Archive for September, 2016

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Sometimes a book review is more than a book review.

That’s certainly true in the case of Michiko Kakutani’s [ht: ja] essay on the first volume of Volker Ullrich’s biography of Adolf Hitler. He implies but not never explicitly states the contemporary comparison.

Consider the following bulleted points (not in their original order):

•Hitler was often described as an egomaniac who “only loved himself” — a narcissist with a taste for self-dramatization and what Mr. Ullrich calls a “characteristic fondness for superlatives.”

•Hitler was known, among colleagues, for a “bottomless mendacity” that would later be magnified by a slick propaganda machine that used the latest technology (radio, gramophone records, film) to spread his message.

•Hitler was an effective orator and actor, Mr. Ullrich reminds readers, adept at assuming various masks and feeding off the energy of his audiences.

•Hitler increasingly presented himself in messianic terms, promising “to lead Germany to a new era of national greatness,” though he was typically vague about his actual plans.

•Hitler’s repertoire of topics, Mr. Ullrich notes, was limited, and reading his speeches in retrospect, “it seems amazing that he attracted larger and larger audiences” with “repeated mantralike phrases” consisting largely of “accusations, vows of revenge and promises for the future.”

•Hitler had a dark, Darwinian view of the world.

•Hitler’s rise was not inevitable

And perhaps most important:

•Hitler’s ascension was aided and abetted by the naïveté of domestic adversaries who failed to appreciate his ruthlessness and tenacity, and by foreign statesmen who believed they could control his aggression.

Not once does Kakutani mention the name of the politician, current presidential candidate of one of the two major political parties in the United States, who has also ascended “through demagoguery, showmanship and nativist appeals to the masses.”*

 

*If readers have any doubts about the veracity of Kakutani’s implied comparison, read this BBC [ht: ja] report about a recent rally in Florida.

“For 90 minutes on issue after issue, Hillary Clinton defended the terrible status quo,” he said. “We have to have dramatic change.” . . .

“Washington DC will soon come face-to-face with the righteous verdict of the American voter,” he said.

For the crowd in Melbourne, “soon” isn’t soon enough.

Wealth across nations

Posted: 30 September 2016 in Uncategorized
Tags: , ,

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2015 was not, as it turns out, a great year for the world’s ultra high net worth individuals—except those at the very top.*

According to Wealth-X’s World Ultra Wealth Report 2015-2016,

the world’s ultra wealthy population experienced almost flat growth as the number of individuals with US$30 million or more in net assets grew just 0.6% and total ultra high net worth (UHNW) wealth increased by 0.8%.

In particular, the slump in energy and commodity prices from mid-2015 onward negatively affected the ultra wealthy in certain countries, with Russia and Australia experiencing double-digit declines in both UHNW population numbers and total UHNW wealth as a result.

But the highest ranks of the ultra high net worth population—individuals with at least US$1 billion in net assets—saw their wealth grow 5.4 percent. That was more than double the rate of global economic growth. Meanwhile, all other tiers saw their wealth actually shrink by 0.6 percent.

Clearly, the wealth across nations is unequally distributed, with the ultra wealthy accounting for just 0.004 percent of the world’s adult population but controlling 12 percent of its wealth. And, in 2015, wealth became more unequally distributed even among the tiny groups of ultra wealthy individuals.

 

*Wealth-X defines ultra high net worth individuals as those with US$30 million or more in net assets.

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Donald Trump doesn’t know what he’s talking about. But he owned Hillary Clinton during the first part of Monday’s debate. And his attacks on free trade are in fact resonating among working-class voters.

That, and the fact that the polls show the presidential election much closer at this stage than anyone expected, has finally made others sit up and take notice.*

I weighed in back in July, trying to move the debate beyond the free trade-protectionism terms in which it has been framed. Now, we have Peter Goodman, who understands that “Trade is under attack in much of the world, because economists failed to anticipate the accompanying joblessness, and governments failed to help.”**

Goodman makes a number of good observations—about the role “libraries full of economics textbooks” played in promoting free trade and the fact that, even if manufacturing plants returned to the United States, “robots would probably capture most of the jobs.”

But what really interests me about Goodman’s article are the comments from readers. Here is a small sample:

From Mitch Gitman (in Seattle)—

Economists failed to anticipate the job losses stemming from unleashing a Hobbesian race to the bottom on the global economy?! I think they all knew full well, but they weren’t so concerned because it wasn’t their jobs being lost. Just like these economists don’t belong to the generations that are going to be bearing the brunt of the environmental impacts of this sudden race to burn all the fossil-fuel resources that our only planet has taken hundreds of millions of years to accumulate.

