Economists Do It With Models

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The Latest From The “Life Isn’t Fair” Department, Beauty Pays Edition…

November 27th, 2011 · 82 Comments
Books · Discrimination · Policy

This was the conversation in my household the other day while watching The Daily Show:

Jason Jones, on TV: We’ve made great strides in eradicating prejudice in this country…but, according to University of Texas economist Daniel Hamermesh, one part of society is still suffering in ways we never imagined…
Me: Ugly people.
Daniel Hamermesh, on TV: Ugly people.
Roommate: How did you know that? Have you seen this before?
Me: No, but it’s kind of my job to know things. *orders Hamermesh’s book from Amazon*

Hamermesh’s book is appropriately titled Beauty Pays: Why Attractive People Are More Successful, and it seeks to quantify the economic advantages that attractive people have in the workplace, in business negotiations, and in life in general. The Daily Show piece is actually a decent overview on the topic:

I find it funny that Jason Jones calls out Google for having high-paid yet unattractive employees- clearly he’s never met Marissa Mayer. I also find it interesting that Hamermesh extends the discussion to the question of whether less attractive people should be afforded some sort of discriminatory protection. I suppose the answer partially depends on whether being attractive is a choice, and the issue reminds me of Greg Mankiw’s tongue-in-cheek analysis of taxing height:

Should the income tax system include a tax credit for short taxpayers and a tax surcharge for tall ones? This paper shows that the standard Utilitarian framework for tax policy analysis answers this question in the affirmative. Moreover, based on the empirical distribution of height and wages, the optimal height tax is substantial: a tall person earning $50,000 should pay about $4,500 more in taxes than a short person earning the same income. This result has two possible interpretations. One interpretation is that individual attributes correlated with wages, such as height, should be considered more widely for determining tax liabilities. Alternatively, if policies such as a tax on height are rejected, then the standard Utilitarian framework must in some way fail to capture our intuitive notions of distributive justice.

If you want more commentary from Dan Hamermesh, check out a pretty good Q&A that he did over the Freakonomics blog. Finally, in the interest of giving credit where credit is due, I would like to point out that Hamermesh isn’t the only one writing on this subject. For example, Markus Mobius (yes, like the strip) and Tanya Rosenblat wrote a paper entitled Why Beauty Matters that attempts to explain why the beauty premium exists:

We decompose the beauty premium in an experimental labor market where “employers” determine wages of “workers” who perform a maze-solving task. This task requires a true skill which we show to be unaffected by physical attractiveness. We find a sizable beauty premium and can identify three transmission channels: (a) physically attractive workers are more confident and higher confidence increases wages; (b) for a given level of confidence, physically attractive workers are (wrongly) considered more able by employers; (c) controlling for worker confidence, physically attractive workers have oral skills (such as communication and social skills) that raise their wages when they interact with employers. Our methodology can be adopted to study the sources of discriminatory pay differentials in other settings.

I keep envisioning the episode of 30 Rock where no one ever tells Jon Hamm that he is bad at anything because he’s really good looking, and I have to conjecture that this behavior is somehow not efficient. I am also a little perturbed that I went to taping of The Daily Show the day after this segment was aired. Sigh.

Tags: Books · Discrimination · Policy

82 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Eat The Babies! // Nov 28, 2011 at 11:12 am

    I have no doubt at all… none… that there is a premium to attractiveness. I am absolutely positive about it.

    Somehow no one questions the fact that people should be paid more for smarts or talent, but attractiveness… that’s a problem. Your born with all of it. Sure, there is a level of nurture involved in all of the above (God knows there are people out there who’d be much, much better looking if they had any clue how to scrub up or took care of themselves at all), but in the end you play the hand you are dealt, no?

    Beauty appears to me to be the only endogenous virtue that it is socially acceptable to hate people for.

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