Issue 15: Sourdough, Status, and Self-Isolation

From baking to home schooling and personal fitness routines, the pandemic is creating venues for status-seeking that will seriously exacerbate social inequality

Long Weekend! Today’s briefing is by Andrew Potter (AP). He’s the producer of this newsletter, an associate professor at the Max Bell School of Public Policy, and the author of two books about consumer culture and status-seeking: The Authenticity Hoax and, with Joseph Heath, The Rebel Sell. Policy for Pandemics will return on Tuesday, April 14.

SO LET’S GET RIGHT TO THE QUESTION that’s really been on our minds during this extended period of self-isolation: Why is everyone baking so much bread? Both the CBC and the Globe and Mail have addressed the conundrum, as have countless people on social media.

According to one expert the CBC consulted, “Cooking [is] one of those things that connects us to natural living systems. Food is one of those things that connects us to the earth." Writing in the Globe, Louise Johnson spoke to some academics who suggested that making and eating bread appeals to our “primal sense of security,” triggering long-suppressed survival elements in our primate brains.

Maybe. But I suspect that what’s also going on is that it’s a pretty clear exercise in status display, of a type that would have been easily recognizable to Thorstein Veblen, author of the masterpiece of social economics The Theory of the Leisure Class in which he coined the now-familiar term conspicuous consumption.

Most of us associate “conspicuous consumption” with the more gaudy examples of consumerism: Flashy cars, expensive watches, big houses, and so on — the sort of things that demonstrate monetary wealth. But as Veblen saw more clearly than most, status is not only, or even primarily, about who has the most expensive stuff. You can signal your relative status in any number of ways, but a very common example is through the pursuit of what he called “conspicuous leisure.”

The thing about conspicuous leisure is you can’t demonstrate your status simply by lying around — that would make it too hard to distinguish you from any other bum or layabout. No, to properly show that you are a member of the leisure class, you must disguise your leisure in a way that makes it seem productive or useful, without it actually being so. And the best way to do that is to engage in pursuits that were once functional but are now vestigial, which is why (when he was writing in 1899) the leisured aristocracy demonstrated its status by engaging in things like fox hunting, learning swordplay, or learning obscure languages.

WHICH BRINGS US TO BREAD BAKING. If you are spending your time in pandemic self-isolation baking, what exactly are you signalling? Sure, you might be reconnecting with the Earth and its natural systems. You might be taking comfort in connecting to your heritage. It might be a form of relaxation or therapy, or a way of triggering the pleasure centres in the dark recesses of our monkey brain. But one thing you are also doing is signalling your elevated status and privilege.

There’s a reason why people used to bake their own bread, and now (pre-pandemic) almost no one does: It’s something that commercial bakeries can do a lot quicker, a lot better, and a lot cheaper than most of us can manage. Baking even semi-competently takes a fair amount of skill, but more than anything, it takes a lot of time. And for something like sourdough — which seems to be the pandemic bread of choice — it’s also pretty wasteful if you’re building the starter.

Before some of you chuck your rolling pin at me, keep in mind that to call this behaviour “status-seeking” doesn’t mean that the other explanations for all the baking don’t apply. I’ve been baking Irish soda bread lately, and I do find it highly relaxing. And tasty! But that doesn’t change the fact that the desire and ability to this is an expression of my class and status. A lesson Bourdieu taught but which no one seems to take to heart is that no expression of taste is ever innocent.

So if you are one of the millions people who have taken to Instagram to show off the results of your sourdough efforts during the pandemic, one or more of the following are true: You have a lot of free time, so you either don’t have to work, or you have the kind of job that gives you a great deal of flexibility; you don’t have young kids at home out of school, or you have a live-in caregiver, or they are in a private school that is providing them with over-the-internet education; you have access to a large supply of flour (something that is increasingly hard to find) and other baking ingredients. These are all, it probably doesn’t need saying, very clear class markers.

The conspicuous pursuit of a once-functional but now-vestigial activity is something that Veblen would have recognized immediately as forms of leisure class status-seeking. Which is why it is odd that it seems to have completely escaped the notice of Tyler Cowen, the economist who is usually one of the most astute observers of status seeking and the social economics of positional goods.

Yet in a recent column for Bloomberg, Cowen stated  that the COVID-19 lockdown has been accompanied by a “plunge” in status seeking behaviour, which he described as “a remarkable and scary social experiment”. Why scary? Because without access to the usual outlets for status competition -- career success, conspicuous consumption, coolhunting and so on -- people might work less. Or the poor might realize they are poor. Or politicians we don’t like might get a status boost from being on TV all the time, at the expense of other formerly high status individuals such as CEOs or athletes. Overall, he argues, “this is a dangerous state of affairs.”

THIS IS A BIZARRE ARGUMENT. Sure, status-seeking can have positive benefits. Hard work helps the economy, the desire to be cool gives us great music and art, and in general the desire for social approbation can help maintain order and keep people in line. Keeping up with the Joneses can be as much about being a good citizen as about having a really nice lawn. 

But this ignores the irreducibly positional nature of status-seeking. For every CEO who earns millions a year in compensation largely because of his ability to “command the room” (and can’t really do so on Zoom) there are thousands of workers and investors who have long suffered from the fact that many of them aren’t very good at their jobs. For every poor person who got a small boost in status because they happened to be good at witty repartee, there are thousands who are just… poor. And so on. 

That is why Veblen described status-seeking in a rich society as “wasteful,” in a very technical sense: When everyone is competing for status, it is like an arms race: the end result is identical to the beginning, except you’ve spent a great deal of time, money, or effort to end up exactly where you started. 

But more importantly, Cowen doesn’t seem to have noticed that the status-seeking whose “plunge” he laments hasn’t gone anywhere at all -- it’s simply been transferred over to the areas of pandemic life that are most conducive to status displays, i.e., the sorts of things whose status signals are easily communicated through social media.

Baking is one of these, but there are two other pandemic trends that are also all over social media: Over-the-top home schooling, and very elaborate home gym and fitness routines. Again, these are the sorts of things that a privileged elite is able to do because they have the time, education, resources, and flexibility to turn what is a public health catastrophe into an exercise in conspicuous lifestyle display.

Cowen is right about one thing: this is a dangerous situation. But the real problem is the exact opposite of the one he describes: the worry is not that we’ve run out of opportunities for status-seeking, but rather, that the status-seeking opportunities we have now are even more viciously invidious than ever, shifting into areas of life where the inequalities were already the most stark. 

When we emerge from this new normal, when we come blinking out into the sunlight, we will find that society has bifurcated into two distinct tribes. There will be a healthy, fit, self-fulfilled elite whose kids have received a better education than they could possibly have got crammed into overcrowded public schools. And then there will be those who barely scraped by financially, are physically and emotionally exhausted, and whose kids spent a great deal of time texting their friends, playing video games, or watching Netflix. 

Which is to say, a society marked by a great deal more inequality than the one that we had before. (AP)

Long distractions for a leisurely long weekend:

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Policy for Pandemics is produced and edited by Andrew Potter and co-edited by Charlotte Reboul and Paisley Sim (bios here). If you have any feedback or would like to contribute to this newsletter, please send an email to andrew2.potter@mcgill.ca