Status And Glory

Once upon a time it was elites who went to war, who took the risks but could gain the glory. Once upon a time gambling was banned for ordinary folks but elites could take such risks and gain glory if they won. Today, consider this NYT article (in which I’m quoted):

John Delaney, an Irish businessman who founded Intrade, an online prediction market that allows customers to bet on world political, entertainment and financial events, died on Saturday after coming within 50 yards of the summit of Mount Everest. He was 42.

This article said nothing on banning Everest climbs; few articles on Everest climbs do. Yet:

The overall mortality rate for Everest mountaineers during the entire 86-year period was 1.3 percent; the rate among climbers was 1.6 percent and the rate among sherpas was 1.1 percent. During the past 25 years, a period during which a greater percentage of moutaineers climbed above 8,000 meters, the death rate for non-Himalayan climbers descending via the longer Tibetan northeast ridge was 3.4 percent, while on the shorter Nepal route it was 2.5 percent.

Contrast this to strong widespread feelings that bike helmets should be required, even though cyclists suffer only about 7 injuries per million miles of biking, and despite serious doubts if helmets help. Even the proverbial banned lawn darts caused ~30 deaths a year with 10-15 million of them in use, far far less than a 2% user death rate.

Why do ban activities with very low risks yet celebrate very high risk mountain climbing? Status seems the obvious explanation. It takes a lot of money to even attempt to climb Everest. We celebrate high status risk-takers, and ban low status ones.

Need more data? Consider the widespread bans on “noodling”, i.e., catching fish with your bare hands:

Brady Knowlton believes it’s his inalienable right as a Texan to shove his bare hand into the mouth of a 60-pound catfish and yank it out of a river. But wrestling a flapping, whiskered giant as it latches onto your arm with its jaws isn’t among Texas’s accepted methods of capturing fish. It is, rather, a class C misdemeanor, with fines of up to $500. … Rod-and-reel anglers … say noodling is unfair to the fish, since they’re grabbed in their burrows without a chance to swim away. … Missouri … prohibits fish-grabbing on grounds that it would deplete the fish population. (more)

When you picture a fish-noodler do you picture someone high status? Didn’t think so.

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  • Emily

    The fish-noodling seems like a poor analogy because it’s (at least claimed to be) banned for reasons other than “risk to the person doing it”.

  • “Why do ban activities with very low risks yet celebrate very high risk mountain climbing? Status seems the obvious explanation.”

    Robin, I think some work needs to be done to make it clear that this is an empirical claim. What does ‘high status’ mean beyond “that which we celebrate”? And what does low status mean beyond “that which we ban”?

    I know these locutions are not strictly equivalent, but they are closely enough related to cast doubt on how compelling your claim is as an explanation.

  • Vladimir M.

    From the Times article:

    “What Intrade did is that it carved out a niche for itself in developing a whole site devoted to nonsports betting,” said Robin Hanson

    Was this really the best soundbite you could come up with, or did they pull it out of a longer statement you gave? If you want to promote prediction markets in the general public, I think describing them as “nonsports betting” is hardly a good way to boost their status.

  • Jason

    The mortality rate seems to increase a great deal above 8000 meters — but all of the peaks in the world above that height are in the Himalayas. First, neither the US nor the EU can regulate Nepal; second, it is possible that the concentration of 8000+ meter peaks outside of Western countries skews the mortality rate.

    Another issue is that there have only been 4102 ascents of Everest; sqrt(4102)/4102 = 1.6%, so mortality rate differences don’t even seem strongly significant at this point.

    Mountain climbing in the US is pretty highly regulated (especially the necessary equipment) and climbing fees amount to a hefty tax.

    Additionally, lawn darts (and even biking until recently) were considered primarily children’s activities, and as mentioned above Noodling being banned is likely not about risk. At the least, it is a subsidy to the rod & reel industry. In Texas, the law may even be a slight against people from Oklahoma.

    Now sure, I could probably go along with a case for “man the sly rule bender” allowing elites to ride without helmets, get around mountain climbing regulations or noodle in the face of the law.

    • Rodney Polkinghorne

      Mountain climbing in the US is pretty highly regulated (especially the necessary equipment) and climbing fees amount to a hefty tax.

