Elizabeth Currid-Halkett: Conspicuous consumption is over. It’s all about intangibles now

In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen observed that silver spoons and corsets were markers of elite social position. In Veblen’s now famous treatise The Theory of the Leisure Class, he coined the phrase ‘conspicuous consumption’ to denote the way that material objects were paraded as indicators of social position and status. More than 100 years later, conspicuous consumption is still part of the contemporary capitalist landscape, and yet today, luxury goods are significantly more accessible than in Veblen’s time. This deluge of accessible luxury is a function of the mass-production economy of the 20th century, the outsourcing of production to China, and the cultivation of emerging markets where labour and materials are cheap. At the same time, we’ve seen the arrival of a middle-class consumer market that demands more material goods at cheaper price points.

However, the democratisation of consumer goods has made them far less useful as a means of displaying status. In the face of rising social inequality, both the rich and the middle classes own fancy TVs and nice handbags. They both lease SUVs, take airplanes, and go on cruises. On the surface, the ostensible consumer objects favoured by these two groups no longer reside in two completely different universes.

Given that everyone can now buy designer handbags and new cars, the rich have taken to using much more tacit signifiers of their social position. Yes, oligarchs and the superrich still show off their wealth with yachts and Bentleys and gated mansions. But the dramatic changes in elite spending are driven by a well-to-do, educated elite, or what I call the ‘aspirational class’. This new elite cements its status through prizing knowledge and building cultural capital, not to mention the spending habits that go with it – preferring to spend on services, education and human-capital investments over purely material goods. These new status behaviours are what I call ‘inconspicuous consumption’. None of the consumer choices that the term covers are inherently obvious or ostensibly material but they are, without question, exclusionary.

The rise of the aspirational class and its consumer habits is perhaps most salient in the United States. The US Consumer Expenditure Survey data reveals that, since 2007, the country’s top 1 per cent (people earning upwards of $300,000 per year) are spending significantly less on material goods, while middle-income groups (earning approximately $70,000 per year) are spending the same, and their trend is upward. Eschewing an overt materialism, the rich are investing significantly more in education, retirement and health – all of which are immaterial, yet cost many times more than any handbag a middle-income consumer might buy. The top 1 per cent now devote the greatest share of their expenditures to inconspicuous consumption, with education forming a significant portion of this spend (accounting for almost 6 per cent of top 1 per cent household expenditures, compared with just over 1 per cent of middle-income spending). In fact, top 1 per cent spending on education has increased 3.5 times since 1996, while middle-income spending on education has remained flat over the same time period.

The vast chasm between middle-income and top 1 per cent spending on education in the US is particularly concerning because, unlike material goods, education has become more and more expensive in recent decades. Thus, there is a greater need to devote financial resources to education to be able to afford it at all. According to Consumer Expenditure Survey data from 2003-2013, the price of college tuition increased 80 per cent, while the cost of women’s apparel increased by just 6 per cent over the same period. Middle-class lack of investment in education doesn’t suggest a lack of prioritising as much as it reveals that, for those in the 40th-60th quintiles, education is so cost-prohibitive it’s almost not worth trying to save for.

While much inconspicuous consumption is extremely expensive, it shows itself through less expensive but equally pronounced signalling – from reading The Economist to buying pasture-raised eggs. Inconspicuous consumption in other words, has become a shorthand through which the new elite signal their cultural capital to one another. In lockstep with the invoice for private preschool comes the knowledge that one should pack the lunchbox with quinoa crackers and organic fruit. One might think these culinary practices are a commonplace example of modern-day motherhood, but one only needs to step outside the upper-middle-class bubbles of the coastal cities of the US to observe very different lunch-bag norms, consisting of processed snacks and practically no fruit. Similarly, while time in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City might make one think that every American mother breastfeeds her child for a year, national statistics report that only 27 per cent of mothers fulfill this American Academy of Pediatrics goal (in Alabama, that figure hovers at 11 per cent).

Knowing these seemingly inexpensive social norms is itself a rite of passage into today’s aspirational class. And that rite is far from costless: The Economist subscription might set one back only $100, but the awareness to subscribe and be seen with it tucked in one’s bag is likely the iterative result of spending time in elite social milieus and expensive educational institutions that prize this publication and discuss its contents.

