Ed Driscoll


“There’s an economic concept known as a positional good in which an object is only valued by the possessor because it’s not possessed by others.”

— Dr. Sheldon Cooper, a character in the CBS comedy series, The Big Bang, as quoted by Steve Hayward of Power Line, who adds:

At this point I perked up my ears, because . . . no, it couldn’t be, could it? Does someone on the BBT writing staff actually know the obscure book where this term originated?  The answer, after a dramatic pause, turned out to be Yes.  Sheldon explained:

The term was coined in 1976 by economist Fred Hirsch to replace the more colloquial, but less precise “neener-neener”.

No way!  Wow.  Who says TV is a vast wasteland, anyway?  Aside from the great Fred Siegel, myself, and a small handful of other very nerdy fans, Hirsch’s Social Limits to Growth is a forgotten classic because it was way ahead of its time, but it explains a lot about why affluent people particularly on the two coasts today are not just indifferent to economic growth, but positively opposed to it in many cases.  (This book is so out of print that for some reason the Kindle version is quoted at $57.  Though this could be an inside joke that only Hirsch fans will get.  Talk about the ultimate positional good in bibliophilia.)

Sheldon’s summary that the argument is a better version of “neener-neener” is amazingly accurate; another way of summarizing Hirsch’s thesis is that our problem today is not that people want to “keep up with the Joneses,” but want to “keep ahead of the Joneses.”  And the best way to do that is to keep the other Joneses down.  Upper middle class people, Hirsch predicted, would come to see further economic growth as a threat to their well being, rather than something from which they and everyone else would benefit.  This is one reason why contemporary liberalism, which as recently as John F. Kennedy prized growth, is today indifferent to the idea, when it is not actively opposed in practice.  Cue Keystone, or just about everything California does.

And the Third World; All of which dovetails perfectly into the observation I made at the end of the previous post, on Ben Affleck posing at living on $1.50 for a day for the proverbial purpose of “raising awareness.” As I said, that’s not meant to imply however, that anyone involved actually wants to see those conditions improved.