      Do you have any evidence of that? Aliens, RPs and HBs were made in people’s garages with no regulation whatsoever. They were sold in the US until very recently. That changed becuase the people who made them died or retired, not because of regulation.

      Which areas of the US accept that? The American climbers I know would start a revolution if anyone tried that.

      • Jason

        Sorry, that came across incorrectly. You are required to carry specific equipment in order to get a permit to climb. (It doesn’t matter who makes it.)

        If you submit the climbing registration card e.g. minus an ice axe, you will not be granted a permit.

  • Peter Gerdes

    The children’s activities point was already raised.

    However, I think the major reason is that people assume that bicycle helmets and foregoing lawn darts are minor inconvieniences that cost little utility relative to the lives they save.

    Conversely the sheer insane dedication of Everest climbers convinces people it wouldn’t be some casual annoyance to deny them this climb. Now perhaps we aren’t correctly adding up all the small inconvieniences to the millions correctly but that’s a standard human failing. We aren’t wired to multiply small harms by millions so instead we compare the narrative of the person denied the chance to climb Everest and that of the person denied playing lawn darts.

    Additionally society gets a great deal of thrill out of people’s attempts to do stupendous but risky things. Look at all the social utility people get from the Nat Geo show about climbing Everest. No such entertaining TV/news would be provided by lawn darts or bicycle helmets. Hearing about someone dying struggling to live out their dream of reaching the summit is bittersweet but appealing. Hearing about a kid speared with a lawn dart is just sad.

    Lastly, as a good economist you should consider the increase in QALYs as a result of the policies. The people who don’t wear bike helmets or play with lawn darts are probably otherwise at average risk of death. The people eager to climb Everest almost surely will substitute that good with an equally dangerous (but perhaps less entertaining) pursuit (quite possibly these extreme thrill seekers actually have a mutation in the genes for the dopamine receptors but at any rate the patter is set by the time they are climbing Everest).

    In short society doesn’t have the choice between ‘live a safe healthy life’ vs ‘climb everest.’ Rather society can choose between ‘Climb Everest’ and ‘Stupid but less newsworthy risks like climbing without safety gear’

    • NeedleFactory

      Sorry, I feel compelled to respond to Peter Gerdes, who says people assume that bicycle helmets … are minor inconveniences that cost little utility relative to the lives they save.

      When I rode motorcycles, I felt that a helmet hampered my vision, my hearing, and my mobility. I suppose being required to wear a blindfold would also be an “inconvenience”.

      • Also, Ian Walker found that automobile drivers gave cyclists less room when cyclists wore helmets.

    • wilson

      One of the things the thread’s author left out is that the evidence from Western Australia is the overall mortality significantly increased after the helmet law.

      Helmet usage eliminated an infinitesimal number of deaths, if any at all.

      However, cycling rates went down substantially (a crippling blow to your “minor inconvenience” argument), and the effect on health of the decrease in cycling overwhelmed any other effect of the law.

      I’m not making this up or surmising. The British Medical association published studies to this effect.

  • helmets

    Putting aside whether helmets work or not:

    If it is “dorky” to wear a helmet it is only because “cool” people don’t; if if is strictly enforced that you have to wear a helmet, “everyone” is a dork, and so no one is.

    Is there a similar story for everest?

  • Miley Cyrax

    “Why do ban activities with very low risks yet celebrate very high risk mountain climbing? Status seems the obvious explanation. It takes a lot of money to even attempt to climb Everest. We celebrate high status risk-takers, and ban low status ones.”

    Women are attracted to male expendability and risk-taking. This would make sense evolutionary because tribes with men willing to risk their lives in war and with women eager to compensate these men for their risk taking would fare better than other tribes. Nowadays this manifests itself in female attraction for “men in uniform” as well as activities like mountain climbing or something as frivolous as skateboarding.

    • as

      co to ma kurwa być?

  • I don’t think it is that women are attracted to male expendability, I think it is that males don’t have an alternate pathway to get females. Status in patriarchal tribes has mostly to do with the social power hierarchy which is mostly due to the arbitrary whims of those high in the social power hierarchy, which whims are based on maintaining their own social power, not inherent merit.

    Encouraging low status males to do life risking things favors males with more status by removing low status males from competition for females.

