The most eye-catching billboard in Dubai stands over Sheikh Zayed Road in the heart of town. It advertises a forthcoming residential property - a sleek, otherworldly spire called the Pentominium. But what really makes the sign so arresting is the simple six-word message, printed in huge letters, that explains the building's concept: "120 floors of all penthouse living". The phrase, like a Zen koan, all but dares motorists to contemplate the profound curiosity of a building made up entirely of top floors. The billboard promises "The Defined Height of Luxury," but in a hothouse of wealth like the Emirates, how do we define luxury at all?
Looking back at the Gilded Age - the late-19th century period when the wealth of American industrialists ballooned - the economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term "conspicuous consumption". (The more succinct "bling" eluded him.) People buy fine silverware, Veblen wrote, not to convey food into their mouths - which can be accomplished as well or better with cheaper metal - but to display that they can afford such things. We consume, he said, in order to signal our status on the social totem pole.
Since Veblen's time, a host of contemporary psychologists have studied what motivates people and what makes them happy. And their findings dovetail with Veblen's emphasis on social rank. While psychological research generally provides little encouragement for anyone seeking happiness in riches, it does show that people care more about relative status than they care about absolute wealth. Once your salary has reached a basic threshold - about $20,000 (Dh 73,460) a year, according to the British economist Richard Layard - further increases in income add less and less to your sense of well-being. Economists call this phenomenon "declining marginal utility", an effect that will be familiar to any child who has tried to finish a second helping of birthday cake.
We are, however, rather preoccupied with how our wealth compares to that of our peers. In one American study, people said they would prefer to earn $50,000 in a world where everyone else earned $25,000, rather than earn $100,000 in a world where the rest made $250,000. Hence, conspicuous consumption and the other accoutrements of status don't really make us happy, but they do motivate us. (That's why it's called "status anxiety", not "status delight".) The pleasures that come from tracking one's relative social position - like watching a stock rise and fall in the market - are riveting, even if they are utterly neurotic.
Of all luxury items, the penthouse provides perhaps the most vivid display of personal ranking: it puts you on top. But not so at the Pentominium. While it promises to be extraordinarily luxurious - the building will command a fleet of Rolls Royces and offer 24-hour butler service - the Pentominium removes the status buzz of living above one's economic inferiors from the penthouse equation. How conspicuous can a penthouse be when all your neighbours live in one too?
Maybe the Pentominium seeks to encourage an emphasis on creature comforts for their own sake, a hedonism unwedded to envy and status anxiety - which would be refreshing. But sadly, says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a social psychologist at the University of California at Riverside, sheer pleasures and creature comforts dissipate fairly quickly once we've enjoyed them for a while. Humans, she says, have a near infinite capacity to take things for granted.
Thus the Pentominium provides a nice place for basking in your absolute wealth and the pleasure it affords, but not for cleanly establishing your relative status. As such, says Lyubomirsky, "it misreads people's psychology." Or at least it seems to. Across the landscape of the region, wealth is plentiful, but conspicuousness is harder and harder to come by. The Pentominium's "all penthouse living" concept, as peculiar as it is, may illuminate something larger about the luxury-saturated landscape in the Gulf.
An all-penthouse skyscraper, after all, is not much stranger than an all-business-class airline - and those have been around for a few years now. And it is certainly no stranger than a man-made island where every house has a seaside plot. Like a sponge, or indeed like leaves on a tree, the palm-shaped earthworks going in along Dubai's coast serve a simple function: to maximise surface area. Their design is just an efficient means to mass-produce oceanfront - another luxury good, diluted.
Even the skyline suffers from the runaway inflation of opulence. Dubai's building boom "has been characterised by a manic production of extravagant shapes", writes the architect Rem Koolhaas, who is designing Dubai's massive Waterfront City development. "Paradoxically, the result is a surprisingly monotonous urban substance, where any attempt at 'difference' is instantly neutralised in a sea of meaningless architectural gestures."
"The ubiquity of extravagance creates fewer and fewer opportunities for distinction," he says, "between first, second and third rate." So it might seem that the quest for status in the UAE is bound to be infinitely frustrated. But maybe that's only true for some people. An architect like Koolhaas has to look at Dubai as a whole - as a real place - because the city is the canvas for his work. But for many people who live here, the quest for status may have a different frame of reference.
Kerwin Kofi Charles and Erick Hurst, two economists at the University of Chicago, recently published a research paper on race and conspicuous consumption in America. Along with a young professor of finance at the University of Pennsylvania named Nikolai Roussanov, they collected data showing that black Americans - who are on average poorer than white Americans - spend a greater portion of their incomes on conspicuous goods.
The reason, the authors argue, is that conspicuous consumption functions as a means to distinguish oneself from a certain "reference group". Black Americans form such a group - and poverty rates are one factor that seemingly define that group. Hence, black Americans wind up spending more money to offset the perception they are poor. "Keeping up with the Joneses" is a common colloquial term for conspicuous consumption, a phrase that lends the concept a claustrophobic, clubby, suburban feel. The Joneses, one imagines, live in a neighbourhood populated by Adamses, Smiths and Bakers - their reference group.
So when thinking about status, it's important to figure out "who your Joneses are", says Roussanov over the phone one recent afternoon. "It's interesting to think about immigrant communities," he says. "Who are they comparing themselves to?" This country is a sea of immigrant communities. So we should ask: is there as much pressure to keep up with the Joneses when your neighbours are, in fact, the al Husseinis, the Singhs, the Masterovs and the Huangs?
The American writer HL Mencken, another sage on the subject of status consciousness, once said, "a wealthy man is one who earns $100 a year more than his wife's sister's husband." Perhaps the residents of the Pentominium will spend that extra $100 on international phone calls, rhapsodising to their in-laws in Amman, Delhi, Moscow or Beijing about the majestic view from their penthouse. @Email:email@example.com