Stranded Assets, Part II: Neponomics
Nepo babies, social atomization, and the housing crisis
(This post can be read as a standalone essay. But if you’re looking for more background on what I mean by the asset economy, I recommend Part I.)
As promised in my last post, it’s time to talk about nepo babies. I’ve been thinking about them a fair bit over the last few days, prompted by my friend Nate Jones’s definitive piece on the nepo baby phenomenon from the most recent issue of New York Magazine.
For those who aren’t familiar with the term: Nepo babies, short for “nepotism babies,” are essentially celebrities who are the children of other (usually more famous) celebrities. As Nate points out, the hereditary transmission of Hollywood fame is not a new phenomenon—it’s at least as old as talkies—but took on a new cultural salience in 2022.
The spread of nepo baby discourse seems to me like a side effect of burgeoning class consciousness among extremely online, pop culture-obsessed Zoomers. Intergenerational wealth transfers are the basis of membership in most elite castes, but usually the way it’s done is a little bit more on the down low. Helping out your kid with a home loan is a subtler way to reproduce inequality than inserting them into a popular streaming series.
What does this have to do with the asset economy? Well, as Nate himself points out, fame is itself a sort of asset class: “In an industry built on reboots, a famous last name can be valuable intellectual property.” Emphasis on property. While a famous last name isn’t a fungible asset like a house or an NFT token, it can be used to acquire those things.And like real estate, it is a solid basis for keeping wealth in the family over the course of successive generations.
As mentioned in my last post, my understanding of housing’s political economy—and of the asset economy as a whole—is heavily shaped by Adkins, Cooper and Konings’s book, The Asset Economy. While they don’t specifically talk about the economics of fame, they do explore the notion that everything—including your individual interests and capacities—has been “assetized.” They write:
Neoliberalism made real the idea that when you sell your labour, you are not simply involved in a monetary transaction but are able to earn income on your human capital. By this logic, education is an investment in one’s own future self, meant to build skills that will generate returns and achieve capital gains and so allow for the repayment of the debt incurred to build them (Brown 2015). But of course, wage stagnation means that the asset of human capital has been subject to devaluation, even if the debt assumed to build it remains fully intact. This creates a version of the ‘underwater mortgage’ phenomenon — the need to maintain payments on an (undischargeable) debt that is larger than the asset it purchased. In other words, what the idea of a bifurcation between an asset economy and a commodity economy fails to capture is how all of us are now exposed to the logics of asset appreciation and depreciation, inflation and deflation.
What applies to education also applies to celebrity. The work needed to get famous—whether that’s producing your own viral content, going to auditions, or taking classes at Upright Citizens Brigade—are investments that may or may not eventually pay off in fame-capital. And just as celebrity can be transferred from parent to child, thereby allowing nepo babies to skip to the front of the line, wealthy people of all stripes can buy their kids’ place in the power elite of the future by funding an elite education.
Just as there are class gradations in homeownership (people who are underwater on their mortgage, people who aren’t, people who own outright, etc.) and in education (as carefully measured by the U.S. News and World Report rankings), there is an internal class structure to fame, even among those who have “made it.” I thought this Kelsey McKinney piece about one of the stars of HBO’s Euphoria was pretty instructive about how it works. Here’s how it starts:
You can always tell who in Hollywood has family money by their Instagrams. People like Dakota Johnson, who have a Hollywood lineage deeper than the Mariana Trench, post only rarely. They post about social justice causes they care about, or personal announcements. Even someone like actress and musician Maya Hawke mostly posts previews of upcoming projects, or selfies on Jimmy Fallon—self-promotion, with some personalized aspects. An actress like Sydney Sweeney, who grew up in Spokane, Wa. and lived in a motel with her whole family while trying to make an acting career work, has a very different-looking feed. Sweeney is not really any less famous than her legacy peers after her roles in Euphoria, The White Lotus, and The Handmaid’s Tale. She has, at age 24, been working steadily in Hollywood for 10 years; her performance in the most recent season of Euphoria earned her an Emmy nomination. Sweeney posts almost constantly, and almost half of her posts are advertisements.
