The Superrich Influence the Standards for Desirability in Consumer Goods: The Less Rich Emulate Them
The core argument of Cornell economist Robert Frank‘s Luxury Fever: Why Money Fails to Satisfy in an Era of Excess (1999) is that the extravagant consumption of the most affluent in our society has a ripple effect on everyone’s spending.
According to Frank, the desire for many to indulge in luxury “possessions” is motivated less by the gratification they may bring than by what others are buying or want to buy. We try to achieve happiness by improving our relative social status. For example, if your neighbor didn’t buy his new Mercedes Benz, you wouldn’t probably feel the need for the latest-and-greatest Jaguar, and you’d both work less, and spend more time with your loved ones and invest in meaningful experiences that bring you joy.
It is not just the rich who have gone on a spending spree. Middle- and lower-income earners have been spending more as well. The prime mover in this change may have been the increased spending of the superrich but their higher spending level has set a new standard for the near-rich to emulate, and so on down the income ladder. But although middle- and lower-income families are spending much more than in the recent past, the incomes of these families have not been growing.
While the rich have the money to indulge their whims, the rest of us tend to finance our wasteful spending through reduced personal savings or through increasing debt. To substantiate this trend, Frank describes burgeoning household debt and a remarkable increase in personal bankruptcies.
Luxury Fever summarizes persuasive biological and psychological evidence that suggests how human nature is such that we measure our success in relation to what others have. In other words, we tend to spend money on luxuries to appear to be more successful than others are. Frank concludes, “Evidence from the large scientific literature on the determinants of subjective well-being consistently suggests that we have strong concerns about relative position.”
Relative Consumption, Not Absolute Consumption, Affects Consumers’ Happiness
Much of the increased luxury spending is wasteful, given that consumers could get the same benefits by consuming non-luxuries with lower price tags. Research has proven that money doesn’t buy happiness,
Behavioral scientists find that once a threshold level of affluence is reached, the average level of human well-being in a country is almost completely independent of its stock of material consumption goods.
Frank’s thesis on runaway consumption and extravagant luxuries seems as valid now as it was in 1999, when his book was published at the height of the dot-com boom. The era of excess has now proliferated to India, China, Russia, and other developing countries that are facing not only widening economic inequalities between their rich and poor, but also mushrooming appetites for luxury goods among their affluent middle classes.
Can a Progressive Consumption Tax Challenge the “Luxury Arms Race”?
Based on the solid evidence he provides, Frank’s thesis on runaway consumption of extravagant luxuries and this era of excess is hard to dispute. Consumers have indeed been saving less, working longer hours, and spending more per capita on luxury goods. However, his claim that the spending patterns of the super wealthy has incited luxury fever among the non-wealthy lacks substantial evidence.
The Luxury Fever‘s solution to this problem is to come down hard on lavish consumption and to encourage more savings. To this end, Frank presents policy proposals that are reasonable in the abstract, but will face serious political and cultural hurdles. Frank promotes a tax exemption for savings and a steeply progressive consumption-based tax as a substitute for income and sales taxes. If Americans expend less on luxury goods, he argues, we’d collectively work less, and make more money available “to restore our long neglected public infrastructure and repair our tattered social safety net.” However, economists have argued that a progressive consumption tax would burden the non-wealthy more than the wealthy because the latter tend to save much larger percentages of their incomes.
The Good and Bad Sides of Consumerism: How to Clamp Down on Conspicuous Consumption and Encourage More Saving
Despite its flaws, Robert Frank’s Luxury Fever is a valuable read in behavioral psychology and behavioral economics. Luxury Fever offers an appealing compendium of interesting case studies, anecdotal evidence, and statistics on society’s current “wants-not-needs” and “more is better” materialistic way of life, and its harmful impact on our lives, relationships, and societies.