Category Archive for: Income Distribution [Return to Main]

Friday, December 12, 2014

'Why America’s Middle Class is Lost'

Part 1 of Tankersley's series on the problems facing the middle class ("Liftoff & Letdown: The American middle class is floundering, and it has been for decades. The Post examines the mystery of what’s gone wrong, and shows what the country must focus on to get the economy working for everyone again. Monday: The devalued American worker."):

Why America’s middle class is lost, by Jim Tankersley, Washington Post: ... Yes, the stock market is soaring, the unemployment rate is finally retreating after the Great Recession and the economy added 321,000 jobs last month. But all that growth has done nothing to boost pay for the typical American worker. Average wages haven’t risen over the last year, after adjusting for inflation. Real household median income is still lower than it was when the recession ended.
Make no mistake: The American middle class is in trouble.
That trouble started decades ago, well before the 2008 financial crisis, and it is rooted in shifts far more complicated than the simple tax-and-spend debates that dominate economic policymaking in Washington. ...
In this new reality, a smaller share of Americans enjoy the fruits of an expanding economy. This isn’t a fluke of the past few years — it’s woven into the very structure of the economy. And even though Republicans and Democrats keep promising to help the middle class reclaim the prosperity it grew accustomed to after World War II, their prescriptions aren’t working. ...
The great mystery is: What happened? Why did the economy stop boosting ordinary Americans in the way it once did?
The answer is complicated, and it’s the reason why tax cuts, stimulus spending and rock-bottom interest rates haven’t jolted the middle class back to its postwar prosperity. ...

Thursday, December 11, 2014

'Inequality Harms the Most Vulnerable'

At MoneyWatch:

Inequality harms the most vulnerable among us: The large increase in inequality in recent years has been well documented by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, among others. But less is known about the consequences. What impact has rising inequality had on the overall economy and on individual households?
Evidence is mounting that inequality is harmful to economic growth, and recent findings also suggest that increasing inequality "is linked to more deaths among African Americans." ...

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

'Is Inequality Good or Bad for Growth?'

From the OECD Insights blog:

Is inequality good or bad for growth?, by Brian Keeley: If you’ve been following the income inequality debate, you’ll know there’s been much discussion of the question in the headline above. Until just a few years ago, it’s probably fair to say that mainstream opinion leaned towards the “good for growth” side of the debate. Yes, inequality might leave a bad taste in the mouth, but it was worth it if it meant a strong economy. ...
But over the past couple of years,.... that inequality is good, or at least not bad, for growth ... has come under increasing fire, including from the IMF, the OECD and even Standard & Poor’s. And now comes new research from the OECD indicating that “income inequality has curbed economic growth significantly”.
Much of the coverage of rising inequality has focused on the incomes of “the 1%”. But the OECD research, which was led by Michael Förster and Federico Cingano, indicates that it’s the situation of people at the other end of the earnings scale that has the biggest impact on growth. These lower-income households are not a small group. They represent some 40% of the population...
Where overall inequality is higher in a society, a clear pattern emerges: People from such backgrounds invest much less in developing their human capital – essentially their education and skills. By contrast, it has almost no impact on the educational investment of middle-income and wealthy families. The implications for social mobility are clear – an ever-widening education and earnings gap between society’s haves and have-nots. ...
Just how bad is clear from the OECD research. It estimates that rising inequality knocked more than 10 percentage points off growth in Mexico and New Zealand in the two decades up to the Great Recession. The impact of rising inequality was also felt – albeit not as strongly – in a number of other OECD countries, including Italy, the UK and the US and even in countries with relatively low levels of inequality like Sweden, Finland and Norway
To be sure, the debate over inequality and growth will certainly continue. Just last week (before publication of the new OECD paper), Nobel laureate Paul Krugman admitted he was a “skeptic” who remained to be convinced of the link. But the fact that the debate is happening at all is surely a good thing. Rising inequality is one of the most significant socioeconomic trends of our time. Understanding its possible impact on our societies and economies has surely never been more important.

In the report, they authors also say:

... Tackling inequality through tax and transfer policies does not harm growth, provided these policies are well designed and implemented. In particular, redistribution efforts should focus on families with children and youth, as this is where key decisions on human capital investment are made and should promote skills development and learning across people’s lives. ...

Monday, December 01, 2014

'There Is No American Dream'

Gregory Clark:

UC Davis Economics Professor: There Is No American Dream: A UC Davis economics professor has determined there is no American Dream. ...
“America has no higher rate of social mobility than medieval England, Or pre-industrial Sweden,” he said. “That’s the most difficult part of talking about social mobility is because it is shattering people s dreams.”
Clark crunched the numbers in the U.S. from the past 100 years. His data shows the so-called American Dream—where hard work leads to more opportunities—is an illusion in the United States, and that social mobility here is no different than in the rest of the world. ...

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Economic Growth and the Information Age

Brad DeLong:

Over at Project Syndicate: Economic Growth and the Information Age: Daily Focus: ...America ... has become a vastly more unequal place since 1979... But the past generation has seen a third industrial revolution, a worthy information-age successor to the first of steam, iron, cotton, and machines and to the second of internal combustion, electricity, steel, and chemicals. Not everyone, but almost everyone in the North Atlantic and many and soon most in the world, can now if they wish have a smartphone–and so gain cheap access to the universe of human knowledge and entertainment to a degree that was far beyond the reach of all but the richest of a generation ago.
How much does this matter? How much does this mean that conventional measures of real income and real standard of living understate how much we, even the relatively poor of we, have progressed toward utopia? ...
Perhaps the right way to view the situation is that before the information age began our estimates of economic growth overstated true reality by perhaps 0.5%/year as the extra well-being we got from increased real wealth and income was offset by our noticing that the Jones’s next door had more, better, and newer than we did? Perhaps the right way to view the situation is that those parts of the information age that escape conventional growth-accounting calculations simply neutralize those forces of envy and spite that were never included in the calculations in the first place? That is my tentative judgment–or rather guess–today.

'A Deeper Dive into the Weeds of the CBO Household Income Data'

On Twitter, Jared Bernstein says he is "Correcting the record for those who claim that accounting for taxes & transfers changes the inequality story":

A deeper dive into the weeds of the CBO household income data: ...between 1979 and 2011, inequality measured by the Gini coefficient rose 24% based solely on market outcomes and by 22% based on CBO’s comprehensive, post-tax and transfer income data.
Here we show that changes in pre- and post-tax income shares* – the percentage of total U.S. income held by different income groups – reveals a similar trend:

Change-in-CBO-Income-Shares

The “low” category in this figure represents the lowest before-tax income quintile, the “middle” category represents households between the 40th and 60th income percentiles, and the “high” category represents the top quintile. As with the Gini, the change in pre- and post-tax income shares are similar. The share of total income held by the poorest households fell by 1 percentage point on a pre-tax basis, and by 1.2 points on a post-tax basis. The share of income held by middle-class households fell by almost two percentage points on a pretax basis and by 1.4 percentage points post-tax.
Only within the top fifth of households do we see relative gains, and in fact, most of the increase in top quintile income shares has accrued to the richest subset of this group: the top 1%.
A second motivation of our report was to document the stagnation of middle-class earnings to households with children and the increased importance of transfer income to these families. We note, for example, that the increase in earnings to middle-income households with children was actually less than the increase in the dollar value of transfers. ...
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong and a lot right with transfers replacing lost earnings, especially in downturns. Tax cuts also helped offset middle quintile income losses. But this is not a reliable strategy by which to raise middle-class living standards for working families. For that, we must reconnect overall economic growth to paychecks... The CBO data highlight the nature of this problem and the urgency with which we must pursue the right solutions. ...

Saturday, November 22, 2014

'High Marginal Tax Rates on the Top 1%'

Fabian Kindermann and Dirk Krueger:

High marginal tax rates on the top 1%: Optimal tax rates for the rich are a perennial source of controversy. This column argues that high marginal tax rates on the top 1% of earners can make society as a whole better off. Not knowing whether they would ever make it into the top 1%, but understanding it is very unlikely, households especially at younger ages would happily accept a life that is somewhat better most of the time and significantly worse in the rare event they rise to the top 1%.
Recently, public and scientific attention has been drawn to the increasing share of labour earnings, income, and wealth accruing to the so-called ‘top 1%’. Robert B. Reich in his 2009 book Aftershock opines that: “Concentration of income and wealth at the top continues to be the crux of America’s economic predicament”. The book Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty (2014) has renewed the scientific debate about the sources and consequences of the high and increasing concentration of wealth in the US and around the world.
But what is a proper public policy reaction to such a situation? Should the government address this inequality with its policy instruments at all, and if so, what are the consequences for the macroeconomy? The formidable literature on optimal taxation has provided important answers to the first question.1 Based on a static optimal tax analysis of labour income, Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez (2011) argue in favour of high marginal tax rates on the top 1% earners, aimed at maximising tax revenue from this group. Piketty (2014) advocates a wealth tax to reduce economy-wide wealth inequality....
Conclusions and limitations Overall we find that increasing tax rates at the very top of the income distribution and thereby reducing tax burdens for the rest of the population is a suitable measure to increase social welfare. As a side effect, it reduces both income and wealth inequality within the US population.
Admittedly, our results apply with certain qualifications. First, taxing the top 1% more heavily will most certainly not work if these people can engage in heavy tax avoidance, make use of extensive tax loopholes, or just leave the country in response to a tax increase at the top. Second, and probably as importantly, our results rely on a certain notion of how the top 1% became such high earners. In our model, earnings ‘superstars’ are made from luck coupled with labour effort. However, if high income tax rates at the top would lead individuals not to pursue high-earning careers at all, then our results might change.7 Last but not least, our analysis focuses solely on the taxation of large labour earnings rather than capital income at the top 1%.
Despite these limitations, which might affect the exact number for the optimal marginal tax rate on the top 1%, many sensitivity analyses in our research suggest one very robust result – current top marginal tax rates in the US are lower than would be optimal, and pursuing a policy aimed at increasing them is likely to be beneficial for society as a whole.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

