Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Conspicuous Consumption and Race

"Conspicuous Consumption and Race" is a paper by Kerwin Kofi Charles, Erik Hurst, and Nikolai Roussanov, which I have summarized and addressed here. Now comes Ray Fisman, writing at Slate, to add his $0.02 worth:

A few years ago, Bill Cosby set off a firestorm with a speech excoriating his fellow African-Americans for, among other things, buying $500 sneakers instead of educational toys for their children. In a recent book, Come On People, he repeats his argument that black Americans spend too much money on designer clothes and fancy cars, and don't invest sufficiently in their futures....

If signaling [conspicuous consumption] 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 [Bill] 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.

Okay, so far, but in his next (and concluding) paragraph Fisman says this:

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.

Here, Fisman reveals himself as a racial paternalist. "Deeply seated culture" may be a reason for conspicuous consumption, but it is not an excuse for it. We are not dumb animals; we are human beings, capable of thinking about our future and how to make it better, and capable of acting on our thoughts.

Fisman's article is a thinly disguised apology for income redistribution and affirmative action. To which I say this: Those who have chosen to rise above their cultural and "instinctual" disadvantages should not be forced to subsidize those who have chosen to be bound by those disadvantages.