I want to jump in with 2 cents on this exchange about status spending at the Inequality forum at Cato Unbound. Elizabeth Anderson:
One single mother, desperate to see her daughter wear socially accepted clothes, couldn’t pay her utility bills because she spent her income on a pricey t-shirt for her daughter.
all of us, rich or poor, are capable of taking responsibility for our consumption decisions…Our priorities are our priorities; they are to a significant degree up to us. We can change them. I wonder if Anderson believes that the mother in her story made the right decision. If not, I wonder if she thinks that it was within the mother’s power to explain to her that her daughter why paying the utility bill must take priority over fashion and that, indeed, taking responsibility in this is something to be proud of. I don’t think that straitened economic circumstances strip people of their agency or deny them the dignity of wisely exercising it,
So here’s the counter-intuitive idea for the day. The problem is, in many cases, that struggling working and middle-class families spend too little on discretionary items. Wha-wha-what? Here’s a similar story from Elizabeth Warren’s money-planning guide, All Your Worth:
The day I [Elizabeth] met Brandi I thought she would wear a hole right through her shirtsleave where her right hand kept rubbing her left arm. She explained that she and Bret both worked hard – really hard. Bret takes overtime whenever he can. They don’t go to movies and they never eat out….They were desperate to get out of debt, but whenever they started to pull out of the hole, something always went wrong.
When their 4-year-old was invited to a birthday party, Brandi cruised the aisles at the discount store. But Theresa was desperate to have the $18 Princess Tea Set for her “best friend ever”. In the car on the way home, the little girl refused to look at the $4.88 plastic doll that Brandi had bought over Theresa’s protest. After a long silence, she asked her mother quietly, “Why can’t we ever do anything nice?” Brandi later told me: “That’s when I lost it. I was bone tired. Tired of always coming up short. Theresa is such a good kid, and she just wanted a stupid birthday present for her best friend and I didn’t have the money. I started to cry and I couldn’t stop. It was so bad I had to pull off the road…I’m not a crier. I’m really not. But she’s just a little girl.”
Brandi and Brett came to my office laden with files and bills, ready for a marathon session of let’s-figure-out-the-money. After we went over some of the numbers, I leaned back and told them they were spending too little on the extras. They were stunned. I explained that their real problem had nothing to do with birthday presents or haircuts; their real problem was that they were spending way too much on their basic monthly bills.
You find this very quickly with many families. In the story above, the family spent too much on housing relative to their earnings, and had also purchased a new car that was too much of their monthly budget. The new car was almost $18/day (a Princess Tea Set every day!). The problem isn’t that they are extravagant on the little things, it’s that their fixed expenses are too high. When trouble hits, as it always does, it’s very difficult to cycle out of fixed expenses.
To use a blunt example, if you are someone in the business of wanting a government so small you can drown it in a bathtub, that t-shirt, or that Princess Tea Set, is the equivalent of an initiative to drop $50m from the Federal budget. Sounds nice, but does it really make a difference? Or are there some fixed (or this case, committed to) costs that can’t easily be turned down?
This is in part a problem of financial education, and I’m not sure how to make the momentum take hold other than just to blog about it. Our thinking is dominated by thinking about marginal effects – cut out that cup of expensive coffee and you’ll be fine! – and a certain type of morality mapped onto the household budget. But thinking of the household as a firm that has liquidity constraints and fixed expenses helps explain why many families suffer better than the current ways we discuss it.
Because if all you are looking at is consumption, those fixed costs that can’t be turned down easily are consumption of course. And if all you look at is consumption, when you see someone whose arms are flailing while they bop up and down in a sea of debt, you can’t even form the question of whether they are drowning or waving at all the suckers on the beach not consumption-smoothing.
But does it have any implications for inequality as being discussed right now, or policy more generally? A big fixed cost are cars. That definitely has status competition associated with it, and I imagine spending on cars is probably the one place where I’d see a Robert Frank style status competition really making a difference for families. A bigger issue is that many families with two working parents need two cars, which is in part decisions made collectively on how to fund public transit and how the suburbs came about. Health care and other insurances are also a big budget item that have gotten more expensive.
But I think the biggest issue where inequality itself can drive fixed expenses is housing. From Real Wage Inequality by Enrico Moretti:
Abstract. A large literature has documented a signiﬁcant increase in the diﬀerence between the wage of college graduates and high school graduates over the past 30 years. I show that from 1980 to 2000, college graduates have experienced relatively larger increases in cost of living, because they have increasingly concentrated in metropolitan areas that are characterized by a high cost of housing. When I deﬂate nominal wages using a new CPI that allows for changes in the cost of housing to vary across metropolitan areas, I ﬁnd that the diﬀerence between the wage of college graduates and high school graduates is lower in real terms than in nominal terms and has grown less. At least 22% of the documented increase in college premium is accounted for by diﬀerences in the cost of living.
So a fair amount of the increase in income inequality at the top end of the distribution gets dumped into housing. It gets dumped into housing because the places people need to live in order to deploy the human capital they’ve accumulated are expensive. Moretti’s paper takes the expensiveness of high human-capital places as exogenous, and a new young person shows up to the model and has to decide whether or not to move to an expensive city.
Moretti goes on to imply that people get no utility from this; it’s like a toll booth on the road to being upper-middle-class. That’s fine, but housing isn’t elastic at all; and the more hot money gets dumped by the elite into the market the worse the competition for housing resources must be for everyone else. My question would be how much does that have a feedback mechanism within inequality? It’s a tough question to answer, and I hope Moretti or others take it up. But the idea that a large chunk of the income increases of the top 10% of the distribution gets dumped straight into housing would have some effect on the other 90% of people living there and elsewhere strikes me as common sense enough from the conclusion.