American Standards of Living:1918-1988
Emulation and Innovation
As hypothesized in chapter 2, periods of slow or
declining income growth would be the most disruptive to consumption
norms. Fami-lies would not be able to buy innovative goods and services
and to emulate past practices without sufficient income growth.
In addition, the pressure to innovate would intensify as the economy
matured and variety and status were impacted in consump-tion. Disruption
in consumption norms occurred especially between 1918 and 1935,
which is the survey period with the most remarkable discontinuity
in consumption norms and the only period with a decline in national
income. (See Figure 8.3). Economic distance
increased at both ends of the income spectrum ¾ between the
working class and blacks and between the salaried class and the
working class. Working--class families reduced their family size
and reduced their consumption in clothing, household opera-tions,
and gifts in order to buy innova-tion in food, housing, utilities,
and transportation. At the same time, only one-fifth of emulation
(the imitation of traditional patterns) was real-ized.
The other period of disruption in consumption norms occurred during
slow, but not negative, national income growth, 1973-1988. Families
once again reduced their family size and spent some savings, but
this time they reduced their standards in only one area ¾utilities
¾ in order to purchase innovation in gifts, recre-ation, clothing,
and household operations. Emulation of previous norms was almost
During the period with the highest national growth rate, 1935-1950,
less innova-tion occurred than during the low or negative growth
eras. After expanding in the previous period, economic distance
shrank at both ends of the income distribution. Laborer families
tried to offset their loss of eco-nomic distance from blacks by
reducing their family size and utilities in order to exceed the
other classes in innovation, especially in food and transportation.
Since salaried families experienced the slowest budget growth across
the classes, they had to spend most of their budget increment on
innovation in order to appear modern. In contrast, working-class
families experienced faster growing budgets and so were able to
purchase innovation as well as some emulation.
The other era of high national income growth, 1950-1973, witnessed
much more emulation and slightly less innovation with less reduction
in standards than in the preceding high growth era. Families purchased
innova-tions in housing and utilities, transportation, household
operations, and recreation. Overall, families witnessed the least
disruption to consump-tion norms of any period surveyed, and this
period is remembered nostalgically as the golden era of attaining
new heights in living standards.
Veblens theory of emulation seemed to hold only when incomes
grew sufficiently rapidly in an economy of mostly basic consumption.
When incomes grow slowly, families will purchase innovations rather
than emulate, and consumption norms are disrupted. This process
of innovation at the expense of emulation intensifies in a mature
economy. When some older practices are modified or dropped and some
new practices are added, families seem to feel less well off. They
tend to overvalue the lost emulation and undervalue the innovations,
which they take for granted.
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