'The Real Scientific Study of the Distribution of Wealth Has, We Must Confess, Scarcely Begun as Yet'

This is a small part of Irving Fisher's presidential address to the American Economic Association in 1919 (it is worth reading in its entirety, via Piketty's book and online notes):

Economists in Public Service: Annual Address of the President: ... The real scientific study of the distribution of wealth has, we must confess, scarcely begun as yet. The conventional academic study of the so-called theory of distribution into rent, interest, wages, and profits is only remotely related to the subject. This subject, the causes and cures for the actual distribution of capital and income among real persons, is one of the many now in need of our best efforts as scientific students of society. I shall here merely throw into the discussion a few tentative thoughts which seem to me to be now either completely overlooked or only dimly appreciated.
There are, I believe, two master keys to the distribution of wealth: the Inheritance system and the Profit system.
The practices which happen to be followed by men of great wealth in making wills is certainly the chief determinant of the distribution of their wealth after their death. Mr. Albert G. Coyle, one of my former students, has estimated that four-fifths of the one hundred and fifty or more fortunes in the United States having incomes of over $1,000,000 a year have been accumulating for two generations or more. It is interesting to observe that, although the formulae expressing distribution by Pareto's logarithmic law are similar for the United States and England, the number of wealthy men at the top is two and a quarter times as great, in proportion to population, in England as in the United States, presumably because the number of generations through which fortunes have been inherited are much greater there than here.
Yet the man who wills property does so without regard to its effect on the social distribution of wealth. In fact even from the private point of view careful thought is seldom bestowed on the solemn responsibility of bequeathing property. The ordinary millionaire capitalist about to leave this world forever cares less about what becomes of the fortune he leaves behind than we have been accustomed to assume. Contrary to a common opinion, he did not lay it up, at least not beyond a certain point, because of any wish to leave it to others. His accumulating motives were rather those of power, of self-expression, of hunting big game.
I believe that it is very bad public policy for the living to allow the dead so large and unregulated an influence over us. Even in the eye of the law there is no natural right, as is ordinarily falsely assumed, to will property. "The right of inheritance," says Chief Justice Coleridge of England, "a purely artificial right, has been at different times and in different countries very variously dealt with. The institution of private property rests only upon the general advantage." And again, Justice McKenna of the United States Supreme Court says: "The right to take property by devise or descent is the creature of the law and not a natural right-a privilege, and therefore the authority which confers it may impose conditions on it."
The disposal of property by will is thus simply a custom, one handed down to us from Ancient Rome. ...

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

'The Great Wage Slowdown'

Busy day today, so let me ask you a question. If you had the power, what policies would you enact to raise middle/working class income?:

The Great Wage Slowdown, Looming Over Politics, by David Leonhardt: A quiz: How does the Democratic Party plan to lift stagnant middle-class incomes?
I realize that liberal-leaning economists can give a long, substantive answer to this question, touching on health care costs, education and infrastructure. But most Americans would not be able to give a clear answer — which helps explain why the party took such a drubbing last week.
The Democratic Party’s short-term plan to help the middle class just isn’t very clear. Some of the policies that Democrats favor, such as broader access to good education, take years to pay off. Others, like reducing medical costs or building new roads, have an indirect, unnoticed effect on middle-class incomes. ...

Dean Baker's idea is here. (For me, it is a matter of distribution. The income is there -- the typical worker has earned more than he or she receives -- but the flow is distorted upward...)

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Inequalities: Politics, Policy, and the Past

I am at the Social Science History Association meetings in Toronto, and later today I'll be on a panel discussing Piketty's book (the theme of the conference is "Inequalities: Politics, Policy, and the Past"). So this was timely:

Inequality, migration and economists, by Chris Bertram: Tim Harford has a column in the Financial Times claiming that citizenship matters more than class for inequality. In many ways it isn’t a bad piece. I give him points for criticizing Piketty’s default assumption that the nation-state is the right unit for analysis. The trouble with the piece though is the immediate inference from two sets of inequality stats to a narrative about what matters most, as if the two things Harford is talking about are wholly independent variables. This is a vice to which economists are rather prone. ...

Well ... as Joseph Carens noticed long ago, and Harford would presumably endorse, nationality can function rather like feudal privilege of history. People are indeed sorted into categories, as they were in a feudal or class society, that confine them to particular life paths, limit their access to resources and so forth. But there’s a rather obvious point to make which rather cuts across the “X matters more than Y” narrative, which is that citizenship isn’t a barrier for the rich, or for those with valuable skills. It is the poor who are excluded, who are denied the right to better themselves in the wealthy economies, who drown in the Mediterranean, or who can’t live in the same country as the love of their life. Citizenship, nationality, borders are ways of controlling the mobility of the poor whilst the rich pass effortlessly through. It isn’t simply an alternative or competitor to class, it is also a way in which states enforce class-based inequality.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Economics of Inequality: Emmanuel Saez and Laura Tyson

"In a panel discussion moderated by Dean Rich Lyons, Laura Tyson, professor of business administration and economics at the Haas School of Business, and Emmanuel Saez, economics professor and head of the Center for Equitable Growth at UC Berkeley, focus on income inequality, drawing from ideas central to Thomas Piketty's bestselling book Capital in the Twenty-First Century."

[Note: The discussion is summarized here.]

'Digital Divide Exacerbates US Inequality'

The digital divide:

Digital divide exacerbates US inequality, by David Crow, FT: The majority of families in some of the US’s poorest cities do not have a broadband connection, according to a Financial Times analysis of official data that shows how the “digital divide” is exacerbating inequality in the world’s biggest economy. ...
The OECD ranks the US 30th out of 33 countries for affordability...
There is a very strong correlation with race and income. Just 45 per cent of households with an income of less than $20,000 a year have broadband whereas the rate for those earning $75,000 or more is 91 per cent. About a third of African American and Hispanic households are unconnected compared to 20 per cent for white households and 10 per cent for Asian households.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Are Economists Ready for Income Redistribution?

I have a new column:

Are Economists Ready for Income Redistribution?: When the Great Recession hit and it became clear that monetary policy alone would not be enough to prevent a severe, prolonged downturn, fiscal policy measures – a combination of tax cuts and new spending – were used to try to limit the damage to the economy. Unfortunately, macroeconomic research on fiscal policy was all but absent from the macroeconomics literature and, for the most part, policymakers were operating in the dark, basing decisions on what they believed to be true rather than on solid theoretical and empirical evidence.
Fiscal policy will be needed again in the future, either in a severe downturn or perhaps to address the problem of growing inequality, and macroeconomists must do a better job of providing the advice that policymakers need to make informed fiscal policy decisions. ...

The question of redistribution is coming, and we need to be ready when it does.

Has Fed Policy Made Inequality Worse?

At MoneyWatch:

Has Fed policy made inequality worse?: What effect did Federal Reserve policy during the Great Recession have on inequality? Did quantitative easing and the Fed’s low interest rate policy benefit those at the top of the income distribution the most?

Many people seem to be convinced that is the case. According to this view, the Fed has been captured by the interests of wealthy bankers and its policies therefore benefit this group the most. But what does the evidence actually say about this question? Are Ron Paul and the Austrian economists, among many others on both sides of the political fence, correct to claim that loosening monetary policy to combat recessions makes inequality worse? ...

[The editors changed the intro, this is the original.]

Exploding Wealth Inequality in the United States

Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman:

Exploding wealth inequality in the United States, by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, Vox EU: Wealth inequality in the US has followed a U-shaped evolution over the last century – there was a substantial democratisation of wealth from the Great Depression to the late 1970s, followed by a sharp rise in wealth inequality. This column discusses new evidence on the concentration of wealth in the US. Growing wealth disparity is fuelled by increases in both income and saving rate inequalities between the haves and the have nots.
There is no dispute that income inequality has been on the rise in the US for the past four decades. The share of total income earned by the top 1% of families was less than 10% in the late 1970s, but now exceeds 20% as of the end of 2012 (Piketty and Saez 2003). A large portion of this increase is due to an upsurge in the labour incomes earned by senior company executives and successful entrepreneurs. But is the rise in US economic inequality purely a matter of rising labour compensation at the top, or did wealth inequality rise as well?
Before we answer that question (hint: the answer is a definitive yes, as we will demonstrate below) we need to define what we mean by wealth. Wealth is the stock of all the assets people own, including their homes, pension saving, and bank accounts, minus all debts. Wealth can be self-made out of work and saving, but it can also be inherited. Unfortunately, there is much less data available on wealth in the US than there is on income. Income tax data exists since 1913 – the first year the country collected federal income tax – but there is no comparable tax on wealth to provide information on the distribution of assets. Currently available measures of wealth inequality rely either on surveys (the Survey of Consumer Finances of the Federal Reserve Board), on estate tax return data (Kopczuk and Saez 2004), or on lists of wealthy individuals, such as the Forbes 400 list of wealthiest Americans.
In our new working paper (Saez and Zucman 2014), we try to measure wealth in another way. We use comprehensive data on capital income – such as dividends, interest, rents, and business profits – that is reported on individual income tax returns since 1913. We then capitalise this income so that it matches the amount of wealth recorded in the Federal Reserve’s Flow of Funds, the national balance sheets that measure aggregate wealth of US families. In this way we obtain annual estimates of US wealth inequality stretching back a century.
Wealth inequality, it turns out, has followed a spectacular U-shaped evolution over the past 100 years. From the Great Depression in the 1930s through the late 1970s there was a substantial democratisation of wealth. The trend then inverted, with the share of total household wealth owned by the top 0.1% increasing to 22% in 2012 from 7% in the late 1970s (see Figure 1). The top 0.1% includes 160,000 families with total net assets of more than $20 million in 2012.

