Doesn’t follow

I really, really want someone to tell me why concerns about status seeking are so easily conflated with concerns about inequality. I’ve read Robin Hanson enough to believe we’re built-in status seekers and we’d be so whether or not the gini index rose last year.

In a response to Wilkinson’s essay, Elizabeth Anderson quotes Adam Smith:

A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty, which, it is presumed, no body can well fall into without extreme bad conduct.

and then writes:

The consumption of the better-off thereby raises the cost of living for the worse off.

While conceding the point that consumption inequality is what really matters, this clearly does not follow. The better off in Adam Smith’s day didn’t wear linen. They wore fancy, silky stuff from the Orient. Linen is what other laborers wore. A laborer would be ashamed to not live up to the standards of other laborers, not the rich.

I’m tired of the sociology on this issue. I’ve seen enough examples of status seeking to know it exists. I want to know about its mechanisms. Do laborers have higher standards overtime because they are trying to emulate the rich? or some other group? Who do people choose to emulate? Why do people care about their status relative to classmates but not relative to poor Africans? How many people actually participate in status seeking to the pathologic levels sociologists and documentary film makers dwell on?

Why is this at all related to wage inequality?

2 Responses to “Doesn’t follow”

  • swong says:

    Over time, doesn’t the price on status items tend to drop as production climbs and cheap knockoffs flood the market?

    Digital watches, portable music players, gourmet coffee, designer clothes, cellular phones, fast cars, giant televisions. A personal computer used to cost several months worth of take home pay for a middle class breadwinner. Now a much better one costs a few days worth of pay.

  • Robin Hanson says:

    All good questions.