Tag Archives: Status

What Cost Variety?

In 1930 Keynes famously predicted that by 2030 we’d be four to eight times more productive, and we’d use those gains to work far fewer hours. Though we could get by on less, we might work fifteen hours a week just to feel useful.

It is clear now that this won’t happen. But it is interesting to wonder what sort of lifestyle we could manage if we worked three to ten times fewer hours on average. And it occurs to me that we could probably work far less, and still have just as much stuff, of just as high a quality, if only we’d sacrifice product variety.

Imagine that we made just as many cars, houses, clothes, meals, furniture, etc., each one just as big with just as high quality materials and craftsmanship. But instead of the making these in the stupefying variety that we do today, imagine that we made only a few standard variations, and didn’t update those variations as often. A few standard cars, standard clothes, standard meals, etc. Enough variety to handle different climates, body sizes, and food allergies, but not remotely enough to let each person look unique. (An exception might be made for variety in music, books, movies, etc., since these are such a tiny fraction of total costs.)

I’d guess that this alternative could plausibly cost three to ten times or more less than what we pay now. Let me explain.

First, most products have fixed costs of production. That is, not only does it cost more to make more items, it costs to be ready to make that kind of item. For example, in addition to costing more to give you another gallon of gas, it costs to make a gas station and have it ready to sell you gas. With product variety, there is usually an added fixed cost for each new product variation.

Second, industry has worked hard to enable “mass customization,” i.e., product variety, by lowering fixed costs at the expense of increased per-item costs. Without product variety, industry would instead work hard to reduce per-item costs, at the expense of higher fixed costs.

Third, there is a lot of learning during most production processes, learning that makes it cheaper to make more items, even when the scale of the production process doesn’t change. A typical estimate is that costs fall in half when ten times as many items are made. So with a thousand times less product variety, costs would be eight times lower.

Fourth, there are lots of ways to save on costs when you produce at larger scales. For example, for most chemical processing, like making gas from oil, the cost of a production plant goes roughly as the surface area of its devices, while the amount processed goes roughly as the volume of the devices. Since volumes grow faster than surface areas, the per-volume cost goes down. There are also lots of ways to save on costs when you distribute and store more standardized items.

Even with a lot of bad management, the early communist revolution in Russia was still able to make impressive gains in output by using these scale economies. They didn’t have much variety, but they did make a lot of cars, etc.

What fraction of us would prefer to live in a world where they work only 10% as many hours, have just as much high quality stuff, but lose most of our product variety. If many of us would rather switch to this alternate world, then we may suffer from a coordination failure, of failing to switch together to more standard products.

I suspect that status competition is the problem here. We see those who don’t use distinctive products as lower status, either because they can’t afford them, or don’t have enough taste to pick ones well matched to them. Consider the distain expressed in the famous Pete Seeger Malvina Reynolds song Little Boxes for houses that look the same, and people who act similar. Consider the horror two women might feel to arrive at a party wearing the same dress. Or how folks at a restaurant are reluctant to order an item chosen by someone else at their table.

It isn’t like we are each born with detailed preferences for varied products, so I must own a tall white leather couch while you must own a short red cotton one. Instead we each try to construct a product-use-identity that is the right distance from other identities around us, and that well matches our few distinctive features. The more different others around us are from each other, the more different we must also be to not seem low status.

But it isn’t clear we are any happier, or that our lives have more meaning. This seems to just be part of the human status treadmill. A treadmill we don’t seem able or even much inclined to coordinate to avoid. Welcome to the human condition.

Added 20Feb: See a nice quote from Murray’s Coming Apart on increasing variety.

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Advice Isn’t About Info

Why is cynicism often taken as a sign of low status? One contributing factor is that we tend to get clearer evidence for cynical theories of the world when our status is falling, instead of rising:

I had lunch with a very senior managing partner at a venture capital firm as she was stepping down from the firm to spend more time with her family following a long and successful career in that company. She commented that once she announced her retirement, not only did her colleagues behave differently toward her, no longer inviting her to meetings and seeking her advice as often, but her time was less in demand by colleagues in the high-technology and venture capital communities more generally. Her wisdom and experience hadn’t changed— the only difference was her soon-to-be-diminished control over investment resources and positions in the venture capital firm. (Pfeffer’s book Power)

When you are young and rising in status, you can explain people listening to you more as their learning that you are wise. When you are older and falling in status, that explanation doesn’t work so well for why people listen to you less.

