Posts Tagged ‘1 percent’

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Russia is back in the news again in the United States, with the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election as well as a growing set of links between a variety of figures (including Cabinet and family members) associated with Donald Trump and the regime of Vladimir Putin.

This year is also the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution, which sought to create the conditions for a transition to communism in the midst of a society characterized by various forms of feudalism, peasant communism, and capitalism. But we shouldn’t forget that, in addition, the Red Century has clearly left its mark on the political economy of the West, including the United States—both in the early years, when the “communist threat” undoubtedly led to reforms associated with a more equal distribution of income, and later, when the Fall of the Wall reinforced the neoliberal turn to privatization and deregulation.

Now we have a third reason to think about Russia, which happens to intersect with the first two concerns. A new study of income and wealth data by Filip Novokmet, Thomas Piketty, Gabriel Zucman reveals just how much has changed in Russia from the time of the tsarist oligarchy through the Soviet Union to rise of the new oligarchy during and after the “shock therapy” that served to create a new form of private capitalism under Putin.

As is clear from the chart, income inequality was extremely high in Tsarist Russia, then dropped to very low levels during the Soviet period, and finally rose back to very high levels after the fall of the Soviet Union. Thus, for example, the top 1-percent income share was somewhat close to 20 percent in 1905, dropped to as little as 4-5 percent during the Soviet period, and rose spectacularly to 20-25 percent in recent decades.

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The data sets used by Novokmet et al. reveal a level of inequality under the new oligarchs that is much higher that was the case using survey data—a top 1-percent income share that is more than double for 2007-08.

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Novokmet et al. also show that the income shares of the top 10 percent and the bottom 50 percent moved in exactly opposite directions after the privatization of Russian state capitalism in the early 1990s. While the top 10-percent income share rose from less than 25 percent in 1990-1991 to more than 45 percent in 1996, the share of the bottom 50 percent collapsed, dropping from about 30 percent of total income in 1990-1991 to less than 10 percent in 1996, before gradually returning to 15 percent by 1998 and about 18 percent by 2015.

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In comparison to other countries, Russia was much more equal during the Soviet period and, by 2015, had approached a level of inequality higher than that of France and comparable only to that of the United States.

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Finally, Novokmet et al. have been able to estimate the enormous growth of private wealth under the new oligarchy, especially the wealth that was captured by a tiny group at the very top and is now owned by Russia’s billionaires. As the authors explain,

The number of Russian billionaires—as registered in international rankings such as the Forbes list—is extremely high by international standards. According to Forbes, total billionaire wealth was very small in Russia in the 1990s, increased enormously in the early 2000s, and stabilized around 25-40% of national income between 2005 and 2015 (with large variations due to the international crisis and the sharp fall of the Russian stock market after 2008). This is much larger than the corresponding numbers in Western countries: Total billionaire wealth represents between 5% and 15% of national income in the United States, Germany and France in 2005-2015 according to Forbes, despite the fact that average income and average wealth are much higher than in Russia. This clearly suggests that wealth concentration at the very top is significantly higher in Russia than in other countries.

Clearly, there is nothing “natural” about the distribution of income and the ownership of wealth. This new study demonstrates that different economic structures and political events create fundamentally different levels of inequality in both income and wealth, both within and between countries.

The Russian experience is a perfect example how inequality can fall and then, later, be reversed with radical economic and political transformations—thus creating a new oligarchy that dominates the national political economy and seeks to intervene in other countries.

Not unlike the United States.

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Over the years, I’ve reproduced and created many different charts representing the spectacular rise of inequality in the United States during the past four decades.

Here’s the latest—based on the work of Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman—which, according to David Leonhardt, “captures the rise in inequality better than any other chart or simple summary that I’ve seen.”

I agree.

The chart shows the different rates of change in income between 1980 and 2014 for every point on the distribution. The brown line illustrates the change in the distribution of income in the 34 years before 1980, when those at the bottom saw larger growth than those at the top. In contrast, in the decades leading up to 2014, only those at the very top saw high levels of income growth. Everyone else experienced very little gain.

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Lest we forget, however, the U.S. economy was already broken by 1980: the bottom 90 percent only took home about 65 percent of national income, while the top 1 percent managed to capture 10.6 percent of total income in the United States. There was nothing fair about that situation.

A bit like a car that looks good, when shiny and new, but is designed with cheap parts to fail as soon as the warranty expires.

Well, the warranty on the U.S. economy expired in the late 1970s. And then it really began to break down.

By 2014, that already-unequal distribution of income had become truly obscene: the share of income going to the bottom 90 percent had fallen to less than 53 percent, while the share captured by the top 1 percent had soared to over 19 percent.

Leonhardt is right: “there is nothing natural about the distribution of today’s growth — the fact that our economic bounty flows overwhelmingly to a small share of the population.”

