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.
The Doing Business project is among the World Bank’s most useful activities – both for scholars and, more importantly, for policymakers who are interested in pursuing pro-market reforms. It is disheartening to see that the review of the project, initiated last year by the Bank’s President Jim Yong Kim, has been hijacked by groups like Oxfam, Christian Aid or CAFOD, which are trying to erode the project’s analytical sharpness and destroy its role as a focal point for economic reformers in low- and mid-income countries. Perhaps they would like to see it scrapped altogether.
Marian Tupy and I are discussing the controversy, and offering arguments in favor of the Doing Business project in our article at Foreign Policy. Bottom line:
It is true that Doing Business is not an ideal metric of business environment: Nothing is. Yet over the past decade the survey has proven an extremely useful tool both for scholars and businesspeople who want to compare the ease of actually conducting business in different countries, and for policymakers trying to foster the development of the private sector. Unless someone comes up with a better alternative, discarding or watering down this metric is likely to lead to less well-informed choices about policy.
We may disagree about the relative importance of a good business environment for poor countries. Yet few would suggest that it should be simply ignored. It's difficult to avoid the impression that Doing Business is currently coming under attack by groups with ulterior motives, groups who are inimical to a pro-market and pro-growth policy agenda. Given the extraordinary economic and human progress achieved in the last few decades through deliberate improvements to business environment, one hopes that the Doing Business project remains central to the World Bank's portfolio of activities.
My friend Gawain Kripke at Oxfam posted a very good blog entry yesterday on the proposed cuts to agriculture subsidies. In it, Gawain elaborates on a point that I made briefly in a previous post about Rep. Paul Ryan's 2012 budget plan: that cutting so-called direct payments—those that flow to farmers regardless of how much or even whether they produce—is only part of the picture.
Here's Gawain's main point:
Most farm subsidies are price-dependent, meaning they are bigger if prices are low and smaller if prices are high. Prices are hitting historic highs for many commodities, which means the bulk of these subsidies are not paying out very much money. Over time, the price-dependent subsidies have been the bulk of farm subsidies. They also distort agriculture markets by encouraging farmers to depend on payments from the government rather managing their business and hedging risks.
So—these days there’s only about $5b in farm payments being made, and these payments are not considered as damaging in international trade terms because they are not based on prices...
Still, Congress will probably make some cuts. But these cuts won’t really be reform and won’t produce much long-term savings unless they tackle the price-dependent subsidies. Taking a whack at those subsidies could save taxpayers money later and make sure our farm programs don’t hurt poor farmers in developing countries. (emphasis added)
I will be delighted if direct payments are abolished, thereby saving American taxpayers about $5 billion a year. But we should not be content with that, nor should we fool ourselves that we have tackled the main distortions in agricultural markets. If the price- and production-linked programs are not abolished, too, then taxpayers and international markets will pay the price if/when commodity prices fall.