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Why Info Push Dominates

Some phenomena to ponder:

  1. Decades ago I gave talks about how the coming world wide web (which we then called “hypertext publishing”) could help people find more info. Academics would actually reply “I don’t need any info tools; my associates will personally tell me about any research worth knowing about.”
  2. Many said the internet would bring a revolution of info pull, where people pay to get the specific info they want, to supplant the info push of ads, where folks pay to get their messages heard. But even Google gets most revenue from info pushers, and our celebrated social media mainly push info too.
  3. Blog conversations put a huge premium on arguments that appear quickly after other arguments. Mostly arguments that appear by themselves a few weeks later might as well not exist, for all they’ll influence future expressed opinions.
  4. When people hear negative rumors about others, they usually believe them, and rarely ask the accused directly for their side of the story. This makes it easy to slander folks who aren’t well connected enough to have friends who will tell them who said what about them.
  5. We usually don’t seem to correct well for “independent” confirming clues that actually come from the same source a few steps back. We also tolerate higher status folks dominating meetings and other communication channels, thereby counting their opinions more. So ad campaigns often have time-correlated channel-redundant bursts with high status associations.

Overall, we tend to wait for others to push info onto us, rather than taking the initiative to pull info in, and we tend to gullibly believe such pushed clues, especially when they come from high status folks, come redundantly, and come correlated in time.

A simple explanation of all this is that our mental habits were designed to get us to accept the opinions of socially well-connected folks. Such opinions may be more likely to be true, but even if not they are more likely to be socially convenient. Pushed info tends to come with the meta clues of who said it when and via what channel. In contrast, pulled info tends to drop many such meta clues, making it harder to covertly adopt the opinions of the well-connected.

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A Missing Status Move

People who have status can use it to raise or lower the status of others. But they aren’t supposed to do this arbitrarily. Instead, we have social norms about how status is supposed to change. And our main norm is that status is supposed to track merit. So if you see someone whose status deviates from their merit, you are supposed help correct that deviation, at least when doing so is consistent with other norms.

For example, if you edit an academic journal, you aren’t just supposed to publish the papers of high status academics and reject the papers of low status academics. And you aren’t just supposed to publish the papers of your allies and reject those of your rivals. You are supposed to instead evaluate the merit of submitted papers, and publish the high merit papers. It is ok to use use status as a heuristic to estimate where merit is likely to lie, such rejecting without review papers that look bad on the surface and come from low status people. But when you have a private signal of merit, as might come from actually reading a paper, you are supposed to act on that signal.

This isn’t to say you should rudely force your private evaluations of merit on audiences who haven’t asked for them. If an audience treats a speaker with  respect, maybe you shouldn’t interrupt that speech to express your low evaluation. But neither should you praise that speaker just to gain favor with the audience, if you’ve been directly asked for your independent evaluation.

If you act to change someone’s status, that person might have a higher or lower status than you, and your act might raise or lower their status. This gives four possible situations. And in three of them, you have pretty plausible selfish motives for your actions. For example, because status is in part relative, any act to lower the status of others can plausibly be seen as selfishly trying to lower others to make more status room to raise you and your allies. Also, a bid to raise the status of someone above you can be seen as an attempt to associate with them, and as flattery, i.e., a gift to them in the hope they will reciprocate and raise your status.

The fourth possibility is where you act to raise the status of someone lower than you. Such an act would plausibly be selfish if that other person were an ally or minion of yours, or a rising star with a plausibly high future status. But selfishness is less plausible if they have no existing relation to you, aren’t a good ally candidate, and are past their prime. Especially if you try to raise their status to be above you.

Since trying to raise the status of an unaffiliated person below you is the least selfish looking way to try to change the status of others, we might expect this to be the least common variation observed. But we might also expect some people to go out of their way to do it, and to call attention to their act, in order to signal their devotion to the merit principle of status – the idea that we should all work to help make status better track merit. But I hardly ever hear of this.

So why don’t more people do this? We seem eager enough to invoke this status-should-track-merit principle when we criticize others for flattery, playing favorites, and unfair criticism of rivals.  But it seems few are committed enough to the principle to pay a clear personal cost to demonstrate their commitment.

Added 29DecInstapundit cited this post.