    It is dead heroes who gain the most “status”, but that “status” is useless because they are dead. Encouraging young and naïve males to risk death by praising those who have died serves only the high status males who encourage them.

    In gambling, who is it who benefits the most? It is always the house. When young men risk their lives in war, in dangerous work, in unsafe working conditions, in life threatening activities, it is always the social hierarchy that benefits the most; the armchair generals, the war profiteers, the mine owners, the expedition marketers.

    • Jeffrey Soreff

      Well said! If a dead low-status male is being praised, it is useful to look around to see which high-status male was served.

    • Miley Cyrax

      I don’t think it is that women are attracted to male expendability, I think it is that males don’t have an alternate pathway to get females.

      If women aren’t attracted to male expendability and risk-taking, then risk-taking and expendability would not be an avenue by which to garner female attention.

      Encouraging low status males to do life risking things favors males with more status by removing low status males from competition for females.

      High status males would already have a decided advantage on females, as females are attracted to status.

      Encouraging young and naïve males to risk death by praising those who have died serves only the high status males who encourage them.

      Nope, it serves the young men too. If they hang around the tribe they might remain womanless. If they go off to war and returns a hero they will boost their status in women’s eyes now that he they’re war veterans. If they remain in conquered lands they could shack up with the locals if not rape them.

      It is dead heroes who gain the most “status”, but that “status” is useless because they are dead.

      Status is the risk premium to compensate for risk-taking and displays of expendability in order to incentivize to do so.

      • Miley Cyrax

        It is dead heroes who gain the most “status”, but that “status” is useless because they are dead.

        Status is the risk premium to compensate for risk-taking and displays of expendability in order to incentivize to do so.”

        I wouldn’t say all dead heroes gain more status than ones who return alive, but even if so, just because some die and don’t benefit from the increase in status, doesn’t make going off to war an imprudent investment for lower status males.

      • If you look at the link on the lost boys, the preferences of the females had nothing to do with who they married. That is still true in many places, probably most of the world women are still compelled by their male relatives to marry the person the male relatives have selected. Gaining sufficient status to marry a woman isn’t about impressing her, it is about impressing her male relatives. What impresses them the most is having sisters or daughters you can give them in exchange.

        Going to war doesn’t raise a male’s status relative to those who sent him there, it is only higher than those who die and those who get badly injured, including things like PTSD. The problem is that those who control the social power hierarchy don’t allow anyone but those they choose to gain status in it.

        How many of the “leaders” of the GOP were chickenhawks during Vietnam? What did those “leaders” do to attain the high status they now have? They sucked-up to those who had high status (i.e. wealth) and were selected by the whim of those high status individuals to gain status. They now have vastly more status than those who did go to Vietnam.

        It is the lack of other opportunities to gain status that drives men to war. That lack of opportunity is perpetuated by the existing social power hierarchy.

    • Corydon

      Except that in many societies, extremely risky activities (like making war) have been reserved to high status males until quite recently.

      It wasn’t that long ago that even a “Commander in Chief” (i.e. a king or other war leader) was expected not just on the battlefield, but on the front lines. You can see echoes of this in the way that men in the British Royal Family are still expected to serve on active duty in real combat positions.

      You see the same thing in Japan, right up into the 19th century, in ancient Rome and Greece, where high-status military positions were reserved for wealthy aristocrats, even arguably in the American Revolution and Confederacy. And it’s worth noting that one way the French Revolution overturned the social hierarchy was by vastly expanding the Army and replacing the medieval aristocratic taille du sang with conscription and glory (and taxes) for everyone.

      Sexuality is another arena where risk (in the form of threats to one’s family, disease, bastards, etc.) has traditionally been tolerated or even encouraged for elites and despised for the masses. Likewise, look at how differently promiscuity is treated between males and females, and how the differences only increase in societies that render women second-class citizens.

  • Robert Koslover

    Hmm. This is pretty low status, and all of us know that it is supposed to be dangerous. But interestingly, it is neither illegal or even regulated. Heh.

    • Pavitra

      Oh, but it is forbidden — to the underclass that people think might want to do it. It doesn’t look illegal to you because you’re not a member of the underclass.

