The Distribution of Income in OECD Countries
While Arrow showed the impossibility of a well defined ordering of social preferences... ...we tend to act as if there is one anyway. That is, we place a lot of focus on GDP per capita when evaluating economic success. By this measure, the US is, of course, successful. By a slightly different measure from the OECD (go to page 37), average disposable income per household, the US ranks second after Luxembourg among the nations measured. Luxembourg has about the same population of Long Beach, so it is hard to worry too much about it.
But a social welfare function that looks at the lowest decile of income is just as legitimate (or perhaps I should say, illegitimate). By this measure, the US ranks 20th among countries measured, which places it toward the bottom of the OECD pack, with levels similar to Greece and Italy.
On the other hand, the top 40 percent of American household are better off than their counterparts in all other countries (with the exception of Luxembourg), reflecting a great deal of affluence across a large number of people. So where to pick? As Arrow would say, that is really impossible.
Here is the chart that he mentions:
Here's a bit more detail on the distribution of disposable income (the bars start at the average income of the upper 10% and end at the average income of the bottom 10%, with the average income for each of the other eight deciles marked by horizontal lines):
As you can see, the US has the widest distribution.
It would be nice to move the bottom of the US distribution up since it's a bit of an outlier for countries with average income in the vicinity of ours. But that might require raising taxes on the wealthy and redistributing income, or at least using the money to try and improve the conditions that lead to this outcome. That would then cause the people at the upper end of the distribution to quit working hard and taking risks, people would stop innovating, and our entire society would devolve into socialism ending our way of life as we know it. So, sorry, nothing we can do.[Update: I didn't think I needed the </sarcasm> tag, but given some of the comments, guess I was wrong.]
Posted by Mark Thoma on Thursday, September 16, 2010 at 01:08 AM in Economics, Income Distribution |
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