Thursday, April 26, 2018

econlife - How Your Fish Can Signal Your Wealth by Elaine Schwartz

Worried that someone might poison his arowana at the 2009 Aquarama International Fish Competition (like the Westminster Dog Show, but for fish), a breeder stationed armed guards around his tanks. The Asian arowana has reputedly sold for as much as $300,000.

Where are we going? To how people signal their wealth.

A Rare Fish

You might have been eating the arowana for dinner years ago. No more. Now their owners give them eye lifts, tummy tucks, and fin jobs. One fish “surgeon” said his operations make the fish more lovable because their owners like them to be perfect. And a breeder even noted he is spending millions to develop a pedigreed line.

During its recent history, the Asian arowana has been on and off endangered species lists, snatched from its owners, and sold in black markets. Said to be a picky lover, its lack of fecundity has made it more rare. At one point, legal breeders had to embed each one with a microchip to prove it was the second generation in captivity.

You get the picture. As the fish became increasingly scarce, their price and allure rose. In Asia especially, if you have an arowana, you are signaling your status.

Our Bottom Line: Signaling

Thorstein Veblen could have further told us why people were buying their Asian arowana. In his Theory of the Leisure Class (1899), he pointed out that an upper class uses expensive worthless purchases to signal power and distinguish themselves. His term conspicuous consumption was supposed to convey our profligate and predatory tendencies.

A 1934 painting of Veblen:


As he explained, the more affluent we become, the less productive our behavior. Wealthy people have servants to wash, to clean, and to cook for them. They spend their time engaged in sports and politics. They surround themselves with jewels, with cars, with art…

And with Asian arowana.

My sources and more: Told yesterday by the NY Times and in 2016 by the NY Post, the story of the arowana remains the same. But if you are really interested in the fish and its relatives, do go to Dragon Behind Glass. The Amazon sample of the book was a good read.

Today’s featured picture is the arowana.

Also, please note that the description of Thorstein Veblen is a brief excerpt from the first edition of Econ 101 1/2.

Ideal for the classroom, reflects Elaine Schwartz’s work as a teacher and a writer. As a teacher at the Kent Place School in Summit, NJ, she’s been an Endowed Chair in Economics and chaired the history department. She’s developed curricula, was a featured teacher in the Annenberg/CPB video project “The Economics Classroom,” and has written several books including Econ 101 ½ (Avon Books/Harper Collins). You can get econlife on a daily basis! Head to econlife.