Economists are supposed to be the professionals who are smart enough to see the big picture, but economists have to pay the bills too. And there was never going to be a demand for an economist with the simple common sense to see the really big picture, that being able to buy marginally cheaper goods at Walmart is the classic case of knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

Bill Maher had a great line from his commentary at the end of last Friday’s episode of his HBO show “Real Time.” To people who ask, “Why doesn’t our economy work for people like me?” His response: “Because it’s not designed to.”

From Kate Flannery (in New York)—

At it’s barren heart, it’s not about trade, it’s about profit at any cost to the public good or just simply human life.

We wouldn’t need lower cost consumer goods, if people had decent income to purchase what they need or want in a sustainable way. Products that are cheap, but fall apart after a year is not the way life should be, nor is it environmentally just.

Every economic lie and political spin about the glories of globalization is just that – a lie to enable corporations and the rich to have even more. American agricultural giants wanted more markets for their horrible products, sending corn into Mexico, a country that didn’t need it. This drove Mexican farmers out of business and destabilized workers who fled north to find work, or crowded into cities to become slave workers for corporations at minimal wages. And that’s just one small example of its immoral and devastating effects.

Globalization and its attendant trade are a main contributor to environmental degradation around the globe as well.

The whole idea of glorious trade and globalization and all the rest, is just a monumental lie serving to enrich the few at the expense of the many. It’s been sold to the public at extraordinary cost. But people are waking up and realizing that those we elect to protect and serve the interests of society have only their self interests and those at the top of the food chain – corporations and finance – are just hollow men and women.

It’s about profit. Nothing else.

And LindaP (in Boston)—

It breaks my heart that the city where I grew up –Fall River, MA, the Spindle City– is a Trump stronghold. It is against the self-interest of those supporters, but as one who lived through the shut down of a city and the hopelessness that ensues, I (kinda) get it.

On hot summer vacation days in the ’60s, we kids would walk through the city. Factory windows would be open. The clack and whir of sewing machines and other manufacturing equipment was as familiar as crickets in the evening. Both my parents — my entire family, actually — worked in those mills.

No one was rich, living in three-deckers and saving up for the American Dream of owning a home, which many went on to do. In those neighborhoods of three-deckers there was cleanliness, pride of place, community, and a real knowledge (not false hope) that you could progress and make a better life for your family. No one was looking to live in a gilded tower — just a nice home, good schools, a living wage, and a better life for ones children.

Then the mills went dark, one by one. Everyone I knew who made their lives in those jobs had to move on. There were still other union jobs to get in the late 60s, so we survived. By the time my parents retired, I saw opportunity dry up for those behind them.

The loss of manufacturing allowed poverty, addiction, and a true hopelessness to take hold. Maybe you have to live it to know how devastatingly true that is.

There’s more wisdom in those comments, about the causes and consequences of free trade, than one will find in Trump’s speeches and the libraries full of mainstream economics textbooks—or, for that matter, in the revised policy positions on Hillary Clinton’s web site.

 

*Clearly, the Brexit vote has also had an impact.

**To be clear, mainstream economists are the ones who failed to anticipate the negative effects, and both Democratic and Republican governments failed to help workers.

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Yesterday, I questioned the case—presented by Jason Furman and the White House Council of Economic Advisers—that the Obama administration had made a “historic achievement in reducing inequality.”

James Kwak, as it turns out, had much the same reaction:

inequality is every bit the problem we’ve always thought it was. It’s not as bad today as it would be if John McCain had been elected eight years ago. But we’re no closer to addressing its fundamental causes.

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First, Kwak explains that the key chart behind the Obama administration claim (which I’ve reposted above) is not what it seems. It doesn’t show inequality has actually declined by the stipulated amounts. What it does show is that (a) in 2017 (and therefore a forecast for next year) and (b) in comparison to a world in which the Bush-era tax cuts didn’t expire and without the Affordable Care Act (and therefore a parallel universe of lower tax rates and pre-Obama health coverage rates) “our universe is a little less unequal than that parallel universe.”

In summary, the economic factors that produce higher pre-tax income inequality—stagnant middle-class wages, high corporate profits, and booming asset markets—are alive and well, and it doesn’t seem the Obama administration has done much about them. The administration did pass the Affordable Care Act and let the Bush tax cuts expire for the rich, both of which helped mitigate the pre-tax inequality produced by contemporary American capitalism. But even if Barack Obama called inequality the “defining challenge of our time,” he has done little to tackle its fundamental causes. Let’s hope the next president does better.

