The Great Chain of Status?

Last week Henry Farrell over at Crooked Timber objected to the key point of my recent article in Policy (related Cato podcast here), which is that status-seeking need not be a zero-sum game, because there are indefinite dimensions of status competition. (And therefore, the government need do nothing to mitigate the alleged harm of status competition.) It is true that there can only be one winner of every race, but there is no cap on the number or kind of races. The greater the number and variety of races, the more likely it is that everybody will be able to find one in which they can win, place, or at least show. Henry replies:

Wilkinson’s claim implies, unless I misunderstand him badly, that it doesn’t matter very much to me if I’m a despised cubicle rat who can’t afford a nice car and gets sneered at by pretty girls, because when I go home and turn on my PC, I suddenly become a level 75 Night Elf Rogue who Kicks Serious Ass! Now this example is loaded – but it’s loaded to demonstrate a serious sociological point that Wilkinson doesn’t even begin to address. These indefinitely proliferating dimensions of status competition are connected to each other in their own implicit meta-ranking, which is quite well understood by all involved. Being a world-class scrabble-player isn’t likely to win you much respect among people who aren’t themselves competitive scrabble-players; the best you can expect is that someone will write a book that pokes fun at your gastro-intestinal problems . It’s a very different matter if you’re a world class soccer player; you’re liable to be invited to all sorts of fun parties, hit upon by beautiful people, stalked by the paparazzi and the whole shebang. Being a world class blogger is somewhere between the two, albeit certainly much closer to the scrabble-player than the soccer star. Even if you’re king of your own mountain, you’re likely to be quite well aware of the other mountains around you that make yours look in comparison like a low-grade class of a gently sloping foothill, or perhaps even a slightly upraised knob in the middle of a steep declination. You’re similarly aware of those less well-advantaged foothills or knoblets whose owners you can look down upon…. In short, people are highly aware of the relative rankings of their obsessions.

I am unmoved.

I anticipated this objection in a very long blog post back in January. Henry’s argument turns on the claim that “These indefinitely proliferating dimensions of status competition are connected to each other in their own implicit meta-ranking, which is quite well understood by all involved.” I think Henry is wrong that there is shared understanding of the meta-ranking and one’s place in it, and I think he is confusing status, in the sense I was writing about, with fame.

I was talking about status as it is experienced. Higher status correlates with higher concentrations of serotonin, for example, not necessarily because of some objective feature of the world, but because of the subject’s perception (correct or not) of her place in a status hierarchy. Our perception of our place in a status hierarchy is generally constructed from all sort of signals–deference, praise, attention, inattention, mocking–we receive from people in the relevant social group. Henry’s story doesn’t strike me as having anything to do with meta-rankings, but just to do with the fact that at any time there are a number of different status dimensions we care about. If you are, as Henry says, “despised” and “sneered at,” then that may hurt, if you care your status within your office, or with certain pretty girls. But part of my point was that people can and do often arrange their lives to avoid that sort of thing. If they are able to manage it, then the fact that they would be despised and sneered at in other circumstances makes no difference to their status as they experience it.

Here is an example of how I think Henry confuses experienced status and fame. If I am the quarterback of the champion high-school football team in a football-crazy Texas town, my subjective status-meter is likely pegged to the top of the scale. That Peyton Manning is more famous than me, is a better quarterback, makes millions more dollars, and is more likely to impress a random person at a bar, is simply irrelevant. It’s no skin off my back. If I was ever in a room with Peyton Manning, my subjective assessment of my relative standing would no doubt go down. But I’m never in a room with Peyton Manning. In my small pond, I’m a big fish – and I feel like it.

The seminal paper on positional externalities is Robert Frank’s “The Frame of Reference as a Public Good.” I suspect Henry wants to maintain the idea there is a single culture-wide frame of reference against which to evaluate not only our relative position on some dimension of status, but also against which to evaluate the relative position of status dimensions. I think this is exceedingly implausible.

If Henry really thinks there is a widely understood meta-ranking, then he ought to be able to say who is higher-status: Peyton Manning or Chief Justice John Roberts? I happen to think that’s a nonsense question, since there is in fact no common frame of reference against which to compare the status of superstar NFL quarterbacks with superstar judges. Henry is a social democrat political science professor blogger. I’m a libertarian policy wonk blogger. Whose status dimension is higher in the meta-ranking? Obviously, it depends on who you ask. If Henry hangs out with people who confer high status on Henry, and I hang out with people who confer high status on me, then we both experience a sense of high status, and Henry’s doesn’t detract from mine, and vice versa. But suppose, for the sake of argument, that Henry’s dimension is slightly higher in the mysterious zeitgest meta-ranking than mine, but that I rank closer to the top of my dimension. Who’s higher status then? Is the worst player in the NFL higher status than the world’s best Scrabble player? Again: the question is nonsense. There is no common frame of reference.

