Category Archive for: Income Distribution [Return to Main]

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Decline in Unionization and Inequality

Research by Jaumotte and Carolina Osorio Buitron of the IMF finds that "The decline in unionization in recent decades has fed the rise in incomes at the top":

Power from the People: Inequality has risen in many advanced economies since the 1980s, largely because of the concentration of incomes at the top of the distribution. ...
While some inequality can increase efficiency by strengthening incentives to work and invest, recent research suggests that higher inequality is associated with lower and less sustainable growth in the medium run (Berg and Ostry, 2011; Berg, Ostry, and Zettelmeyer, 2012), even in advanced economies (OECD, 2014). Moreover, a rising concentration of income at the top of the distribution can reduce a population’s welfare if it allows top earners to manipulate the economic and political system in their favor (Stiglitz, 2012). ...
We examine the causes of the rise in inequality and focus on the relationship between labor market institutions and the distribution of incomes, by analyzing the experience of advanced economies since the early 1980s. ... [W]e find strong evidence that lower unionization is associated with an increase in top income shares in advanced economies during the period 1980–2010 (for example, see Chart 2)... This is the most novel aspect of our analysis, which sets the stage for further research on the link between the erosion of unions and the rise of inequality at the top. ...

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

'Robots Aren’t About to Take Your Job'

Timothy Aeppel at the WSJ:

Be Calm, Robots Aren’t About to Take Your Job, MIT Economist Says: David Autor knows a lot about robots. He doesn’t think they’re set to devour our jobs. ... His is “the non-alarmist view”...
Mr. Autor’s latest paper, presented to a packed audience at this year’s meeting of central bankers at Jackson Hole, Wyo., emphasized how difficult it is to program machines to do many tasks that humans find often easy and intuitive. In it, he played off a paradox identified in the 1960s by philosopher Michael Polanyi, who noted that humans can do many things without being able to explain how, like identify the face of a person in a series of photographs as they age. Machines can’t do that, at least not with accuracy.
This is why big breakthroughs in automation will take longer than many predict, Mr. Autor told the bankers. If a person can’t explain how they do something, a computer can’t be programmed to mimic that ability. ...
To Mr. Autor, polarization of the job market is the real downside of automation. He calculates middle-skill occupations made up 60% of all jobs in 1979. By 2012, this fell to 46%. The same pattern is visible in 16 European Union economies he studied.
The upshot is more workers clustered at the extremes. At the same time, average wages have stagnated for more than a decade. He attributes this to the loss of all those relatively good-paying middle-range jobs, as well as downward pressure on lower-skilled wages as displaced workers compete for the lesser work. ...

I've been arguing for a long time that in coming decades the major question will be about distribution, not production. I'm not very worried about stagnation, etc. -- we'll have plenty of stuff to go around. I'm worried about, to quote the title of a political science textbook I used many, many, many years ago as an undergraduate, "who gets the cookies?" not how many cookies we're able to produce So I agree with Autor on this point:

Mr. Autor ... added, “If we automate all the jobs, we’ll be rich—which means we’ll have a distribution problem, not an income problem.”

What's a Fair Tax Rate?

Me, at MoneyWatch:

What's a fair tax rate? It depends: How progressive should the U.S. tax system be? Answering this question requires an assumption about what's fair in terms of tax burdens across income groups. But people differ widely on what they consider fair. Therefore, fairness isn't something economic theory can address. Instead, a principle of fairness must be assumed.
For example...

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Best Investment the U.S. Could Make — Affordable Higher Education

I have a new column. Education is not the solution to inequality, but we still need to a much better job of supporting higher education:

The Best Investment the U.S. Could Make — Affordable Higher Education

[I should add that I wrote this before I saw Paul Krugman's latest column.]

Monday, February 23, 2015

'Even Better Than a Tax Cut'

Larry Mishel:

Even Better Than a Tax Cut: With the early stages of the 2016 presidential campaign underway and millions of Americans still hurting financially, both parties are looking for ways to address wage stagnation. That’s the good news. The bad news is that both parties are offering tax cuts as a solution. What has hurt workers’ paychecks is not what the government takes out, but what their employers no longer put in — a dynamic that tax cuts cannot eliminate. ...
Yes, a one-time reduction in taxes through, say, expanded child care credits or a secondary earner tax break, as Democrats propose, could help families. But as wages continue to stagnate, it is impossible to continuously cut taxes and still pay for things like education and social programs for the growing population of older Americans. ...
Contrary to conventional wisdom, wage stagnation is not a result of forces beyond our control. It is a result of a policy regime that has undercut the individual and collective bargaining power of most workers. Because wage stagnation was caused by policy, it can be reversed by policy, too.

