"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 30 July 1999. Updated every WEEKDAY.
Bauble Economy



In the early 1990s, with the

economy as limp as Bob Dole's

pre-Viagran Bush-whacker, all

the usual suspects got fingered:

rising unemployment, government

budget deficits, corporate

downsizing, obscene performance

art, etc. In retrospect, we

attribute the era's economic

malaise to another factor: the

widespread adoption of laptops,

cell phones, and the various

other shiny baubles of workplace

imperialism. Enamored of sleek

new contrivances that seemed

more talisman or toy than tool,

white-collar drones spent so

much time working they had

almost no time left to shop.


In other words, e-commerce, like

all great inventions, is the

love child of opportunistic

entrepreneurism and grim

necessity. While it may

streamline markets, increase

quality through merciless

monopolization, and encourage

international trade, its primary

efficacy is that it allows you

to shop without ever having to

leave your cubicle.


But Amazon.com can only take the

GNP so far. To thrive, an

economy needs conspicuous

consumption. And how conspicuous

is it, really, to purchase the

sort of deeply discounted

commodities favored by digital

riffraff who connect via Burger

King and Free-PC? In an earlier

era, when leisure still

conferred status, it was easy to

advertise your pecuniary ability:

You commandeered yachts the size

of small towns and feasted on

broiled Cotuit oysters while

instructing your lackeys to

polish the gold bullion

embroidery of your scarlet tail

coat one more time. Now, of

course, status stems from how

hard you work — if you have

time for recreation, you're not

truly in demand, and if you're

not truly in demand, you can't

be very important.


So how does the contemporary

multimillionaire distinguish

himself from the merely middle

class? In a word: eBay.



Like so many other digital

phenomena, online auctions have

inspired their share of

breathless boosterism. In April,

when 13-year-old autodidact

Andrew Tyler used eBay to teach

himself the principles of

aggressive entrepreneurism,

Wired News, among many others,

was quick to trumpet the news.

Several weeks ago, the Los

Angeles Times reported that some

eBay aficionados have embraced

interactivity with such

unbridled fervor that the

developers of DIY censorship

products like Cybersitter and

SurfWatch are now adding auction

filters to their wares. Various

other publications have

explained how drug

dealers, Naziphiles, and

soiled-panty manufacturers have

all become productive,

profit-reaping members of

society through the

transformative powers of eBay.


But for all of eBay's

virtues, its role as the

super-addictive techno-abettor of

post-leisure conspicuous

consumption is the thing that

really earns it its vaunted

place in the annals of American

capitalism. Indeed, how else can

Silicon Valley magnificoes

repurpose their largely

superfluous fortunes so

publicly, so efficiently, so

competitively? Why spend

US$4,000 for lunch

with Steve Jurvetson's

PalmPilot? Well, whatever it

takes to beat that showy,

bid-sniping bitch from

JustWentPublic.com. And what

about $10,000 for a black

leather dress made semifamous by

CrossWorlds clickteaser Katrina

Garnett? Sold! Spend $53,000 to

$100,000 to dump a bunch of New Economy

handshakers into a hotel pool?

At that price, let's do it




A few months ago, Yahoo decided

to test its new auction system.

The company's social chairman

purchased 50 tickets to a

celebrity-studded premiere of

The Phantom Menace, then put

them up for a top-secret,

Yahoo-only auction. Eager to

demonstrate their breezy,

it's-just-money decadence,

dozens of Yahooligans quickly

bid up the price of the tickets.

Unfortunately, the company's

prudence police stepped in to

end this intramural pissing

contest before its combatants

really had a chance to

demonstrate the full capacity of

their portfolios. Fifty lucky

winners paid a mere $2,000

apiece to attend the glamorous



But if the sums animating this

tale aren't quite as prodigious

as they might have been, it

nonetheless illustrates the

essential utility of online

auctions — like a

top-dollar courtesan, eBay is

flexible enough to entertain

any whim or novelty it's asked

to. As a result, it has

quickly become an extremely

strategic element in the

elaborate pursuit of

one-upmanship in the

ultra-competitive but

superficially egalitarian

high-tech sector.


Say, for example, you're

Employee No. 10 at

BigAssPortal.com. You have a net

worth rivaling that of any


platinum-selling gangsta rapper,

but because of the

incongruously communist culture

of the New Economy's


revolutionaries, your desk is

exactly the same as the desks of

the company's temps and interns

— an unfinished door on a

pair of sawhorses. In addition,

the company's dress code says

you must wear Dockers at all

times (it's part of a

partnership deal), and expensive

lunches are out of the question

— when the Great Collapse

might commence at any

moment, you can't afford to be

without Level 2 access for too



In such environs, it's really

only through eBay and its

ilk that you can practically

demonstrate your status.

Suppose, for example,

that you'd purchased

Robby Unser's Indy 500 racing

team, which team-owner Dale

Pelfrey recently put up for

auction at eBay for a relatively

reasonable $3 million. Every day

at lunch now, you'd be the envy

of your less magnificent

colleagues as the 1998 Indy

Racing League Rookie of the Year

roared through the company

parking lot in his stylish, 700

horsepower Indy Car to deliver

you a piping-hot McDonald's

Value Meal.


Or if you really want to flaunt

the depth of your pockets, why

not purchase one of the ISP or

MIS teams that have been putting

themselves on the block at eBay

over the last few months? For

those who think an entire team

of mint-condition geeks is just

a bit too ostentatious, a

tasteful, solitary Java

programmer or

factory-reconditioned project

manager can also be had from

Monster.com, where there are now

thousands of different SKUs from

which to choose. Imagine the

stir you'd create at the next

staff meeting if you arrived

with your own graphic designer

in tow to maximize the visual

impact of your incoherent

white-board scribblings.



Of course, the nuisance of

dealing with such hired hands

could easily overwhelm the

attendant status benefits, so in

the long run, your best bet is

still MJ's sneakers, pricey dead

squirrels, and other esoteric

memorabilia. While even this

stuff can be off-puttingly

tangible, fear not: There are

sympathetic souls who understand

that after you've placed the

winning bid on an item, the

process of actually dealing with

it is more troublesome than

rewarding — the pleasure's

all in the hunt and the money



To this end, consider

iStash.com, a new Web service

that offers shipping and storage

assistance to high-end online

auction aficionados: When you

purchase an item, iStash.com

takes possession of it for

you, stores it in its warehouse,

and creates a commemorative Web

page that allows you to show off

your purchases to all interested

parties. iStash.com is

currently seeking its first

round of financing; If you want

a piece of the action, make a


courtesy of St. Huck

[Purchase the Suck Book here]