I’m fully on board with Julian Sanchez’s observation:

I think everyday experience confirms that it’s also emphatically not the case that there is any Great Chain of Being among subcultures. My high school, for instance, was fairly sharply divided into pretty clear cliques with porous but recognizable boundaries. But, contra the 1950s teen movie stereotype, there wasn’t any single ordering of cliques that all of them recognized. Probably the jocks and their hangers on thought it was still 1953, and that they were at the top of the pecking order—the cool kids. But the hippies, the skaters, the computer nerds, the drama kids—they all thought the same thing, ultimately. Just as every faith is the One True Faith to its adherents, every clique is coolest to its members.

The idea that competition for relative position is a zero-sum game that necessarily creates a loser for every winner is the last redoubt of statist egalitarians. The cultural pliability of status, and the fact of our freedom (and responsibility) to opt in and out of status games and to reinterpret the frame of reference against which we judge our lives truly guts the argument. People too often get sucked unwittingly into shiny, culturally salient status races in which we end up suffering, and we too seldom recognize we have the freedom to reevaluate our priorities, and to opt into competing conceptions of a good life better suited to our satisfaction. This is not easy. Once inside a frame of reference for evaluating status, it can be extremely difficult to switch. But it is possible, and it’s much easier if you believe it.

Lovely Hospital, Doc — Be a Shame if Anything Were to Happen to It…

I recently came across a transcript of National Economic Council director Al Hubbard’s remarks to a hospital trade group back in March.  In it, Hubbard discusses Bush administration policy regarding price transparency in health care.  That policy was later fleshed out in an executive order, which mandated that federal health programs furnish beneficiaries with information on prices, etc.  The administration stopped short of imposing a similar mandate on the private sector.

But Hubbard’s comments to the hospitals let us know where the president is headed.  And it was Hubbard’s…shall we say…rhetorical agility that I find priceless:

The president’s approach has been…that through persuasion we can get the [health care] providers of this country to start providing accurate, easy-to-use information and we don’t have to go to legislation, because, you know, legislation is a very crude tool to accomplish things and we would much rather let the free market, and you all individually, com[e] up with the best way of approaching transparency as opposed to Congress and the federal government telling you how to do it. But the president has also made it clear that if the provider community is not receptive to providing transparency that we will turn to Congress and ask them to support transparency.

When is persuasion not persuasion?  When it’s a threat.  Later, in an answer to a question, Hubbard dispensed with the subtleties:

And by the way – and I hate to use this blunt club as a threat – if you don’t, it’s going to be imposed upon you. It is going to be imposed upon you.

In other words, Pres. Bush thinks that the market should do whatever it wants, so long as it’s exactly what he wants.

Which is exactly the same as not being for a free market at all.

Feds Approve Separate But Equal Schools

The federal Department of Education has granted public schools “broad freedom to teach boys and girls separately.”

Presumably, however, school districts will not compel parents to send their children to same sex schools, but rather give them the option of choosing such schools. But if the public school system is willing to grant that same sex schooling might be good for some students and not for others, and that the decision should be left to parents, it begs the question: Is this the only respect in which children should be treated as individuals, and families afforded educational choice?

Surely we could add that some students might benefit from an orderly, structured classroom environment while others might learn more quickly and deeply when allowed greater freedom to explore on their own. Or that some children might be unusually advanced in certain subjects, and require an unusually challenging curriculum, while others might need extra emphasis on the basics.

Offering same sex schooling as an option to families is an admission that children are not identical widgets to be processed by a one-size-fits-all education factory. But once we admit that point, we reveal our current education monopoly for the travesty that it is.

The best way to advance our ideals of public education is not through a monolithic government school aparatus, but through a liberated system of independent schools competing for the privilege of serving each and every unique child.

Racing toward Socialism

When Washington Post racing columnist Andrew Beyer says “democracy,” he means “communist country”:

At a time when the populations of Arab countries are seething with resentment against their own leaders, the rulers of Dubai don’t hesitate to engage in self-indulgence on a gargantuan scale. They are unembarrassed that this money is derived from the natural resources of their country – resources that, in a democracy, would belong to the nation.

