The late JK Galbraith, an influential economist in the US public sphere more than 60 years ago, described Americans’ conspicuous consumption in his book The Affluent Society as “private opulence amidst public squalor”.

In so doing he made popular a term he borrowed from Sallust, the Roman historian who first expressed it in Latin more than 2,000 years ago: “Habemus publice egestatem, privatim, opulentiam” (We have luxury and avarice, but as a people poverty, and in private opulence). This painted a vivid image of the public decay that characterised the late stages of the Roman republic...

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