Tag: income inequality

Damning Trade with Faint Praise

A Washington Post editorial today pushes back against the argument that a Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement would exacerbate income inequality. Amen, I suppose. But in making its case, the editorial burns the village to save it by conceding as fact certain destructive myths that undergird broad skepticism about trade and unify its opponents.

“All else being equal,” the editorial reads, “firms move where labor is cheapest.”  Presumably, by “all else being equal,” the editorial board means: if the quality of the factors of production were the same; if skill sets were identical; if workers were endowed with the same capital; if all production locations had equal access to ports and rail; if the proximity of large markets and other nodes in the supply chain were the same; if institutions supporting the rule of law were comparably rigorous or lax; if the risks of asset expropriation were the same; if regulations and taxes were identical; and so on, the final determinant in the production location decision would be the cost of labor. Fair enough. That untestable premise may be correct.

But back in reality, none of those conditions is equal. And what do we see? We see investment flowing (sometimes in the form of “firms mov[ing],” but more often in the form of firms supplementing domestic activities) to rich countries, not poor. In this recent study, I reported statistics from the Bureau of Economic Analysis revealing that:

Nearly three quarters of the $5.2 trillion stock of U.S.-owned direct investment abroad is concentrated in Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, and Singapore. Contrary to persistent rumors, only 1.3 percent of the value of U.S.-outward FDI [foreign direct investment] was in China at the end of 2011.

Paul Krugman’s Distorted Views on Inequality in Latin America

When it comes to discussing Latin America, Paul Krugman has a tortuous relationship with facts. Let’s take a look at a post he wrote last week on inequality in the region. Krugman claims that Latin America’s decline in inequality in the last decade is due to the region “partially turning its back on the Washington Consensus” (a term that has misleadingly become short hand for free market policies). Is that the case?

First, note how the graph in Krugman’s post actually shows inequality going up in Latin America during the 1980s, before the implementation of policies related to the Washington Consensus (which for most countries begins in the early 1990s), and then sharply declining before the arrival of what he calls the “new policy approach” of left-of-center governments. The rise of inequality in Latin America in the 1980s coincides with the periods of hyperinflation that crippled the economies of Argentina, Brazil, Nicaragua, Peru, and Bolivia. Central banks in Latin America were all too busy in those years financing the acute fiscal imbalances of their central governments through the emission of money. And Latin American countries were deep in the red precisely because their bloated public sectors became unsustainable, leading to the serious debt crisis of 1982. Thus, it was an inflationary spree, caused by the crisis of big government, that exacerbated inequality in the region. Of course, Krugman fails to mention this.

Can we assign the recent decline in inequality in Latin America to any specific ideology? A recent study by Kenneth Roberts of Cornell University on the politics of inequality in Latin America looked at inequality trends from 2000 to 2010 and found that “countries that experienced net declines in inequality were governed by diverse administrations of the left, centre, and right, including non-leftist governments in Colombia, Mexico, Peru, Paraguay, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Panama.” According to Roberts, “there was no strict correspondence between declining inequality and either the ideological profile of national governments or any specific set of redistributive initiatives.”

Second, it’s quite a stretch to state that Latin America as a region moved away from the Washington Consensus. I’m not going to dwell here on the virtues of all the policy recommendations identified by John Williamson back in 1989 or discuss the extent to which they were actually implemented by the various Latin American governments. However, even though some countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Argentina have turned their backs on responsible macroeconomic policies in the last few years, most governments in the region, including those called “left of center,” still implement macroeconomic policies related to the Washington Consensus such as freer trade, fiscal and monetary discipline, and attraction of foreign direct investment.

It is telling that despite the serious deterioration in economic freedom in countries such as Venezuela, Ecuador, and Argentina economic liberty has actually increased—slightly—in Latin America as a region in the last decade. According to the Economic Freedom of the World , Latin America went from a regional average grade of 6.56 (out of 10) in 2000 to 6.62 in 2009. Implying that Latin America has somehow turned its back on market-friendly policies is misleading.

Third, Krugman looks at the economic performance of Latin American governments based on their ideological affiliation, suggesting that social democratic regimes have a better record than non-left-of-center governments. However, the study on which he bases his post relies too heavily on analyzing governments by their ideological labels, rather than looking at their actual economic policies. This can be very misleading. For example, during the period covered by the study (2000s), Chile is ranked as left of center, even though during that decade the country increased its level of economic freedom, moving up in the ranking of the Economic Freedom of the World index from 28th place in 2000 to 5th in 2009.

