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Positional Taste, Positional Politics
Post #1690 • May 1, 2014, 8:23 PM
There are two phenomena in the cultural sphere that I have never really understood. The first is the sort of fashion-driven interest in art that causes attentions to flit from one mediocrity to the next, from Dan Colen to Lucien Smith to James Franco to whomever, in an endless chain of empty fascinations.
The other is the trend in identity politics of expressing ever greater outrage over ever lesser transgressions. Last month a mob took over the president's office at Dartmouth and what ensued was downright comedic.
The demonstrators had a 72-point manifesto instructing the college to establish pre-set racial admission quotas and a mandatory ethnic studies curriculum for all students. Their other inspirations are for more "womyn or people of color" faculty; covering sex change operations on the college health plan ("we demand body and gender self-determination"); censoring the library catalog for offensive terms; and installing "gender-neutral bathrooms" in every campus facility, specifically including sports locker rooms.
The editors at the WSJ opined:
We rarely sympathize with college administrators but we'll make an exception for Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon, an accomplished mathematician who for some reason took the job last year. The occupiers filmed their confrontation and uploaded the hostage video to the Web, where Mr. Hanlon can be seen agog as his charges berate him for his "micro-aggressions." Those are bias infractions that can't be identified without the right political training.
People in the generation of my grandparents were prevented from entering the United States because of quotas limiting the immigration of Jews. Now racism is Janis Joplin growling. It has gotten so bad that even a self-described socialist recently felt compelled to pen an article entitled Don’t you dare tell me to check my privilege.
Economics comes to the rescue. It turns out that the two phenomena are the same thing.
A positional good is a good that people acquire to signalise where they stand in a social hierarchy; it is acquired in order to set oneself apart from others. Positional goods therefore have a peculiar property: the utility their consumers derive from them is inversely related to the number of people who can access them.
Positionality is not a property of the good itself, it is a matter of the consumer's motivations. I may buy an exquisite variety of wine because I genuinely enjoy the taste, or acquire a degree from a reputable university because I genuinely appreciate what that university has to offer. But my motivation could also be to set myself apart from others, to present myself as more sophisticated or smarter. From merely observing that I consume the product, you could not tell my motivation. But you could tell it by observing how I respond once other people start drinking the same wine, or attending the same university.
If I value those goods for their intrinsic qualities, their increasing popularity will not trouble me at all. ... But if you see me moaning that the winemakers/the university havesold out,if you see me whinging about those ignoramuses who do not deserve the product because they (unlike me, of course) do not really appreciate it, you can safely conclude that for me, this good is a positional good. (Or was, before everybody else discovered it.) We can all become more sophisticated wine consumers, and we can all become better educated. But we can never all be above the national average, or in the top group, in terms of wine-connoisseurship, education, income, or anything else. We can all improve in absolute terms, but we cannot all simultaneously improve in relative terms. And that is what positional goods are all about — signalising a high position in a ranking, that is, a relation to others. This leads to a problem. Positional goods are used to signalise something that is by definition scarce, and yet the product which does the signalling is not scarce, or at least not inherently. You can increase the number of goods which signal a position in the Top 20 (of whatever), but the number of places in that Top 20 will only ever be, er, twenty. Increasing the number of signalling products will simply destroy their signalling function. Which is why the early owners of such a signalling product can get really mad at you if you acquire one too. ...
PC-brigadiers behave exactly like owners of a positional good who panic because wider availability of that good threatens their social status. The PC brigade has been highly successful in creating new social taboos, but their success is their very problem. Moral superiority is a prime example of a positional good, because we cannot all be morally superior to each other. Once you have successfully exorcised a word or an opinion, how do you differentiate yourself from others now? You need new things to be outraged about, new ways of asserting your imagined moral superiority.
The perspicacious author, one Kristian Niemietz, concludes,
If I am right, then Political Correctness is really just a special form of conspicuous consumption, leading to a zero-sum status race. At which point we have something approaching a unified field theory of cultural failure.