Figure 1. The return of the Roaring Twenties

Saezfig1

Notes: The figure plots wealth share owned by the top .1% richest families in the US from 1913 to 2012. Wealth is total assets (including real estate and funded pension wealth) net of all debts. Wealth excludes the present value of future government transfers (such as Social Security or Medicare benefits). Source: Saez and Zucman (2014).

Figure 1 shows that wealth inequality has exploded in the US over the past four decades. The share of wealth held by the top 0.1% of families is now almost as high as in the late 1920s, when The Great Gatsby defined an era that rested on the inherited fortunes of the robber barons of the Gilded Age.
In recent decades, only a tiny fraction of the population saw its wealth share grow. While the wealth share of the top 0.1% increased a lot in recent decades, that of the next 0.9% (families between the top 1% and the top 0.1%) did not. And the share of total wealth of the “merely rich” – families who fall in the top 10% but are not wealthy enough to be counted among the top 1% – actually decreased slightly over the past four decades. In other words, family fortunes of $20 million or more grew much faster than those of only a few millions.
The flip side of these trends at the top of the wealth ladder is the erosion of wealth among the middle class and the poor. There is a widespread public view across American society that a key structural change in the US economy since the 1920s is the rise of middle-class wealth, in particular because of the development of pensions and the rise in home ownership rates. But our results show that while the share of wealth of the bottom 90% of families did gradually increase from 15% in the 1920s to a peak of 36% in the mid-1980s, it then dramatically declined. By 2012, the bottom 90% collectively owns only 23% of total US wealth, about as much as in 1940 (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. The rise and fall of middle-class wealth

Saezfig2

Notes: The figure plots wealth share owned by the bottom 90% poorest families in the US from 1917 to 2012. Wealth is total assets (including real estate and funded pension wealth) net of all debts. Wealth excludes the present value of future government transfers (such as Social Security or Medicare benefits). Source: Saez and Zucman (2014).

The growing indebtedness of most Americans is the main reason behind the erosion of the wealth share of the bottom 90% of families. Many middle-class families own homes and have pensions, but too many of these families also have much higher mortgages to repay and much higher consumer credit and student loans to service than before (Mian and Sufi 2014). For a time, rising indebtedness was compensated by the increase in the market value of the assets of middle-class families. The average wealth of bottom 90% of families jumped during the stock-market bubble of the late 1990s and the housing bubble of the early 2000s. But it then collapsed during and after the Great Recession of 2007–2009  (see Figure 3).

Figure 3. The new wealth divide in the US

Saezfig3

Notes: The figure depicts the average real wealth of bottom 90% of families (right y-axis) and top 1% families (left y-axis) from 1946 to 2012. The scales differ by a factor 100 to reflect the fact that top 1% of families are 100 times richer than the bottom 90% of families. Wealth is expressed in constant 2010 US dollars, using the GDP deflator. Source: Saez and Zucman (2014).

Since the housing and financial crises of the late 2000s there has been no recovery in the wealth of the middle class and the poor. The average wealth of the bottom 90% of families is equal to $80,000 in 2012 – the same level as in 1986. In contrast, the average wealth for the top 1% more than tripled between 1980 and 2012. In 2012, the wealth of the top 1% increased almost back to its peak level of 2007. The Great Recession looks only like a small bump along an upward trajectory.
How can we explain the growing disparity in American wealth? The answer is that the combination of higher income inequality alongside a growing disparity in the ability to save for most Americans is fuelling the explosion in wealth inequality. For the bottom 90% of families, real wage gains (after factoring in inflation) were very limited over the past three decades, but for their counterparts in the top 1% real wages grew fast. In addition, the saving rate of middle-class and lower-class families collapsed over the same period while it remained substantial at the top. Today, the top 1% families save about 35% of their income, while the bottom 90% families save about zero (Saez and Zucman 2014).
The implications of rising wealth inequality and possible remedies
If income inequality stays high and if the saving rate of the bottom 90% of families remains low then wealth disparity will keep increasing. Ten or 20 years from now, all the gains in wealth democratisation achieved during the New Deal and the post-war decades could be lost. While the rich would be extremely rich, ordinary families would own next to nothing, with debts almost as high as their assets. Paris School of Economics professor Thomas Piketty warns that inherited wealth could become the defining line between the haves and the have-nots in the 21st century (Piketty 2014). This provocative prediction hit a nerve in the US this year when Piketty’s book Capital in the 21st Century became a national best seller because it outlined a direct threat to the cherished American ideals of meritocracy and opportunity.
What should be done to avoid this dystopian future? We need policies that reduce the concentration of wealth, prevent the transformation of self-made wealth into inherited fortunes, and encourage savings among the middle class. First, current preferential tax rates on capital income compared to wage income are hard to defend in light of the rise of wealth inequality and the very high savings rate of the wealthy. Second, estate taxation is the most direct tool to prevent self-made fortunes from becoming inherited wealth – the least justifiable form of inequality in the American meritocratic ideal. Progressive estate and income taxation were the key tools that reduced the concentration of wealth after the Great Depression (Piketty and Saez 2003, Kopczuk and Saez 2004). The same proven tools are needed again today.
There are a number of specific policy reforms needed to rebuild middle-class wealth. A combination of prudent financial regulation to rein in predatory lending, incentives to help people save – nudges have been shown to be very effective in the case of 401(k) pensions (Thaler and Sunstein 2008) – and more generally steps to boost the wages of the bottom 90% of workers are needed so that ordinary families can afford to save.
One final reform also needs to be on the policymaking agenda – the collection of better data on wealth in the US. Despite our best efforts to build wealth inequality data, we want to stress that the US is lagging behind in terms of the quality of its wealth and saving data. It would be relatively easy for the US Treasury to collect more information – in particular balances on 401(k) and bank accounts – on top of what it already collects to administer the federal income tax. This information could help enforce the collection of current taxes more effectively and would be invaluable for obtaining more precise estimates of the joint distributions of income, wealth, saving, and consumption. Such information is needed to illuminate the public debate on economic inequality. It is also required to evaluate and implement alternative forms of taxation, such as progressive wealth or consumption taxes, in order to achieve broad-based and sustainable economic growth.
References
Kopczuk, W and E Saez (2004), “Top Wealth Shares in the United States, 1916–2000: Evidence from Estate Tax Returns”, National Tax Journal 57(2), Part 2, June: 445–487.
Mian, A and A Sufi (2014), House of Debt, University of Chicago Press.
Piketty, T (2014), Capital in the 21st Century, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Piketty, T and E Saez (2003), “Income Inequality in the United States, 1913–1998”, Quarterly Journal of Economics 118(1): 1–39, series updated to 2012 online.
Saez, Emmanuel and Gabriel Zucman (2014), “Wealth Inequality in the United States since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Tax Data”, CEPR Discussion Paper 10227, October.
Thaler, R H and C R Sunstein (2008), Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

'Scale, Profits, and Inequality'

Dietz Vollrath:

Scale, Profits, and Inequality, Growth Economics: After my post last week on inequality, I got a number of (surprisingly reasonable) responses. I pulled one line out of a recent comment ... because it encapsulates an argument for *not* caring about inequality.
“Gates and the Waltons really did probably add more value to humanity than the janitor at my school.“
The general argument here is about incentives. Without the possibility of massive profits, people like Bill Gates or Sam Walton will not bother to innovate and create Microsoft and Walmart. ... But if we take seriously the incentives behind innovation, then it isn’t simply the genius of the individual that matters for growth. The scale of the economy is equally relevant. ...
People like Gates and the Waltons earn profits on the scale effect of the U.S. economy, which they did not invent, innovate on, or produce. So the “rest of us”, like the janitor mentioned above, have some legitimate reason to ask whether those profits are best used in remunerating Bill Gates and the Walton family, or could be put to better use. ... Investing in health, education, and infrastructure all will raise the aggregate size of the U.S. economy, and make innovation more lucrative. Even straight income transfers can raise the effective scale of the U.S. economy be transferring purchasing power to people who will spend it.
Can we argue about exactly how much of the profits are due to “genius” (the markup) and how much to scale? Sure... But you cannot dismiss the idea of taxing high-income “makers” because their income represents the fruits of their individual genius. It doesn’t. Their incomes derive from a combination of ability and scale. And scale doesn’t belong to individuals.
The value-added of “the Waltons” is particularly relevant here. ... Alice Walton is worth around $33 billion. She never worked for Walmart. She is a billionaire many times over because her dad was smart enough to take advantage of the massive scale of the U.S. economy. I’m not willing to concede that Alice has added more value to humanity than anyone in particular. So, yes, I’ll argue that Alice should pay a lot more in taxes than she does today. And no, I’m not afraid that this will prevent innovation in the future, because those taxes will help expand the scale of the economy and incent a new generation of innovators to get to work.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Market Power, 'the Profits-Investment Disconnect,' and the Mal-Distribution of Income

Maybe we'll finally start discussing something I've been writing about for years with little traction, how market power affects the distribution of income (the disconnect between income and the contribution to final product that occurs when market power exists):

The Profits-Investment Disconnect, by Paul Krugman: I caught a bit of CNBC in the locker room this morning, and they were talking about stock buybacks. Oddly — or maybe not that oddly, given my own experiences with the show — nobody brought up what I would have thought was the obvious question. Profits are very high, so why are companies concluding that they should return cash to stockholders rather than use it to expand their businesses?
After all, we normally think of high profits as a signal: a profitable business is one people should be trying to get into. But right now we see a combination of high profits and sluggish investment...
What’s going on? One possibility, I guess, is that business are holding back because Obama is looking at them funny. But more seriously, this kind of divergence — in which high profits don’t signal high returns to investment — is what you’d expect if a lot of those profits reflect monopoly power rather than returns on capital.
More on this in a while.

