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Frank Talk on Status

In response to this review by Daniel Gross of Robert Frank’s latest book, I sent the following letter to the New York Times Book Review:

Reviewer Daniel Gross should have asked harder questions about Robert Frank’s argument that higher taxes on “the rich” will moderate individuals’ quest for status (“Thy Neighbor’s Stash,” August 5). Monetary wealth and the material goodies it buys are hardly the only source of status.  Consider, for example, Prof. Frank’s faculty position at Cornell University.  He earned this position in large part through his hard work.  By his own thesis, then, he inadvertently caused other scholars to work unnecessarily hard in their quest to win high status Ivy-League appointments — a quest that for the vast majority of us futile.

Higher taxes on the rich will do nothing to create more Ivy League faculty positions, more mansions with stunning views of the Pacific ocean, a greater number of the world’s most beautiful women or most eligible bachelors, or most of the other things that confer and signal high status for those who possess them. Frankly, it is naive to suppose that muting competition in markets will mute humans’ competition for status.

Indeed, given that humans are quite status-conscious, a social system in which we seek status chiefly through earning money provides what is likely the best available outlet for this proclivity — namely, competition within private-property-based markets.  Not only does it result in new and greater quantities of goods and services for others, but it sure beats the hell out of violence and even politicking as a means of challenging others for status.


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