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Conspicuous Consumption, Pure Profits, and the Luxury Tax

  • Laurie Simon Bagwell
  • B. Douglas Bernheim

We examine a model of conspicuous consumption and explore the nature of competition in markets for conspicuous goods. We assume that, in addition to intrinsic utility, individuals seek status, and that perceptions of wealth affect status. Under identifiable conditions, the model generates Veblen effects: utility is positively related to the price of the good consumed. Equilibria are then characterized by the existence of "budget' brands (which are sold at a price equal to marginal cost), as well as 'luxury" brands (which are sold at a price above marginal cost, despite the fact that producers are perfectly competitive). Luxury brands are not intrinsically superior to budget brands but are purchased by consumers who seek to signal high levels of wealth. Within the context of this model, an appropriately designed luxury tax is a non-distortionary tax on pure profits.

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Paper provided by National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc in its series NBER Working Papers with number 4163.

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Date of creation: Sep 1992
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Publication status: published as American Economic Review, vol. 86, no. 3, pp. 349-373, June 1996.
Handle: RePEc:nbr:nberwo:4163
Note: PE
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  1. Besley, T. & Coate, S., 1990. "Understanding Welfare Stigma: Taxpayer Resentment And Statistical Discrimination," Papers 42, Princeton, Woodrow Wilson School - Discussion Paper.
  2. George A. Akerlof, 1978. "A theory of social custom, of which unemployment may be one consequence," Special Studies Papers 118, Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System (U.S.).
  3. Paul R. Milgrom & John Roberts, 1984. "Price and Advertising Signals of Product Quality," Cowles Foundation Discussion Papers 709, Cowles Foundation for Research in Economics, Yale University.
  4. Frank, Robert H, 1985. "The Demand for Unobservable and Other Nonpositional Goods," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 75(1), pages 101-16, March.
  5. Cole, Harold L & Mailath, George J & Postlewaite, Andrew, 1992. "Social Norms, Savings Behavior, and Growth," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 100(6), pages 1092-1125, December.
  6. Fershtman, C. & Weiss, Y., 1991. "Social Status , Culture and Economic Performance," Papers 32-91, Tel Aviv.
  7. Bernheim, B Douglas, 1994. "A Theory of Conformity," Journal of Political Economy, University of Chicago Press, vol. 102(5), pages 841-77, October.
  8. Braun, Ottmar L. & Wicklund, Robert A., 1989. "Psychological antecedents of conspicuous consumption," Journal of Economic Psychology, Elsevier, vol. 10(2), pages 161-187, June.
  9. Basmann, Robert L & Molina, David J & Slottje, Daniel J, 1988. "A Note on Measuring Veblen's Theory of Conspicuous Consumption," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 70(3), pages 531-35, August.
  10. Ng, Yew-Kwang, 1987. "Diamonds Are a Government's Best Friend: Burden-Free Taxes on Goods Valued for Their Values," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 77(1), pages 186-91, March.
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