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Archive for the ‘Inequality’ Category

Earlier this month, Neil Ferguson was awarded membership in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame after he and his mistress were caught violating lockdown rules that Ferguson – in his role as a supposed public health expert – demanded for the entire United Kingdom.

This was a stunning display of hypocrisy, perhaps even to the extent that Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren might be shocked.

But I want to focus on a different point, which is the degree to which the coronavirus has exposed the fault line between those who are subsidized by government and those who pay for government.

In her Wall Street Journal column, Peggy Noonan opines about how the “protected” don’t have to worry about the consequences of economic shutdowns.

There is a class divide between those who are hard-line on lockdowns and those who are pushing back. We see the professionals on one side—those James Burnham called the managerial elite, and Michael Lind, in “The New Class War,” calls “the overclass”—and regular people on the other. The overclass are highly educated and exert outsize influence as managers and leaders of important institutions—hospitals, companies, statehouses. …Since the pandemic began, the overclass has been in charge—scientists, doctors, political figures, consultants—calling the shots for the average people. But personally they have less skin in the game. The National Institutes of Health scientist won’t lose his livelihood over what’s happened. Neither will the midday anchor. I’ve called this divide the protected versus the unprotected. …Here’s a generalization based on a lifetime of experience and observation. The working-class people who are pushing back have had harder lives than those now determining their fate. They haven’t had familial or economic ease. No one sent them to Yale. …they look at these scientists and reporters making their warnings about how tough it’s going to be if we lift shutdowns and they don’t think, “Oh what informed, caring observers.” They think, “You have no idea what tough is. You don’t know what painful is.”

Fareed Zakaria’s column for the Washington Post acknowledges that it is a problem when a bunch of cossetted elites make policy for everyone else.

…there is a broader distrust that we need to understand. …Social power exists in three realms — government, the economy, and the culture. …In all three, leaders tend to be urban, college-educated professionals, often with a postgraduate degree. That makes them quite distinct from much of the rest of the country. …And yet, the top echelons everywhere are filled with this “credentialed overclass.” …many non-college-educated people…see the overclass as enacting policies that are presented as good for the whole country but really mostly benefit people from the ruling class… Let’s look at the covid-19 crisis through this prism. Imagine you are an American who works with his hands — a truck driver, a construction worker, an oil rig mechanic — and you have just lost your job… You turn on the television and hear medical experts, academics, technocrats and journalists explain that we must keep the economy closed — in other words, keep you unemployed — because public health is important. All these people making the case have jobs, have maintained their standards of living… The covid-19 divide is a class divide.

Writing for USA Today, Professor Glenn Reynolds observes that the self-anointed experts are not the ones paying the price for coronavirus policies.

…it’s hard not to notice a class divide here. As with so many of America’s conflicts, the divide is between the people in the political/managerial class on the one hand and the people in the working class on the other. And as usual, the smugness and authoritarianism are pretty much all on one side. …in Los Angeles — where less than half the county is working now — radio journalist Steve Gregory asked the L.A. County Board of Supervisors whether any of them were willing to take voluntary pay cuts during this crisis. He was told by the chair that his question was “irresponsible,” which is to say embarrassing and inconvenient. (By contrast, New Zealand’s senior officials, including the prime minister, are taking a 20% pay cut.) …There really are two Americas here: Those still getting a paycheck from government, corporations or universities, and those who are unemployed, or seeing their small businesses suffer due to shutdowns. …Then there are the hypocritical gestures, like Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s illicit haircut… People don’t appreciate being lectured and condescended to and bossed around. They especially don’t appreciate being urged to sacrifice by people who make no sacrifices themselves.

I’m tempted to focus on Glenn’s point about how American politicians should follow the lead of New Zealand lawmakers and accept a pay cut as a gesture of solidarity.

Heck, all levels of bureaucracy should take a haircut. Bureaucrats already have a significant advantage in compensation compared to the private sector, and that gap surely will grow now that so many businesses have been shuttered and so many workers have been forced into unemployment.

But I want to focus on a different point, which is the inherent unfairness of the elite having consequence-free power and authority over ordinary people.

In part, it’s the point that Thomas Sowell makes in the accompanying quote.

But it goes beyond that. The problem with the “overclass” or “protected class” is that they also don’t pay any price when they’re totally right, somewhat right, or only partly right.

In other words, the people who live off the government, either directly or indirectly, have relatively comfortable lives – all financed by the people who deal with much greater levels of hardship and uncertainty.

At the risk of understatement, that’s not right.

P.S. This gap is exacerbated when government officials display thuggery rather than empathy.

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At the risk of understatement, I’m not a fan of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The international bureaucracy is the “Johnny Appleseed” of moral hazard, using bailouts to reward profligate governments and imprudent lenders.

The IMF also is infamous for encouraging higher tax burdens, which is especially outrageous since its cossetted employees are exempt from paying tax on their lavish salaries.

In recent years, the IMF has been using inequality as a justification for statist policies. Most recently, the lead bureaucrat at the IMF, Kristalina Georgieva, cited that issue as a reason for governments to impose higher taxes to fund bigger welfare states.

…inequality has become one of the most complex and vexing challenges in the global economy. Inequality of opportunity. Inequality across generations. Inequality between women and men. And, of course, inequality of income and wealth. …The good news is we have tools to address these issues… Progressive taxation is a key component of effective fiscal policy. At the top of the income distribution, our research shows that marginal tax rates can be raised without sacrificing economic growth. …Gender budgeting is another valuable fiscal tool in the fight to reduce inequality…. The ability to scale up social spending is also essential… A cornerstone of our approach to issues of economic inclusion is our social spending strategy.

What’s especially remarkable is that the IMF has claimed that the punitive policies actually will lead to more growth, in stark contrast to honest people on the left who have always acknowledged the equity-efficiency tradeoff.

The economics editor at the left-leaning Guardian, Larry Elliott, is predictably delighted with the IMF’s embrace of Greek-style fiscal policy.

Raising income tax on the wealthy will help close the growing gap between rich and poor and can be done without harming growth, the head of the International Monetary Fund has said. Kristalina Georgieva, the IMF’s managing director, said higher marginal tax rates for the better off were needed as part of a policy rethink to tackle inequality. …The IMF managing director, who succeeded Christine Lagarde last year, said higher taxes on the better off…would help fund government spending to expand opportunities for those “communities and individuals that have been falling behind.” …Georgieva said the IMF recognised that social spending policies are increasingly relevant in tackling inequality. …She added that many less well-off countries needed to scale up social spending.

Ironically, the IMF actually has admitted that this approach is bad for prosperity.

It has produced research on something called “equally distributed equivalent income” to justify lower levels of income so long as economic misery is broadly shared.

I’m not joking. You can click here to see another example of the IMF embracing poverty if it means the rich disproportionately suffer.

In other words, negative-sum economics. Though Margaret Thatcher was more eloquent in her description of this awful ideology.

At first, this column was going to be a run-of-the-mill anti-IMF diatribe.

But as I contemplated how the people fixated on inequality are willing to treat the poor like sacrificial lambs, it occurred to me that this is a perfect opportunity to unveil my Eighth Theorem of Government.

P.S. Here are my other theorems of government.

  • The “First Theorem” explains how Washington really operates.
  • The “Second Theorem” explains why it is so important to block the creation of new programs.
  • The “Third Theorem” explains why centralized programs inevitably waste money.
  • The “Fourth Theorem” explains that good policy can be good politics.
  • The “Fifth Theorem” explains how good ideas on paper become bad ideas in reality.
  • The “Sixth Theorem” explains an under-appreciated benefit of a flat tax.
  • The “Seventh Theorem” explains how bigger governments are less competent.

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I periodically see tweets that deserve attention because they reveal something very important, usually in a clever and succinct fashion.

Today, let’s add to this collection.

I’ve argued, over and over again, that the best way to help the poor is to focus on policies designed to boost growth rather than policies designed to reduce inequality.

Simply stated, the former approach is a recipe for making everyone more prosperous, while the latter approach means everyone fights for bigger slices of a shrinking pie.

When making this argument, I sometimes ask people whether they would rather be a poor person in Hong Kong or France? There’s no welfare state in the former, but lots of opportunity, whereas France has plenty of handouts but not much hope for upward mobility.

But no matter how often I’ve tried to analyze and explain why we shouldn’t fixate on inequality, I’ve never come close to cramming this much insight into such a concise observation.

Kudos to @Jon_StewartMill. In just ten words, he captures the key insight that I’ve tried to get across in several dozen columns.

I’ll close with some speculation about why some people fixate on inequality. What makes them focus on trying to drag down the rich instead of finding ways to build up the poor?

I’m not sure, though there is polling data to suggest that some people really are motivated by envy and resentment of success.

But I suspect that politicians who play the class-warfare card simply think it’s a way of maximizing votes.

Even worse than the politicians are the “poverty hucksters” who deliberately lie about poverty in hopes of advancing a redistributionist agenda.

P.S. The most powerful numbers on why growth matters more than inequality come from China.

P.P.S. The most reprehensible effort to reduce inequality (by making everyone poorer) came from the IMF.

P.P.P.S. The most accurate political analysis of inequality came from Margaret Thatcher.

P.P.P.P.S. The best satire on the issue of inequality can be found in this “modest proposal.”

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Last year, I wrote a column that investigated why the left is fixated on the unequal distribution of income and wealth, yet doesn’t seem to care at all about unequal distribution of attractiveness.

The question becomes even more intriguing when you consider that attractiveness is oftentimes nothing more than luck, simply a matter of winning the genetic lottery.

People with lots of income and wealth, by contrast, generally work very hard to offer goods and services of value to society, so they actually earn their riches.

Let’s review some additional evidence about good luck for people with good looks.

The Economist shares data from a new book about the advantages enjoyed by attractive people.

Just why are pedestrians likelier (three times as likely, according to one study) to defy traffic laws to follow a man across the road when he is wearing a suit than the same man dressed in denim? Similarly motorists stuck at a traffic light are slower to honk their horn if the car in front has a prestige brand. …A further piece of research cited by the authors involved undergraduates who were shown photos of 50 chief executives from the Fortune 1000 list of big firms. Half of these bosses were from the most profitable groups and half from the least profitable. The undergraduates were asked to judge, on looks alone, which executives had qualities such as competence and dominance. Remarkably, the students tended to pick out those executives who led the most successful companies. …it seems more probable that people with a certain type of appearance are likely to get promoted than it is to believe they are innately more competent than everyone else. …When participants in a study were shown pictures of male employees of a business consultancy, with similar clothes and masked faces, they perceived the taller men more positively in terms of team leadership skills. Indeed, research has shown that taller and more attractive men earn more than their shorter and plainer colleagues. …Physical characteristics also affect recruitment at lower levels. A group of Italian researchers sent CVs to a range of employers, some with photos and some without. Applicants deemed attractive by independent scorers were 20% more likely to get an interview than the same application without a photo.

Being attractive doesn’t just help people get better jobs and earn more income.

Here’s some data that may be even more important to a lot of people.

This study was conducted to quantify the Tinder socio-economic prospects for males based on the percentage of females that will “like” them. Female Tinder usage data was collected and statistically analyzed to determine the inequality in the Tinder economy. It was determined that the bottom 80% of men (in terms of attractiveness) are competing for the bottom 22% of women and the top 78% of women are competing for the top 20% of men. The Gini coefficient for the Tinder economy based on “like” percentages was calculated to be 0.58. This means that the Tinder economy has more inequality than 95.1% of all the world’s national economies. In addition, it was determined that a man of average attractiveness would be “liked” by approximately 0.87% (1 in 115) of women on Tinder.

Here’s a chart showing that only the most attractive men have an advantage on the hook-up site.

Here’s an explanation of the chart, as well as some discussion of how the system is wildly unequal.

The area in blue represents the situations where women are more likely to “like” the men. The area in pink represents the situations where men are more likely to “like” women. The curve doesn’t go down linearly, but instead drops quickly after the top 20% of men. Comparing the blue area and the pink area we can see that for a random female/male Tinder interaction the male is likely to “like” the female 6.2 times more often than the female “likes” the male. …the wealth distribution for males in the Tinder economy is quite large. Most females only “like” the most attractive guys. …Figure 3 compares the income Gini coefficient distribution for 162 nations and adds the Tinder economy to the list. …The Tinder economy has a higher Gini coefficient than 95.1% of the countries in the world.

And here’s the chart from the article showing how Tinder inequality compares to economic inequality among nations.

Regular guys don’t do very well and unattractive guys get the short end of the stick.

…the most attractive men will be liked by only approximately 20% of all the females on Tinder. …Unfortunately, this percentage decreases rapidly as you go down the attractiveness scale. According to this analysis a man of average attractiveness can only expect to be liked by slightly less than 1% of females (0.87%). This equates to 1 “like” for every 115 females. …The bad news is that if you aren’t in the very upper echelons of Tinder wealth (i.e. attractiveness) you aren’t likely to have much success.

Whether your goal is income/wealth or sex/relationships, the bottom line is that it helps to be attractive.

And being attractive is largely the result of luck. Which brings us back to the issue of why leftists don’t try to address this very meaningful form of inequality. Where are their plans to prevent discrimination against those of us who didn’t win the looks lottery? And to imposes taxes on those who wound up with favorable genes?

P.S. Libertarians are sometimes accused of being autistic dorks, and you don’t find many females at libertarian events, all of which presumably means male libertarians might benefit from government redistribution of dating partners. But we are moral and don’t favor government coercion and intervention, even when we might gain an advantage.

P.P.S. Here’s what would happen if Elizabeth Warren applied her class-warfare approach to dating.

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I’ve created a new page to showcase various “Poverty Hucksters.”

These are people and institutions that use data about income distribution to mislead and lie about the prevalence of poverty in the United States.

This rogue’s gallery includes:

What is their dodgy tactic? Here’s how I described the methodology in 2018.

…the bureaucrats…have put together a measure of income distribution and decided that “relative poverty” exists for anyone who has less than 50 percent of the median level of disposable income.

More recently, I explained why this approach is senseless, at least if one wants to measure actual poverty

…an artificial and misleading definition of poverty. One that depends on the distribution of income rather than any specific measure of poverty. Which is insanely dishonest. It means that everyone’s income could double and the supposed rate of poverty would stay the same. Or a country could execute all the rich people and the alleged rate of poverty would decline.

Now we have a new member of this ill-begotten group of hucksters.

