Bryan Caplan  

Kids, Opera, and Local Status

There's No Evidence Like No Ev... How Evil is that Sheep?...

Rich families are once again having lots of kids (see here, here, and here). From Time:

While 34.3% of married women ages 40 to 44 had four or more children in 1976, only 11.5% did in 2004, according to the Current Population Survey. Though factoring in affluence can be statistically tricky, an analysis by Steven Martin, associate professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, shows that the proportion of affluent families with four or more kids increased from 7% in 1991-96 to 11% in 1998-2004.
Last week, I mentioned this factoid to Robin Hanson, and he had a strong reaction: "This is the fact that will convince people to have more kids!" Elaboration: The rich have high status, people want status, so whatever the rich do, the masses copy.

I'm totally unconvinced. Many of the favorite things of the rich are unpopular, and the non-rich make little, no, or negative effort to imitate them. Take opera, a classic blue-blood obsession. Most people don't even pretend to like it, much less take an interest in it. I can speak from experience: When I became an opera fan in high school, my status did not go up. At all. The same goes for Hahvard accents, tuxedos, and monocles. Most people associate them with wealth, but avoid them like the plague.

The lesson, I suspect, is that status is usually local status. When they pursue status, most people aren't trying to impress Brad Pitt or the Rockefellers; they're trying to impress the five or six slobs that they see every day. The best way to achieve this, strangely, is to excel in whatever this handful of slobs happens to value.

Take blogging. Most people think it's a ridiculous waste of time. I can't think of any super-rich bloggers. So why do bloggers do it? To a large degree, their goal is to raise their status with other bloggers.

Granted, few local status hierarchies ignore wealth altogether. It's hard to find a pecking order where you can successfully mock someone for being rich or having an expensive car. (But not impossible: "Ooooh, look what his rich daaaady bought him!") But the fact that rich people do X is far less magnetic than Robin claimed.

On reflection, it's too bad that we find it so easy to dismiss the rich. If wealth were the universal measure of man, poor countries wouldn't have wasted much of the 20th century trying to chart out their nation's "distinctive" approach to economic policy. Instead, every country on earth would have modeled itself after the Midas-touch U.S. - and the nationalists and socialists preaching another path would have gotten as much attention as homeless guys running personal finance seminars.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Josh R writes:

Mark Cuban. - Rich Blogger I agree with your thesis though. Most bloggers don't blog to be like Mark Cuban.

I think that most folks want to have kids. Sometimes I think economics or other issues trump this desire, and people refrain.

You have to decide not to have children. If you do not make this choice, they just happen.

Flip writes:

I would like to see someone wearing a monocle. I never have and I've run in those rich circles at times.

Most slobs do emulate macrosociologically high status people, they're called A list celebrities. I think the rich make specific choices to make it hard for the masses to emulate them. I think the word for it is "barrier aesthetic". It's harder to like opera than it is to like rock 'n roll.

As for blogging, I think it's orthogonal to this discussion, but you've got plenty of billionaire bloggers, for the same reason they're all over CNBC -it's good for business.

Dan Weber writes:

I think people emulate the status layer one level above them. The very-rich emulate the super-rich, the rich emulate the very-rich, the almost-rich emulate the rich, and so on.

Unit writes:

I once heard of a study of popular first names for newborns claiming that those that are popular with the rich eventually percolate down to the lower classes, not vice-versa.

About the rich wanting to have more kids. This seems to support my conjecture that pro-growth policies have the secondary effect of increasing natality and socialist, highly regulatory regimes have the opposite effect.

Stuart Buck writes:

Marc Andreessen blogged for a good while, but seems to be on hiatus for the past few months.

Tony writes:

I fell in love with classical music during my middle school days. The love started small and within a few years, it blossomed into a passion. Yet I don't recall this attraction to this music as a result of my want to emulate the rich; I didn't know any at the time.

My fondness for opera and classical music took time to develop. I wonder if there were more avenues for people to experience live classical music in small enough forms, the medium would take off? Or perhaps we need a televised competition that can do for classical music what "Dancing with the Stars" did for ballroom dancing.

I hope this this new BBC2 program makes its way to the States:

Ted Craig writes:

Here's an argument that the rich (or fictional rich, to be more accurate), lowered birth rates in Brazil.

Dave writes:

Carl Icahn (

finnish writes:

I agree that nobody looks up to the rich nowadays, or tries to imitate them. Actually I even try to keep quiet of my love for many things associated with the rich(classical music, free market etc.).
Might be because of my location but these things are generally looked down upon here and not imitated.

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