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Rejection Via Advice

We get status in part from the status of our associates, which is a credible signal of how others see us. Because of this, we prefer to associate with high status folks. But it looks bad to be overt about this. So we try to hide this motive, and to pretend that other motives dominate our choices of associates.

This would be easier to do if status were very stable. Then we could take our time setting up plausible excuses for wanting to associate with particular high status folks, and for rejecting association bids by particular low status folks. But in fact status fluctuates, which can force us to act quickly. We want to quickly associate more with folks who rise in status, and to quickly associate less with those who fall in status. But the coincidence in time between their status change and our association change may make our status motives obvious.

Since association seems a good thing in general, trying to associate with anyone seems a “nice” act, requiring fewer excuses. In contrast, weakening an existing association seems less nice. So we mainly need good excuses for pushing away those whose status has recently fallen. Such opportunistic rejection, just when our associates most need us, seems especially wrong and mean. So how do we manage it?

One robust strategy is to offer random specific advice. You acknowledge their problems, express sympathy, and then take extra time to “help” them by offering random specific advice about how to prevent or reverse their status fall. Especially advice that will sound good if quoted to others, but is hard for them to actually follow, and is unlikely to be the same as what other associates advise.

If different associates offer different advice, then this person with fallen status simply must fail to follow most of that advice. Which then gives all those folks whose advice was not followed an excuse to distance themselves from this failure. And those whose advice was followed, well at least they get the status mark of power – a credibly claim that they have influence over others. Either way, the falling status person loses even more status.

Unless of course the advice followed is actually useful. But what are the chances of that?

Added 27Dec: A similar strategy would be useful if your status were to rise, and you wanted to drop associates in order make room for more higher status associates.

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In Praise Of Profanity

Cursing … is a human universal. Every language, dialect or patois ever studied, whether living or dead, spoken by millions or by a single small tribe, turns out to have its share of forbidden speech. … The earliest writings, which date from 5,000 years ago, include their share of off-color descriptions of the human form and its ever-colorful functions. …

“Studies show that if you’re with a group of close friends, the more relaxed you are, the more you swear,” Burridge said. “It’s a way of saying: ‘I’m so comfortable here, I can let off steam. I can say whatever I like.’ ” Evidence also suggests that cursing can be an effective means of venting aggression and thereby forestalling physical violence. …

Men generally curse more than women, unless said women are in a sorority, and that university provosts swear more than librarians or the staff members of the university day care center. … Chimpanzees engage in what appears to be a kind of cursing match as a means of venting aggression and avoiding a potentially dangerous physical clash. (more)

My parents were very religious. They never drank alcohol, gambled, or used profanity. Since leaving them I’ve become comfortable with alcohol, and with gambling on important topics, but I’ve never been comfortable with profanity. Yet on refection, that is mostly a problem with me, not with profanity. Let me explain.

Traditionally, lower classes did hard physical labor, and as a result wore tough work clothes, and had skin that was callused, tanned, and wrinkled. Upper classes showed that they were too rich or skilled for such work by wearing fragile clothes and having soft smooth light skin. Similarly, upper classes have often nurtured polite language, avoidance of direct insult, and a heightened sensitivity and squeamishness on topics like sex or excrement. Such habits have helped the upper classes to contrast themselves with the tough and calloused attitudes of lower classes toward such things.

While upper classes have often portrayed lower class habits as due to ignorance of the universal benefits of politeness and sensitivity, lower class habits seem to me to in fact be functional adaptations to common environments. Just as it can be important to judge physical strength and toughness when allocating workers to hard physical labor, it can also be important to judge emotional toughness for tasks that may be emotionally stressful.

So lower class cultures tend to not only have more demonstrations of physical strength and toughness, including dangerous dares, fist fights, and excess drinking, such cultures also tend to have more direct and aggressive verbal challenges as well as profanity, insults, teasing, and taunting. People are even given nicknames that highlight their embarrassing weaknesses.

Such habits not only let lower class workers distinguish themselves from upper class managers and customers, they also help such workers to better express and gauge their physical and emotional weaknesses and strengths. This lets them better select and allocate people to tasks, and to push group members up to but not beyond their limits. So it makes sense that today profanity is more common in work groups that depend closely on one another, and who have high levels of physical and emotional stress. This includes surgeons, warriors, finance traders, movie makers, and restaurant servers.

Today, laws against sexual harassment, and wider monitoring of worker speech, discourage workplace profanity, in an apparent attempt to impose high class cultural standards on other classes. We should expect this to raise our status in the eyes of the world, even as it reduces the functionality of workgroups who strain against the limits of their capacities.

