Archive for the ‘Mobility’ Category

I don’t know whether it’s because I’m dedicated or masochistic, but I woke up at 3:00 AM in Serbia to live-tweet the Democratic presidential debate.

In retrospect, staying in bed would have been a better choice. This debate was basically the same as the others, with both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders competing on who could turn America into Greece at the fastest rate.

Both candidates argued for higher tax rates on evil rich people, as well as sinister corporations, ostensibly because bigger government will make America more equal.

For those who care about the real world, however, this isn’t such a good idea.

Larry Lindsey, a former Governor at the Federal Reserve, writes in the Wall Street Journal that leftist policies actually cause inequality.

…when you look at performance and not rhetoric, the administrations of political progressives have made the distribution of income more unequal than their adversaries, who supposedly favor the wealthy. …inequality rose more under Bill Clinton than under Ronald Reagan. And it wasn’t even close. While the inequality increase as measured by the Gini index was only slightly more during Clinton’s two terms, the Theil index and mean log deviation increased two and three times as much, respectively. Barack Obama’s administration follows this pattern… The Gini index rose more than three times as much under Mr. Obama than under Mr. Bush. The Theil index increased sharply during the Obama administration, while it fell slightly under Bush 43.

Larry explains what drove these results.

And two big factors are easy-money monetary policies that artificially push up the value of financial assets (thus helping the rich) and redistribution policies that make dependency more attractive than work (thus hurting the poor).

Democratic presidents presided over bubble economies fueled by easy monetary policy. There is no better way to make the rich richer than to run policies that push up the price of financial assets. Cheap money is a boon to those who have access to it. …Transfer payments under Mr. Obama increased by $560 billion. By contrast private-sector wages and salaries grew by $1.1 trillion. So for every $2 in extra wages, about $1 was paid out in extra transfer payments—lowering the relative reward to work. …the effective tax rate on the extra earnings—including lost government benefits such as food stamps, the earned-income tax credit, and medical support payments—is between 50% and 80%. This phaseout of the ever increasing array of benefits has created a “working-class trap” instead of a “poverty trap” that is increasing inequality and keeping the income of these households lower than they might otherwise be.

I especially like Larry’s conclusion.

He points out that statist policies have a long history of failure. The only real beneficiaries are members of the parasite class in Washington.

None of this should really be surprising. If the socialist ideal of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” worked in practice, the Berlin Wall might still be standing. …Redistribution through the political process is not costless—even in a perfect world there would be a large bureaucracy to feed. Special-interest elites also emerge when so much money is being moved around. They take their cut, introducing even more inefficiency into the system. …voters who think the progressives running today are going to reduce inequality are falling into the same trap as people entering fifth or sixth marriages—the triumph of hope over experience.

So why do our friends on the left have such an anti-empirical approach to the issue of inequality?

Instead of fixating on inequality, why don’t they focus on policies that will actually help poor people?

Some of them probably don’t care. They simply view class warfare as a way of creating resentment and getting votes.

But many leftists are doubtlessly sincere and genuinely want to help the less fortunate.

The problem is that they suffer from the fixed-pie fallacy.

My Cato Institute colleague Chelsea German explains this fundamentally flawed understanding of the world.

“The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.” Senator Bernie Sanders first said those words in 1974 and has been repeating them ever since. …A simple logical error underlies Sanders’ belief. If we assume that wealth is a fixed pie, then the more slices the rich get, the fewer are left over for the poor. In other words, people can only better themselves at the expense of others. In the world of the fixed pie, if we observe the rich becoming richer, then it must be because other people are becoming poorer. Fortunately, in the real world, the pie is not fixed. US GDP is growing, and it’s growing faster than the population.


And it’s not just the U.S. data on how all income classes are climbing over time. Check out the “hockey stick” showing how the entire world is becoming richer.

Last but not least, Kyle Smith also addresses the topic of inequality in his New York Post column. He starts by explaining there isn’t a problem.

…there is no inequality crisis. …The US is only 42nd (out of 117 countries measured) in income inequality, according to the World Bank. We’re only 16th when it comes to the wealth held by the top 1%.

He then makes a far more important point, which is that it’s good to have an economy and a society where people can become rich by providing goods and services that the rest of us value.

Inequality is to some extent a residual effect of success: If there weren’t any billionaires or millionaires, inequality would be vastly diminished. America attracts and breeds success so brilliantly that we nearly beat the rest of the world combined in some respects: 42% of the world’s millionaires are Americans, and 49% of those with $50 million or more in assets. The American tendency to respect, and expect, success runs counter to the progressive plan to tax it away.

He basically reaches the same conclusion as Larry Lindsey.

In other words the left’s favorite policies help Washington insiders and hurt poor people.

