Sunday, November 25, 2007

Emulation and Envy

Robert Frank, an economist, has a liberal argument for higher taxes. Facetiously, the idea is that money is a positional good, used for ranking people and that gold stars would be just as good. More seriously, Alex Rodriguez doesn't care that much what's left in his pocket from his new Yankees contract after agent fees and taxes are deducted--what's important is that he maintains his rank as highest paid player.

Via Greg Mankiw, an economist writing for Cato takes on Frank's arguments here. I'm not up on the subject enough to offer much comment, but I did find the climax of Henderson's argument interesting:

It is true that we often want something when we see that someone else has it. But what doesn't ring true is Frank's view about why we want things. One of my earliest instances of an intense want was in 1955, when the coonskin cap came along after Walt Disney had made Davy Crockett famous. I saw some of my friends wearing them and I badly wanted one. My father, though, would not buy one for my brother or me. I remember the intense pain I had about not having it. But did I want that coonskin cap because I was competing with my friends for status and position? Not at all. I wanted it because it was so neat. Now, you might doubt the memory of a 56-year-old about his introspection 52 years earlier. Fine. Then consider this case. I also remember when the Ford Mustang and the Mercury Park Lane came along in 1965, when I was 14. I wanted either one of those cars badly. I tore out the full-page magazine ads picturing those cars, taped them on my wall, and pined for them every day. But the reason I wanted them was not that I saw people around me with them. I lived in a small town in rural Canada where you didn't see new cars as soon as they came out. I had seen the ads for these cars and started yearning for them long before anyone in my town owned one. So, why did I want one of these cars? Because they were just so beautiful. I've asked other friends why they want the new expensive gadgets when they come out and invariably the answer is that they're such neat toys. Few mention that they want them because they want to be higher up on the positional scale.
It seems that the invisible hand of the positional good market operates much the same as the invisible hand of the free market. Free market capitalism doesn't really require everyone to be price/quality conscious all the time. Many of us can continue to operate in ruts, buying what we always buy from the vendors we always buy from. But some people have to be different. That difference is enough to make competition operate.

So too with positional structures. Dr. Henderson wanted goods as a boy because they were beautiful. What he considered beautiful were the rare goods, the neat ones, the ones only a few of his friends had. What does that mean--they were expensive, they were above average in cost. So Dr. Henderson, even though he's pure of heart and doesn't envy others, is looking up the positional ladder.

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