Quote of the Day:

In the past, upper-class Americans used to display their social status with luxury goods. Today, they do it with luxury beliefs.

–Rob Henderson in an op-ed headlined “’Luxury Beliefs’ Are the Latest Status Symbol for Rich Americans”


What ideas are you wearing today?

Rob Henderson puts forth the intriguing idea that the most affluent among us spout the most advanced ideas because espousing such ideas is now a status indicator.

He starts the op-ed with a Yale classmate sighing that monogamy is just soooo outdated. She herself plans to marry and reap the advantages, financial and otherwise, of marriage.

But she wouldn’t think of standing up for the concept of marriage.

Henderson writes:

In the past, upper-class Americans used to display their social status with luxury goods. Today, they do it with luxury beliefs.

People care a lot about social status. In fact, research indicates that respect and admiration from our peers are even more important than money for our sense of well-being.

We feel pressure to display our status in new ways. This is why fashionable clothing always changes. But as trendy clothes and other products become more accessible and affordable, there is increasingly less status attached to luxury goods.

The upper classes have found a clever solution to this problem: luxury beliefs. These are ideas and opinions that confer status on the rich at very little cost, while taking a toll on the lower class.

While most of the affluent who may espouse this stylish idea are smart enough to marry and enjoy the benefits of marriage, their attitude towards marriage harms family formation in society at large:

This luxury belief contributed to the erosion of the family. Today, the marriage rates of affluent Americans are nearly the same as they were in the 1960s. But working-class people are far less likely to get married. Furthermore, out-of-wedlock birthrates are more than 10 times higher than they were in 1960, mostly among the poor and working class. Affluent people seldom have kids out of wedlock but are more likely than others to express the luxury belief that doing so is of no consequence.

Charles Murray made a similar point in Coming Apart: poor communities have been ravaged, according to Murray’s book, by epidemic of children born out of wedlock, but the affluent classes, with their advanced notions, refuse to be judgmental (so unsophisticated!). He writes:

The best thing that the new upper class can do to provide that reinforcement is to drop its condescending "nonjudgmentalism." Married, educated people who work hard and conscientiously raise their kids shouldn't hesitate to voice their disapproval of those who defy these norms. When it comes to marriage and the work ethic, the new upper class must start preaching what it practices.

Another luxury belief, according to Henderson, is that religion is outdated. Henderson writes:

Members of the upper class are most likely to be atheists or non-religious. But they have the resources and access to thrive without the unifying social edifice of religion.

Places of worship are often essential for the social fabric of poor communities. Denigrating the importance of religion harms the poor. While affluent people often find meaning in their work, most Americans do not have the luxury of a “profession.” They have jobs. They clock in, they clock out. Without a family or community to care for, such a job can feel meaningless.

Then there’s the luxury belief that individual decisions don’t matter much compared to random social forces, including luck. This belief is more common among many of my peers at Yale and Cambridge than the kids I grew up with in foster care or the women and men I served with in the military. The key message is that the outcomes of your life are beyond your control. This idea works to the benefit of the upper class and harms ordinary people.

It is common to see students at prestigious universities work ceaselessly and then downplay the importance of tenacity. They perform an “aw, shucks” routine to suggest they just got lucky rather than accept credit for their efforts. This message is damaging. If disadvantaged people believe random chance is the key factor for success, they will be less likely to strive.

Another luxury belief is that white privilege permeates our society.

White elites, according to Henderson, express their social status by bemoaning white privilege (see: Arquette, Rosanna). Henderson points out that, if laws are enacted to curtail supposed white privilege, it won’t be these elites who suffer. It will be less affluent whites who bear the brunt, says Henderson. Isn’t that always the way it is?