A cap on incomes above, say, $100,000 would massively increase both equality and poverty as millions of middle-class people whose jobs depend on the rich in one way or another found themselves unemployed. …People tend to suspect, rightly, that government intervention in the name of fighting inequality will lead to exactly what’s happened in the Obama era: more inequality, with bureaucrats and their cronies standing to gain.

By the way, here’s a satirical Jonathan Swift version of what happens when you get rid of “rich” people.

P.S. Here’s my video on class warfare, featuring the clip of then-candidate Obama saying he favored a tax hike even if it imposed so much economic damage that the government collected no tax revenue.

P.P.S. The President isn’t the only leftist to have this spite-driven mentality.

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James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute has an intriguing idea. Instead of a regular debate, he would like presidential candidates to respond to a handful of charts from the recent Economic Report of the President that supposedly highlight very important issues.

We’d quickly find out — I hope — who has real deep knowledge on key economic issues and challenges facing America.

I don’t always agree with Pethokoukis’ views (see here, here, and here), but he has a very good idea. He may not have picked the charts I would rank as most important, but I think 5 of the 6 charts he shared are worthy of discussion (I’m not persuaded that the one about government R&D spending has much meaning).

Let’s look at them and elaborate on why they are important.

We’ll start with the chart of labor productivity growth, which has been declining over time.

I think this is a very important chart since productivity growth is a good proxy for the growth in living standards (workers, especially in the long run, get paid on the basis of what they produce).

So what should we think about the depressing trend of declining productivity numbers?

First, some of it is unavoidable. The United States has an advanced economy and we don’t have a lot of “low-hanging fruit” to exploit. Simply stated, it’s much easier to boost labor productivity in a poor country.

Second, to the degree we want to boost labor productivity, more investment is the best option. That’s why I’m so critical of class-warfare policies that penalize capital formation. When politicians go after the “evil” and “bad” rich people who save and invest, workers wind up being victimized because there’s less saving and investment.

But this isn’t just an issue of machines, equipment, and technology. We also should consider human capital, which is why it is a horrible scandal that America spends more on education – on a per-capita basis – than any other nation, yet we get very mediocre results because of a government monopoly school system that – at least in practice – seems designed to protect the privileges of teacher unions.

The next chart looks at the number of companies entering and exiting the economy. As you can see, the number of businesses that are disappearing is relatively stable, but there’s been a disturbing decline in the rate of new-company formation.

As with the first chart, some of this may simply be an inevitable trend. In a mature economy, perhaps the rate of entrepreneurship declines?

But that’s not intuitively obvious, and I certainly haven’t seen any evidence to suggest why that should be the case.

So this chart presumably isn’t good news.

Some of the bad news is probably because of bad government policy (capital gains taxes, regulatory barriers, licensing mandates, etc) and some of it may reflect undesirable cultural trends (less entrepreneurship, more risk-aversion, more dependency).

Speaking of which, the next chart looks at the share of the workforce that is regulated by licensing laws.

This is a very disturbing trend.

Licensing rules basically act as government-created barriers to entry and they are especially harmful to poor people who often lack the time and money to jump through the hoops necessary to get some sort of government-mandated certification.

By the way, this is one area where the federal government is not the problem. These are mostly restrictions imposed by state governments.

The next chart looks at how much money is earned by the rich in each country.

I think this chart is very important, but only in the sense that any intelligent candidate should know enough to say that it’s almost completely irrelevant and misleading.

The economy is not a fixed pie. Income earned by the “rich” is not at the expense of the rest of us (assuming honest markets rather than government cronyism). It doesn’t matter if the rich are earning more money. What matters is whether there’s growth and mobility for people on the lower rungs of the economic ladder.

A good candidate should say the chart should be replaced by far more important variables, such as what’s happening to median household income.

Lastly, here’s a chart comparing construction costs with housing prices.

This data is important because you might expect there to be a close link between construction costs and home prices, yet that hasn’t been the case in recent years.

There may be perfectly reasonable explanations for the lack of a link (increased demand and/or changing demographics, for instance).

But in all likelihood, there may be some undesirable reasons for this data, such as Fannie-Freddie subsidies and restrictionist zoning policies.

As with the licensing chart, this is an area where the federal government doesn’t deserve all the blame. Bad zoning policies exist because local governments are catering to the desires of existing property owners.

By the way, while I think Pethokoukis shared some worthwhile charts, I would have augmented his list with charts on the rising burden of government spending, the tax code’s discrimination against income that is saved and invested, declining labor-force participation, changes in economic freedom, and the ever-expanding regulatory burden.

If candidates didn’t understand those charts and/or didn’t offer good solutions, they would be disqualifying themselves (at least for voters who want a better future).

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Folks on the left tell us that they want to help the less fortunate.

I sometimes wonder if their real motive is to penalize success and punish the “rich,” but let’s be charitable and assume that many of them truly wish to help the poor.

Leftist FairnessThat’s a noble sentiment, to be sure, but this is why it’s also important to look at the consequences of policy, not just the intentions.

I explained last year that certain left-wing fiscal, regulatory, and monetary policies actually harm the poor and help the rich, and I augmented that analysis earlier this year by showing how farm policies line the pockets of upper-income people.

Let’s now add to this research by looking at a new study (h/t: Tyler Cowen) from Mario Alloza of University College London. Here are some of the key findings from the study’s abstract.

Household panel…between 1967 and 1996 is employed to analyse the relationship between marginal tax rates and the probability of staying in the same income decile. …higher marginal tax rates reduce income mobility. An increase in one percentage point in marginal tax rates causes a decline of around 0.8% in the probability of changing to a different income decile. …the effect of taxes on income mobility…is particularly significant when considering mobility at the bottom of the distribution.

And here are some of the findings from the study.

…to the extent that income mobility is a desirable feature of an economy, it is then relevant to consider how fiscal policy may affect it. …The results obtained suggest that higher marginal tax rates reduce income mobility. Particularly, I find that an increase of one percentage point in the marginal rate is associated with declines of about 0.5-1.3% in the probability of changing deciles of income. …The economic mechanism that induces this impact seems to be related to the labour market incentives created by changes in the tax schedule. …While some studies have pointed out to the importance of progressive taxation in addressing inequality, the results from this paper suggest that such changes may have a detrimental impact on income mobility.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that marginal tax rates are the most important variable, as we learned in our discussion of Cam Newton’s (fiscally) disastrous Super Bowl.

The effect of a percentage point reduction in marginal tax rates fosters relative income mobility across deciles…by about 1%. Similarly, households are about 6% more likely to stay in the same quintile of income when the marginal tax rates goes up by one percentage point… This evidence suggests that the economic mechanism that determines the effect of taxes on income mobility is based on incentives.

And here are more details on how higher tax rates appear to disproportionately harm the less skilled, while lower tax rates are more likely to help.

…non-college are, on average, more likely to move down in the income distribution, while college households are likely to move up (or, at least, less likely to move down) as a result of an increase in the marginal tax rates. …Fiscal reforms that homogeneously reduce marginal tax rates seem to contribute to income mobility by making households with non-college education more likely to occupy relatively higher positions within the income distribution (and vice versa for college-graduated households).

The bottom line is that some of our friends on the left want to shoot at the rich, but they wind up wounding the poor instead by greasing the rungs on the ladder of economic opportunity.

Which is why, for the umpteenth time, I’ll emphasize that market-driven growth is the moral and practical way to help the less fortunate.

P.S. Here’s an update on my travels. I’m in Beijing for a couple of speeches and I probably should say something substantive about how genuine federalism is an ideal long-run outcome for China, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. They can all be one country, if that’s what everyone wants (and that’s already the case for China, Hong Kong, and Macau), but that doesn’t mean there’s a need for a one-size–fits-all approach to domestic policy. In other words, a version of the advice I offered on Ukraine,Scotland, and Belgium basically applies in this part of the world as well. Call it one nation with three or four systems.

But the most memorable part of the trip (in a bad way) is that my communication lines with the world have been severed. The problem started when I left my phone in an airport security scanner on my way from Cambodia to Hong Kong.

Then I get to China and I learn that my laptop can’t access either the Cato remote desktop or my Gmail account. Or Twitter. Or Facebook.

This is a not a trivial problem since I got to Beijing in the evening, had a speech in the morning, but couldn’t access any of the information (and I’m not organized enough to print things out ahead of time). I eventually figure out a solution for my morning event by asking the front desk to connect me with the person who made the room reservation, which eventually leads to me getting in contact with someone else in the hotel who is there for the same event.

But that’s only part of the story. I still haven’t had email for several days. And I obviously don’t have a phone, either. So while I’m able to access a lot of stuff on the Internet using my laptop, I’m in the dark about what’s happening at Cato or what’s happening in the rest of my life. By the way, if you’re asking why I don’t create a new email address, that’s not as easy as it sounds since the widely-used email sites have security features such as asking to send you a text to confirm your new account, something that obviously wouldn’t work for me.

Oh, and I’m not able to access my blog while in China. So to maintain my pattern of producing a column every single day for however many years, I had to create a word document and then randomly approach someone in the hotel restaurant to ask if he could upload my column from a thumb drive and email it to friends back in Washington.

Oh well, nobody said the fight for liberty was easy.

P.P.S. Now that I’m done whining, let’s return to our original topic and look at a cartoon showing what Obama wants.

obama-economy-jobs-debt-deficit-political-cartoon-class-warfare-mathBut then let’s look at what Obama has actually delivered, which sort of confirms the research discussed above.

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The quality of economic analysis from politicians is never good, but it becomes even worse during election season.

The class-warfare rhetoric being spewed by Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton is profoundly anti-empirical. Our leftist friends genuinely seem to think the economy is a fixed pie and that it’s their job to use coercive government power to reallocate the slices.

