Wednesday, September 04, 2013

de Botton on Status Anxiety

I find Alain de Botton's approach to philosophy rather refreshing, because one senses his genuine lack of certainty, and appreciation of discovering, in his works.  He's interested in applying virtue for daily betterment, and the search for meaning, two very important goals in my life.  Interestingly he was insightfully quoted in a NYT review of Sophie Fontanel's self-indulgent book on her self-induced celibacy, which highlighted his breadth and profundity (de Botton's quip was basically that 'sex is messy, get over it'). 

Anyway, here's de Botton on status anxiety. He argues that status anxiety is worse than ever because now we believe we are less constrained by our birth, more responsible for our fate. Paul Krugman agrees with this view of life, but like most economists, can't take this to it's ultimate implication, that this this leads to a zero risk premium, which when combined with the various attractions of sexy stocks, leads to high risk assets have lower-than-average returns (see my book The Missing Risk Premium).



  1. Mercury4:34 PM

    Not a bad lecture although I bet older people won’t think it’s quite so insightful. I’m sure status anxiety is worse than ever in Britain. When there was a rigid class system (and a stronger national culture), everyone knew their place and one tended one’s own garden literally, and figuratively by pursuing some eccentricity or other that reflected their individualism. Life came pre-loaded with meaning. This arrangement wasn’t ideal in all areas of life of course but…tradeoffs…

    Krugman’s 1950’s vs. now analogy is an unintentionally good illustration of how narrow a metric the CPI is and how shortsighted the relative status game can be. In the 1950’s you could be middle class and do all kinds of things that would cost an arm and a leg today like live by the sea in a half decent house near a half decent school and have an enjoyable and stimulating childhood. I see people paying NetJets tens of thousands of dollars per flight in an attempt to basically duplicate the experience I had as a kid on a 747 in the 1970’s for a fraction of the cost. But somehow we’re all richer today with our hedonically adjusted 65 in. TVs with 2000 channels of crap. On the other hand… cars last longer, communication is cheap and medical care is (for now) more effective. Tradeoffs…

    “[Sex] refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should” is an accurate and pithy enough observation but this line of thinking has been much better articulated by Camille Paglia years ago. The rest of de Botten’s and Sophie Fontanel’s views on sex seem incredibly overwrought and whiny. A former girlfriend of mine would have lumped their musings, along with mountain climbing, into a category called “white people’s problems” (although this is more of a social class than a race label). At some level, having the slap-down argument, a black eye or two…and the hot make-up sex is infinitely preferable to long-winded, post-coital discussions about “increasing our awareness of how we reference ourselves so that we can work out how we place ourselves on the internal-external scale” like you’re trapped in some goddamn Woody Allen movie. Good grief, no wonder European fertility rates are deep-diving below replacement level.

  2. Well, I didn't read de Botton's sex book, but his 'grow up' admonition seemed the right approach. Idealizing the non-sexual love of parents is too easy, because there's no conflict or competition, so it's a really naive way to frame adult relationships.

  3. Mercury11:14 AM

    From 1991: