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Rumble Seat 

An English professor once told me he knew the word "existentialism" was dead--that is, diluted in meaning and debased in use--when he saw a sign for the "Existential Car Wash."

After that, he figured, the word had become an empty cliché. True enough. In academe these days, no one talks about existentialism in anything but the chagrined past tense.

Our culture is hard on such canonical terms. Consider the phrase "conspicuous consumption," the apt alliteration coined by Thorstein Veblen in his critique of capitalism, The Theory of the Leisure Class.

The book, whose 100th anniversary was feted last year with a new collection of critical essays, is an old rugged cross borne by sophomore econ and sociology students everywhere. Strangely phrased and acutely interior--as if Veblen were muttering to himself as he prowled the sidewalk--The Theory doesn't exactly leap off the shelf at the reluctant reader.

Little wonder that Veblen's adroit phrase should be perverted over the years, rendered into tallow for ad copy, as if conspicuousness in consumption were a thing to be wished.

Veblen would have had a lovely little aneurysm at the irony. He meant the phrase to refer to the depraved score-keeping of the leisure class, to the means by which the caste system shuffles the hierarchical deck with displays, large and small, of wealth and waste. The drink without thirst, food without hunger, want beyond need.

Another brilliant, though altogether more subtle, Veblen notion is that of symbolic pantomime. Members of the leisure class, in an effort to convey their pedigree, adopt the manners and mythos of a bygone, landed nobility. In America, suburbs wear ridiculous names that are pastiches of the English aristocratic holdings. Lochmere, MacGregor Downs, Black Horse Run.

Well, Veblen goes on at a great morbid rate throwing social-science neologisms against the wall and seeing which ones stick. I was about to put my copy down when, lo, it hit me. A Theory of the Sport-Utility Class.

Why do Americans buy these large and wasteful vehicles in such staggering numbers? Well, as a first pass, you could argue that sport-utes simply top the list of expensive acquisitions that confer tribal status, as Veblen would see it. The most expensive vehicle in General Motors' catalog is our test vehicle this week, a Cadillac Escalade (more about that later). Its sport-ute competitors routinely pass the $50,000 mark.

The greater perversion of capitalist consumption, according to Veblen, was its willingness to waste--a tendency captured in Soviet agitprop as "Western decadence." Sport-utes--which get significantly less gas mileage than any other consumer vehicle on the road--baldly proclaim their owners unconcerned about gas mileage, or, indeed, costs of any kind, be they financial or environmental. Sport-ute buyers have money to burn and the barrel to burn it in.

At base, though, the great, unexplained appeal of sport-utes is their implied connection with land, with the mythical estate, the ancestral plantation that promises to be over the next hill, a place of ease and freedom from labor. The land of Martha Stewart.

I believe we are nearing an answer to the question of why people who never go off-road--as they might if they lived on an estate, like Prince Charles in his Range Rover--spend thousands more for four-wheel-drive. My neighbor drives a $50,000 Land Cruiser, the most capable off-road vehicle in general circulation. It never even gets dirty, much less goes off-road. Why spend the money?

Veblen would say it is merely to imply peerage and landed wealth, which in turn suggests an inherited exemption from labor--old money is the best money.

Veblen's theoretical house of cards depended on the concept of "invidious comparison," the notion that, all other things being equal, capitalists will spend more on the same product as a bid for status. Which brings me round to the Escalade.

This is a re-badged Chevy Tahoe, no two ways about it. The story of the Escalade is too long and winding to get into, but in essence, Cadillac misjudged the luxury sport-ute market; when it finally realized it needed to wage war against the Lincoln Navigator (née Ford Expedition) it had no product in the pipeline. It dressed up the Tahoe with chrome wheels, bulky body cladding, tinted glass, leather and wood and Bose audio, and called it a Cadillac.

With the wreath on the nose, GM could charge $46,525 for the Escalade; as a Tahoe, the same vehicle costs about $40,000. Thus, invidious comparison.

The Escalade is a great vehicle for all the reasons a Tahoe is. It's a big, comfortable, stout vehicle with lots of room, tons of power (a 5.7-liter V8 is standard) and flip-switch 4WD with a low-speed transfer case. But peeking out all through the leather and wood are the plastic, parts-bin fittings of the down-market vehicle, nagging reminders that while it says Cadillac, it's really Chevy.

For buyers who want their consumption extra conspicuous, they may have to look elsewhere.

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