Finally, Krugman finished his post questioning Chile’s free market model and private pension system (even though the study he was referencing categorizes Chile as “left of center” and thus credited that ideological camp for Chile’s healthy economic indicators). Krugman doesn’t provide evidence to substantiate his criticism other than making a presumable reference to the recent student protests in Chile. If he looked at the facts, he would see a different picture. He would find that Chile is the country with the most impressive record in poverty reduction in Latin America (the poverty rate fell from 45 percent in the mid-1980s to just 15 percent in 2011), that it has tripled its income per capita since 1990 to $16,000 (the highest in Latin America), and that it is set to become the first developed nation in Latin America within a decade. What is it about this record that Krugman finds so annoying?

Is Income Inequality Increasing? Only If You Don’t Count Health Benefits

Income inequality is not so much a problem as income opacity.

In the latest issue of Regulation magazine, editor Peter Van Doren reviews two recent studies that find income inequality is not increasing:

While it is true that the cash explicitly paid to employees has become more unequal over the last generation, the implication that labor markets are not working well and that government should alter labor market outcomes does not necessarily follow. A more benign explanation for the change in cash compensation over a generation is the dramatic increase in health insurance costs. Employers may be paying all their employees a more or less equivalent increase on a percentage basis, but for lower-paid workers much of that pay is not showing up in cash. Thus, if this view is correct, inequality in the cash component of compensation has increased while inequality in total compensation has not increased because the fixed costs of health insurance are a much larger percentage of the total compensation of lower-earnings workers…

If one analyzes data on only working-age individuals (age 25–61), inflation-adjusted real pre-tax, post-cash-transfer money income grew 1.9 percent and 10.5 percent respectively for the first (poorest) and 10th (richest) deciles from 1995 to 2008. But if one adds the value of health insurance, the first (poorest) decile grew 12.3 percent while the top decile grew 11.7 percent.

[T]he growth in compensation by earnings decile (from the 30th to the 99th) averages 35 percent [from 1999 to 2006], with 41 percent growth at the 30th percentile (workers earning $10–$14 an hour) and only 35.8 percent growth at the 99th percentile (workers earning $59–$80 an hour).

Because expenditures on health care are increasing so rapidly and because so much of the cost of health care is paid for by employers or government, discussions about rising inequality that only consider cash income provide a misleading view of trends in inequality. When health insurance expenditures are added to household cash income, the increases in inequality from 1995 to 2008 are completely offset.

In brief: government intervenes in labor and health care markets; advocates of those interventions use the resulting income opacity to argue that markets are defective.

The Economy Tanked but, Hey, Wealth Inequality Declined

I just read through a new report from the Federal Reserve, “Surveying the Aftermath of the Storm: Changes in Family Finances from 2007 to 2009,” on how the Great Recession of 2007–2009 impacted the balance sheets of American households. The short and unsurprising answer is: very negatively. The average net worth of U.S. households fell by nearly 20 percent between 2007 and 2009.

A less intuitive finding was that the more wealthy households took a bigger hit, not just in dollars but in percentage of wealth. As the survey put it, there were “progressively larger decreases at the higher percentiles” of net wealth.

The survey also found progressively larger declines in income during the recession. The higher a household’s income in 2007, the steeper the decline on average by 2009. As the survey put it:

On the whole, events of the 2007–09 period tended to have an equalizing effect on income, although most of the changes in income were relatively modest. All the measures of income change presented here suggest that income increased for families with income below the 2007 median and income fell for families with income near or above the 2007 median.

The reason for the decline in inequality during the downturn isn’t all that mysterious, I suppose. Households with higher net worth tend to have more invested in stocks and real estate, which both took a big hit. And, as the report explained, their income is more dependent on capital gains, and farm, business, and self-employment income, which all fluctuate more with the business cycle.

Still, it is kind of jarring to see that even during a recession, income rose for families in the lower half of the income spectrum and fell for those in the top half. The curse of “rising inequality” and the rich getting richer at the supposed expense of the poor was temporarily suspended from 2007 to 2009, but at the cost of the deepest downturn since the Great Depression.

If forced to choose between a deep recession and rising inequality, I would gladly accept the latter.

Topics:

A Flat Tire for Low-Income Drivers?

Will the President raise taxes on new tires?

