Like hunger and homelessness, the global trade in luxury goods is booming. Turnover fell from $254 billion in 2007 to $228 billion in 2009 – a decline that observers attributed to 'luxury shame.' Rich people could still afford all the luxuries they wanted, but apparently they felt a trifle uneasy about flaunting their wealth at a time of crisis.

They soon got over their unease. Sales recovered to $257 billion in 2010 and are expected to surge to $276 billion in 2011. 'Luxury shame is now over,' declared marketing consultant Claudia d’Arpizio in March.

So the long-term trend still points sharply upward. This reflects the continuing polarisation of the distribution of wealth – that is, the process by which the rich get richer and the poor poorer. It also reflects the rapidly growing number of rich people in fast-growing economies like Brazil and China (already the second largest market after the United States).

Perhaps you think that the money system is a necessary means of allocating scarce resources. In that case, you won’t regard the resources that society devotes to operating the money system as waste. But have you tried to assess the sheer scale of these resources?

One approach is to see how many people are kept busy at tasks that would not exist in a society without money. I focus on the United States, but I don’t think the overall picture is much different in other countries. My figures come from the May 2010 National Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates of the Bureau of Labor Statistics of the U.S. Department of Labor.

In his famous novel The Grapes of Wrath (Chapter 25), John Steinbeck described how food was destroyed during the Great Depression:   

Carloads of oranges dumped on the ground. The people come for miles to take the fruit, but this could not be. How would they buy oranges if they could drive out and pick them up? And men with hoses squirt kerosene on the oranges... A million people hungry, needing the fruit – and kerosene sprayed over the golden mountains.

And the smell of rot fills the country.

Burn coffee for fuel in the ships... Dump potatoes in the rivers and place guards along the banks to keep the hungry people from fishing them out [with nets]. Slaughter the pigs and bury them...

And children dying of pellagra must die because a profit cannot be taken from an orange. And coroners must fill in the certificates – died of malnutrition – because the food must be forced to rot.