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I really, really, really want to say no, outside of certain service industries that is, but I think the answer may well be yes.

Please talk me out of it Frances!

It depends.

Do good looking people earn more BECAUSE they're good looking? Or are good looks signals that indicate higher confidence, health, intelligence, conscientiousness and other traits that cause people to earn more. Are intelligence and attractiveness positively correlated? If this is the case, artificially inflating one's looks won't improve earning.

However if good looks are desirable as an end in themselves, then plastic surgery is certainly a human capital investment. When you consider the returns in both the labour and mating market, it might be a very high-ROI investment. Many jobs clearly pay a premium for good looks - prostitution and stripping being the obvious example, but pretty girls are always highly sought after for service jobs.

In either case the human capital returns to good looks are zero-sum for society as a whole, since human beauty is only important as a relative measure. Such wasteful signaling should be discouraged, so as much as it pains me to say it, we should be taxing breast implants, or implementing some sort of... wait for it.... cap and trade scheme.

It might be signalling, rather than human capital. Maybe even "false" signalling ("mimicry", or whatever they call it in biology), if "innate" beauty correlates with ability.

"In either case the human capital returns to good looks are zero-sum for society as a whole"

That is far from obvious. Many of the sorts of jobs where good looks will tend to be inputs into higher productivity are sales type jobs, essentially brokering and facilitating trade. To the extent that their are gains from that trade that might not otherwise be realzed it's a net social gain.

It's almost certainly all of the above.

Here's related anecdote from contemporary politics: (from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/06/us/politics/06prop.html)

Olivia Monesano, a 29-year-old waitress from San Francisco, was one of hundreds who marched in support of Judge Walker’s decision on Wednesday.
She held a campaign sign for Gavin Newsom, the handsome San Francisco mayor and current candidate for lieutenant governor, who touched off much of the debate in 2004 when he ord...ered a city clerk to start issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. “I’m definitely voting for him: he’s been for gay rights from the beginning, he’s a gay icon,” Ms. Monesano said. “And he’s hot.”

I wonder if there are externalities here: do attractive workers enhance co-workers' productivity?

@Linda: Not for men. Haven't there been studied demonstrating that the men's brains shutdown in the presence of an attractive women? I suppose the blood flow is being diverted...

"It might be signalling, rather than human capital."

I think it's a combination of both, the same way higher education is.

In China it is not uncommon for people to go through pretty nasty surgical procedures to increase their height. Since the value of height is mostly relative (except when it comes to reaching things off the top shelf in the kitchen cupboard) this would seem to fit into the wasteful signalling category of plastic surgery.

Is the cost of the plastic surgery less than the succeeding benefits one receives from it? One should also factor in expected risks of the surgery going awry, as it does sometimes.

It depends on the job she's looking for (masculine jobs are less likely to hire women, and women recruiters are less likely to favour "attractive" women.... whereas, bigger chested waitresses typically get better tips)


Does plastic surgery work effectively in making people better looking in the sense that is economically relevant? Plastic surgery can reduce wrinkles successfully, but older women already have a beauty disadvantage that lower levels of wrinkles probably can't effectively counteract. It can make breasts bigger, but my guess is that larger breasts are economically neutral over the economy as a whole (i.e., great for some jobs; disadvantageous in others - breast reduction might be advantageous in some sectors). A number of plastic surgery procedures simply create people who look odd - e.g., lip fillers. And of course there are plastic surgery fails - the botox injected in the wrong place etc.

My guess is that the number one economically advantageous cosmetic procedure is: braces.

"but my guess is that larger breasts are economically neutral over the economy as a whole (i.e., great for some jobs; disadvantageous in others "

Every type of capital is great for some jobs and disadvantageous in others, a bulldozer is less useful for accounting then a computer.

Presumably people select the investment to match the needs, accountants don't keep bulldozers in their office. That doesn't mean bulldozers are economically neutral overall, they are advantageous exactly because in jobs they don't help you don't have to have one.

Alice, something that generates an individual financial reward isn't necessarily human capital.

When I view that La Secretaire clip in light of your comments (www.taq.tv a favourite time waster for people who want to work on their French, b.t.w.) I'm reminded of conversations people used to have back in the day. At one time, women would say "I'm not going to learn how to type because I don't want to be anyone's secretary." That was before typing at 80 or 100 words a minute was a massively valuable skill for a lawyer or almost anyone else in a professional job.