I also expect us to allow exceptions for work we consider to be especially important, like war and movies. I take recent increases in campus speech codes that basically ban any talk that anyone might offend anyone as further evidence that schools are more about signaling status than about gaining productivity.

If the world continues to get richer and more pampered, expect more rules against profanity in places that want to show themselves as high status. If, however, the world ever returns to really needing to get things done, expect any such rules to be mostly ignored, as people focus on productivity.

The em world scenario that I’ve been working on should have low wages, more competition, and work groups pushed to the limits of their emotional abilities, even as differences in physical abilities disappear. Em kids would also be rare, and rarely mix with adults. This all suggests that em work groups would more often adopt traditional working class habits, except emphasizing emotional over physical toughness. Em work groups will probably use lots of strongly emotional profanity, insults, and teasing.

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On Accidental Altruists

Gordon Tullock:

All of us like to think that we are better, more altruistic, more charitable, than we actually are. But, although we have this desire, we don’t want to pay for it. We are willing to make a sacrifice of perhaps 5 percent of our real income in charitable aid to others. We would like to think of ourselves, however, as making much larger transfers without actually making them. One of the functions of the politician in our society is to meet this demand. (more)


As an adolescent I seem to have deeply internalized the idea of great scientists/visionaries as heroes. I long judged my efforts by their standards – what would increase the chance that I would become such a person, or be approved by one. Marching to the beat of this unusual status audience drummer often led me to “non-conform” by doing things that less impressed folks around me. But I very definitely wanted to impress someone. (more)

Let me admit it here and now: I am an accidental altruist, driven more by ambition than empathy. I have sought glory by understanding deep mysteries of quantum physics, disagreement, and human hypocrisy, by foreseeing the next great era after ours, and by inventing and deploying new forms of info aggregation in governance.

I happen to believe that such actions will in fact give an unusually large expected benefit to the world. This is because I believe that in our era a great many things go quite wrong because we do not understand ourselves and our future, and because we aggregate info badly. But, I must admit that I might still pursue similar glories even if they gave little benefit. And perhaps even if they created modest harm.

Now it is not a complete accident that our society offers glory to those who improve our governance or deepen our understanding of the world and ourselves. Or that more glory often goes to those whose contributions seem more likely to benefit us all. This is a somewhat functional way for a society to coordinate to improve itself. But the credit here should probably go to the slow process of cultural selection, whereby cultures with more functional institutions win out in competition with other cultures.

I suspect that many will think less of me if they see my altruism as more accidental, relative to intentional. And this makes sense to the extent that people use altruism as a signal of niceness. That is, if you use how nice someone is toward the world as a whole as signal of how nice they would treat you as a friend, spouse, colleague, etc., then it makes sense to put less weight on accidental niceness. We accidental altruists probably tend to be less nice.

But if what you wanted was just to encourage more altruism toward the world, I’d think you’d mostly just want to celebrate people more who actually do more good for the world, without caring that much if they are driven more by glory or empathy. Sure, when faced with an option where they might gain glory by hurting the world, such a person might well choose it. But in areas where pursuing glory tends mostly to help the world, my guess is that the world is helped more if we just praise all good done for the world, intend of focusing our praise mainly on those who do good for the purest of reasons. And I think we all pretty much know this.

So why don’t we just celebrate all good done, regardless of motive? I’d guess it is because most of us care less about how to help the world overall, and more about how to use the altruism of others as a signal of their personal inclinations and abilities.

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School Status Stops Kids

More support for the theory that fertility has fallen because status now puts more weight on having well educated kids:

Discussions … typically assume that the poor have more children than the rich. Micro-data from [62,146 women in] 48 developing countries suggest that this assumption was false until recently. …

In earlier birth cohorts (mostly of the 1940s and 1950s), both the number of ever-born siblings and the number of surviving siblings are positively associated with years of education in 25 countries and negatively associated in two. In contrast, in later birth cohorts (mostly of the 1980s), 20 countries exhibit negative associations between both measures of sibship size and education, while seven show the opposite. …

Changes in women’s labor force participation, sectoral composition, GDP per capita, [urbanization,] and child mortality do not predict changes in the education-sibship size association. Instead, one variable stands out …: the average educational attainment of the parent generation. …

Two explanations … stand out. … The first involves subsistence consumption constraints. … This explanation is somewhat difficult to square with the finding that economic growth is uncorrelated with changes in the education-sibship size association. … The second explanation is … that mass education induces widespread change in fertility norms … [and so] increases the importance of child quality relative to quantity in the utility function, [with] the preferences of the most educated couples [being] most sensitive. (more)

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Future Story Status

Orson Scott Card on story characters:

Four basic factors … are present in every story, with varying degrees of emphasis. … milieu, idea, character, and event.

