Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

36. Positional Externalities

Note: This post is the thirty-sixth in a series. Click here for the full listing of the series.

Today's topic is a particular type of negative externality known as positional externalities. They're called 'positional' because they relate to areas where what matters is one's position relative to how others are doing, as opposed to some absolute measure. i.e. Trying to win the gold medal rather than trying to set a world record.

Wikipedia describes positional externalities as follows:

Positional externalities refer to a special type of externality that depends on the relative rankings of actors in a situation. Because every actor is attempting to "one up" other actors, the consequences are unintended and economically inefficient.

One example is the phenomenon of "over-education" (referring to post-secondary education) in the North American labour market. In the 1960s, many young middle-class North Americans prepared for their careers by completing a bachelor's degree. However, by the 1990s, many people from the same social milieu were completing master's degrees, hoping to "one up" the other competitors in the job market by signalling their higher quality as potential employees. By the 2000s, some jobs which had previously only demanded bachelor's degrees, such as policy analysis posts, were requiring master's degrees. Some economists argue that this increase in educational requirements was above that which was efficient, and that it was a misuse of the societal and personal resources that go into the completion of these master's degrees.

Another example is the buying of jewelry as a gift for another person, e.g. a spouse. For Husband A to show that he values Wife A more than Husband B values Wife B, Husband A must buy more expensive jewelry than Husband B. As in the first example, the cycle continues to get worse, because every actor positions him or herself in relation to the other actors. This is sometimes called keeping up with the Joneses.

One solution to such externalities is regulations imposed by an outside authority. For the first example, the government might pass a law against firms requiring master's degrees unless the job actually required these advanced skills.

Competition for positional goods is a zero sum game, in that any gain made by one person is exactly offset by losses to another. If I move up from having the third nicest house on the block to having the second nicest, someone else has moved down from second to third. Therefore, whether competition in these areas is beneficial to society or not depends on whether any positive side effects from the act of competition outweigh the resources devoted to an area in which no gains can be made.

In 'The Efficient Society' Joseph Heath recounted a story of native leaders who competed with each other on the basis of who could afford to destroy more of their own possessions. This is an extreme case of competition for status with negative side effects.

Generally, there will be a greater gain to society if people focus on achieving absolute improvements rather than relative ones. For example, innovation that allows every house on the street to have indoor plumbing is more valuable than everybody on the street competing to see who can have the biggest house. To the extent that people concern themselves with status rather than looking for improvements to their lives that don't involve comparison/competition with others, greater gains will be made, because this approach will reduce the presence of negative positional externalities.

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  • Declan,

    That's a great post. The quote that comes to mind is the following. "The difference between the men and the biys in politics is that the boys are running to be someone and the men are running to do something." Sadly the boys always appear to vastly outnumber men.


    Geoff Castle

    By Anonymous Geoff, at 10:18 PM  

  • Thanks, I haven't heard that quote before.

    By Blogger Declan, at 6:29 PM  

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