Friday, October 17, 2014

'Perspectives on Inequality and Opportunity'

Janet Yellen at the Conference on Economic Opportunity and Inequality, FRB Boston, Boston:

Perspectives on Inequality and Opportunity from the Survey of Consumer Finances, by Janet Yellen, Chair, FRB: The distribution of income and wealth in the United States has been widening more or less steadily for several decades, to a greater extent than in most advanced countries.1 This trend paused during the Great Recession because of larger wealth losses for those at the top of the distribution and because increased safety-net spending helped offset some income losses for those below the top. But widening inequality resumed in the recovery, as the stock market rebounded, wage growth and the healing of the labor market have been slow, and the increase in home prices has not fully restored the housing wealth lost by the large majority of households for which it is their primary asset.
The extent of and continuing increase in inequality in the United States greatly concern me. The past several decades have seen the most sustained rise in inequality since the 19th century after more than 40 years of narrowing inequality following the Great Depression. By some estimates, income and wealth inequality are near their highest levels in the past hundred years, much higher than the average during that time span and probably higher than for much of American history before then.2 It is no secret that the past few decades of widening inequality can be summed up as significant income and wealth gains for those at the very top and stagnant living standards for the majority. I think it is appropriate to ask whether this trend is compatible with values rooted in our nation's history, among them the high value Americans have traditionally placed on equality of opportunity.
Some degree of inequality in income and wealth, of course, would occur even with completely equal opportunity because variations in effort, skill, and luck will produce variations in outcomes. Indeed, some variation in outcomes arguably contributes to economic growth because it creates incentives to work hard, get an education, save, invest, and undertake risk. However, to the extent that opportunity itself is enhanced by access to economic resources, inequality of outcomes can exacerbate inequality of opportunity, thereby perpetuating a trend of increasing inequality. Such a link is suggested by the "Great Gatsby Curve," the finding that, among advanced economies, greater income inequality is associated with diminished intergenerational mobility.3 In such circumstances, society faces difficult questions of how best to fairly and justly promote equal opportunity. My purpose today is not to provide answers to these contentious questions, but rather to provide a factual basis for further discussion. I am pleased that this conference will focus on equality of economic opportunity and on ways to better promote it.
In my remarks, I will review trends in income and wealth inequality over the past several decades, then identify and discuss four sources of economic opportunity in America--think of them as "building blocks" for the gains in income and wealth that most Americans hope are within reach of those who strive for them. The first two are widely recognized as important sources of opportunity: resources available for children and affordable higher education. The second two may come as more of a surprise: business ownership and inheritances. Like most sources of wealth, family ownership of businesses and inheritances are concentrated among households at the top of the distribution. But both of these are less concentrated and more broadly distributed than other forms of wealth, and there is some basis for thinking that they may also play a role in providing economic opportunities to a considerable number of families below the top.
In focusing on these four building blocks, I do not mean to suggest that they account for all economic opportunity, but I do believe they are all significant sources of opportunity for individuals and their families to improve their economic circumstances. ...[continue]...

See also Neil Irwin, "What Janet Yellen Said, and Didn’t Say, About Inequality," who says:

If there was any doubt that Janet Yellen would be a different type of Federal Reserve chair, her speech Friday in Boston removed it. ...
Ms. Yellen’s speech is a thorough airing of some of the latest research on how much inequality has widened in recent years and why. ...
It seems like Ms. Yellen offered this speech as a way to use her bully pulpit to cast public attention on an issue she cares about deeply, deliberately avoiding areas where inequality intersects with the policy areas under which she has direct control. And it is true that the future of inequality in the United States is surely shaped more by decisions on the levels of certain taxes and the size of the social welfare state more than by anything that the Fed does.
Perhaps in future appearances, Ms. Yellen will give us a sense not just of what is wrong with inequality, but what it might mean for the policies over which she has some control.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

'Understanding Economic Inequality and Growth at the Top of the Income Ladder'

A nice collection of essays on inequality and what can be done about it by Heather Boushey, Emmanuel Saez, Michael Ettlinger, and Fiona Chin:

Understanding economic inequality and growth at the top of the income ladder

For example, from Saez:

... Zucman and I show in our new working paper that the surge in wealth concentration and the erosion of middle class wealth can be explained by two factors. First, differences in the ability to save by the middle class and the wealthy means that more income inequality will translate into more inequality in savings. Upper earners will naturally save relatively more and accumulate more wealth as income inequality widens.
Second, the saving rate among the middle class has plummeted since the 1980s, in large part due to a surge in debt, in particular mortgage debt and student loans. With such low savings rates, middle class wealth formation is bound to stall. In contrast, the savings rate of the rich has remained substantial.
If such trends of growing income inequality and growing disparity in savings rates between the middle class and rich persist, then U.S. wealth inequality will continue to increase. The rich will be able to leave large estates to their heirs and the United States could find itself becoming a patrimonial society where inheritors dominate the top of the income and wealth distribution as famously pointed out by Piketty in his new book “Capital in the 21st Century.”
What should be done about the rise of income and wealth concentration in the United States? More progressive taxation would help on several fronts. Increasing the tax rate as incomes rise helps curb excessive and wasteful compensation of top income earners. Progressive taxation of capital income also reduces the rate of return on wealth, making it more difficult for large family fortunes to perpetuate themselves over generations. Progressive estate taxation is the most natural tool to prevent self-made wealth from becoming inherited wealth. At the same time, complementary policies are needed to encourage middle class wealth formation. Recent work in behavioral economics by Richard Thaler at the University of Chicago and Cass Sunstein at Harvard University shows that it is possible to encourage savings and wealth formation through well-designed programs that nudge people into savings.

Maybe if they had more income to save??? Another part of the essay gets at this (what I've called the mal-distribution of income, i.e. workers receiving less than the value of what they produce, and those at the top receiving more through rent-seeking and other means):

...while standard economic models assume that pay reflects productivity, there are strong reasons to be skeptical, especially at the top of the income ladder where the actual economic contribution of managers working in complex organizations is particularly difficult to measure. In this scenario, top earners might be able partly to set their own pay by bargaining harder or influencing executive compensation com­mittees. Naturally, the incentives for such “rent-seeking” are much stronger when top tax rates are low.

In this scenario, cuts in top tax rates can still increase the share of total household income going to the top 1 percent at the expense of the remaining 99 percent. In other words, tax cuts for the wealthiest stimulate rent-seeking at the top but not overall economic growth—the key difference from the supply-side scenario that justified tax cuts for high income earners in the first place.

[I talked what I think should be done to curb rising inequality here and tried to make the point that one of the first things we can do is to claw back some of the income from high income earners and return it to those who actually deserve it. In the short-run, this can be done through progressive taxation and the redistribution of income to where it belongs, but in the longer run I'd like to see the distribution mechanism fixed, at least in part, through measures that increase the bargaining power of workers so that the playing filed is a bit more level. In addition, I'd also like to see measures/policies that will produce better jobs for working class households.]

'No, Mainstream Economists Did Not Just Reject Thomas Piketty’s Big Theory'

Jordan Weissmann asks Piketty about the IGM poll:

No, Mainstream Economists Did Not Just Reject Thomas Piketty’s Big Theory, by Jordan Weissmann: ...the University of Chicago’s Initiative on Global Markets ... asked economists whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: "The most powerful force pushing towards greater wealth inequality in the US since the 1970s is the gap between the after-tax return on capital and the economic growth rate.” ... Overwhelmingly, the panel’s answer was no, with only one out 36 panelists agreeing with the statement.
Afterwards, a number of journalists, economists, and other wags took to Twitter and blogs to talk about how Piketty had just gotten a black eye. ... Except ... Piketty ... never suggests r>g is the main reason behind the recent rise of inequality. Rather, [he] theorizes that, in the absence of government intervention, r>g ensures the future concentration of income and wealth. ... Ultimately,... IGM was asking economists to opine on an argument that nobody was making in the first place.
I found myself wondering: How would Piketty himself weigh in? “Well,” he told me in an email this morning, “I think the book makes pretty clear that the powerful force behind rising income and wealth inequality in the US since the 1970s is the rise of the inequality of labor earnings, itself due to a mixture of rising inequality in access to skills and higher education, and of exploding top managerial compensation (itself probably stimulated by large cuts in top tax rates), So this indeed has little to do with r>g.”
In short, you can add Piketty to the "Disagree" column, too.

The caption under the picture of Piketty in the article says it well:

He's probably thinking how it would be nice if people read his book before arguing with it.

See also Brad DeLong, Nick Bunker, and Matt O'Brien.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What’s the Best Way to Overcome Rising Economic Inequality?

I have a new column:

What’s the Best Way to Overcome Rising Economic Inequality?: A debate over the use of progressive taxation and redistribution as a means of solving the problem of rising inequality erupted in the last week or so. The debate began with three publications, one from Edward Kleinbard, one from Nezih Guner, Martin Lopez-Daneri, and Gustavo Ventura, and one from Cathie Jo Martin and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez. They argue in turn that “progressive fiscal outcomes do not require particularly progressive tax systems,” “making taxes more progressive taxes won’t raise much revenue,” and “The way a tax system fights inequality isn't just redistribution. It's by generating enough revenue to fund programs and benefits that help middle class, working class, and poor people participate and succeed in the economy. While talk of taxing top earners may make for good political rhetoric on the left, relying on such taxes cannot pay the bills.” This brought responses from Jared Bernstein, Matt Bruenig, and Mike Konczal the three of whom, as Steve Waldman says in a nice summary of this debate, “offer responses that examine what ‘progressivity’ really means and offer support for taxing the rich more heavily than the poor.”
This debate brings up an important question: what is the best way to fight economic inequality? ...[continue]...

