Tag: middle class

Globalization’s So-Called Winners and Losers

A recent Washington Post analysis has argued that political events as diverse as the Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump can be explained by a “revolt” of the world’s economic “losers.”

Before proceeding, it is important to keep in mind that all income groups in the world have seen gains in real income over the last few decades. That said, some have gained more than others. Between 1988 and 2008, for example, the lowest gains were made by people whose incomes fit beteen the world’s 75th to 90th income percentiles. That includes much of the middle and working class in rich countries.

The Washington Post calls the people in this group the bitter “losers” of globalization. But, are they?

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There are at least two problems with characterizing such people as “losers.” First, it seems to suggest that income growth rate matters more than absolute income level. Yet a person in the 80th income percentile globally would not want to trade places with or envy someone in the bottom 10th percentile, despite the latter’s much higher income growth rate.

Consider real GDP per person, adjusted for differences in purchasing power, in China and the United States. Between 1988 and 2008, China’s per person GDP grew by over 340 percent. America’s per person GDP, in contrast, grew by “only” 40 percent. China may be making gains more quickly, but it would be wrong to argue that the United States was a “loser,” for American GDP per person in 2008 was $52,704 and China’s $8,104.

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Poor countries are seeing faster income gains partially because their starting point is so much lower—it’s a lot easier to double per person GDP from $1,000 to $2,000 than from $40,000 to $80,000.

The second problem is that the Washington Post piece suggests that the incredible escape from poverty that has occurred in poor countries during my lifetime has come at the expense of the middle classes in the developed world. (This is a fascinating reversal of the more popular, but equally inaccurate, opinion that the Western riches came at the expense of poor countries).

Thus, the Washington Post piece claims, “global capitalism didn’t always work so well for workers in the United States and Europe even as—or, in some cases, because [emphasis mine]—it pulled hundreds of millions of people out of poverty everywhere else.”

Fortunately, prosperity is not a zero sum game.

When trying to understand the “winners” and “losers” of globalization, it is important that we do not compare income growth rates over the last few decades with some imagined ideal. Instead, we should compare income growth to what would have happened in a world without globalized trade. In such a world, hundreds of millions of people would have remained in extreme poverty. And the middle class of the developed world would also have made fewer gains. Just look at the amazing reduction in price of consumer goods that we have collected at HumanProgress.

A few individuals in select industries would benefit from protectionism, like the U.S. sugar industry does now. But on average everyone would be poorer, just as in 2013 Americans collectively paid 1.4 billion dollars more for sugar than they would have without protectionism. (The U.S. manufacturing industry, it may be worth noting, would not be among the “select industries” to benefit—most manufacturing job losses have come from mechanization rather than outsourcing, and have been offset by new jobs in other sectors).

Thanks to trade and exchange, people in all income percentiles have made real gains, and living standards for the middle class in advanced economies have soared in ways not captured by looking at income alone. America’s middle class is getting richer, and the people in the world’s 75th to 90th income percentiles are also winners.

The Middle Class Shrinks as the Number of High Income Households Grows

The day before yesterday, The Washington Post ran a piece with the alarming headline, “The middle class is shrinking just about everywhere in America.” Although you wouldn’t know it from the first few paragraphs, a shrinking middle class isn’t necessarily a bad thing. As HumanProgress.org Advisory Board member Mark Perry has pointed out, America’s middle class is disappearing primarily because people are moving into higher income groups, not falling into poverty. label Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows that after adjusting for inflation, households with an annual income of $100,000 or more rose from a mere 8% of households in 1967 to a quarter of households in 2014.

According to the Pew Research Center, 11% fewer Americans were middle class in 2015 than in 1971, because 7% moved into higher income groups and 4% moved into lower income groups. The share of Americans in the upper middle and highest income tiers rose from 14% in 1971 to 21% in 2015. 

