The graudate student Panel was a huge success! With more than 15 students in attendance, two faculty and our own President Michael Roberts. Students were eager to learn about what graduate school had in store for them. Questions about what drove us all to get a PhD, what jobs are best for a PhD vs a Master's holder, and even questions about what skills are required at different jobs were asked. Students walked away with a better understanding of how to apply to grad school, what kind of jobs they would be interested in, and what they can expect from the process. Thank you to Dr. Li, Dr. Vasudevan, and Michael Roberts for participating in the panel. If anyone has any more questions regarding graduate school, how to apply, or what careers might be best for them please feel free to contact Michael Roberts by reaching out by finding our contact information here.
So we got the semester off to a great start with our first meeting. This semester we have a lot of projects in the works. Remember to reach us by checking out or "ABOUT AGE" page. There you will find contact information for all officer's. But enough about us here is what we have planned for this semester!
1. AGE/ECON Club – Graduate Student Panel
On November 16th, the undergraduate ECON Club is hosting a panel discussion. Students can come with questions they might have about pursuing a graduate degree in economics. There will be a follow up meeting where graduate students will go and help undergraduates with their applications to graduate school. Contact Michael Roberts if you want to help the undergraduates fill out their applications for graduate school. Refreshments will be provided!
2. Brown Bag Seminar Series
The Brown Bag is in full swing again! The first seminar is September 21st Wednesday at 3:30pm. This seminar is being orchestrated by Michael Trouw and Arpan Ganguly so you can contact them with any questions you might have. THe full schedule will be posted on the website as we get it.
3. John Watkins Lecture
John Watkins, a professor of economics at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, is scheduled to come lecture this fall. The lecture date is Thursday, October 20th, at 6:00p and there will also be a graduate student lunch on the day of the lecture. This is being organized by Melanie Long.
5. Movie Night!!
At 7:00p on Monday, October 3rd, AGE is going to be having a movie night. There will be popcorn, and bring your own drink (non-alcoholic of course). A Doodle poll will be sent out so that we can vote on which movie we would most want to see. The three movies to be voted on are The Big Short, Billy Madison, and Soul Kitchen. You can contact Arpan Ganguly with any questions or suggestions concerning the movie night.
6. The Mentor Mixer
Edward is going to spearhead the Mentor Mixer. This will be a relaxed social gathering where first year graduate students will have the opportunity to talk with 3rd years, 4th years, and beyond. The purpose of the Mentor Mixer is to find older students with similar interests who might be able to give helpful advice and provide a beneficial academic relationship. You can contact Edward with any questions you might have about the Mentor Mixer.
7. Panel on College Cost/Tuition/Student Debt
This project is its beginning stages. Arpan Ganguly, Quinton, and Levi are hoping to bring together a few panelists that would be willing to address the issue of college cost/tuition/student debt. The precise topic/question has not been determined yet. We are looking to include CSU administrator, possibly a faculty member representing the education department, and a faculty member representing the economics department. Quinton, Arpan Ganguly, and Levi will be meeting next Thursday to further discuss this project. If you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to contact any one of us.
8. The “Welcome Back” Spring Party
Edward is leading on this project so if you have any questions, or you would like to help plan, you can contact him.
Coming Thursday (April 7th) 6 pm-8 pm is Graduate Student Trivia night put on by the Graduate Student Council!!
AGE members and supporters will be taking part in the GSC Trivia Night tomorrow (Thursday, April 7th). This is a great opportunity to meet and greet, have a few drinks, and have a lot of fun! Join us at the RamSkeller to represent the Economics Department! Go Econ!!
Trivia will be in the Ramskellar (in the basement of the Lory Student Center) from 6-8pm. Teams are limited to 8 people. Some programs choose to organize departmental teams, but the team can be any group of graduate students so bring your friends! Please show up a few minutes early so that we can start on time.
We have our AGE and UWE collaboration project coming up April 21st! See the Upcoming Events Section for more details!!
AGE has survived another year! In 2015 we welcomed 12 new students to our economics department and saw many of our own move on to burgeoning careers. Congratulations to Mimi Houston, former AGE Officer, and Jose Galvez, former AGE President, who both found employment at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. Our own Chris McCarthy, current AGE officer, has been hired by Chadon State College in Chadron, Nebraska. Stay warm Chris! Our Nancy Folbre Lecture as part of our AGE Seminar Lecture Series was a huge success. And we have been ecstatic to have Dr. Steven Pressman as a visiting scholar at our department. Dr. Pressman has served as co-editor of the Review of Political Economy since 1995, as Associate Editor and Book Review Editor of the Eastern Economic Journal since 1989, and a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of the journal Basic Income Studies since 2005. His course "Introduction to Post-Keynesianism" has been a welcome addition to our PhD program at CSU. Overall it has been an excellent year for AGE and the entire CSU Economics Department.