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Kwak then takes on the larger issue of whether inequality has actually been getting worse or better under the Obama administration. What he shows (much as I argued yesterday) is that, while tax-and-transfer policies have made the distribution of income less unequal than it otherwise would have been (thus, the red line is lower than either the green or blue lines), they’ve done nothing to change the “underlying economic factors that determine inequality of pre-tax income.”

What we’ve seen then is pre-tax inequality has continued to grow and, even though tax-and-transfer policies lower the degree of inequality (and, indeed, have widened the gap between pre-tax and post-tax inequality), overall inequality has continued to grow under the Obama administration.

And looking forward?

Yes, 2015 was a good year for middle-class families, but it didn’t come close to making up for several bad years during the current expansion. There’s no obvious reason why the pre-tax income share of the 1% will stop rising anytime soon—except for the next recession, after which it will most likely continue its long-term ascent.

That, in my view, is why “economic inequality will remain the ‘defining challenge of the next generation, too’.”

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Inequality may be the “defining challenge of our time.” But you wouldn’t know so from Monday evening’s presidential debate, in which neither candidate directly addressed the issue.

But the Obama administration seems to be in full gear—with an op-ed piece by chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers Jason Furman and an extensive report by the Council of Economic Advisers (pdf)—celebrating its own “historic achievement in reducing inequality.”*

Tax changes enacted since 2009 have boosted the share of after-tax income received by the bottom 99 percent of families by more than the tax changes of any previous Administration since at least 1960. President Obama has also overseen the largest increase in Federal investment to reduce inequality since the Great Society, largely reflecting the coverage provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and expanded tax credits for working families.

And the results? Together, the changes in tax policy and the ACA provisions will increase the share of after-tax income received by the bottom quintile in 2017 by less than one percentage point and reduce the share received by the top 1 percent by all of 1.2 percentage points.

That’s something, it is true, but it does not reverse the spectacular growth in inequality the United States has witnessed in recent decades (when the share of income captured by the top 1 percent rose from 9 percent in 1971 to 22 percent in 2015), and it doesn’t even touch the even-more-dramatic inequality in the distribution of wealth (such that in 2013, the last year for which data are available, families in the top 10 percent of the wealth distribution held 76 percent of all family wealth, families in the 51st to the 90th percentiles held 23 percent, and those in the bottom half of the distribution held no more than 1 percent).

So, what’s the problem? We already know, thanks to a 2015 Brookings Study (pdf), that the effect of changes in top individual tax rates (including a redistribution of all new revenues to household in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution) are “exceedingly modest.”** And, of course, changes in tax rates on income have little if any effect on the unequal distribution of wealth.

The fact that the current administration can cite its own policies as a “historic achievement” just confirms how little other administrations have done to moderate growing inequality in the United States over the course of the past three decades.

They also confirm the fact that, unless and until the United States decides to tackle the issue of wealth ownership and the resulting unequal market distribution of income— especially the ability of the tiny group at the top to capture and invest for their own sake the enormous surplus created by everyone else—it’s clear that economic inequality will remain the “defining challenge of the next generation, too.”

 

*The same issue has been taken up on the other side of the pond, about whether the last Labor government did anything to reverse “the rise of inequality seen under the previous Conservative administration.” According to the data cited by Simon Wren-Lewis, the best that can be said is Labor did not continue the previous rise in inequality, although it certainly didn’t reverse it.

**Here’s the authors’ conclusion:

In this analysis we have simulated the effects of increasing the top income tax rate under three possible reforms: (a) raise the top individual income tax rate from 39.6 to 45 percent; (2) raise the top individual income tax rate from 39.6 to 50 percent; and (3) raise the top individual income tax rate to 50 percent for income greater than $1 million for joint filers, $750,000 for single filers. We calculate the resulting change in income inequality under these scenarios assuming an explicit redistribution of all new revenue to households in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution. The resulting effects on overall income inequality are exceedingly modest, with changes in the Gini coefficient of less than 0.01.

That such a sizable increase in the top personal income tax rate leads to a strikingly limited reduction in overall income inequality speaks to the limitations of this particular approach to addressing the broader challenge. It also reflects the fact that the high level of U.S. income inequality is characterized by a wide divergence in income between higher-income households and those at the middle and below.