Bryan Caplan  

Fear of Looking Rich Redux

Public Goods, Externalities, a... Tyler deserts Hayek...

A while back I questioned Robin Hanson's view that virtually everyone wants to imitate the rich in order to raise their status. Robin recently told me that he's "updated," so I'll stop calling it "Robin Hanson's view." But I still want to present another major counter-example:

Rich people stereotypically employ cleaning ladies and other household servants, right? Funny thing, though: Many, perhaps most, middle-class Americans are very uncomfortable imitating them. I know a number of highly-paid women who clean their own homes because they can't bear the thought of outsourcing it to another person. And I know more who prefer to leave their own house when the help shows up for the sole purpose of avoiding the shame of relaxing while their servants tidy up.

If people wanted to look rich, they'd be hiring servants with gusto. But at least in the U.S., even the objectively affluent shy away from it. Most curious. Personally, if I ever hit the big time, my first major expense will be to hire a majordomo.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
K writes:

I agree. Take a middle-class or an outright poor individual and put them in a uppity dinner party or ball. It doesn't work. Kind of like a remake of the "Beverly Hillbillies" without the money to do it on a regular basis. So, every time he/she gets the taste of the good life they are usually uncomfortable and don't fit in. Thus...they don't like "imitating" rich folks.

As for people who have problems with paying for cleaning...I would say it all boils down to those individuals feeling like they are not privileged enough to have a cleaning person. Many of these uncomfortable middle-class individuals have some memory that makes them feel like they aren't to far away from doing the same job.

B writes:

I think your general point is likely correct, but your specific example of hiring cleaning help may have other issues.

My husband and I both work very long hours, and we are also quite well-off. I could certainly afford to hire cleaning help. I really want to hire cleaning help because I would prefer not to spend my leisure time cleaning. But, having seen my friends struggle with getting good help, I have come to the conclusion that it's just not worth the hassle. I have high standards for cleaning my house; and I imagine that many highly-paid career women have similarly perfectionist standards. It is incredibly difficult to find someone to simply do an adequate job, let alone meet my standards.

I think this is true for most unskilled labor that I would like to contract out. I care about it more than anyone I could hire, so I am more likely to do a good job. From an economic standpoint, I would be willing to pay quite highly for household help, given how much I value my leisure time. But I can't seem to find it no matter what the cost. Maybe I'm just looking in the wrong places.

Bob Knaus writes:

Here's a tip for "B" and others looking for high-quality cleaning help: hire a woman from one of the "plain people" sects (Amish, Mennonite, Brethren, etc.) This only works if there is a community of them nearby of course. And if they are a "horse-and-buggy" sect you might have to provide transportation.

You'll get a housecleaner who is honest, thrifty, industrious, and (most importantly) very aware of cleanliness.

I come from such a family. One of my sisters did housecleaning for 3 wealthy households for several years. She made more per hour than her husband, who is a skilled cabinet carpenter. The ladies were very happy with her services, and were sorry when she left to take a job as the janitor at a private school.

wintercow20 writes:

I have been given my dad's Ford Expedition Eddie Bauer edition (leather, all souped up). My prior car was a little Mazda 3. I find myself feeling like I am being stared at when I park in a parking lot, or when I bring it to a trailhead for a hike. I could be imagining things of course - but I would love to find a way to be less conspicuous.

VentrueCapital writes:


You and Robin should read Class by Paul Fussell, and probably other works like Class Matters and Bobos in Paradise.

You guys got a lot of street smarts, but you ain't got enough book larnin'.
John Fast
"The smaller the gap between one's finest and one's everyday, the higher the class, with the exception of waiters and pianists."

Taimyoboi writes:

I think the point is still valid. Everyone wants to imitate the rich when they are amongst people of similar, or greater, stature in wealth.

Wealthy Americans may feel guilty or awkward when they have someone cleaning their home, but leave a setting where the confrontation is personal to the streets, where it's impersonal, and I think those attitudes change quickly.

L Burke Files writes:

I'll split the majordomo - but they must have a vague foreign accent. :-) Burke

eccdogg writes:

My wife and I have a cleaing lady who comes once a week and a nanny(the nanny happens to be my mother in law but we pay her a nanny salary). When my wife and were firt married we both thought she would stay home when we had children (more her idea than mine) but she has done very well in her career. So we have decided to outsource most of our home chores. I think this makes a lot of sense, it allows my wife and I to work very hard at our jobs and spend our free time interacting with our daughter instead of cleaning the house, mowing the lawn, painting etc.

Even though this makes a ton of sense economically and for our lifestyle I still feel a little guilty when I tell someone that I have a cleaning lady. Part of it is that I don't want to act rich or be seen as wasteful. However I would not have any of these feelings if my wife stayed at home, even though in effect we would be "Spending" way more on childcare and cleaning if she were to do it. I can't exactly explaing why I feel this way but I do. It doesn't bother me so much that I will stop getting the house cleaned but the feeling is there.

Also to the commenter who says no one can meet her standards. I suggest keep trying and be quick to fire someone who doesn't meet your standards. Also word of mouth can be a great indicator of quality. We started out with a great cleaning lady recomended by one of our neighbors, but she quit to focus on a different part of town. We then went through two substandard services before finding the lady we have now who is great (she does extra things that we would not even think to do). She was also recomended by a neighbor. Good people are out there, and price is not always a good indicator of quality. And when you find a good one treat them well, I think our lady currently charges below market for her services so we tip very well each time she comes.

David Friedman writes:

I don't know if you have read The Millionaire Next Door. I haven't read all of it, but one of the points is that quite a lot of wealthy people prefer not to engage in conspicuous consumption. Part of that is that they don't want to spend the money, but part is not wanting to be conspicuous.

One reason, in some societies, is that being rich may make you a target, whether for governmental expropriation or private efforts. Another is that, in some societies, there is a prejudice against rich people.

All of which suggests that one may have to separate the general question of status from particular ways of getting it. The wealthy man who doesn't want to drive a BMW or dress in the sartorial equivalent may still want to show off his skill at tennis or his knowledge of languages.

Rick Stewart writes:

I am disappointed anecdotal evidence gains so much currency here. And Bryan started it. An empirically based answer would be interesting; cleaning help stories aren't.

T writes:

I disagree with this article. There are so many other ways to compare people wanting to imitate the rich than hiring staff within their own home. I think this particular issue is more social than economic. Think about it, having someone come into your own house is a huge invasion of privacy, and many people, especially middle-class America are generally very uncomfortable with that concept are may generally have a hard time trusting people within their private space.

In addition, I would look at other variables that offer validity to the fact that many middle-class people want to imitate the rich. Look at people that can barely afford their double-wide trailer house payment, but carry a COACH purse and drive a $50,000 vehicle and buy brand name clothes for their children. They may even send their child to private school. Why do they do these things? Because on some level, it makes them feel like they have more money than they really do.

The difference is looking rich instead of acting rich. Acting rich is harder to pull off but looking rich is something that many, many middle-class Americans try to imitate.

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