The only real quandary is whether Bernie’s sincere demagoguery is more disturbing or less disturbing than Hillary’s hypocritical attacks on the top 1 percent.

Since I mentioned that the left’s rhetoric is anti-empirical, let’s look at the evidence.

I’ve previously shared very detailed IRS data showing that the so-called rich pay a hugely disproportionate share of the tax burden.

Let’s augment that analysis by perusing some data on income mobility.

Writing for Money, Chris Taylor explains that America is not a land of dynastic wealth.

…70% of wealthy families lose their wealth by the second generation, and a stunning 90% by the third, according to the Williams Group wealth consultancy. …When I asked financial planners why…second- and third-generation heirs turn out to be so ham-handed, the answers were surprisingly frank. A sampling: “Most of them have no clue as to the value of money or how to handle it.” “Generation Threes are usually doomed.” “It takes the average recipient of an inheritance 19 days until they buy a new car.”

But you don’t have to examine several generations to recognize that American society still has a lot of income mobility.

Tami Luhby looks at how people move up and down the income ladder during their lives.

The Top 1% is often considered an exclusive, monolithic group, but folks actually rise up into it and fall out of it quite often. …Some 11% of Americans will join the Top 1% for at least one year during their prime working lives (age 25 to 60), according to research done by Thomas Hirschl, a sociology professor at Cornell University. But only 5.8% will be in it for two years or more. As for holding onto this status for at least 10 years? Only a miniscule 1.1% of Americans are this fortunate. “Affluence is dynamic, said Hirschl… “The 1% really isn’t the 1%. People move around a lot.”

The same is true for the super-rich, the upper-middle class, and the poor.

The IRS looked at how frequently the same Top 400 taxpayers appeared on the list over a 22-year period ending in 2013. Some 72% ranked that high for just one year. Only 3% were listed for a decade or more. …While just over half of Americans reach the Top 10% at least once in their careers, only 14% stay in it for a decade or more, Hirschl found. …On the flip side, it’s not uncommon for Americans to spend some time at the bottom of the heap. Some 54% of Americans will be in or near poverty for at least one year by their 60th birthday, Hirschl said.

Here’s a table of numbers for those who like digging into the data.

Now let’s shift back toward public policy.

The good news (relatively speaking) is that the politics of envy don’t seem to work very well. This polling data finds that most Americans do not support higher taxes (presumably from the rich) to impose more equality.

And when you combine these numbers with the polling data I shared back in 2012, I’m somewhat comforted that the American people aren’t too susceptible to the poison of class warfare.

Let’s close with some ideological bridge building.

I certainly don’t share the same perspective on public policy as Cass Sunstein since the well-known Harvard law professor leans to the left.

But I think he makes an excellent observation in his column for Bloomberg. Smart leftists should focus on how to help the poor, not demonize the rich.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have been operating within the terms set by Top 1 Percent progressivism. …For Top 1 Percent progressives, the accumulation of riches at the very top is what gets the juices flowing. They prioritize much higher taxes on top-earners, more aggressive regulation of Wall Street, restrictions on the compensation of chief executives, and criminal prosecution of those responsible for the financial crisis. Top 1 Percent progressivism emphasizes the idea of fairness — but it’s nevertheless a politics of outrage, animated by at least a trace of envy.  It’s as if “millionaires and billionaires” were the principal problem facing America today.

Sunstein correctly says the focus should be helping the less fortunate.

Bottom 10 Percent progressives  are not  enthusiastic about concentrations of wealth. But that’s not what keeps them up at night. Their focus is on deprivation and lack of opportunity. They’re motivated by empathy for people who are suffering, rather than outrage over unjustified wealth. They want higher floors for living standards, and do not much care about lower ceilings.

So far, so good.

I’ve also argued that our goal should be reducing poverty, not punishing success.

This is why I want pro-growth tax reform, a smaller government, and less suffocating red tape.

Unfortunately, Prof. Sunstein then wanders into very strange territory when it comes to actual policy. He actually endorses the utterly awful economic “bill of rights” proposed by one of America’s worst presidents.

Their defining document is one of the 20th century’s greatest speeches, delivered by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1944, in which he called for a Second Bill of Rights, including the right to a decent education, the right to adequate medical care and food, and the right to “adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment.”

If you think I’m exaggerating about FDR being an awful President, click here.

And if you want more information about FDR’s terrible “bill of rights,” click here.

So I like his diagnosis of why the left is wrong to fixate on hating success.

But he needs to look at real-world evidence so he can understand that free markets and small government are the right prescription for prosperity.

P.S. Here’s my video listing five arguments against class-warfare taxation.

There’s a lot of material in a short period of time, though I think the most disturbing part occurs at about 4:30. What sort of person would actually want to impose tax policy that is so punitively destructive that the government doesn’t collect any additional revenue?!?

