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Luxury beliefs are the new status symbols of the elites

Members of the upper class promote ideas like “white privilege” in order to increase their social standing. However, it’s often the poor who shoulder the costly burden of this behavior.

Luxury beliefs are the new status symbols of the elites
Sterling Memorial Library, Yale University. Bild: Yale Campus Photos, Jack Devlin.(https://campusphotos.yale.edu/portals/campus-photos/#asset/33543)

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When I was studying at Yale, a classmate told me “monogamy is kind of outdated” and not good for society. I asked her what her background is and if she planned to marry. She said she came from an affluent family, was raised by both of her parents, and that, yes, she personally intended to have a monogamous marriage—but quickly added that marriage shouldn’t have to be for everyone. She was raised in a stable two-parent family, just like the vast majority of our classmates. And she planned on getting married herself. But she insisted that traditional families are old-fashioned and that society should “evolve” beyond them.

My classmate’s promotion of one ideal (“monogamy is outdated”) while living by another (“I plan to get married”) was echoed by other students in different ways. Some would, for instance, tell me about the admiration they had for the military, or how trade schools were just as respectable as college, or how college was not necessary to be successful. But when I asked them if they would encourage their own children to enlist or become a plumber or an electrician rather than apply to college, they would demur or change the subject.

How social status is marked nowadays

Later, I would connect my observations to stories I read about tech tycoons – another affluent group, who encourage people to use addictive devices, while simultaneously enforcing rigid rules at home about technology use. For example, Steve Jobs prohibited his children from using iPads. Parents in Silicon Valley reportedly tell their nannies to closely monitor how much their children use their smartphones. Chip and Joanna Gaines are well-known home improvement TV personalities who have their own television network. They don’t allow their children to watch TV and don’t own a television. Don’t get high on your own supply, I guess. Many affluent people now promote lifestyles that are harmful to the less fortunate. Meanwhile, they are not only insulated from the fallout; they often profit from it.

Gradually, I would learn the tastes and values of the group that I had not fully joined. I developed the concept of “luxury beliefs,” which are ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class at very little cost, while often inflicting costs on the lower classes. I pieced together this concept from my observations and readings to understand what I was seeing. In the past, people displayed their membership in the upper class with their material accoutrements. But today, luxury goods are more accessible than before. This is a problem for the affluent, who still want to broadcast their high social position. But they have come up with a clever solution. The affluent have decoupled social status from goods and reattached it to beliefs.

Human beings become more preoccupied with social status once our physical needs are met. In fact, research has revealed that sociometric status (respect and admiration from peers) is more important for well-being than socioeconomic status. Furthermore, studies have shown that negative social judgment is associated with a spike in cortisol (a hormone linked to stress) that is three times higher than in nonsocial stressful situations. We feel pressure to build and maintain social status, and fear losing it.

It seems reasonable to think that the most downtrodden might be most interested in obtaining status and money. But this is not the case. Denizens of prestigious institutions are even more interested than others in prestige and wealth. For many of them, that drive is how they reached their lofty positions in the first place. Fueling this desire, they’re surrounded by people just like them—their peers and competitors are also intelligent status-seekers. They persistently look for new ways to move upward and avoid moving downward. The French sociologist Émile Durkheim understood this when he wrote, “The more one has, the more one wants, since satisfactions received only stimulate instead of filling needs.” And research supports this. A psychology study in 2020 revealed that “Upper-class individuals cared more about status and valued it more highly than working-class individuals. . . . Furthermore, compared with lower status individuals, high-status individuals were more likely to engage in behavior aimed at protecting or enhancing their status.” Plainly, high-status people desire status more than anyone else does.

You might think that, for example, rich students at elite universities would be happy because their parents are in the top 1 percent of income earners, and that statistically they will soon join their parents in this elite guild. But remember, they’re surrounded by other members of the 1 percent. For many elite college students, their social circle consists of baby millionaires, which often instills a sense of insecurity and an anxiety to preserve and maintain their positions against such rarefied competitors.

