Consuming From Income, Not Wealth

Economy, Politics, US Economy

I read an article called “A Smarter Stimulus” in the New Yorker when it first came out — I keep thinking of it again when I see disparaging references to the tax cuts in Obama’s stimulus plan, such as Frank Rich’s recent column.

I find the whole economic mess daunting and appreciated the clear explanation of one aspect of the proposed stimulus package that is encouraging.

Evidently not all tax cuts are equal.  The Bush tax cuts did not accomplish much because they were treated as a windfall, and people tend to shunt those into their savings accounts.  The Obama tax cuts will be different — they will take the form of less withholding from paychecks.  The article explains the difference, in terms of the effect on the economy:

The size of the windfall matters a lot: the bigger the windfall the more likely it is to be saved. One fascinating study of Israelis who received reparations from Germany found that those who received the biggest payments spent very little of the money, while those who received small payments spent it all

The key factor in these kinds of distinctions, Thaler’s work suggests, is whether people think of a windfall as wealth or as income. If they think of it as wealth, they’re more likely to save it, and if they think of it as income they’re more likely to spend it. That’s because many people tend to base their spending not on their long-term earning potential or on their assets but on what they think of as their current income, an amount best defined by what’s in their regular paycheck. When that number goes up, so does people’s spending. In Thaler’s words, “People tend to consume from income and leave perceived ‘wealth’ alone.”

So what does this mean for making a rebate work? If you want people to spend the money, you don’t want to give them one big check, because that makes it more likely that they’ll think of it as an increase in their wealth and save it. Instead, you want to give them small amounts over time. And you want the rebate to show up as an increase in people’s take-home pay, because an increase in steady income is more likely to translate into an increase in spending. What can accomplish both of these goals? Reducing people’s withholding payments.

That’s a large excerpt but not the entire article — I encourage you to read the whole thing.  The conclusion:

On its own, Obama’s rebate plan isn’t going to resurrect the economy. But it’s a policy that works with people as they are, rather than as we imagine they should be. And that’s a stimulus in itself.

3 Comments

2 Comments

  1. nimh  •  Feb 3, 2009 @6:58 am

    Not to mention that Bush’s tax cuts were disproportionally slanted towards the higher (and highest) incomes, whereas Obama’s are firmly centred on middle-class incomes and below. Those who earn more are more likely to save any extra money they get; the less money people have and the harder they’re finding it to get by, the more likely it is they will spend the money straight away – because they need to.

  2. sozobe  •  Feb 3, 2009 @7:56 am

    That makes sense.

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