Can Economists Measure Society's Self-Absorption?

05/12/2015 08:24 am ET | Updated May 12, 2015
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Last month, Bank of America Merrill Lynch released the compellingly titled report, “Vanity Capital: The global bull market in narcissism,” which put a price tag on the amount spent globally on products and services that enhance appearance or prestige. That price tag is huge: $4.5 trillion, according to the report -- larger than the fourth largest economy in the world, Germany’s, with its GDP of $3.7 trillion -- and still growing.

The immediate question the report raises is whether it’s even possible to measure such a thing. The premise -- to quantify the dollar value of all purchases worldwide motivated in some way by vanity -- is a little nutty at its foundation. The authors define “vanity capital” in terms that sound like Gordon Gekko and Abraham Maslow got together to deliver a self-help seminar: It’s “the pursuit of, and the accumulation of, attributes and accessories to augment self-confidence by enhancing one’s appearance and prestige. It is self-actualization through self-improvement and self-focus.”

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