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If you're looking to peruse some fine machinery, there's always the car show. But if you want to hit the super-car motherlode and get a free sociology lesson thrown in, I suggest buying a ticket to Los Angeles.

After you clear customs, rent a car and set the navigation system for 113 North Robertson Boulevard. I did this myself a while back, and found myself in front of a restaurant called The Ivy – a place that is to celebrity watching what the Grand Banks are to commercial fishing.

The streets were bathed in California sunlight, and the skyline was corrugated by the jagged green line of the Beverley Hills. But the real show was down on the pavement, where I watched Paris Hilton, Diddy and the Kardashian sisters roll past in cars that cost more than my house.

I was in automotive fantasy land. Valets shuttled a glittering cavalcade of Lamborghinis, Maybachs and Ferraris. A Maserati snarled past. Then a Jaguar. At the Ivy, a Porsche wasn't remarkable – there were dozens of them, blurring into the background like so many beige rental cars.

Sad, really. But what made me even sadder was looking inside the cars around the Ivy and realizing that not one of them was equipped with a manual transmission. I wasn't really surprised. At the Ivy, a car isn't so much a driving machine as a mobile display case.

I was witnessing a cosmic injustice: how could so many incredible cars end up in the hands of people who can barely drive? If you trolled the garages of Hollywood, you would probably find every vehicle that a car buff ever longed for. Paris Hilton just got a new Lexus LFA.

My friends and I grew up dreaming about cars. We worked on them. We sweated blood for them. We broke our knuckles on their steel. But when the gods handed out the dream rides, they went to someone else – Kim Kardashian stole our car. Or did she?

Back in my university days, I plunged into economics and philosophy. I loved Adam Smith's theory of the "invisible hand" that guides capitalist economies. I was also fascinated with Thorstein Veblen's concept of conspicuous consumption, detailed in his classic work The Theory of the Leisure Class. (Thorstein believed that capitalist economies inevitably yield a non-productive class of people whose only function is displaying their status through the consumption of goods designed and built by others.)

If you want to see Smith and Veblen's principles in action, look no further than the world of high-end cars, where the sometimes-strange forces of economics put cars in the hands of people who don't necessarily know how to drive them. As my father once told me: "The ability to pay for something doesn't mean you're qualified to use it."

I thought of this a few years ago when I met a woman who told me that her father gave her a Porsche 911 for her 16th birthday. (The 911 had an automatic transmission.) She crashed it the first week. Then there was an acquaintance of my son's who got a new Nissan GT-R when he was in Grade 11. He did slightly better than the girl with the 911 – it took him three months before he had a major crash.

When I was a little boy, I thought that cars would be given to those who loved them the most, and understood them the best. What did I know? In the modern car market, matching an operator to a machine is an alien concept. The only qualification for driving a Bugatti Veyron (the fastest production car in the world) is the ability to write a cheque for $2-million.

There are probably a few people who have both the $2-million and the skills to handle a 1,000-horsepower car. But more often than not, the Thurman Munson syndrome kicks in. (Munson was a superstar New York Yankees player who died flying his newly purchased private jet back in 1979. )

I thought of this as I watched the traffic on Robertson Boulevard. An actress I recognized from a reality show pulled up in a new Audi and dinged the front wheel on the curb. Paris Hilton rolled past in a baby blue Bentley convertible.

That afternoon, I headed up into the hills to check out Mulholland Drive, a winding mountain road that has been a sports-car mecca for decades. Steve McQueen used to drive it in his Speedsters. So did James Dean.

I was in a Ford rental car, but the road was awesome. I found myself following a brand-new Porsche 911 – the car my father always wanted but never got. Although my father made do with inexpensive cars, he was a superb driver: he never crashed, and he could drive a twisting road fast without scaring you.

I couldn't say the same for the guy I was following down Mulholland in the 911. He was trying to go fast, but his skills weren't up to snuff. He braked too late into the corners, upsetting his line. He broke traction with abrupt steering inputs. He was in one of the world's great sports cars, but I was keeping up with him in a mid-size rental car. This guy might own a Porsche, but it wasn't really his. Some things can't be earned with money.

This is what struck me as I watched the cars outside the Ivy. These were the machines I always longed for, but their owners treated them as mere fashion accessories. I doubted that any of them ever changed their own oil, or even opened the hood. To me, a car is about your relationship with it – you long for a car, you get it, and you care for it. And a finely engineered machine like a Porsche must be appreciated: you drive it like B.B. King plays his guitar, with reverence and skill.

Out on Robertson Boulevard, that was swept aside. These cars were all about social display, and I realized that I was among the leisure class, which is governed by the same forces of status and one-percenter economics that ruled the court of Versailles under Louis XV – substitute Prada shoes and Bentleys for the powdered wigs and gilded carriages, and you have travelled from pre-revolutionary France to Kim Kardashian's garage.

Oh well. Things could be worse. As Winston Churchill once said: Capitalism is the unequal distribution of wealth. Socialism is the equal distribution of poverty.

Drive on, Kim.

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Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive


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