Every year, Oxfam releases a report meant to shock the public about the extent of income and wealth inequality. This year’s report claims that the eight richest people on Earth have as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population (3.6 out of 7.2 billion people). That’s certainly shocking. It’s also profoundly misleading.
As others have pointed out, Oxfam reached that number with a questionable methodology, which also led them to several other absurd conclusions. According to their own graphs, more poor people live in North America and Europe than China (see the far left of the chart below). How can that be, given that traditional poverty measures show the opposite?
Oxfam isn’t using a traditional poverty measure (such as the number of people with a purchasing-power-adjusted income of less than, say, $2 per day). Instead, they focus on something called “net wealth.” This is the sum of an individual’s wealth minus any debts.
Of course, many people in rich countries carry debt due to university loans or a home mortgage, yet also enjoy high incomes and an enviable standard of living.
Here are some illustrations of just how absurd it is to use net wealth as a measure of poverty.
Consider this. Oxfam claims a penniless, starving man in rural Asia or Sub-Saharan Africa is far richer than an American university graduate with student debt but a high-paying office job, a $2,000 laptop and a penchant for drinking $8 designer coffees.
Let that sink in.
(I must credit Cato’s Adam Bates for that example).
Here is another example, courtesy of Johan Norberg. He points out that his daughter, a child with only about twenty dollars in her piggy bank, is richer than 2 billion people by Oxfam’s logic. If that were true, then the solution would surely not be to take away the humble savings of his daughter and redistribute them among those 2 billion souls, but rather to generate more total wealth, “enlarging the pie” so to speak.
That’s the core problem with obsessing over “inequality.” If the goal is to further human wellbeing, then instead of decreasing inequality through redistribution, we should focus on decreasing poverty by creating ever more wealth. Happily, thanks to the wealth-creating power of market exchange, we’re doing just that. The trend lines all show that poverty (by any reasonable measure) is in retreat.
One of the rationales commonly given for massively subsidizing our mortgage market is that without such homeownership would be out of reach for many households. Such a rationale implies that more debt should be associated with more homeownership. (Let's set aside the obvious, how are you actually an owner without any equity?)
But is that the case. The chart below compares the homeownership rate with the average debt-to-value ratio of U.S. households. (Data on debt-to-value is from the Fed's Flow of Funds and homeownership is from the Census Bureau).
By 1960, the homeownership rate was already over 60%, yet debt-to-value was less than 30%, half of the current value. Even in 1990, when homeownership reached over 64%, debt-to-value was still under 40%. From 1990 until today, the percentage of mortgage debt to value increased by over 50%, all to gain a 2 percentage point increase in homeownership. So it seems the story of the last 20 years has been a massive increase in home debt with very little increase in actual homeownership rates. The converse should also hold: reducing homeowner leverage should have little, if any, impact on homeownership rates.