On Instagram, Sweeney has promoted Tory Burch, Cotton on Body, Miu Miu, and Laneige in the last two months. For every image Sweeney posts of herself on the cover of a magazine, there is a branded selfie. She is working.
I recommend reading the essay in full, but from that excerpt you can start to get a sense of Hollywood’s class structure. Actors with family money and a family name can bankroll a lavish lifestyle based on a combination of passive income from their existing assets (including the aforementioned last name) and their acting work. Whereas Sweeney—who is by no means poor, as the essay is careful to note—is nonetheless much less secure in her class position. A few rungs further down the class ladder, you have a vast and growing pool of “influencers” scrabbling to monetize their own less than illustrious names. Reality television, particularly the Bachelor franchise, has become a sort of commodities market for lower-level influencers trying to enhance their brand.
The lower end of the fame ladder—the Bachelor tier—is where things get weird. That’s because it illustrates how the postwar democratization of returns to homeownership has a latter-day analogue culture industry. It is easier than ever to achieve a little bit of celebrity and earn a little bit of rental income off of it. And while Instagram celebrities are easy to mock, let’s not pretend any of us stand outside this microfame economy. You are reading this post on Substack, for christ’s sake. The market for highfaluting newsletters about urban policy runs on the same basic principles as the market for sponsored Christian Girl Autumn content. The same goes for academia, where the breakdown in traditional paths to economic security has created a crabs-in-a-bucket effect on microfame markets like academic Twitter.
It is a cliché at this point to note that these attempts to achieve some sort of fame and economic security through the tools of social media can tip into a wholesale commodification of the self. It’s a cliché because it’s true, albeit with one minor amendment: the self is converted into an asset, which can be used to produce commodities. I’m put in mind of the end to this fantastic Merve Emre essay about the decline of the mid-aughts-to-mid-teens personal essay boom:
In the last analysis, it is not a decline so much as the convergence of the genre with social media platforms that has rendered online venues devoted to personal essays redundant. Whereas personhood, as a collection of tastes, preferences, and experiences, was once bought and sold through long-form narrative, now it can be sold and bought in the form of views, shares, and followers—personal data managed not by editors and the publications they run but by corporations such as Facebook, Twitter, and Amazon. What we ought to mourn, then, is not the decline of the personal essay; its ethos and its aesthetics persist. Rather, it is the much longer, slower death of the conditions that gave rise to the essay’s unintimate friendship, a familiarity mediated not by a spectacular personhood but by the skillful cultivation of style.
Here, I think, is another way in which the assetization of the entire economy has exacerbated the pervasive social dislocation and anomie of the present age. Social media sometimes provides a medium for genuine sociality, but more often it provides an endless platform for asset appreciation or commodity consumption as a substitute for sociality. There is a reason why online discourse about “parasocial relationships” took off not long before the “nepo baby” boom.
That many nepo babies start off as social media influencers before moving on to more traditional modes of stardom should remind us how much all these asset classes interact. Fame isn’t fungible, but fungible wealth can be converted into fame, and vice versa. This is the entire premise of the Kardashian empire.
The result isn’t just fractal inequality and a suffocating atmosphere of alienation; it has also degraded our culture’s capacity to produce interesting or transcendent art. Outsiders, misfits, and people willing to take big risks can’t find much purchase within the system I’m describing. At a minimum, artistic risk-taking requires an exceptional amount of pre-existing financial security—some variant of nepo babyhood, in other words. And the housing crisis—another product of the asset economy—has made it functionally impossible for people without inherited wealth to live in America’s cultural capitals while spending most of their time on weird or risky artistic experiments. We’ve “democratized” asset ownership, but at the expense of solidarity, sociality, conviviality, and artistic meaning—all of the things that make for a meaningfully rich democratic society.
For another example of the culture industry inadvertently raising class consciousness among the kids, see the Taylor Swift/Ticketmaster affair.
And, in the case of an NFT token, it can be used to shamelessly scam your fans out of their life savings.
Rich and famous parents often do both. A funny example of this, which Nate mentions in his piece, is the Varsity Blues scandal.