What do the moon landing and the Dubai Tower have in common?

They are both amazing feats of human engineering? They both cost billions with little tangible benefit? They were both launched in a desert? Both mainly built by Western engineers?

No, they are both good examples of status races. The moon landing was all about competition with the Russians, not the great usefulness of moon rocks. And the Dubai tower is all about being the biggest tower of its day, not the most cost-effective way to house a few thousand people. They are symbols of relative power.

From the old economic point of view, they should not exist. Within the vast majority of models used in micro-economics and macro-economics (the personal material consumption model), both are wastes of resources. They are anomalies we in the past tried to avoid discussing too much.

Within behavioural economics, these are what actual consumption goods look like: things that make their owners feel good about themselves because they allow them to feel better than other people. The implied jealousy of the loser makes it all worthwhile. Even with decades of hindsight, people feel great about winning a status race and would do it again if given the opportunity. No cosmic Karma in which this kind of bragging is eventually punished, no role for modesty: it is about straightforward pride in having a bigger and better one than someone else.

The welfare implications of status races lead to interesting optimal policies: since status is a fixed-pie game (the more you have, the less someone else has), their very existence implies a missing market for mutual agreements not to waste energy on such projects. Ideally, a world government should tax countries for status expenses so as to encourage the people who otherwise waste time on them to spend more time with their family and friends. Doesn’t sound likely to happen soon, now does it?

As a finishing note, is it just me or have you also noticed how phallic status symbols often are? Boys and toys….

 

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Sancho
Sancho
9 years ago

Not a thing wrong with phallic symbolism. It’s actually a bit unhealthy the way we subliminate that stuff in a kind of hangover.from the Victorian era.

The ancients just painted their junk all over the hillsides and built shrines to avatars like Priapus.

Much better we go around in penis gourds and brand sportscars “Turbocock Annihilator” than the current setup where dick anxiety gets dressed up as arguments for freedom.

As The Onion observed: http://www.theonion.com/articles/homoerotic-overtones-enliven-nra-meeting,1662/

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
9 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

hahaha. I actually agree. The Romans were more honest in this regard. The question why our societies do suppress this though is a really difficult one. Have you got an answer?

Tel
Tel
9 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

Hey smarty pants, you go make a fat donut shaped object reach escape velocity and then we will talk huh?

Sancho
Sancho
9 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

I think it’s repressed because it’s regarded as something crass and a bit primitive, as well as redolent of the societies we associate with sloth and hedonism.

Clamping down on phallic imagery, homoeroticism and sensuality is regarded as right and proper for clean-living citizens, which is largely a legacy of Christian traditions.

I don’t think we need a return to codpieces and huge-schlonged statues outside government buildings, but some acceptance of the fact that men like to celebrate dicks might curb some of the more tiresome symptoms of repression that manifest in male culture.

Tel and Patrick have the symbolism business in reverse. We don’t deliberately build things that look like boners; we attach masculinity to things that look phallic because it serves their function.

Rifles, fighter jets, and race cars get much higher billing in male culture than hand grenades, helicopters and tractors, even though the engineering sophistication for each is comparable. And that’s fine.

In regard to monuments, it always makes me chuckle that instead of building a tall spire like most male leaders do in their time, Jeff Kennett ordered the construction of a squat, wide shed on the Yarra. It’s so…choadish.

doctorpat
doctorpat
9 years ago
Reply to  Sancho

So the organization that is most feminist in the whole world is… the pentagon?

Sancho
Sancho
9 years ago
Reply to  doctorpat

Interestingly, the Pentagon’s design is the result of wartime steel rationing. They needed a proper headquarters for the military, but it had to be constructed mostly of concrete, which prevented any highrise building.

The real architectural symbols of American might are the Empire State and former World Trade Center, both of which stick to the long shaft design.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, of course.

Patrick
Patrick
9 years ago

I’ve always these things were phallic because any other shape would have been stupid.

Maybe I should have attended a lecture in sociology after all?

Richard Tsukamasa Green

When we till the earth we etch long vaginas through the soil. The phallic nature of unproductive status symbols is a reaction against the venereal symbolism in mundane, but productive endeavours.

David Walker
9 years ago

Richard, you’ve just started me thinking about mining in a whole new way. Does this make the coal industry part of the feminist vanguard?

Sancho
Sancho
9 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

Too fracking right.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

Not vanguard at all, they followed in the footsteps of the flint industry.

Tel
Tel
9 years ago

The moon landing was all about competition with the Russians, not the great usefulness of moon rocks.

To be fair, we didn’t really know how useful the moon rocks would be, until we studied them. Thus, new information is created by a journey into risk and unknown. Very difficult to price that, without some sort of bidding system, but most Americans seemed to think at the time that it was a good idea.

I don’t think you could say that the Dubai tower was quite the same, but at least from an economic point of view, Dubai needed to spend the oil money on something, it isn’t entirely crazy to think that wealthy holidaymakers might want to visit the Middle East, errr, is it?

The implied jealousy of the loser makes it all worthwhile.

What is “implied jealousy”, the concept makes no sense. I suppose that if I get up early and exercise in the morning, everyone else gets implied laziness, and I’m to blame for that.

Paul Frijters
Paul Frijters
9 years ago
Reply to  Tel

sure, we were just bursting with curiosity about those moon rocks. Forget about thrusting ourselves into space, it was the scientific discovery of rubble that motivated us.
We won the Russians lost. We get to brag, they get to feel despondent and jealous for having a smaller one than ours. Wouldn’t they want to be part of such a cool crowd too? Though, of course, they simply claimed that putting a man in orbit was a much more important milestone than fetching some rocks.

David Walker
9 years ago
Reply to  Paul Frijters

The Russians have a point about the human-in-space thing, too. A couple of hundred hears from now, my bet is that Gagarin will be a bigger name than Armstrong.

David Walker
9 years ago
Reply to  David Walker

“Couple of hundred hears?” Make that “years”.

Sancho
Sancho
9 years ago
Reply to  Tel

What I noticed in the UAE is that Arab culture emphasises status and face-saving, and that the Emiratis are a bit self conscious about their meteoric rise to wealth.

Keep in mind that Dubai was desert just fifty years ago, so the UAE likes to project an image of responsible and clever management of its wealth and power to avoid being seen as a collection of nomads who stumbled arse-backward into a stack of cash.

David Walker
9 years ago

The best example I’ve seen of taxing status races was the luxury car tax. And from having talked to Peter Walsh about it, the pointlessness of the status race was indeed one reason why he fought for it.

Chris Grealy
Chris Grealy
9 years ago

The VAB was actually in Florida; hardly a desert!