade association of trade assocaitions. ASAE has nearly 7,000 nembers, all of whom are executives managing the leading business, professionals, educational , technical and industrical associations in the United States. This Membership, in turn, repersents almost 30 million persons and firms belonging to national, regional, state and local associations.
Jim Low is sitting in his large, luxurious office overlooking 16th Street and attempting to place the influx of corporate influence and dollars into perspective. "I served with the infantry during the Korean War and I'll never forget the day we arrived in Pusan; as we were walking through the muck, I was almost overcome by the stench of human waste material mingled with pungent oriental spices. It's something that once you've been exposed to, you'll never forget it.
"And Washington has a stench too, the smell of affluenc. Potomac fever - power mingled with money - permeates the atmosphere here. There's no escaping it. I'm a native Washingtonian, and I can tell you this town has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. No longer are we just a sleepy Southern town. And it's the government relations crowd that's done it."
The recent proliferation of Uncle Sam's devout observers - the trade associations, law firms, accountants, public interest groups, think tanks, labor unions, nonprofit organizations, research and development teams, public relations firms, contract evaluators, corporate public affairs offices, not to mention the number of major corporations who have decided to relocate their headquarters in Washington area (Time-Life Books, United Nuclear Corporation, Martin-Marietta, AT&T's Long Lines Division, Mobil Oil's Marketing and Refining Division and VISA-USA, Inc., among others) have radically changed the personality, face and fortunes of Washington.
Their arrival has, in turn, set off a wild rush for downtown office space and overflow into the Virginia suburbs. Developement and improvements of the square mile between the White House and the Capitol alone, for instance, recently completed, presently underway or publicly announced consist of 16 public and institutional structures, 35 private buildings (including ASAE's own new 15-floor, $14.5-million office building) and two public space improvements. These represent an estimated investment of over $1.3 billion in construction and renovation for some 2,600 housing units, 5,300 hotel rooms, 8.2 million square feet of retail space and almost 6 million square feet of institutional space. Yet the demand for office is so great that rental fees in Washington are now as high as New York's Fifth Avenue - $13 to $14 a square foo.
"And they keep coming to town," Low says with great pleasure. "Last year about one a week opened up a Washington office, raising the total numbers of trade associations in the metropolitan area to 2,000."
What all this means, of course, is a constant infusion of corporate money into Washington: average budgets for large national associations hover at $1 million per annum, while the yearly aggregate payroll for Washington-based associations currently exceeds $1.3 billion with the average salary of 10 percent of Washington association executives pulling in more than $53,000. That's a lot of buying power for these new Washingtonians and the move here has become synonymous with the consumption of more and better material comforts as part of the promotion.
Low reluctantly concedes the point: "You have to remember that people spend money as their priorities dictate. After you reach on the ladder of success the basic rungs which comfortably take care of food, clothing, shelter, you climb another rung. Next its entertaining, travel, a second home or a Mercedes-Benz. By the time an executive or politician brings his family to Washington, with very few exceptions he's passed the threshold of affluence and the high salaries and expense-account wealth allows him to keep moving up unitl the luxuries become necessities. Admittedly, perhaps, all of this personal expansion, or 'conspicuous consumption' can become self-indulgent. But aspiring to a better way of life is the American scenario. And Washington is the capital of Ameica. Perhaps that's why we have this drive to accumulate to a greater degree.
"Still, perhaps Veblen had a point," Low says. "Here's a jolting illustration: I had a telephone call this morning from a young single woman who works for the FHA. Now she's in her 30s, in a position of responsibility with the government and makes about $40,000 a year. She wants to buy a house and was calling me to see if I could help her get a second job as a hostess in one of the private clubs so that she could save the money for one.
"I was absolutely staggered - this gal needs a second job! Listen, if it's come to where a single woman in Washington can't make ends meet on $40,000 a year, then something's terribly wrong here."
It will now be in place, by way of illustration, to show in some detail how the economic principles so far set forth apply to everyday facts in some one direction of the life process . . . namely in putting one's pecuniary standing in evidence . . .
'People in Washington are running away from their money," offers Hobart Taylor, a prominent attorney and former counsel to Lyndon Johnson, former director of the Export-Import Bank and now in private practice, explaining the city's terminal case of conspicuous consumption. "It's inflation that's the culprit," he says, "inflation and the fact that a small powerful cadre of public officials in policymaking positions whose income is automatically protected from the ills that befall the rest of the nation - inflation, unemployment, high taxes - aren't really interested in initiating programs for the redistribution of wealth."
