Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The economics of status seeking

Brad DeLong seems to beleive that spite and envy are created by disparities in visible consumption of goods. I believe that spite and envy are (ugly) parts of human nature, and if they did not manifest themselves through conspicious consumption, they would manifest themselves in other realms with fewer positive side effects, and more negative side effects.

Arnold Kling has a nice post on this, looking at status seeking in Brad's neck-of-the-woods, universities.
Professors are fond of speaking of the higher motives of academic life, such as the pursuit of knowledge and truth. Accordingly, they would reject economic approaches such as tuition vouchers or giving credit on the basis of test results rather than institutional status. In reality, academic resistance to such ideas is driven by the basest of motives -- the drive for status. The status-serving myth is that colleges and universities are more "pure" to the extent that they operate on a basis other than economic motivation. However, I believe that the opposite is the case: economic motivation would represent a step up from status-seeking.
I agree with Arnold -- status seeking is an ugly thing, but best it manifests through something as benign as rich people buying gaudy trinkets to make poor people feel worse, rather than the rigid class-driven status competitions that you see in Europe and the Academy.


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