Paul Krugman: Knowledge Isn’t Power

A skills gap is not the problem, it's economic power:

Knowledge Isn’t Power, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ... Just to be clear: I’m in favor of better education. Education is a friend of mine. And it should be available and affordable for all. But ... people insisting that educational failings are at the root of still-weak job creation, stagnating wages and rising inequality. This sounds serious and thoughtful. But it’s actually a view very much at odds with the evidence, not to mention a way to hide from the real, unavoidably partisan debate.
The education-centric story of our problems runs like this: We live in a period of unprecedented technological change, and too many American workers lack the skills to cope with that change. This “skills gap” is holding back growth, because businesses can’t find the workers they need. It also feeds inequality, as wages soar for workers with the right skills... So what we need is more and better education. ...
It’s repeated so widely that many people probably assume it’s unquestionably true. But it isn’t..., there’s no evidence that a skills gap is holding back employment...
Finally, while the education/inequality story may once have seemed plausible, it hasn’t tracked reality for a long time..., the inflation-adjusted earnings of highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.
So what is really going on? Corporate profits have soared as a share of national income, but there is no sign of a rise in the rate of return on investment..., it’s what you would expect if rising profits reflect monopoly power rather than returns to capital... — all the big gains are going to a tiny group of individuals holding strategic positions in corporate suites or astride the crossroads of finance. Rising inequality isn’t about who has the knowledge; it’s about who has the power.
Now, there’s a lot we could do to redress this inequality of power. We could levy higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and invest the proceeds in programs that help working families. We could raise the minimum wage and make it easier for workers to organize. It’s not hard to imagine a truly serious effort to make America less unequal.
But given the determination of one major party to move policy in exactly the opposite direction, advocating such an effort makes you sound partisan. Hence the desire to see the whole thing as an education problem instead. But we should recognize that popular evasion for what it is: a deeply unserious fantasy.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

'Faster Real GDP Growth during Recoveries Tends To Be Associated with Growth of Jobs in “Low-Paying” Industries'

This is from the St. Louis Fed:

Faster Real GDP Growth during Recoveries Tends To Be Associated with Growth of Jobs in “Low-Paying” Industries, by Kevin L. Kliesen and Lowell R. Ricketts: Typically, deep recessions are followed by rapid growth. However, since the second quarter of 2009, when the latest recession officially ended, real (inflation- adjusted) gross domestic product (GDP) has increased at only a 2.3 percent annual rate.1 Prior to the latest recession, the economy’s long-term growth rate of real potential GDP was about 3 percent per year.2 Thus, the current business expansion could not only be the weakest on record—although that conclusion will ultimately depend on its length and future growth—but it could signal a worrisome downshift in the economy’s long- term growth rate of real potential GDP.
A common refrain among many economic pundits and analysts is that the bulk of the job gains during this recovery have been in “low-wage jobs,” a term that is rarely defined. This essay will explicitly define “low-wage” jobs in order to assess the validity of this claim. (This essay will not delve into the numerous hypotheses that have been put forward to explain why the economy fell into a deep recession and why the current expansion’s growth rate has been so anemic. Interested readers should refer to those articles listed in the reference section.)
To preview our conclusion, we found that the percentage change in job losses during the latest recession was higher in “high- paying” private-sector industries—which we define as industries with above-average hourly earnings—than in low-paying sectors. Likewise, the percentage change in job gains during the recovery was also proportionately larger in high-paying industries. It should be pointed out, though, that the total number of jobs in low-paying industries exceeds the number of jobs in high-paying industries by nearly 70 percent. Thus, an equal percentage increase in jobs in both industries would generate much larger job gains in low-paying industries than in high-paying industries. We also found that the percentage change in job gains in low- paying industries was much stronger following the 1981-82 and 1990-91 recessions, which also happened to be periods of much stronger real GDP growth. ...

Friday, February 20, 2015

Growth in Real Average Income for the Bottom 90%

Growth in real average income for the bottom 90%

Furman fig2
From: A brief history of middle-class economics: Productivity, participation, and inequality in the United States, by Jason Furman.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

'What's (Not) Up with Wage Growth?'

Macroblog:

What's (Not) Up with Wage Growth?: In recent months, there's been plenty of discussion of the surprisingly sluggish growth in hourly wages. It certainly has the attention of our boss, Atlanta Fed President Dennis Lockhart, who in a speech on February 6 noted that
The behavior of wages and prices, in contrast, remains less encouraging, and, frankly, somewhat puzzling in light of recent growth and jobs numbers.
So what's up—or not up—with wage growth? ...

After lots of analysis, they conclude:

... Lower-than-normal wage growth appears to be a very widespread feature of the labor market since the end of the recession.

Inequality Has Actually Not Risen Since the Financial Crisis???

David Leonhardt reports on a study showing that income inequality has not increased since the Financial Crisis:

Inequality Has Actually Not Risen Since the Financial Crisis: The notion that income inequality has continued to rise over the past decade is part of the conventional wisdom. You’ve no doubt heard versions: The rich just keep getting richer. Inequality is higher than ever. Nearly all of the gains from the economic recovery have gone to the top 1 percent.
No question, inequality is extremely high from a historical perspective – worrisomely so. But a new analysis, by Stephen J. Rose of George Washington University, adds an important wrinkle to the story: Income inequality has not actually risen since the financial crisis began. ...

Amir Sufi , on Twitter, says not so fast, this study has flaws:

Amir Sufi @profsufi Who takes biggest income hit in recessions? @DLeonhardt takes a look at some research, but I don't think it's the best stuff out there.
Amir Sufi @profsufi The ideal thought experiment is to sort households ex ante on income (or wealth), and then track same households through recession.
Amir Sufi @profsufi The best study that actually does this uses SSA data and is here: fguvenendotcom.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/guvene…
Amir Sufi @profsufi All the research typically cited looks at percentiles of distribution, not same households over time. This can lead to strange results
Amir Sufi @profsufi During recessions, poor see bigger decline in wages than rich through entire distribution except very top. Very richest see biggest decline.
Amir Sufi @profsufi A technical figure, but it is incredibly important so worth taking time to look at it. From: fguvenendotcom.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/guvene…
pic.twitter.com/uyg3ZTFwjo
Amir Sufi @profsufi The poor see larger decline in wages during recessions across entire distribution except for very top: pic.twitter.com/hbh8gzH0NL
Amir Sufi @profsufi Again, ideal experiment is sort households by income in 2006, then track SAME households through recession. Don't use percentiles.
Amir Sufi @profsufi @JedKolko authors say because those recessions were much more severe, so more typical patterns of "severe" recessions
Amir Sufi @profsufi Want to understand income inequality during recessions? Read Section VI.B.1 of this study. Best stuff I've seen. fguvenendotcom.files.wordpress.com/2014/04/guvene…

Sunday, February 15, 2015

'Inequality is Really Bad for our Babies'

Richard Green:

One reason to worry about US inequality...it is really bad for our babies: My colleague Alice Chen, along with Emily Oster and Heidi Williams, have a new paper that explains differences in the infant mortality rate in the United States and other OECD countries. ...
Chen, Oster and Williams ... find that the US continues to lag the others in terms of first year survival. What is particularly interesting is that the difference between the US and other countries accelerates over the course of the first year of life--as neonatal threats recede, the position of the US worsened relative to Austria and Finland.
Here is where inequality comes in--if when Chen and co-authors look at children born to advantaged individuals (meaning married, college-educated and white) in the US, they survive at the same rates as their counterparts in Austria and Finland. But the trio find that children of disadvantaged parents in the US have much lower survival rates than children of disadvantaged parents in the other countries. This may well be because Europe's safety nets make the disadvantaged less disadvantaged.

Friday, February 13, 2015

'States Consider Increasing Taxes on Poor, Cutting Them on Affluent'

Compassionate conservatism:

States Consider Increasing Taxes on Poor, Cutting Them on Affluent: A number of Republican-led states are considering tax changes that, in many cases, would have the effect of cutting taxes on the rich and raising them on the poor.
Conservatives are known for hating taxes but particularly hate income taxes, which they say have a greater dampening effect on growth. Of the 10 or so Republican governors who have proposed tax increases, virtually all have called for increases in consumption taxes, which hit the poor and middle class harder than the rich.
Favorite targets for the new taxes include gasoline, e-cigarettes, and goods and services in general (Governor Paul LePage of Maine would like to start taxing movie tickets and haircuts). At the same time, some of those governors — most notably Mr. LePage, Nikki Haley of South Carolina and John Kasich of Ohio — have proposed significant cuts to their state income tax. ...

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

'The Long-Term Impact of Inequality on Entrepreneurship and Job Creation'

Via Chris Dillow, a new paper on inequality and economic growth:

The Long-Term Impact of Inequality on Entrepreneurship and Job Creation, by Roxana Gutiérrez-Romero and Luciana Méndez-Errico: Abstract We assess the extent to which historical levels of inequality affect the likelihood of businesses being created, surviving and of these cr eating jobs overtime. To this end, we build a pseudo-panel of entrepreneurs across 48 countries using the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor Survey over 2001-2009. We complement this pseudo-panel with historical data of income distribution and indicators of current business regulation. We find that in countries with higher levels of inequality in the 1700s and 1800s, businesses today are more likely to die young and create fewer jobs. Our evidence supports economic theories that argue initial wealth distribution influences countries’ development path, having therefore important policy implications for wealth redistribution.

Chris argues through a series of examples that such long-term effects are reasonable (things in the 1700s and 1800s mattering today), and then concludes with:

... All this suggests that, contrary to simple-minded neoclassical economics and Randian libertarianism, individuals are not and cannot be self-made men. We are instead creations of history. History is not simply a list of the misdeeds of irrelevant has-beens; it is a story of how we were made. Burke was right: society is "a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born."
One radical implication of all this is Herbert Simon's:
When we compare the poorest with the richest nations, it is hard to conclude that social capital can produce less than about 90 percent of income in wealthy societies like those of the United States or Northwestern Europe. On moral grounds, then, we could argue for a flat income tax of 90 percent to return that wealth to its real owners.

I find myself skeptical of such long-term effects, but maybe...

Thursday, February 05, 2015

'Increasing Individualism Linked with Rise of White-Collar Jobs'

If this research is correct, widespread opportunity to move from blue-collar to white-collar occupations is important for "individualism":

Increasing individualism in US linked with rise of white-collar jobs, Association for Psychological Science: Rising individualism in the United States over the last 150 years is mainly associated with a societal shift toward more white-collar occupations, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science. ...
"Across many markers of individualism, social class was the only factor that systematically preceded changes in individualism over time, tentatively suggesting a causal relationship between them," explains psychological scientist and study author Igor Grossmann of the University of Waterloo.
According to Grossmann, who conducted the research with co-author Michael Varnum of the Arizona State University, the study represents one of the first ever large-scale attempts to test various theories explaining cultural change in individualism over a time span longer than 30 or 40 years. ...
Across all cultural indicators, the researchers found evidence that individualism has been rising steadily over the last 150 years. ...
"We were surprised that only one of the six tested cultural psychological theories was any good for statistically predicting changes in US individualism over time," says Grossmann. "The only theoretical claim that we found systematic support for is the one suggesting that the rise in individualism is due to societal changes in social class, from blue collar to white collar occupations."
The researchers note that these data do not allow them to draw a conclusive causal link between occupational status and individualism, but they do suggest that the other factors examined were unlikely to account for rising individualism.
Contrary to popular notions, the research indicates that increasing individualism is not a recent phenomenon. ...

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

'Social Mobility Barely Exists but Let’s Not Give up on Equality'

Gregory Clark:

Social mobility barely exists but let’s not give up on equality: We live surrounded by inequality. Some have wealth, health, education, satisfying occupations. Others get poverty, ill-health and drudgery. The Conservative reaction, personified by David Cameron, is to promote social mobility and meritocracy.
History shows this will fail to increase mobility rates. Given that social mobility rates are immutable, it is better to reduce the gains people make from having high status, and the penalties from low status. The Swedish model of compressed inequality is a realistic option, the American dream of rapid mobility an illusion. ...
How then can we reduce the inequalities associated with status? There is the obvious mechanism of redistribution through the tax system. Provide minimum levels of consumption to all, funded by transfers from the prosperous.
But also you can create labour market institutions that compress wages and salaries, as in the Nordic societies. ... You can also structure educational systems to narrow the social rewards to those at the top of the ability distribution, or to amplify these rewards. ...
The message here is that while mobility seems governed by a social physics that defies easy intervention, the magnitude of social inequalities varies considerably across societies, and can be strongly influenced by social institutions. We cannot change the winners in the social lottery, but we can change the value of their prizes.

Friday, January 30, 2015

U.S. Workers Still Waiting for Wage Growth

Jeffrey Sparshott of the WSJ:

U.S. Workers Still Waiting for Wage Growth: U.S. employers aren’t yet getting squeezed by workers demanding higher wages.
The employment-cost index, a broad gauge of wage and benefit expenditures, rose a seasonally adjusted 0.6% in the fourth quarter last year, the Labor Department said Friday. That’s down from 0.7% in the two earlier quarters and jibes with other data showing only limited wage pressure across the U.S.
Wages and salaries, which account for about 70% of compensation costs, climbed 0.5%, a slowdown from the third quarter’s 0.8% pace. Benefit costs rose 0.6%, matching the prior quarter.
The data is better than recent hourly earnings figures, which showed wages declining in December despite a postrecession low for the unemployment rate. ...

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Inequalities, National and Global

Joseph Joyce:

Inequalities, National and Global: The publication of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century brought attention to an issue that has been slowly seeping into public discourse. President Obama’s State of the Union address made it clear that we will not need to wait until the 2016 Presidential campaign to hear proposals to rectify the rise in inequality. But the data and trends of global inequality reveal a more complex situation than the national states of affairs that Piketty highlights. ...

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Taxing the Wealthy Won't Hurt Economic Growth

I have a new column:

Taxing the Wealthy Won't Hurt Economic Growth: I have no idea whether or not Mitt Romney will run for president, and if he does, if he will get the nomination. But many of the issues he ran on when he was a candidate in the last election are likely to reappear this time around no matter whom the candidates turn out to be.
One of the fiercely debated issues in the last presidential election was taxation of the wealthy, and Republican proposals similar to those Romney made when he ran against Obama –– lowering or eliminating the taxes on capital gains, interest, dividends, and inheritances –– will undoubtedly arise again. I expect Republicans will throw a few bones to the middle class in an attempt to get the support of this important constituency, but I also expect the thrust of the proposals to be the same old supply-side policies favoring the wealthy that we have seen in the past.
What I want to focus on, however, is the economic arguments that are made to support the ideological goal of low taxes. ...

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Low-Income Loans Didn't Cause the Financial Crisis

At MoneyWatch:

Low-income loans didn't cause the financial crisis, by Mark Thoma: What caused the housing bubble and collapse of the financial system? Many fingers have pointed to a lack of regulation, financial innovation that didn't live up to its promises of risk-sharing and risk-reduction, and low interest rates from the Fed, which created an excess of liquidity.
Another cause that's often cited says the financial crisis was the result of government pressure to make subprime home loans to those at the lower end of the income scale. But recent work from the National Bureau of Economic Research provides no support for that claim. ...

Sunday, January 18, 2015

'It Can be Morning Again for the World’s Middle Class'

LS:

It can be morning again for the world’s middle class, by Lawrence Summers, FT [open link]:The most challenging economic issue ahead of us involves a group that will barely be represented at this week’s annual Davos summit — the middle classes of the world’s industrial countries..., no one should lose sight of the fact that without substantial changes in policy the prospects for the middle class globally are at best highly problematic.
First, the economic growth that is a necessary condition for rising incomes is threatened by the spectre of secular stagnation and deflation. ... Second, the capacity of our economies to sustain increasing growth and provide for rising living standards is not assured on the current policy path. ... Third, if it is to benefit the middle class, prosperity must be inclusive and in the current environment this is far from assured. ...
The experience of many countries and many eras shows that sustained growth in middle class living standards is attainable. But it requires elites to recognise its importance and commit themselves to its achievement. That must be the focus of this year’s Davos.

'Driving the Obama Tax Plan: The Great Wage Slowdown'

David Leonhardt:

Driving the Obama Tax Plan: The Great Wage Slowdown: The key to understanding President Obama’s new plan to cut taxes for the middle class is the great wage slowdown of the 21st century. ... There is little modern precedent for a period of income stagnation lasting as long as this one. ...
The wage slowdown is the dominant force in American politics and will continue to be as long as it exists. ...
No politician, of either party, can quickly alter the basic forces behind the great wage slowdown. That’s why Mr. Obama has begun talking about a tax cut for the middle class, to be financed by a tax increase on the affluent — who have continued to do quite well in recent years. It’s also why several conservatives are talking about a cut in the payroll tax, the largest federal tax for most Americans.
And you can expect the 2016 presidential candidates to talk about middle-class tax cuts, too. ...

Friday, January 16, 2015

'Inequality is Extremely Wasteful'

Robert Frank:

I've been studying inequality for more than 30 years, and for most of that time it's been an issue well out of the limelight. And so I've been delighted to see it enter the political conversation in a big way recently.
But something major is missing from that conversation, which centers on questions of fairness. Fairness clearly matters, but focusing on it presupposes a zero-sum competition between different classes. That's consistent with the conventional view that inequality is good for the rich and bad for the poor, and so the rich should favor it while the poor should oppose it. But the conventional view is wrong.
High levels of inequality are bad for the rich, too, and not just because inequality offends norms of fairness. As I'll explain, inequality is also extremely wasteful.
It's easy to demonstrate that growing income disparities have made life more difficult not just for the poor, but also for the economy's ostensible winners — the very wealthy. The good news is that a simple change in tax policy could free up literally trillions of dollars a year without requiring painful sacrifices from anyone. If that claim strikes you as far-fetched, you'll be surprised to see that it rests on only five simple premises. ...

He goes on to explain in detail.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

'State and Local Tax Systems Hit Lower-Income Families the Hardest'

Michael Leachman of the CBPP:

State and Local Tax Systems Hit Lower-Income Families the Hardest, CBPP: In nearly every state, low- and middle-income families pay a bigger share of their income in state and local taxes than wealthy families, a new report from the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy (ITEP) finds. As the New York Times’ Patricia Cohen wrote, “When it comes to the taxes closest to home, the less you earn, the harder you’re hit.”...
In the ten states with the most regressive tax systems, the bottom 20 percent pay up to seven times as much of their income in taxes as their wealthy neighbors. ...
A number of states, including Kansas, North Carolina, and Ohio, have made the situation worse in recent years by cutting income taxes, the only major state revenue source typically based on ability to pay. Income tax cuts thus tend to push more of the cost of paying for schools and other public services to the middle class and poor — exactly the opposite of what is needed.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

'Seven Lessons about Child Poverty'

From Clio Chang at The Century Foundation:

Seven Lessons about Child Poverty: Introduction: The official child poverty rate in the United States stands at 20 percent, the second-highest among its developed counterparts, for a total of almost 15 million children. Since the 2008 recession, 1.7 million more kids have fallen into poverty, according to UNICEF’s relative measure of poverty.
Compared to other age groups, a much higher share of Americans aged 0 to 18 are impoverished.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Why are we allowing so many Americans to start their lives in poverty, knowing that it likely will do them significant long-term damage, as well as limit our growth as a nation? It is a blow to our nation’s dedication to equal opportunity.
That question is especially perplexing because relatively simple, proven approaches would address some of the worst impacts of child poverty. What follows are seven lessons drawn from The Century Foundation’s Bernard L. Schwartz Rediscovering Government Initiative conference last June, Inequality Begins at Birth, that would help us tackle gaps in our public policy, as part of the Initiative’s equal opportunity agenda. The lessons are as follows:
  1. The Stress of Childhood Poverty Is Costly for the Brain and Bank Accounts
  2. Child Poverty Is Not Distributed Equally
  3. The Power of Parental Education
  4. Higher Minimum Wage Is a Minimum Requirement
  5. Workplaces Need to Recognize Parenthood
  6. Government Works
  7. Cash Allowances Are Effective
Lesson 1: The Stress of Childhood Poverty Is Costly for the Brain and Bank Accounts ...

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Full Employment Alone Won’t Solve Problem of Stagnating Wages

I have a new column:

Full Employment Alone Won’t Solve Problem of Stagnating Wages: The most recent employment report brought mixed news. The unemployment rate continues its slow but steady downward path and now stands at 5.6 percent, but wages remain flat. In response, most analysts made two points. First, the lack of wage growth indicates that we are not yet close enough to full employment to generate upward pressure on wages, so policymakers should be patient in reversing attempts to stimulate the economy. Second, once we do get closer to full employment the picture for wages will change and the long awaited acceleration in labor compensation will finally materialize. 
I fear this trust that market forces will eventually raise wages will lead to disappointment. ...