Thorstein Veblen’s famous «leisure class” has evolved into the “luxury belief class.” Veblen, an economist and sociologist, made his observations about social class in the late nineteenth century. He compiled his observations in his classic 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class. A key idea is that because we can’t be certain of the financial standing of other people, a good way to size up their means is to see whether they can afford to waste money on goods and leisure. This explains why status symbols are so often difficult to obtain and costly to purchase. In Veblen’s day, people exhibited their status with delicate and restrictive clothing like tuxedos, top hats, and evening gowns, or by partaking in time-consuming activities like golf or beagling. Such goods and leisurely activities could only be purchased or performed by those who did not live the life of a manual laborer and could spend time learning something with no practical utility. Veblen even goes so far as to say, “The chief use of servants is the evidence they afford of the master’s ability to pay.” For Veblen, even butlers were status symbols.

Veblen proposed that the wealthy flaunt these symbols not because they are useful, but because they are so pricey or wasteful that only the wealthy can afford them, which is why they’re high-status indicators. During my first year at Yale in 2015, it was common to see students at Ivy League colleges wearing Canada Goose jackets. Is it necessary to spend nine hundred dollars to stay warm in New England? No. But kids weren’t spending their parents’ money just for the warmth. They were spending the equivalent of the typical American’s weekly income ($865) for the logo. Likewise, are students spending $250,000 at prestigious universities for the education? Maybe. But they are also spending it for the logo.

This is not to say that elite colleges don’t educate their students, or that Canada Goose jackets don’t keep their wearers warm. But top universities are also crucial for induction into the luxury belief class. Take vocabulary. Your typical working-class American could not tell you what heteronormative or cisgender means. But if you visit an elite college, you’ll find plenty of affluent people who will eagerly explain them to you. When someone uses the phrase cultural appropriation, what they are really saying is, “I was educated at a top college.” Consider the Veblen quote, “Refined tastes, manners, habits of life are a useful evidence of gentility, because good breeding requires time, application and expense, and can therefore not be compassed by those whose time and energy are taken up with work.” Only the affluent can afford to learn strange vocabulary, because ordinary people have real problems to worry about.

A closer look at luxury beliefs

The chief purpose of luxury beliefs is to indicate the believer’s social class and education. When an affluent person expresses support for defunding the police, drug legalization, open borders, looting, or permissive sexual norms, or uses terms like white privilege, they are engaging in a status display. They are trying to tell you, “I am a member of the upper class.”

«The chief purpose of luxury beliefs is to indicate the believer’s social class and education.»

Focusing on “representation” rather than helping the downtrodden is another luxury belief. Many of the protesters on campus urged for more individuals from historically mistreated groups to be represented among students and faculty, among elite internships and occupations, and in influential positions in society at large. I thought of this as “trickle-down meritocracy.” The idea seemed to be that the best way to help struggling communities is to pluck representatives out and put them into positions of power. As long as the ruling class has a few members from these communities, then somehow the advantages they accrue will “trickle down” to their communities. Thus far, there doesn’t seem to be evidence that this works. Representation certainly benefits a handful of people who are chosen to enter elite spaces, but it doesn’t seem to improve the lives of the dispossessed. In fact, it might backfire. Elite institutions strip-mine talented people out of their communities. Upon completing their education, most of these graduates do not return to their old neighborhoods. Instead, they relocate to a handful of cities where they live alongside their highly educated peers, eroding the bonds of solidarity they had with those they left behind. And who could blame them? It is reasonable to use your talents to advance your career and financial prospects. But if the original intent was to help languishing communities, then this particular solution is failing.

