Economic growth in the United States: A tale of two countries, by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, Gabriel Zucman, Equitable Growth: Overview The rise of economic inequality is one of the most hotly debated issues today in the United States and indeed in the world. Yet economists and policymakers alike face important limitations when trying to measure and understand the rise of inequality.
One major problem is the disconnect between macroeconomics and the study of economic inequality. Macroeconomics relies on national accounts data to study the growth of national income while the study of inequality relies on individual or household income, survey and tax data. Ideally all three sets of data should be consistent, but they are not. The total flow of income reported by households in survey or tax data adds up to barely 60 percent of the national income recorded in the national accounts, with this gap increasing over the past several decades.1
This disconnect between the different data sets makes it hard to address important economic and policy questions...
A second major issue is that economists and policymakers do not have a comprehensive view of how government programs designed to ameliorate the worst effects of economic inequality actually affect inequality. Americans share almost one-third of the fruits of economic output (via taxes that help pay for an array of social services) through their federal, state, and local governments. ... Yet we do not have a clear measure of how the distribution of pre-tax income differs from the distribution of income after taxes are levied and after government spending is taken into account. This makes it hard to assess the extent to which governments make income growth more equal.2
In a recent paper, the three authors of this issue brief attempt to create inequality statistics for the United States that overcome the limitations of existing data by creating distributional national accounts.3 We combine tax, survey, and national accounts data to build a new series on the distribution of national income. ... Our distributional national accounts enable us to provide decompositions of growth by income groups consistent with macroeconomic growth.
In our paper, we calculate the distribution of both pre-tax and post-tax income. The post-tax series deducts all taxes and then adds back all transfers and public spending so that both pre-tax and post-tax incomes add up to national income. This allows us to provide the first comprehensive view of how government redistribution in the United States affects inequality. Our benchmark series use the adult individual as the unit of observation and split income equally among spouses in married couples. But we also produce series where each spouse is assigned their own labor income, allowing us to study gender inequality and its impact on overall income inequality. In this short summary, we would like to highlight three striking findings.
Our first finding—a surge in income inequality
First, our data show that the bottom half of the income distribution in the United States has been completely shut off from economic growth since the 1970s. ...
It’s a tale of two countries. For the 117 million U.S. adults in the bottom half of the income distribution, growth has been non-existent for a generation while at the top of the ladder it has been extraordinarily strong. And this stagnation of national income accruing at the bottom is not due to population aging. ...
Our second finding—policies to ameliorate income inequality fall woefully short
Our second main finding is that government redistribution has offset only a small fraction of the increase in pre-tax inequality. ...
Our third finding—comparing income inequality among countries is enlightening
Third, an advantage of our new series is that it allows us to directly compare income across countries. Our long-term goal is to create distributional national accounts for as many countries as possible; all the results will be made available online on the World Wealth and Income Database. One example of the value of these efforts is to compare the average bottom 50 percent pre-tax incomes in the United States and France.8 In sharp contrast with the United States, in France the bottom 50 percent of real (inflation-adjusted) pre-tax incomes grew by 32 percent from 1980 to 2014, at approximately the same rate as national income per adult. While the bottom 50 percent of incomes were 11 percent lower in France than in the United States in 1980, they are now 16 percent higher. (See Figure 3.) ... Since the welfare state is more generous in France, the gap between the bottom 50 percent of income earners in France and the United States would be even greater after taxes and transfers.
The diverging trends in the distribution of pre-tax income across France and the United States—two advanced economies subject to the same forces of technological progress and globalization—show that working-class incomes are not bound to stagnate in Western countries. In the United States, the stagnation of bottom 50 percent of incomes and the upsurge in the top 1 percent coincided with drastically reduced progressive taxation, widespread deregulation of industries and services, particularly the financial services industry, weakened unions, and an eroding minimum wage.
Given the generation-long stagnation of the pre-tax incomes among the bottom 50 percent of wage earners in the United States, we feel that the policy discussion at the federal, state, and local levels should focus on how to equalize the distribution of human capital, financial capital, and bargaining power rather than merely the redistribution of national income after taxes. Policies that could raise the pre-tax incomes of the bottom 50 percent of income earners could include:
- Improved education and access to skills, which may require major changes in the system of education finance and admission
- Reforms of labor market institutions to boost workers’ bargaining power and including a higher minimum wage
- Corporate governance reforms and worker co-determination of the distribution of profits
- Steeply progressive taxation that affects the determination of pay and salaries and the pre-tax distribution of income, particularly at the top end
The different levels of government in the United States today obviously have the power to make income distribution more unequal, but they also have the power to make economic growth in America more equitable again. Potentially pro-growth economic policies should always be discussed alongside their consequences for the distribution of national income and concrete ways to mitigate their unequalizing effects. We hope that the distributional national accounts we present today can prove to be useful for such policy evaluations. ...