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Archive for the ‘Inequality’ Category

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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I’m sometimes guilty of repeating myself. I write over and over again on topics such as the flat tax and spending caps (and don’t forget my Golden Rule!), though I hope each time I bring something new to the discussion.

Another issue that motivates me is the debate about inequality, redistribution, and growth. I get all agitated and can’t resist trying to debunk statist claims that we should focus on re-slicing the pie rather than expanding the pie.

Here are just a few examples.

The invaluable Scott Winship makes the same argument in the Washington Post, but does it much better.

He starts with some very solid observations about why inequality doesn’t matter.

Changes to the tax code certainly could reduce inequality, but the real question is whether we should try to reduce it. There is little evidence that we should. …Across developed countries, those with higher inequality have slightly higher middle-class incomes and less poverty. …Areas of the United States with more income concentration at the top have no worse mobility than areas with low inequality. The same is true across countries — the best research indicates that low-inequality Sweden is no more mobile than the United States. …studies by experts including Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez indicate that countries with higher inequality growth tend to have higher economic growth too. …Prioritizing inequality betrays indifference to policy outcomes and pure antipathy toward top earners.

And he then pivots and spends some time explaining why the focus should be on growth (assuming, of course, that the goal is actually to improve the lives of poor people rather than merely to punish the rich).

…nothing helps the poor and middle class like economic growth, and that is best pursued by policy reforms that ignore inequality. To promote growth, the next president should abolish corporate taxes and reform individual taxes… She should promote state and local reform of occupational licensing and land-use regulation. She should reform entitlements, including Obamacare, and reorient immigration policy in favor of admitting more higher-skilled and less lower-skilled immigrants. She should pursue a deregulatory agenda… Unfortunately, the distraction of inequality — or nationalism — makes it unlikely the next president will pursue any of these policies, and the poor and middle class will be worse off for it.

At this point, I imagine that some of my statist friends are sputtering and stammering to themselves about the new narrative, very popular on the left, about inequality harming growth.

I’ve already exposed the very shoddy attempts by political types at the OECD and IMF to push this ideologically-based talking point.

But what about the supposedly path-breaking work of Thomas Piketty? Didn’t he somehow produce game-changing data in support of higher taxes and more redistribution?

Nope. He basically showed that rich people are rich, which isn’t a stunning revelation. More controversially, he wanted people to conclude that rich people being rich somehow caused poor people to be poor.

And the theory he concocted to ostensibly “prove” his argument is so outlandish (basically assuming the return on investment is always greater than the underlying rate of growth) that only 2 percent-3 percent of economists are willing to “agree” or “strongly agree” with his premise.

For those who care more about empirical data rather than theory, you may be interested in a new working paper from one of the professional economists at the IMF. Carlos Góes finds that there’s no evidence for Piketty’s hypothesis.

Piketty…argues that all other things constant, whenever the difference between the returns on capital (r) and the output growth rate (g) increases, the share of capital in national income increases. Furthermore, since capital income tends to be more unequally distributed than labor income, an increase of the capital share would likely lead to increased overall income (and, over time, wealth) inequality. …I find no empirical evidence that the dynamics move in the way Piketty suggests. In fact, for at least 75% of the countries examined, inequality responds negatively to r − g shocks, which is in line with previous single-equation estimates by Acemoglu and Robinson (2015). The results also suggest that changes in the savings rate, which Piketty takes as relatively stable over time, are likely to offset most of the impact of r − g shocks on the capital share of the national income. Thus, it provides empirical evidence to the model developed by Krusell and A. Smith (2015), who say Piketty relies on flawed theory of savings. The conclusions are robust to alternative estimates of r − g and to the exclusion or inclusion of tax rates in the calculation of the real return on capital. …Figure 2 plots the contemporaneous correlations between r−g spreads and capital share, and share of the top 1%. Such basic correlations show no evidence of the relationship Piketty poses.

And here is the aforementioned Figure 2, with the capital share shown on the left and the share of the top 1 percent on the right.

For those who don’t like a lot of economic jargon (or don’t like looking at eye-glazing charts), here’s how the study was summarized in a report for the Wall Street Journal.

Mr. Piketty hypothesized that income inequality has risen because returns on capital—such as profits, interest and rent that are more gleanings of the rich than the poor—outpaced economic growth. …But Mr. Piketty’s thesis, posed by the French economist in his controversial 2013 tome “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” isn’t proved by historical data, says International Monetary Fund economist Carlos Góes. …“While rich in data, the book provides no formal empirical testing for its theoretical causal chain.” Mr. Góes tested the thesis against three decades of data from 19 advanced economies. “I find no empirical evidence that dynamics move in the way Piketty suggests.” In fact, for three-quarters of the countries he studied, inequality actually fell when capital returns accelerated faster than output. Those findings support previous work by Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and political scientist James Robinson, now of the University of Chicago, suggesting Mr. Piketty’s thesis was far too simplistic… Why does all this matter? Because if policy makers seeking to address inequalities misunderstand the problem, their solutions could be wrong, ineffective and costly. Based on his inequality theory, Mr. Piketty has proposed progressive wealth taxes, a measure some economists argue could harm economic growth.

Amen. You don’t make poor people rich by trying to make rich people poor.

Unfortunately, I suspect (as Margaret Thatcher sagely observed) that a lot of leftists are more motivated by animus against success than they are about genuine concern for the poor.

That being said, some people do benefit from the pursuit of class-warfare policy. The College Fix discusses a new report about how some of the people who advocate higher taxes and more redistribution have figured out how to redistribute big chunks of money from taxpayers to themselves.

Several UC Berkeley economics professors who support “income inequality” research each earn more than $300,000 a year, putting them in the top 2 percent of the public university’s salary distribution, according to a recent report by a nonpartisan California think tank. …Cal’s equitable growth center’s director, economics Professor Emmanuel Saez, earned an annual salary of just under $350,000. The center’s three advisory board members – all economics professors – made similar amounts: Professor David Card made $336,367 in 2014; Professor Gerard Roland took in $304,608; and Professor Alan Auerbach earned $291,782. That’s not even including their pensions — equal to 2.5 percent times their final average salary times the number of years employed. …Another vocal income inequality expert at UC Berkeley, Professor Robert Reich – former secretary of labor under Bill Clinton’s administration who in 2013 helped produce the film “Inequality for All” – earned $263,592 in 2014, the think tank’s report states.

The article closes with a suggestion that I think will fall upon deaf ears.

…the report concluded. “So if UC Berkeley economists are really opposed to income inequality and are concerned about low-paid workers, they might consider sharing some of their compensation with the teaching assistants, graders, readers and administrative staff at the bottom of Cal’s income distribution.”

By the way, I strongly suspect that Thomas Piketty hasn’t given away all the money he earned from the infamous book he produced in defense of class warfare. Shouldn’t he lead by example?

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