White privilege is the luxury belief that took me the longest to understand, because I grew up around a lot of poor white people. Affluent white college graduates seem to be the most enthusiastic about the idea of white privilege, yet they are the least likely to incur any costs for promoting that belief. Rather, they raise their social standing by talking about their privilege. In other words, upper- class white people gain status by talking about their high status. When policies are implemented to combat white privilege, it won’t be Yale graduates who are harmed. Poor white people will bear the brunt.

«Upper-class white people gain status by talking about their high status. When policies are implemented to combat white privilege, it won’t be Yale graduates who are harmed.»

The upper class promotes abolishing the police or decriminalizing drugs or white privilege because it advances their social standing, not least because they know that the adoption of those policies will cost them less than others. The logic is akin to conspicuous consumption: if you’re a student who has a large subsidy from your parents and I do not, you can afford to waste $900 and I can’t, so wearing a Canada Goose jacket is a good way of advertising your superior wealth and status. Proposing policies that will cost you as a member of the upper class less than they would cost me serves the same function. Advocating for sexual promiscuity, drug experimentation, or abolishing the police are good ways of advertising your membership of the elite because, thanks to your wealth and social connections, they will cost you less than me.

A 2020 survey found that the richest Americans showed the strongest support for defunding the police, while the poorest Americans reported the lowest support. Throughout the remainder of that year and into 2021, murder rates throughout the US soared as a result of defunding policies, officers retiring early or quitting, and police departments struggling to recruit new members after the luxury belief class cultivated an environment of loathing toward law enforcement.

The luxury belief class appears to sympathize more with criminals than their victims. It’s true that most criminals come from poor backgrounds. But it’s also true that their victims are mostly poor. And the perpetrators tend to be young men, and their targets are often poor women or the elderly. Moreover, because there are many times more victims than there are criminals, to not stop criminals is to victimize the poor. Yet the movement to abolish the police is disproportionately championed by affluent people. A key inhibition against crime is the belief that our legal system is legitimate. Which means that those who promote the idea that we live in an unjust society also help to cultivate crime.

The poor reap what the elite sows

Maybe the luxury belief class is ignorant of the realities of who is most harmed by crime. Or perhaps they don’t care that the poor will become even more victimized than they already are.

Unfortunately, like fashion trends that debut on the runway and make it into JCPenney three years later, the luxury beliefs of the upper class often trickle down and are adopted by people lower on the food chain, which means many of these beliefs end up causing social harm.

Most personal to me is the luxury belief that family is unimportant or that children are equally likely to thrive in all family structures. In 1960, the percentage of American children living with both biological parents was identical for affluent and working-class families—95 percent. By 2005, 85 percent of affluent families were still intact, but for working-class families the figure had plummeted to 30 percent. The Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam at a 2017 Senate hearing stated, “Rich kids and poor kids now grow up in separate Americas. . . . Growing up with two parents is now unusual in the working class, while two-parent families are normal and becoming more common among the upper middle class.” Affluent people, particularly in the 1960s, championed sexual freedom. Loose sexual norms caught on for the rest of society. The upper class, though, still had intact families. Generally speaking, they experimented in college and then settled down later. The families of the lower classes fell apart.

This deterioration is still happening. In 2006, more than half of American adults without a college degree believed it was “very important” that couples with children should be married. Fast-forward to 2020, and this number has plummeted to 31 percent. Among college graduates, only 25 percent think couples should be married before having kids. Their actions, though, contradict their luxury beliefs: the vast majority of American college graduates who have children are married. Despite their behavior suggesting otherwise, affluent people are the most likely to say marriage is unimportant. Gradually, their message has spread.

I’ve also heard graduates of top universities say marriage is “just a piece of paper.” People shouldn’t have to prove their commitment to their spouse with a document, they tell me. I have never heard them ridicule a college degree as “just a piece of paper.” Many affluent people belittle marriage, but not college, because they view a degree as critical for their social positions.

This article is an excerpt from the book “Troubled: A Memoir of Foster Care, Family, and Social Class” (Gallery Books, 2024).

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