There is something inimitably social in humanity. The love, respect and acceptance of our peers is as essential as water, air, and food. We are on some level a herd animal. Economic models which fail to capture this complexity do so at their own peril. To understand why people consume goods whose label alone seems to differentiate it from cheaper alternatives, it may be useful to investigate how social subordination affects the psychological and physical well-being of people. Robert Sapolsky’s studies of the effects of social hierarchies on prime mates provides just such an investigation. Thorsten Veblen’s famous work “Theory of the Leisure Class” (1899) describes the anthropological origins of such status seeking, and attempts to place this desire for status within an economic understanding of consumption. The current essay attempts in some small way to continue in this vein. Many modern economists have taken up the study of conspicuous consumption and provided game theoretical or general equilibrium treatments which have shown that conspicuous consumption can be considered, given certain assumptions, rational. Many authors, like Bagwell and Bernheim (1996), Tobias (2013), and Bilancini and D’Alessandro (2011), have even gone so far as to suggest that such consumption can actually be welfare increasing. Neo-classical theory, with its strong assumptions about unchanging preferences and independent utility functions is far too simplistic to capture the true nature of this multifarious human behavior. Post-Keynesian theories such as the non-independence of wants or satiable wants may be more appropriate. The current essay attempts to add to the literature by presenting a short game-theoretical treatment using the dollar auction as a representation for status seeking consumption. Past authors have used the dollar auction to measure international escalation in arms agreements and competition in the market for patentable goods. Here, the treatment is meant as a representation of the consumption patterns of those seeking social status, especially those who are able and willing to use debt to fuel tis consumption. Specifically this essay finds that debt can serve to temporarily boost consumption in an economy partially defined by conspicuous consumption, but only temporarily. Once debt burdens rise to a point where the participation constraint of the dollar auction game is failed to be met the game collapses, along with consumption.
The treatment of Veblen’s theory of conspicuous consumption has a wide and varied past. “Veblen Effects in a Theory of Conspicuous Consumption” by L.S. Bagwell and B.D. Bernheim (1996) was spurred by the passing of the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990. This U.S. legislation taxed high end not to limit the purchase of luxury goods, but in an attempt to raise government revenue. The article attempts to understand the possible welfare results of such a tax via a continuous game of imperfect information. A key property of Veblenian conspicuous consumption is the willingness of consumers to pay more for a good which has a cheaper substitute of exactly equal quality even in a market which would normally (read under “single-crossing” specifications) lead to marginal cost pricing. The single-crossing property ensures that “the marginal cost of consuming the conspicuous good is higher for lower wealth individuals… so that the indifference curves of the consumers with differing incomes cross only once”. (Bagwell and Bernheim (1996) p350) Specifically, the willingness to pay more to signal one’s wealth, as discussed in Veblen (1899), causes a backward bending demand curve over relevant quantities, i.e. it causes the presence of a “dual-crossing property”. Bagwell and Bernheim (1996) investigate this “Veblen Effect”, i.e. this positive relationship between utility and price, using a continuous game with two household types and two goods. Each household, differentiated by income, chooses between two indivisible goods, only one of which can serve as a signaling good. With the single-crossing property, i.e. the absence of Veblen Effects, the area of a pooling equilibrium; in this area, Type-L households, those of low income, purchase good at marginal cost, and high income households may seek to differentiate themselves by seeking high priced goods, but it is not necessary for equilibrium. A relevant market for signal goods which create a separating equilibrium occurs when the indifference curves of the households display this “dual-crossing” property, i.e. the slope of the indifference curve of the status seeking group must be sufficiently curved.
Figure 2 however, presents indifference curves of unique interest to this essay; the indifference curves of those using debt to finance conspicuous purchases. With the interest rate set exogenously, and with the threat of default being a real one due to income uncertainty, Type-H households will pay a higher price for the purpose of signaling. As Type-L households purchase greater quantities of signaling goods once debt is made available, H-Type are forced to purchase more in order to ensure a successful separating equilibrium. This might explain how the high level of bankruptcy risk among even the high income often due to spending on high end conspicuous consumption goods. (Allen 1991) The rest of the paper investigates how, with the introduction of a tax, a social planner can create social welfare benefits as public coffers benefit from conspicuous individual behavior. The article is useful in describing a rigorous mathematical proof of Vebelen Effects, worsened by the availability of debt, which arise in a market with rational agents. A finding which is of particular usefulness to this investigation and thus worthy of the rather lengthy treatment for which it has just received.