He’s writing about the use of oil wealth to build a powerful and expensive stable of racehorses. He’s right that in a free society, all that oil wealth wouldn’t belong to a small group of hereditary rulers. But countries that declare that their natural resources “belong to the nation” end up poor countries.

Tampering with George Mason’s Bill of Rights

I have an op-ed in the Washington Examiner on Virginia’s proposed constitutional amendment to restrict marriages, civil unions, domestic partnerships, and various contractual arrangements:

This amendment goes too far. But even its first sentence — the ban on gay marriage — is unworthy of a state that was the birthplace of American freedom. It is a cruel irony that this amendment to restrict contract rights and exclude loving couples from the institution of marriage is to be added to Virginia’s Bill of Rights, a document originally written by the great Founder George Mason.

Mason’s eloquent words inspired Thomas Jefferson in writing the Declaration of Independence and James Madison in writing the Bill of Rights for the U.S. Constitution. We should not add language to Virginia’s Bill of Rights that would limit rights rather than expand them.

Gay marriage is not legal in Virginia, and there’s no prospect of changing that in the foreseeable future, whether by legislative or judicial action. Ballot Question No. 1 is unnecessary and will create legal uncertainty.

The Libertarian Vote in the New York Times

A big tip of the hat to John Tierney for his column today. It’s hidden behind a TimesSelect wall, but here’s a selection:

These federal intrusions are especially scorned by independent voters in the Western states where Republicans have been losing ground, like Colorado, Nevada, Arizona and Montana. Western Democrats have been siphoning off libertarian voters by moderating their liberal views on issues like gun control, but Republicans have been driving libertarians away with their wars on vice and their jeremiads against gay marriage (and their attempt to regulate that from Washington, too).

Libertarian voters tend to get ignored by political strategists because they’re not easy to categorize or organize. They don’t congregate in churches or union halls; they don’t unite to push political agendas. Many don’t even call themselves libertarians, although they qualify because of their social liberalism and economic conservatism: they want the government out of their bedrooms as well as their wallets.

They distrust moral busybodies of both parties, and they may well be the most important bloc of swing voters this election, as David Boaz and David Kirby conclude in a new study for the Cato Institute. Analyzing a variety of voter surveys, they estimate that libertarians make up about 15 percent of voters — a bloc roughly comparable in size to liberals and to conservative Christians, and far bigger than blocs like Nascar dads or soccer moms.

Find the study here.

America’s National Truck?

As another election approaches, Americans have probably grown jaded toward politicians who use naked appeals to patriotism to win votes. Now patriotic appeals are being enlisted to sell pickup trucks.

Baseball fans watching the World Series game Friday night witnessed an ad by General Motors that had nothing to do with the finer qualities of its Silverado pick up truck. Set to the driving beat of a John Mellencamp song, “Our Country,” the ad flashed images designed to tug at the heart of every red-blooded American. (It certainly tugged at mine.) Here’s how a New York Times story today described the ad:

As the commercial begins, an industrial history rolls out, touching the usual icons of the Statue of Liberty, busy factory workers and Americans at their leisure. But then a more conflicted narrative emerges, quickly flashing on bus boycotts, Vietnam, Nixon resigning, Hurricane Katrina, fires, floods, then the attacks of Sept. 11, replete with firefighters.

All that’s missing is a plague of locusts, until the commercial intones ‘This is our country, this is our truck’ as a large Silverado emerges from amber waves of grain.

The not-so-subtle message is that if you are a real American, you buy a real American vehicle. Of course, this is not the first time patriotism has been exploited to sell a product, but the ad obscures an important fact about the American automobile industry: it is far more diverse today than the Big Three of Ford GM, and Chrysler.

In a Cato Free Trade Bulletin published over the summer, my colleague Dan Ikenson and I showed that, while Ford and GM in particular have struggled with declining sales and huge losses, the U.S. automobile market remains healthy. Last year, American workers produced about 12 million cars and light trucks domestically, including those made in factories owned by Honda, Toyota, Nissan, and BMW. American families can chose from a wider range of affordable, quality vehicles than perhaps ever before.

The Big Three have been losing market share, not because Americans are any less patriotic than in the past, but because Americans are increasingly exercising their freedom to decide for themselves what  is “our truck.”