A Primer on State of the Union Economics

Until recently, President Obama’s December 4 “Remarks on Economic Mobility” were thought to preview his State of the Union address by defining “dangerous and growing inequality and lack of upward mobility” as “the defining challenge of our time.”  

That downbeat and divisive theme polled badly. As a result, the President is expected to recast the same story as “ladders to economic opportunity” (which is just another way of describing upward mobility). Obama’s passionately misinformed perceptions about rising inequality and falling mobility, however, are surely unchanged.

In his December 4 address, the President could find no official statistics to support his overblown claims about “growing inequality.” The Census Bureau and Congressional Budget Office report that the top 20 percent earns about half of all income. The CBO finds the top 20 percent received an average of 47.6 percent of all after-tax income since 1983, and roughly the same percentage (48.1) in 2010 and 2011. Yet the President insisted on claiming, “The top 10 percent [not the top 20 percent] no longer takes in one-third of our income – it now takes half.”

Unless the President thinks all affluent people are thieves, the top 10 percent never “take” any fraction of “our” income. On the contrary, they earn 100 percent of their own income.

Eschewing all official data, President Obama relied instead on estimates of pretax, pre-transfer income (which are clearly irrelevant to issues concerning taxes or transfers) from Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. Among many other problems with these figures, documented in my recent paper, growth in top incomes is exaggerated by including a rising share of business income formerly reported on corporate returns, and also by counting realized capital gains as income (in fact, selling assets does not make anyone richer). Lower incomes, by contrast, are grossly understated by completely excluding the huge and rising share of income from government transfer payments, now approaching $3 trillion a year.

“The combined trends of increased inequality and decreasing mobility,” said President Obama, “pose a fundamental threat to the American Dream, our way of life, and what we stand for.” As the title of his talk suggested, Obama was primarily focusing on decreasing mobility (since repackaged as decreasing opportunity), not increasing inequality per se. As he put it, “the problem is that alongside increased inequality, we’ve seen diminished levels of upward mobility in recent years.”

Two major studies by U.S. Berkeley’s Emmanuel Saez, Harvard’s Raj Chetty and others, find the President entirely wrong about diminished mobility. Their newest paper shows that, “children entering the labor market today have the same chances of moving up in the income distribution relative to their parents as children born in the 1970s.” Moreover, a narrowing “gap in college attendance between children from the lowest- and highest- income families… suggests that mobility in the U.S. may be improving.” The authors conclude that, “if one defines mobility based on relative positions in the income distribution – e.g., a child’s prospects of rising from the bottom to the top quintile – then intergenerational mobility has remained unchanged in recent decades. If instead one defines mobility based on the probability that a child from a low-income family (e.g., the bottom 20%) reaches a fixed upper income threshold (e.g., $100,000), then mobility has increased…” As for the President’s rhetorical effort to link top income shares with declining mobility, the authors find “little or no correlation between mobility and… top 1% income shares – both across countries and across areas within the U.S.” The biggest actual barrier to upward mobility, in fact, turns out to be single parenthood.

President Obama’s revealing December 4 lecture relied on irrelevant pretax, pre-transfer estimates to assert that the top 10 percent have been “taking” half of “our” income, and he used no evidence whatsoever to assert that upward mobility has been declining.

The defining challenge of our time may be to discover ways to stop politicians from using made-up numbers to excuse destructive and demoralizing economic policies.