Tag: income inequality

Putting Income Inequality in Perspective

Debates about income inequality, “the top 1 percent,” and poverty typically examine those issues within the context of a single country. But, consider a global perspective. This web tool lets you find out which income percentile you belong to relative to all the other people in the world. If you make more than $32,400 per year, you are in the top 1 percent of the richest people in the world! 

And, bear in mind that the world is more prosperous than it has ever been in the past. Compared to you, the vast majority of people who have lived on this planet were desperately poor. Poverty, as Cato’s David Boaz put it in this online lecture, used to be ubiquitous. “Why are some people poor? That’s always the wrong question. The question is why are some people rich? Poverty is the natural condition of mankind, but it’s easy to forget that.” 

Fortunately, prosperity is rising and global inequality decreasing. Even as the world population has exploded, the number of people living in poverty has fallen. As a result of spreading prosperity, infant mortalityilliteracy, and malnutrition are in decline, and people are living longer. Extreme poverty’s end is in sight.

54% of Americans Say America Is Not Divided into “Haves” and “Have Nots”

Recent Gallup polling finds that 58% of Americans view themselves as “haves” while 38% say they are “have nots.” Nevertheless, most Americans (54%) reject the premise that the United States is a rigid economic hierarchy, while 45% say it’s a fair depiction.

When asked to choose, 58% of Americans view themselves as “haves,” a share fairly constant since 2003, and similar to 59% found in 1989. (There was a blip in the late 1990s when 60-67% said they were “haves.”) However, the share who say they are “have nots” has more than doubled from 17% in 1989 to 38% in 2015, as fewer Americans say they “don’t know.” In line with this trend, more Americans view the United States as a society divided into “haves” and “have nots” increasing from 39% in 1998 to 45% in 2015.* Similarly the share who say the US is not divided has declined rom 59% in 1998 to 54% today.

These data suggest that Americans have begun to focus more on economic status with increasing debate over rising income inequality.

Interestingly, while Hispanics are more likely (51%) to say they are a “have not” when pressed, a fully 60% reject the premise that America is “divided into haves and have nots.” This suggests that Hispanic Americans believe in upward income mobility. While some may not view themselves as a “have” today they or their children could be eventually.

While African-Americans are about equally likely as Hispanics to say they personally are a “have not” (48%), 69% view the country as divided between “haves” and “have nots,” 32 points higher than Hispanics.

White Americans tend to agree (57%) with Hispanics that America is not a divided land of “have” and “have nots,” however, they are about 20 points less likely to say, when pressed, they personally are a “have not.”

The share of Americans who think they are winners of the economic system has remained fairly constant over the past decade. However, more Americans are beginning to think the overall system is rigged in favor of economic division, but this view is not necessarily a product of their own experience. Instead, passionate public discourse over income inequality has likely played a key role in changing Americans’ perceptions about how the system works for others.

Read the full Gallup post here.

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* Note: Gallup found in 1998 that 71% of Americans rejected the idea that America is divided into two economic groups while 26% accepted the premise. However by 1998 59% rejected and 39% accepted the idea. It’s unclear if the decline between 1988 to 1998 is a a trend, or if 1988 registered an unusual response.

Immigration and Economic Inequality

Discussions of economic inequality are common nowadays thanks to Thomas Piketty’s new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  There are several good critiques of Piketty’s book and at least one wonderful podcast.  I’m not convinced that economic inequality in a (mostly) free-market economy matters one way or the other for economic growth, social stability, or political stability (ceteris paribus), so this blog is a response to those concerned that liberalized immigration could exacerbate wealth inequality.   

Papers on how immigrants affect the wages of Americans almost uniformly present the results as relative gains or losses compared to the wages of other workers.  While that work is valuable, below I will only discuss papers that focus exclusively on economic inequality caused by immigration. 

Borjas et. al. found that immigration (along with trade) only modestly affects earnings inequality – a role not substantial enough to account for more than a small percentage of the change.  Instead, he attributes the growth in income inequality to the acceleration of skills-biased technological change (SBTC) and other institutional changes in the labor market. 

David Card failed to find a substantially causal relationship between increased immigration and growth in wage inequality.  He discovered that immigration explains about 5 percent of the rise in overall wage inequality between 1980 and 2000.  An important distinction is between the wage inequality effects of immigration on natives and the effects on wage inequality for immigrants and natives.  While 5 percent of the growth in overall wage inequality can be attributed to immigration, immigration’s effect on native wage inequality is negligible.  Immigrants tend to have either very high or very low wages compared to natives, meaning that immigrants have a naturally higher residual level of income inequality than natives do.  Thus, immigration causes the economy-wide level of wage inequality to increase without changing native wage inequality.  Immigration has little, if any, effect on native wage inequality according to Card.

How Not to Spin a Big Drop in Top 1% Incomes

Pre-1944 method of estimating top 1% shares

When Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez release their annual estimates of top 1 percent incomes, you can count on The New York Times to put it in a front page headline with additional hype on the editorial page.  This time, however, the news was that the top 1 percent had suffered a 14.9 percent decline in real income in 2013 if capital gains are included, as they always had been until now.  

The New York Times heroic spin was “The Gains From the Economic Recovery Are Still Limited to the Top One Percent.”  The author, Justin Wolfers of the Peterson Institute wrote, “Emmanuel Saez … has just released preliminary estimates for 2013. The share of total income (excluding capital gains) going to the top 1 percent remains above one ­sixth, at 17.5 percent. By this measure, the concentration of income among the richest Americans remains at levels last seen nearly a century ago.”

I will have more to say about this in another blog post.  For now, I just want to call attention to the artistic way in which the subject was changed.  Since 2008, Saez has been comparing changes in top incomes (for which he has preliminary IRS data) to incomes of the bottom 90 percent (for which IRS data are singularly inappropriate).   He always included realized capital gains because that makes the top 1 percent share both larger and more cyclical.

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.