November 26, 2011

IN THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, MEGAN MCARDLE REVIEWS James Roberts’ Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy. My favorite bit:

One of the running themes of the economist Robin Hanson’s excellent blog is that arguments like the ones found in these books are actually an elite-status proxy war. They denigrate the one measure of high-visibility achievement—income—that public intellectuals don’t do very well on. Reading “Shiny Objects,” you get the feeling that he is onto something.

Consider the matter of status competition. Mr. Roberts, like so many before him, argues that conspicuous consumption is an unhappy zero-sum game. But this is of course true of most forms of competition: Most academics I know can rank-order everyone in the room at a professional conference with the speed and precision of a courtier at Versailles. Any competition, from looks to money to academic credentialing, both consumes a lot of resources and makes many of the participants feel bad about themselves. Why, then, does the literature on status competition always tell us that we should redistribute capital gains or inheritances and never tell us that we should redistribute academic chairs or book contracts?

Indeed. Read the whole thing, where Megan also reviews James Livingston’s Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good for the Economy, the Environment, and Your Soul.