Here’s an excerpt from an article in the latest issue of the Economist.

…international comparisons…make…America a true outlier. When assessed on poverty relative to other countries (the share of families making less than 50% of the national median income after taxes and transfers), America is among the worst-performing in the OECD club of mostly rich countries (see chart). Despite its higher level of income, that is not because it starts with a very large share of poor people before supports kick in—it is just that the safety net does not do as much work as elsewhere. On this relative-poverty scale, more than a fifth of American children remain poor after government benefits, compared with 3.6% of Finnish children.

And here’s the accompanying chart.

Needless to say, any chart that purports to show less poverty in Mexico than the United States is laughably inaccurate.

But that’s the kind of perverse outcome that is generated when using a ridiculously dishonest approach.

I suppose the Economist deserves a bit of credit. In both the article and in the chart, they acknowledge (at least for careful readers) that they’re measuring the share of the population with less than 50 percent of a society’s median income, not the share of people living in poverty.

So why, then, do they refer to the “poverty rate”?

I have no idea if the reporter is dishonest or incompetent, but I can say with certainty that the Economist has done a disservice to readers.

P.S. The Economist relied on dodgy data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. And if you read the columns about the other Poverty Hucksters, you’ll find that most of them also relied on numbers from that left-leaning, Paris-based bureaucracy. Yet another example of why the OECD is the worst international bureaucracy, at least on a per-dollar-spent basis.

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Here’s a simple quiz to determine whether you should support a candidate like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren: Would you embrace a policy that increased income for poor Americans by 10 percent if it also happened to increase income for rich Americans by 15 percent?

Normal people automatically say yes. After all, they don’t resent rich people and they want lower-income people to enjoy better living standards.

Some of our left-leaning friends (including at the IMF!), however, are so fixated on inequality that they are willing to deprive the poor so long as higher-income people have even larger losses (Margaret Thatcher nailed them on this issue).

Let’s look at some analysis of this issue.

The Wall Street Journal has an editorial that starts by highlighting some good economic news.

…low- and middle-income folks are reaping more economic benefits than during the Obama years. …Worker earnings increased by 3.4% while the poverty rate declined 0.5 percentage points to 11.8%, the lowest level since 2001. Benefit rolls are shrinking as low-income workers earn more. …the number of full-time, year-round workers increased by 2.3 million in 2018, and employment gains were biggest among minority female-led households. The share of workers in female-led households who worked full-time year-round increased by 4.2 percentage points among blacks and 3.6 percentage points among Hispanics. …The jobless rate for black women last month fell to a historic low of 4.4% and neared a nadir for Hispanic women at 4.2%. …The share of households making less than $35,000 in inflation-adjusted dollars has fallen 1.2 percentage points since 2016 while those earning between $50,000 and $150,000 and more than $200,000 have both increased by 0.8 percentage points.

It then makes to all-important point that policy makers should fixate on growth rather than inequality if the goal is to help he less fortunate.

Democrats focus on income inequality… What really matters for a healthy democratic society, however, are economic opportunity and income mobility. …The Obama policy mix, which Democrats want to return to only more so, put a priority on reducing inequality rather than increasing economic growth. But higher taxes, hyper-regulation and income redistribution resulted in slower growth and more inequality during the Obama Presidency. …This is a lesson for the left and those on the big-government right who want to use tax policy and subsidies to redistribute income to reduce inequality. Policies that hurt growth hurt lower-income workers the most.

José Ponce, in a column for FEE, sagely observes that “Gini” numbers can be very misleading because they tell us nothing about a society’s overall prosperity.

…inequality on its own is insufficient for any means of understanding. By definition, it measures the level of income or wealth that a group of people receive or own relative to another group of people within a society. The key word here is relative. That means it provides no information in regards to whether the bottom quintile has a low or high level of income or about the quality of life… For instance, Cuba, with a Gini index of 0.38 and Liberia with 0.32 have much less inequality than the highly-developed Singapore and Hong Kong, with Gini coefficients of 0.45 and 0.53, respectively. Citizens in a poor country with low inequality are equitably poor. …Elaborating on this point, rising inequality may not necessarily be a negative outcome just as declining inequality may not necessarily be positive. A developing society where both the rich and the poor have growing incomes, but the rich are rising faster than the poor, will experience a surge in inequality. However, since both the rich and the poor have increased incomes, everyone is better off than before.

Let’s close with a chart from Mark Perry showing that ever-greater numbers of Americans are climbing the income ladder.

P.S. This data from China is the most powerful and persuasive that I’ve seen on why growth matters far more than inequality.

P.P.S. This bit of satire also illustrates why inequality numbers are grossly misleading.

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I religiously read just about everything from Thomas Sowell, John Stossel, Walter Williams, Tim Carney, and other libertarian-minded experts

But I also make a point to regularly read non-libertarians such as Desmond Lachman, Will Wilkinson, Dalibor Rohac, and Noah Smith even though I sometimes – or even often – disagree with their policy prescriptions.

What matters is that they generally have intelligent and thoughtful observations on issues that I care about.

But they’re not necessarily accurate. For instance, Noah Smith recently wrote an interesting column for Bloomberg about whether people are poor because of their own behavior or because of external factors.

Here are the passages that caught my attention.

…there is at least one rich country where people…work hard, avoid risky, self-destructive behavior and make wise life choices. That country is Japan. And it still has plenty of poverty. …Given all of this good behavior, conservatives might expect that Japan’s poverty rate would be very low. But the opposite is true; Japan has a relatively high number of poor people for an advanced country. Defined by the percentage of the population earning less than half of the median national income, Japan’s poverty rate is more than 15% — a little lower than the U.S., but considerably higher than countries such as Germany, Canada or Australia… This suggests that there is something very wrong with the conservative theory of poverty.

Fortunately, I don’t need to explain what’s wrong with Smith’s analysis.

Writing for National Review, Kevin Williamson has already pointed out his errors.

Smith here relies on a useless measure of “relative” poverty, the share of the population earning less than half of the median income. You can see the limitations of that approach: A uniformly poor society in which 99 percent of the people live on 50 cents a day and 1 percent live on 49 cents a day would have a poverty rate of 0.00; a rich society with incomes that are rising across-the-board but are rising much more quickly for the top two-thirds would have a rising poverty rate… It would be far better to consider poverty in absolute terms, but our progressive friends are strangely resistant to that.

It is indeed strange that so many folks on the left have decided to use an artificial and misleading definition of poverty. One that depends on the distribution of income rather than any specific measure of poverty.

Which is insanely dishonest. It means that everyone’s income could double and the supposed rate of poverty would stay the same.

Or a country could execute all the rich people and the alleged rate of poverty would decline.

No wonder the practitioners of this approach often produce absurd data, such as the OECD’s assertion that there’s more poverty in the United States than in basket case economies such as Greece and Italy.

Shame on Noah Smith. He should know better.

I’ll continue to read his work, so he’s not being kicked out of my club of non-libertarian writers.

But I will add him to list of people and groups who are guilty of peddling fake poverty data. These “poverty hucksters” include the OECD, of course, and also the United Nations, the New York Times, the Equal Welfare Association, Germany’s Institute of Labor Economics, the Obama Administration, and the European Commission.

P.S. A “poverty pimp,” by contrast, is someone who personally profits from administering the welfare state.

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Looking at issues such as mobility, fairness, and inequality, I’ve recently shared excellent videos from Russ Roberts and John Stossel.

I also had an opportunity to discuss these issues yesterday on CNBC.

As you can see, I started with a political observation about the American people being naturally inclined to support growth and upward mobility, which suggests limited appeal for the spiteful agenda of Bernie Sanders, AOC, and the rest of the class-warfare crowd.

I hope I’m right about that, and a quick online search found this bit of somewhat-encouraging polling data from 2014.

Since I’m a bit of a bleeding-heart libertarian, I then took the opportunity to condemn various forms of cronyism (such as the corrupt TARP bailout) that transfer unearned money into the pockets of undeserving rich people.

I suggested that honest people from across the ideological spectrum could – and should – come together to curtail such nauseating policies. That’s the kind of fairness government should promote.

Though I’ll confess I’m not very hopeful. I concluded the discussion by observing that Senator Sanders recently chose to sacrifice the interests of poor children in order to curry favor with the union bosses at the National Education Association.

P.S. As indicated by his question about the desirability of millionaires, the host (Robert Frank) seemed sympathetic to good policy. He also was sufficiently well informed to know about how China’s partial liberalization has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of abject poverty.

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In the debate over “fairness,” my statist friends mistakenly see the economy as a fixed pie. This leads them to claim that rich people are rich because poor people are poor.

But there’s no data to support this position (other than in kleptocracies such as Venezuela where a ruling socialist elite steals wealth).

So some folks on the left will back down from that extreme claim and instead assert that the rich are the only ones enjoying more prosperity as time goes by.

For evidence, they cite data showing that incomes have been mostly flat over the past 30-40 years for poor people and middle-class people, particularly when compared to the rich.

But there’s a big problem with their data. They look at income levels in some past year and then they compare that data with income levels in a recent year.

But, as I wrote back in 2015, this means they are comparing apples and oranges.

There is considerable income mobility in the United States, which means today’s rich and today’s poor won’t necessarily be tomorrow’s rich and tomorrow’s poor.

I don’t necessarily expect people to automatically believe me. So if you’re one of the skeptics, watch this video from Russ Roberts. It is almost eight minutes and it is filled with rigor and data, but it’s worth watching since it masterfully demonstrates that lower-income and middle-class households actually enjoy larger gains than rich households.

As Russ says, you have to follow the same people over time if you want legitimate analysis.

And he shares lots of data showing that the rich actually have smaller-than-average gains in income over time.

It’s also worthwhile to investigate what happens with families over time. What we find is that children from poor households are more likely to exceed their parents’ income than children from rich households.

In other words, Russ’ conclusion was right. The American dream still exists. And if we can convince politicians to focus on growth, we can achieve better outcomes for people of all income levels.

P.S. The above video is a great addition to John Stossel’s recent video.

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Because they wrongly assume the economy is a fixed pie, some of my friends on the left think it’s bad for there to be rich people. They actually think that must mean the rest of us have less income.

But that’s not true. At least it’s not accurate if we start with the assumption that wealth is earned honestly and not accumulated thanks to subsidies, bailouts, protectionism, and other forms of cronyism.

So if it’s good to have more honest rich people, what’s the recipe to make that happen?

Frans Rautenbach, author of South Africa Can Work, recently crunched numbers and wrote about economic policy and the prevalence of billionaires.

Here is some of Frans’ accompanying analysis.

I calculated the relative number of billionaires by dividing the population of a country by the number of billionaires, to calculate the number of people per billionaire. So, the lower the number the greater the percentage of billionaires. …What is immediately clear, is that the three top performers in the table are Hong Kong, Switzerland and Singapore, all countries with exceptionally free markets and very low tax burdens. What that makes clear is, if a country is really serious about nurturing billionaires, free markets and low taxes are the way to go.

By the way, Frans focused on major countries.

If he included every jurisdiction, I very much suspect Monaco would be at the top of the list.

Followed by some of my other favorite places, such as Bermuda, Liechtenstein, and the Cayman Islands.

But it’s true that the numbers for those small place would distort the rankings, so it makes sense to remove them.

In his analysis, Frans also addresses the fact that Nordic nations do reasonably well and correctly attributes their success to the fact that they are very laissez-faire in areas other than fiscal policy.

What we also see, is that not all the Nordic countries are world-beaters in the billionaire stakes. The social democracy system (high taxes and spending on welfare benefits) has not worked to make Finland and Denmark top performers. …a fair question: Why do Sweden and Norway beat the US in the super-rich game? We now know that the high-equality welfare state of social democracy is not the reason. If that were so, it would have been fair to expect Finland and Denmark to beat the US too. And we would have expected all four these countries to have dynamic, high-growth economies – which they don’t. Having said that, it remains true that both Sweden and Norway are free markets in their own right. …The only criterion that identifies them as statist is size of government (tax, government spending, and so on). According to the other four criteria (trade policy, monetary policy, regulatory policy, and property rights and rule of law), these countries are very free. …What is more, until about 1950, Sweden and Norway had smaller governments than the UK, the US, Japan, Germany and France.

Now that we’ve looked at the policies associated with having more rich people, let’s look at the policies that are needed to retain them.

Bloomberg has a very interesting story on the migration of millionaires around the world.

The world’s wealthy are increasingly on the move. About 108,000 millionaires migrated across borders last year, a 14 percent increase from the prior year, and more than double the level in 2013, according to Johannesburg-based New World Wealth. Australia, U.S. and Canada are the top destinations, according to the research firm, while China and Russia are the biggest losers. …Wealth migration figures…can also be a key future indicator, said Andrew Amoils, head of research at New World Wealth. “It can be a sign of bad things to come as high-net-worth individuals are often the first people to leave — they have the means to leave unlike middle-class citizens,” he said. …Australia tops most “wish lists” for immigrants because of its perceived safety, no inheritance tax and strong business ties to China, Japan and South Korea.

Here’s an accompanying chart.

I’ll simply note that if the numbers were adjusted for population, the United States would not rank nearly so high (I’m guessing America’s unfair death tax is a major reason why some rich people choose other countries).

What can we say about the nations losing rich people?

If you peruse the data from Economic Freedom of the World, you’ll notice that they don’t rank very high.

China’s tightening grip on capital outflows in recent years has placed many of the country’s wealthier citizens in the crosshairs of the taxman, leading to a shift of assets and people. …Turkey losing 4,000 millionaires last year, the third straight year that many have left. About 7,000 millionaires left Russia last year.

My two cents is that rich people aren’t fully confident about stability in come countries (think Russia) and they’re quite worried about government greed in other nations (think France).

Another issue is that successful entrepreneurs and investors don’t feel comfortable having their private financial data being promiscuously shared, and one way to minimize government snooping is to move to move.

The desire for privacy is also prompting rich individuals to reconsider their place of residence. Under the Common Reporting Standard, launched by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development in 2017, banks and other financial institutions are disclosing data on foreign account holders to their local tax authority. …”Many wealthy people are looking for opportunities to reduce risks associated with spreading information about their accounts,” said Polina Kuleshova of Henley & Partners. …Citizenship and residency by investment programs are big business: currently, the industry is worth an estimated $2 billion annually… The Organisation for Economic Co-operation & Development is scrutinizing…these schemes. In October 2018, it released a blacklist of 21 jurisdictions, including Malta and Cyprus, that it believes are undermining international efforts to combat tax evasion.