Tobias (2013) is another investigation of conspicuous consumption, or more specifically signal goods as they pertain to assortative mating. Within this model, agents seeking a mate are made up of two types; high and low income. High-income agents which successfully mate with like types are capable of consuming at high quantities, and thus at higher indifference curves. A game theoretical treatment again finds that purchase of a signaling good, which itself offers no utility, can in fact create welfare gains by creating a separating equilibrium. This separating equilibrium allows high-income individuals to mate with like types, and even net of the expenditure on the signaling good, allows the attainment of a higher indifference curve. Debt is not explicitly treated in this article, however because the treatment finds that price is integral for achieving a separating equilibrium, and debt would allow low income individuals to create a pooling equilibrium at lower incomes and/or higher prices, debt might have in this framework similar attributes to those found in Bagwell and Bernheim (1996). High income types may in fact use debt then to ensure a separating equilibrium by further signaling, leading to higher debt levels and thus consumption from both parties. Within this framework we again see that even when consumption on a signal good is large and provides no direct utility, rational actors seeking social payoffs will support a market for signaling goods.
Bilancini and D’Alessandro (2012) studies conspicuous consumption with a Ramsey-type optimal control model. This model has more in common with Mandeville’s “The Fable of the Bees: or, Private Vice, Publick Benefits” (1714) than Veblen’s “Theory of the Leisure Class”. Within the Bilancini and D’Alessandro (2012) framework, a social planner, who does not attempt to prevent such signaling, will see greater levels of growth. The key being that even consumption which is wasteful can, on the aggregate, spur growth, via an increase in effective demand. This model treats conspicuous consumption as irrational from an individual perspective, but rational from the perspective of the social planner. Like in Mandeville’s fable, production creates goods which, if unsold, would prevent future investment. The selfish and often times ostentatious consumption of the wealthy then is not a sin, but the assurance of profit for producers, and future production and jobs for the working classes. Debt too is introduced in this model, and debt fueled growth increases consumption. Debt here of course is taken on by the individual with full knowledge about future income, and thus default, or unsustainable debt burdens are not a possibility. Debt within Bilancini and D’Alessandro’s (2012) treatment is a monetary phenomenon which is neutral in the long run. Bilancini and D’Alessandro’s (2012) then misses exactly what the current essay attempts to capture, the inter-relationship between debt availability and effective demand. Their model ignores situations where debt burdens, which become onerous in the face of changing financial situations, may cause consumption spending to fall to a point where past gains are more than reversed. A dollar auction treatment of conspicuous consumption can show the effect of collapsing consumption when debt burdens become unsustainable for competing agents.
“Theory of the Leisure Class” by Thorsten Veblen (1899) is the work which has inspired this investigation. The Veblen Effect occurs when a consumer, seeking higher social payoff, seeks a commodity whose price is higher than that of the marginal cost of production, and of course higher than the price of competitors offering equal quality (Veblen). This is wasteful consumption by definition; the more wasteful the spending the more clear the signal. For a fixed quality the more expensive the good the more powerful it is as a signal to others of one’s success and wealth. Veblen’s treatment was anthropological as well as economic. It was a theory which attempted to capture the complex nature of human social interactions; how individual actions, aggregated to the level of society, can have results unintended by any given agent. To put it in the language of Juliet Schor, consumption economist, “As incomes rise high-status luxuries become lower-status necessitates and new luxuries develop.” (Schor 2007) The visibility of certain kinds of consumption, first adopted by the wealthy, “trickle-down”, resulting in spending patterns which are eventually mimicked by households further down the wealth distribution. InIntroduction to Post-Keynesian Economics by Marc Lavoie (2007) several post-Keynesian theories of consumption are presented which might be applied to status seeking. Conspicuous consumption could be seen as a type of Procedural Rationality. Expected patterns of consumption given one’s class, regardless of current income, would lead those whose wages stagnate, with the expectation this stagnation will be temporary, to turn to debt to maintain their consumption. This type of consumption is spoken of in Veblen, i.e. the need to spend to maintain one’s social standing. But the current essay is more focused on signaling with the intent of gaining social status, not maintaining it. Procedural rationality may explain debt-fueled consumption when wages stagnate and a “ratcheting effect” requires debt as a stop gap measure. Similarly, consumers purchasing in accordance with expectations of future income increases (Expected Growth of Needs) might borrow now and pay later. If the expected income increase is realized, then this is simply an example of social investments in one’s future. Debt spending could also be explained under the theory of Separation of Needs. Debt allows one to move into “higher” consumption categories like luxuries, even if their current income can only suffice to fulfill basic needs, i.e. lower categories. These theories are not mutually exclusive, and their overlapping nature helps to understand the complex nature of human behavior. But the interesting aspect of Veblens’ work, in my opinion, is his scathing critique of humanity’s seemingly endless willingness to emulate others, often at great expense to oneself, for the sole purpose of acceptance or social status. To put it in the language of George Akerlof’s 1980 article A Theory of Social Custom, of Which Unemployment May be One Consequence; “It is found that social customs which are disadvantageous to the individual may nevertheless persist without erosion, if individuals are sanctioned by loss of reputation for disobedience of the custom”. (Akerlof p749)
