Increasing Marginal Utility

A blog so good it violates the law of diminishing marginal utility.

But why bash hipsters?

I’ve gotten around to reading the first chapters of Bobos in Paradise – I am shocked that no one suggested to me before I came across it a couple months ago. David Brooks, who really manages to toe the line between being insightful and being asinine, basically figured out the whole Stuff White People Like thing eight years before Christian Lander started his blog. At least from the pages I’ve read, it’s really all in there. The strange constellation of interests that young “hip” people share is all about status-signalling, even though ostensibly those interests seem to be all about being somehow beyond status-signalling.

Back, in say, 2008, the reaction from “the” hipsters seemed to be, “f***, I really do like all those things” upon reading Stuff White People Like. Then there was a period of self-awareness, because if hipsters are good at anything it’s meta, and some of the… excesses were reigned in. Or, at least, if there was an Ironic 80s Party, it would be an Ironic Ironic 80s Party. You get the idea. More recently, there’s been a backlash against criticizing hipsters, which has taken many forms but best exemplified by this xkcd comic.

But while I haven’t done it so much on this blog recently (I haven’t done much of anything on this blog recently), I still think bashing hipsters is relevant. The reason is that cultural criticisms about status signalling are typically done in lags of decades.

The Theory of the Leisure Class was a little dated by the time it appeared. So was The Affluent Society. The modern bearer of this tradition is Robert Frank, who seems to be completely oblivious to the forms of conspicuous consumption that actually take place in the modern world. His criticisms of capitalism weren’t dated in 2011. They were dated in 1975.

I respect Brooks for figuring out this transformation in conspicuous consumption years before it even really unveiled itself. But the points are still relevant in 2014. So bashing hipsters is a cliche. It’s not nearly the boring cliche the way that Robert Frank’s ideas are a boring cliche. And it is sure as hell more relevant to how we should conceptualize “wasteful” consumption than the ideas of Veblen and Frank, even while Veblen and Frank are more famous. How often do we hear that Frank’s ideas are a cliche (outside of EconLog), while bashing hipsters is itself a cliche?

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3 responses to “But why bash hipsters?

  1. Hedlund January 14, 2014 at 9:29 am

    I think conspicuous consumption is generally meant to indicate economic status signaling in the specific, rather than any-signaling-at-all — ethical, intellectual, etc. There’s no doubt that defensive self-awareness has created an emergent culture of sorts, but unless we start seeing thrift store prices skyrocket (controlling for Macklemore, of course), I’m not sure the term fits.

    (I just had a vision of the trendiest diving dumpsters cordoned with velvet ropes, with bouncers keeping the headcount.)

    • rhmurphy January 14, 2014 at 11:27 am

      Frank’s (among many others’) position has been to link Veblen to the evolutionary psychology version of signalling, which is status-signalling. Whatever confers status, whether that is wealth, ethical stature, or intellect, is what gets signaled.

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