Taylor laughs at this last thouhgt, implying with a shrug of his shoulders that we both 'know' who really suffers. "Redistribution of wealth - that will be the day," he continues. "People know they're never going to get their fair share, never mind get rich." That's hardly Taylor's problem, however; he is rich - a professional "member of the board of directors" for the likes of Eastern Airlines, Aetna Casualty & Life, A&P, Westinghouse Electric and Standard Oil, Taylor already has his fair share. He speaks of the "staying power" of wealthy members of the governing class, dismissing an annual salary of $75,000 in Washington as "middle class," while insisting that his money friends "from horsey Middleburg and the international business community" don't spend money excessively. Rather, Taylor suggests, it's the Washington bureaucratic middle class who are giving the city a bad name "spending like crazy, acquiring expensive possessions quickly, before they normally would in the natural scheme of things because they're afraid of the future. It's like topping off your tank."
Taylor does not think conspicuous consumption in Washington differs racially, although Washington has more black professionals than any other city and the median black income here is higher than in any other major city except Detroit. Instead Taylor says wealthy blacks spend their money "investing in storehouses of value like houses, cars, Persian rugs," just like whites.
"It's all green," he says, dismissing the question, slightly annoyed.
But again the conversation comes back to the city's garish capacity for wasteful spending, building beautiful churches before feeding the hungry. Taylor briefly demurs, maintaining this isn't true with his set, then asks for a specific example of conspicuous consumption.
What about lynx coats?
"Oh, but you can't really count that as Washington spending," he says, shaking his head. "After all, that was Texas money. There are allowances you must make."
What exactly does Washington's governing class spend its money on? More or less, the same things Veblen's leisure class did: "He consumes freely and of the best in food, drink, shelter, services, ornaments, apparel, weapons and accoutrements, amusements, amulets, pets, costly entertainment . . . anything which sets them apart so that tthe unremitting ability to pay becomes a mark of respectability." Conspicuous consumption of food and drink becomes "honorific dissipation" because of the superior status it implies for those able to afford the indulgence.
Last year Washingtonians spent $1.2 billion dollars in metropolitan area bars and restaurants - $1,037 per household, a 154 percent increase since 1967. They spent $2.2 billion at food stores, so for every $2 spent on groceries, another $1 was spent eating out. An "inexpensive" dinner for two now costs between $25 and $35 and dinner for two at any of the area's top 20 restaurants can easily cost $75.
No line of consumption affords a more apt illustration of conspicuous waste of goods than expenditure on dress. Our apparel is alsways in evidence and affords an indication of our pecuniary standing to all observers at the first glance . . .
Lynx coats aside, "some of the suburban Bethesda-Chevy Chase development crowd, the wives of the real estate speculators, shopping mall maganates and construction kings will drop $20,000 to $40,000 a year on clothes, and that's not counting furs and jewelry," a fashion consultant for one of the city's leading and expensive women's specialty stores says, asking not to be identified because some of these women are her cilents.
"I bet some of them don't even know what they have in their closets. Clothes are very important for the up-and-coming climbers. But they're just not interested in being well turned out, though. They buy for status rather than aesthetics; when they walk into a room they want to be wearing a label that shouts, 'This dress cost $2,000,' even if it looks terrible on them. I think that's conspicuous consumption, all right."
Veblen explains that for such women "the need of lavish dress becomes an eminently higher of spiritual need." Last year the spiritual need of dress cost Washingtonians $1.7 billion.
There is an appreciable proportion of the upper classes whose inclinations lead them into philanthrophic work . . . much of this philanthropic effort bears the mark of amiable "cleverness" . . . such as the desire of conviviality . . . however the prima facie evidence of the facts can scarcely go unquestioned . . .
Among the sundry events that came under the heading "costly entertainment" on Veblen's list was the "potlatch," originally defined as a primitive ceremonial feast marked by the host's lavish distribution of gifts requiring reciprocation. In Washington for many of the governing class it's called the charity ball.
For the posh, the charity ball answers their philanthrophic needs and serves as a perfect place to show off that $2,000 dress, while engaging in honorific dissipation certainly beyond reproach. Tickets to these affairs are usually limted to 1,000 and members of the governing class clamor a year in advance to get on the invitation lists. The events considered de rigueur are (in an informal order of their prestige) the Symphony Ball, the Hope, the Opera, the Corcoran, the Washington Performing Arts Society, the Travelers Aid and the Cancer Ball.
But if last year's Symphony Ball is an example, the charity is almost secondary to the party. Approximately 1,000 people attended the Symphony Ball at $150 per person. However, after expenses the symphony may see $80,000 - not quite enough to pay the conductor's salary. Would not these people send in their checks to help the symphony without a ball, just for the sake of doing good?
"You must be joking," one of Washington's leading professional fund-raisers says. "My dear, don't you know people go to the Symphony Ball because of the prestige involved? It's the most spectacular party of the year. Some could care less about the symphony. Why they're tone deaf."