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Inequality and Progressive Taxes

Steve Waldman has a nice discussion of a recent debate:

Scale, progressivity, and socioeconomic cohesion, Interfluidity: Today seems to be the day to talk about whether those of us concerned with poverty and inequality should focus on progressive taxation. Edward D. Kleinbard in the New York Times and Cathie Jo Martin and Alexander Hertel-Fernandez at Vox argue that focusing on progressivity can be counterproductive. Jared Bernstein, Matt Bruenig, and Mike Konczal offer responses offer responses that examine what “progressivity” really means and offer support for taxing the rich more heavily than the poor. This is an intramural fight. All of these writers presume a shared goal of reducing inequality and increasing socioeconomic cohesion. Me too.
I don’t think we should be very categorical about the question of tax progressivity. We should recognize that, as a political matter, there may be tradeoffs between the scale of benefits and progressivity of the taxation that helps support them. We should be willing to trade some progressivity for a larger scale. Reducing inequality requires a large transfers footprint more than it requires steeply increasing tax rates. But, ceteris paribus, increasing tax rates do help. Also, high marginal tax rates may have indirect effects, especially on corporate behavior, that are socially valuable. We should be willing sometimes to trade tax progressivity for scale. But we should drive a hard bargain.
First, let’s define some terms...

Wednesday, October 08, 2014

'How are Economic Inequality and Growth Connected?'

Carter Price and Heather Boushey:

How are economic inequality and growth connected?, by Carter C. Price and Heather Boushey: ... In the past several decades, economic inequality in the United States and other wealthy nations has risen sharply, spurring renewed interest in the question of whether and how changes in income distributions affect economic wellbeing. Over the same time period, economic inequality has persisted and even grown in many poorer economies.

These trends have sparked economists to conduct empirical studies, analyzing data across states and countries, to see if there is a direct relationship between economic inequality, and economic growth and stability. Early empirical work on this question generally found inequality is harmful for economic growth. Improved data and techniques added to this body of research, but the newer literature was generally inconclusive, with some finding a negative relationship between economic growth and inequality while others finding the opposite.

The latest research, however, provides nuance that can explain many of the conflicting trends within the earlier body of research. There is growing evidence that inequality is bad for growth in the long run. Specifically, a number of studies show that higher inequality is associated with slower income gains among those not at the top of the income and wealth spectrum. ...

In this paper, we review the recent empirical economic literature that specifically examines the effect inequality has on economic growth, wellbeing, or stability. This newly available research looks across developing and advanced countries and within the United States. Most research shows that, in the long term, inequality is negatively related to economic growth and that countries with less disparity and a larger middle class boast stronger and more stable growth. Some studies do suggest that in the short run, inequality may spur growth before hindering it over the longer term, but overall there is growing evidence that, in the long run, more equitable societies are associated with higher rates of growth. ...

Important as well for the purposes of this paper is this—the latest economic research we reviewed only examines the outcome of whether there are results for regressions that demonstrate positive or negative relationships between inequality and economic growth and stability. This means the paper cannot provide clear guidance for policymakers on exactly how to address inequality or mitigate its effects on growth. In other words, the research examined in this paper generally does not identify the channels or mechanisms by which inequality affects growth. ...

This paper does not contain policy advice. Instead, it contains analysis that largely demonstrates there are direct, and possibly causal, relationships between economic inequality and growth—places that begin with a lower level of inequality subsequently tend to grow faster and have longer periods of growth than those with a higher level of inequality. In future research, we will focus on the channels...

Thursday, October 02, 2014

Why is our Infant Mortality so Bad?

Aaron Carroll:

So why is our infant mortality so bad?: ...Everyone knows that in international comparisons, the infant mortality rate in the US is terrible. Some people think it’s because we code things differently and try harder to save premature babies. Others think that’s not true, and that this points to other problems in the health care system.
As always, though, it’s probably a mixture of many things. A new NBER working paper gets at just that. “Why is Infant Mortality Higher in the US than in Europe?” ... What did they find?
Reporting differences ... explained up to 40% of the disadvantage in US infant mortality. But that would only get us closer. It would still leave us way worse. ... What accounted for the real disadvantage was postneonatal mortality, or mortality from one month to one year of age. That difference was almost entirely due to excess inequality in the US. ...
So there are two main takeaways from this paper. The first is that although reporting differences can account for some of our worse infant mortality statistics, most of the differences we see are not due to that explanation. The second is that most of the rest of the disadvantage is due to differences in postneonatal mortality, that likely require fixes to the healthcare system. Whether the ACA does so remains to be seen.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Highest Ranked, but It's Not Good News

Martin Wolf, in "Why inequality is such a drag on economies":

...in 2012, says the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the US ranked highest among the high-income countries in the share of relatively low-paying jobs. ...

Monday, September 29, 2014

Paul Krugman: Our Invisible Rich

The difference between the rich and the poor is larger than most people realize:

Our Invisible Rich, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Half a century ago, a classic essay in The New Yorker titled “Our Invisible Poor” took on the then-prevalent myth that America was an affluent society with only a few “pockets of poverty.” For many, the facts about poverty came as a revelation...
I don’t think the poor are invisible today... Instead, these days it’s the rich who are invisible. ... In fact, most Americans have no idea just how unequal our society has become.
The latest piece of evidence to that effect is a survey asking people in various countries how much they thought top executives of major companies make relative to unskilled workers. In the United States the median respondent believed that chief executives make about 30 times as much as their employees, which was roughly true in the 1960s — but since then the gap has soared, so that today chief executives earn something like 300 times as much as ordinary workers.
So Americans have no idea how much the Masters of the Universe are paid, a finding very much in line with evidence that Americans vastly underestimate the concentration of wealth at the top. ...
So how can people be unaware of this development, or at least unaware of its scale? The main answer, I’d suggest, is that the truly rich are so removed from ordinary people’s lives that we never see what they have. We may notice, and feel aggrieved about, college kids driving luxury cars; but we don’t see private equity managers commuting by helicopter to their immense mansions in the Hamptons. The commanding heights of our economy are invisible because they’re lost in the clouds. ...
Does the invisibility of the very rich matter? Politically, it matters a lot. Pundits sometimes wonder why American voters don’t care more about inequality; part of the answer is that they don’t realize how extreme it is. ...
Most Americans say, if asked, that inequality is too high and something should be done about it — there is overwhelming support for higher minimum wages, and a majority favors higher taxes at the top. But at least so far confronting extreme inequality hasn’t been an election-winning issue. Maybe that would be true even if Americans knew the facts about our new Gilded Age. But we don’t know that. Today’s political balance rests on a foundation of ignorance, in which the public has no idea what our society is really like.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Paul Krugman: The Show-Off Society

When it comes to the wealthy, is this time different?:

The Show-Off Society, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Liberals talk about circumstances; conservatives talk about character.
This intellectual divide is most obvious when the subject is the persistence of poverty... Liberals focus on the stagnation of real wages and the disappearance of jobs offering middle-class incomes, as well as the constant insecurity that comes with not having reliable jobs or assets. For conservatives, however, it’s all about not trying hard enough. ...
Let us, however, be fair: some conservatives are willing to censure the rich, too. ... Peggy Noonan writes about our “decadent elites”... Charles Murray, whose book “Coming Apart” is mainly about the alleged decay of values among the white working class, also denounces the “unseemliness” of the very rich, with their lavish lifestyles and gigantic houses.
But has there really been an explosion of elite ostentation? ...
I’ve just reread a remarkable article titled “How top executives live,” originally published in Fortune in 1955 and ... it turns out that the lives of an earlier generation’s elite were, indeed, far more restrained, more seemly if you like ... And why had the elite moved away from the ostentation of the past? ... The large yacht, Fortune tells us, “has foundered in the sea of progressive taxation.”
But that sea has since receded. ... And there’s no mystery about what happened to the good-old days of elite restraint. ... Extreme income inequality and low taxes at the top are back. ...
Is there any chance that moral exhortations, appeals to set a better example, might induce the wealthy to stop showing off so much? No.
It’s not just that people who can afford to live large tend to do just that. As Thorstein Veblen told us long ago, in a highly unequal society the wealthy feel obliged to engage in “conspicuous consumption”... And modern social science confirms his insight. For example, researchers at the Federal Reserve have shown that people living in highly unequal neighborhoods are more likely to buy luxury cars... Pretty clearly, high inequality brings a perceived need to spend money in ways that signal status.
The point is that while chiding the rich for their vulgarity may not be as offensive as lecturing the poor on their moral failings, it’s just as futile. Human nature being what it is, it’s silly to expect humility from a highly privileged elite. So if you think our society needs more humility, you should support policies that would reduce the elite’s privileges.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

'Having It and Flaunting It'

Paul Krugman:

Having It and Flaunting It: David Brooks is getting some ribbing for suggesting that the wealthy should “follow a code of seemliness”, not living the lavish lifestyles they can afford. ...I want to talk a bit about the economics of flaunting your wealth...
The first thing to say is that expecting the rich not to flaunt their wealth is, of course, unrealistic..., for many of the rich flaunting is what it’s all about. ... So it’s largely about display — which Thorstein Veblen could, of course, have told you. ...
Wait, there’s more. If you feel that it’s bad for society to have people flaunting their relative wealth, you have in effect accepted the view that great wealth imposes negative externalities on the rest of the population — which is an argument for progressive taxation that goes beyond the maximization of revenue.
And one more thing: think about what this says about economic growth. We have an economy that has become considerably richer since 1980, but with a large share of the gains going to people with very high incomes — people for whom the marginal utility of a dollar’s worth of spending ... comes largely from status competition, which is a zero-sum game. So a lot of our economic growth has simply been wasted, doing nothing but accelerating the pace of the upper-income rat race. ...

