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Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Economic Growth in the US: A Tale of Two Countries

Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman at VoxEU:

Economic growth in the US: A tale of two countries: The rise of economic inequality is one of the most hotly debated issues today in the US (Furman 2016) and indeed in the world. Yet economists and policymakers alike face important limitations when trying to measure and understand the rise of inequality.

One major problem is the disconnect between macroeconomics and the study of economic inequality. Macroeconomics relies on national accounts data to study the growth of national income, while the study of inequality relies on individual or household income, survey, and tax data. Ideally all three sets of data should be consistent, but they are not. The total flow of income reported by households in survey or tax data adds up to barely 60% of the national income recorded in the national accounts, with this gap increasing over the past several decades.1

This disconnect between the different data sets makes it hard to address important economic and policy questions, such as:

  • What fraction of economic growth accrues to those in the bottom 50%, the middle 40%, and the top 10% of the income distribution?
  • What part of the rise in inequality is due to changes in the share of national income that goes to workers (labor income) and owners (capital income) versus changes in how these labour and capital incomes are distributed among individuals?

A second major issue is that economists and policymakers do not have a comprehensive view of how government programs designed to ameliorate the worst effects of economic inequality actually affect inequality. Americans share almost one-third of the fruits of economic output (via taxes that help pay for an array of social services) through their federal, state, and local governments. These taxes collectively add up to about 30% of national income, and are used to fund transfers and public goods that ultimately benefit all US families. Yet we do not have a clear measure of how the distribution of pre-tax income differs from the distribution of income after taxes are levied and after government spending is taken into account. This makes it hard to assess the extent to which governments make income growth more equal.2

In a recent paper, we attempt to create inequality statistics for the US that overcome the limitations of existing data by creating distributional national accounts (Piketty et al. 2016). We combine tax, survey, and national accounts data to build a new series on the distribution of national income. National income is the broadest measure of income published in the national accounts and is conceptually close to gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic growth.3 Our distributional national accounts enable us to provide decompositions of growth by income groups consistent with macroeconomic growth.

In our paper, we calculate the distribution of both pre-tax and post-tax income. The post-tax series deducts all taxes and then adds back all transfers and public spending so that both pre-tax and post-tax incomes add up to national income. This allows us to provide the first comprehensive view of how government redistribution in the US affects inequality. Our benchmark series use the adult individual as the unit of observation and split income equally among spouses in married couples. But we also produce series where each spouse is assigned their own labour income, allowing us to study gender inequality and its impact on overall income inequality. In this column, we would like to highlight three striking findings.

Our first finding: A surge in income inequality...

Our second finding: Policies to ameliorate income inequality fall woefully short ...

Our third finding: Comparing income inequality among countries is enlightening ...

    Posted by on Wednesday, March 29, 2017 at 12:18 PM in Economics, Income Distribution | Permalink  Comments (51)


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