Obama, Scrooge, and Luxury Fever

The luxury spending of the rich should be regarded as a social drag, not as a contributor to economic stimulus. But it’s still pretty Scrooge-like for Paul Krugman to get on Barack Obama’s case about taking a nice beach house in Hawai’i for two weeks’ vacation between two years of hard work and four or eight years of *really* hard work.

I find myself disagreeing in part with both Paul Krugman and James Wimberley on the question of the Obama family’s “luxurious” (Krugman’s word) vacation.

On the economics of the problem, I agree with Krugman (generally a safe thing to do). Righting our economic ship will involve, inter alia, changing norms about consumption, and especially the notion that rich people are somehow helping the rest of us by flaunting their wealth in pointless and often tasteless display. We could all live better if we all adopted a somewhat more Quakerly or Buddhist attitude toward “stuff,” but that’s a social rather than a merely individual task. Yes, the economy right now needs more demand, but there are lots of public needs to spend money on, and if more private spending is needed it will do more human good (while providing more stimulus) if it adds to the consumption of the poor rather than the wealthy.

In particular, if we want to get to a world in which people work fewer hours, as both James and Robert Frank say we do, then someone has to lead the way toward less conspicuous consumption. Moreover, part of the medium-term economic adjustment the country needs to go through is a shift away from consumption and toward saving. Again, the affluent must lead the way, and someone in turn must lead the affluent.

And who better than the President? Since a President, of all people, doesn’t need to spend excessively to show how important he or she is, the First Family can choose to live relatively simply without losing status.

We’ve come to expect that the First Family will live the lifestyle of the rich and famous, that they will pal around with benefactors of great wealth, and the the President (if not rich on assuming office) will cash in shamelessly afterwards in order to maintain an opulent spending pattern. Not only does that help sustain the glorification of conspicuous consumption that leaves us all less happy than we would otherwise be, it increases the influence of the obscenely rich on politics, and makes the merely prosperous look as if they’re struggling. It’s bad enough that our overpaid TV newspeople think that $200,000 a year is a middle-class income; we don’t want our politicians thinking that way.

On the other hand, it’s hard to say that the Obamas haven’t earned a little bit of R&R in between two tough years and four (or, we hope, eight) really tough years; since they can afford to splurge, and came by their prosperity honestly, it does seem rather Scrooge-like to begrudge them two weeks of fancy vacation and to write as if taking such a vacation is somehow in conflict with the need to take a firm stance against corruption. (Krugman’s model, properly, is FDR: but how many servants were on the staff at Hyde Park?)

I hope that Krugman doesn’t intend to spend the next four years as he spent 2008, working out his legitimate beef with the way someone on the Obama campaign treated him a year ago by refusing to acknowledge that Barack Obama ever does anything praiseworthy and taking every opportunity to attack, not Obama’s ideas, but his character.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com