Innocent Bystander March 2005

Feeling Entitled?

Huey Long's aspiration—"Every man a king!"—is at last within our grasp

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.

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Murphy served as The Atlantic Monthly's managing editor from 1985 until 2005, when the magazine relocated to Washington. He has written frequently for the magazine on a great variety of subjects, from religion to language to social science to such out-of-the-way matters as ventriloquism and his mother's method for pre-packaging lunches for her seven school-aged children.

Murphy's book Rubbish! (1992), which he co-authored with William Rathje, grew out of an article that was written by Rathje, edited by Murphy, and published in the December, 1989, issue of The Atlantic Monthly. In a feature about the book's success The New York Times reported that the article "was nominated for a National Magazine Award in 1990 and became a runaway hit for The Atlantic Monthly, which eventually ran off 150,000 copies of it." Murphy's second book, Just Curious, a collection of his essays that first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly and Harper's, was published in 1995. His most recent book, The Word According to Eve: Women and The Bible in Ancient Times and Our Own, was published in 1998 by Houghton Mifflin. The book grew out of Murphy's August 1993 Atlantic cover story, "Women and the Bible."

Murphy was born in New Rochelle, New York, and grew up in Greenwich, Connecticut. He was educated at Catholic schools in Greenwich and in Dublin, Ireland, and at Amherst College, from which he graduated with honors in medieval history in 1974. Murphy's first magazine job was in the paste-up department of Change, a magazine devoted to higher education. He became an editor of The Wilson Quarterly in 1977. Since the mid-1970s Murphy has written the comic strip Prince Valiant, which appears in some 350 newspapers around the world.

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