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November 14, 2006


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James Grimmelmann

Is there perhaps a useful classification of status competitions into wasteful (I can set fire to bills of larger denomination than you can!)and non-wasteful (I can contribute more useful lines of code to Apache than you can!)? Perhaps we can displace people from the wasteful ones into more productive fora.

Or perhaps, the very idea of pointless waste is so inbuilt into status-seeking behavior that people will shift their competitions such that the marginal unit of effort is equally (and maximally) wasteful, no matter the forum.


And I'm sure those 16 year old girls who starve themselves to death are just acting out their "biological heritage" too. Our biological heritage has nothing on our minds and souls. This I can promise you and demonstrate to you. Our biological heritage is one of violence and rape as well, yet we as a species seem to have overcome that forthe good. Sure we as a species are easily influences by our biology, but it ain't our destiny, that is for sure. It took us 20,000 years to getto the point where we are letting our minds trump our biological propensities, so to offer it up as a potential normative excuse is not satisfying.

Thus when you write: "If status competition (via clothing or something else) is hard-wired into our brains, legal rules discouraging fashion status races -- whether relaxed trademark dilution rules or firmed-up copyright doctrine -- is spitting into the wind. If, on the other hand, status consumption of apparel would respond to rule changes, then we should at least approach the question whether we're going to sacrifice the autonomy interests of consumers to our common interest in avoiding an avoidable (and socially wasteful) status race."

It doesn't sit well with me. We are hard wired for violence and murder. We are hard wired for sexual infidelity. Laws rules and social norms don't amount to just "spitting inthe wind" for those hard wired traits.

So you are really left with only your second option - that laws and rules can change or influence behavior for the better (whether counetr to our hard wiring or whether what those laws address is pure social contingency).

And the short answer would be "yes," or have you not noticed that some people starve while others are able to buy 3rd homes, face lifts and $10,000 handbags, and still end up killing themseleves from their own self-hatred.

Think of the humanitarianism you could achieve with a little population control and a little redistribution of resources from ever increasing in cost status games to basic human needs.

That should answer your question right there.

The myth of the "autonomy of interests of the consumer" is negated simply and succinctly by an appeal to Brittney Spears' popularity.

Or is it that you think 100,000 14 year old girls all arrive at their love of brittney as a matter of the exercise of their autonomy and individual choice.

Get thee to a philosophy department, stat!


James Grimmelmann,

There is the distinction between "use value" and "exchange value" that certain marixist economists and philosphers have attempted to inject into economic discourse.

And as the theory goes, once people stop experiencing themseleves as a commodity in the harsh marketplace, all status orientation should be dampened. Perhaps then what is needed is a more progressive tax scheme and a far less steep class gradient to alliviate the need to signal statsu and to get people to love and value themsleves for their TRULY human capabilities, rather than theri worth in some BS socially contingent value structure.

William Patry

My recent experience with fashion has been with high-end sneakers, of which I have many. There are a few dynamics here. First, there are groups that are trend setters, a status that is stated by what favored celebrities wear or what is identified as such in magazines. Then there is scarcity: the most desirable kicks are put out in limited editions, sometimes 200 pairs worldwide, sometimes 25 pairs worldwide. There are select stores that get these shoes and it is typically to see kids camped out for many hours beforehand in front of them.

At the same time, there is rampant imitation and innovation. Nike Air Force Ones, a very popular shoe, have been copied by the Japanese A Bathing Ape, which then made its own trade dress off of them and which sell for more than the Nikes. Vans have been copied countless times. It is prestige that prevails in the marketplace not intellectual property rights, and prestige is a factor of scarcity and the quick cycles of fashion.


I would think the difference between us and the magpie shrike is that we can get together and form "positional arms control agreements," as Robert Frank puts it. We can organize to make such positional competition less beneficial to the winner.


I think I have a few useful observations to offer. First, the idea of restricting status competition has been with us in the form of sumptuary laws since at least the time of the Romans (I can't recall any Greek sumptuary laws). Unfortunately, the social basis for these sumptuary laws is muddled. Were they a means to enforce class divisions, or were they a puritanical attempt to reduce "waste"? My impression is that the former factor played the larger role, but the latter factor seemed to play a role in some of these laws. In any case, such laws were never successful -- people always found ways of pushing at the edges of the laws, exploiting ambiguities and technicalities, and so most such laws were eventually abandoned.

Second, I'd like to refine LAK's point about nature versus nurture. It's not a boolean choice; we don't operate on one or the other, and neither one ever conquers the other. Instead, nature provides the foundation upon which nurture is built. Nurture can channel nature, redirect it, or partially suppress it, but it doesn't simply blot it out. Sure, we manage to control our desire to rape -- at least, most of us do. But some people can't control it, and we need laws to discourage them, and even then some people still rape.

In the same fashion, status competition is hard-wired into our brains and we simply cannot blot it out. If you somehow stamp out status competition in shoes, it'll pop back out somewhere else -- perhaps jeans (oops, that already happened) or coffee cups. Status competition is a crucial element in sexual selection, and once something becomes a recognized factor in sexual selection, it can often develop runaway expansion -- the peacock's tail is the textbook example of runaway development in a sexual selection factor.

Thus, I believe that Mr. Sprigman is correct in noting that sumptuary laws are just spitting into the wind.


Yea but Eras, we are not peacocks. There is the capacity in us all to sexually select based on rational criteria, like intelligence, capacity to love, kindness and decency. Rather than select like animals do based on crude superficial criteria that do not factor in our minds.

