Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"New" Ideas from Dead Economists (with Apologies to Todd Bucholz and Martin Feldstein)

In a recent column for Slate, Ray Fisman addresses part of the controversy surrounding remarks by Bill Cosby a few years ago. Mr. Cosby, you may remember chastised members of the black community for buying their children expensive sneakers instead of educational toys. Cosby evidently repeats a variant of this in a recent book.

Ray Fisman questions the economics of the statement, and points to an interesting research paper out of the University of Chicago that uses data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey to examine the premise. I've read the paper and found some of it quite interesting. Most interesting to me was the fact that the authors of the paper hearkened back to Adam Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments and, more significantly, Thorstein Veblen's Theory of the Leisure Class. Both of these classic works address how people feel about positioning themselves in society, or to put it another way, the importance of status.

I'm not prepared to make judgment on Mr. Cosby's book. Nor do I feel comfortable enough to criticize the study. What was of interest to me was that the research seems to support the ideas originally put forth by Smith and Veblen. They can still teach us something. I would recommend you read the article through, as well as the comments, and don't be afraid to read the research paper. While there are some smatterings of higher math in the article and subsequent notes, I found it very readable and interesting. Thanks to Greg Mankiw for the pointer.

I invite your views.

No comments: