Category Archive for: Income Distribution [Return to Main]

Friday, May 01, 2015

'The Political Roots of Widening Inequality'

Robert Reich:

The Political Roots of Widening Inequality: For the past quarter-century I’ve offered in articles, books, and lectures an explanation for why average working people in advanced nations like the United States have failed to gain ground and are under increasing economic stress: Put simply, globalization and technological change have made most of us less competitive. The tasks we used to do can now be done more cheaply by lower-paid workers abroad or by computer-driven machines.
My solution—and I’m hardly alone in suggesting this—has been an activist government that raises taxes on the wealthy, invests the proceeds in excellent schools and other means people need to become more productive, and redistributes to the needy. These recommendations have been vigorously opposed by those who believe the economy will function better for everyone if government is smaller and if taxes and redistributions are curtailed.
While the explanation I offered a quarter-century ago for what has happened is still relevant—indeed, it has become the standard, widely accepted explanation—I’ve come to believe it overlooks a critically important phenomenon: the increasing concentration of political power in a corporate and financial elite that has been able to influence the rules by which the economy runs. And the governmental solutions I have propounded, while I believe them still useful, are in some ways beside the point because they take insufficient account of the government’s more basic role in setting the rules of the economic game.
Worse yet, the ensuing debate over the merits of the “free market” versus an activist government has diverted attention from how the market has come to be organized differently from the way it was a half-century ago, why its current organization is failing to deliver the widely shared prosperity it delivered then, and what the basic rules of the market should be. It has allowed America to cling to the meritocratic tautology that individuals are paid what they’re “worth” in the market, without examining the legal and political institutions that define the market. The tautology is easily confused for a moral claim that people deserve what they are paid. Yet this claim has meaning only if the legal and political institutions defining the market are morally justifiable. ...

There's quite a bit more in the article.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Video: Closing the Income Inequality Gap

 A widening gap between haves and have-nots is shrinking the American middle class and making it tougher than ever to move up the economic ladder. The U.S. problem reflects a worldwide concentration of wealth. The top 1 percent control 48 percent of the world's assets, up from 44 percent in 2009. Disparate voices ranging from Pope Francis to IMF Director Christine Lagarde warn that the gulf between rich and poor diminishes hope and raises serious political and economic issues. Some companies are listening. Late last year, Walmart Stores pledged to end minimum-wage pay by raising the hourly rate of 500,000 workers. Other companies followed with similar increases for their lowest-paid workers. Will their announcements spur broader efforts to reduce income equality? What else can be done to lift the standard of living for the working poor?

Moderator: Alan Schwartz, Executive Chairman, Guggenheim Partners

Speakers: Jared Bernstein, Economic Policy Fellow, Milken Institute; Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Former Chief Economist to Vice President Joe Biden, Beth Ann Bovino, U.S. Chief Economist, Global Economics and Research, Standard & Poor's Ratings Services, Arthur Brooks, President, American Enterprise Institute, Jeff Greene, Investor and Philanthropist, Kristin Oliver, Executive Vice President, People, Walmart U.S.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Faster Productivity Growth May Not Lift Middle Class Incomes

Jared Bernstein:

Faster productivity growth would be great. I’m just not at all sure we can count on it to lift middle-class incomes: Recently, a number of economists and commentators have suggested that faster productivity growth would be a big way to boost the income of middle-class households. I’m all for faster productivity growth, though I’d argue no one knows how to reliably make it happen. But given the wedge of inequality between productivity and low and middle incomes, wages, and wealth, I’m skeptical that this would work as well as some think.
So I wrote this paper exploring the issue and adding some of my own estimates. Here’s the intro...

I tried to make a similar point here: Full Employment Alone Won’t Solve Problem of Stagnating Wages.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Lifelong Effects of Early Childhood Poverty


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

'Redistribution Can Involve Less Government Rather than More'

Dean Baker:

Redistribution Can Involve Less Government Rather than More: Thomas Edsall presents some interesting polling results in his NYT column indicating less public support for government policies to redistribute income even as the distribution of income is becoming increasingly unequal. He argues that this presents a paradox for Democrats who are concerned about inequality.
Actually the situation is less paradoxical when we consider the possibility that government policies are largely responsible for growing inequality. This is most obvious is with the bailout of the financial industry in 2008. Without the help of the TARP and the Fed, Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, and most of the other Wall Street behemoths would be out of business. This would have drastically reduced the wealth and income of many of the richest people in the country.
The government has also redistributed income upward by supporting an over-valued dollar that has eliminated millions of manufacturing jobs and put downward pressure on the wages of non-college educated workers more generally. In addition, a Federal Reserve Board policy that raises interest rates to keep people from getting jobs any time the labor market gets tight enough to support wage growth has also had the effect of reducing the wages of most workers.
Also our trade policy of selective protectionism, which exposes manufacturing workers to competition with the lowest paid workers in the world, while largely protecting doctors, lawyers, and other highly paid professionals (who comprise much of the one percent), has the effect of redistributing income upward. Similarly, our policy of patent protection redistributes hundreds of billions of dollars a year from ordinary workers to drug companies and other beneficiaries of these government-granted monopolies.
In these areas and others the government has acted to redistribute income upward. A politician who wanted to reduce inequality could focus on having less government action in these areas. That would be consistent with the polls cited by Edsall indicating that the public wanted a smaller role for the government.

Just one comment. I don't like the word "redistribution" as it is used here since it implies the current distribution of income is correct and just. I don't think it is for a variety of reasons I've hammered on over the years. Returning income/wealth to its rightful owners is not redistribution in the sense the word generally implies (i.e. taking from someone who has earned the income and giving it to someone who has not -- it's the opposite, taking it back from those who haven't earned it, generally those at the top of the income distribution, and returning it to those who have).

Friday, April 10, 2015

INET Video: Piketty and Stiglitz

"Thomas Piketty and Joseph E. Stiglitz discuss the causes of, consequences of, and remedies for inequality. With opening remarks from Clive Cowdery, George Soros, OECD Secretary General Angel Gurria, Institute President Rob Johnson and Institute Board Members Anatole Kaletsky and Lord Adair Turner."

'The Opportunity Dodge'

Larry Mishel of the EPI:

The Opportunity Dodge, The American Prospect: We think of America as the land of opportunity, but the United States actually has low rates of upward mobility relative to other advanced nations... Creating more opportunity is therefore a worthy goal. However, when the goal of more opportunity is offered instead of addressing income inequality, it’s a dodge and an empty promise—because opportunity does not thrive amid great inequalities. ...
The opportunity dodgers .... ignore that income inequality and intergenerational mobility are closely linked..., one of the most robust and long-standing social science research findings is that ... the circumstances in which children grow up ... greatly shapes educational advancement. So, promoting education solutions to mobility without addressing income inequality is ultimately playing pretend. We can’t substantially change opportunity without changing the actual lived circumstances of disadvantaged and working-class youth. ...
Acknowledging that income inequality and poverty greatly affect schooling success means we need to improve the circumstances of poor children’s lives by providing stable, adequate housing and healthy, safe environments. Decent income for their parents is essential. ...
Last, it is important to recognize that some people are always going to end up on the bottom and middle rungs since ... somebody has to be below average. Economic policy must also be concerned that low- and moderate-income families have decent incomes, health care, and retirement. The opportunity dodgers are really saying they do not care how low- and middle-income families actually live.

Wednesday, April 08, 2015

'The Financial Pressures of the Middle Class'

From the St. Louis Fed blog On the Economy:

The Financial Pressures of the Middle Class: Many references to the “middle class” are based on a simplistic definition, such as the middle 50 percent of families by income or wealth. While this may be effective for discovering, for example, trends in wealth distribution over time, these definitions uncover little about the characteristics of individual middle-class families and about how these families fare over time. A recent report from the St. Louis Fed's Center for Household Financial Stability sought to provide a demographic definition of the middle class and found that the middle class may be under more financial pressure than has been otherwise reported.

Senior Economic Adviser William Emmons and Lead Policy Analyst Bryan Noeth, both with the center, noted, “Our version of the demographically defined middle class reveals that families that are neither rich nor poor may be under more downward economic and financial pressure than common but simplistic rank-based measures of income or wealth would suggest.”

Defining the Middle Class

Emmons and Noeth separated families into three groups, all headed by someone at least 40 years old:

  • Thrivers, which are families likely to have income and wealth significantly above average in most year and are headed by someone with a two- or four-year college degree who is non-Hispanic white or Asian
  • Middle class, which are families likely to have income and wealth near average in most year and are headed by someone who is white or Asian with exactly a high school diploma or black or Hispanic with a two- or four-year college degree
  • Stragglers, which are families likely to have income and wealth significantly below average in most years and are headed by someone with no high school diploma of any race or ethnicity and black or Hispanic families with at most a high school diploma

The authors assigned black and Hispanic families with college degrees to the middle class and with high school degrees to the stragglers category due to the well-documented fact that black and Hispanic families typically have significantly lower income and wealth than their similarly educated white and Asian counterparts.

Income and Wealth

Using data from the Survey of Consumer Finances, Emmons and Noeth found that the median incomes of thrivers and stragglers were slightly higher in 2013 than in 1989, rising 2 percent and 8 percent, respectively. The middle class, however, experienced a decline in median income of 16 percent over the same period.

Regarding wealth, thrivers experienced an increase in median wealth of 22 percent over the period 1989-2013. The middle class and stragglers experienced large declines, with the median wealth of the middle class dropping 27 percent and of the stragglers dropping 54 percent over the same period.

Emmons and Noeth also examined the performance of each group relative to the population as a whole. They found that the median income of the middle class as they defined it grew 21 percent less than the overall median income from 1989 through 2013. The cumulative growth shortfall in wealth for the median demographically defined middle-class family was about 24 percent compared to overall median wealth. ...

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

'Why More Education Won’t Fix Economic Inequality'

Speaking of Larry Summers:

Why More Education Won’t Fix Economic Inequality: Suppose you accept the persuasive data that inequality has been rising in the United States and most advanced nations in recent decades. But suppose you don’t want to fight inequality through politically polarizing steps like higher taxes on the wealthy or a more generous social welfare system.
There remains a plausible solution to rising inequality that avoids those polarizing ideas: strengthening education so that more Americans can benefit from the advances of the 21st-century economy. This is a solution that conservatives, centrists and liberals alike can comfortably get behind. After all, who doesn’t favor a stronger educational system? But a new paper shows why the math just doesn’t add up, at least if the goal is addressing the gap between the very rich and everyone else.
Brad Hershbein, Melissa Kearney and Lawrence Summers offer a simple little simulation that shows the limits of education as an inequality-fighter. In short, more education would be great news for middle and lower-income Americans, increasing their pay and economic security. It just isn’t up to the task of meaningfully reducing inequality, which is being driven by the sharp upward movement of the very top of the income distribution. ...

Friday, March 20, 2015

Paul Krugman: Trillion Dollar Fraudsters

Why do Republicans use "magic asterisks" in their budget proposals?:

Trillion Dollar Fraudsters, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: By now it’s a Republican Party tradition: Every year the party produces a budget that allegedly slashes deficits, but which turns out to contain a trillion-dollar “magic asterisk” — a line that promises huge spending cuts and/or revenue increases, but without explaining where the money is supposed to come from.
But the just-released budgets from the House and Senate majorities break new ground. Each contains not one but two trillion-dollar magic asterisks: one on spending, one on revenue. And that’s actually an understatement. If either budget were to become law, it would leave the federal government several trillion dollars deeper in debt than claimed, and that’s just in the first decade. ...
The modern G.O.P.’s raw fiscal dishonesty is something new in American politics... And the question we should ask is why.
One answer you sometimes hear is that what Republicans really believe is that tax cuts for the rich would generate a huge boom and a surge in revenue, but they’re afraid that the public won’t find such claims credible. So magic asterisks are really stand-ins for their belief in the magic of supply-side economics, a belief that remains intact even though proponents in that doctrine have been wrong about everything for decades.
But I’m partial to a more cynical explanation. Think about what these budgets would do if you ignore the mysterious trillions in unspecified spending cuts and revenue enhancements. What you’re left with is huge transfers of income from the poor and the working class, who would see severe benefit cuts, to the rich, who would see big tax cuts. And the simplest way to understand these budgets is surely to suppose that they are intended to do what they would, in fact, actually do: make the rich richer and ordinary families poorer.
But this is, of course, not a policy direction the public would support... So the budgets must be sold as courageous efforts to eliminate deficits and pay down debt — which means that they must include trillions in imaginary, unexplained savings.
Does this mean that all those politicians declaiming about the evils of budget deficits and their determination to end the scourge of debt were never sincere? Yes, it does.
Look, I know that it’s hard to keep up the outrage after so many years of fiscal fraudulence. But please try. We’re looking at an enormous, destructive con job, and you should be very, very angry.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

'Inequality in Black and White'

Kathleen Geier on "The rigged economics of race in America, in five studies":

Inequality in Black and White: For the past few years, Americans have been engaged in two big public conversations about inequality. One is about economic insecurity (stagnant wages, wealth concentration, Occupy Wall Street). The other is about racial inequality (incarceration rates, police brutality, disenfranchisement). Often, these two discussions are kept separate, but they are closely intertwined.
The economic trends that have battered Americans have been exceptionally hard on African Americans, making them perhaps the truest face of economic inequality. Much of the progress in the workplace and in schools that African Americans have made since the 1964 Civil Rights Act has now ground to a halt, or worse. Blacks are nearly three times as likely to be poor as whites and more than twice as likely to be unemployed. Compared to whites with the same qualifications, blacks remain less likely to be hired and more likely to earn lower wages, to be charged higher prices for consumer goods, to be excluded from housing in white neighborhoods, and to be denied mortgages or steered into the subprime mortgage market. Racial disparities in household wealth haven’t just persisted; they’ve increased. What’s more, the reasons for these divergences aren’t always outwardly apparent or easy to understand. ...

Monday, March 16, 2015

Paul Krugman: Israel’s Gilded Age

What was Netanyahu's real purpose?:

Israel’s Gilded Age, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Why did Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel feel the need to wag the dog in Washington? For that was, of course, what he was doing in his anti-Iran speech to Congress. If you’re seriously trying to affect American foreign policy, you don’t insult the president and so obviously align yourself with his political opposition. No, the real purpose of that speech was to distract the Israeli electorate with saber-rattling bombast, to shift its attention away from the economic discontent that, polls suggest, may well boot Mr. Netanyahu from office in Tuesday’s election.
But wait: Why are Israelis discontented? After all, Israel’s economy has performed well by the usual measures. ...
Israel has experienced a dramatic widening of income disparities. Key measures of inequality have soared; Israel is now right up there with America as one of the most unequal societies in the advanced world. And Israel’s experience shows that this matters, that extreme inequality has a corrosive effect on social and political life. ...
Still, why is Israeli inequality a political issue? Because it didn’t have to be this extreme.
You might think that Israeli inequality is a natural outcome of a high-tech economy that generates strong demand for skilled labor — or, perhaps, reflects the importance of minority populations with low incomes, namely Arabs and ultrareligious Jews. It turns out, however, that those high poverty rates largely reflect policy choices: Israel does less to lift people out of poverty than any other advanced country — yes, even less than the United States.
Meanwhile, Israel’s oligarchs owe their position not to innovation and entrepreneurship but to their families’ success in gaining control of businesses that the government privatized in the 1980s — and they arguably retain that position partly by having undue influence over government policy, combined with control of major banks.
In short, the political economy of the promised land is now characterized by harshness at the bottom and at least soft corruption at the top. And many Israelis see Mr. Netanyahu as part of the problem. He’s an advocate of free-market policies; he has a Chris Christie-like penchant for living large at taxpayers’ expense, while clumsily pretending otherwise.
So Mr. Netanyahu tried to change the subject from internal inequality to external threats, a tactic those who remember the Bush years should find completely familiar. We’ll find out on Tuesday whether he succeeded.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

The Government is Why the US has More Inequality than Sweden

Dylan Mathews:

The government is the only reason the US has more inequality than Sweden, by Dylan Matthews: ...the income distribution in the US still stands out as particularly uneven. ...
The US actually isn't especially unequal if you look at income before taxes or government transfers like Social Security and food stamps..., a whole number of wealthy countries — Israel, the UK, Greece, Poland, Germany, Finland, and Ireland — have more pre-tax/transfer inequality than we do... Spain, Norway, the Netherlands, and Sweden all have exactly the same level as the US does.
The entire difference comes after taxes and transfer spending. ...Germany and Ireland both have significantly more pre-tax/transfer inequality than the US, but significantly less post-tax/transfer inequality... Meanwhile, the Netherlands and Sweden, which have famously egalitarian economies with generous welfare states, have the exact same level of pre-tax/transfer inequality as the US. It's not that their societies just naturally produce more equitable distributions. Their governments simply do more redistribution. ...
Note that the pre-tax/transfer number doesn't take out the effects of government policy entirely; there's a lot the government can do to alter the pre-tax/transfer distribution, including promoting or hampering labor unions or increasing the minimum wage. A number of countries, including Japan, Korea, and Switzerland, boast significantly lower pre-tax/transfer inequality than the US. ...

Monday, March 09, 2015

'Publicly Funded Inequality'

Kemal Derviş

Publicly funded inequality, Brookings: One of the factors driving the massive rise in global inequality and the concentration of wealth at the very top of the income distribution is the interplay between innovation and global markets. In the hands of a capable entrepreneur, a technological breakthrough can be worth billions of dollars, owing to regulatory protections and the winner-take-all nature of global markets. What is often overlooked, however, is the role that public money plays in creating this modern concentration of private wealth.
As the development economist Dani Rodrik recently pointed out, much of the basic investment in new technologies in the United States has been financed with public funds. The funding can be direct, through institutions like the Defense Department or the National Institutes of Health (NIH), or indirect, via tax breaks, procurement practices, and subsidies to academic labs or research centers.
When a research avenue hits a dead end – as many inevitably do – the public sector bears the cost. For those that yield fruit, however, the situation is often very different. Once a new technology is established, private entrepreneurs, with the help of venture capital, adapt it to global market demand, build temporary or long-term monopoly positions, and thereby capture large profits. The government, which bore the burden of a large part of its development, sees little or no return. ...
A combination of measures and international agreements must be found that would allow taxpayers to obtain decent returns on their investments, without removing the incentives for savvy entrepreneurs to commercialize innovative products.
The seriousness of this problem should not be understated. The amounts involved contribute to the creation of a new aristocracy that can pass on its wealth through inheritance. If huge sums can be spent to protect privilege by financing election campaigns (as is now the case in the US), the implications of this problem, for both democracy and long-term economic efficiency, could become systemic. The possible solutions are far from simple, but they are well worth seeking.

["Several ways to change such a system" are also discussed.]

Sunday, March 08, 2015

'A Trade Deal Must Work for America’s Middle Class'

Larry Summers:

A trade deal must work for America’s middle class: Over the next few months the question of US participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is likely to be resolved one way or the other. It is, to put it mildly, a highly controversial issue. ... I believe that the right TPP is very much in the American national interest.
First, in considering what is most fundamental — the interests of American workers... The view now is that trade and globalisation have increased inequality... But increases in the extent of US trade are driven largely by technology and by the increased sophistication of developing country economies — not by trade agreements. ...
Arrangements such as TPP have the potential to tilt the gains from trade towards the American middle class. This is due to the fact that the US has been a very open market for a long time. It means that properly negotiated trade agreements bring down foreign barriers and promote exports to a much greater extent than they ... benefit imports.
Crucially, TPP is necessary to let American producers compete on a level playing field... Only through TPP do we have the chance to manage international competition in the interests of American workers through binding arrangements in areas such as labour and environmental standards. ...

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

'How Higher Education Perpetuates Intergenerational Inequality '

Bad news for those who propose education as the solution to inequality:

How Higher Education Perpetuates Intergenerational Inequality, by Tim Taylor: Part of the mythology of US higher education is that it offers a meritocracy, along with a lot of second chances, so that smart and hard-working students of all background have a genuine chance to succeed--no matter their family income. But the data certainly seems to suggest that family income has a lot to do with whether a student will attend college in the first place, and even more to do with whether a student will obtain a four-year college degree.

Margaret Cahalan and Laura Perna provide an overview of the evidence in "2015 Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States: 45 Year Trend Report," published by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and the and University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (PennAHEAD). ...
The report offers a range of evidence that the affordability of college is a bigger problem for students from low-income families even after taking financial aid into account. Students from low-income families take out more debt, and are more likely to attend for-profit colleges. Indeed, a general pattern for higher education a whole is that even as the cost of attending has risen, the share of the cost paid by households, rather  than by the state or federal government, has been rising. ...
The effects of these patterns on inequality of incomes in the United States are clearcut: higher income families are better able to provide financial and other kinds of support for their children, both as they grow up, and when it comes time to attend college, and when it comes time to find a job after college. In this way, higher education has become a central part part of the process by which high-income families can seek to assure that their children are more likely to have high incomes, too.

This connection is perhaps underappreciated. After all, it's a lot easier for professors and college students to protest high levels of compensation for the top professionals in finance, law, and the corporate world who are in the top 1% of the income distribution, rather than to face the idea that their own institutions of higher education are implicated in perpetuating inequality of incomes across generations. ...

[He also has a long quote from Alan Krueger on this topic.]

Monday, March 02, 2015

'Is Income Inequality Harmful?'

Lane Kenworthy:

Is income inequality harmful?, The Good Society, March 2015: A generation ago, perhaps even just a few years ago, worry about high or rising income inequality stemmed mainly from a belief that it is unfair. In recent years the source of apprehension has shifted. The dominant concern now is that inequality may have harmful effects on a range of outcomes we value, from education to health to economic growth to happiness to democracy and more. Does it?

My answer is organized as follows:

How should we assess income inequality’s effects?

  • Education
  • Health
  • Family
  • Safety
  • Residential mixing
  • Trust
  • Economic growth
  • Employment
  • Economic stability
  • Household income growth: the poor
  • Household income growth: the middle class
  • Household balance sheets
  • Equality of opportunity
  • Happiness
  • Democracy
  • Is income inequality harmful?
  • What should we do?

One hypothesis of interest for some of these outcomes is that a higher level of income inequality increases inequality in the outcome. For instance, we might expect greater income inequality to contribute to greater inequality between the rich and the poor in life expectancy or happiness.

A second hypothesis is that a higher level of income inequality worsens the aggregate level of an outcome. For example, greater income inequality might reduce the average life expectancy or average happiness in a country.

Third, for some outcomes the hypothesis is that a higher level of income inequality worsens change in the aggregate level of an outcome. Greater income inequality might, for instance, reduce a country’s economic growth (change in per capita GDP) or median household income growth.

How Should We Assess Income Inequality's Effects?