And I know its not popular, but in suggesting it is just spitting into the wind to craft laws to dmaped such wasteful behavior, you are totally ignoring the very powerful, if unpopular and dicredited in our country, that the means of exchange and the distribution of wealth directly affect how influential status orientation will be.

If class differentiation and the distribution of wealth was not so stark, perhaps the need to definie yourself, value yourself and signal to others based on materialistic criteria would be dampened.

To say it is biological or even just inevtibale social destiny that human beings behave like this is to completely ignore a lot of critical political theory and philosophy.

I for one have seen plenty of people who have increased their sense of self-worth (and ultimately their human relationships) by actively gettinga way from power and status orientation.

And it isn't just humanist Marxists who think like this. Christians do too. I mean Augustine was consumed with these issues, about how the human mind (through faith in god and embracing humility) can overcome our petty biological propensities.

I'm no christian, but I think y'all are leaving a lot on the table by not considering that such status orientation and these false value structures that do little but waste resources and perpetuate class differentiation and alienetion form oneself and others, are functiosn of the means of exchange and the distribution of wealth (or aletrnatively a lack of faith in God and vanity and failure to embrace ones humility and existential situation).

I certanly could imagine a society in which status orientation (or at least within the more grotesque false value structures pertaining to vanity and materialism) do not exist. Maybe there is status and heriarchy with respect to artistic talent, intellectual talent, musical talent, poetic talent, but the crass materialistic status orentation could be all but eliminated, in my view, if we did not allow teh current wealth distribution outcomes that currently exists.

Do we all need to read the 1844 Manuscripts again together? Let's review. Under capitalism, humanity is objectified and rendered a commodity which results in alienation from: others, one's labor, the product of one's labor, oneself, and nature.

Telos baby. Let's keep things in perspective. How long have we been evolving? A long time. How long have we had a modern means of production and have been able to create vast amounts of wealth? 150 years. We have a long way to go before its safe to assume we just are the way we happen to be right now.


LAK writes, "There is the capacity in us all to sexually select based on rational criteria, like intelligence, capacity to love, kindness and decency."

Yes, that capacity is there. Yet people fall in love for all sorts of irrational reasons. We should be honest in admitting to ourselves that rationalism is a brand new concept (perhaps 2500 years old) that has yet to sink any more than skin deep into our psyches. We remain animals with a veneer of civilization. That veneer is crucial to our survival, and in some areas we absolutely must override our less rational desires, but to suggest that we can dismiss them with a snap of our fingers is unrealistic.

Status competition need not be predicated upon wealth. In some societies, status among males is established by the number of enemies killed, and each man carries some sort of decoration presenting the tally.

However, status competition will certainly retain wealth as a factor, because human females tend to (NOTE THE QUALIFYING PHRASE "TEND TO"!!!!) factor a man's ability to provide for children into their sexual selection calculations. To put it more colloquially, power is the greatest aphrodisiac.

Let us not deceive ourselves with wishful thinking. I am certain that the rapid advance of rationalism is our only hope of future survival, but I do not kid myself thinking that this advance will be easy. People remain profoundly irrational. They will always grab at whatever the latest fashion dictates as conferring status.


LAK said:

"Think of the humanitarianism you could achieve with a little population control and a little redistribution of resources from ever increasing in cost status games to basic human needs."

Don't true status products accomplish the latter? That is, the truly rich person buys an expensive item that he or she feels will help him or her prove or at least feel that he or she is rich, or has "good taste," or both. The people who made and sold the product are, presumably, much less wealthy than the buyer and therefore share in the proceeds, thereby affecting a redistribution of wealth.

This seems to be especially true in the clothing industry where most of the links in the supply chain are low-margin, the workers relatively low income, and production is very labor-intensive.


I guess you are technically right. The economic activity and trickle down to the poor people who actually sew the Louis Vuitton bags is there.

However, taxing the rich to the point where they don't have as much disposable income, and directly spending that money on healthcare for the poor is more of what I had in mind. Luxury taxed and progressive income taxes are needed.

I need to go reread "luxury fever" for inspiration.


"The people who made and sold the product are, presumably, much less wealthy than the buyer and therefore share in the proceeds, thereby affecting a redistribution of wealth."

Going out on a limb here, but... doesn't Louis Vuitton get most of the proceeds from selling bags with his name on them? I mean, if I spend $1200 on a LV bag, I kinda don't think the low-income worker who physically made the bag is seeing a whole lot of that. Louis's company, which is probably richer than most of the people who waste spend money on these bags, is the one who reaps the real profit. And it's not going to trickle down a penny more than it has to.

And, LAK, I think it's smarter -- fairer, even -- to borrow Reagan's supply-side approach. That is to say, rather than taxing the rich into oblivion, let's force the suppliers to engage in fair labor practices. Let's get rid of the tax loopholes for major corporations (or, true, for rich individuals too -- I shouldn't pay more in taxes than someone who makes twenty times my salary but has a better accountant) before we go around increasing taxes. Seems fairer to me, anyway.


Hum, apparently the "strike" function doesn't work... anyway, "waste" was supposed to be a striked-out word.


Cynic, I'm all for mandatory living wages and health insurance. It would be a functional sales tax as those costs would be reflected in the price of goods, and there wouldn't be such a harsh class gradient.

But I think you should do that and tax the rich if there is still piss poor education out there and people with so much money they spend it on $1000 jeans and 4th homes.

My guess is not much would change if the rich had less money to spend. The ridiculous 10000% mark up for luxury goods would just be decreased, allowing the same status signaling for less money (and lower profits for the luxury goods marketers)

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