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In conversations with statists, I’ve learned that many of them actually believe the economy is a fixed pie. This misconception leads them to think that rich people get rich only by somehow making others poor.

In this simplistic worldview, a bigger slice for one person means less for everyone else.

In reality, though, their fixation on the distribution of income leads them to support policies that hinder growth.

And here’s the ironic part. When you have statist policies such as high taxes and lots of redistribution, the economy weakens and the result is a stagnant pie.

In other words, the zero-sum society they fear only occurs when their policies are in effect!

To improve their understanding (and hopefully to make my leftist friends more amenable to good policy ideas), I oftentimes share two incontestable facts based on very hard data.

1. Per-capita economic output has increased in the world (and in the United States), which obviously means that the vast majority of people are far better off than their ancestors.

2. There are many real-world examples of how nations with sensible public policy enjoy very strong growth, leading to huge increases in living standards in relatively short periods of time.

I think this is all the evidence one needs to conclude that free markets and small government are the right recipe for a just and prosperous society.

But lots of statists are still reluctant to change their minds, even if you get them to admit that it’s possible to make the economic pie bigger.

I suspect in many cases their resistance is because (at least subconsciously) they resent the rich more than they want to help the poor. That’s certainly the conclusion that Margaret Thatcher reached after her years in public life.

So, in hopes of dealing with this mindset, let’s augment the two points listed above.

3. 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.

Let’s look at some evidence for this assertion.

And we’ll start with businesses. Here’s what Mark Perry of the American Enterprise Institute found when he investigated changes in the Fortune 500.

Comparing the 1955 Fortune 500 companies to the 2015 Fortune 500, there are only 61 companies that appear in both lists… In other words, only 12.2% of the Fortune 500 companies in 1955 were still on the list 60 years later in 2015… The fact that nearly 9 of every ten Fortune 500 companies in 1955 are gone, merged, or contracted demonstrates that there’s been a lot of market disruption, churning, and Schumpeterian creative destruction… The constant turnover in the Fortune 500 is a positive sign of the dynamism and innovation that characterizes a vibrant consumer-oriented market economy, and that dynamic turnover is speeding up in today’s hyper-competitive global economy.

Here’s the list of the companies that have managed to stay at the top over the past six decades.

Now let’s shift from companies to people.

The most famous ranking of personal wealth is put together by Forbes.

Is this a closed club, with the same people dominating the list year after year?

Well, there’s considerable turnover in the short run, as noted by Professor Don Boudreaux.

…21 of the still-living 100 richest Americans of only five years ago are no longer in that group today.  That’s a greater than 20 percent turnover in a mere half-decade.

There’s a lot of turnover – more than 50 percent – in the medium run, as revealed by Mark Sperry.

Of the 400 people in the 2001 Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans, 230 were not in the 1989 list.

And there’s almost wholesale turnover in the long run, as discovered by Will McBride of the Tax Foundation.

Of the original Forbes 400 from the first edition in 1982, only 35 remain on the list. …Of those on the 1987 Forbes 400 list, only 73 remain there in 2013.

In other words, it’s not easy to stay at the top. New entrepreneurs and investors constantly take the place of those who don’t manage to grow their wealth.

So far, we’ve focused on the biggest companies and the richest people.

But what about ordinary people? Is there also churning for the rest of us?

The answer is yes.

Here are some remarkable findings from a New York Times column by Professor Mark Rank of Washington University.

I looked at 44 years of longitudinal data regarding individuals from ages 25 to 60 to see what percentage of the American population would experience these different levels of affluence during their lives. The results were striking. It turns out that 12 percent of the population will find themselves in the top 1 percent of the income distribution for at least one year. What’s more, 39 percent of Americans will spend a year in the top 5 percent of the income distribution, 56 percent will find themselves in the top 10 percent, and a whopping 73 percent will spend a year in the top 20 percent of the income distribution. …This is just as true at the bottom of the income distribution scale, where 54 percent of Americans will experience poverty or near poverty at least once between the ages of 25 and 60…this information casts serious doubt on the notion of a rigid class structure in the United States based upon income.

A thoroughly footnoted study from the National Center for Policy Analysis has more evidence.

…83 percent of adults born into the lowest income bracket exceed their parents’ income as adults. About 40 percent of people in the lowest fifth of income earners in 1986 moved to a higher income bracket by 1996, and roughly half of the people in the lowest income quintile in 1996 moved to a higher income bracket by 2005. …In both the 1970s and 1980s, 8 percent of children born in the bottom fifth of the income distribution rose to the top fifth. About 20 percent of children born in the middle fifth of the income distribution later rose to the top fifth.

And here’s some of Ronald Bailey’s analysis, which I cited last year.

