USC Price School of Public Policy

USC Price celebrates new books by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, Michael Thom

November 2, 2017

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From left: Elizabeth Currid-Halkett, Dean Jack H. Knott and Michael Thom (Photo by Tom Queally)
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By Cristy Lytal

From taxes to “inconspicuous consumption,” a pair of recent books published by USC Price School of Public Policy faculty address topics that “are very relevant to society,” noted Dean Jack H. Knott.

On Oct. 4, the Price School hosted a reception to celebrate these new publications: The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class (Princeton University Press) by Professor Elizabeth Currid-Halkett; and Tax Politics and Policy (Routledge) by Assistant Professor Michael Thom.

“Elizabeth and Michael exemplify the kind of scholarship that makes the Price School have the academic reputation it has, and also the impact that it has. Shaping the world for the better — both of these books help us do that,” Knott said at the reception.

Assistant Professor Michael Thom (Photo by David Giannamore)

In Tax Politics and Policy, Thom provides a comprehensive overview of U.S. taxation. He looks at taxation in its proper historical and philosophical context: presenting theories about its role in civil society; examining its impact on income, consumption and assets; describing the influence of special interest groups on related policy; and analyzing current and historical ideas about tax reform. He also delves into the so-called “sin taxes” on alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and sugar.

Thom tackled this subject because he noticed that many existing public finance textbooks don’t pay enough attention to taxes — focusing more on where the money goes, and less on where it comes from. Thom’s book fills this gap and offers a relevant read not only for undergraduates and graduate students, but also for all taxpaying citizens.

The book is lined with “good information about things that affect all of us, whether you want it to or not,” said Thom, who joined the USC Price faculty in 2012.

Photo by Andrew Brown

Currid-Halkett’s book, The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class, redefines what economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen dubbed the “leisure class” at the beginning of the 1900s. This class revealed their leisurely position and lack of manual labor by carrying canes or wearing corsets, and participating in “conspicuous consumption” — exemplified by the silver spoon. More than a century later, Currid-Halkett noticed that today’s top income groups in the U.S., many of whom she calls the “aspirational class,” spend their money on education, health care, gardeners, nannies and other “inconspicuous consumption.”

“Cultural capital is in some ways invisible, and it seems costless,” said Currid-Halkett, the James Irvine Chair in Urban and Regional Planning at USC Price. “For me to talk about Paul Krugman doesn’t cost anything, but it probably it probably [implicitly] costs a college degree. And it costs a subscription to the New York Times or buying one regularly. And so these little things, this sum of small things as it were, add up to huge divides in society.”

According to Currid-Halkett, to address the resulting inequality, society needs to figure out how to provide free access to cultural capital such as museums, libraries and music lessons.

Knott praised both authors for publishing such relevant and impactful books.

“This is a time not only to congratulate you on your personal achievement,” he said, “but also to celebrate what you have added to the research field, what you’ve contributed to the teaching and the educational enterprise, and, also in both of your cases, what you’ve contributed to society.”