Elsewhere, U.S.A., by Dalton Conley

I’ve known Dalton for a year or two — have met him at gatherings of awesome people — and have always been really intrigued by the things he says. He’s the Chair of Sociology at NYU, and is an incredibly sharp thinker.

As the subtitle (“How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, Blackberry Moms, and Economic Anxiety”) suggests, it’s a collection of essays on how America has changed — how the lowering of the cost of subsistence goods, the rise of women in the workforce, and the growing influence of technology in our lives has completely transformed our class system and our relationships to others and ourselves.

There are some complex topics here, and Dalton is a way better writer on this than I’ll ever be, so I’ll just leave you with a selection of his ideas that struck me. They’re all in different parts of the book, and are pretty complicated in how he talks about them, and the excerpts are a little long, but see what you think. 🙂

“Something is new here. Ever-striving Americans in a land of immigrant dreams and Horatio Alger myths is nothing remarkable on this continent. What is novel is that Americans used to work themselves to the bone for material necessities and to rise up out of constant struggle so their children wouldn’t have to. Leisure was something you attained when you reached a certain income level. Today, a different dynamic has taken shape: For the first time in history, the more we are paid, the more hours we work. Paradoxically, perhaps, we do this now because among the luckiest of us the rewards for working are so great, they make the “opportunity cost” of not working all the greater. The result is that we no longer have leisure-class elites. The rich are working harder than ever. (Even those born to great wealth now feel the pressure to work for work’s sake.) Rather, leisure is something for the poor. This seemingly arcane economic measure—the income elasticity of leisure—represents a fundamental change in how many of us live; and, obviously, this change has affected not just when we work, but also how we play, how we love, how we raise our children—how we live.”

That’s why Mr. Elsewhere is constantly having “meetings” that are ambiguous in nature. Part of each workday is spent drinking lattes with folks who may be potential clients, or investors, or just interesting people from whom the newest hot idea for private equity may arise. Since one never knows where the next next big thing is lurking, any meeting could result in the opportunity of a lifetime for the artist, movie producer, venture capitalist, salesperson, or business consultant. It could be the woman he meets on the plane who runs an environmental nonprofit that badly needs a Web redesign. It could be the father of his child’s playmate in the sandbox who runs a hedge fund on his BlackBerry while changing dirty diapers. Or it could even be the kid herself, who has just the look Mrs. 2009 needs for her newest marketing campaign. Even when the Elsewhere class ostensibly go out purely to socialize, they find that they cannot stop themselves from glancing at their text messages, talking work, or making valuable introductions across the table. It all may be a Ponzi scheme, but it certainly is no shell game: In an information and service economy, much of what drives success is, in fact, social skills.”

“The essential character of positional goods in our time is that the satisfaction they provide is not intrinsic to their value to an individual—i.e., their ability to satisfy hunger, thirst, or even to express ourselves. Rather, their utility relies almost entirely on their relative social position….One consequence is the increasing role that material goods play as positional goods—something Hirsch didn’t consider. Mrs. and Mr. Elsewhere absolutely have to have the latest iPhone, McMansion, or SUV. There’s nothing inherent about an iPhone that makes it a positional good. Some (but not all) of its features are material improvements on previous models. It may save us time and effort to have all of our music, phone numbers, and photos in one handy little gadget. Or it may not, as some users are finding. However, to the extent that the pleasure from the iPhone or the Hummer or the $5,000 gas grill (a favorite example of the economist Robert Frank in his related book, Luxury Fever) stems from the fact that it is better—or at least more costly and thus rarer—than the grills of one’s neighbors, it has become a status or positional good. It is through this magical endowment of material objects with the powers of relative position that we think we have solved the problems inherent in mass consumption of positional goods—if only fleetingly. Never mind the credit card bill that is to come: For now, the magical object has done its job, and we are satisfied (if not quite happy, since the actuality of the thing may be disappointing compared to the idea of owning it in the abstract). So, when people talk about the dematerialization of the economy, what they should be really calling it is a de-necessitation of the economy, as in a deemphasis on basic, physical necessities; or, alternatively, a luxurification or positionification.”

I’ve also got a book on my shelf that he wrote about birth order in families called The Pecking Order that I’m looking forward to reading.


  1. I’ll have to check this out. I seem to be either reading mostly fiction or these Buddhist review books that are coming out of the woodwork now. It would be good to read something sociological in some sense.

  2. I note that he also wrote, “Being Black, Living in the Red: Race, Wealth, and Social Policy in America,” which looks interesting.

    “What is more important–race or class–in determining the socioeconomic success of the blacks and whites born since the civil rights triumphs of the 1960s? When compared to whites, African Americans complete less formal schooling, work fewer hours at a lower rate of pay and are more likely to give birth to a child out of wedlock and to rely on welfare. Are these differences attributable to race per se, or are they the result of differences in socioeconomic background between the two groups?

    Being Black, Living in the Red demonstrates that many differences between blacks and whites stem not from race but from economic inequalities that have accumulated over the course of American history. Property ownership–as measured by net worth–reflects this legacy of economic oppression. The racial discrepancy in wealth holdings leads to advantages for whites in the form of better schools, more desirable residences, higher wages, and more opportunities to save, invest, and thereby further their economic advantages. “

  3. The following is particularly striking, even (or maybe more) in Western Europe:

    > we no longer have leisure-class elites. The rich are working harder than ever. (…) Rather, leisure is something for the poor.

    This may be one of the reason why Open Source / Free Software is strinving in Europe: give interesting things to do with a mission to many educated people with spare time on their hands, and you get good participation.