So long as the community or social group is small enough and compact enough to be effectively reached by common notoriety alone - consumption begins to hold over leisure as an ordinary means of decency . . .
Middleburg, like Texas, is a state of mind. The very name conjures up images of exclusive, inbred wealth: an entreched landed gentry, their foxes, hounds, horses and hunts. Although the small colonial crossroads of Middleburg proper lies just 45 minutes west of Washington by way of Route 50, a country weekend in "Middleburg Hunt Country" and all it represents for the governing class belongs to another era.
Stretching past tiny (population 900) Middleburg's city limits for 1,000 square miles of rolling Virginia countryside in an elaborate labyrinth of hidden entrances, long winding driveways, old stone wall borders and discreet "Security Force On Premises - No Fishing, Hunting or Trespassing" warnings, the rich live and play away from prying eyes. The towns are called Upperville, The Plains, or Warrenton; the estates bear names such as "Atoka" (Sen. and Mrs. John Warner) "Oak Spring" (Paul Mellon) and "Palmerstone" (Rep. and Mrs. William Moorhead, D-Pa.).
Middleburg is millionaire country, held captive in a time vacuum of its own choosing, where fox hunting, polo, point-to-point, hunt races, as well as "the National Beagle Trials" and the oldest horse show in the country, "the Upperville" are little more than excuses for lavish expenditure.
One example has for the last seven years been the July 4 weekend gathering of the Melvin Poes. Described in great detail in Lucy Moorhead's Entertaining in Washington , the Poe's annual field day for 500 required among other preparations four days of cooking. That was because the picnic included 400 pounds of barbecued calf, two legs of deer roasted on a spit, 80 pounds of turkey, 40 pounds of ham and 40 pounds of vension stew. The stern purpose behind this extravaganza, according to Moorhead, was that Poe could show off his "most illustrious foxhounds."
But this year there was no extravaganza. "Last year's nearly broke us. It simply was gotten out of hand," Mrs. Poe says. Blaming inflation for throwing a wet blanket on the party, Mrs. Poe continued, "what with the price of meat today, we can't even afford the price of the calf, let alone everything else. I tried to get other people to do it with my help, but nobody seems interested."
Even if the parties don't go on forever, the lifestyle does. Especially at Paul and Bunny Mellon's 4,000-acre estate Oak Spring, with its private jet airstrip, 200-member staff housed on the premises and 24-hour security guard. Middleburg is often referred to as the "pastoral seat of the House of Mellon," not only because of the baronial way of life there but because Paul Mellon, now in his 70s, is viewed by many residents as the man most responsible for ensuring that Middleburg's impervious, insular sense of self remains intact. One Middleburg matron says the thought of Mellon's estate eventually being sold off to the general public in 40- to 50-acre lots "disturbs the community deeply."
The end result of this almost limitless consumption may be a syndrome Veblen called "the aesthetics of nausea." People have been known to pass the bounds of taste and reason.
Middleburg's mania for horses knows few bounds. There are more horse trailers on the streets than Mercedes and as many saddleries on Main Street as food stores. But consider the miniiature horse. There are people there who have spent $5,000 for a 28-inch-high horse to be used as a "house pet."
Two years ago Turner Reuter (whose family owns Middleburg's Red Fox Inn) along with Alejandro Orfila, the secretary general of the Organization of American States, began importing these animals "from the Argentines" to market to wealthy Washingtonians. But as Reuter reluctantly admitted to a reporter attending a gathering of prospective buyers - after the horse "crapped on the hearth" of the posh main sitting room in the Red Fox Inn - one of the drawbacks to their marketability as house pets is that they can't be "paper-trained."
Never mind. The Randy Watermans of Upperville bought one anyway, though Mrs. Waterman seems hard pressed to explain why because Red Rum stays outside, and she won't let the children play with him "unattended." "Well," she says, "my husband wanted him. And he's awfully cute."
In the unthinking attraction to notoriety that Washington has traditionally exhibited, Veblen was invited, after the success of his book, to come to the capital during World War I to lend his talents to the war effort. Once he got here, however, no one quite knew what to do with him; one biographer stated he was "juggled around like a hot potato."
Eventually he ended up lost somewhere in the Food Administration, making such suggestions as the total reorganization of rural America for efficiency and the imposition of a tax on the employers of domestic servants so that butlers and footmen would be released to work as stevedores and freight handlers to help fight the war. His proposals were called "interesting," and ignored. After six months in Washington, he left. CAPTION: The cover photograph is by Peter Garfield; Picture 1, no caption, by Peter Garfield; Picture 2, Doug Poretz, pied piper for the Washington Borard of Trade, boasts, "These are our halcyon days, especially as things get grim everywhere else." By Bill Snead