Since I’m a critic of the OECD’s efforts to create a global tax cartel, I’m glad people still have some options to protect themselves. Including the CBI programs.

P.S. This analysis of cross-border migration between nations also applies to cross-border migration between states. Unsurprisingly, successful people move from high-tax hellholes (places such as New Jersey, Illinois, and California) to zero-income-tax jurisdictions (places such as Texas, Florida, and Tennessee).

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I wish my leftist friends understood the Laffer Curve. I also wish they understood the downsides of artificially low interest rates. And the Rahn Curve. And comparative advantage.

But perhaps more than anything else, I wish they understood that poor people aren’t poor simply because rich people are rich.

John Stossel has a new video from Reason about the issue.

Spot on.

John is right about income growth. That’s why I think it’s so important to have policies that enable more growth. When the economy does well, that’s good for the poor, good for the rich, and good for the rest of us as well.

And this position is certainly supported by the historical data. We are much richer than 50 years ago and 100 years ago.

Heck, poor Americans are rich compared to people in many developing nations.

I also like what John said about income mobility. People can rise out of poverty. And they can fall out of prosperity.

By the way, I wish the discussion about unfairness also mentioned height and looks. There’s fairly solid academic evidence that taller people and better-looking people earn more money and have better lives.

That’s genuine unfairness, just like having better parents is a source of genuine unfairness.

Yet not even Bernie Sanders or AOC has proposed taxes to equalize those sources of real unfairness (since I don’t want to give them any ideas, hopefully they don’t read my columns).

P.S. I started today’s column by giving examples of things I wish leftists understood. Well, there are also issues where I wish my friends on the right had more insight. For instance, I would like them to understand that tax cuts very rarely pay for themselves. I wish they realized that spending caps are far preferable to balanced budget rules. And I wish they understood that disapproval of things such as drug use, gambling, and prostitution doesn’t mean those activities should be illegal.

P.P.S. I also mentioned at the start of the column that higher incomes for some people doesn’t imply lower incomes for other people. I should have included the caveat that this isn’t true if government is tilting the playing field. Bailouts, protectionism, subsidies, and other forms of cronyism enable the politically well connected to prosper at the expense of everyone else.

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Today is my last day in Chile, so today’s column will build upon what I wrote last week.

I have three charts that illustrate how Chile’s pro-market reforms have been great news – especially for poor people (or, to be more accurate, for Chileans who used to be poor).

We’ll start with this chart from the most recent issue of Economía y Sociedad, which shows that there’s more mobility in Chile than any other OECD nation.

Honest folks on the left should view this as unambiguously positive.

Similarly, this Gini data (measuring the degree of inequality) should be slam-dunk evidence of progress for all left-of-center people.

For what it’s worth, I don’t care about the Gini coefficient. What matters to me is economic growth so that everyone can get richer.

If rich people happen to get richer faster than poor people (like in China), that’s fine.

And if poor people happen to get richer faster than rich people (like in Chile), that’s fine as well.

What irks me is that folks who fixate on inequality often support policies that retard growth. In other words, they’re so worried about rich people getting richer that they advocate for bigger government, which makes it harder for poor people to become richer.

Economic growth, by contrast, truly is the rising tide that lifts all boats.

Which is why this final chart (based on the Maddison database) is so powerful. It shows 1975-2016 income trends for Chile (red) and other major Latin American economies. As you can see, Chile started near the bottom and is now the region’s richest nation.

Wow, Chile didn’t just converge. It surpassed.

It’s also worth noting how nations such as Argentina, Venezuela, and Cuba have enjoyed very little income growth over the past 40 years.

The bottom line is that those nations are evidence of the costly impact of statism, while Chile is an amazing example of how capitalism generates widely shared prosperity.

P.S. I’m not claiming Chile is a perfect role model. It is #15 in Economic Freedom of the World, so there is considerable room for improvement. But I am arguing it is a successful example of how better policy is great news for all segments of society.

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I generally don’t write much about the distribution of income (most-recent example from 2017), largely because that feeds into the false notion that the economy is a fixed pie and that politicians should have the power to re-slice if they think incomes aren’t sufficiently equal.

I think growth is far more important, especially for poor people, which is what I said (using the amazing data from China) in a recent debate at Pomona College in California.

But some people don’t accept the growth argument.

Or, to be more exact, they may acknowledge that there is growth but they think the rich wind up with all the gains when the economy prospers.

So let’s review some of the evidence. We’ll start with Robert Samuelson of the Washington Post, who points out that living standards have jumped for people at all levels of income in America.

…the rich are getting richer. The rest of us — say politicians, pundits and scholars — are stagnating. The top 1 percent have grabbed most income gains, while average Americans are stuck in the mud. Well, it’s not so. …the Congressional Budget Office…recently found that most Americans had experienced clear-cut income gains since the early 1980s. This conclusion is exceptionally important, because the CBO study is arguably the most comprehensive tabulation of Americans’ incomes. Most studies of incomes have glaring omissions. …The CBO study covers all…areas. …If the bottom 99 percent experienced stagnation, their 2015 incomes would be close to those of 1979, the study’s first year. This is what most people apparently believe. The study found otherwise. The poorest fifth of Americans (a fifth is known as a “quintile”) enjoyed a roughly 80 percent post-tax income increase since 1979. The richest quintile — those just below the top 1 percent — had a similar gain of nearly 80 percent. The middle three quintiles achieved less, about a 50 percent rise in post-tax incomes.

And here’s the data from Samuelson’s column showing what’s happened in the 21st Century.

Incidentally, economists from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco explain that weaknesses in data mean that upward mobility in America is not being properly measured.

…one needs to keep in mind that measured productivity growth is designed to capture growth in market activities. Thus, it may not fully capture the growth in people’s economic welfare… Measuring real growth properly is useful for addressing a host of questions. For example, existing studies use measured inflation to calculate the real income of children relative to their parents. Chetty et al. (2017) find that 50% of children born in 1984 achieved higher incomes than their parents at age 30. Adjusting for missing growth would raise the real income of children about 17% relative to their parents, increasing the fraction of those who do better than their parents by a meaningful amount.

Moreover, Professor Russ Roberts points out that many analysts rely on snapshots at two periods of time when estimating changes in prosperity.

Adjusted for inflation, the US economy has more than doubled in real terms since 1975. How much of that growth has gone to the average person? …Most people believe that the middle class and the poor are stagnating, treading water, while the rich get all the goodies. …these depressing conclusions rely on studies and data that are incomplete or flawed. …the biggest problem with the pessimistic studies is that they rarely follow the same people to see how they do over time. Instead, they rely on a snapshot at two points in time. So for example, researchers look at the median income of the middle quintile in 1975 and compare that to the median income of the median quintile in 2014, say. …But the people in the snapshots are not the same people. These snapshots fail to correct for changes in the composition of workers and changes in household structure that distort the measurement of economic progress.

When you follow the same people over time, however, you get a much more optimistic assessment.

When you follow the same people over time, you get very different results about the impact of the economy on the poor, the middle, and the rich. Studies that use panel data — data that is generated from following the same people over time — consistently find that the largest gains over time accrue to the poorest workers and that the richest workers get very little of the gains. This is true in survey data. It is true in data gathered from tax returns. Here are some of the studies… This first study, from the Pew Charitable Trusts, conducted by Leonard Lopoo and Thomas DeLeire uses the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) and compares the family incomes of children to the income of their parents.⁴ Parents income is taken from a series of years in the 1960s. Children’s income is taken from a series of years in the early 2000s. As shown in Figure 1, 84% earned more than their parents, corrected for inflation. But 93% of the children in the poorest households, the bottom 20% surpassed their parents. …Gerald Auten, Geoffrey Gee, and Nicholas Turner of the Office of Tax Analysis in the Treasury Department used tax returns to see how rich and poor did between 1987 and 2007. They find the same encouraging pattern: poorer people had the largest percentage gains in income over time.

For more information, here’s some data from the Pew study.

Let’s also look at a column by Professor Mark Rank in the New York Times. It was written back in 2014, but his observations about people rising and falling show that there is considerable mobility in the United States.

To what extent do everyday Americans experience these levels of affluence, at least some of the time? In order to answer such questions, Thomas A. Hirschl of Cornell and I looked at 44 years of longitudinal data regarding individuals from ages 25 to 60… The results were striking. It turns out that 12 percent of the population will find themselves in the top 1 percent of the income distribution for at least one year. What’s more, 39 percent of Americans will spend a year in the top 5 percent of the income distribution, 56 percent will find themselves in the top 10 percent, and a whopping 73 percent will spend a year in the top 20 percent of the income distribution. …the image of a static 1 and 99 percent is largely incorrect. …This is just as true at the bottom of the income distribution scale, where 54 percent of Americans will experience poverty or near poverty at least once between the ages of 25 and 60… Ultimately, this information casts serious doubt on the notion of a rigid class structure in the United States based upon income. It suggests that the United States is indeed a land of opportunity, that the American dream is still possible

Amen.

Last but not least, for those of you who really like digging into data, here’s a video from Russ Roberts about the different ways of measuring middle-class incomes.

I cited some Pew data above, so I’ll close by calling your attention to the video of Pew data in this 2015 column. The bottom line is that middle-class Americans are enjoying more prosperity over time.

But it’s also true that different government policies could lead to higher or lower levels of income.

Which is why I’m perplexed that my left-wing friends want policies that would make the United States more like Europe.

Unsurprisingly, I think we should focus instead on pro-market changes that will increase America’s advantage over Europe.

P.S. The healthcare exclusion has a negative impact on take-home pay for ordinary Americans.

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Imagine being a poor person and getting to choose your country. Which one would you select?

The answer probably depends on your goals in life. If you want to emulate “Lazy Robert” and be a moocher, you could pick Denmark. You’ll surely get more than enough money to survive.

Denmark’s also not a bad choice if you have a bit of ambition. It ranks #16 in the latest edition of Economic Freedom of the World, largely because it has a very laissez-faire approach on trade, regulation, and other non-fiscal policies. So there’s a decent chance you could climb the economic ladder.

But if you have lots of ambition and definitely want a better life for your children and grandchildren, you’d presumably pick a nation such as Singapore, which routinely gets very high grades from Economic Freedom of the World.

There’s a lot of economic liberty, which has resulted in huge improvements in living standards. Indeed, people in Singapore are now much richer than Americans.

The last thing you would do, however, is pick a stagnant country such as Greece. Or a miserably impoverished nation such as Zimbabwe.

Unless you’re one of the buffoons at Oxfam. That “charity” just produced an inequality study that says Singapore is one of the world’s worst nations, ranking far below places where people are very poor with very bleak lives.

Here’s how Oxfam describes its report.

In 2015, the leaders of 193 governments promised to reduce inequality under Goal 10 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Without reducing inequality, meeting SDG 1 to eliminate poverty will be impossible. In 2017, …Oxfam produced the first index to measure the commitment of governments to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor. The index is based on a new database of indicators, now covering 157 countries, which measures government action… The report recommends that all countries should develop national inequality action plans to achieve SDG 10 on reducing inequality. These plans should include delivery of universal, public and free health and education and universal social protection floors. They should be funded by increasing progressive taxation and clamping down on exemptions and tax dodging.

In other words, the study is a measure of whether nations have punitive welfare states, not whether poor people have better lives.

The assertion in the second sentence that poverty can’t be reduced without reducing inequality is especially absurd. Unless, of course, you choose a dishonest definition of poverty (which is what we get from leftist groups like the UN and OECD, not to mention the Equal Welfare Association, Germany’s Institute of Labor Economics, and the Obama Administration).

But let’s focus on Singapore. Here are some excerpts from a Reuters story on the controversy over that nation’s poor score.

Oxfam on Wednesday rejected Singapore’s defense of its low taxes after the NGO ranked the wealthy city state among the 10 worst-offending countries in fuelling inequality with its low-tax regime. Oxfam’s Commitment to Reducing Inequality (CRI) index ranked Singapore 149th of 157, below Afghanistan, Algeria, and Cambodia, and marginally higher than Haiti, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. …Oxfam’s head of inequality policy, Max Lawson, said the impact of Singapore’s tax policy went beyond its borders, serving as a tax haven for the rich and big corporations. …Singapore Social and Family Development Minister Desmond Lee said on Tuesday…“Yes, the income tax burden on Singaporeans is low. And almost half the population do not pay any income tax,”…“Yet, they benefit more than proportionately from the high quality of infrastructure and social support that the state provides,” he said. “In Oxfam’s view, Singapore’s biggest failing is our tax rates, which are not punitive enough.” Lee also said 90 percent of Singaporeans owned their homes and home ownership was 84 percent even among the poorest 10 percent of households. “No other country comes close,” he said.

Minister Lee is correct, of course.

Singapore is a great place to be poor, in part because the bottom 10 percent in Singapore would be middle class or above in many of the nation’s that get better scores from Oxfam’s ideologues. But mostly because it’s a place where it’s possible to become rich rather than remain poor.

There are some other aspects of the Oxfam study that merit attention, including the curious omission of some of the world’s most left-wing nations, such as Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea.

In the case of North Korea, I’m willing to believe that there simply wasn’t enough reliable data. But why aren’t there scores for Cuba and Venezuela? I strongly suspect that authors deliberately omitted those two hellholes because they didn’t want to deal with the embarrassment of incredibly poor nations getting very high scores (which is what made Jeffrey Sachs’ SDG Index an easy target for mockery)

Also, I’d be curious to learn why Hong Kong isn’t ranked? Taxes are even lower and there’s even less redistribution in Hong Kong, so maybe it would have been last rather than merely in the bottom 10.

Was Oxfam worried about looking foolish, so they left prosperous Hong Kong out of the study?

That’s my guess. The last thing the left wants is for people to understand that poor nations only become rich nations with free markets and small government.

The bottom line is that Oxfam is an organization that has been hijacked by hard-left activists. Given it’s track record of shoddy reports, it’s now a joke rather than a charity.

P.S. The OECD also produced a shoddy study that grossly mischaracterized Singapore and totally ignored Hong Kong.

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I’m happy to discuss theory when debating economic policy, but I mostly focus on real-world evidence.

That’s because my friends on the left always have a hard time answering my two-question challenge, which simply asks them to name one success story for big government.