From the past, my view of what wealth is for:

What is Rich?: ...When I was a little kid, being rich meant being able to buy the stuff I wanted without having to worry about how much it costs.

But as I got older -- and maybe this explains my choice of jobs -- being rich was much more about the ability to do what I wanted with my time. In this sense, you can have considerable wealth, but still not be rich. In fact, the quest for more and more stuff gets in the way (though it depends in part on what you want to do with your free time, if it's to play golf at an expensive club, sufficient wealth is a necessary condition).

Some of the richest people I know are quite poor in terms of having "stuff", but free of the rat race, and as far as I can tell, they are generally happy. I think a lot of people are actually looking for freedom as they accumulate wealth -- they imagine being able to do whatever they want -- but don't realize that working longer and longer hours until there is no time left for anything else is not the best the way to get the freedom they are looking for. ...

But for many it seems the accumulation of "stuff" and the envy of people who cannot afford it is more important than freedom from the never ending job of status competition.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

'Capitalism & the Low-Paid'

Chris Dillow:

Capitalism & the low-paid: Is capitalism compatible with decent living standards for the worst off*? This old Marxian question is outside the Overton window, but it's the one raised by Ed Miliband's promise to raise the minimum wage to £8 by 2020. ...
* Note for rightists: As Adam Smith said, the notion of what's decent rises as incomes rise. And the fact that capitalism has massively improved workers' living standards in the past does not guarantee it will do so in future. As Marx said, a mode of production which increases productive powers can eventually restrain them. And as Bertrand Russell pointed out, inductive reasoning can go badly wrong. ...

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Finance Sector Wages: Explaining Their High Level and Growth

Joanne Lindley and Steven McIntosh:

Finance sector wages: explaining their high level and growth, by Joanne Lindley and Steven, Vox EU: Individuals who work in the finance sector enjoy a significant wage advantage. This column considers three explanations: rent sharing, skill intensity, and task-biased technological change. The UK evidence suggests that rent sharing is the key. The rising premium could then be due to changes in regulation and the increasing complexity of financial products creating more asymmetric information. ...

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

'Empathy for the Poor'

Tim Taylor:

Empathy for the Poor: A Meditation: The U.S. Census Bureau has just published its annual report with estimates of the U.S. poverty rate, which was 14.5% in 2013, down a touch from 15.0% in 2012. It's easy to have sympathy for those with low incomes. But for many of us, myself included, true empathy with the one-seventh or so of Americans who are below the  poverty line is more difficult. It can be difficult to avoid falling into easy and ill-informed moralizing that if those with low incomes just managed their food budget a little better, or saved a little bit of money, worked a few more hours, or avoided taking out that high-interest loan, then their economic lives could be more stable and their longer-term prospects improved.

When I find myself sucked into a discussion of how the poor live their lives, I think of the comments of George Orwell in his underappreciated 1937 book, The Road to Wigan Pier, which details the lives of the poor and working poor in northern industrial areas of Britain like Lancashire and Yorkshire during the Depression. Orwell, of course, was writing from a leftist and socialist perspective, deeply sympathetic to the poor. Bur Orwell is also painfully honest about his reactions and views. At one point Orwell laments that the poor make such rotten choices about food--but then he also points out how unsatisfactory it feels to patronizingly tell those with low incomes how to spend what little they have. Here's Orwell...

Monday, September 15, 2014

'Polanyi's Paradox and the Shape of Employment Growth'

"A key observation of the paper is that journalists and expert commentators overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labor and ignore the strong complementarities":

Polanyi's Paradox and the Shape of Employment Growth, by David Autor, NBER Working Paper No. 20485, September 2014 [open link]: In 1966, the philosopher Michael Polanyi observed, “We can know more than we can tell... The skill of a driver cannot be replaced by a thorough schooling in the theory of the motorcar; the knowledge I have of my own body differs altogether from the knowledge of its physiology.” Polanyi’s observation largely predates the computer era, but the paradox he identified—that our tacit knowledge of how the world works often exceeds our explicit understanding—foretells much of the history of computerization over the past five decades. This paper offers a conceptual and empirical overview of this evolution. I begin by sketching the historical thinking about machine displacement of human labor, and then consider the contemporary incarnation of this displacement—labor market polarization, meaning the simultaneous growth of high-education, high-wage and low-education, low-wages jobs—a manifestation of Polanyi’s paradox. I discuss both the explanatory power of the polarization phenomenon and some key puzzles that confront it. I then reflect on how recent advances in artificial intelligence and robotics should shape our thinking about the likely trajectory of occupational change and employment growth. A key observation of the paper is that journalists and expert commentators overstate the extent of machine substitution for human labor and ignore the strong complementarities. The challenges to substituting machines for workers in tasks requiring adaptability, common sense, and creativity remain immense. Contemporary computer science seeks to overcome Polanyi’s paradox by building machines that learn from human examples, thus inferring the rules that we tacitly apply but do not explicitly understand.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

'More Education = More Income'

Eduardo Porter:

A Simple Equation: More Education = More Income, by Eduardo Porter, NY Times: ...the gap between the wages of a family of two college graduates and a family of high school graduates..., between 1979 and 2012...,grew by some $30,000, after inflation. This ... amounts to a powerful counterargument to anybody who doubts the importance of education in the battle against the nation’s entrenched inequality.
But in the American education system, inequality is winning, gumming up the mobility that broad-based prosperity requires. ... Only one in 20 Americans aged 25 to 34 whose parents didn’t finish high school has a college degree. The average across 20 rich countries in the O.E.C.D. analysis is almost one in four. ...
Given the payoff, the fact that many of those who would benefit most are not investing in a college education suggests an epic failure. And the growing cadre of countries that outperform the United States suggests failure is hardly inevitable. ...
Mr. Schleicher told me that, while places like Japan, Singapore and Canada have learned how to educate socially disadvantaged children, in the United States social background plays an outsize role in the educational outcomes. ... “But a lot depends on policy. There is a lot we can do.”
Decimating public education is not to anyone’s advantage...

Thursday, September 04, 2014

FRB Explanatory Video: Changes in Family Finances

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Acemoglu-Robinson Critique of Piketty

Branko Milanovic:

My take on the Acemoglu-Robinson critique of Piketty: A couple of days ago Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson published a critique of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st century. It is published here.  Because of the renown of the authors, perhaps more than because of its intrinsic quality, it is a review worth reading. I read it today and my brief reaction to the three main critiques by Acemoglu and Robinson is as follows. ...

[Travel day, squeezing this one in before hurrying to my next flight.]

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Understanding Social Mobility

Friday, August 15, 2014

'The Supply-Side Case for Government Redistribution'

Alan Blinder on the inequality Laffer curve (that some of us were writing about in early 2011):

The Supply-Side Case for Government Redistribution, by Alan S. Blinder, Commentary, WSJ: ...Why is high and rising inequality a problem? ... In thinking about the effects of inequality on growth, we should look more at the supply side than the demand side. That's ironic. The clarion call of "supply-side economics" since the 1970s has been to cut taxes on the rich on the hope (not supported by much evidence) that benefits would "trickle down"... But nowadays the best supply-side policies may be those aimed at reducing income inequality. Consider:
Children who grow up poor get inferior K-12 education, and most likely don't go to college. They don't develop their talents as fully as middle- and upper-class kids do. Children who grow up undernourished do not reach their full physical or mental potential... Children who don't have enough access to health care grow up to be less healthy and productive adults. These ... ill-effects of poverty ... aren't limited to poor countries...
The strongest arguments against rampant inequality may nonetheless be political, not economic. ...Americans aren't really created equal. ... Sadly, with our political system so dominated by money, "equal political rights" is a cruel deception. ...
So even if you don't buy the ethical argument for redistribution, and even if you thought 1979 levels of income inequality were just fine, there are good reasons to reconsider the case in 2014. Inequality has risen so much in the past 35 years that it may now be retarding economic growth on the supply side while leaving us with the finest government money can buy.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

'A Clear Connection Between the Rise in Incomes at the Very Top and Lower Real Wages for Everyone Else'

Simon Wren-Lewis:

...In the US the share of the 1% has increased from about 8% at the end of the 70s to nearly 20% today. If that has had no impact on aggregate GDP but is just a pure redistribution, this means that the average incomes of the 99% are 15% lower as a result. The equivalent 1% numbers for the UK are 6% and 13% (although as the graph shows, that 13% looks like a temporary downward blip from something above 15%), implying a 7.5% decline in the average income of the remaining 99%.
So there is a clear connection between the rise in incomes at the very top and lower real wages for everyone else. Arguments that try and suggest that any particular CEO’s pay increase does no one any harm may be appealing to a common pool type of logic, and are just as fallacious as arguments that some tax break does not leave anyone else worse off. It is an indication of the scale of the rise in incomes of the 1% over the last few decades that this has had a significant effect on the incomes of the remaining 99%.   

'Education Alone Is Not the Answer to Income Inequality'

Robert Kuttner:

Education Alone Is Not the Answer to Income Inequality and Slow Recovery: Our economy is now five years into an economic recovery, yet the wages of most Americans are flat. ... The top one percent has made off with nearly all of the economy’s gains since 2000.  
Is there nothing that can be done to improve this picture?
To hear a lot of economists tell the story, the remedy is mostly education. It’s true that better-educated people command higher earnings. But...
If everyone in America got a PhD, the job market would not be transformed. Mainly, we’d have a lot of frustrated, over-educated people.
The current period of widening inequality, after all, is one during which more and more Americans have been going to college. Conversely, the era of broadly distributed prosperity in the three decades after World War II was a time when many in the blue-collar middle class hadn’t graduated from high school.
I’m not disparaging education—it’s good for both the economy and the society to have a well-educated population. But the sources of equality and prosperity mainly lie elsewhere. ...

