Skip to main content

The Mysterious Death of Duesenberry

James Duesenberry

No this is not about a conspiracy theory. For all that I know James Duesenberry died of natural causes in 2009 [I had the opportunity to talk extensively with him at a conference organized by Ed Nell in 1998]. I'm referring to the fact that he is relatively unknown in the profession, as I noted Thursday when I asked my students if they ever heard about him, with only a few affirmative responses. He is also completely absent in textbooks (e.g. David Romer's Advanced Macroeconomics).

This is surprising since, as noted by Robert Frank, "his theory of consumer behavior clearly outperforms the alternative theories that displaced it in the 1950's - a striking reversal of the usual pattern in which theories are displaced by alternatives that better explain the evidence." The alternative that displaced it in the 1950s was Friedman's Permanent Income, for which he got the Sveriges Riksbank Prize (aka the Nobel).

Friedman's more popular theory of consumption was developed as a response to Keynes and Duesenberry, in particular, as a way to suggest that the economic system did have a tendency to full employment after all. Friedman (1957, p. 5) argued:
"The doubts about the adequacy of the Keynesian consumption function raised by the empirical evidence were reinforced by the theoretical controversy about Keynes's proposition that there is no automatic force in a monetary economy to assure the existence of a full-employment equilibrium position. A number of writers, particularly Haberler and Pigou, demonstrated that this analytical proposition is invalid if consumption expenditure is taken to be a function not only of income but also of wealth or, to put it differently, if the average propensity to consume is taken to depend in a particular way on the ratio of wealth to income. This dependence is required for the so-called 'Pigou effect'."
Friedman conveniently ignores Kalecki's response to Pigou, which actually shows that if deflation does have positive wealth effects for consumers, which tend to hold assets, then it is also true that for those holding the corresponding liabilities (the debtors, which could also be consumers) there will be negative wealth effects. The evidence on wealth effects does not suggest that the Pigou effect is strong enough to get an economy out of a recession automatically. Note, however, that there is increasing evidence that real assets have had an impact on household indebtedness and consumption, and have been a source of bubble-led growth (which is unsustainable and prone to crises; see for example this paper).

Duesenberry's Relative Income Hypothesis, developed in his 1949 book Income, Saving, and the Theory of Consumer Behavior, is quite relevant now after the crisis. While Keynes theory of consumption was based on what he referred to as a psychological law, that people consume only a fraction of their income, Duesenberry suggested a sociological explanation. Duesenberry argued that the poor tend to consume a higher proportion of their income than the wealthy, and that, as income increased, the relatively poorer members of society continued to consume a higher share of their income, since their patterns of consumption changed to emulate their well to do peers. A notion that has elements in common with Veblen's notion of conspicuous consumption. Note that this suggests that re-distribution towards the less privileged would boost the economy, since they have a higher propensity to spend (see this paper).

PS: Tom Palley developed a bridge model he calls a Keynes-Duesenberry-Friedman Model (see here). See also Garegnani and Trezzini's paper on consumption and cycles.


  1. Matias, this is franklin serrano: garegnani & trezzini on trend and cycle, trezzini on consumption in recents issues of ROPE and also recently a working paper by setterfield not to speak of barba & pivetti (cje) all show that the news of duesenberry´s death may have been a bit exaggerated by you.

    1. Within the mainstream. Sure enough. I'll be teaching about it too. Thanks.

  2. "Note that this suggests that re-distribution towards the less privileged would boost the economy, since they have a higher propensity to spend."

    As someone who has been on SSI for nearly a decade, I can personally attest to this.

  3. Duesenberry was indeed important, way more than he was given credit for. His "demonstration effect" goes a long way in explaining the consumption patterns of many Americans. When coupled with Galbraith's "dependence effect" (the supply side advertisers pushing product) and Leibensteins "Bandwagon, snot and Veblen effects" you have a good picture of the drivers of US consumption patterns.

    On a global level however it is NURKSE who adapts Duesenberry and links it to growth, underdevelopment, and the balance of payments. Nurkse cited the "demonstration effect" of the rich nations as a reason why poorer nations would save relatively less.

  4. I learned macro theory from an old textbook by Duesenberry as a college freshman in 1974, maybe that led to my later heterodox views? I was very honored to meet him when I had a job interview at Harvard in 1983 (although I didn't get the job). It is sad how far mainstream macro with its RBC and DSGE obsessions has veered from empirically based and sociologically founded analysis of the type that Duesenberry pioneered.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

A few brief comments on Brexit and the postmortem of the European Union

Another end of the world is possible
There will be a lot of postmortems for the European Union (EU) after Brexit. Many will suggest that this was a victory against the neoliberal policies of the European Union. See, for example, the first three paragraphs of Paul Mason's column here. And it is true, large contingents of working class people, that have suffered with 'free-market' economics, voted for leaving the union. The union, rightly or wrongly, has been seen as undemocratic and responsible for the economics woes of Europe.

The problem is that while it is true that the EU leaders have been part of the problem and have pursued the neoliberal policies within the framework of the union, sometimes with treaties like the Fiscal Compact, it is far from clear that Brexit and the possible demise of the union, if the fever spreads to France, Germany and other countries with their populations demanding their own referenda, will lead to the abandonment of neoliberal policies. Aust…

A brief note on Venezuela and the turn to the right in Latin America

So besides the coup in Brazil (which was all but confirmed by the last revelations, if you had any doubts), and the electoral victory of Macri in Argentina, the crisis in Venezuela is reaching a critical level, and it would not be surprising if the Maduro administration is recalled, even though right now the referendum is not scheduled yet.

The economy in Venezuela has collapsed (GDP has fallen by about 14% or so in the last two years), inflation has accelerated (to three digit levels; 450% or so according to the IMF), there are shortages of essential goods, recurrent energy blackouts, and all of these aggravated by persistent violence. Contrary to what the press suggests, these events are not new or specific to left of center governments. Similar events occurred in the late 1980s, in the infamous Caracazo, when the fall in oil prices caused an external crisis, inflation, and food shortages, which eventually, after the announcement of a neoliberal economic package that included the i…

What is the 'Classical Dichotomy'?