They usually point to Sweden and Denmark, but get discouraged when I point out that those nations became rich when government was relatively small.

And I’m embarrassed to admit that some of my fellow economists once thought that communist nations grew faster than capitalist nations.

But let’s not digress. I raise this topic because there are many critics of capitalism who admit that free markets generate more wealth, but they assert that society would be better off if incomes were lower so long as rich people suffered more than poor people.

This strikes me as morally poisonous. But it also gives me an opportunity to cite a new study from the International Monetary Fund that allows us to further analyze this issue.

The IMF report starts by noting that globalization (free trade, liberalization, etc) has been good for global prosperity.

Over the course of the last decades the world economy has witnessed rapid integration. Most countries have opened up their economies and experienced an unprecedented rise in the flow of goods and capital across borders. This phenomenon – now widely known as economic globalization – was coincident with rising living standards in a large number of countries. Many developing countries have experienced episodes of strong economic growth and substantial poverty reduction as they integrated their economies with the rest of the world.

Sounds like good news, right?

It is good news, but those who fixate on inequality are worried.

…while globalization might on average be good for growth, more might not always be better for all. …When we shift the analysis to how income gains from globalization are distributed within countries, we also find globalization to have different effects on different incomes…gains are, however, distributed unequally both across and within countries. …Within countries, income inequality increases as a consequence of globalization. The income gains resulting from globalization tend to go primarily to the top of the national income distributions.

In other words, rich people are getting richer at a faster pace.

This phenomenon is captured in these two charts, which show that globalization is associated with more growth and more inequality.

But what’s important is that poor people also are getting richer.

In the subsample of developing countries where the gains from globalization are generally larger, however, they also reach the bottom of the income distribution and reduce poverty. … We find…some evidence of a poverty reducing effect of globalization in developing countries.

Consider, for example, the remarkable data I shared about China. Income inequality increased at the same time that poverty dramatically declined.

And those results seem to hold for the rest of the world, especially in developing nations.

So now let’s look at the most important chart from the IMF study, which shows that all income groups enjoy more prosperity with globalization.

Yes, rich people benefit the most, so official inequality numbers will increase.

But put yourself in the shoes of a poor person. Would you be willing to forego your additional income in order to deny additional income for a rich person? I suspect the vast majority of poor people would think that’s a crazy question.

But, as Margaret Thatcher pointed out, there are plenty of folks on the left who think that’s a perfectly reasonable position. Including, incidentally, some of the people at the IMF.

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A few years ago, I shared an image that neatly summarized why the left’s fixation on income inequality is misguided.

Now I have something even better.

I don’t know who “JIMBOB” is, but this cartoon he created is a masterpiece. The car analogy is perfect.

I’ll have to recycle this cartoon every time I write on the issue (along with substantive analysis, including Max Roser’s numbers and the powerful Chinese data).

That being said, I’m going to suggest one possible revision to JIMBOB. I think it would be a slight improvement if both captions started with “some.”

For what it’s worth, I think that phrasing would better reflect how the left thinks.

Or, to be fair, it shows how some on the left think.

I’ve never forgotten a conversation I had with a friend from the other side of the spectrum. His support for class-warfare policies is based on the fact that some (many?) rich people got their wealth via government.

And those people obviously don’t deserve their loot.

The difference between me and my friend is that I’d rather keep tax rates low and get rid of the programs that provide unjust riches. In other words, we should be guided by this very powerful image.

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I’ve repeatedly argued that faster growth is the only effective way of helping the less fortunate.

Class warfare and redistribution, by contrast, are not effective. Such policies are based on the fallacy that the economy is a fixed pie, and proponents of this view fixate on inequality because they mistakenly believe that additional income for the rich means less income for the poor.

Today, let’s look at some numbers that prove that a fixation on inequality is misguided. The Census Bureau this week released its annual report on Income and Poverty in the United States. That publication includes data (Table A-2) showing annual inflation-adjusted earnings by income quintile between 1967-2017.

To see if my left-leaning friends are right about the rich getting richer at the expense of the poor, I calculated the annual percent change for each quintile. Lo and behold, the data actually show that there’s a very clear pattern showing how all income quintiles tend to rise and fall together.

The lesson from this data is clear. If you want policies that help the poor, those also will be policies that help the middle class and rich.

And if you hate the rich, you need to realize that policies hurting them will almost certainly hurt the less fortunate as well.

One other lesson is that all income quintiles did particularly well during the 1980s and 1990s when free-market policies prevailed.

P.S. Many people (including on the left) have pointed out that the Census Bureau’s numbers under-count compensation because fringe benefits such as healthcare are excluded. This is a very legitimate complaint, but it doesn’t change the fact that all income quintiles tend to rise and fall together. For what it’s worth, adding other forms of compensation would boost lower quintiles compared to higher quintiles.

P.P.S. Here’s an interesting video from Pew Research showing how the middle class has become more prosperous over the past few decades.

P.P.P.S. The Census Bureau’s report also has the latest data on poverty. The good news is that the poverty rate fell. The bad news is that long-run progress ground to a halt once the federal government launched the ill-fated War on Poverty.

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The good news about China is that economic liberalization has produced impressive growth in recent decades, which has helped bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty.

The bad news is that China started from such a low position that per-capita income is still quite low compared to rich nations.

So what does the economic future hold? Will China continue its upward trajectory?

That’s certainly possible, but it depends on the Chinese government. Will there be additional liberalization, giving the economy more “breathing room” to grow?

Not if the government listens to the bureaucrats at the International Monetary Fund. I wrote three years ago about an IMF study that recommended huge tax increases in China.

And now there’s another IMF report pushing for big tax hikes. Only instead of arguing that higher taxes somehow will produce more growth by financing a bigger burden of government (which – no joke – was the core argument in the 2105 study), this new report claims higher taxes will produce more growth by reducing inequality.

Here’s the basic premise of the paper.

…economic growth has not benefited all segments of the population equally or at the same pace, causing income disparities to grow, resulting in a large increase in income inequality… This is especially of concern as the recent literature has found that elevated levels of inequality are harmful for the pace and sustainability of growth… The paper discusses what additional policies can be deployed to improve equity in opportunities and outcomes, with particular focus on the role for fiscal policy.

But a key part of the premise – the blanket assertion that inequality undermines growth – is junk.

As I noted in 2015 when debunking a different IMF study, “..they never differentiate between bad Greek-style inequality that is caused by cronyism and good Hong Kong-style inequality that is caused by some people getting richer faster than other people getting richer in a free market.”

Let’s dig into the details of this new IMF study.

Here’s the problem, at least according to the bureaucrats.

Income inequality in China today, as measured by the Gini coefficient, is among the highest in the world. …Furthermore, the Gini coefficient has rapidly increased over the last two decades, by a total of about 15 Gini points since 1990.

And here’s the chart that supposedly should cause angst. It shows that inequality began to rise as China shifted toward capitalism.

But why is this inequality a bad thing, assuming rich people earned their money honestly?

When markets are allowed to function, people become rich by providing value to the rest of us. In other words, it’s not a zero-sum game.

Ironically, the IMF study actually makes my point.

…much of China’s population has experienced rising real incomes. …even for the bottom 10 percent incomes rose by as much as 63 percent between 1980 and 2015… This has implied that China reduced the share of people living in poverty immensely. Measured by the headcount ratio, the population in poverty decreased by 86 percentage points from 1980 to 2013 (see figure 6), the most rapid reduction in history.

And here’s the aforementioned Figure 6, which is the data worth celebrating.

Any normal person will look at this chart and conclude that China should do more liberalization.

But not the bureaucrats at the IMF. With their zero-sum mentality, they fixate on the inequality chart.

Which leads them to make horrifyingly bad recommendations.

…several reforms could be envisaged to make fiscal policy more inclusive, both on the tax and expenditure side. …revenues from PIT contribute only around 5 percent of total revenues, a much lower share than the OECD average of 25 percent. Increasing the reliance on PIT, which more easily accommodates a progressive structure, could allow China to improve redistribution through the tax system. …While the PIT in China already embeds a progressive schedule with marginal rates increasing with income from 3 to 45 percent, …redesigning the tax brackets would ensure that middle and high income households with higher ability to pay contribute more to financing the national budget… Property and wealth taxes remain limited in China. Such taxes are broadly viewed as progressive, because high-income households usually tend also to have more property and wealth. …Consideration should therefore be given to adopt a recurrent market-value based property tax.

And why do IMF bureaucrats want all these additional growth-stifling taxes?

To finance a larger burden of government spending.

China still lags other emerging economies and OECD countries in public spending on education, health and social assistance. …social expenditure will need to be boosted.

In other words, the IMF is suggesting that China should copy welfare states such as Italy and France.

Except those nations at least enjoyed a lengthy period before World War II when government was very small. That’s when they became relatively rich.

The IMF wants China to adopt big government today, which is a recipe to short-circuit prosperity.

P.S. I don’t think the IMF is motivated by animus towards China. The bureaucrats are equal-opportunity dispensers of bad advice.

P.P.S. The OECD also is trying to undermine growth in China.

P.P.P.S. There are some senior-level Chinese officials who understand the downsides of a welfare state.

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Writing a column every day is a recipe for making an occasional mistake.

Sometimes the errors are minor, such as when I put Tucson in New Mexico rather than Arizona.

And sometimes they are less trivial, such as when I mischaracterized subsidies for the Postal Service or when I incorrectly criticized the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.

In an event, I always try to acknowledge and fix my mistakes.

And that’s why I want to write today about Oxfam. Early last year, I wrote a column criticizing the group’s statist orientation, asserting in my title that the group was a leftist joke instead of a real charity.

Time to correct the record. But I want to begin by noting that my title was only partly wrong. Oxfam is very much a left-wing organization. In prior columns, I’ve shared critiques of the group’s statist ideology from Tim Carney, Marian Tupy, and Tony Travers.

And before I get to the part about fixing my mistake, I want to augment this list by sharing the views of two more experts. We’ll start with some excerpts from a column in the Wall Street Journal by David Henderson.

Oxfam recently published a 76-page report, “Reward Work, Not Wealth,” that advocates taxing the rich to reduce inequality and help the poor. …There are two ways to close the gap. The first is to concentrate on making the poor better off. Mostly that has happened, thanks to liberalized international trade and reduced costs for shipping goods. Just as Walmart and Amazon have cut costs for Americans, the introduction of container shipping crushed transportation costs for the world. The second way to reduce inequality is to make the rich worse off.

Needless to say, Oxfam prefer the approach that gives more power and money to government.

Any guess which method Oxfam’s report emphasizes? “Governments should use regulation and taxation to radically reduce levels of extreme wealth,” the authors conclude. …The document’s title, “Reward Work, Not Wealth,” is strange: Wealth is one of the main rewards for productive work. High taxes on wealth and the wealthy reduce the incentive to produce.

And Oxfam, to its credit, understands that confiscatory taxes will require a global tax cartel.

…the report…effectively advocates…the creation of a tax cartel. Since capital is extremely mobile and will go where it is lightly taxed—witness the corporate “inversions” of American companies—the report suggests “a new generation of international tax reforms.” Negotiating tax rates would take place under the aegis of “a new global tax body that ensures all countries participate on an equal footing.”

Reading Henderson’s column, we have additional confirmation that Oxfam is a run-of-the-mill statist organization that myopically believes in class warfare.

So you might think the group is no different that other leftists groups such as the United Nations or the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Or no different than politicians such as Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton.

But Oxfam also has a reputation for beclowning itself with shoddy analysis.

Johan Norberg mocked the group’s ideology-over-results approach when he noted that Oxfam is distressed about an era of “neoliberalism” in the world (meaning, in this case, the European definition of pro-market classical liberalism), yet that’s also the period of time when the poor enjoyed huge gains.

For what it’s worth, I wrote a study 17 years ago debunking some of Oxfam’s sloppy work.

And here’s some of what Tim Worstall just wrote for the U.K.’s Adam Smith Institute.

Buried in Oxfam’s latest report about how disastrously unequal the world is we’ve got an assumption which is so breathtakingly foolish as to kill off any belief in the sense or sensibility of the organisation’s mindset. They’re trying to insist that the minimum wage in a place should be very much higher than GDP per capita in that same place. …the garment trade in Bangladesh…minimum wage there is…5,000 taka a month, or £50. …Yes, a low sum and most assuredly we’d all like it to be much higher. But Oxfam’s claim is that this should be a living wage of more like £250 a month (perhaps $250). Something which simply cannot happen. GDP per capita in Bangladesh is some $1,500 a year or so. We cannot have a minimum wage twice that. This would be the same claim as insisting that the UK minimum wage should be $80,000 a year (say, £60,000). …It’s a demand based upon the most aggressively stupid misunderstanding of what ails Bangladesh, isn’t it? ……to get this so wrong seriously calls into doubt Oxfam’s right to anything more than a contemptuous sneer. …Sorry folks, but Oxfam is deluded.

Tim concludes with some very wise words.

Bangladesh’s problem is not global inequality, the thing Oxfam is whining about, it’s Bangladesh’s poverty. …The cure for poverty is economic growth, the very thing which has reduced that global absolute poverty from 40% of all humans to under 10% in just these past three decades of that very neoliberal globalisation.

Now it’s finally time for my correction. When I wrote last year that Oxfam was “not a real charity,” I was merely implying that the group was a bad charity since it advocated policies that hurt poor people.

But thanks to new revelations about Oxfam’s involvement in horrific sex-crimes scandals, I’ve learned it doesn’t deserved to be called a charity of any kind. Check out these excerpts from a CNN report.

Oxfam’s deputy chief executive has resigned amid a growing sex crimes scandal involving the organization’s aid workers in Haiti and Chad. …Oxfam announced the resignation after a meeting with UK government officials Monday, at which it had fought to keep millions of pounds in public funding. …Oxfam received about £32 million (about $44 million) from the government last financial year, according to public records.

And the money from British taxpayers is just the tip of the iceberg.

Here’s a shocking bit of information from the conclusion of  David Henderson’s column.

Oxfam’s annual budget exceeds $1 billion, and it gets almost half of that from governments and the United Nations. So maybe it’s time for a new name. Oxgov.

Almost half of its budget from taxpayers?!? At best, that makes them a government contractor rather than a charity.

I’ll conclude with two points.