Friday, August 08, 2014

Paul Krugman: Inequality Is a Drag

Reducing inequality "can make the nation as a whole richer":

Inequality Is a Drag, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: For more than three decades, almost everyone who matters in American politics has agreed that higher taxes on the rich and increased aid to the poor have hurt economic growth. ...
But there’s now growing evidence for a new view — namely, that the whole premise of this debate is wrong,... coming from places like the International Monetary Fund, that high inequality is a drag on growth, and that redistribution can be good for the economy. ...
But how is that possible? Doesn’t taxing the rich and helping the poor reduce the incentive to make money? Well, yes, but ... extreme inequality deprives many people of the opportunity to fulfill their potential.
Think about it. Do talented children in low-income American families have the same chance ... to get the right education, to pursue the right career path ... as those born higher up the ladder? Of course not. ... Extreme inequality means a waste of human resources.
And government programs that reduce inequality can make the nation as a whole richer, by reducing that waste.
Consider, for example,... food stamps, perennially targeted by conservatives who claim that they reduce the incentive to work. The historical evidence does indeed suggest that ... food stamps ... somewhat reduces work effort, especially by single mothers. But it also suggests that Americans who had access to food stamps when they were children grew up to be healthier and more productive..., which means that they made a bigger economic contribution. The purpose of the food stamp program was to reduce misery, but it’s a good guess that the program was also good for American economic growth.
The same thing, I’d argue, will end up being true of Obamacare. Subsidized insurance will induce some people to reduce the number of hours they work, but it will also mean higher productivity from Americans who are finally getting the health care they need, not to mention making better use of their skills because they can change jobs without the fear of losing coverage. Over all, health reform will probably make us richer as well as more secure.
Will the new view of inequality change our political debate? It should. Being nice to the wealthy and cruel to the poor is not, it turns out, the key to economic growth. On the contrary, making our economy fairer would also make it richer. Goodbye, trickle-down; hello, trickle-up.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

'The Missing Women in the Inequality Discussion'

This is from Caroline Freund and Sarah Oliver:

The Missing Women in the Inequality Discussion, by Caroline Freund and Sarah Oliver: Growing inequality of income and wealth has become a major global concern. In many countries inequality has been driven by weak earnings growth not only among the poor but also among groups across much of the income distribution, while earnings of the top 1 percent continue to rise dramatically.
A clear but often overlooked feature of this discussion is that the fantastic gains at the top of the distribution are almost entirely accruing to men. One reason it is overlooked is that income and wealth inequality are measured at the household level. But one person in the household typically earns and controls the money, and that person is almost always a man. The concentration of income and wealth in the hands of men should reinforce the call to undertake greater redistributive policies. ...
The growing concentration of wealth in the hands of a few is itself disturbing. That these few are almost all men makes it even more so.

'How Increasing Income Inequality Is Dampening U.S. Economic Growth'

The email letting me know about this said "Notorious commie group Standard & Poor’s says inequality hurting economic growth":

How Increasing Income Inequality Is Dampening U.S. Economic Growth, And Possible Ways To Change The Tide: The topic of income inequality and its effects has been the subject of countless analysis stretching back generations and crossing geopolitical boundaries. Despite the tendency to speak about this issue in moral terms, the central questions are economic ones: Would the U.S. economy be better off with a narrower income gap? And, if an unequal distribution of income hinders growth, which solutions could do more harm than good, and which could make the economic pie bigger for all?
Given the decades--indeed, centuries--of debate on this subject, it comes as no surprise that the answers are complex. A degree of inequality is to be expected in any market economy. It can keep the economy functioning effectively, incentivizing investment and expansion--but too much inequality can undermine growth. ...
Our review of the data, as well as a wealth of research on this matter, leads us to conclude that the current level of income inequality in the U.S. is dampening GDP growth, at a time when the world's biggest economy is struggling to recover from the Great Recession and the government is in need of funds to support an aging population. ...

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

'Why Not Maximum Wages?'

Simon Wren-Lewis:

If minimum wages, why not maximum wages?: I was in a gathering of academics the other day, and we were discussing minimum wages. The debate moved on to increasing inequality, and the difficulty of doing anything about it. I said why not have a maximum wage? To say that the idea was greeted with incredulity would be an understatement. So you want to bring back price controls was once response. How could you possibly decide on what a maximum wage should be was another.
So why the asymmetry? Why is the idea of setting a maximum wage considered outlandish among economists?
The problem is clear enough. All the evidence, in the US and UK, points to the income of the top 1% rising much faster than the average. ...
So why not consider a maximum wage? One possibility is to cap top pay as some multiple of the lowest paid, as a recent Swiss referendum proposed. That referendum was quite draconian, suggesting a multiple of 12, yet it received a large measure of popular support (35% in favour, 65% against). The Swiss did vote to ban ‘golden hellos and goodbyes’. One neat idea is to link the maximum wage to the minimum wage, which would give CEOs an incentive to argue for higher minimum wages! Note that these proposals would have no disincentive effect on the self-employed entrepreneur. 
If economists have examined these various possibilities, I have missed it. One possible reason why many economists seem to baulk at this idea is that it reminds them too much of the ‘bad old days’ of incomes policies and attempts by governments to fix ‘fair wages’. But this is an overreaction, as a maximum wage would just be the counterpart to the minimum wage. I would be interested in any other thoughts about why the idea of a maximum wage seems not to be part of economists’ Overton window.

Why the Rich Should Take the Lead Income Redistribution

I have a new column:

Why the Rich Should Call for Income Redistribution: After the craze over Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century, nobody should be surprised to learn that inequality has been increasing over the last several decades. The question is what to do about it.
One answer is to do nothing and hope the problem fixes itself, or to deny it is a problem at all. But that is a dangerous approach. - See more at: http://www.thefiscaltimes.com/Columns/2014/07/29/Why-Rich-Should-Call-Income-Redistribution#sthash.V51AksZQ.dpuf

One answer is to do nothing and hope the problem fixes itself, or to deny it is a problem at all. But that is a dangerous approach. ...

Saturday, July 26, 2014

'Are the Rich Coldhearted?'

Why are so many of the rich and powerful so callous and indifferent to the struggles of those who aren't so fortunate?:

Are the Rich Coldhearted?, by Michael Inzlicht and Sukhvinder Obhi, NY Times: ... Can people in high positions of power — presidents, bosses, celebrities, even dominant spouses — easily empathize with those beneath them?
Psychological research suggests the answer is no. ...
Why does power leave people seemingly coldhearted? Some, like the Princeton psychologist Susan Fiske, have suggested that powerful people don’t attend well to others around them because they don’t need them in order to access important resources; as powerful people, they already have plentiful access to those.
We suggest a different, albeit complementary, reason from cognitive neuroscience. On the basis of a study we recently published with the researcher Jeremy Hogeveen, in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, we contend that when people experience power, their brains fundamentally change how sensitive they are to the actions of others. ...
Does this mean that the powerful are heartless beings incapable of empathy? Hardly..., the bad news is that the powerful are, by default and at a neurological level, simply not motivated to care. But the good news is that they are, in theory, redeemable.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Meritocracy won’t happen: the problem’s with the ‘ocracy’

Andrew Gelman:

Meritocracy won’t happen: the problem’s with the ‘ocracy’, by Andrew Gelman, Monkey Cage: I’ve written about this before but I think the topic is worth returning to, because it comes up a lot in our political discourse.

For example, consider this recent post by Robert Reich (link from Mark Thoma):

The “self-made” man or woman, the symbol of American meritocracy, is disappearing. Six of today’s ten wealthiest Americans are heirs to prominent fortunes. . . . We don’t have to sit by and watch our meritocracy be replaced by a permanent aristocracy . . .

I don’t disagree with Reich on the data..., the data seem to support Reich’s point that lots of rich people come from rich families.

But I want to dispute Reich’s other statement, which is that this is somehow contrary to the spirit of “meritocracy.”

I claim the opposite: that inherited privilege is an intrinsic and central aspect of meritocracy. ...

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Tyler Cowen on Global Inequality

Dan Little:

Tyler Cowen on global inequality: Tyler Cowen sounds a bit like Voltaire's Pangloss when he argues, as the New York Times headline puts it, that we are living "all in all, [in] a more egalitarian world" (link). Cowen acknowledges what most people concerned about inequalities believe: "the problem [of inequality] has become more acute within most individual nations"; but he shrugs this off by saying that "income inequality for the world as a whole has been falling for most of the last 20 years." The implication is that we should not be concerned about the first fact because of the encouraging trend in the second fact.

Cowen bases his case on what seems on its face paradoxical but is in fact correct: it is possible for a set of 100 countries to each experience increasing income inequality and yet the aggregate of those populations to experience falling inequality. And this is precisely what he thinks is happening. Incomes in (some of) the poorest countries are rising, and the gap between the top and the bottom has fallen. So the gap between the richest and the poorest citizens of planet Earth has declined. The economic growth in developing countries in the past twenty years, principally China, has led to rapid per capita growth in several of those countries. This helps the distribution of income globally -- even as it worsens China's income distribution.

But this isn't what most people are concerned about when they express criticisms of rising inequalities, either nationally or internationally. They are concerned about the fact that our economies have very systematically increased the percentage of income and wealth flowing to the top 1, 5, and 10 percent, while allowing the bottom 40% to stagnate. And this concentration of wealth and income is widespread across the globe. (Branko Milanovic does a nice job of analyzing the different meanings we might attach to "global inequality" in this World Bank working paper; link.)

