Analistas 21/09/2015

Conspicuous displays of indie cred

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Music aside, one thing I enjoy about these events is the crowd-watching, which can vary a lot by performer.

The crowd who came to see the band Lucius, for example, was a real all ages, all subcultures crowd, and included everyone from enthusiastic teenagers to fairly sedate, but equally enthusiastic older adults. On the other hand, the people who came out for Sylvan Esso were total hipsters, which is fine.

I did, however, find myself wondering a bit about economics. I’m perfectly O.K. with topknots and tattoos, but obviously a lot of employers aren’t. So where do all these people work? They can’t all be baristas.

But that, clearly, is part of the whole point: This is probably not an original observation, but surely one main goal of personal styling is to make it clear that the person so styled is not, in fact, part of the workaday bourgeois world. These people don’t work 9-to-5 office jobs during the week, then put on trendy attire for the weekend. This has to be the cultural version of Thorstein Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption,” where the point is not to display your wealth, but instead to display your indie cred.

Again, I’m fine with it - and the scene is producing a lot of music I really like. But sometimes I just can’t turn off my inner econo-nerd.

Tattoos, incompetence and the Heritage Foundation

The economist Henry Farrell wrote to me about my musings on hipster style, and referred me to a review of “Codes of the Underworld: How Criminals Communicate,” a book published in 2009 about how tattoos and such serve as signals of criminal identity, which work precisely because they make it hard to participate in noncriminal society.

But there’s more: Criminals actively cultivate a reputation for incompetence at noncriminal business, which is designed to reassure both their colleagues and their victims that they won’t break their implicit contracts by going legit. The book’s author, Diego Gambetta, adds a wonderful parallel: According to his account, some Italian academics, who do a lot of horse trading with regard to professional appointments, cultivate a reputation for incompetence at actual research, which is again meant to reassure those with whom they deal.

From the book review, published at Inside Higher Ed (here: bit.ly/1isZecL): “ ‘Being incompetent and displaying it,’ [Mr. Gambetta] writes, ‘conveys the message “I will not run away, for I have no strong legs to run anywhere else.” In a corrupt academic market, being good at and interested in one’s own research, by contrast, signals a potential for a career independent of corrupt reciprocity. ... In the Italian academic world, the kakistocrats are those who best assure others by displaying, through lack of competence and lack of interest in research, that they will comply with the pacts.’ ”

And this immediately made me think of one of the mysteries of the economic “debate” in America, namely the preference of conservatives not only to listen to hacks, but incompetent hacks. Here’s what I wrote in a New York Times blog post earlier this year: “I suspect that the incompetence is actually desirable at some level - a smart hack might turn honest, or something.”

But let me hasten to add that I am not intending to engage in slander here. I would never, ever suggest that Brooklyn hipsters are anything like Heritage Foundation economists.

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