  • The milieu is the world surrounding the characters, the landscape, the interior spaces, the surrounding cultures the characters emerge from and react to; everything from weather to traffic laws.
  • The idea is the information that the reader is meant to discover or learn during the process of the story.
  • Character is the nature of one or more of the people in the story – what they do and why they do it. It usually leads to or arises from a conclusion about human nature in general.
  • The events of the story are everything that happens and why. …

Each factor is present in all stories, to one degree or another. Every factor has an implicit structure; if that factor dominates a story, its structure determines the overall shape of the story. …

All [these] factors are present in The Lord Of The Rings, but it is the milieu structure that predominates, as it should. It would be absurd to criticize The Lord Of The Rings for not having plot unity and integrity, because it is not an event story. Likewise, it would be absurd to criticize the book for its stereotyped one-to-a-race characters or for the many characters about who we learn little more than what they do in the story and why they do it, because this is not a character story. …

Character stories really came into their own at the beginning of the twentieth century, and both the novelty and the extraordinary brilliance of some of the writers who worked with this story structure have lead many critics and teachers to believe that only this kind of story can be “good.” … [But] other kinds of stories have long traditions, with many examples of brilliance along the way. ….

It is a mistake to think that deep, detailed characterization is an absolute virtue in storytelling. .. If you choose not to devote much time to characterization in a particular story, this won’t necessarily mean you “failed” or “wrote badly.” It may mean that you understand yourself and your story. (more; pp.62,63,74,75; see also)

Card suggests that the current high status of character stories is a temporary historical accident, which suggests that it will eventually decline. Someone will write such a damn impressive milieu, idea, or event story that others seeking to look impressive will try their hand, making that structure the ideal of a “good” story.

I’d guess that rising incomes contributed to the rising status of the character story. Rich self-indulgent folks are more likely to be obsessed with their own internal feelings, and our wealth has allowed us the slack to often have dramatically dysfunctional character features. Also, our psychological aversion to seeing ourselves clearly has made those who can overcome such aversions more clearly impressive. However, if our descendants are less rich, less free to change their social roles, or if they can more easily see themselves clearly, character stories may seem less compelling. My weak bet is on the eventual rise in status of the milieu story, as I’ve recently come to see how very hard it can be to describe a coherent yet different world.

Added 8:30p: I went searching for criticism of Card’s framework here, and couldn’t find any. Odd.

Added 7a: On reflection, it is also pretty plausible that increasing density, size, and specialization has only recently created a niche for cognitive elites to write for other cognitive elites, which let writers focus on impressing such elites. Impressively realistic character stories are mostly impressive to other cognitive elites, and much less so to ordinary readers.

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French Fertility Fall

Why do we have fewer kids today, even though we are rich? In ancient societies, richer folks usually had more kids than poorer folks. Important clues should be found in the first place where fertility fell lots, France from 1750 to 1850. The fall in fertility seems unrelated to contraception and the fall in infant mortality. England at the time was richer, less agrarian and more urban, yet its fertility didn’t decline until a century later. The French were mostly rural, their farming was primitive, and they had high food prices.

A new history paper offers new clues about this early rural French decline. Within that region, the villages where fertility fell first tended to have less wealth inequality, less correlation of wealth across generations, and wealth more in the form of property relative to cash. Fertility fell first among the rich, and only in those villages; in other villages richer folks still had more kids. The French revolution aided this process by reducing wealth inequality and increasing social mobility.

It seems that in some poor rural French villages, increasing social mobility went with a revolution-aided cultural change in the status game, encouraging families to focus their social ambitions on raising a fewer higher quality kids. High status folks focused their resources on fewer kids, and your kids had a big chance to grow up high status too if only you would also focus your energies on a few of them.

It seems to me this roughly fits with the fertility hypothesis I put forward. See also my many posts on fertility. Here are many quotes from that history paper: Continue reading "French Fertility Fall" »

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