The most informative test, which I’ll use here, is to see whether changes in income inequality in the world’s rich countries correlate with changes in the various outcomes. It’s important to understand why this analytical approach is useful, so bear with me for a moment while I elaborate. ...

After many, many paragraphs of analysis of the points listed above (including figures illustrating important points), he concludes:

Should we worry about high and rising income inequality in the United States? My answer is yes, for three reasons.
First, we have good evidence that income inequality tends to reduce middle-class income growth, increase disparities in education, health, family structure, and happiness, and heighten residential segregation. Not everyone will find these consequences objectionable, but I do.
Second, although we don’t have strong evidence that the rise in income inequality over the past generation has increased inequality of political influence, there’s good reason to fear that it has. That would be an intrinsically bad thing; it’s antithetical to what most of us understand to be the core of democracy — government by and for all of the people, not just some of the people. In addition, if rising income inequality does increase the political influence of the rich, that could potentially have harmful spillover effects on a variety of outcomes in the future.
Third, the level of income inequality that currently obtains in the United States is unfair. Given that luck plays a huge role in determining the income people end up with, much of the disparity in incomes is, arguably, undeserved. Most of us accept some amount of income inequality as consistent with a reasonable degree of freedom and needed to sustain a dynamic, healthy economy. But the degree of inequality in the contemporary US surely is past that point.
That said, reducing income inequality isn’t likely to be easy or quick. And income inequality’s apparently small or nonexistent impact on many of the outcomes examined here suggests that it shouldn’t necessarily be at the forefront of policy goals. For many of these outcomes, from education to health to economic growth and more, a direct approach, rather than an indirect one that works via reduced income inequality, is likely to be the most successful path.

Paul Krugman: Walmart’s Visible Hand

How the pie is sliced depends upon more than economic forces:

Walmart’s Visible Hand, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: A few days ago Walmart, America’s largest employer, announced that it will raise wages for half a million workers. For many of those workers the gains will be small, but the announcement is nonetheless a very big deal, for two reasons. First, there will be spillovers: Walmart is so big that its action will probably lead to raises for millions of workers employed by other companies. Second, and arguably far more important, is what Walmart’s move tells us — namely, that low wages are a political choice, and we can and should choose differently.
Some background: Conservatives — with the backing, I have to admit, of many economists — normally argue that the market for labor is like the market for anything else. The law of supply and demand, they say, determines the level of wages, and the invisible hand of the market will punish anyone who tries to defy this law.
Specifically,... a minimum wage, it’s claimed, will reduce employment and create a labor surplus... Pressuring employers to pay more, or encouraging workers to organize into unions, will have the same effect.
But labor economists have long questioned this view..., workers are people, wages are not, in fact, like the price of butter, and how much workers are paid depends as much on social forces and political power as it does on simple supply and demand. ...
Walmart is ready to raise wages.... And its justification for the move echoes what critics of its low-wage policy have been saying for years: Paying workers better will lead to reduced turnover, better morale and higher productivity.
What this means, in turn, is that engineering a significant pay raise for tens of millions of Americans would almost surely be much easier than conventional wisdom suggests. Raise minimum wages by a substantial amount; make it easier for workers to organize, increasing their bargaining power; direct monetary and fiscal policy toward full employment, as opposed to keeping the economy depressed out of fear that we’ll suddenly turn into Weimar Germany. It’s not a hard list to implement — and if we did these things we could make major strides back toward the kind of society most of us want to live in.
The point is that extreme inequality and the falling fortunes of America’s workers are a choice, not a destiny imposed by the gods of the market. And we can change that choice if we want to.

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?'


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:…
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:…
Amir Sufi @profsufi The poor see larger decline in wages during recessions across entire distribution except for very top:
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.…

Sunday, February 15, 2015

'Inequality is Really Bad for our Babies'

Richard Green:

One reason to worry about US 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'


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:
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.
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
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. ...