Now a woman might say "I'm not going to have my breasts enlarged because I don't want to be anyone's secretary."

Learning to type is a really good example of a human capital investment - it makes you more productive. Some plastic surgery is like that too - the most extreme example would be something like repairing a hare lip or cleft palate, removing an obstacle to people's ability to talk and communicate.

Now is removing a really ugly mole from someone's face also something that makes it easier for a person to talk and communicate? A grossly unattractive facial feature is distracting, it makes it harder to listen to a person.

But you see how this starts slipping, and I'm finding it harder to find examples of things that actually increase productivity. More often, I think, individual productivity may (or may not) be enhanced, but the effect is to make a person *relatively* more attractive.

Or to signal something else, like social class, as in the case of perfectly straight teeth.

I read about some researchers who followed up a group of people who had had cosmetic surgery and tried to determine if the procedure had actually enhanced their lives. The conclusion was that breast reduction surgery was the only one that really improved lives long term. The researchers then argued that breast reduction surgery should not be considered cosmetic. Certainly it could make one more productive as physical work would be more comfortable. Is a surgery that enhances productivity really cosmetic?
Of course there is lots of "cosmetic" drug use too. A neighbor told me how he used to lie to get a Ritalin prescription because it helped him study for exams.

Rachel - I feel another post coming: "Is Ritalin a human capital investment?"

I'm not an economist so please clarify. Does an individual investing in plastic surgery, and reaping economic rewards of higher wages, make it an investment in human capital. Or do they actually have to be more productive in order for it to be an investment in human capital? I have no doubt that a successful plastic surgery can improve a person's income, because career advancement and wage setting is often related to other people's perception of us, rather than our actual productivity. I have a harder time believing that an attractive person actually is more productive simply by virtue of being attractive. Natural attractiveness may be related to health, vigor, etc., but artificial attractiveness is not.

Neil: the idea of human capital is that the investment makes people more productive. So learning to touch type (or learning shortcuts like Ctrl-x to cut) is a really good example of a human capital investment - the skills and knowledge mean that you can do more stuff, or do the same stuff faster.

Something that generates higher wages without increased productivity (botox???) wouldn't generally be considered a human capital investment.

What's fun about this example (if you click on the "The Secretary" or the "La Secretaire" link) is that the secretary argues that she is in fact more productive because of her plastic surgery - she can close deals that a secretary without surgical enhancement could not.

So this challenges people to think about what is meant by productivity.

Someone who takes a Chicago-economics type view of the world might well say 'employers are smart. They only pay higher wages for something if it makes an employee more valuable to them, so if plastic surgery generates higher wages it must increase productivity.'

I use this video when I teach in part because sitting through a three hour class is incredibly tedious for students even with the odd break, and unbearably tedious without. And in part because it really challenges students to think critically about the very idea of human capital investment - when I say 'university education is a human capital investment' people tend to nod, write it down, but not question what this idea of human capital means.

So the next order of abstraction is what productivity means, right? The secretary might help to make a sale, thus being worth her higher wages to the company that employs her. But what if the client were going to buy the same service from somebody, just not the secretary's employer. Closing the deal hasn't increased total economic output.

What's more, maybe her distracting attractiveness has resulted in the client cutting a worse deal than they otherwise would have. If the client was in a better position to increase output using money left over from this purchase than the secretary's employer is, maybe she's reduced economic output.

Again, not an economist, so maybe I'm missing something.

Neil: you're not missing anything (or, at least, not missing anything that's obvious to me).

"It is well established that good looking people earn more. There are even some papers that suggest the premium for good looks reflects enhanced productivity, possibly because good looks reflect good health, or because good looking people tend to be more confident."

The idea that good looks reflect good health comes, OC, from the sexual selection literature. Good looks are by definition attractive, and so should reflect good genes, and good genes are associated with good health. In general, good looking people are treated better, starting in childhood.

From what I have read, the bias in favor of good looks and the corresponding prejudice against ugliness and physical deformity was quite strong in pre-modern societies. Perhaps there is a difference in this regard between shame and guilt societies, shame societies being more concerned with appearances.

Studies by economist Daniel Hamermesh indicate that good-looking people make more money, but he also suggests that money spent on improving your looks isn't an investment with positive returns. One discussion of this topic is in the blog post "Want higher pay? Don’t go to plastic surgeon." (I've tried and perhaps succeeded in linking my name, below, to that post.)

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