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On Paul Krugman's theory of hipsters

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Paul Krugman went to a concert in Brooklyn and left wondering about the aesthetics of hipsters.

I’m perfectly OK with topknots and tattoos, but obviously a lot of employers won’t be. So where do all these people work? They can’t all be baristas …

But that, surely, is part of the point. Probably not an original observation, but surely one main goal of personal styling is to make it clear that the person so styled is not, in fact, part of the workaday bourgeois world, that he or she doesn’t work at a 9-5 office job during the week and put on trendy attire for the weekend.

I think that gets the point of the hipster aesthetic slightly wrong. In this post and in a follow-up, Krugman suggests that hipsters are signaling a rejection of the workaday bourgeois world by flouting conventional dress codes. I think the truth is closer to the opposite: They're signaling a mastery of the workaday bourgeois world by flouting conventional dress codes.

You can find a gentler version of this in Silicon Valley, where hackers proved their skills so valuable that they won the right to dress however they wanted. Eventually, shorts and sandals became something weirdly close to a uniform. To wear a tie to work came to signal that you weren't good enough at coding, and thus didn't have the market power and independence to not wear a tie to work. As venture capitalist Peter Thiel writes in Zero to One, "Never invest in a tech CEO that wears a suit."

I suspect something similar is going on with topknots and tattoos. The trappings of the urban hipster don't signal the absence of a job but rather the presence of the right kind of job — the kind of job that values your individual, creative talents enough that you can be covered in ink and a lumberjack's beard and still pull down a comfortable wage.

That's particularly true when you spy the aesthetic in the hipper parts of Brooklyn, which have become wildly expensive places to live. In a city otherwise full of people who became rich at the cost of becoming boring, it makes sense that the residents would develop a way to aggressively signal that they had become rich without becoming boring.

Whether the signal is actually true is, of course, a whole different issue.

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