OECD-income inequality

Back when I was a kid, the country where kids-who-weren’t-me were starving was India, and my parents regularly told me to finish what was served to me at supper because somehow that would help those needy children. (I confess my smart-aleck answer to my parents was to tell them to send the uneaten food to India or wherever for the hungry kids. Problem solved.)

That was pretty much Tim Worstall’s response to the latest OECD report on inequality, In It Together: Why Less Inequality Benefits All. Poverty is the only thing that matters, and the poor in the United States aren’t really poor—not in comparison to the “really poor” elsewhere in the world. So, clean your plates and be thankful you’re not like “them.”

they’re worried that rich Americans have ten times the incomes of poor Americans, not that any and every American has an income many multiples of that of someone who is truly poor. For example, if you’re on the average amount of governmental help to aid you in beating poverty in the US (that’s around $9,400 a year) then your income, from that source alone, is some 25 to 30 times that of someone living in real, absolute, poverty.

Myself, I think that’s the only inequality that we should be worrying about: and absolute poverty the only sort of poverty we should be worrying about. As I then go on to insist that the absolute poverty is being beaten by globalisation, and the relative inequality in the OECD countries is also being caused by globalisation, then I say that this is all a very good idea indeed. Let rip with yet more globalisation and trade, the absolutely poor will continue to get richer and the in-country inequality can rise for all I care. And given the link between the two I even tend to applaud the rising in-country inequality as evidence that that absolute poverty continues to be beaten.

But it’s not just Worstall: that’s pretty much the usual response from conservatives these days (from a recent commentator on this blog through Bruce D. Meyer and James X. Sullivan to Deirdre McCloskey) when the issue of inequality comes up. Don’t worry about inequality and keep hoping that—someday, somehow—poverty in the world will be eliminated.

Except it hasn’t, and it isn’t. What the OECD report shows is:

1. Poverty within the OECD nations (no matter how measured) increased during the most recent economic crisis.

2. Inequality (in the distribution of both income and wealth) has also increased—and not just in terms of those at the very bottom, but especially with respect to the bottom 40 percent of the population.

3. The growth in poverty and inequality has negative effects on overall economic growth.

4. And, finally, redistributive measures do not have a negative effect on growth.

There is nothing in the clean-your-plate attempts to ignore the existence of already-grotesque and still-rising levels of poverty and inequality that can effectively counter or overturn those findings—much less respond to what I consider to be the key finding in the report:

The most efficient policy package will address inequalities at the point where they originate rather than trying to pick them up only at a later stage.

In other words, additional growth won’t solve or eliminate those inequalities. We need to tackle the point where they originate: by radically transforming the existing set of economic institutions.


Special mention



According to Reuters [ht: sm],

Twelve of about 30 people who worked on [Carly] Fiorina’s failed 2010 California Senate campaign, most speaking out for the first time, told Reuters they would not work for her again. Fiorina, once one of America’s most powerful businesswomen, is now campaigning for the Republican nomination in 2016.

The reason: for more than four years, Fiorina – who has an estimated net worth of up to $120 million – didn’t pay them, a review of Federal Election Commission records shows.

On the campaign trail, the former Hewlett-Packard (HPQ.N) CEO has portrayed herself as a battle-hardened business leader who possesses the best financial skills among fellow Republican presidential hopefuls. But some former staffers on her Senate campaign are now raising questions about that portrayal.

Federal campaign filings show that, until a few months before Fiorina announced her presidential bid on May 4, she still owed staffers, consultants, strategists, legal experts and vendors nearly half a million dollars.


I’m taking nominations for the best examples of dismal economic scientists.

While I wait for your suggestions, I’m going to offer two of my own nominations: Tyler Cowen and Paul Romer.

I am nominating Cowen because, in his argument that the economy probably needs a “reset,” he only focuses on lowering workers’ wages. First, he makes no mention of resetting corporate profits or the incomes of those at the very top, as if what they manage to capture were completely off limits. All the adjustment in the new, “grimmer future” will be born by those at the bottom. Second, he completely overlooks the mechanisms of his own economic theory: if lower rates of economic growth are the product of lower rates of growth of available workers (a key factor in the theory of secular stagnation), then the relative scarcity of workers should mean higher—not lower—wages. In other words, Cowen is determined to make sure all the costs of the new, slower-growing economy will be born by shifted onto those who can least afford it. For that reason, I nominate Cowen for the title of dismal economist.