In this way conspicuous consumption could be seen as an example of the theory of the Non-Independence of Needs. Lavoie gives a description of this type of consumption saying; “it emphasizes the fact that individuals often consume more to satisfy others than for themselves…What Gailbraith (1958) calls the dependence effect: consumers observe other members of society– …those they wish to emulate– and they try to imitate their consumption behavior.” (Lavoie p31) Akerlof (1980), quoted above, provides a utility maximization model which differs with respect to how preferences are formed, the inclusion of disutility from breaking social codes, how utility is gained or lost by following social codes which one disagrees with privately but follows publicly, and one’s reputation. This model is interesting in finding that adherence to social “codes of honor” can in fact reduce consumption and create permanent unemployment in the long-run. Contrary to a Beckarian type analysis, wherein the pressure from free-market competition drives out all social norms/institutions which create inefficient spending or hiring/production decisions, including those which are destructive and racist or sexist in origin. Akerlof (1980) finds that with the inclusion of a “Reputation Function” within the individual’s utility function, long-run equilibrium can include persistent spending tied to social “codes of honor” which are practiced throughout society, even by those who receive some disutility from so doing. The key is the balance between the short-run costs of breaking with the social norm and the long-run benefits of consuming in a way that maximizes utility sans reputational considerations. The equilibrium in Akerlof’s model shows how status goods may not always be welfare increasing, especially if their purpose is solely to signal conformity with perceived social norms. Juliet Schor’s book Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need (Basic Books, 1998) describes consumption in the 1990s, as fueled by debt and status seeking. Her work investigates the kinds of objects which best serve as status symbols, lipstick vs. toothpaste for example, which operate as a kind of reputational prop or simulacrum. She discusses the psychological drive to conform, and the stress and depression that can result from too much “choice” in consumption goods. (Schor 2007)
This need to conform is deeply held and may have evolutionary advantages. The Whitehall Studies, made up of two studies; “Employment Grade and Coronary Heart Disease in British Civil Servants” and “Health Inequalities Among British Civil Servants: The Whitehall II Study” studied thousands of British civil servants, and found subordination in the civil service is correlated with worsening health outcomes. The gradient of this relationship was nearly constant across samples, i.e. across genders, cohorts, and racial categories and across more than 20 years! Those who were subordinated earned incomes that were safely middle class and held positions that could be said to be respectable. Still the studies find “an inverse association between employment grade and prevalence of angina, electrocardiogram evidence of ischemia, and symptoms of bronchitis.” (Marmot et al 1991) In addition, there was evidence of increased “health-risk behaviors” such as smoking, poor diet, and reduced exercise. These same behaviors are seen in monkeys who similarly face lower social status. When monkeys of lower social status were subject to stressful or anxiety-inducing situations, subordinated monkeys chose cocaine to cope at a higher rate than monkeys of higher status. (Nader et al 2002) Monkeys, this time macaques, in the dominant social position were shown by Morgan et al (2002) to have an increase in D2 dopamine receptors. These receptors developed once these dominant monkeys were placed in social settings, and diminished once these monkeys were removed to solitude. In addition, once the dominant monkey was removed, the monkey who took his place in the social order then saw increased dopamine receptor function. Lastly, Robert Sapolsky also has done work studying the effects of stress on prime mates and humans. Sapolsky (2005) studies the importance of rank in social groupings of prime mates and finds that lower ranked gorillas suffer from greater stress levels, or to be specific higher levels of the chemical cortisol. Sapolsky also finds stress to negatively affect memory, self-control, and cognitive ability in humans. (Sapolsky 1995, 1996, 2000) All of these studies suggest that status seeking and social rank is deeply held in prime mates. It may simply be that high social rank in early human evolution gained access to resources which were unavailable to lower staus group members, i.e. those with the greatest chance of successfully reproducing young were those who could maintain social status. Being “second place” might literally trigger chemicals in the brain meant to spur one to action to correct the situation in order to ensure a greater likelihood of evolutionary success. Increasing inequality then serves to frustrate this evolutionary drive, and conspicuous consumption can actually be seen as an attempted panacea for instinctual drives suffering incomplete catharsis.
