Our Prestige Obsession

Long ago our distant ancestors lived through both good times and bad. In bad times, they did their best to survive, while in good times they asked themselves, “What can I invest in now to help me in coming bad times?” The obvious answer was: good relations and reputations. So they had kids, worked to raise their personal status, and worked to collect and maintain good allies.

This has long been my favored explanation for why we now invest so much in medicine and education, and why those investment have risen so much over the last century. We subconsciously treat medicine as a way to show that we care about others, and to let others show they care about us. As we get richer, we devote a larger fraction of our resources to this plan, and to other ways of showing off.

I’d never thought about it until yesterday, but this theory also predicts that, as we get rich, we put an increasing priority on associating with prestigious doctors and teachers. In better times, we focus more on gaining prestige via closer associations with more prestigious people. So as we get rich, we not only spend more on medicine, we more want that spending to connect us to especially prestigious medical professionals.

This increasing-focus-on-prestige effect can also help us to understand some larger economic patterns. Over the last half century, rising wage inequality has been driven to a large extent by a limited number of unusual services, such as medicine, education, law, firm management, management consulting, and investment management. And these services tend to share a common pattern.

As a fraction of the economy, spending on these services has increased greatly over the last half century or so. The public face of each service tends to be key high status individuals, e.g., doctors, teachers, lawyers, managers, who are seen as driving key service choices for customers. Customers often interact directly with these faces, and develop personal relations with them. There are an increasing number of these key face individuals, their pay is high, and it has been rising faster than has average pay, contributing to rising wage inequality.

For each of these services, we see customers knowing and caring more about the prestige of key service faces, relative to their service track records. Customers seem surprisingly disinterested in big ways in which these services are inefficient and could be greatly improved, such as via tech. And these services tend to be more highly regulated.

For example, since 1960, the US has roughly doubled its number of doctors and nurses, and their pay has roughly tripled, a far larger increase than seen in median pay. As a result, the fraction of total income spent on medicine has risen greatly. Randomized trials comparing paramedics and nurse practitioners to general practice doctors find that they all produce similar results, even though doctors cost far more. While student health centers often save by having one doctor supervise many nurses who do most of the care, most people dislike this and insist on direct doctor care.

We see very little correlation between having more medicine and more health, suggesting that there is much excess care and inefficiency. Patients prefer expensive complex treatments, and are suspicious of simple cheap treatments. Patients tend to be more aware of and interested in their doctor’s prestigious schools and jobs than of their treatment track record. While medicine is highly regulated overall, the much less regulated world of animal medicine has seen spending rise a similar rate.

In education, since 1960 we’ve seen big rises in the number of students, the number of teachers and other workers per student, and in the wages of teachers relative to worker elsewhere. Teachers make relatively high wages. While most schools are government run, spending at private schools has risen at a similar rate to public schools. We see a strong push for more highly educated teachers, even though teachers with less schooling seem adequate for learning. Students don’t actually remember much of what they are taught, and most of what they do learn isn’t actually useful. Students seem to know and care more about the prestige of their teachers than about their track records at teaching. College students prefer worse teachers who have done more prestigious research.

In law, since 1960 we’ve similarly seen big increases in the number of court cases, the number of lawyers employed, and in lawyer incomes. While two centuries ago most people could go to court without a lawyer, law is now far more complex. Yet it is far from clear whether we are better off with our more complex and expensive legal system. Most customers know far more about the school and job prestige of the lawyers they consider than they do about such lawyers’ court track records.

Management consultants have greatly increased in number and wages. While it is often possible to predict what they would recommend at a lower cost, such consultants are often hired because their prestige can cow internal opponents to not resist proposed changes. Management consultants tend to hire new graduates from top schools to impress clients with their prestige.

People who manage investment funds have greatly increased in number and pay. Once their management fees are taken into account, they tend to give lower returns than simple index funds. Investors seem willing to accept such lower expected returns in trade for a chance to brag about their association should returns happen to be high. They enjoy associating with prestigious fund managers, and tend to insist that such managers take their phone calls, which credibly shows a closer than arms-length relation.

Managers in general have also increased in number and also in pay, relative to median pay. And a key function of managers may be to make firms seem more prestigious, not only to customers and investors, but also to employees. Employees are generally wary of submitting to the dominance of bosses, as such submission violates an ancient forager norm. But as admiring and following prestigious people is okay, prestigious bosses can induce more cooperative employees.

Taken together, these cases suggest that increasing wage inequality may be caused in part by an increased demand for associating with prestigious service faces. As we get rich, we become willing to spend a larger fraction of our income on showing off via medicine and schooling, and we put higher priority on connecting to more prestigious doctors, teachers, lawyers, managers, etc. This increasing demand is what pushes their wages high.

This demand for more prestigious service faces seems to not be driven by a higher productivity that more prestigious workers may be able to provide. Customers seem to pay far less attention to productivity than to prestige; they don’t ask for track records, and they seem to tolerate a great deal of inefficiency. This all suggests that it is prestige more directly that customers seek.

Note that my story is somewhat in conflict with the usual “skill-biased technical change” story, which says that tech changed to make higher-skilled workers more productive relative to lower-skilled workers.

Added 10June: Note that the so-called Baumol “cost disease”, wherein doing some tasks just takes a certain number of hours unaided by tech gains, can only explain spending increases proportional to overall wage increases, and that only if demand is very inelastic. It can’t explain how some wages rise faster than the average, nor big increases in quantity demanded even as prices increases.

Added 12Jun: This post inspired by reading & discussing Why Are the Prices So Damn High?

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