One has to read fairly far into the Washington Post’s coverage before seeing any mention of the fact that a shrinking middle class can mean growing incomes: 

“[In many] places, the shrinking middle class is actually a sign of economic gains, as more people who were once middle class have joined the ranks at the top. [For example, in] the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area, the share of adults living in lower-income households has actually held steady [from 2000 to 2014]. The households disappearing from the middle-class, rather, are reflected in the growing numbers at the top.”

Other cities with a shrinking middle class, a growing upper class and very little change in the lower class include New York, San Francisco and New Orleans. So the next time you hear someone bemoan the “shrinking middle class,” take a closer look at the data and keep in mind that it may actually be a sign of growing prosperity. 

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The Middle Class Fared Better Than You Think

We’ve all heard it said that the “rich are getting richer” while the middle class suffers. Political figures on both the right and left frequently speak about the need to “bring back” or “restore” the “disappearing” middle class. Pew Research Center just put out a report that calls those ideas into question, according to a recent Washington Post opinion piece.

The report shows that from 1971 to 2014, middle-income households (meaning three-person households making from $41,869 to $125,608 annually in inflation-adjusted dollars) decreased from 61 to 50 percent of U.S. households. Why the 11 percentage point difference?

Seven of those 11 percentage points can be explained by households moving into a higher income bracket. High-income households grew from 14 percent to 21 percent of all households during the same period.

The Pew report also stated that all income groups have typically made double-digit pre-tax income gains since the 1970s:

Middle-income household income increased by 13% in the 1970s, 11% in the 1980s, and 12% in the 1990s. Lower-income households had gains of 13% in the 1970s, 8% in the 1980s and 15% in the 1990s. Upper-income households registered a 10% gain in the 1970s [and] 18% in both the 1980s and 1990s.

Then the Great Recession struck in the late 2000s. But even the Great Recession only removed 6 percentage points from the gains made by the middle class. In 2000, an average middle-income household earned 40 percent more than in 1970. In 2014, an average middle-income household earned 34 percent more than in 1970.

The Washington Post piece opines that “We’ve mistaken what is plausibly a one-time setback—the response to the Great Recession—for long-term stagnation. People have understandably but wrongly taken their recent experience and projected it onto the past.” We cannot predict the future, but it certainly seems as though the middle class has fared better than many people believe.

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Pell Grants Best for Buying Votes

Quite simply, Pell Grants are not supposed to be for the middle class. As the U.S. Department of Education’s website makes clear, Pell is supposed to be for “low-income undergraduate and certain postbaccalaureate students.”

So why characterize Pell as a benefit for the middle class? Because lots of people consider themselves to be in that group — which federal politicians rarely define — and policymakers want their votes.

Unfortunately, as Rep. George Miller (D-CA) recently demonstrated, saying Pell is intended for the middle class also makes it a valuable weapon in waging class warfare.

“Pell is the reason they are able to go to college and get ahead,” Miller said in response to congressional Republicans purportedly looking to trim the program as part of debt reduction. “It’s a shameful excuse and an attack on middle class families.”

Other than their usefulness in browbeating those who’d dare propose education cuts, Pell Grants are, at best, of limited value. Yes, they are needed by some people to go to college, but that’s because they are largely built into college prices. Basically, give me a dollar more to pay for school and my college will charge me another buck.

Of course it’s not just Pell that influences prices — there are lots of other sources of aid, and colleges confront numerous variables that affect their costs — but subsidize something and prices will go up. And boy, do they go up in higher education!

One last consideration is crucial but rarely mentioned. One of the great political benefits of Pell is that to recipients it’s free dough — no need to pay it back. That lets politicians play Santa Claus, not the mean banker who sinisterly comes after you to return student-loan money, plus interest. But keep in mind what, in most cases, college is ultimately for: to enable attendees to greatly increase their earnings. In light of that, how can politicians justify simply giving away money from taxpayers? Quick answer: They can’t.

Were you or I to do that it would be called “stealing.” When government does it, apparently, it’s called “helping the middle-class.”

