Sunday, June 24, 2018
Opinion

Column: Keeping up with Joneses, off a cliff

As income inequality in the United States has soared and median wages have flatlined since 1980, economists have spent a lot of time debating the top 1 percent.

But what have those increasingly hefty incomes at the very top meant for the lives of everyone else? A big, newly revised paper by the University of Chicago's Marianne Bertrand and Adair Morse finds that there is a connection, but not a happy one: The gains of the rich have come alongside losses for the middle class.

As the wealthy have gotten wealthier, the economists find, that's created an economic arms race in which the middle class has been spending beyond their means in order to keep up. The authors call this "trickle-down consumption." The result? Americans are saving less, bankruptcies are becoming more common, and politicians are pushing for policies to make it easier to take on debt.

Bertrand and Morse have put together a detailed empirical case that "trickle-down consumption" really is occurring in cities and counties around the United States — and that it's responsible for roughly one-fourth of the decline in household savings rates since the early 1980s.

"Middle income households would have saved between 2.6 and 3.2 percent more by the mid 2000s had incomes at the top grown at the same rate as median income," they conclude.

But how does trickle-down consumption actually work? One way is through housing. In cities like New York, the wealthiest are competing for the most valuable apartments and bidding up prices — which has broader ripple effects. What's more, as those at the top buy bigger and bigger houses, those below them have moved to buy up bigger houses too.

That's just part of the story, though. In areas where incomes of the top 10 percent are growing, Bertrand and Morse found, the supply of businesses and services that cater to the well-off also increase. Swankier bars replace cheaper bars. Expensive restaurants replace cheap restaurants. Whole Foods nudges out the local grocery store. And less-well-off residents end up spending more at these places.

There also seems to be a "keeping up with the Joneses" effect. As wealthier Americans spend more on things like expensive preschools or fitness clubs or even fashion, their middle-income neighbors start spending more on these goods too — without cutting back elsewhere.

On its face, that doesn't sound so terrible. But "trickle-down consumption" can have less happy side effects too. In an earlier paper, Cornell economist Robert H. Frank, Adam Seth Levine and Oege Dijk found that "expenditure cascades" tend to lead to more bankruptcies, higher divorce rates and longer commutes. Keeping up with the Joneses takes a toll.

Bertrand and Morse assemble their own evidence on this. Middle-class households that are exposed to growing inequality, they find, appear to report more signs of financial distress. And, at the state level, higher inequality seems to be predictive of personal bankruptcy filings.

There are also signs — albeit tentative — that growing inequality at the top end is affecting politics in unexpected ways. The two economists find that members of Congress in districts with higher levels of income inequality were more likely to vote for a 1992 bill that greatly expanded credit for housing. That was true even after controlling for ideology.

In an interview, Bertrand said it was still unclear why this is. One possibility is that in areas with high top-end inequality, politicians are more likely to favor policies that allow middle-class Americans to borrow more so that they can keep up. Another possibility, though, is that high inequality at the top is driven by a growing financial sector — and so politicians are more willing to loosen credit to placate the banks.

Either way, this dynamic can be harmful to economic growth over the long run, as a 2011 report from the International Monetary Fund found. When inequality runs rampant, the IMF argued, people on the lower end tend to borrow more to keep afloat. That excess debt, in turn, increases the risk of a major financial crisis. This new paper adds a bit more detail on how these situations can develop.

For her part, Bertrand argues that the effects of inequality on the political system could use more research. "Academics spend a lot of time looking at the causes of rising income inequality," she says. "But surprisingly, there's much less work on the consequences."

Brad Plumer focuses on energy and environmental issues for the Washington Post.

© 2013 Washington Post

Comments
Editorial: Handing out gift cards like candy at CareerSource

Editorial: Handing out gift cards like candy at CareerSource

Itís hard to pick the biggest outrage in the financial and ethical swamp that has swallowed Tampa Bayís two primary job placement agencies, CareerSource Pinellas and CareerSource Tampa Bay. Is it the boiler room atmosphere where CareerSource recruite...
Published: 06/21/18
Updated: 06/22/18

Family separation crisis is not over

The family-separation crisis that President Donald Trump created is not over. The executive order Trump signed Wednesday purporting to end the routine tearing of children from their undocumented parents stands on uncertain legal ground. U.S. border a...
Published: 06/21/18
Updated: 06/22/18
Editorial: State help needed to staff hotlines with veterans helping veterans

Editorial: State help needed to staff hotlines with veterans helping veterans

Veterans can help veterans deal with trauma resulting from military service in a way no one else can. Thatís the theory behind a special hotline set up in the Tampa Bay area that proponents are hoping to take statewide.The expansion would cost some $...
Published: 06/21/18
Updated: 06/22/18
Editorial: With Supreme Court ruling, Florida should collect sales tax from online retailers

Editorial: With Supreme Court ruling, Florida should collect sales tax from online retailers

It turns out the U.S. Supreme Court has a better grasp of the economic realities of the 21st century than Congress or the Florida Legislature. The court ruled Thursday that states can require online retailers to collect sales taxes even if the retail...
Published: 06/21/18
Updated: 06/22/18
Editorial: Congress should ban splitting kids, parents

Editorial: Congress should ban splitting kids, parents

The shocking scenes of immigrant children crying after being taken from their parents at the border exposed a new level of cruelty by the Trump administration, and though the president reversed course Wednesday, Congress needs to end the shameful pra...
Published: 06/21/18
Sessions kickstarts action on marijuana

Sessions kickstarts action on marijuana

Good job, Jeff Sessions! It seems the attorney generalís misguided attempts to revive the unpopular and unjust federal war on marijuana may be having the exact opposite effect ó prompting a new bipartisan effort in Congress to allow states to legaliz...
Published: 06/18/18
Updated: 06/21/18
Editorial: A court victory for protecting Floridaís environment

Editorial: A court victory for protecting Floridaís environment

A Tallahassee judge has affirmed the overwhelming intent of Florida voters by ruling that state lawmakers have failed to comply with a constitutional amendment that is supposed to provide a specific pot of money to buy and preserve endangered lands. ...
Published: 06/18/18
Updated: 06/20/18
Editorial: Trump should stop taking children away from parents at the border

Editorial: Trump should stop taking children away from parents at the border

Innocent children should not be used as political pawns. That is exactly what the Trump administration is doing by cruelly prying young children away from their parents as these desperate families cross the Mexican border in search of a safer, better...
Published: 06/17/18
Updated: 06/19/18

Editorial: ATF should get tougher on gun dealers who violate the law

Gun dealers who break the law by turning a blind eye to federal licensing rules are as dangerous to society as people who have no right to a possess a firearm in the first place. Yet a recent report shows that the federal agency responsible for polic...
Published: 06/17/18
Updated: 06/18/18
Editorial: Encouraging private citizens to step up on transit

Editorial: Encouraging private citizens to step up on transit

The new grass-roots effort to put a transportation package before Hillsborough County voters in November faces a tough slog. Voters rejected a similar effort in 2010, and another in 2016 by elected officials never made it from the gate. But the lates...
Published: 06/15/18