Perhaps most importantly, the new investment in inconspicuous consumption reproduces privilege in a way that previous conspicuous consumption could not. Knowing which New Yorker articles to reference or what small talk to engage in at the local farmers’ market enables and displays the acquisition of cultural capital, thereby providing entry into social networks that, in turn, help to pave the way to elite jobs, key social and professional contacts, and private schools. In short, inconspicuous consumption confers social mobility.

More profoundly, investment in education, healthcare and retirement has a notable impact on consumers’ quality of life, and also on the future life chances of the next generation. Today’s inconspicuous consumption is a far more pernicious form of status spending than the conspicuous consumption of Veblen’s time. Inconspicuous consumption – whether breastfeeding or education – is a means to a better quality of life and improved social mobility for one’s own children, whereas conspicuous consumption is merely an end in itself – simply ostentation. For today’s aspirational class, inconspicuous consumption choices secure and preserve social status, even if they do not necessarily display it.Aeon counter – do not remove

Elizabeth Currid-Halkett is the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning and professor of public policy at the Price School, University of Southern California. Her latest book is The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class (2017). She lives in Los Angeles.

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

Dalton Conley & Jason Fletcher on how genomics is transforming the social sciences

GenomeSocial sciences have long been leery of genetics, but in the past decade, a small but intrepid group of economists, political scientists, and sociologists have harnessed the genomics revolution to paint a more complete picture of human social life. The Genome Factor shows how genomics is transforming the social sciences—and how social scientists are integrating both nature and nurture into a unified, comprehensive understanding of human behavior at both the individual and society-wide levels. The book raises pertinent questions: Can and should we target policies based on genotype? What evidence demonstrates how genes and environments work together to produce socioeconomic outcomes? Recently, The Genome Factor‘s authors, Dalton Conley and Jason Fletcher, answered some questions about their work.

What inspired you to write The Genome Factor?

JF: Our book discusses how findings and theories in genetics and biological sciences have shaped social science inquiry—the theories, methodologies, and interpretations of findings used in economics, sociology, political science, and related disciplines —both historically and in the newer era of molecular genetics. We have witnessed, and participated in, a period of rapid change and cross-pollination between the social and biological sciences. Our book draws out some of the major implications of this cross-pollination—we particularly focus on how new findings in genetics has overturned ideas and theories in the social sciences. We also use a critical eye to evaluate what social scientists and the broader public should believe about the overwhelming number of new findings produced in genetics.

What insights did you learn in writing the book?

JF: Genetics, the human genome project in particular, has been quite successful and influential in the past two decades, but has also experienced major setbacks and is still reeling from years of disappointments and a paradigm shift. There has been a major re-evaluation and resetting of expectations the clarity and power of genetic effects. Only 15 years ago, a main model was on the so-called OGOD model—one gene, one disease. While there are a few important examples where this model works, it has mostly failed. This failure has had wide implications on how genetic analysis is conducted as well as a rethinking of previous results; many of which are now thought to false findings. Now, much analysis is conducted using data 10s or 100s of thousands of people because the thinking is that most disease is caused by tens, hundreds, or even thousands of genes that each have a tiny effect. This shift has major implications for social science as well. It means genetic effects are diffuse and subtle, which makes it challenging to combine genetic and social science research. Genetics has also shifted from a science of mechanistic understanding to a large scale data mining enterprises. As social scientists, this approach is in opposition to our norms of producing evidence. This is something we will need to struggle through in the future.

How did you select the topics for the book chapters?

JF: We wanted to tackle big topics across multiple disciplines. We discuss some of the recent history of combining genetics and social science, before the molecular revolution when “genetics” were inferred from family relationships rather than measured directly. We then pivot to provide examples of cutting edge research in economics and sociology that has incorporated genetics to push social science inquiry forward. One example is the use of population genetic changes as a determinant of levels of economic development across the world. We also focus our attention to the near future and discuss how policy decisions may be affected by the inclusion of genetic data into social science and policy analysis. Can and should we target policies based on genotype? What evidence do we have that demonstrates how genes and environments work together to produce socioeconomic outcomes?

What impact do you hope The Genome Factor will have?

