To social critics like Robert Frank, the only spillovers from aesthetically appealing luxuries are negative--envy and status competition, producing a never-ending race to consume.
We hear the same about beautiful people, especially if they got that way not through sheer luck but through discipline and technology. The better other people look, the more pressure you feel to get better looking yourself. Seth Stevenson explored those competitive pressures in his delightful Slate article on tooth whiteners: "Tooth whiteners are primed to be the next deodorant: a once-optional form of personal hygiene that's now simply an obligation. It's only a matter of time because the more of us who get whitened, the grungier your unwhitened teeth will appear in contrast."
But LAT car critic Dan Neil reminds us that not all the spillovers from costly, beauty are negative. He drove a Bentley Continental GT (that's the "affordable" non-stodgy model) and discovered that beautiful luxuries can provide public goods as well as private pleasures.
Why, when I drive a car like the $170,000 Bentley Continental GT, don't the valet parkers, the carwash rag men, the predawn pop can harvesters in their rusty swayback pickups — why don't they lynch me with their looks?...
Who could be more disenchanted with cars than the men who work at the carwash at the corner of Sunset and Alvarado? But when I pull the Bentley in, the workers eagerly scrimmage for positions around it. These are guys who are standing in rubber boots half filled with cold, soapy water, whose hands must hurt from the biting detergent. Why are they so happy to see me?
The crew foreman scoffs at the Lexus waiting in line. "This is a true car," he says in Spanish....
While it may seem foolish to lump pro basketball players and Malibu real estate developers in with the likes of the Medicis, it's nonetheless true that without rich patrons the Bentley would not exist. And that would leave us all a little poorer.