C/P from the National Journal’sEducation Experts” blog.

David Goldhill: “A Democrat’s Case For ‘No’ ”

David Goldhill has done it again.

You may recall his article, “How American Health Care Killed My Father,” from the September 2009 issue of The Atlantic.

Now, at HuffingtonPost, he comments on the health care legislation that may soon face a final vote (of some sort) in the House:

[C]ontinuing our Party’s almost unquestioned conflation of health insurance with health care, the central feature of the proposed “reform” is further extension of our flawed insurance-based system…[D]espite the Administration’s recent heated rhetoric, most of the entrenched health industry interests are quietly or openly in favor of this bill. Should the bill become law, I suspect we will look back at it as an industry bailout…

How…can Democrats in the depths of a recession support a massive tax increase on middle-class job creation…? How…could we justify diverting even more of middle class income to support our broken system of care, further starving families of funds for all their other needs? Most uninsured Americans lack insurance only temporarily; how many of them would trade lesser lifetime job prospects and lower disposable income for the short-term retention of health insurance?…

If the legislation had any real prospect of controlling health care spending, would the pharmaceutical industry be funding the “yes” campaign?

As a former Democrat who hung door knockers for Michael Dukakis in 1988, I know the heavy heart with which he writes.  Read the whole thing.

Watch the video to hear Goldhill’s story:

Global Markets Keep U.S. Economy Afloat

Three items in the news this week remind us why we should be glad we live in a more global economy. While American consumers remain cautious, American companies and workers are finding increasing opportunities in markets abroad:

  • Sales of General Motors vehicles continue to slump in the United States, but they are surging in China. The company announced this week that sales in China of GM-branded cars and trucks were up 67 percent in 2009, to 1.8 million vehicles. If current trends continue, within a year or two GM will be selling more vehicles in China than in the United States.
  • James Cameron’s 3-D movie spectacular “Avatar” just surpassed $1 billion in global box-office sales. Two-thirds of its revenue has come from abroad, with France, Germany, and Russia the leading markets. This has been a growing pattern for U.S. films. Hollywood—which loves to skewer business and capitalism—is thriving in a global market.
  • Since 2003, the middle class in Brazil has grown by 32 million. As the Washington Post reports, “Once hobbled with high inflation and perennially susceptible to worldwide crises, Brazil now has a vibrant consumer market …” Brazil’s overall economy is bigger than either India or Russia, and its per-capita GDP is nearly double that of China.

As I note in my Cato book Mad about Trade, American companies and workers will find their best opportunities in the future by selling to the emerging global middle class in Brazil, China, India and elsewhere. Without access to more robust markets abroad, the Great Recession of 2008-09 would have been more like the Great Depression.

Good Night, Lou Dobbs

In his CNN swan song last night, Lou Dobbs told his loyal if shrinking audience that important national issues

are now defined in the public arena by partisanship and ideology rather than by rigorous empirical thought and forthright analysis and discussion. I will be working diligently to change that as best I can.

I would argue that his very act of resigning from his prime-time perch is probably the best contribution he’s made yet to advancing “rigorous empirical thought.”

Since he launched his program “Lou Dobbs Tonight” in 2003, the CNN anchor has been engaged in one long rant against immigration, free trade, and other populist bugaboos. His approach was anything but rigorous and empirical.

In a review of his 2004 book, Exporting America, I critiqued his flabby reasoning and questionable facts. (My new Cato book, Mad about Trade, is a painless, one-shot antidote to everything Dobbs has said about free trade, manufacturing, and the middle class.) The New York Times, “60 Minutes” and other mainstream news outlets have exposed such outrageous whoppers from Dobbs as his claim that immigrants have caused an explosion of leprosy cases and crime.

Dobbs was vague about his plans for the future last night, but there is some speculation that he will run for office, perhaps for president in 2012. I hope he does. It would be an interesting test of just how popular his sentiments really are among Main Street Americans.

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