  • First, I think Oxfam should lose public funding. But not because some of its employees engaged in sexual predation. Yes, that’s bad, but I certainly don’t think sex abuse was ever part of the organization’s mission. Instead, it should lose funding because taxpayer money should not go to leftist organizations that advocate for bigger government (the same argument I use, by the way, when urging an end to OECD handouts).
  • Second, instead of telling people that “Oxfam is a letist joke rather than a real charity,” I’ll have to changes the second part of the sentence. Maybe “Oxfam is a leftist joke and it mooches from taxpayers.” I’m not sure that rolls off the tongue gracefully, so I’m open to other suggestions.

P.S. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that the International Monetary Fund partners with Oxfam. I guess the old saying is right that birds of feather flock together.

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The left’s fixation on reducing inequality is misguided. If they really care about the poor, they instead should focus on reducing poverty.

And that means pushing for more growth. We know from U.S. evidence and global evidence that better economic performance is the effective way to boost living standards for the less fortunate (I also recommend a look at the data from China).

Unfortunately, many folks on the left pursue policies that undermine prosperity and actually exacerbate inequality. I put together some examples back in 2015, and now it’s time to expand that list.

A report from the left-leaning Brookings Institution looks at how regulations protect – and enrich – the top 1 percent.

The real cause of elite inequality is the lack of open access and market competition in elite investment and labor markets. To bring the elite down to size, we need to make them compete. …people working in the securities industry (which includes investment banks and hedge funds) earn 26 percent more, regardless of skill. Those working in legal services get a 23 percent pay raise. These are among the two industries with the highest levels of “gratuitous pay”—pay in excess of skill… Using microdata from the Census Bureau, I find that the “gratuitous pay” premium in certain industries has increased dramatically since 1980. …The accredited investor…rules contribute to inequality by giving the richest investors privileged access to the best investment strategies. …If the law was changed to allow mutual funds to offer hedge fund portfolios, hundreds of billions of dollars would be transferred annually from super-rich hedge fund managers and investment bankers to ordinary investors, and even low-income workers with retirement plans. …politicians and intellectuals often champion market competition—but what they mean by that is competition among low-paid service workers, production workers, or computer programmers who face competition from trade and immigration, while elite professionals sit behind a protectionist wall. …For lawyers, doctors, and dentists— three of the most over-represented occupations in the top 1 percent—state-level lobbying from professional associations has blocked efforts to expand the supply of qualified workers who could do many of the “professional” job tasks for less pay.

Matt Ridley, a columnist fo the U.K.-based Times, writes about the pernicious impact of cronyism, licensing, and industrial policy.

The history of industrial strategies is littered with attempts to pick winners that ended up picking losers. Worse, it is government intervention, not laissez faire, that has done most to increase inequality and to entrench wealth and privilege. For example, the planning system restricts the supply of land for housebuilding, raising property prices to the enormous benefit of the haves (yes, that includes me) at the expense of the have-nots. …Why are salaries so high in financial services? Because there are huge barriers to entry erected by government, which hands incumbent firms enormous quasi-monopoly advantages and thereby shelters them from upstart competition. …Why are lawyers so rich? Because there is a government-licensed cartel restricting the supply of them. …Our current “industrial strategy” for energy — to subsidise offshore wind, solar, biomass and nuclear — is responsible for the fact that domestic electricity prices are the seventh highest… Domestic electricity bills are a higher proportion of household budgets for the poor than for the rich, so this policy is regressive; doubly so, because the wind and solar subsidies mostly go to the rich. 

Let’s consider health policy. Folks on the left favor the healthcare exclusion in the tax code because government supposedly should play a role in encouraging health insurance. What’s the impact of this policy? Well, let’s peruse a Robert Samuelson column on health policy and inequality, which is based on a study from the Mercatus Center.

…add health care to the causes of growing wage inequality in America. There’s a largely unknown paradox at work. Companies that try to provide roughly equal health insurance plans for their workers — as many do — end up making wage and salary inequality worse. …It’s simple arithmetic… Paying for expensive health insurance squeezes what’s left for wage and salary raises. Economic inequality increases, because health insurance typically represents a larger share of total compensation for lower-paid than higher-paid workers. Their wages are squeezed the most. …Even though the company raised its compensation package by 5 percent for all workers, the wage and salary gap between the best- and worst- paid workers widened. Pursuing one type of equality (health coverage) inadvertently worsened another type of inequality (wages and incomes). …From 1992 to 2010, about half the increase in wage and salary inequality is explained by rising health costs.

We’ll close with a new study by an economist at the University of Michigan for the National Bureau of Economic Research.

The three major reforms that I will analyze are: (1) the state income tax introduction, (2) the introduction of withholding, bundled with the introduction of third-party reporting, and (3) the intergovernmental agreement between the federal and the state governments for coordinating auditing practices. …the introduction of the income tax raised the Atkinson inequality index by 0.015, which is about 7 percent of the sample mean, statistically significant at the 1 percent level. …The income tax introduction raised the Gini coefficient by 0.014, which is about 3 percent, significant at the 5 percent level. …All of the three reforms raised the Theil index in a statistically significant way, at least at the 5 percent level. The introduction of the income tax and of the withholding raised it by about 0.06… In other words, the fact that the only effect that these reforms had in common was raising the revenues from income tax and making the government bigger and the private sector smaller, suggest that a bigger government, at least in the recent history, had the effect of higher inequality.

Here’s a chart from Professor Troiano’s research. Note how the rich got richer at the point (“0”) the income tax was implemented.

And here’s a look at what happened to various measures of inequality. Again, pay attention to the point (“0”) where the income tax was imposed.

Writing for PJ Media, Simon Constable discusses some implications of the NBER report.

Income taxes don’t reduce income inequality. Instead they do quite the opposite, according to December-dated analysis published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The paper looked at three major 20th century U.S. tax reforms and found that they did nothing to decrease income inequality and everything to increase it. …Why did income inequality increase when that wasn’t the goal of the reforms? …bigger government ends up retarding the private sector and reducing the size of the wealth pie. Naturally, the poorer come out worst in such a situation, while the well-heeled can get top tier advice to dodge the tax bullet. Hence, the rich get richer and the poor stay skint. …Nobody who believes in liberty, or public choice theory, will be surprised to learn that higher taxes lead to more inequality,” says Robert E. Wright, professor of political economy at Augustana University in South Dakota. The problem is that the elites in any society, including the U.S., control the government and they quite naturally take care of themselves first, he says.

The bottom line is that our statist friends claim that they’re shooting at the rich, but the poor tend to suffer the most damage.

If you want more evidence, look at what happened to income for various groups during the pro-free market era of the 1980s and 1990s compared to what’s happened so far this century.

P.S. The most twisted look at inequality was produced by the IMF, which implied that radically lower living standards would be acceptable if everyone was more equally poor.

P.P.S. The most satirical look at inequality comes from David Azerrad.

P.P.P.S. The most insightful comment on inequality comes from Johan Norberg, who reminds us that we should be upset by unfairness, not inequality.

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Inequality is now a major dividing line in the world of public policy.

Supporters of limited government think it’s not a big issue and instead focus on the policies that are most likely to generate growth. Simply stated, they tend not to care if some people get richer faster than other people get richer (assuming, of course, that income is honestly earned and not the result of cronyism).

Folks on the left, by contrast, think inequality is inherently bad. It’s almost as if they think that the economy is a fixed pie and that a big slice for the “rich” necessarily means smaller slices for the rest of us. They favor lots of redistribution via punitive taxes and an expansive welfare state.

When talking to such people, my first priority is getting them to understand that it’s possible for an economy to grow and for all income groups to benefit. I explain how even small differences in long-run growth make a big difference over just a few decades and that it is very misguided to impose policies that will discourage growth by penalizing the rich and discouraging the poor.

I sometimes wonder how vigorously to present my argument. Is it actually true, as Thatcher and Churchill argued, that leftists are willing to hurt poor people if that’s what is necessary to hurt rich people by a greater amount?

Seems implausible, so when I recently noticed this amusing humor on Reddit‘s libertarian page, I was not going to share it. After all, it presumes that our friends on the left genuinely would prefer equal levels of poverty rather than unequal levels of prosperity.

But, after reading a new study from the International Monetary Fund, I’m wondering if I’m underestimating the left’s fixation with inequality and the amount of economic damage they’re willing to inflict to achiever greater equality of outcomes.

Here are some introductory passages to explain the goal of the research.

…it is worth reemphasizing some lessons from the “old masters” in economics who addressed this topic a few decades ago—including Arthur M. Okun and Anthony B. Atkinson in the 1970s. Their lessons—on how to elicit people’s views on inequality and how to summarize societal welfare using a monetary indicator encompassing both average incomes and their distribution—remain relevant for fiscal policymakers today. …a satisfactory theory of welfare must recognize that welfare depends on both the size and the distribution of national income. …This primer seeks to encourage more widespread use by policymakers of the tools developed by welfare theory. …the primer provides an in-depth, step-by-step refresher on two specific tools chosen because of their simplicity and intuitive appeal: Okun’s “leaky bucket” and Atkinson’s “equally-distributed-equivalent income.”

Please note that the IMF explicitly is saying that it wants policymakers to change laws based on what’s in the study.

And, as you continue reading, it should become obvious that the bureaucrats are pushing a very radical agenda (not that we should be surprised given the IMF’s track record).

Here’s the bureaucracy’s take on Okun and his pro-redistribution agenda.

Okun (1975) proposed a thought experiment capable of eliciting people’s attitudes toward the trade -off between equality and efficiency: Okun asked the reader to consider five families: a richer one making $45,000 (in 1975) and four poorer ones making $5,000. Would the reader favor a scheme that taxed the rich family $4,000 and transferred the proceeds to the poorer families? In principle, each poorer family would receive $1,000. But what if 10 percent leaked out, with only $900 reaching the recipients? What would the maximum acceptable leak be? The leak represented not only the administrative costs of tax-and-transfer programs (and, one might add, potential losses due to corruption), but also the fact that such programs reduce the economic incentives to work. …Okun reported his own answers to the specific exercise he proposed (his personal preference was for a leakage of no more than 60 percent). ….Okun was willing to accept that a $4,000 tax on the rich household [would] translate, with a 60 percent leakage, into a $400 transfer to each of the four poor households.

The only good part about Okun’s equity-efficiency tradeoff is that he acknowledges that redistribution harms the economy. The disturbing part is that he was willing to accept 60 percent leakage in order to take money from some and give it to others.

It gets worse. When the IMF mixes Okun with Atkinson, that’s when things head in the wrong direction even faster. As I noted last month, Atkinson has a theory designed to justify big declines in national income if what’s left is distributed more equally. I’m not joking.

And that IMF wants to impose this crazy theory on the world.

Atkinson (1970) showed that under the assumptions above and having identified a coefficient of aversion to inequality, it becomes easy to summarize the well-being of all households in an economy with a single, intuitive measure: the equally-distributed-equivalent income (EDEI), i.e., the income that an external observer would consider just as desirable as the existing income distribution. …The percentage loss in mean income—compared with the initial situation—that an observer would find acceptable to have a perfectly equal distribution of incomes was introduced by Atkinson (1970) as a measure of inequality.

The study then purports to measure “aversion to inequality” in order to calculate equally-distributed-equivalent income (EDEI).

The greater the observers’ aversion to inequality, the lower the EDEI. Table (2) reports for a few alternative ε coefficients, for the example above.

Here’s a table from the study, which is based on a theoretical rich person with $45,000 and a theoretical poor person with $5,000 of income. A society that isn’t very worried about inequality (ε = 0.2) is willing to sacrifice about $4,000 on overall income to achieve the desired EDEI. But a nation fixated on equality of outcomes might be willing to sacrifice $32,000 (more than 60 percent of overall income!).

I’ve augmented the table with a few of the aggregate income losses in red.

In other words, nations that have a higher aversion to inequality are the ones that prefer lots of misery and deprivation so long as everyone suffers equally.

Another use of this data is that it allows the IMF to create dodgy data on income (sort of like what the OECD does with poverty numbers).

It appears the bureaucrats want to use EDEI to claim that poorer nations have more income than richer nations.

…the ranking of countries based on the EDEI often differs significantly from that based on mean income alone. For instance, South Africa’s mean income is more than double that of the Kyrgyz Republic, and substantially above that of Albania. However, those countries’ lower inequality implies that their EDEI is significantly higher than South Africa’s. …Similarly, the United States’ mean income is considerably above that of the United Kingdom or Sweden. However, for an inequality aversion coefficient of ε=1.5, Sweden’s EDEI is above that of the United States, and for ε=2.0 also the United Kingdom’s EDEI is above that of the United States.

Here’s a table from the study and you can see how the United States becomes a comparatively poor nation (highlighted in red) when there’s an “aversion” to inequality.

In other word, even though the United States has much higher living standards than European nations, the IMF is peddling dodgy numbers implying just the opposite.

But the real tragedy is that low-income people will be much more likely to remain poor with the policies that the IMF advocates.

P.S. Fans of satire may appreciate this “modest proposal” to reduce inequality. I imagine the IMF would approve so long as certain rich people are excluded.

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Let’s consider some good news about America.

Some folks on the left like to claim that the middle class is shrinking and that therefore we need bigger government and more redistribution to protect these Americans from falling into poverty.

Well, the first half of that statement is true. The middle class is becoming smaller. But here’s the good news. As I noted in 2015 when sharing some data from Pew, the middle class is shrinking because more and more households are earning six-figure incomes.

Now we have more confirmation. Courtesy of Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute, here’s a nice chart based on data from the Census Bureau’s new report on income and poverty in the United States.

Want to feel even better?

In a column for CNBC, Professor Daniel Smith of Troy University explains that government data understates the improvements in living standards. He points out that total compensation has increased much faster than wages.

Complaints that the rich are getting richer while the majority have hit a brick wall in wage growth have led to calls to impose regulations and taxes aimed at creating a “fair” economy. This mantra, however, is wrought with holes and erroneous interpretation of the data… Over the last few decades, employees have been receiving an increasingly larger portion of their overall compensation in the form of benefits such as health care, paid vacation time, hour flexibility, improved work environments and even daycare. …Total compensation, which adds these benefits to wages and salaries, shows that earnings have actually increased more than 45 percent since 1964.

And he notes that income gains are understated if measured against the PCE index rather than the consumer price index.

