Why Do High Income People Feel So Put Upon?

A mystery to me is why households earning $250,000 per year seem to resent being called rich. This income is roughly five times the median US household income.

So it occurred to me that perhaps the marker basket upon which high earners spend has risen in price more rapidly than the CPI. So for fun (and only for fun–this is not a systematic price index), I looked at four items: income taxes, the price of a BMW 3-series, houses in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and New York, and Harvard tuition, all going back to 1988.

It is hard to do an apples-to-apples comparison on taxes, but based on the NBER Taxsim Model, wage income for high earners is taxed at about the same level, and capital income is taxed less relative to 1988.

CPI has not quite doubled since then. While the BMW 3-series is not the same car as it was in 1988 (it is almost certainly better), its price has not quite doubled. House prices in the California are about 2.7 times higher than in 1988; in New York they are 2.2 times higher (these are MSAs–Malibu and Manhattan are probably different stories). Harvard tuition is three times higher.

People really notice how much they are paying for their houses and how much it costs to put their kids through school. So while I continue to think it is silly for people who earn five times the national median to feel anything other than extremely well off, it is possible that those right at the 250k level perceive their living standards to be no better than they were 20 years ago.

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About Richard K. Green 103 Articles

Affiliation: University of Southern California

Richard K. Green, Ph.D., is the Director of the USC Lusk Center for Real Estate. He holds the Lusk Chair in Real Estate and is Professor in the School of Policy, Planning, and Development and the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California.

Prior to joining the USC faculty, Dr. Green spent four years as the Oliver T. Carr, Jr., Chair of Real Estate Finance at The George Washington University School of Business. He was Director of the Center for Washington Area Studies and the Center for Real Estate and Urban Studies at that institution. Dr. Green also taught real estate finance and economics courses for 12 years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he was Wangard Faculty Scholar and Chair of Real Estate and Urban Land Economics. He also has been principal economist and director of financial strategy and policy analysis at Freddie Mac.

His research addresses housing markets, housing policy, tax policy, transportation, mortgage finance and urban growth. He is a member of two academic journal editorial boards, and a reviewer for several others.

His work is published in a number of journals including the American Economic Review, Journal of Economic Perspectives, Journal of Real Estate Finance and Economics, Journal of Urban Economics, Land Economics, Regional Science and Urban Economics, Real Estate Economics, Housing Policy Debate, Journal of Housing Economics, and Urban Studies.

His book with Stephen Malpezzi, A Primer on U.S. Housing Markets and Housing Policy, is used at universities throughout the country. His work has been cited or he has been quoted in the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and the Economist, as well as other outlets.

Dr. Green earned his Ph.D. and M.S. in economics from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He earned his A.B. in economics from Harvard University.

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