Fragmented status doesn’t help

David Friedman wrote, and others have claimed similarly:

It seems obvious that, if one’s concern is status rather than real income, we are in a zero sum game. If my status increases relative to yours, yours has decreased relative to mine. … Like many things that seem obvious, this one is false. …

…what matters to me is my status as I perceive it; what matters to you is your status as you perceive it. Since each of us has his own system of values, it is perfectly possible for my status as I view it to be higher than yours and yours as you view it to be higher than mine…

Status is about what other people think your status is, but Friedman’s argument is that you at least get some choice in whose views to care about. People split off into many different groups, and everyone may see their group as quite important, so see themselves as quite statusful. Maybe I feel good because I win at board games often, but you don’t feel bad if you don’t – you just quit playing board games and hang out with people who care about politics instead, because you have a good mind for that. As Will Wilkinson says:

I think that there are lots of pastors, PTA presidents, police chiefs, local scenesters, small town newspaper editors, and competitive Scrabble champions who are pretty pleased with their high relative standing within the circle they care about. Back where I come from, a single blue ribbon for a strawberry rhubarb pie at the State Fair could carry a small-town lady for years.

This is a popular retort to the fear that seeking status is zero sum, so any status I get comes at the cost of someone else’s status. I think it’s very weak.

There are two separate issues: whether increasing one person’s status decreases someone else’s status just as much (whether status seeking is constant sum) and whether the total benefits from status come to zero, or to some other positive or negative amount (whether status seeking is zero-sum in particular).

That people split into different pools and think theirs is better than others suggests (though does not prove) that the net value of status is more than zero. Disproportionately many people think they are above average, so as long as status translates to happiness in the right kind of way, disproportionately many people are happy.

The interesting question though – and the one that the above argument is intended to answer – is whether my gaining more status always takes away from your status. Here it’s less clear that the separation of people into different ponds makes much difference:

  1. One simple model would be that the difference between each person’s perception of the status ladder is that they each view their own pond as being at the top (or closer to the top than others think). But then when they move up in their pond, someone else in their pond moves down, and vice versa. So it’s still constant sum.
  2. Another simple model would be that people all agree on their positions on the status ladder, but they care a lot more about where they are relative to some of the people on the ladder (those in their pond). For instance I might agree that the queen of England is higher status than me, but mostly just think about my position in the blogosphere.  Here of course status is constant sum (since we don’t disagree on status). But the hope would be that at least the status we care more about isn’t constant sum. But it is. However much I move up relative to people in my pond, people in my pond move down relative to me (a person in their pond). So again involving ponds doesn’t change the constant-sumness of people gaining or losing status.
  3. But perhaps changing the number or contents of the ponds could increase the total status pie? Increasing the number of ponds could make things better – for instance if people measure status as distance from the top of one’s favorite pond. It could also make things worse – for instance if people measure status as the number of people under one in one’s favorite pond. It could also not change the total amount of status, if people measure status as something like proportion of the way up a status ladder. Instead of one big ladder there could be lots of little parallel ladders. This would stop people from having very high or very low status, but not change the total. It seems to me that some combination of these is true. The maker of the best rhubarb pie at the State Fair might feel statusful, but nowhere near as statusful as the president of america. Probably not even as statusful as someone at the 90th percentile of wealth. So I don’t think we just pay attention to the number above us in the group we care about most. Nor just our rank on some ladder – being further up of a bigger ladder is better. So it’s not clear to me that increasing the number of ponds should make for more status, or more enjoyment of status.
  4. Maybe moving people between ponds can help? Will Wilkinson tells of how he moved between ponds until he found one where he had a chance to excel. It seems likely that he feels higher status now. However the people in the ponds he left now have fewer people under them, and their ponds are smaller. Either of these might diminish their status. In his new pond, Will is probably better than others who were already competing. This lowers their status. It’s unclear whether everyone’s more statusful or better off overall than if they had all been in one big pond.

It might sound intuitive that more ponds mean more status for all, but in most straightforward models the number of ponds doesn’t change the size of the status pie.

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