Saturday, April 2, 2011

The Joy of Status

Ah, the superficiality of it all. Of status, that is, and especially of status symbols.

You cannot be even pretend to be a serious thinker if you cannot heap contempt on status and those who seek it.

People who hate status envision a new world where we have all attained complete equality. In such a utopia, there will be no more status, no more hierarchies, because, really, no one is better than anyone else.

There you have it: the apotheosis of Western idealism and individualism: we end up all being the same.

Worse yet, if you use this utopia to judge all status hierarchies, you will become a seriously critical thinker. Compared with the ideal, real social organizations will always come up short.

And you, from the depths of your enlightened thought, will have the ultimate cheap thrill of finding fault with everything and everyone.

While some status hierarchies are more just than others, none are perfectly just. They do a creditably good job of distributing goods and services, honors and privileges, but they do not do it to perfection.

Status hierarchies that are based on competition and merit are far superior to those based on blood, but still, some participants do get more than they deserve. Some do get less.

America was not build on deep denial of status. It was founded on the principle that we should jettison a hereditary aristocracy whose rank and privilege was based on blood lines.

The choice is not between a hierarchy and a utopia, but between two different kinds of hierarchy: one based on blood; the other based on merit. The one conferred by your genes; the other earned by your work.

The war against status has not been led by utopian idealists. It has been led by aristocrats who jealously guard their hereditary privilege. They were joined in this effort by artists and intellectuals who resented any social order that did not crown them philosopher-kings.

This war is as old as the Middle Class. From Moliere’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme to Vance Packard’s The Status Seekers, people who seek to improve their social status, to command more respect, and to assert more dignity-- all of which are conferred according to your social standing-- have been mercilessly ridiculed.

But, is there anything so wrong with wanting to better yourself? Is there anything that horrible about seeking to improve yourself by emulating those who command more respect and authority? Is there anything wrong with striving to achieve, to be recognized by society, and to move up in social rank.

If we no longer want to have a rigid caste system where the aristocracy, by virtue of blood, rules, that must mean that we should allow more social mobility and more merit-based advancement. It’s better than social stagnation, don’t you think?

Haven’t you noticed that in the happily departed Workers’ Paradises that engulfed a considerable part of the globe during the last century, status was abolished… except for party officials?

And didn’t you notice that societies that abolish status become stagnant? People who cannot improve themselves do the least required of them. People who cannot advance in status eventually give up trying.

Of course, Moliere and the others do have a point. When someone tries to increase his status, when he finds himself, by dint of skill, wit, expertise, or hard work in a world that is above the one where he was brought up, the chances are very good that he is not going to fit right in. He will be awkward. He will not know which spoon to use and how to place the used fork.

At one level he had very good table manners. At another, he becomes an object of ridicule.

Why are these people subjected to ridicule? Perhaps, those who have gained high status guard it jealously. Or else, those who have status inflict a type of hazing on those who would wish to share their rarified air.

You belong to an aristocratic family the instant you pop from your aristocratic mother’s womb. Since you do not have to do anything to earn your way into the aristocracy, a social order based on aristocracy tends toward amorality.

In a world where work and achievement become measures of success, aristocracy tends to be seen as corrupt and decadent.

You do not just move up a status hierarchy by flashing a perfectly whitened set of teeth. They help, as does the right cut of your suit or the right number of buttons on your shirtsleeve. But moving up in status involves mastering a series of intricate social customs.

These customs involve gestures that demonstrate one’s own dignity and integrity, while expressing unflagging respect for other members of the group.

No group can long remain moral if it allows just anyone to join.

The Founding Fathers of the American republic abhorred hereditary aristocracy; they abhorred factionalism; and they would surely have abhorred tribalism. Factionalism, after all, is little more than ideologically-driven tribalism.

Instead, they loved etiquette books, their day’s version of Miss Manners… because they always wanted to do the right thing, not merely in terms of governance, but in terms of their personal behavior.

A couple of days ago the Economist reported on some research that is being conducted at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. Link here.

The researchers wanted to measure the influence of logos, those little patches that we wear on polo shirts. Surely, the research also applies to all other signs of social status, from the identifiably Burberry scarf to the Prada purse.

It turns out that status symbols really matter. Wearing a higher status logo on your shirt, one from Lacoste or Tommy Hilfiger, confers higher status, and thus, higher regard, than does a shirt with no logo. A shirt with an inferior logo-- they name Slazenger-- confers even less status than a logo-less shirt.

[For the record, I am not sure why the Dutch see Tommy Hilfiger as signifying an exalted status. In my neighborhood Polo Ralph Lauren would be a more appropriate sign of enhanced status.]

Logos count. They count in exactly the same way that an insignia does. They give order to society. Without order, both horizontal and vertical, we cannot have society.

In the best ordered social organizations, like the military, you are identified by your insignia, by your stars and bars. Even religious organizations, the Catholic Church comes immediately to mind, have different clothing for different positions on the status hierarchy.

What did the Dutch researchers find?

They discovered that when people were asked by a stranger to take a survey they were more likely to say Yes if the interviewer was wearing a sweater with a logo.

If people were asked to rate job candidates, they rated the man with the logo higher than the man without the logo. They also thought that the man with the logo deserved a higher salary.

When people were approached by someone soliciting for charity, they were more likely to give more if the solicitor was wearing a shirt with a logo.

Of course, some will resent the fact that people can be so superficial about their judgments of others. But, perhaps it is even more superficial to blind oneself to the basic principles that order human society.


JP said...

HET says:

"Status hierarchies that are based on competition and merit are far superior to those based on blood, but still, some participants do get more than they deserve. Some do get less."

