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.

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.

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