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Bryan Caplan on face tattoos:
According to this amusing diagram in Cracked, facial tattoos mean “I will never have a job that pays taxes.” Many economists would presumably insist, “It’s not causal. The kind of people who tattoo their faces just have low productivity.” I admit that selection is part of reason why people with face tattoos rarely make the big bucks. But I bet that a lot of the effect is causal: A tattoo signals low productivity – and the market penalizes you accordingly, even if you’re the high-productivity exception than proves the low-productivity rule.
I would hope that most economists do recognize the causality here. Most of the impact of this causality comes from the changing preferences of the presumably young person who gets the face tat. Insofar as people’s life outlook changes as they get older – they move from rebellion to conformity – a face tattoo limits long-term earning potential to somewhere around their current income. The exceptions to this rule are in the realms of cage fighting, bar bouncing, drug dealing, rapping, and drumming. In these occupations, face tattoos may actually improve future earning potential.
But what makes the tattoo-wearer, at this moment in time, think that a face/neck tattoo is a good decision? Only someone who values the present much more than the future would think this. This group is filled with people who generally have a low expectation of living past the age of 25 or 30. You’ll often hear people of this mindset state in very explicit terms that they don’t expect to live past that age, and, in the event that they do, they’ll act surprised by their fortune. A better way to say it is that their personal “discount rate” – the rate at which they discount the value of their future life – is very, very high. So they are more oriented towards the present since the future is utterly worthless to them. That is their reality – though I don’t mean to excuse it. But the question remains, why the tattoo? A person can have a low future expectation without inking it on their face.
Another component of this is that the facial tattoo-wearer is basically setting himself up for failure. At the moment that he decides to get the tattoo, he does not want to be the type of person that will ever sell out by getting a decent, middle class, respectable 8-to-5. Tattoos have historically been an act of rebellion, and this truth still holds. In order to ensure that he isn’t lured on to a conformist path, the tattoo-wearer limits himself through the non-obscure tattoo.
I believe that this is self-trickery. People who get face tats have a scapegoat – something that reaffirms their initial suspicion. They disdain middle class values – selling out – and want to believe that middle class values are out of tune with them rather than the opposite. If they can tell themselves that nobody will hire them then that reaffirms their suspicion about the middle class and employers in the first place. All of this rationalization takes place near the beginning of adulthood, or, a point at which the agent has poor knowledge about what their future desires, wants, and wishes may be. The face tattoo ties them to rebellion for life.
Caplan asks us to ponder a thought experiment:
On your 18th birthday, your worst enemy slips something in your drink, then tattoos your face. You’re too chicken to get the tattoo removed. Question: How much would this tattoo affect the present value of your lifetime earnings?
Remember to account for the effects on your occupational options, compensation, promotions, and unemployment. Plus any additional channels that come to mind. Can you really keep a straight face and say that a prominent, scary facial tattoo would reduce the present value of your lifetime earnings by less than 25%?
I like that Caplan brings these issues into the realm of economics. Usually they’re ignored or only handled by manicured sociologists. But the argument here, which is correct in noting the causality, is just a little short-sighted because it disallows the choice of the agent who makes the signalling decision. It’s incorrect to ask how much the income of a randomly chosen person would decrease if he were to have a tattoo etched on his face. If we randomly chose a guy destined to become a corporate lawyer, his future income would decrease by upwards of 90%. If we randomly tattooed a guy who was destined to work at McDonald’s, his future income would decrease by much less. In some of the realms mentioned at the top of the post, his income might actually increase.
But that’s just picking nits. The face tattoo alone limits career options. A wearer can’t even get his foot in the door regardless of his resume. On a side note, how long until liberals begin judging polite society for judging the facially tattooed? How long until anti-discrimination measures become enacted?