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  • Pingback: Psychologist and economist George Loewenstein, Carnegie Mellon University, was an avid mountain climber “until I had kids and couldn’t tolerate the risk.” — [TAKEAWAYS] | Midas Oracle .ORG()

  • Kevin Gaughan

    When it comes to issues of public health and regulation isn’t the total number of people who take part in an activity relevant as well as the percentage?

    Millions of people ride bicycles and drive cars so a law which increases your chance of survival still saves a healthy number of lives.

    A much smaller number of people try to climb Everest so even though the percentage chance of you dying is much higher the small number of deaths means it isn’t worth the trouble of brining in a law.

  • “Why do ban activities with very low risks yet celebrate very high risk mountain climbing?”

    Because banning mountaing climbing can save the lives of a trivial amount of people, but mandating bike helmets can save (tens of?) thousands of lives – at least that’s the idea.

  • luosha

    the people rich enough to climb everest and die there are also not costing the public in emergency room bills (probably) paid for by medicaid, whereas the fish noodlers might be. also, death doesn’t cost the health-care system anything, so the people in your insurance pool don’t suffer from your risk-taking. contrast to the hypothetical guy who gets an infection, can no longer use his right hand, goes on public assistance for disability, etc.

    so yeah, it’s related to status, but i think it has more to do with who has to assume the burden of the risk coming out poorly. in a welfare state, the public has more of a (direct, taxpayer) stake in what the poor do than what the rich do. not saying that’s a good thing.

  • Andrew Montgomery

    A few years ago in Britain, a top government scientist pointed out that the illegal drug Ecstasy (MDMA) carries a similar risk of death to horse riding. Ecstasy is consumed by hundreds of thousands of people on a regular basis, yet only around 10 deaths per year are attributed to the drug. Horse riding also kills around 10 people per year, with a similar number of riders.

    • fructose

      Solution: get British elites to start using ecstasy. Alternately, get the British underclass to take up horseback riding.

      • some wag

        Couldn’t we just split the difference and get middle-class British horses using Ecstasy?

  • coldequation

    Fish noodling involves pulling a catfish out of its burrow where it’s protecting its brood. Not only do you kill the fish, you kill all of its offspring. That’s why noodling is banned.

    Catching catfish in an Ozark stream is not particularly high status no matter how you do it anyway.

  • nw3

    That is a very good observation. I propose the America’s Cup is another high-risk high-status we don’t ban. There are financial grounds to do so since I assume the country hosting the race provides costly coast guard and naval rescue support.

  • Dave

    Tradition has a lot of influence. They don’t ban low status boxing where you try to give your opponent a concussion but do ban unlimited martial arts, you know, where they allow eye gouging and dis-articulating joints. Bull fighting banned here but not in Spain. A lot has to do with the yuck factor which varies by culture.

  • Krish

    You have a lot of theories. Can you back it with more data (examples)? Your theories no doubt, are highly interesting. But what bothers me is the confidence with which you put forward these claims without testing them.

  • jtg

    Isn’t this just paternalism? The elite ruling class assumes the underclass are not mentally capable of properly evaluating risks. Which is why they want to ban risks the underclass like/want to take — like payday loans, noodling, riding a motorcycle without a helmet, etc.

    Upper class dangerous activities — mountain climbing, sailing, horseback riding, hedge funds — are left largely unregulated because the elites assume they themselves are competent to judge the risks and properly weigh the risk vs reward.

  • MPS

    The difference might be to what extent participants are aware of the risks they take.

    For instance, often times “professionals” are allowed to do things normal people can’t — like set of fireworks.

    But it could be just a difference in local laws. Mt Everest is not located in a country that so strongly regulates human activity. Here in the US, you need a form of licensing to climb certain peaks, right?

  • People conflate the concept of risk of harm with chance of gain. The reason these are confused is because it favors those with high status.

    The most valuable thing that people of high status have is their status. Status is all zero-sum, so anything that raises the status of someone else lowers the status of those with high status. Because individuals who survive high risk activities gain in social status, some people have to lose status to make up for the individuals who gain. The lost status can be by dying, or by becoming maimed.

    If people didn’t actually die, there would be no status to be transferred except from those who already have it and they don’t want to give it up. That is why people of high status feel it is ok for other high status individuals to do risky things in competition with other high status individuals. If some of those high status individuals are killed, their status gets transferred. But this is why you don’t see poor low status individuals competing with high status individuals at doing risky things.