Those worried about rising income inequality also often make the mistake of assuming that each income quintile contains the same households. They don’t. …In 2009, two economists from the Office of Tax Analysis in the U.S. Treasury compared income mobility in two periods, 1987 to 1996 and 1996 to 2005. The results, published in the National Tax Journal, revealed that “over half of taxpayers moved to a different income quintile and that roughly half of taxpayers who began in the bottom income quintile moved up to a higher income group by the end of each period.” …The Treasury researchers updated their analysis of income mobility trends in a May 2013 study for the American Economic Review, finding that about 75 percent of taxpayers between 35 and 40 years of age in the second, middle and fourth income quintiles in 1987 had moved to a different quintile by 2007.

Last but not least, let’s look at some of Scott Winship’s recent work.

…for today’s forty-somethings who grew up in the middle fifth around 1970…19 percent ended up in the top fifth, 23 percent in the middle fifth, and 14 percent in the bottom fifth… Among those raised in the bottom fifth, 43 percent remain there as adults. …30 percent made it to the top three-fifths… Mobility among today’s adults raised in the top fifth displays the mirror image: 40 percent remain at the top, 37 percent fall to the bottom three-fifths.

The bottom line is that there is considerable income mobility in the United States.

To be sure, different people can look at these numbers and decide that there needs to be even more churning.

My view, for what it’s worth, is that the correct distribution of income is whatever naturally results from voluntary exchange in an unfettered market economy.

I’m far more concerned with another economic variable. Indeed, it’s so important that we’ll close by adding to the three points above.

4. For those who genuinely care about the living standards of the less fortunate, the only factor that really matters in the long run is economic growth.

This is why, like Sisyphus pushing the rock up a hill, I keep trying to convince my leftist friends that growth is the best way to help the poor. I routinely share new evidence and provide real-world data in hopes that they will realize that good results are more important than good intentions.

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What is the American Dream?

I suspect it’s a bit like beauty, in the eye of the beholder, but here’s the Wikipedia definition:

…a national ethos of the United States, a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers.

That sounds reasonable. My view, for what it’s worth, is that people will prosper in a system of free markets and limited government.

Now let’s ask a tougher set of questions. Is the American Dream a myth or reality? And if it’s real, does it still exist?

Perhaps most important, what’s needed for the Dream to be a reality?

Writing for the New York Times, I added my two cents on this issue, taking part in a “Room for Debate” on the issue of “Is the Modern American Dream Attainable?

As you can see, I’m cautiously optimistic.

…the American Dream is still a reality. Even with relatively sub-par economic performance in recent years, our economy’s overall level of output, as well as the annual growth rate, is still the envy of the developed world.  …The burden of government in the United States is smaller than it is in Europe, and our markets are more open and deregulated than they are in Latin America, Asia and Africa. These features mean that poor people have considerable opportunity to climb the ladder, limited only by their talents, abilities and willingness to work hard. But things could be even better. There’s been a big expansion of government intervention under both President George W. Bush and Obama. And when government gets more power to dictate who wins and who loses in the marketplace, powerful and politically well-connected incumbents almost always reap the benefits on this cronyism. …if we can restrain the size and scope of government, there’s every reason to believe that the America Dream will be strong for the rest of the 21st century.

If the editors had allowed me more room, I would have included very powerful data showing that people in the United States have much higher living standards than their European counterparts, augmented by data from the rest of the world showing the relationship between small government and economic growth.

There were five other participants in the debate, and I’ll share their main points followed by my reactions.

Erin Currier of Pew was somewhat pessimistic. She cited figures on relative mobility and argued that too few people climb out of poverty.

Forty-three percent of those raised in the bottom fifth of the income ladder remain there a generation later, and 40 percent of those raised at the top stay there. Just 4 percent raised at the bottom rung of the income ladder make it to the top a generation later. …Americans feel increasingly financially insecure, perhaps in part because of this lack of mobility out of the bottom rung of the economic ladder.

Maybe I’m a glass-half-full guy, but I’m wondering whether it’s actually a sign of social mobility that only 40 percent of people stay in the quintile of their parents.

Though I suppose we can’t really draw big conclusions without seeing historical patterns, adjusted for changing demographics.

Stephanie Coontz of the Council on Contemporary Families was even more pessimistic, arguing that there were positive effects from the New Deal and the Civil Rights era, but that those have now faded.

Americans are right to believe the American Dream is fading. But that dream only became a possibility for white men as a result of the labor struggles and reforms of the New Deal, and it began to extend to minorities and women only after the civil rights and women’s movements of the 1960s and 1970s. If we want to revive and achieve the American Dream, we need to change a situation in which the people whose hard work makes this country run cannot earn a living wage, while bankers, speculators and corporate elites – the real “takers” in today’s society – skim off far more than their fair share.

I largely disagree.

First, if you look at the amazing historical story in this video, you’ll see that prosperity soared in the United States because of economic liberty. And you’ll see the same pattern in certain other parts of the world in this video and this video.

Moreover, the New Deal unquestionably retarded prosperity.