Furthermore, “purchasing power,” the amount of stuff people can buy with each dollar, has changed dramatically… CPI is notorious for overstating inflation, and thus understating the growth of real wages received by workers. Adjusting the data with the more appropriate Personal Consumption Expenditure index brings the growth in average hourly wages from 5.58 percent to more than 35 percent and the growth in total compensation of employees from more than 45 percent to more than 87 percent.

The bottom line is we’re able to buy more and better for less work.

But even that index fails to grasp the drastic increase in what workers get for their wages. …100.5 hours of work was required to purchase a washing machine in 1959 compared to just 23.3 hours of work (for the average worker) in 2013. Purchasing a TV demanded an astounding 127.8 hours of work in 1959, whereas a worker in 2013 could purchase one with only 20.7 hours of work. Moreover, the improved quality of these goods over the past few decades is staggering. …Today’s iPhones and other smart-phone models seem like a different species from their predecessors… We’ve seen the same progress in knee-replacement surgeries, computers, the Internet, vacuum cleaners, and other technologies we’ve come to rely on.

Professor Smith wrote this piece back in 2014, but these arguments apply just as well today as they did back then.

Though I don’t want to be a Pollyanna. There are very worrisome trends in our economy, especially increased dependency and reduced labor force participation.

So if you prefer to look at the glass as being half empty, Nicholas Eberstadt of the American University authored an article that is very pessimistic assessment about recent trends.

It turns out that the year 2000 marks a grim historical milestone of sorts for our nation. For whatever reasons, the Great American Escalator, which had lifted successive generations of Americans to ever higher standards of living and levels of social well-being, broke down around then—and broke down very badly. …it should be painfully obvious that the U.S. economy has been in the grip of deep dysfunction since the dawn of the new century. …It took America six and a half years—until mid-2014—to get back to its late 2007 per capita production levels. And in late 2016, per capita output was just 4 percent higher than in late 2007—nine years earlier. By this reckoning, the American economy looks to have suffered something close to a lost decade. …Between 2000 and 2016, per capita growth in America has averaged less than 1 percent a year. To state it plainly: With postwar, pre-21st-century rates for the years 20002016, per capita GDP in America would be more than 20 percent higher than it is today. …If 21st-century America’s GDP trends have been disappointing, labor-force trends have been utterly dismal. Work rates have fallen off a cliff since the year 2000 and are at their lowest levels in decades.

I don’t disagree with any of this. Growth has been weak this century.

Which is hardly a surprise since we’ve seen an erosion of economic liberty (thanks Bush and Obama!).

But I also want to keep things in perspective. Weak growth is better than no growth. Our living standards are increasing, even if they could – and should – be rising at a faster clip.

So let me swing back to the Pollyanna side by sharing a chart which ostensibly is bad news because it shows rising inequality. But I view it as good news because it shows that all of us are at least 40 percent richer – in real terms – than we were back around 1980.

By the way, Thomas Sowell has pointed out that higher-income households tend to do better because they have more people working, while lower-income households feature lots of dependency. Moreover, if Professor Smith and others are right, the increase in living standards is far greater than what this chart shows anyhow. But even if you accept this data at face value, we are all getting richer over time.

Yes, growth rates should be faster and incomes should be climbing more rapidly. Especially at the bottom. Whether you look at global data or country-specific data, that’s an argument for free markets and small government.

As I wrote last year, we don’t need perfect policy to get more prosperity. Just give the private sector some breathing room.

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Every so often, I mock the New York Times for biased or sloppy analysis.

Now there’s a new column by David Leonhardt that cries out for correction.

He’s very upset that upper-income people are enjoying higher incomes over time.

A…team of inequality researchers…has been getting some attention recently for a chart… It shows the change in income between 1980 and 2014 for every point on the distribution, and it neatly summarizes the recent soaring of inequality. …the very affluent, and only the very affluent, have received significant raises in recent decades. This line captures the rise in inequality better than any other chart or simple summary that I’ve seen. …only very affluent families — those in roughly the top 1/40th of the income distribution — have received…large raises. …The basic problem is that most families used to receive something approaching their fair share of economic growth, and they don’t anymore.

And here’s the chart that ostensibly shows that the economy is broken.

And what is the solution for this alleged problem? Class-warfare taxation and bigger government, of course.

…there is nothing natural about the distribution of today’s growth — the fact that our economic bounty flows overwhelmingly to a small share of the population. Different policies could produce a different outcome. My list would start with a tax code that does less to favor the affluent, a better-functioning education system, more bargaining power for workers and less tolerance for corporate consolidation.

Whenever I see this type of data, I’m automatically suspicious for two reasons.

  1. The people at various income levels in 1980 aren’t the same as the people at those income levels in 2014. In other words, there is considerable income mobility, with some high-income people falling to the middle of the pack, or even below, and some low-income people climbing the middle of the income distribution, or even higher. At the very least, this type of chart exaggerates the degree to which “the rich are getting richer.”
  2. Moreover, rich people getting rich doesn’t imply that poor people are losing income. This chart shows that all income percentiles generally enjoy more income with each passing year, so it isn’t grossly misleading like the charts that incorrectly imply income gains for the rich are at the expense of the poor. Nonetheless, a reader won’t have any way of knowing that more inequality and poverty reduction can go hand in hand.

But I think this chart from the New York Times inadvertently shows something very interesting.

As shown in the excerpt above, Mr. Leonhardt wants us to look at this data and support bigger government and class warfare.

Yet look at the annual data. The chart above has the numbers for 1980 and 2014. To the right, I’ve put together the numbers for 1987, 1996, and 2004.

One obvious conclusion is that prosperity (as shown by rising income levels) was much more broadly and equally shared in the 1980s and 1990s, back when the economy was moving in the direction of free markets and smaller government under both Reagan and Clinton.

But look at what happened last decade, and what’s been happening this decade. Government has been expanding (as measured by falling scores from Economic Freedom of the World).

And that’s the period, thanks to Bush-Obama statism, when lower-income people began to lag and income gains were mostly concentrated at the top of the income redistribution.

As the very least, this certainly suggests that Leonhardt’s policy agenda is misguided. Assuming, of course, the goal is to enable more prosperity for the less fortunate.

I’ll add another point. I suspect that big income gains for the rich in recent years are the result of easy-money policies from the Federal Reserve, which have – at least in part – pushed up the value of financial assets.

The bottom line is that Leonhardt seems motivated by ideology, so he bends the data in hopes of justifying his leftist agenda.

What makes this sad is that the New York Times used to be far more sensible.

Back in 1982, shortly after the Professors Hall and Rabushka unveiled their plan for a flat tax, here’s what the New York Times opined.

Who can defend a tax code so complicated that even the most educated family needs a professional to decide how much it owes? …President Reagan’s tax package will eventually roll back rates to the level of the late 1970’s, but it will not simplify the code or rid it of provisions that penalize hard work and reward unproductive investment. …the income base that is taxed has been so eroded by exceptions and preferences that the rates on what is left to tax must be kept high. Thus, the tax on an extra dollar of income for a typical family earning $20,000 is 28 percent and progressively higher for the more affluent. …The most dramatic fresh start, without changing the total amount collected, would be a flat-rate tax levied on a greatly broadened income base. Senator Helms of North Carolina would rid the law of virtually every tax preference and tax all income at about 12 percent. Representative Panetta of Cali-fornia would retain a few preferences and tax at a flat 19 percent. Either approach would greatly improve the efficiency of the system, simplifying calculations and increasing the incentive to earn.

And here’s what the editors wrote about Governor Jerry Brown’s modified flat tax in 199s. They started by praising the core principles of the flat tax.

Taking Jerry Brown seriously means taking his flat tax proposal seriously. Needlessly, he’s made that hard to do. By being careless, the former California Governor has bent a good idea out of shape. …Mr. Brown’s basic idea — creating a simplified code that encourages saving — is exactly right. …The present tax code is riddled with wasteful contradictions and complexity. For example, profit from corporate investment is taxed twice — when earned by the corporation and again when distributed to shareholders. That powerfully discourages savings and investment — the exact opposite of what the economy needs to grow. The remedy is, in a word, integration, meshing personal and corporate codes so that the brunt of taxes falls on consumption, not saving. …there is a reform that achieves all these objectives. Robert Hall and Alvin Rabushka, economists at the Hoover Institution, have proposed an integrated code that applies a single rate to both personal and corporate income. Their plan wipes away most deductions and exemptions, permitting a low tax rate of 19 percent. …Under the Hall-Rabushka plan, individuals would pay taxes on earnings and corporations would pay tax on interest, dividends and profits. That way, every dollar of income would be taxed once and only once.

And they rightly criticized Governor Brown for violating those principles.

Jerry Brown borrowed some of the elements of Hall-Rabushka. He too would eliminate wasteful exemptions, adopt a single rate and favor saving by exempting corporate investment. But at that point, he turns glib. He would impose on corporations a value-added tax, similar to a national sales tax. That eliminates the elegant symmetry of Hall-Rabushka. Indirectly, Mr. Brown’s variation would tax some income twice — which is why his supposed 13 percent rate would collect revenue equal to about 20 percent of total income.

Wow, this isn’t what I would write, but it’s within shouting distance.

The editors back then understood the importance of low marginal tax rates and they recognized that double taxation is a bad thing.

Now check out what the New York Times believes today about tax reform.

First and foremost, the editors want more money taken from the productive economy to expand the D.C. swamp.

Real reform would honestly confront the fact that in the next decade we will need roughly $4.5 trillion more revenue than currently projected to meet our existing commitment…. Even more would be needed if the government were to make greater investments.

And even though class-warfare taxation is unlikely to generate much revenue, the editors want both higher tax rates and more double taxation.

…it would make sense to increase the top rates on them and eliminate a break on income from investments. …the richest 1 percent pay 33 percent of their total income in taxes; if rates were changed so they paid 40 percent, it would generate $170 billion of revenue in the first year.

The editors want to take one of the most anti-competitive features of the current system and make it even worse.

It would also be a good idea to scale back accelerated depreciation allowances that let businesses write off investments faster than assets actually wear out. Speedy write-offs for luxuries like corporate jets could be eliminated altogether.

They also want to further undermine the ability of U.S. companies to compete on a level playing field in foreign markets.

…they should agree to close…the ability of corporations to defer tax on profits earned abroad.

In a display of knee-jerk statism, the editors also want new tax burdens to finance an ever-larger burden of government. Such as an energy tax.

New forms of taxation are also needed. Even prominent Republicans like James Baker III, George Shultz and Henry Paulson Jr. support a carbon tax imposed on emissions to reduce greenhouse gases. …revenue generated by carbon taxes could be used for other purposes as well, including investments in renewable energy and public transportation.

And a tax on financial transactions.

Revenue can also be raised by imposing a tax on the trading of stocks, bonds and derivatives. …Estimates show that a financial transaction tax of even 0.01 percent per trade ($10 on a $100,000 trade) could raise $185 billion over 10 years, enough to finance prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year olds, with money left over.

But the granddaddy of new taxes would be the value-added tax, a money machine for bigger government.

A value-added tax would be akin to a national sales tax, but harder to evade than traditional sales taxes and thus an efficient revenue raiser.

I’m genuinely curious whether there is any type of tax increase the NYT wouldn’t support.

But that’s not really the point of this column. The real lesson is that it’s sad that the editors have gone from being rationally left to being ideologically left.

P.S. I confess that I especially enjoy when the New York Times inadvertently publishes pieces that show the benefits of free markets and personal liberty.

Which is sort of what happened with Leonhardt’s data, which shows more broadly shared prosperity when economic liberty was increasing.

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In addition to his exemplary work as a Senior Fellow for the Cato Institute, Johan Norberg narrates some great videos for Free to Choose Media. Here are some that caught my eye.

But my favorite video, which I shared back in January, is his concise explanation of why policy makers should focus on fighting poverty rather than reducing inequality.

I’m posting it again to set the stage for a discussion on inequality and fairness.

Now let’s dig into the main topic for today.

A study by three academics from Yale’s Department of Psychology concludes that people want fairness rather than equality.

…there is no evidence that people are bothered by economic inequality itself. Rather, they are bothered by something that is often confounded with inequality: economic unfairness. Drawing upon laboratory studies, cross-cultural research, and experiments with babies and young children, we argue that humans naturally favour fair distributions, not equal ones, and that when fairness and equality clash, people prefer fair inequality over unfair equality.

My former grad school classmate Steve Horwitz wrote about the aforementioned study

…what we really care about is something other than inequality per se. We care about upward mobility, or average income overall, or how well the least well off do. …A recent study in Nature argued, with evidence, that what bothers people more than inequality per se is “unfairness.” People will accept inequality if they feel the process that produced it is fair. …when I give talks about inequality. I point out the number of Apple products visible in the room and ask them if they think the wealth Steve Jobs and other Apple founders accumulated over their lifetimes was objectionable. Is that the kind of inequality they object to? Students are usually hard-pressed to articulate why Jobs’ wealth is wrong… I also remind them that economic studies show that only about 4% of the total benefits of innovation accrue to the innovator. The rest goes to consumers.

Steve cites Nozick and Hayek to bolster his argument before then making the key point that markets produce material abundance based on genuine fairness.

As Robert Nozick argued in Anarchy, State, and Utopia: if each step in the evolution of the market is fair by itself, how can the pattern of income that emerges be unfair? …Hayek…observed in The Constitution of Liberty that if we want equality of outcomes, we will have to treat people unequally. If, however, we treat people equally, we will get unequal outcomes. Hayek’s argument was premised on the fact that human beings are not equal in our native intelligence, strength, skills, and abilities. …If people really care about fairness, then supporters of the market should be insisting on the importance of equality before the law. …Equality of outcomes requires that we treat people differently, and this will likely be perceived as unfair by many. Equality before the law corresponds better with notions of fairness even if the outcomes it produces are unequal. …If what appear to be concerns about inequality are, in fact, concerns about unfairness, we have ways of addressing them that demonstrate the power of exchange and competitive markets. Markets are more fair because they require that governments treat us all equally and that none of us have the ability to use political power to protect ourselves from the competition of the marketplace and the choices of consumers. In addition, market-based societies have been the best cure for poverty humans have ever known.

Writing for CapX, Oliver Wiseman analyzes other scholarly research on equality and fairness.

A 2012 study by behavioural economists Dan Ariely and Mike Norton generated some attention for demonstrating that Americans wanted to live in a more equal country. But more equal is not the same thing as fully equal. …if you let people choose between equal and unequal societies – and then tell them that they themselves will be assigned a level of wealth within it completely at random – most people choose inequality. And that preference is observable across the political spectrum, in different countries and at a range of ages.

