Positive Externalities of Positional Preferences

Most of the literature on positional preferences emphasizes the downside. But what if the upside is bigger?

Becker and Murphy in Social Economics argue that without a taste for status, there would be too little entreprenuerial activity, because the expected monetary payoff of an entrepeneurial gamble would often be too small. However, if you add the expected status payoff to the monetary payoff, entrepreneuial gambles become rational. We would all be poorer if we didn't have a taste for status.

Today, Tyler points to a number of papers by Rick Harbaugh. His “Falling Behind the Joneses: Relative Consumption and the Growth-Savings Paradox” is a beautiful example of the possible upside of positional preferences. Here is the introduction:

Consumers in rapidly growing economies should borrow against future earnings to smooth consumption, or at least should save at a lower rate than consumers in countries with stagnant or falling incomes. Instead, multi-country studies show a strong positive correlation between income growth and savings rates (Bosworth, 1993). Such a correlation could result from high savings rates inducing high growth rates (Lucas, 1998), but the pattern in most rapid-growth economies has been for rapid income growth to precede sharp increases in household savings rates. Of the possible explanations for this growth-savings paradox, the Duesenberry (1949) relative consumption model, which assumes utility comes from individual consumption relative to societal per capita consumption, seems an unlikely candidate. Rising incomes would appear to induce excessive consumption as consumers attempt to “keep up with the Joneses”. This notion is examined with a simple two-period model. Rather than increasing consumption, concern for relative consumption can induce a fear of falling behind which raises precautionary savings. As societal income growth increases this fear intensifies, allowing for a positive effect of growth on savings rates and potentially explaining the growth-savings paradox.

Benjamin Friedman argues that growth is a public good and, as is the nature of public goods, individuals will underinvest in it unless the government does something about, in this case by mandating or rewarding savings relative to consumption. Could it be that our fear of falling behind just is the “tax” that motivates investment in growth?