Professor Robin Fretwell Wilson of the University of Illinois Law School makes a good – and I assume relatively uncontroversial – point about the value of family stability.

Ask young people about their hopes, marriage and family top the list. Ask them why they cannot marry now, they say they need financial security first — to finish school, pay-off spiraling debt, get that first big job. They want a stable family life, and marriage is key. The upper class knows this; they marry in droves. For Dad, the military cleared a path to the middle class and a stable married family. What will provide that pathway now for the next generation of young men…?

I agree, at least to the degree that she’s embracing the value of social capital.

Professor Lester Spence of Johns Hopkins University focuses on some challenges for the African-America community.

The best data we have suggests that over the last 40 years upward mobility has stagnated significantly. Further, this data suggests that America fares far worse than other developed nations.Americans in general and African-Americans in particular then have a right to be pessimistic… Even as it became painfully clear that the city of Ferguson’s policy of using policing as a municipal revenue generator is partially to blame for conditions there, city officials recently decided to increase police fines to bolster revenue shortfalls.

I don’t know the data, so I don’t know if Spence is right about stagnating mobility.

Regardless of the veracity of that data, I think the black community has been especially harmed by the initiative-sapping and family-destroying welfare state and the failings of the government school monopoly. That’s where significant gains could be achieved.

And he makes a very good point about the dangers of law enforcement being turned into a revenue-generating machine. I touched on that issue here, but read this Radley Balko article if you really want to understand how low-income people suffer as a result of greedy local governments.

Last but not least, Professor Steven Bender of Seattle University Law School uses the example of a Mexican immigrant family to highlight the challenge of home ownership.

Homeownership is a marker for many of attainment of the American Dream. With the primacy of family wellbeing at its core, Latinos are especially motivated to become homeowners — a 2002 study found 90 percent of Latino homeowners strongly agreed that owning a home is better than renting for raising a family. …Their factory employer paying them just $7.75 despite almost 20 years of experience signals how challenging it is to grasp the brass ring of homeownership, and to repair that home, if you are a Latino immigrant family, and increasingly for anyone fighting the strong current of our swiftly rising wage and wealth inequality.

Bender makes some valid points, particularly about the importance of protecting vulnerable people from fraud, but I have a slightly more optimistic take on his story.

The couple from Mexico may face challenges, but I’m guessing that their living standards are much higher as a result of their decision to emigrate.

In other words, they’re an example of the American Dream.

No, it’s not perfect, as I acknowledged in my contribution to the debate, but it’s still real.

Let’s close with some polling data. Here’s a look at whether people believe that the American Dream exists.

The good news is that almost everybody agrees with the concept. The bad news is that many people believe it’s a thing of the past.

P.S. Shifting to another topic, I can’t resist offering a contrarian perspective on a recent Mona Charen column.

She said Jonathan Gruber wins the undesirable prize of having had the “worst year.”

Gruber…may well have had the worst year in American public life. His repeated demonstrations of arrogance, contempt for the American people and smug self-satisfaction brought mortification to his party and president. …all hail the verbally incontinent Gruber for revealing the truth underlying Obamacare: It would not have passed if it had been presented honestly. …Obamacare was unpopular when proposed and despised when passed, and it remains disliked to this day. Gruber’s contribution was to put a frame around its essential deception.

I don’t disagree with any of that, but I actually think Gruber had a pretty good year.

Sure, he was exposed as a despicable fraud, but he also “earned” millions of dollars as an Obamacare consultant.

In other words, he was yet another corrupt insider who used the law to line his own pockets. I suspect he’s laughing all the way to the bank.

P.P.S. Shifting gears again, I’m a big fan of political humor, even when libertarians get victimized.

And I also can appreciate clever leftist humor. And here’s a good example.

Kudos to Mr. Rogers, at least in this case. His cartoon reminds me of this Scott Stantis gem in that both rely on inadvertent responses.

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A bunch of well-connected rich people and government officials are descending upon Switzerland for the annual World Economic Forum meeting in Davos.

This upsets many people, and perhaps with some justification. After all, bad things often happen when big business and big government intersect.

But some folks reflexively think that wealth is bad and they would like us to believe that the economy is a fixed pie, meaning that the rich have more money because the poor have less money.

If you think I’m exaggerating, check out a new report from Oxfam, a UK-based group that was created to alleviate poverty but has largely morphed into a left-wing pressure group.

The folks at Oxfam complain about the supposed “capture of opportunities by the rich at the expense of the poor and middle classes” and that “tax rates for the richest have fallen in 29 of the 30 countries.”

Here are some excerpts from a report in the EU Observer.