But people don’t want undeserved inequality since that is the result of unfair interventions (i.e., cronyism).

This paper’s conclusions help explain much of the outcry over economic inequality in recent years. Occupy Wall Street and the very idea of the “one per cent” emerged just after the financial crisis plunged much of the world into recession, and US and British banks were handed billion-dollar bailouts to steady the ship. The anger didn’t come from the fact that bankers were so well paid. It came from the perception that they’d made that money by piling up risk rather than being particularly clever or hard-working – risk that was now being underwritten by the taxpayer. The wealth wasn’t just distributed unequally, but unfairly. The market mechanisms that most people accepted as the rules of the economic game suddenly seemed rigged. …Voters, in other words, don’t want equality – they want fairness. …As the Soviets found, true economic equality cannot be accommodated within a system that allows people tolerable levels of economic and political freedom. But fairness, by contrast, is something capitalism can – and should – deliver.

Professor Tyler Cowen of George Mason University cites some additional academic research buttressing the conclusion people don’t object to fair types of inequality.

…most Americans don’t mind inequality nearly as much as pundits and academics suggest. A recent research paper, by Graham Wright of Brandeis University, found that polled attitudes about economic inequality don’t correlate very well with the desire for government to address it. There is even partial evidence, once controls are introduced into the statistics, that talk of inequality reduces the support for doing something about it. …It’s not obvious why such counterintuitive results might be the case. One possibility is that…talk about economic inequality increases political polarization, which lowers the chance of effective action. Or that criticizing American society may cause us to feel less virtuous, which in turn may cause us to act with less virtue. …A variety of other research papers have been showing that inequality is not a major concern per se. One recent study by Matthew Weinzierl of Harvard Business School shows that most Americans are quite willing to accept economic inequality that stems from brute luck, and that they are inclined to assume that inequality is justified unless proved otherwise.

Last but not least, Anne Bradley of the Institute for Humane Studies augments this analysis by explaining the difference between ethical market-driven inequality versus unfair cronyist-caused inequality.

The question of whether income inequality is bad hinges on the institutions within that society and whether they support entrepreneurship and creativity or thuggery and exploitation. Income inequality is good when people earn their money by discovering new and better ways of doing things and, through the profit mechanism, are encouraged to bring those discoveries to ordinary people. …Rising incomes across all income groups (even if at different rates) is most often the sign of a vibrant economy where strangers are encouraged to serve each other and solve problems. Stagnant incomes suggest something else: either a rigged economy where only insiders can play, or an economy where the government controls a large portion of social resources, stalling incomes, wealth, and wellbeing.

She includes a very powerful example of why it can be much better to live in a society with high levels of (fair) inequality.

Consider the following thought experiment: knowing nothing other than the Gini index scores, would you rather live in a world with a Gini of .296 (closer to equality) or .537 (farther from equality)? Many people when asked this question choose the world of .296. These are the real Gini scores of Pakistan (.296) and Hong Kong (.537). If given the choice, I would live in Hong Kong without thinking twice. Hong Kong has a thriving economy and high incomes, and it is the world leader in economic freedom. The difference between these two countries could not be more striking. In Pakistan, there might be more income equality, but everyone is poorer. It is difficult to emerge out of poverty in Pakistan. Hong Kong provides a much richer environment where people are encouraged to start businesses, and this is the best hope for rising incomes, or income mobility.

Her example of Hong Kong and Pakistan is probably the most important takeaway from today’s column.

Simply stated, it’s better to be poor in a jurisdiction such as Hong Kong where there is strong growth and high levels of upward mobility. Indeed, I often use a similar example when giving speeches, asking audiences whether poor people are better off in Hong Kong, which has only a tiny welfare state, or better off in nations such as France and Greece, which have bloated welfare states but very little economic dynamism.

The answer is obvious. Or should be obvious, at least to everyone who wants to help the poor more than they want to punish the rich (and there are plenty in the latter camp, as Margaret Thatcher explained).

And I’m now going to add my China example to my speeches since inequality dramatically increased at the same time that there was a stupendous reduction in poverty.

Once again, the moral of the story should be obvious. Focus on growth. Yes, some rich people will get richer, but the really great news is that the poor will get richer as well. And so long as everyone is earning money through voluntary exchange rather than government coercion, that also happens to be how a fair economy operates.

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I periodically share data showing that living standards are higher in the United States than in Europe.

My goal isn’t to be jingoistic. Instead, I’m warning readers that we won’t be as prosperous if we copy out tax-and-spend friends on the other side of the Atlantic (just like I try to draw certain conclusions when showing how many low-tax jurisdictions have higher levels of economic output than the United States).

I’m sometimes asked, though, how America can be doing better than Europe when we have more poverty.

And when I ask them why they thinks that’s the case, they will point to sources such as this study from the German-based Institute of Labor Economics. Here’s some attention-grabbing data from the report.

The United States has the highest poverty rate both overall and among households with an employed person, but it stands farther away from the other countries on its in-work poverty rate than its overall poverty rate. The contrast between the US and three other English-speaking countries — Australia, Ireland, and the United Kingdom — is particularly striking. Compared to those three nations, the United States has an overall poverty rate only a little higher but an in-work poverty rate that is much higher.

And here’s the main chart from the study, with the United States as the bottom. It appears that there twice as much poverty in the USA as there is in a stagnant economy like France.

There even appears to be more poverty in America than there is in Spain and Italy, both of which are so economically shaky that they required bailouts during the recent fiscal/financial crisis.

Sounds horrible, right?

Yes, it does sound really bad. However, it’s total nonsense. Because what you read in the excerpt and see in the graph has nothing to do with poverty.

Instead, it’s a measure of income distribution.

And, if you read carefully, the study actually admits there’s a bait-and-switch.

The…approach to measuring poverty is a “relative” one, with the poverty line set at 60 or 50 percent of the median income.

Think about what this means. A country where everyone is impoverished will have zero or close-to-zero poverty because everyone is at the median income. But as I’ve explained before, a very wealthy society can have lots of “poverty” if some people are a lot richer than others.

And since the United States is much richer than other nations, this means an American household with $35,000 of income can be poor, even though they wouldn’t count as poor if they earned that much elsewhere.

This is like grading on a rigged curve. And if you read the fine print of the IZA study, you’ll see that the “poverty” threshold for a four-person household magically jumps by $16,260.

For a household of four (two adults, two children) the difference between the official US threshold and the 60-percent-of-median threshold amounts to more than $16,000 ($24,000 versus $40,260). This means that the size of the working poor population in America according to the official poverty measure is significantly lower than the size obtained in studies using a relative threshold.

In other words, you can calculate a much higher poverty rate if you include people who aren’t poor.

By the way, since the IZA report acknowledges this bait-and-switch approach, I guess one would have to say that the study technically is honest.

But it’s still misleading because most people aren’t going to read the fine print. Instead, they’ll see the main chart showing higher “poverty” and assume that there is a much higher percentage of actual poor people in the United States.

Moreover, some people may understand that there’s a bait-and-switch and simply want to help fool additional people.

And I’m guessing that this is exactly what the authors and the IZA staff expected and wanted. And if that’s the case, then the study is deliberately misleading, even if not technically dishonest.

I’ll close by stating that I don’t mind if folks on the left want to argue that market-based societies are somehow unfair because some people are richer than others. And it’s also fine for them to argue that we should be willing sacrifice some of our national prosperity to achieve more after-the-fact equality of income.

But I’d like for them to be upfront about their agenda and not hide behind dodgy data manipulation.

P.S.When you do apples-to-apples comparisons of the United States with the best-performing economies of Europe, you find that the poor tend to be at the same level, but every other group is better off in America.

P.P.S. You probably won’t be surprised to learn that both the Obama Administration and the leftists at the OECD prefer the “relative” definition of poverty.

P.P.P.S. The problem with our statist friends, as Margaret Thatcher explained, is that some of them are so upset about inequality that they’re willing to make everyone poorer if that’s what it takes to reduce income differences.

P.P.P.P.S. Indeed, this “Swiftian” column about reducing inequality is satire, but one wonders whether statists would actually accept such an outcome.

P.P.P.P.P.S. Data from China demonstrates why our attention should be on poverty reduction rather than inequality.

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I’ve written (many, many times) about how the best way to help the poor is to focus on economic growth rather than inequality.

After all, in a genuine market economy (as opposed to socialism, cronyism, or some other form of statism), the poor aren’t poor because some people are rich.

Today, let’s look at a real-world example of why it is a mistake to focus on inequality.

A study by five Chinese scholars looked at income inequality over time in their country. Their research, published in 2010, focused mostly on the methodological challenges of obtaining good long-run data and understanding the impact of urban and rural populations. But one clear conclusion is that inequality has increased in China.

This paper investigates the influences of the income overlap part on the nationwide Gini coefficient. Then we present a new approach to estimating the Chinese Gini ratio from 1978 to 2006, which avoids the shortcomings of current data sources. In line with the results, the authors further probe the trend of Chinese income disparity. …income inequality has been rising in China. …the national Gini ratio of 2006 is 1.52 times more than that of 1978.

Here’s a chart based on their data (combined with post-2006 data from Statista). It looks at historical trends for the Gini coefficient (a value of “1” is absolute inequality, with one person accumulating all the income in a society, whereas a value of “0” is absolute equality, with everyone having the same level of income.

As you can see, there’s been a significant increase in inequality.

My leftist friends are conditioned to think this is a terrible outcome, in large part because they incorrectly think the economy is a fixed pie.

And when you have that distorted view, higher absolute incomes for the rich necessarily imply lower absolute incomes for the poor.

My response (beyond pointing out that the economy is not a fixed pie), is to argue that the goal should be economic growth and poverty reduction. I don’t care if Bill Gates is getting richer at a faster rate than a poor person. I just want a society where everyone has the chance to climb the economic ladder.

And I also point out that it’s hard to design pro-growth policies that won’t produce more income for rich people. Yes, there are some reforms (licensing liberalization, cutting agriculture subsidies, reducing protectionism, shutting the Ex-Im Bank, reforming Social Security, ending bailouts) that will probably be disproportionately beneficial for those with low incomes, but those policies also will produce growth that will help upper-income people.*

But I’m digressing. The main goal of today’s column is to look at the inequality data from above and then add the following data on poverty reduction.

Here’s a chart I shared back in March. As you can see, there’s been a very impressive reduction in the number of people suffering severe deprivation in rural China (where incomes historically have been lowest).

Consider, now, both charts together.

The bottom line is that economic liberalization resulted in much faster growth. And because some people got richer at a faster rate than others got richer, that led to both an increase in inequality and a dramatic reduction in poverty.

Therefore, what happened in China creates a type of Rorschach test for folks on the left.

  • A well-meaning leftist will look at all this data and say, “I wish somehow everyone got richer at the same rate, but market-based reforms in China are wonderful because so many people escaped poverty.”
  • A spiteful leftist will look at all this data and say, “Because upper-income people benefited even more than low-income people, market-based reforms in China were a failure and should be reversed.”

Needless to say, the spiteful leftists are the ones who hate the rich more than they love the poor (here are some wise words from Margaret Thatcher on such people).

*To the extend that some upper-income taxpayers obtain unearned income via government intervention, then they may lose out from economic liberalization. Ethical rich people, however, will earn more income if there are pro-growth reforms.

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For almost all of human history, the norm for 99 percent of the population was poverty and deprivation.

Then, starting a few hundred years ago, something amazing happened. There was a sudden explosion of prosperity. In past years, I’ve shared two videos explaining this remarkable phenomenon, which is linked to the unleashing of free markets, the rule of law, and property rights.

Now let’s look at some similar data, but for a different purpose. Here are some fascinating charts put together by Professor Max Roser of Oxford. As you can see at the top, almost everybody used to be poor. But as you look below, you’ll notice that an increasing share of the world’s population is middle class or above.

There are three takeaways from this data.

The first conclusion, as noted above, is that the world is getting richer. Hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of extreme poverty. That’s wonderful news.

The second conclusion, as seen by the red section of the chart, is that a modest bit of reform in India and China has paid big dividends (and, given the success of Indian-Americans and Chinese-Americans, I imagine those nations could become much richer with additional market-friendly reform).

But I want to focus today on a third conclusion, which is that pro-growth policies are the best way to help the poor, not redistribution driven by a fixation on inequality.

More specifically, notice how there was a lot of inequality in the chart for 1975, particularly compared to the chart for 1800. My leftist friends, with their flawed belief that the economy is a fixed pie, would instinctively assume that Europe and the Americas somehow became comparatively rich because Asia and Africa stayed comparatively poor.

In reality, the real story is that the economies of the western world expanded because they found the recipe for growth and prosperity.

And the 2015 chart shows that the rest of the world is finally moving in that direction as well (as confirmed by long-run data from Economic Freedom of the world).

What would have happened, however, if our friends on the left had control of global policy in 1975 and imposed high tax rates in order to redistribute lots of income from rich nations to poor nations? In other words, what would have happened if they imposed on the world the policies that they try to impose in various nations?

If that had happened, the world economy would have underperformed. As Thomas Sowell has explained, such policies penalize productive behavior and subsidize unproductive behavior.

It’s possible that such policies would have reduced inequality, to be sure, but global income would have been far lower.

Fortunately, we avoided that outcome and instead enjoyed a reduction in inequality caused by better policy and growth-driven convergence.

Which is exactly the lesson for helping the less fortunate in individual nations.

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As I peruse the news, I periodically see headlines that are misleading in some fashion.

And if the headline is sufficiently off-key or bizarre, I feel compelled to grouse.

Now I have a new example, though I’m not sure whether to call it dishonest or clueless.

The EU Observer has a brief report that poverty has reached record levels in Germany.

Despite a booming economy, 12.9 million people in Germany were living below the poverty line in 2015, the Equal Welfare Association reported on Thursday. Based on figures from the Federal Statistical Office the alliance found a record high poverty rate of 15.7 percent in 2015.

By the way, I can’t resist pointing out that there is no “booming economy” in Germany. Growth in 2016 was only 1.9 percent.

Yes, that’s decent by European standards of stagnation and decline, but it’s far from impressive in any other context.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to the main point of today’s column.

As you can see from the story’s headline, the implication is that lots of people are left behind and mired in deprivation even though the economy is moving forward.