Kalecki’s Theory of Increasing Risk (1971) as discussed in Lavoie (ch. 2) provides insight into how firm’s production is intimately tied to the health of the economy. The treatment in this article is of the demand side of conspicuous consumption. However, the financial sector, and its ties to production, are integral to understanding debt as a mechanism for run-away status seeking. Kalecki’s position, as I understand it, is that contrary to neo-classical theory, funds for expansion by firms is limited by the banking sector’s willingness to lend. This willingness will be influenced by the profits of the firm seeking lending and thus their retained earnings. Minsky’s Financial Instability Hypothesis (here quoted again from Lavoie) suggests that during times of economic boom, bank’s lending requirements will fall. And in times of economic contraction, rise. Important for this study is the fact that Kalecki incorporates fundamental uncertainty in his model of the Expansion Frontier. Having imperfect information, or better to say no information, about the real viability of any given project, lenders use profits and retained earnings as a proxy for risk. But this rule of thumb changes with the political and economic climate. As the economy brightens “households, firms and banks are willing to adopt more risky behavior and strategies…” (Lavoie P72) this “Paradox of Tranquility” leads to higher debt loads all around, including for those investing in status seeking, and weaker buffers for firms, in the form of retained earnings, and for individuals, in the form of savings. As speculative behavior replaces hedge finance, and interest rates rise, the debt burdens of average citizens too will being to creep upward. When the bubble finally pops, the debt burdens of individuals becomes onerous and their status seeking must come to an end. According to Pressman and Scott (2009); average student loan debt has increased by 126% in real terms between 1995 and 2004 for those less than 40 years old, car loan debt has gone from $5,000 on average in 1962/3 (Survey of Consumer Finances) to around $20,000 in 2004, and median levels of revolving credit card debt has risen 85% between 1983 and 2004. Consumption to maintain one’s social status (expectations), or in an attempt to increase one’s social status through signaling (non-independence of wants), may be an explanation of rising debt burdens in the United States throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. Effective demand may be temporarily propped up by debt. However, when debt burdens become onerous and the search for status impossible to maintain, or perhaps even less necessary if conservative spending becomes socially desirable/acceptable, there will be a doubly negative effect (firm and individual level) on effective demand precipitating a vicious cycle of collapsing growth.
Piketty’s Capital in the 21st-Century has one central theme; inequality is rising and reaching levels not seen since the ancient regime. Inequality makes all of the above worse. As inequality rises productivity slows and production with it. This means that wages tied to productivity slow and economic growth, which might serve to “lift all boats” stagnates. Perceptions of unfairness in distribution lead to divisive political debates and rising frustrations among the working and middle classes. Inequality leads to greater social dissent and political unrest including occurrences of coup d’etat. (Alesina and Perotti 1996) Inequality lowers voter turnout and in democracies that rely on self-financed campaigns can have corrosive effects on legislation and a creeping effect of special interests. Inequality worsens health outcomes across the spectrum. The increased stress that is a direct result of rising inequality can lead to increased likelihood of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression and even suicide and drug and alcohol abuse. (Sapolsky 2005) All of these effects are made worse for a constant level of poverty but also for increasing levels of inequality. This stress results in chemical imbalances which, as is mentioned above, operates on the human body and mind in predictable ways. Is it any wonder then that people would try so hard to avoid the shame and sting of poverty by trying to signal themselves as richer than they are? Conspicuous consumption spending can be seen then as a rational response to social pressures and the resulting negative health effects of being socially subordinated in an increasing unequal world. Inequality worsens crime, both violent and non-violent, increases divorce, teen pregnancy, and lowers overall charitable giving. At the bottom of the business cycle, when maintaining debt burdens are the hardest, we should see not only consumption fall but these negative psychological/chemical aspects worsen. At low points of the business cycle it is hardest for individuals to experience a catharsis of their economic powerlessness through consumption, and thus hardest to shake the mental and physical costs of subordination.
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The AGE Executive Committee just launched this website to facilitate sharing ideas, concerns, comments, and even venting for all of the Economics Graduate students. Feel free to express any concerns you have on this general board. We'll create specific blog posts for popular ideas/concerns as they come about. If anyone is willing/interested in creating a Facebook, Twitter, or other social media site for AGE please do so and we'll post those links here as well. Happy Blogging!
This blog is created by the CSU Economics Graduate Students who are a part of AGE. The site coordinator is Michael Roberts
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