As the world’s richest and most powerful men and women prepare to meet in the Swiss resort of Davos for the annual World Economic Forum on Wednesday (22 January), the British development charity, Oxfam, has issued a new report on global inequality. According to its findings, the wealth of the world’s 85 richest people – €81.2 trillion – amounts to that of the poorest half of the world population, or 3.5 billion people. …”In Europe, austerity has been imposed on the poor and middle classes under huge pressure from financial markets whose wealthy investors have benefited from state bailouts of financial institutions,” the charity said. Financial deregulation in the US has contributed to the situation, in which the richest one percent of the population has more money than ever since 1933.  …The charity said Davos participants should reverse the trend and pledge to support higher taxes for the rich, while refraining from using their wealth to seek political favours.

There are several parts of this excerpt that deserve attention, including passages that are correct (such as bailouts giving undeserved money to the rich) and passages that are nonsensical (the financial crisis was caused by intervention, not deregulation).

But I want to focus solely on the inequality issue. Let’s assume Oxfam is right and that the world’s 85 richest people have $81.2 trillion of wealth. The group obviously wants us to think this accumulation of wealth is bad and that it somehow comes at the expense of the rest of us.

Tim Carney of the Washington Examiner hits the nail on the head, explaining that there’s a big difference between honest wealth and riches obtained through government coercion.

…is it a bad thing for a country to have some really rich people? Again, it depends on how they got rich. Sutirtha Bagchi of the University of Michigan’s business school and Jan Svejnar of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs studied how inequality correlates with economic growth. In general, more inequality meant slower growth, and less inequality meant faster growth. But in many countries, over various time periods, growing inequality had no effect on economic growth. The new study suggests that an increase in inequality hurt the economy when the rich were getting rich through political connections. That is, inequality hurts the economy when “a large share of the national wealth is held by a small number of politically connected families,” as the authors put it. …Bagchi and Svenjar took pains to classify political billionaires as narrowly as possible. …The political billionaires were only people who “would not have become a billionaire in the absence of political connections that resulted in favoritism and/or explicit government support.”

The oft-missed lesson here is that undeserving wealth generally is obtained because of big government.

Which reminds me of a very astute observation by a former Cato colleague, who wrote that, “…the more power the government has to pick winners and losers, the more power rich people will have relative to poor people.”

Carney continues, pointing out that wealth obtained through markets is good. Such success creates a bigger pie and helps boost living standards for everyone.

But wealth achieved via government is cronyism, and that contributes to economic stagnation.

When a country’s wealthiest got wealthy through market means, the resulting inequality has no negative effect on economic growth. This jibes with what we know about free markets. If people can get rich by providing valuable things at good prices, then society will get more valuable things at good prices—and people across the income spectrum benefit. But if people get rich by pocketing subsidies and using the state to crush competitors, then they gained their wealth at the expense of everyone else. Bill Gates became a billionaire by making and selling something that makes regular people more productive and more connected. Buffett got rich largely by providing capital to underfunded but well-run businesses. If Bagchi’s and Svejnar’s findings are correct, then the bottom line is this: Inequality itself doesn’t hurt the economy. Cronyism hurts the economy.

I fully agree with Tim’s analysis, though I would have drawn a distinction between the younger Warren Buffett, who was a savvy investor and the older Buffett, who has climbed into bed with the political elite.

The bottom line is that the poor aren’t poor because of honest rich people. The poor are suffering because of big government, including the cronyism that lines the pockets of dishonest companies and individuals that feed at the public trough.

Unfortunately, many insider leftists are perfectly content with those policies and they use inequality to distract voters from the real problem.

There are honest leftists, of course, and they presumably would be outraged by the sleaze in national capitals. Their problem is that they genuinely think the economic is fixed pie. Or they think that inequality is such a bad thing that they would be willing to reduce incomes for the poor if it meant the rich suffered even more.

If you don’t believe me, watch this marvelous video of Margaret Thatcher debunking the left.

And my old grad school colleague Steve Horwitz also has some very sage observations on income inequality and class warfare.

P.S. In its report on inequality, Oxfam also went after tax havens and said more revenue for government would help reduce poverty.

Oxfam also estimated that €15.5 trillion of the wealth is hidden from the taxman in offshore accounts, at a time when governments are cutting public spending. …tax avoidance by EU and US corporations in Africa is depriving its governments from resources which could be use to fight poverty.

I wrote a study years ago exposing Oxfam’s sloppy methodology on tax competition issues. No wonder they’ve been labeled as being part of the “tax taliban.”

But what really irks me about that passage is the assumption that bigger government reduces poverty. That’s nonsense. The data shows that growth is the best way of helping the poor.

Christie JokeP.S. I wrote yesterday about Chris Christie’s problems in New Jersey. I said his real challenge was the need to reduce the burden of government, not the bridge scandal.

But I’m a sucker for good political humor, so enjoy this image that appeared in my inbox.

P.P.S. Since Oxfam criticized tax havens, I can’t resist calling your attention to my video tutorial on tax competition and tax havens.

Simply stated, we need some external check on the greed of the political class.

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