But there’s a problem with both the story and the headline.

If you read carefully, it turns out that both the story (and the study that triggered the story) have nothing to do with poverty.

No link at all. None. Zero. Nada. Zilch.

I’m not joking. There’s no estimate of the number of people below some measure of a German poverty line. There’s no calculation of any sort about living standards. Instead, this story (and the underlying report) are about the distribution of income.

…people [are] defined as poor when living on an income less than 60 percent of that of the median German household.

One might be tempted at this point to dismiss this as a bit of journalistic sloppiness. Indeed, one might even conclude that this is a story about nothing.

After all, noting that some people are below 60 percent of the median income level is about as newsworthy as a report saying that half of people are above average and half are below average.

But there actually is a story here. Though it’s not about poverty. Instead, it’s about an ongoing statist campaign to redefine poverty to mean unequal distribution of income.

I’m not joking. For instance, the bureaucrats at the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development actually put out a study claiming that there was more poverty in the United States than in nations such as Greece, Portugal, and Turkey.

How could they make such a preposterous claim? Easy, the OECD bureaucrats didn’t measure poverty. Instead, they concocted a measure of the degree to which various countries are close to the left-wing dream of equal incomes.

And the Obama Administration also tried to manipulate poverty statistics in the United States in hopes of pushing this statist agenda of coerced equality.

Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation wrote about what Obama tried to do.

…the Obama administration…measure, which has little or nothing to do with actual poverty, will serve as the propaganda tool in Obama’s endless quest to “spread the wealth.” …The current poverty measure counts absolute purchasing power — how much steak and potatoes you can buy. The new measure will count comparative purchasing power — how much steak and potatoes you can buy relative to other people. …In other words, Obama will employ a statistical trick to ensure that “the poor will always be with you,” no matter how much better off they get in absolute terms. …The weird new poverty measure will produce very odd results. For example, if the real income of every single American were to magically triple over night, the new poverty measure would show there had been no drop in “poverty,” because the poverty income threshold would also triple. …Another paradox of the new poverty measure is that countries such as Bangladesh and Albania will have lower poverty rates than the United States, even though the actual living conditions in those countries are extremely bad.

Even moderates such as Robert Samuelson recognized that Obama’s agenda was absurd. Here is some of what he wrote.

…the new definition has strange consequences. Suppose that all Americans doubled their incomes tomorrow, and suppose that their spending on food, clothing, housing and utilities also doubled. That would seem to signify less poverty — but not by the new poverty measure. It wouldn’t decline, because the poverty threshold would go up as spending went up. Many Americans would find this weird: People get richer but “poverty” stays stuck.

To put this all in context, the left isn’t merely motivated by a desire to exaggerate and misstate poverty. That simply the means to an end.

What they want is more redistribution and higher tax rates. The OECD openly admitted that was the goal in another report. Much as all the fixation about inequality in America is simply a tool to advocate bigger government.

P.S. Germany is an example of a rational welfare state. While the public sector is far too large, the country has enjoyed occasional periods of genuine spending restraint and German politicians wisely avoided a Keynesian spending binge during the last recession.

P.P.S. Though Germany also has its share of crazy government activity, including a big green-energy boondoggle. And lots of goofy actions, such as ticketing a one-armed man for have a bicycle with only one handlebar brake, taxing homeowners today for a street that was built beginning in the 1930s, making streetwalkers pay a tax by using parking meters, and spending 30 times as much to enforce a tax as is collected.

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If there was an award for the most dramatic political development of 2016, it would presumably be the election of Donald Trump.

If there was an award for the best policy reform of 2016, my vote would be the constitutional spending cap in Brazil.

If there was an award for the greatest outburst of sensibility in 2016, it would be the landslide vote in Switzerland against a government-guaranteed income.

But what about an award for the most compelling article of 2016? Well, we still have a few days left in the year, so it’s theoretically possible that I’ll change my mind, but as of today the award would go to my friend Deirdre McCloskey for her December 23 column in the New York Times.

She addresses the fundamental issue of whether policy should be designed to reduce poverty or increase equality. Here’s some of what she wrote.

Eliminating poverty is obviously good. And, happily, it is already happening on a global scale. …We need to finish the job. But will we really help the poor by focusing on inequality? …The Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt put it this way: “Economic equality is not, as such, of particular moral importance.” Instead we should lift up the poor… Another eminent philosopher, John Rawls of Harvard, articulated what he called the Difference Principle: If the entrepreneurship of a rich person made the poorest better off, then the higher income of the entrepreneur was justified.

But Deirdre doesn’t limit herself to philosophical arguments.

She looks at the practical issues, such as whether governments have the ability (or motives!) to correctly re-slice the economic pie.

A practical objection to focusing on economic equality is that we cannot actually achieve it, not in a big society, not in a just and sensible way. …Cutting down the tall poppies uses violence for the cut. And you need to know exactly which poppies to cut. Trusting a government of self-interested people to know how to redistribute ethically is naïve. Another problem is that the cutting reduces the size of the crop. We need to allow for rewards that tell the economy to increase the activity earning them. …An all-wise central plan could force the right people into the right jobs. But such a solution, like much of the case for a compelled equality, is violent and magical. The magic has been tried, in Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China. So has the violence.

Deirdre notes that people sometimes are drawn to socialism, in part because of how we interact with family and friends.

But you can’t extrapolate those experiences to broader society.

Many of us share socialism in sentiment, if only because we grew up in loving families with Mom as the central planner. Sharing works just fine in a loving household. But it is not how grown-ups get stuff.

When redistributionist principles are imposed on broader society, bad things happen.

As a matter of arithmetic, expropriating the rich to give to the poor does not uplift the poor very much. …And redistribution works only once. You can’t expect the expropriated rich to show up for a second cutting. In a free society, they can move to Ireland or the Cayman Islands. And the wretched millionaires can hardly re-earn their millions next year if the state has taken most of the money.

In other words, you get a shrinking pie rather than a growing pie. As Tom Sowell also has observed, people don’t produce as much when the government seizes the fruits of their labor.

And in that kind of world, it’s theoretically possible that poor people will have a greater share, but they still wind up a smaller amount (moreover, in practice the government elite wind up with all the wealth).

So what’s the bottom line?

Deirdre cites South Korea as an example of a nation where poor people now enjoy much better lives thanks to growth, and she then asks readers the key question: Will the poor benefit more from the classical liberal principles of rule of law and free markets, or will they benefit more from coercive redistribution?

Her explanation is magnificent.

It is growth from exchange-tested betterment, not compelled or voluntary charity, that solves the problem of poverty. …Which do we want, a small one-time (though envy-and-anger-satisfying) extraction from the rich, or a free society of betterment, one that lifts up the poor by gigantic amounts? We had better focus directly on the equality that we actually want and can achieve, which is equality of social dignity and equality before the law. Liberal equality, as against the socialist equality of enforced redistribution, eliminates the worst of poverty. …To borrow from the heroes of my youth, Marx and Engels: Working people of all countries unite! You have nothing to lose but stagnation! Demand exchange-tested betterment in a liberal society. Some dare call it capitalism.

Glorious!

I’ve also addressed this issue, on multiple occasions, and I think the resolution of this growth-vs-redistribution debate may very well determine the future of our nation. So I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say Deirdre’s column is the most important article of 2016.

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I shared a very amusing column last year about “a modest proposal” to reduce income inequality.

Written tongue-in-cheek by David Azerrad of the Heritage Foundation, the premise was that society could be made more “fair” by exiling – or perhaps even selling to the highest bidder – America’s richest people.

David’s piece cleverly made the point that such a policy would dramatically lower inequality, but would do nothing to boost the living standards of poor people. Indeed, when you consider all the damage that would be caused if America lost its top entrepreneurs, investors, and business owners, lower-income people obviously would suffer immense hardship as the economy shrank.

Unfortunately, there’s no evidence that Hillary Clinton read his article. Or, if she did, she obviously didn’t learn anything. Her agenda, which is echoed by almost all leftists, is endlessly higher taxes to fight the supposed scourge of inequality.

I’ve always thought inequality was the wrong target. If politicians really cared about the less fortunate, they would instead focus on growth in order the reduce poverty.

But our friends on the left apparently believe (or, if they’re familiar with historical data, they pretend to believe) that the economy is a fixed pie. So if someone in the top-1 percent, top-5 percent, top-10 percent, or top-20 percent gets more money, then the rest of us must have less money.

Heck, they don’t even understand the data that they like to cite. Writing for National Review, Thomas Sowell debunks many of the left’s most-cherished talking points about inequality.

When we hear about how much more income the top 20 percent of households make, compared with the bottom 20 percent of households, one key fact is usually left out. There are millions more people in the top 20 percent of households than in the bottom 20 percent of households. …In 2002, there were 40 million people in the bottom 20 percent of households and 69 million people in the top 20 percent. A little over half of the households in the bottom 20 percent have nobody working. You don’t usually get a lot of income for doing nothing. In 2010, there were more people working full-time in the top 5 percent of households than in the bottom 20 percent. …Household income statistics can be very misleading in other ways. …The number of people per American household has declined over the years. When you compare household incomes from a year when there were 6 people per household with a later year when there were 4 people per household, you are comparing apples and oranges. Even if income per person increased 25 percent between those two years, average household income statistics will nevertheless show a decline.  …household income statistics can show an economic decline, even when per capita income has risen.

My Cato Institute colleague, Mike Tanner, has a must-read comprehensive study on inequality that was just released today. Here are some of the parts I found especially enlightening, starting with a very important passage from his introduction.

…contrary to stereotypes, the wealthy tend to earn rather than inherit their wealth… Most rich people got that way by providing us with goods and services that improve our lives. Income mobility may be smaller than we would like, but people continue to move up and down the income ladder. Few fortunes survive for multiple generations, while the poor are still able to rise out of poverty. More important, there is little relationship between inequality and poverty. The fact that some people become wealthy does not mean that others will become poor.

Mike then spends a few pages debunking Thomas Piketty (granted, an easy target, but still a necessary task) and pointing out that some folks overstate inequality.

But more importantly, he then points out that there is still considerable income mobility in the United States. Rich people often don’t stay rich and poor people frequently don’t stay poor.

…wealth often dissipates across generations; research shows that the wealth accumulated by some intrepid entrepreneur or businessperson rarely survives long. In many cases, as much as 70 percent has evaporated by the end of the second generation and as much as 90 percent by the end of the third. Even over the shorter term, the composition of the top 1 percent often changes dramatically. If history is any guide, roughly 56 percent of those in the top income quintile can expect to drop out of it within 20 years. …of those on the first edition of the Forbes 400 in 1982, only 34 remain on the 2014 list, and only 24 have appeared on every list. …At the same time, it remains possible for the poor to become rich, or, if not rich, at least not poor. Studies show that roughly half of those who begin in the bottom quintile move up to a higher quintile within 10 years. …And their children can expect to rise even further. One out of every five children born to parents in the bottom income quintile will reach one of the top two quintiles in adulthood.

Here’s his graph with the relevant data.

Mike also debunks that notion that poor people are poor because rich people are rich.

…it is important to note that poverty and inequality are not the same thing. Indeed, if we were to double everyone’s income tomorrow, we would do much to reduce poverty, but the gap between rich and poor would grow larger. Would this be a bad thing? …The idea that gains by one person necessarily mean losses by another reflects a zero-sum view of the economy that is simply untethered to history or economics. The economy is not fixed in size, with the only question being one of distribution. Rather, the entire pie can grow, with more resources available to all.

His study is filled with all sorts of data, but this graph may be the most important tidbit.

It shows that the poverty rate has remained relatively constant, oscillating around 14 percent, during the period when the so-called top-1 percent were generating large amounts of additional income.

Mike then spends some time agreeing that inequality can be bad if it is the result of subsidies, bailouts, protectionism, and handouts.

Amen. Rich people deserve their money if they earn it in the marketplace. But if they get rich via TARP bailouts, Ex-Im Bank subsidies, protectionist barriers, green-energy boondoggles, or some other form of cronyism, that’s reprehensible and unjustified.

Most important of all, he closes by explaining that inequality isn’t what’s important. Policy should be focused on reducing poverty, which means more economic growth.

There are…two ways to reduce inequality. One can attempt to bring the bottom up by reducing poverty, or one can bring the top down by, in effect, punishing the rich. Traditionally, we have tried to reduce inequality by taxing the rich and redistributing that money to the poor. …Despite the United States spending roughly a trillion dollars each year on antipoverty programs at all levels of government, by the official poverty measure we have done little to reduce poverty. …we are unlikely to see significant reductions in poverty without strong economic growth. Punishing the segment of society that most contributes to such growth therefore seems a poor policy for serious poverty reduction. …While inequality per se may not be a problem, poverty is. …policies designed to reduce inequality by imposing new burdens on the wealthy may perversely harm the poor by slowing economic growth and reducing job opportunities.

Exactly. The notion that we can help the poor by making America more like a high-tax European-style welfare state is laughable.

By every possible standard, the United States is out-pacing Europe in terms of jobs and growth. And what’s really remarkable is that this is happening even though Obamanomics has given us the weakest recovery since the Great Depression. Imagine how big the gap would be if we has the kind of market-oriented policies that dominated the Reagan and Clinton years!

Let’s close with a very amusing bit of data about inequality from a report in the New York Times.

The author looked at income changes in each state between 1990 and 2014 at all levels of income distribution.

By looking at the state level, we’re delineating the rich and poor within that state. Which is to say that the 90th percentile of personal income in Arkansas will not be the same as the 90th percentile of personal income in New York. This calculation helps us avoid making unfair comparisons of income between places with different costs of living.

Since I wrote just two days ago about the importance of adjusting state income data to reflect the cost of living, I obviously view this as a useful exercise.

But here’s the part that grabbed my attention. As I was reviewing the various charts for all the states, I noticed that inequality has expanded dramatically in the most infamous left-wing states. And usually not simply because rich people got richer faster than poor people got richer. In New York, Illinois, and California, rich people were the only winners.

Yet if you look at Kansas (which is the favorite whipping boy of the left because of Gov. Brownback’s big tax cuts) or the stereotypical red state of Texas, you’ll notice the lower-income and middle-income people did much better.

I guess we can use this data as additional evidence of how statist policies cause inequality.

Best of all, it was in the New York Times, so our leftist friends will have a hard time reflexively dismissing the data. It’s always good when the other side scores an “own goal.”

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