I also want to nominate Romer, who continues to double down on his “mathiness” argument, by asserting (against all the work that has taken place in the philosophy of science in recent decades) that (a) there’s a single truth, (b) that truth can only be obtained via science, and (c) mathematical modeling is the singular method for making progress in science to obtain truth. There are so many things wrong with each of those assertions it’s hard to know where to begin. And I won’t, at least right now. Let me just say Romer deserves his nomination as one of the most dismal economists because of the extraordinary arrogance, pretentiousness, and ignorance of the following statements:

About math:. . .I’ve seen clear evidence that math can facilitate scientific progress toward the truth.

If you think that math is worthless or dangerous, I’m sure that there are people who will be happy to discuss this with you. I’m not interested. I’m busy.

About truth and science: My fundamental premise is that there is an objective notion of truth and that science can help us make progress toward truth.

If you do not accept this premise, I’m sure that there are people who would be happy to debate it with you. I’m not interested. I’m busy.

And please do not write to tell me that science is a social process or that the progress it makes toward the truth can be irregular. I know.

Me, I’m not too busy to discuss either the fundamental injustices of contemporary capitalism or the often-worthless and dangerous role mathematics, truth, and science have played and continue to play in the discipline of economics.

I’m also not too busy to post additional nominations for dismal economists.

Thousands of protesters calling for a $15 minimum wage and a union are demonstrating today outside the McDonald’s headquarters near Chicago during the annual shareholders’ meeting.

About 5,000 McDonald’s employees from across the US chanted: “We work, we sweat, put $15 in our cheque” as they marched towards the burger giant’s headquarters holding banners reading “McDonald’s: $15 and Union Rights, Not Food Stamps.”

“We’re here to tell McDonald’s and its shareholders to invest in the company and its workers instead of wealthy hedge fund managers and executives,” said Kwanza Brooks, a McDonald’s worker and mother of three from Charlotte, North Carolina, who is paid $7.25 an hour. “We’re tired of relying on food stamps to feed our own families. We need $15 and the right to form a union and we need it now.”


Special mention

163788_600 Toles-Iraq


Tyler Cowen has made a bit of a splash with his argument that, here in the United States, we’re probably in the midst of an economic “reset.”

What does Cowen mean? Essentially, his argument is that economic growth may continue at relatively low levels for the foreseeable future (in contrast to the higher rates of growth following on other postwar recessions), that low and stagnant wages will likely continue (his examples are lower salaries of adjunct faculty, two-tier wage systems in manufacturing, and lower wages for college graduates), and there’s probably not much government policy can do to avoid this “grimmer future.”

In this, Cowen is basically echoing the concerns expressed by others, in the form of the “new normal” (associated with, among others, PIMCO boss Mohamed El-Erian) and “secular stagnation” (which Larry Summers [pdf], among others, has been arguing).

My view, for what it’s worth, is Cowen is both right and wrong. He’s right in the sense that we have witnessed, and will likely continue to experience, a relatively slow recovery from the crash of 2007-08. That’s why I continue to refer to our current situation as a Second Great Depression. And, as we have seen, what recovery there has been during the past six years has mostly benefited those at the very top. The rest of the population has already been forced to “reset” their expectations in terms of stagnant wages and salaries.


But Cowen is also wrong, in the sense that he’s only focused on the last few years. His view is that recent rates of economic growth have been relatively low (by postwar standards), and that trend may continue into the future (thereby requiring those at the bottom to revise their expectations downward). What he misses is the fact that a fundamental “reset” of the U.S. economy has been taking place for much longer, since at least the mid-1970s. Since then, we’ve seen the profit share growing and the labor share declining—a long-term trend that has only been exacerbated since the crash of 2008-08.

Or, if you want a different sort of evidence, consider taking a look at George Packer’s magnificent book, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America. Using fascinating profiles of several Americans (and a dos Passos-like sprinkling of alarming headlines, news bites, song lyrics, and slogans), Packer offers an epic retelling of American history from 1978 to 2012—of a shrinking middle-class and an economy that has lost its ability to offer any significant hope for recovery for the majority of the population.

It’s that unwinding—which we’ve been living through for almost four decades now but which Cowen and others miss—that is going to require a fundamental “reset” of our economic system.