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

'Job Quality is about Policies, not Technology'

This was in the daily links not too long ago, but just in case it was missed (it is from the Growth Economics blog):

Job Quality is about Policies, not Technology, by Dietz Vollrath: Nouriel Roubini posted an article titled “Where Will All the Workers Go?”... The worry here is that technology will replace certain jobs (particularly goods-producing jobs) and that there will literally be nothing for those people to do. They will presumably exit the labor market completely and possibly need permanent income support.
Let’s quickly deal with the “lump of labor” fallacy sitting behind this. ... We’ve been creating new kinds of jobs for two hundred years. ... The economy is going to find something for these people to do. The question is what kind of jobs these will be.
Will they be “bad jobs”? McJobs at retail outlets... We can worry about the quality of jobs, but the mistake here is to confound “good jobs” with manufacturing or goods-producing jobs. Manufacturing jobs are not inherently “good jobs”. There is nothing magic about repetitively assembling parts together. You think the people at Foxconn have good jobs? There is no greater dignity to manufacturing than to providing a service. Cops produce no goods. Nurses produce no goods. Teachers produce no goods.
Manufacturing jobs were historically “good jobs” because they came with benefits that were not found in other industries. Those benefits – job security, health care, regular raises – have nothing to do with the dignity of “real work” and lots to do with manufacturing being an industry that is conducive to unionization. The same scale economies that make gigantic factories productive also make them relatively easy places to organize. ... To beat home the point, consider that what we consider “good” service jobs – teacher, cop – are also heavily unionized. Public employees, no less.
If you want people to get “good jobs” – particularly those displaced by technology – then work to reverse the loss of labor’s negotiating power relative to ownership. Raise minimum wages. Alleviate the difficulty in unionizing service workers.
You want to smooth the transition for people who are displaced, and help them move into new industries? Great. Let’s have a discussion about our optimal level of social insurance and support for training and education. ...
Any job can be a “good job” if the worker and employer can coordinate on a good equilibrium. Costco coordinates on a high-wage, high-benefit, high-effort, low-turnover equilibrium. Sam’s Club coordinates on a low-wage, low-benefit, low-effort, high-turnover equilibrium. Both companies make money, but one provides better jobs than the other. So as technology continues to displace workers, think about how to get *all* companies to coordinate on the “good” equilibrium rather than pining for lost days of manly steelworkers or making the silly presumption that we will literally run out of things to do.

Turning Back the 'Forces of Equality'

John Kay at the FT:

In 1920, the 1 per cent ... accounted for 15-20 per cent of total gross income in developed countries. ... In the 50 years that followed, the share of the 1 per cent fell almost everywhere by about half... During that half century, public spending on health, education and especially social benefits increased; taxation became more burdensome and more progressive. The forces of equalisation were powerful indeed. ...

From 1970, the egalitarian trend came to an end everywhere ...  principally the result of two interrelated causes: the growth of the finance sector; and the explosion of the remuneration of senior executives. ...
These effects have not been seen in countries, such as France and Germany, that have proved more resistant to financialisation. It is in Britain and the US, which have experienced the most extensive growth in the sector, where they have made their greatest impact.

Speaking of France and attempts to turn back the forces of equality such as public spending on education, health, generous social insurance, and highly progressive taxation:

About That French Time Bomb, by Paul Krugman: ... It’s really amazing how much bad press France gets — and not just from goldbugs and the like. It was the Economist that declared, on its cover more than two years ago, that France was the time bomb at the heart of Europe. And of course the inflationistas were even more certain that France faced imminent doom; for example, John Mauldin proclaimed that France was in fact worse than Greece.
Now that time bomb — which has actually had better economic growth since 2007 than Britain — can borrow at an interest rate of only 0.8 percent.
It seems obvious to me that the bad-mouthing of France was and is essentially political. Of course France has big problems; who doesn’t? But the real sin of the French body politic is its refusal to buy into the notion that the welfare state must be sharply downsized if not dismantled; hence the continuing warnings that France is doomed, doomed I tell you.
And this in turn reflects the larger issue of what calls for austerity are really about. Can we imagine a clearer demonstration that they’re not really about appeasing bond vigilantes?

Monday, January 05, 2015

FRBSF Economic Letter: Why Is Wage Growth So Slow?

Mary Daly and Bart Hobijn of the SF Fed:

Why Is Wage Growth So Slow?, by Mary C. Daly and Bart Hobijn, FRBSF Economic Letter: Abstract: Despite considerable improvement in the labor market, growth in wages continues to be disappointing. One reason is that many firms were unable to reduce wages during the recession, and they must now work off a stockpile of pent-up wage cuts. This pattern is evident nationwide and explains the variation in wage growth across industries. Industries that were least able to cut wages during the downturn and therefore accrued the most pent-up cuts have experienced relatively slower wage growth during the recovery.
A prominent feature of the Great Recession and subsequent recovery has been the unusual behavior of wages. In standard economic models, unemployment and wage growth are tightly connected, moving at nearly the same time in opposite directions: As unemployment rises, wage growth slows, and vice versa. Since 2008 this relationship has slipped. During the recession, wage growth slowed much less than expected in response to the sharp increase in unemployment (Daly, Hobijn, and Lucking 2012). And so far in the recovery, wage growth has remained slow, despite substantial declines in the unemployment rate (Daly, Hobijn, and Ni 2013).
One explanation for this pattern is the hesitancy of employers to reduce wages and the reluctance of workers to accept wage cuts, even during recessions, a behavior known as downward nominal wage rigidity. Daly and Hobijn (2014) argue that this behavior affected the aggregate relationship between the unemployment rate and wage growth during the past three recessions and recoveries and has been especially pronounced during and after the Great Recession.
This Economic Letter examines whether the effects of wage rigidities over the recent recession and recovery can also be seen across industries. In particular, we consider whether industries with higher or lower degrees of wage flexibility have seen different evolutions of wage growth and unemployment. Our findings suggest that industries with the most downwardly rigid wage structures before the recession have seen the slowest wage growth during the recovery, conditional on changes in unemployment. In contrast, industries with fairly flexible wage structures have seen unemployment and wage growth move more closely together. These findings provide cross-industry evidence that downward nominal wage rigidities have played an important role in the modest recovery of wages in recent years.
Downward nominal wage rigidities, wage growth, and unemployment
Downward nominal wage rigidities are a well-documented feature of the U.S. labor market (see, for example, Akerlof, Dickens, and Perry 1996 and Card and Hyslop 1996). With that in mind, Daly and Hobijn (2014) introduce a model to illustrate how such rigidities can affect the relationship between unemployment and wage growth. Downward rigidities prevent businesses from reducing wages as much as they would like following a negative shock to the economy. This keeps wages from falling, but it also further reduces the demand for workers, contributing to the rise in unemployment. Accordingly, the higher wages come with more unemployment than would occur if wages were flexible and could be fully reduced.
As the economy recovers, the situation reverses and the pressure to cut wages dissipates. However, the accumulated stockpile of pent-up wage cuts remains and must be worked off to put the labor market back in balance. In response, businesses hold back wage increases and wait for inflation and productivity growth to bring wages closer to their desired level. Since it takes some time to fully exhaust the pool of wage cuts, wage growth remains low even as the economy expands and the unemployment rate declines. Daly and Hobijn (2014) show that this mechanism causes a bending of the wage Phillips curve—the curve that characterizes the relationship between unemployment and wage growth.

Figure 1
Wage Phillips curve for all civilian workers, 2008–14

Wage Phillips curve for all civilian workers, 2008–14
Figure 1 shows that the bending of the Phillips curve in our model matches the data for the United States during the Great Recession and subsequent recovery. This same pattern has held in the past three recessions (Daly and Hobijn 2014). The figure shows the relationship between wage growth on the vertical axis, measured as the four-quarter moving average of the four-quarter growth rate of wages and salaries in the employment cost index, and the 12-month moving average of the unemployment rate on the horizontal axis. The figure covers the period from the first quarter of 2008 through the third quarter of 2014. The arrows show the path of the observations over time, and the size of the dots is proportional to the fraction of workers that report no wage changes over the past year.
The first part of the curve shows the behavior of wage growth and the unemployment rate during the recession, when the unemployment rate increased by about 5 percentage points and wage growth slowed by about 2 percentage points. The second part of the curve shows that during the subsequent recovery wage growth did not increase as much as it declined during the downturn. The result is that the most recent reported wage growth was 1 percentage point lower than it was at the same level of the unemployment rate when unemployment was rising. This difference is the result of the bending of the Phillips curve, which can be generated by wage rigidity as described in Daly and Hobijn (2014). The recent flattening of the Phillips curve is one reason wage growth has remained sluggish during the recent recovery despite substantial declines in unemployment.

Figure 2
Share of workers with frozen wages over past year

Share of workers with frozen wages over past year

Source: FRBSF Wage Rigidity Meter.

Rigidity and wage growth across industries
If downward nominal wage rigidities are an important explanation for recent slow wage growth, we should see differential effects across industries. Although all industries have some rigidity in wages, the degree of rigidity varies greatly. Figure 2 shows the difference between two industries most affected by the Great Recession: construction and finance, insurance, and real estate (FIRE). The figure plots the 12-month moving average of the share of workers who had their wages fixed over the last year—the standard measure of wage rigidity taken from the FRBSF Wage Rigidity Meter: http://www.frbsf.org/economic-research/nominal-wage-rigidity/.
As the figure shows, both industries have some degree of frozen wages that move up and down over the business cycle, just like the national data. However, the level in the construction sector is almost always higher than in FIRE. In fact, with the exception of the late 1990s, the fraction of workers with their wages fixed from one year to the next, zero change, is substantially smaller in FIRE than in construction.

Figure 3
Wage Phillips curves by industry, 2008–14

Wage Phillips curves by industry, 2008–14: A. ConstructionWage Phillips curves by industry, 2008–14: B. FIRE

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The question for our analysis is whether such sectoral differences can further illuminate the relationship between wage growth and unemployment during the Great Recession and subsequent recovery. To examine this we turn again to the wage Phillips curve. Figure 3 shows the wage Phillips curves for the construction and FIRE sectors for 2008 through 2014. As in Figure 1, wage growth in each sector from the employment cost index is on the vertical axis and the industry-specific unemployment rate is on the horizontal axis. The arrows show the path of the observations over time and the size of the markers reflects the share of workers that report no wage change over the past year.
Comparing the two shows that large wage stagnation in the construction sector changed the relationship between wage growth and labor market slack relative to the FIRE sector. More rigid wages in construction created a bend in the curve, consistent with the theory. This bend represents the fact that, while wage growth slowed when the unemployment rate rose, it has moved little as unemployment has declined. More specifically, although the 12-month moving average of the unemployment rate in the construction sector has declined from 20.9% in mid-2010 to 9.5% in the third quarter of 2014, wage growth has risen only 0.6 percentage point over the same period and currently stands at 1.4% per year.
One way to assess how much construction deviates from the normal relationship between unemployment and wage growth is to consider what wage growth was in construction at a comparable level of unemployment during the labor market downturn. This difference is shown in the figure as the red dashed line, which indicates that the most recent wage growth is 2.3 percentage points lower than at the beginning of the recession. This gap is a measure of the degree to which the wage Phillips curve is bent.
Notably, the shape of the curve in construction stands in stark contrast with that in FIRE, where wages are more flexible. FIRE wage growth fell precipitously as the unemployment rate rose. Once unemployment in the sector started to decline, wage growth accelerated. As of the third quarter of 2014, wage growth was actually 0.4 percentage point higher than it was the last time the unemployment rate was so low. Hence, FIRE does not show the curve bending associated with downward wage rigidities.

