"A genuine college degree in 2 weeks!" The e-mail offer from one of America's burgeoning diploma mills has been arriving almost hourly, although about thirty years too late. The sales pitch continues: "Have you ever thought that the only thing stopping you from a great job and better pay was a few letters behind your name?"—letters like B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. "Well now you can get them!"
It's tempting. But one could also just move to Italy. There, a few months ago, an administrative court ruled that students who had earned only a three-year university degree were nonetheless legally entitled to call themselves "dottore," or "doctor." This is of a piece with evolving social practice across a broad front. Elementary school teachers in Italy are entitled to be called "maestro." Teachers in middle school are "professore." A university rector earns the honorific "magnifico."
It may be that the country that gave us rococo pastry and the gilded interior of La Scala is especially prone to fancy titles. Beppe Severgnini, a writer for the Milan daily Corriere della Sera, speculates that the Italians, having been ruled for so long by outsiders, developed a predilection for titles as a kind of prosthetic self-esteem. But the surge in title inflation is in fact a worldwide phenomenon—in business, in academe, in government.
Title inflation has always been an occupational hazard for autocrats, famously parodied in the opening lines of Evelyn Waugh's 1932 novel Black Mischief: "We, Seth, Emperor of Azania, Chief of the Chiefs of Sakuyu, Lord of Wanda and Tyrant of the Seas, Bachelor of the Arts of Oxford University, being in this the twenty-fourth year of our life …" Haile Selassie, the longtime emperor of Ethiopia, styled himself "King of Kings, Elect of God, Conquering Lion of Judah." This is by no means a thing of the past. Juan Carlos of Spain, although an exceedingly modern monarch and an ardent democrat, lays claim to thirty-eight distinct titles, including "Duke of Athens" and "Sovereign Grand Master of the Order of the Golden Fleece." North Korea's Kim Jong-Il, "Guardian of Our Planet" and "Lodestar of the Twenty-first Century," has more than a thousand self-bestowed titles. When, recently, foreign observers thought they detected a lessening of the Great Leader's cult of personality, a North Korean diplomat testily told reporters, "It's false information. You cannot remove the sun from the sky."
America won't catch up with Kim tomorrow, but it's on the march. Though the U.S. Constitution explicitly forbids the awarding of feudal honorifics ("no title of nobility shall be granted by the United States"), in political Washington and elsewhere the courtesy title "Honorable" (which comes from the British "the Right Honorable Magnificence of Nobles") now applies to virtually anyone who buys a table at a charity event. Universities are adding honorific modifiers like sundae toppings to the names of professorships; the University of Illinois, for instance, offers the option of "Founders," "Jubilee," or "Centenary." High-tech start-ups have no patience with the bland job titles of yesteryear. Fast Company magazine's monthly survey of "job titles of the future" has come across actual people with the titles "idea ambassador," "knowledge sorceress," "chief reality officer," and "curator of the enlightened orchard."
The most pervasive form of title inflation is the extension of restricted honorifics to an ever widening circle of claimants. In 1950 the world chess federation, FIDE, recognized only twenty-seven people as full-fledged grand masters; today there are 930 grand masters. During the Kennedy administration only twenty-nine people held the coveted title of "assistant," "deputy assistant," or "special assistant" to the president; by the time Bill Clinton left office, in 2001, there were 141 such people. In the corporate world the title "vice president" is so common as to have become almost meaningless—a synonym, nearly, for "employee"—and the title "vice chairman" connotes what a vice president used to be. In his weekly column for NFL.com, Gregg Easterbrook noted recently that the front office of the Houston Texans has a chairman and CEO, two vice chairmen, five senior vice presidents, two ordinary vice presidents, an executive director, and fourteen regular directors. He made a calculation: "If General Motors had the same ratio of titles to revenue as the Houston Texans, GM would boast 1,928 vice chairmen, 4,820 senior vice presidents, and 13,496 directors."
Then, too, there is the sale of "naming rights"—merging a donor's personal or corporate name with that of a monument or institution. Vainglorious and clumsy, the new titles at least achieve a certain hybrid vigor. There's a Nor'wester Professorship in Fermentation Science at Oregon State University, created by the Nor'wester Brewing Company, and a Rubbermaid Home Products Courtyard at Ohio State. At the end of the 1980s only three professional sports arenas had corporate names. Today the majority of them do. The sale of naming rights now extends to transit systems and public schools. Before long we may have the Exxon Corporation 101st Airborne and the Kellogg, Brown & Root Department of Homeland Security.
Does title inflation (or deflation) have any historical correlation with the more general decline (or advance) of civilization? One could cite some suggestive evidence. The early Christians, selfless and close-knit, referred to one another simply as "Brother" and "Sister"; the days of "Your Eminence" and "Your Holiness" came much later. Our own Founding Fathers, seeking to establish a more perfect social order, rejected various baroque suggestions for the title of the nation's chief executive ("His Majesty the President" and "His Highness the President of the United States of America and Protector of the Rights of the Same") in favor of something more homespun. It can hardly be an accident that Chicago, the most American and plainspoken of our great cities, recently held the line by refusing to sell the naming rights to Soldier Field.
By the same token, epochs in which people betray a grasping appetite for status are often times of decadence and decline. Think of the ancien régime's array of ever more finely sliced noble distinctions, which the guillotine's blade brought to an end. Recall Edward Gibbon's description of the desiccated nobility in early-fifth-century Rome: "They contend with each other in the empty vanity of titles and surnames, and curiously select the most lofty and sonorous appellations … which may impress the ears of the vulgar with astonishment and respect." We know what happened next: the barbarians were at the gates (and they all wanted titles).
It would be going too far to assert any hard-and-fast correspondence between title inflation and social decay. But surely it's worth knowing whether the titles of our age are the equivalent of gold bullion or of Weimar banknotes. It may be that what we need in order to track the real value of titles is something akin to the Consumer Price Index, which monitors the rate of inflation. The CPI is calculated by tracking changes in the price of a "basket" of items, ranging from basics such as clothes, housing, and medical care to miscellaneous items such as cigarettes, haircuts, and funerals. In similar fashion one could compile a representative sample of standard honorifics and examine how they change over time. The calculation might take into account the percentage of the U.S. corporate leadership cadre with titles of vice president or above; the average number of words in the names of endowed chairs at major universities; the percentage of public buildings with corporate names; and the average number of epithets in the official titles of a selection of Third World dictators.
Exaltametrics, as this new discipline might be called, would permit the sort of corrective calibrations now routine in economics. We would be able to say, for instance, that in real terms, adjusted for inflation, the Cappell/Frayard Professional Money Management Group of Paine Webber/BORSF Endowed Professorship in Economics, which you can find today at the University of Louisiana, is pretty much equivalent to an ordinary Jubilee Professorship of Economics from ten years ago. We would not be misled by title inflation into thinking that being a "Lodestar of the Twenty-first Century" in 2005 was any more significant than being, say, a plain old "Lion of Judah" back in 1970.
The new monitoring agency might be lodged in the Wal-Mart Corporation Department of Labor, and I'm both available and qualified to serve as its first Pontifex Maximus. In fact, my doctorate in exaltametrics just came in the mail.