    When this behavior becomes disastrous, is when high status individuals compel low status individuals to do risky things because there is no self-risk to produce a stabilizing effect. This is what happens with suicide bombers, and what lead to the financial crisis. Placing risky bets with other people’s lives or money has no downside except to the people who lose if the bets fail and don’t win if the bets succeed. This is why when those in congress have no children in the military they are not as careful about wars.

    This is what the bet about global warming is about. If the wealthy are wrong and AGW happens, they lose status by being wrong. The people who live and work in areas that will be flooded lose more than that. If global warming actually kills enough people, the AGW deniers will “win” because the status of all those dead people gets redistributed by those with high money status, the same people who are now profiting from AGW denial.

  • I think there is a lot of magical thinking on the part of those who participate in high risk activities. They all imagine that they have the “Right Stuff”. The stuff that test pilots thought they had which drove the delusion that all crashes of all test aircraft were always due to pilot error, that crashes only happened to people who didn’t have the “Right Stuff”.

    It is a lot cheaper for those the high risk activities benefit to push the fantasy of the “Right Stuff” than to actually spend the money to make things safer. There is a lot of this in workplace safety issues.

    Raising the status of those who survive high risk activities or lowering the status of those who do not by blaming the victim, is much the same. Women do the same thing by wearing clothes considered to be attractive, a high risk activity. The attractive women gains status by being attractive until she is raped and then she loses status by having “asked for it”.

  • John Delaney’s widow is interviewed here:

  • Pingback: InTrade CEO John Delaney (42) died on May 21, 2011, while climbing Mount Everest, and his body will remain there. — [OBITUARY] | Midas Oracle .ORG()

  • wvmcl2

    I think it should be pointed out that almost all state and local laws mandating bicycle hemets apply only to children.

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  • Michael Wengler

    Yachting and private jets are highly regulated: in how they are built, how they are maintained, how they are operated, and what safety equipment they are required to carry.

    NASCAR racing is not particularly regulated by government. It IS highly “regulated” by its private sanctioning organization, as is Formula 1. NASCAR doesn’t seem high status to me, Formula 1 does.

    The construction of mansions is as highly regulated as the construction of any housing with long lists of codes and inspections that must be passed to render the mansion legally habitable.

    Rules and regulations regarding construction and operation of supercars (many hundres of thousands of dollars each) are the same as for the tiniest Fiats and Toyotas.

    Cocaine and heroin are both very illegal, and were so even when cocaine was for rich people and heroin for the poor.

    Tobacco smoking and cheap alcohol use are not particularly high status, but are very dangerous when used as directed. Their use is regulated, but hardly to the point of making them as safe as other things which are banned from use because of their dangerousness.

    Relatively middle/lower class people throughout the southwestern United States bring all manner of gasoline powered “toys” to vast swathes of public desert which are made available for their use. I do not know injury rates from this, but it sure looks dangerous and feels dangerous when you are doing it. It is also great fun, in between disasters.

    It doesn’t seem to me that status is a particularly good way to predict whether something dangerous will be regulated or not. I think it might have more to do with information. Non-racing of boats, planes, and cars FEEL like they should be safe. I justify the impulse to regulate by suggesting that regulation should reflect the tradeoffs a highly informed rationalist with great leisure available to study the issue would choose. I have heard from more ER nurses and doctors that if you are stupid enough to ride a motorcycle you could still be smart enough to mitigate with a helmet. That doesn’t mean they are right, but they are certainly exposed to the highly non-vanishing tail of bad outcomes that the average rider might come across only once in his life, at precisely the point at which it is too late to factor the information into his decision.

    Similarly with building regulation. I am not “free” to build my house out of stuff other people would use to start fires, or in ways where its collapse is a matter of years rather than centuries, and then sell it into a market where it would be prohibitively expensive to reverse engineer to determine for potential buyers the real status of this house. Instead we have a clearly well-working market in houses where there is a very reasonable expectation of the level of quality of construction based on building codes. Building codes do for houses what accounting standards and disclosure rules do for publicly traded stocks, they create a particular regulated market.

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