Figure 4
Wage rigidities and the bending of the Phillips curve

Wage rigidities and the bending of the Phillips curve
The relationship between the shape of the wage Phillips curve and the level of the pre-recession wage rigidities for construction and FIRE is indicative of a pattern that holds across the 15 major private industries for which we have wage growth data, shown in Figure 4. The figure plots the size of the wage growth gaps (vertical axis), which we used in Figure 3 to measure the degree of bending of the curve, in the third quarter of 2014 against the degree of wage rigidity in 2007 (horizontal axis). The figure confirms what the theory implies: Sectors where wages are more downwardly rigid are the ones with the largest bends in their wage price Phillips curves.
Importantly, this relationship between the level of wage rigidity and the degree of curve bending across industries is statistically significant. The dashed line plots the fitted regression line for this relationship, with each industry weighted by its size in terms of number of payroll employees. Cross-industry variation in the level of wage rigidity in 2007 accounts for 60% of the variation in the bending of the wage Phillips curve across sectors in this weighted regression. This industry-level evidence is consistent with the idea that the reluctance of employers to cut wages during the downturn has had a significant impact on the dynamics of wage growth and unemployment during the recovery.
Conclusion
National and cross-industry evidence shows that pent-up wage cuts reflecting downward nominal wage rigidities have been an important force during the Great Recession and subsequent recovery. The rigidity of wages in a number of sectors has shaped the dynamics of unemployment and wage growth and is likely to continue to do so until labor markets have fully returned to normal.
Mary C. Daly is a senior vice president in the Economic Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.
Bart Hobijn is a senior research advisor in the Economic Research Department of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco
References
Akerlof, George A., William T. Dickens, and George L. Perry. 1996. “The Macroeconomics of Low Inflation.” Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 1996(1).
Card, David, and Dean Hyslop. 1996. “Does Inflation ‘Grease the Wheels of the Labor Market’?” National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 5538. 
Congressional Budget Office. 2012. The Budget and Economic Outlook: Fiscal Years 2012 to 2022. Washington, DC: Congressional Budget Office. 
Daly, Mary C., and Bart Hobijn. 2014. “Downward Nominal Wage Rigidities Bend the Phillips Curve.” FRB San Francisco Working Paper 2013-08. 
Daly, Mary C., Bart Hobijn, and Brian Lucking. 2012. “Why Has Wage Growth Stayed Strong?” FRBSF Economic Letter 2012-10 (April 2).
Daly, Mary C., Bart Hobijn, and Timothy Ni. 2013. “The Path of Wage Growth and Unemployment” FRBSF Economic Letter 2013-20 (July 15).

Friday, January 02, 2015

Paul Krugman: Twin Peaks Planet

There's more to the inequality story:

Twin Peaks Planet, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: In 2014, soaring inequality in advanced nations finally received the attention it deserved, as Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” became a surprise (and deserving) best seller. ...
But that’s a story about developments within nations... You really want to supplement Piketty-style analysis with a global view...
So let me suggest that you look at a remarkable chart ... produced by Branko Milanovic... What Mr. Milanovic shows is that income growth since the fall of the Berlin Wall has been a “twin peaks” story. Incomes have ... soared at the top, as the world’s elite becomes ever richer. But there have also been huge gains for what we might call the global middle — largely consisting of the rising middle classes of China and India. ...
Now for the bad news: Between these twin peaks ... lies what we might call the valley of despond: Incomes have grown slowly, if at all, for ... the advanced-country working classes...
Furthermore..., soaring incomes at the top were achieved, in large part, by squeezing those below: by cutting wages, slashing benefits, crushing unions, and diverting a rising share of national resources to financial wheeling and dealing.
Perhaps more important..., the wealthy exert a vastly disproportionate effect on policy. And elite priorities — obsessive concern with budget deficits, with the supposed need to slash social programs — have done a lot to deepen the valley of despond. ...
The problem with these conventional leaders, I’d argue, is that they’re afraid to challenge elite priorities, in particular the obsession with budget deficits, for fear of being considered irresponsible. And that leaves the field open for unconventional leaders — some of them seriously scary — who are willing to address the anger and despair of ordinary citizens.
The Greek leftists who may well come to power there later this month are arguably the least scary of the bunch... Elsewhere, however, we see the rise of nationalist, anti-immigrant parties like France’s National Front and the U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP, in Britain — and there are even worse people waiting in the wings. ...
I’m not suggesting that we’re on the verge of fully replaying the 1930s. But I would argue that political and opinion leaders need to face up to the reality that our current global setup isn’t working for everyone..., that valley of despond is very real. And bad things will happen if we don’t do something about it.

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]...