JF: We hope that readers see the promise as well as the perils of combining genetic and social science analysis. We provide a lot of examples of ongoing work, but also want to show the reader how we think about the larger issues that will remain as genetics progresses. We seek to show the reader how to look through a social science lens when thinking about genetic discoveries. This is a rapidly advancing field, so the particular examples we discuss will be out of date soon, but we want our broader ideas and lens to have longer staying power. As an example, advances in gene editing (CRISPR) have the potential to fundamentally transform genetic analysis. We discuss these gene editing discoveries in the context of some of their likely social impacts.

Dalton Conley is the Henry Putnam University Professor of Sociology at Princeton University. His many books include Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children but Were Too Exhausted to Ask. He lives in New York City. Jason Fletcher is Professor of Public Affairs, Sociology, Agricultural and Applied Economics, and Population Health Sciences at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He lives in Madison. They are the authors of The Genome Factor: What the Social Genomics Revolution Reveals about Ourselves, Our History, and the Future.

Ethicist Jason Brennan: Brexit, Democracy, and Epistocracy

By Jason Brennan

The Washington Post reports that there is a sharp uptick today in the number of Britons Googling basic questions about what the European Union is and what the implications of leaving are. This is a bit like deciding to study after you’ve already taken the final exam.

Technically, the Brexit referendum is not binding. Parliament could decide to hold their own vote on whether to leave the European Union. Perhaps they should. Perhaps the UK’s leaders owe it to the people to thwart their expressed will.

Leaving the EU is no small affair. It probably will have enormous effects on the UK, Europe, and much of the rest of the world. But just what these effects will be is unclear. To have even a rudimentary sense of the pros and cons of Brexit, a person would need to possess tremendous social scientific knowledge. One would need to know about the economics and sociology of trade and immigration, the politics of centralized regulation, and the history of nationalist movements. But there is no reason to think even a tenth of the UK’s population has a basic grasp of the social science needed to evaluate Brexit.

Political scientists have been studying voter knowledge for the past 60 years. The results are uniformly depressing. Most voters in most countries are systematically ignorant of even the most basic political facts, let alone more the social scientific theories needed to make sense of these facts.

This brings us to the central injustice of democracy, and why holding a referendum was a bad idea. Imagine, as an analogy, that you are sick. You go to a doctor. But suppose your “doctor” doesn’t study the facts, doesn’t know any medicine, and makes her decisions about how to treat you on a whim, on the basis of prejudice or wishful thinking. Imagine the doctor not only prescribes you a course of treatment, but literally forces you, at gunpoint, to accept the treatment.

We’d find this behavior intolerable. Your doctor owes you a duty of care. She owes it to you to deliver an expert opinion on the basis of good information, a strong background knowledge of medicine, and only after considering the facts in a rational and scientific way. To force you to follow the decisions incompetent and bad faith doctor is unjust.

But this is roughly what happens in democracy. Most voters are ignorant of both basic political facts and the background social scientific theories needed to evaluate the facts. They process what little information they have in highly biased and irrational ways. They decided largely on whim. And, worse, we’re each stuck having to put up with the group’s decision. Unless you’re one of the lucky few who has the right and means to emigrate, you’re forced to accept your democracy’s poorly chosen decisions.

There’s a big dilemma in the design of political institutions. Should we be ruled by the few or the many? What this amounts to is the choice between being ruled by the smart but selfish or dumb but nice. When only a small number of people hold power, they tend to use this power for their own ends at the expense of everyone else. If a king holds all the power, his decisions matter. He will likely use that power in a smart way, but smart for himself, rather than smart for everybody. Suppose instead we give everyone power. In doing so, we largely remove the incentive and ability for people to use power in self-serving ways at the expense of everyone else. But, at the same time, we remove the incentive for people to use power wisely. Since individual votes count for so little, individual voters have no incentive to become well-informed or to process information with any degree of care. Democracy incentivizes voters to be dumb.

Going back to the doctor analogy, here’s the dilemma: Suppose you could choose between two doctors. The first doctor prescribes you medicine based on what’s good for her, not you. The second is a complete fool who prescribes you medicine on whim and fancy, without reference to the facts. Roughly, with some exaggeration, that’s what the choice between monarchy or democracy amounts to. Neither is appealing.

What if there were a third way, though? In my forthcoming book, Against Democracy, I explore a way of splitting the difference. The trick is to find a political system that both 1) spreads power out enough to prevent people from using power selfishly and 2) weeds out or at least reduces the power of incompetent decision-makers.