Competition is wonderful, except that it discourages cooperation.

Take, for example, a lawyer with my firm. I was speaking with him the other day about law school.

He was a slacker. His girlfriend, on the other hand, was very diligent and organized.

He hadn't bothered paying attention or studying for his Evidence exam. She, on the other hand, knew everything she was going to know about evidence.

Over the span of about three days, she taught him Evidence.

He outscored her on the exam and she refused to ever study with him again.

Law school (and school in general) is a zero sum exercise. Somebody wins; somebody loses. You end up viewing other people as threats to your own success.

Compare and contrast this with the extensive cooperation and trust necessary to run a modern economy.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Wouldn't it also be true to say that we need to cooperate in order to compete? Teamwork and sportsmanship involve cooperation, and no team can compete or fight if it is divided against itself.

JP said...

Yeah, but in school, you are a team of one. There wans't any "sportsmanship" or "teamwork". In order for you to win, the other people have to lose. Zero sum.

The same is true in large law firms.

You are basically a team of one and you had better have your own book of business (preferably $2,000,000 in annual revenue these days) or your "team" will throw you into the abyss, so to speak.

David Foster said...

"In the best ordered social organizations, like the military, you are identified by your insignia, by your stars and bars"...the eagle which designates a Colonel, or the stripes which designate an airline Captain, seem to me to have little to do with a manufacturers' logo on a shirt. The insignia are symbols of accomplishment and legitimate authority; the logo is a purchased status symbol having no more real meaning that a purchased PhD from a diploma mill.

David Foster said...

JP...most types of organizations require high levels of internal cooperation and are not mere aggregates of individual contributors such as the law firms you describe. (Indeed, surely law firms handling large cases require significant internal cooperation also--although from what I've heard, the level of management/teamwork in the typical law firm is not very high)

An important aspect of management is architecting organizations and incentive structures to strike the right balance of cooperativeness and competitiveness. In general, competition between organizations that are *in parallel* is much healthier than competition between organizations that are *in series*. If 2 regional sales organizations are highly competitive, that's usually good. If sales, marketing, and engineering are all competitive with one another, that's not so good.

wolfwalker said...

"And didn’t you notice that societies that abolish status become stagnant?"

Not exactly. Societies that attempt to abolish status become stagnant. Actually abolishing status is something that no society can accomplish, because the need for social status is hardwired into us.

JP said...


Part of my point was with respect to the education process.

For example, during high school/college, you are competing against all of your other classmates for GPA (since class rank isn't curved).

By the time I got halfway through college, I was basically completely burnt out (from overcompetition, sleep deprivation, and stress) and had pretty much given up on life, so I really didn't do much competing in law school. I just wanted the certification and to be done with it. I was intelligent enough (and had underachieved enough) that coasting (meaning just cramming for the test) was possible. I wasn't a GPA threat to anybody because I no longer cared (I also didn't have any interest in practicng law - I only had an interest in obtaining a large salary - this still worked in the late 1990s).

The same holds true for law school. You get the "best" jobs - meaning the $160,000 per year jobs, by outcompeting your fellow students.

In large law firms, they bring in large numbers of associates and burn through them. There's lots of all-nighters, sleep deprivation, aggressive management, etc.

In small law firms, you then have attorneys agressively suing each other, trying to get other attorneys disbarred, etc.

From a managerial/interpersonal standpoint, it's very competitive and not very cooperative.

Lawyers tent to practice anti-management.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Admittedly, as David points out, there is a considerable distance between a general's stars and the Lacoste crocodile.

And yet, it seems to be a similar structure, working at different levels.

In truth, the person who wears the Lacoste shirt has labored to earn the money to buy the shirt.

The research found out that if the person is perceived not to have earned the money to have bought the shirt, then the respect that others accord him diminishes markedly.

I would also assume that if subjects were informed that the shirt is a fake, that it is a cheap imitation, thus a diploma from a diploma mill, there would also be a marked reduction in status.

David Foster said...

JP...yes, from what I've read and been told, the management/cultural climate in most law firms is not a very healthy one.

Peter Drucker asserted that if you don't get practical management experience by the time you're 30, you'll probably never be any good at it. An overstatement perhaps, but with a strong element of truth..a person who spends too long as a pure individual contributor may not be able to fully make the switch to team leader. And I'd guess that the typical Managing Partner in a law firm was *much* older than 30 when he first began managing.

JP said...

If you are in a large law firm, you are definitely still a cog at age 30. A partner with actual management power? Maybe you get some at 45 or 50. Really, sub 30 you are simply a source of revenue and very disposable.

With respect to status, the entire banking/financial industry is essentially sitting on a massive pile of unearned money/status at this point.

The problem is that fraud was used up and down the chain from the toppermost CEO to the bottommost liar for the liar loans.

And now, there is a massive amount of unearned liquidity sloshing around the financial economy.

Bank CEOs get bailed out and the liar loan recipients get to squat in their houses for two years not paying mortgage.

So, there is very little way to figure out who earned their money legitimately and who did it by some form of fraud since about 1996 when the financial bubble mess first started.

Thus, we are in an environment where apparent status is completely suspect. The person with massive $$$ probably didn't get there by applying ethics.

At this point, I'm just hoping that we manage to keep our currency. I really don't feel like experiencing hyperinflation.

David Foster said...

"I really don't feel like experiencing hyperinflation"...and rightly so: reports from those who have experienced it are pretty harrowing.

I don't think we're in real danger of Weimar-level hyperinflation, but even Carter-level inflation, on top of our other economic problems, would be quite damaging to the structure of socieety.