Bryan Caplan  

Is "Mimic the Elite" A Good Rule of Thumb?

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David Leonhardt's defense of education almost totally neglects the strongest argument against education: that much of it is privately profitable but socially wasteful signaling.  But his closing sentence changes the subject in an interesting way:
I don't doubt that the skeptics are well meaning. But, in the end, their case against college is an elitist one -- for me and not for thee. And that's rarely good advice.
"Rarely"?!  Let's make an introductory list of elite activities that most people are well-advised to avoid:

1. Buying a mansion
2. Flying first class
3. Owning a private jet
4. Buying season tickets to the opera
5. Giving millions to the ballet
6. Throwing your daughter a royal wedding

The masses do have something to learn from elites.  But "mimic the elite" is still a terrible rule of thumb.

HT: Arnold


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COMMENTS (13 to date)
J Storrs Hall writes:

Or even dining at a 5-star restaurant every night, complete with foie gras and a nice Margaux.

Only a NYT columnist could confuse the behaviors that accumulate wealth, and those which signal that you have it to throw away.

Phil writes:

I'm with you on all except #5. Why should one avoid giving millions to the ballet? Is it the millions that is ill-advised or the ballet?

Pandaemoni writes:

It is possible that the "elite" in this reference to elitism means intellectual elites, rather than the wealthy.

While I do believe that college is wasteful and we would be well disposed to rely on it far less, I would have to admit at the same time that I feel as though *I* still should have gone to college. My intuition (false though it may be) is that college disproportionately benefited me, personally, by broadening my intellectual horizons. In a sense, my belief that we should send fewer people to college is in fact "for thee and not for me," and one could say it is because I feel I was in the small minority of those who was particularly suited to advance intellectually through the experience (whereas, conversely, many others with whom I went to college were not). Even I have to admit to feeling a bit elitist in that.

razib writes:

whether it is good or not depends on the cultural context. i'd say not so good in the protean modern world. better in the more static pre-modern world.

g lammert writes:

This is It.

The real meaning of aping the Elite is aping their advantages that they have created by rules that have been established via congressional pay-offs over the last 150 years.

Unfortunately without an inherited credit base, this aping can't be done by the shrinking middle class nonelite - except in the virtual Parker game of Monopoly where 1000 dollar bills can be slipped under the table by a friend who is role playing the banker.

At any rate the rules of, for, and by the Elite may soon change as the laws of Saturation Macroeconomics transpire and reveal the rapidly reversible smallness of the emperor's new economic recovery clothes.

The operating laws of the macroeconomy identified in the patterned science of Saturation Macroeconomics are elegantly simple and they are nonlinear. That nonlinear element is now transpiring. This is It. The linearly thinking economist and the CBO will have to reformulate their projections for the out years.

As for the Elite, they sit in first class, an increasingly uncomfortable area as the common folk passengers, who pass and examine the Elite, are increasingly wondering if the system is really fair - as they are making their way to the back of the plane.

This is It.

eric writes:

I bought a sport car and now have access to women i did not have access to before. Sorta like buying a mansion.

Aidan writes:

Perhaps Bryan might consider that people pursue higher education for different reasons than they buy a private jet or throw their daughter a royal wedding?

Floccina writes:

David Leonhardt would surely agree that if we all went to school until we were 65 that would be too much schooling so the question I would like David Leonhart to answer is "how much time spent in school is too much".

Jamie_NYC writes:

Bryan, I think Leonhardt sets aside the costs here. His reasoning, faulty as it is (for the reasons that you pointed out), is that if education is good for the elite, it must be good for the masses as well.

His next step, after establishing that education is "good", would be to examine who should pay for it. For example, it is free in Europe... Etc. Looking forward to his next post on the topic.

frankcross writes:

As you have noted in the past, the signaling is not intrinsically wasteful but provides a service to the private economy. Perhaps it is inefficiently done and perhaps government subsidies are bad because positive externalities are small, but those seem likely purely empirical questions for which I haven't seen the evidence.

andy writes:

what is with the opera? If you like the music, it is a sensible thing to do..

Granite26 writes:

Aren't you comparing apples to oranges here? The items you listed are luxuries, not investments. No one is claiming that these are good ideas for anyone, not even the elite.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Ironically, the elite dont even enjoy some of the lifestyle they engage in.

For instance, for high-end audio, modest income people are as likely to own a $100,000 hifi as a truly wealthy man. They forgo lots of other things (e.g. vacations, nice cars) to spend their money on stuff they enjoy and appreciate. Meanwhile, a truly wealthy acquaintance has McIntosh in every room in his mansion, and doesnt enjoy music. It's there purely for show.

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