A new way of looking at race and conspicuous consumption.

The search for better economic policy.
Jan. 11 2008 7:44 AM

Cos and Effect

Bill Cosby may be right about African-Americans spending a lot on expensive sneakers—but he's wrong about why.

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Now take the white family making $42,500. The average household income among whites in the 1990s was much higher—$66,800. This white family looks around the neighborhood and is more likely to see white families spending on luxuries that are simply beyond their financial reach. The white family making $42,500 is thus too poor to participate in a signaling game with its neighbors, so they don't. As a result, they're spared the cost of competing, just as I am spared the expense of trying to compete with the Wall Street traders I see driving around Manhattan in their Mercedes sedans.

To test their theory, the authors look at how much a white family spends on conspicuous consumption when it is surrounded by white families making a similar amount of money. They find that this white family spends the same portion of its income on visible goods as a black family surrounded by other black families with similar incomes. They also find that the further a family of either race slips behind the average income of nearby households of the same race (becoming too poor to compete in the signaling game), the less it spends on these visible goods.

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Once these effects are accounted for, racial disparities in visible consumption disappear. It's not that black Americans are more inclined to signal wealth; rather, poor blacks are more likely than poor whites to be a part of communities where they are relatively rich enough to participate in the signaling game.

If signaling is just part of a deeper human impulse to seek status in our communities, what's wrong with that, anyway? If a household chooses to spend a lot on visible consumption because it gets happiness from achieving high standing among its neighbors, why should we care? To return to Cosby's concerns, if blacks are spending more on shoes and cars and jewelry, they must be spending less on something else. And that something else turns out to be mostly health and education. According to the study, black households spend more than 50 percent less on health care than whites of comparable incomes and 20 percent less on education. Unfortunately, these are exactly the investments that the black families need to make in order to close the black-white income gap.

In his controversial speech, Bill Cosby appealed to the African-American community to start investing in their futures. What's troubling about the message of this study is that Cosby and others may not be battling against a black culture of consumption, but a more deeply seated human pursuit of status. In this sense, Cosby's critics may be right—only when black incomes catch up to white incomes will the apparent black-white gap in spending on visible goods disappear.

Ray Fisman is a professor of economics at the Columbia Business School and co-author of The Org: The Underlying Logic of the Office. Follow him on Twitter.

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