In some sense, republican democracy, with checks and balances, was meant to do just that. And to a significant degree it succeeds. But perhaps a new system, epistocracy, could do even better.

In an epistocracy, political power is to some degree apportioned according to knowledge. An epistocracy might retain the major institutions we see in republican democracy, such as parties, mass elections, constitutional review, and the like. But in an epistocracy, not everyone has equal basic political power. An epistocracy might grant some people additional voting power, or might restrict the right to vote only to those that could pass a very basic test of political knowledge. Any such system will be subject to abuse, and will suffer from significant government failures. But that’s true of democracy too. The interesting question is whether epistocracy, warts and all, would perform better than democracy, warts and all.

All across the West, we’re seeing the rise of angry, resentful, nationalist, xenophobic and racist movements, movements made up mostly of low-information voters. Perhaps it’s time to put aside the childish and magical theory that democracy is intrinsically just, and start asking the serious question of whether there are better alternatives. The stakes are high.

brennanJason Brennan is the Robert J. and Elizabeth Flanagan Family Associate Professor of Strategy, Economics, Ethics, and Public Policy at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University. He is the author of The Ethics of Voting (Princeton), Why Not Capitalism?, and Libertarianism. He is the coauthor of Markets without Limits, Compulsory Voting, and A Brief History of Liberty. His new book, Against Democracy, is out this August. He writes regularly for Bleeding Heart Libertarians, a blog.

Mark Zuckerberg chooses Michael Chwe’s RATIONAL RITUAL for Facebook Books!

Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination, and Common Knowledge by Michael Chwe has been selected by none other than Mark Zuckerberg as the latest pick in his “Year of Books.” Analyzing rituals across histories and cultures, Rational Ritual shows how a single and simple concept, common knowledge, holds the key to the coordination of any number of actions, from those used in advertising to those used to fuel revolutions.

From Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook post:

The book is about the concept of “common knowledge” and how people process the world not only based on what we personally know, but what we know other people know and our shared knowledge as well.

This is an important idea for designing social media, as we often face tradeoffs between creating personalized experiences for each individual and crafting universal experiences for everyone. I’m looking forward to exploring this further.

Zuckerberg isn’t the first to take note of Michael Chwe’s talent for making unusual and intriguing connections. As Virginia Postrel wrote in the New York Times, “[His] work, like his own academic career, bridges several social sciences.” Not long ago his book, Jane Austen, Game Theorist created a stir on social media, triggering debates and garnering a hugely popular feature by Jennifer Schuessler.

A Q&A with Chwe will be coming out on Facebook Books in the coming weeks. In the meantime, head over to Facebook to comment on Rational Ritual, or follow the discussion.  Congratulations, Michael Chwe!

Running Randomized Evaluations

Glennerster_RunningRandomized “The popularity of randomized evaluations among researchers and policymakers is growing and holds great promise for a world where decision making will be based increasingly on rigorous evidence and creative thinking. However, conducting a randomized evaluation can be daunting. There are many steps, and decisions made early on can have unforeseen implications for the life of the project. This book, based on more than a decade of personal experience by a foremost practitioner and a wealth of knowledge gathered over the years by researchers at J-PAL, provides both comfort and guidance to anyone seeking to engage in this process.”–Esther Duflo, codirector of J-PAL and coauthor of Poor Economics

Running Randomized Evaluations: A Practical Guide
Rachel Glennerster & Kudzai Takavarasha

This book provides a comprehensive yet accessible guide to running randomized impact evaluations of social programs. Drawing on the experience of researchers at the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, which has run hundreds of such evaluations in dozens of countries throughout the world, it offers practical insights on how to use this powerful technique, especially in resource-poor environments.

This step-by-step guide explains why and when randomized evaluations are useful, in what situations they should be used, and how to prioritize different evaluation opportunities. It shows how to design and analyze studies that answer important questions while respecting the constraints of those working on and benefiting from the program being evaluated. The book gives concrete tips on issues such as improving the quality of a study despite tight budget constraints, and demonstrates how the results of randomized impact evaluations can inform policy.

Suggested courses:

  • Program evaluation courses taught in Master in Public Administration/ International Development, Master of Business Administration, and Master of Public Administration programs.
  • Masters of Public Policy courses focusing on economics and impact evaluation.

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