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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’ve just finished up a week of teaching at Northeastern University in Shenyang, China.

I mostly taught public finance and explained issues such as marginal tax rates, double taxation, the Rahn Curve, the Laffer Curve, and the fiscal implications of demographic change.

I also gave a lecture on comparative economics and looked at nations that converged or diverged over several decades. And this lecture included some material on China’s impressive (but still incomplete) reforms and subsequent growth.

The goal of the classes was to make the students aware of key issues rather than to proselytize.

But one thing I noticed in the class discussions is that students were under the impression that capitalism was mostly for the benefit of the rich.

I tried to preemptively deal with that question by recycling my charts showing how poverty fell dramatically after China shifted toward free markets.

That’s very compelling data, as far as I’m concerned, but I’m not overly confident the students were similarly impressed.

So in future years, I think I’m going to steal some data from Professor Ken Schoolland, who was also part of the faculty.

It’s from a xerox, so the resolution isn’t the best, but This data showing changes in income distribution between 1980 and 2008 is very powerful.

As you can see, almost everybody was very poor back in 1980, which was about when China began liberalizing its economy.

By 1995, a significant share of the population climbed out of poverty.

And the 2008 numbers show that a majority of the population was middle class or above.

Very impressive. It seems a rising tide does lift all boats.

To be sure, China hasn’t turned into a mainland version of Hong Kong. It’s not even close to Taiwan.

But you don’t need perfection. Chinese data confirms that partial reforms (what I call giving an economy “breathing room“) can generate significant benefits.

P.S. There’s also data on how incomes have expanded over time for both the United States and the entire world.

P.P.S. Much to my dismay, I forgot to inform the student about how the IMF and the OECD want to sabotage China’s economy.

Addendum: Thanks to @Mike Mendyke for a much cleaner version of the visual.

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The candidates for the 2020 Democratic nomination are competing to offer the most statist agenda, with Crazy Bernie, Elizabeth Sanders, and Kamala Harris being obvious examples.

But let’s not overlook Mayor Pete Buttigieg. He has a moderate demeanor, but he’s been advocating hard-left policies.

And he justifies his class-warfare agenda by arguing against Reaganomics and claiming that incomes have been stagnant since the 1980s.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful, said the governing philosophy of Republicans such as former President Ronald Reagan, who signed across-the-board tax rate cuts to grow the economy, should not be repeated in the future. “What we’ve seen is that the rising tide rose, right? GDP went up. Growth went up. Productivity went up — big numbers went up and most of our boats didn’t budge. For 90 percent of Americans, you start the clock right around the time I’m born. Income didn’t move at all — so lower to middle income, really, almost all of us,” Buttigieg said.

Is this true? Have Americans been on a treadmill?

We can easily answer that question because I was at “FEEcon” this past weekend, an annual conference organized by the Foundation for Economic Education.

There were plenty of great presentations (including, I hope, my remarks on the economics of protectionism).

I was most impressed, however, by Professor Antony Davies, who gave some upbeat remarks about living standards.

Here’s one of his slides, which shows some headlines that echo the pessimistic view of Mayor Pete.

But do those headlines reflect reality?

If we look at cash wages since 1979, it seems that there hasn’t been much growth.

But cash is only part of total compensation.

Professor Davies showed that total compensation is up by a significantly greater amount.

By the way, I don’t think this is unalloyed good news.

A big reason for the difference between cash income and total compensation is that we have an exclusion in the tax code that encourages the over-provision of fringe benefits (which, in turn, contributes to the third-party payer problem).

But I don’t want to digress too much. The key point is that workers have seen healthy increases in compensation, notwithstanding the fact that I wish it was more in the form of wages.

Now let’s look at some more headlines from Davies’ presentation.

According to many news sources, the middle class is in trouble.

Is that true?

Professor Davies goes back to 1970 and (after adjusting for inflation) shows the distribution of households in America by income.

And then he shares the same data for every five-year period since 1970 to show that the middle class has shrunk.

But it shrank because a greater share of the population became rich.

Let’s close with two more slides, both of which look at 100 years of data.

This chart shows take-home pay for three types of workers.

And, more importantly, here’s a chart showing how much those three workers could buy based on hours of work.

As you can see, even a minimum-wage worker is much better off today than an average worker 100 years ago (with the exception of movie tickets).

Since we just looked at long-run data, let’s close today’s column with some short-run numbers.

In a column for the U.K.-based Guardian, Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute explains that capitalism currently is delivering some very positive results for ordinary people.

This is a strange time to be debating whether capitalism is broken, at least in the United States. The economy has added jobs every month since October 2010 for a total of over 20m net new payroll jobs. The unemployment rate is below 4%, lower than it has been since 1969. Wage growth is finally accelerating, clocking in at a rate well above 3% a year for typical workers. The workforce participation rate for people ages 25 to 54 has increased by 1.6 percentage points since 2015, wiping out half a decade of decline. There are more job openings than unemployed workers in the US. …So much for a stagnant economy. …Since 2016, weekly earnings for the bottom 10% of full-time workers have grown more than 50% faster than for workers at the median. The unemployment rate for adults without a high school degree is further below its long-term average than the rate for college-educated workers.

By the way, I’m not trying to be a Pollyanna with rose-colored glasses.

We have numerous bad policies that are hindering prosperity. If we reduced the size and scope of Washington, we could enjoy even greater levels of prosperity.

But we shouldn’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. The United States is one of the world’s most market-oriented nations.

This tweet nicely captures the choice we face in the real world. We have “almost capitalism,” which has made the U.S. a rich nation.

Some politicians, such as Mayor Pete and Crazy Bernie, would prefer to move the nation toward “almost socialism.”

They don’t intend (I hope!) to go too far in that direction, but incremental moves in the wrong direction will cause incremental weakening of American prosperity.

And they’re dead wrong on the issue of income growth.

P.S. Many of the Democrats say we should copy the statist policies of various European nations. I wish a journalist would ask them why we should copy the policies of nations that have lower living standards.

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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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