This rising income inequality is a profound problem for many reasons. First, it means that the quality of life for the poorest 40% of each economy's population is significantly lower than it could and should be, given the level of wealth of the societies in which they live. That is a bad thing in and of itself. Second, the relative poverty of this sizable portion of society places a burden on future economic growth. If the poorest 40% are poorly educated, poorly housed, and poorly served by healthcare, then they will be less productive than they have the capacity to be, and future society will be the poorer for it. Third, this rising inequality is further a problem because it undermines the perceived legitimacy of our economic system. Widening inequalities have given rise to a widespread perception that these growing inequalities are unfair and unjustified. This is a political problem of the first magnitude. Our democracy depends on a shared conviction of the basic fairness of our institutions. (Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson also argue that inequality has negative effects on the social wellbeing of whole societies; link.)

The seeming paradox raised here can be easily clarified by separating two distinct issues. One is the issue of income distribution within an integrated national economy -- the United States, Denmark, Brazil, China. And the second is the issue of extreme inequalities of per capita GDP across national economies -- the poverty of nations like Nigeria, Honduras, and Bangladesh compared to rich countries like Sweden, Germany, or Canada. Both are important issues; but they are different issues that should not be conflated. It is misleading to judge that global inequality is falling by looking only at the rank-ordered distribution of income across the world's 7 billion citizens. This decline follows from the moderate success achieved in the past fifteen years in ameliorating global poverty -- a Millenium Development Goal (link). But it is at least as relevant to base our answer to the question about the trend of global inequalities by looking at the average trend across the world's domestic economies; and this trend is unambiguously upward.

Here is a pair of graphs from The Economist that address both topics (reproduced at the XrayDelta blog here). The left panel demonstrates the trend that Cowen is highlighting. The global Gini coefficient has indeed leveled off in the past 40 years. The right panel indicates rising inequalities in US, Britain, Germany, France, and Sweden. As the second panel documents, the distribution of income within a sample set of national economies has dramatically worsened since 1980. So global inequalities are both improving and worsening -- depending on how we disaggregate the question.

The global Gini approach is intended to capture income inequalities across the world's citizens, not across the world's countries. Essentially this means estimating a rank-order of the incomes of all the world's citizens, and estimating the Lorenz distribution this creates.

We get a very different picture if we consider what has happened with inequalities within each of the world's national economies. Here is a graph compiled by Branko Milanovic that represents the average Gini coefficient for countries over time (link):

This graph makes the crucial point: inequalities within nations have increased dramatically across the globe since 1980, from an average Gini coefficient of about .45 to an average of .54 in 2000 (and apparently still rising). And this is the most important point: each of these countries is suffering the social disadvantages that go along with the fact of rising inequalities. So we could use the Milanovic graph to reach exactly the opposite conclusion from the one that Cowen reaches: in fact, global inequalities have worsened dramatically since 1980.

Thomas Piketty's name does not occur once in Cowen's short piece; and yet his economic arguments about capitalism and inequality in Capital in the Twenty-First Century are surely part of the the Cowen's impetus in writing this piece. Ironically, Piketty's findings corroborate one part of Cowen's point -- the global convergence of inequalities. Two French economists, François Bourguignon and Christian Morrisson, made a substantial effort to measure historical Gini coefficients for the world's population as a whole (link). Their work is incorporated into Piketty's own conclusions and is included on Piketty's website. Here is Piketty's summary graph of global inequalities since 1700 -- which makes the point of convergence between developed countries and developing countries more clearly than Cowen himself:

So what about China? What role does the world's largest economy (by population) play in the topic of global economic inequalities? China's per capita income has increased by roughly 10% annually during that period; as a population it is no longer a low-income economy. But most development economists who study China would agree that China's rapid growth since 1980 has sharply increased inequalities in that country (linklink). Urban and coastal populations have gained much more rapidly than the 45% or so of the population (500 million people) still living in backward rural areas. A recent estimate found that the Gini coefficient for China has increased from .30 to .45 since 1980 (link). So China's rapid economic growth has been a major component of the trend Cowan highlights: the rising level of incomes in previously poor countries. At the same time, this process of growth has been accompanied by rising levels of inequalities within China that are a source of serious concern for Chinese policy makers.

Here are charts documenting the rise of income inequalities in China from the 2005 China Human Development Report (link):

 
 
 

So rising global income inequality is not a minor issue to be brushed aside with a change of topic. Rather, it is a key issue for the economic and political futures of countries throughout the world, including Canada, Great Britain, the United States, Germany, Egypt, China, India, and Brazil. And if you don't think that economic inequalities have the potential for creating political unrest, you haven't paid attention to recent events in Egypt, Brazil, the UK, France, Sweden, and Tunisia.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

'The Rise of the Non-Working Rich'

Robert Reich:

The Rise of the Non-Working Rich: In a new Pew poll, more than three quarters of self-described conservatives believe “poor people have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything.” In reality, most of America’s poor work hard, often in two or more jobs.
The real non-workers are the wealthy who inherit their fortunes. And their ranks are growing. In fact, we’re on the cusp of the largest inter-generational wealth transfer in history. ...
The “self-made” man or woman, the symbol of American meritocracy, is disappearing. Six of today’s ten wealthiest Americans are heirs to prominent fortunes. ...
This is the dynastic form of wealth French economist Thomas Piketty warns about. ... What to do? First, restore the estate tax in full.
Second, eliminate the “stepped-up-basis on death” rule. This obscure tax provision allows heirs to avoid paying capital gains taxes... Such untaxed gains account for more than half of the value of estates worth more than $100 million, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Third, institute a wealth tax. ...
We don’t have to sit by and watch our meritocracy be replaced by a permanent aristocracy, and our democracy be undermined by dynastic wealth. We can and must take action — before it’s too late.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Improving Social Insurance Can Narrow the 'Opportunity Gap'

I have a new column:

Improving Social Insurance Can Narrow the “Opportunity Gap”: The justification for social insurance programs that protect workers is usually based upon the fact that employment in capitalist economies is subject to substantial variation due to cyclical fluctuations and structural change. Economic systems such as socialism have much less variation in employment since everyone, pretty much, is guaranteed a job. But the growth rate of output in those systems is not as high as it is in capitalist economies, and that leads to a lower average standard of living. 
Why not enjoy the benefits of a capitalist system while minimizing its costs through the use of social insurance programs that insulate workers from harm when they lose their jobs for one of these reasons? ...
We don’t do enough to insulate workers from the fluctuations in employment inherent in capitalist economies. ...
Doing more to help workers affected by economic downturns and structural change is not the only way in which social insurance could be improved. There other risks, in particular the risk of unequal opportunity, that are baked into capitalist systems. ...

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Adam Smith as Malthusian: 'The Surplus Population'

Brad DeLong quotes Adam Smith:

Adam Smith as Malthusian: “The Surplus Population”, by Brad DeLong: ...Adam Smith: Smith: Wealth of Nations, Book I, Chapter 8: “Is this improvement in the circumstances of the lower ranks of the people…

…to be regarded as an advantage or as an inconveniency to the society? The answer seems ... abundantly plain. Servants, abourers and workmen of different kinds, make up the far greater part of every great political society. But what improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable. It is but equity, besides, that they who feed, cloath and lodge the whole body of the people, should have such a share of the produce of their own labour as to be themselves tolerably well fed, cloathed and lodged.

Poverty… seems even to be avourable to generation. A half-starved Highland woman frequently bears more than twenty children…. Luxury in the fair sex, while it enflames perhaps the passion for enjoyment, seems always to weaken and frequently to destroy altogether, the powers of generation. But poverty… is extremely unfavourable to the rearing of children…. It is not uncommon… in the Highlands… for a mother who has borne twenty children not to have two alive…. In civilized society it is only among the inferior ranks of people that the scantiness of subsistence can set limits to the further multiplication of the human species… by destroying a great part of the children which their fruitful marriages produce. The liberal reward of labour, by enabling them to provide better for their children, and consequently to bring up a greater number, naturally tends to widen and extend those limits…. The liberal reward of labour, therefore, as it is the effect of increasing wealth, so it is the cause of increasing population. To complain of it, is to lament over the necessary effect and cause of the greatest public prosperity.

ItIt deserves to be remarked, perhaps, that it is in the progressive state, while the society is advancing to the further acquisition, rather than when it has acquired its full complement of riches, that the condition of the labouring poor, of the great body of the people, seems to be the happiest and the most comfortable. It is hard in the stationary, and miserable in the declining state. The progressive state is in reality the cheerful and the hearty state to all the different orders of the society. The stationary is dull; the declining melancholy…

And then Brad remarks:

Two things are worth noting here:

The first is that even as early as 1776 economics had already acquired the utilitarian bias toward an equal distribution of income: feeding, clothing, and lodging the working class “tolerably well” contributed much more to the flourishing and happiness of society then would devoting the same resources to further increasing the luxury of the rich. We are in the world of Jeremy Bentham, where any claim that we cannot make interpersonal comparisons of utility between rich and poor is dismissed with a laugh.

The second is that Adam Smith is, in the longest run and in the last analysis, a Malthusian: economies are headed for a stationary–or, worse, a declining–state, and that stationary state is not a good one: “the condition of the… great body of the people… is hard in the stationary, and miserable in the declining state…” But there is no sense that we should not grab for the boom as long as we can, and as long as we are in the boom period, Adam Smith says, we should not complain about population growth

The liberal reward of labour… is the effect of increasing wealth… [and] the cause of increasing population. To complain… is to lament over the necessary effect and cause of the greatest public prosperity…