Archive for the ‘Inequality’ Category

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.


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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