I’ve spent a significant portion of my winter break reading and listening to Robin Hanson and I have to say my views have been deeply affected on a variety of issues. Most disturbing to my wife, Robin has convinced me on the issue of Cryonics.  More on that some other time.

However, I am puzzled by Robin’s treatment of status. Robin argues and I am tentatively convinced that much of what people do is in pursuit of status. Robin generally treats this as if first, it was an undesirable personal trait and second as a cost on society in general.

Yet, why should this be. If much of what people do is seek status then shouldn’t our concern as economists be about which systems efficiently allow people to indulge their status pursuits.

Perhaps, Robin is assuming that status is a zero-sum game. That I can only increase my status by lowering yours, but this is not immediately clear to me. Would it not be possible for me to believe that I am high status based on some criteria but for my neighbor to believe that she is high status based on some opposing criteria. What we need is to eliminate devices that would serve to decisively settle these status disputes.

As long as there is no public or official determination of status we can both live in our parallel worlds.

This might suggest for example a route through which income equality in and of itself is beneficial. I have always been skeptical of income equality in and of itself as a goal. Ultimately we should care about consumption and in particular raising the lowest levels of consumption rather than equalizing income.

However, suppose that high income is a source of unequivocal status. This implies that a society with lots of income inequality will make it difficult for citizens to establish their own status domains.  Steve the factory working may not have the education of Bill the doctor but he may still feel high status because he is much better softball player for example.

However, if Bill earns a lot more money and everyone knows it, it will be difficult for Steve to sell his softball makes me cool story. A society with more income inequality then could be a society in which more citizens feel low status and thus have worse lives.