Kids, Opera, and Local Status
By Bryan Caplan
While 34.3% of married women ages 40 to 44 had four or more children in 1976, only 11.5% did in 2004, according to the Current Population Survey. Though factoring in affluence can be statistically tricky, an analysis by Steven Martin, associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, shows that the proportion of affluent families with four or more kids increased from 7% in 1991-96 to 11% in 1998-2004.
Last week, I mentioned this factoid to Robin Hanson, and he had a strong reaction: “This is the fact that will convince people to have more kids!” Elaboration: The rich have high status, people want status, so whatever the rich do, the masses copy.
I’m totally unconvinced. Many of the favorite things of the rich are unpopular, and the non-rich make little, no, or negative effort to imitate them. Take opera, a classic blue-blood obsession. Most people don’t even pretend to like it, much less take an interest in it. I can speak from experience: When I became an opera fan in high school, my status did not go up. At all. The same goes for Hahvard accents, tuxedos, and monocles. Most people associate them with wealth, but avoid them like the plague.
The lesson, I suspect, is that status is usually local status. When they pursue status, most people aren’t trying to impress Brad Pitt or the Rockefellers; they’re trying to impress the five or six slobs that they see every day. The best way to achieve this, strangely, is to excel in whatever this handful of slobs happens to value.
Take blogging. Most people think it’s a ridiculous waste of time. I can’t think of any super-rich bloggers. So why do bloggers do it? To a large degree, their goal is to raise their status with other bloggers.
Granted, few local status hierarchies ignore wealth altogether. It’s hard to find a pecking order where you can successfully mock someone for being rich or having an expensive car. (But not impossible: “Ooooh, look what his rich daaaady bought him!”) But the fact that rich people do X is far less magnetic than Robin claimed.
On reflection, it’s too bad that we find it so easy to dismiss the rich. If wealth were the universal measure of man, poor countries wouldn’t have wasted much of the 20th century trying to chart out their nation’s “distinctive” approach to economic policy. Instead, every country on earth would have modeled itself after the Midas-touch U.S. – and the nationalists and socialists preaching another path would have gotten as much attention as homeless guys running personal finance seminars.