President Obama will need to decide any day now whether to impose tariffs on lower-end automobile tires imported from China. As my colleague Dan Ikenson has ably argued, the decision will tell us much about whether the president believes trade policy should serve the general interest of all Americans, or whether it is simply a political tool to satisfy key constituencies.
Neglected in the news coverage of the pending decision is the impact it could have on consumers. The imported tires targeted by this Section 421 case are of the cheaper variety, the kind that low-income Americans would buy to keep their cars on the road during a recession. If the president decides to impose tariffs, his union supporters will cheer, but “working families’ will find it more difficult to keep their cars running safely.
A central point of my new Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization, is that import competition is a working family’s best friend, especially imports from China. As I write in an excerpt published in today’s Washington Examiner,
Imports from China have delivered lower prices on goods that matter most to the poor, helping to offset other forces in our economy that tend to widen income inequality. …
Imposing steep tariffs on imports from China would, of course, hurt producers and workers in China, but it would also punish millions of American consumers through higher prices for shoes, clothing, toys, sporting goods, bicycles, TVs, radios, stereos, and personal and laptop computers.
We will see shortly if President Obama will punish low-income Americans who drive.

President Obama will need to decide any day now whether to impose tariffs on lower-end automobile tires imported from China. As my colleague Dan Ikenson has ably argued, the decision will tell us much about whether the president believes trade policy should serve the general interest of all Americans, or whether it is simply a political tool to satisfy key constituencies.

Neglected in the news coverage of the pending decision is the impact it could have on consumers. The imported tires targeted by this Section 421 case are of the cheaper variety, the kind that low-income Americans would buy to keep their cars on the road during a recession. If the president decides to impose tariffs, his union supporters will cheer, but “working families’ will find it more difficult to keep their cars running safely.

A central theme of my new Cato book, Mad about Trade: Why Main Street America Should Embrace Globalization, is that import competition is a working family’s best friend, especially imports from China. As I write in an excerpt published in today’s Washington Examiner,

Imports from China have delivered lower prices on goods that matter most to the poor, helping to offset other forces in our economy that tend to widen income inequality. …

Imposing steep tariffs on imports from China would, of course, hurt producers and workers in China, but it would also punish millions of American consumers through higher prices for shoes, clothing, toys, sporting goods, bicycles, TVs, radios, stereos, and personal and laptop computers.

We will see shortly if President Obama will punish low-income Americans who drive.

Economics Bloggers Weigh in on Income Inequality

The economics blogosphere has been buzzing about Will Wilkinson’s new paper on income inequality.

George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen discusses why social inequality has been falling for some time in the United States:

I agree with Will Wilkinson’s point that real social inequality has (mostly) been falling for some time in the United States.  Today many an upper middle class person is plausibly happier than many a billionaire.  Yet most self-made billionaires work very hard to get to that position, which creates a possible tension between cardinal and “observed choice” or “ordinal” metrics of welfare.  Why work so hard for so little?  Presumably many of these billionaires really want to “be there,” even if they are only marginally better off or in some cases worse off.

The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle offers her initial thoughts, and promises more analysis soon:

I broadly agree with Will that consumption inequality, not income inequality, is what matters.  If the rich have access to broad classes of goods that the poor can’t have, I find this worrying.  On the other hand, if the problem is that Bill Gates has a really awesome 80 inch flat panel television, while the poor have to be content with a 32 inch CRT, well, I can’t say my heartstrings are plucked very tight by this injustice.  So it’s important to know what the real differences are.

Ezra Klein parses some of Wilkinson’s arguments at WashingtonPost.com:

One of Will’s first arguments is that income inequality is not a good way to think about the issue. The real key is consumption inequality. It’s not, in other words, how much money people make, but how much stuff they buy. And “the weight of the evidence shows that the run-up in consumption inequality has been considerably less dramatic than the rise in income inequality.”

The Economist Free Exchange blog has mixed reactions to the study:

Inequality, in and of itself, is no bad thing, and inequality in America has co-existed right alongside significant improvements in welfare across the income spectrum—and contributed directly to them, in many cases. Redistribution for its own sake is bad policy, and as Mr Wilkinson notes, it’s often bad policy pursued to cover up for still more bad policy elsewhere. But America’s society is a very unequal one, by developed nation standards, and it’s not always clear that that inequality is justified or advantageous. And any good student of human behaviour can tell you that wealth will seek to protect wealth, and will often succeed.

Matt Yglesias from Think Progress has posted twice on Wilkinson’s study:

I’m not in agreement with the overall thrust of Will Wilkinson’s paper on inequality for the Cato Institute, but one point that I think is in the spirit of what he’s saying was brought to mind by a question at last night’s event. The way I would put the point is that it’s a mistake to think of the world as composed of, on the one hand, “economic issues” in which we worry about wealth or income inequality and then on the other hand, “social issues” in which we worry about racism or sexism. Progressives ought to be concerned with a general issue of justice and social inequality, of which gaps in money income or wealth may be part.