Yes, as Leonhardt argues, different policies would produce a somewhat more equal outcome. And, it’s true, “President Trump and the Republican leaders in Congress are trying to go in the other direction.”

But a different economy—a radically different way of organizing economic and social life—would eliminate the conditions that led to unequalizing growth in the first place. Both before 1980 and in the decades since then.

The fact is, the supposed Golden Age of American capitalism was based on a set of institutions that allowed the boards of directors of large corporations to appropriate a growing surplus and to distribute it as they wished. At first, during the immediate postwar period, that meant growing incomes for those in the bottom 90 percent. But, even then, the mechanisms for distributing income remained in the hands of a very small group at the top. And they had both the interest and the means to stop the growth of wages, get even more surplus (from U.S. workers and, increasingly, workers around the globe), and distribute a greater share of that surplus to a tiny group at the very top of the distribution of income.

Those are the mechanisms that need to be challenged and changed. Otherwise, inequality will remain out of control.

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According to Donald Trump, “Nobody Knew Health Care Could Be So Complicated.” But the latest version of the plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, negotiated behind closed doors and finally publicly presented by Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans, isn’t very complicated. In fact, it’s quite simple: the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 trades the health of tens of millions of Americans for tax cuts that would be captured by a tiny group at the top.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Senate bill would increase the number of people who are uninsured by 22 million in 2026 relative to the number under current law, only slightly fewer than the increase in the number of uninsured estimated for the House-passed legislation. By 2026, an estimated 49 million people would be uninsured, compared with 28 million who would lack insurance that year under current law.

Moreover, the increase in the number of uninsured people would be disproportionately larger among older people with lower income—particularly people between 50 and 64 years old with income less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s largely because of the cuts to Medicaid, which would result in 15 million fewer Medicaid enrollees by 2026 than projected under current law. The Office also estimates that, by 2026, 7 million fewer people would obtain coverage through the nongroup market—because the penalty for not having insurance would be eliminated and, starting in 2020, because the average subsidy for coverage in that market would be substantially lower for most people currently eligible for subsidies (and for some people that subsidy would be eliminated entirely).

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Tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of additional deaths will occur as a result of the enormous increase in people without health insurance.

As Clio Chang succinctly states:

If we send people to war, people will die. If we consign people to live in poverty, people will die. If we take away health insurance, people will die.

And what will Americans get in exchange for those cuts in healthcare coverage and additional deaths?

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According to the Tax Policy Center, nearly 45 percent of the benefit of the tax cuts proposed in the Senate bill (much as in the bill the House passed) would go to the top 1 percent of households, those making $875,000 or more.

The lowest income 20 percent of households (that will make about $28,000 or less in 2026) would receive an average tax cut of about $180, or 1 percent of their after-tax income. Middle-income households (that will make $55,000-$93,000) would receive an average tax cut of $280, raising their after-tax incomes by about 0.4 percent.

By contrast, the top one percent of households (who will be making $875,000 or more) are in line for an average tax cut of more than $45,000, raising their after-tax incomes by 2 percent. And those in the top 0.1 percent (who will be making $5 million or more) would receive an average tax cut of nearly $250,000, boosting their after-tax incomes by 2.5 percent.

In the coming weeks, Senate Republicans will be debating details of the proposed healthcare plan and cutting deals to get some of their number to drop their opposition and vote with the leadership. That may get complicated (and already has, causing McConnell to delay a vote until after the 4th of July recess).

However, when it comes to death and taxes, there is no such complication: the Senate plan would take away health coverage from 22 million people, and likely kill tens of thousands of low-income Americans, in order to create an enormous tax cut that would largely benefit the nation’s highest income households.

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Yesterday, I showed that conventional thinking about factor shares has been finally overturned: they are not necessarily constant, especially within existing economic institutions.

In fact, labor’s shares have been declining for decades now.

The opposite is true of capital’s shares: they’ve been rising for almost three decades.

The profit share of national income has, of course, a cyclical (short-term) component. It falls in the period preceding each recession, and begins to rise again during recessions. That’s how capitalism works.

But the profit share (illustrated by the blue line in the chart above, measured on the left side) also exhibits secular (longer-term) movements—and, since 1986 (when it reached a low of 7 percent), it more than doubled (to a peak of 15.4 percent in 2006) and remains still very high (at 13.6 percent in 2016).

Over that same period, the share of income captured by individuals at the top—the top 10 percent and, a smaller group, the top 1 percent (in the red and green lines, respectively, measured on the right)—who receive distributions of the surplus, also increased dramatically. The share of income of the top 10 percent rose by 29.7 percent (from 36.4 to 47.2 percent of total factor income) and of the top 1 percent by even more, 40.2 percent (from 25.4 to 35.6 percent).

To expand the conclusion I reached yesterday: under existing economic institutions, factor shares do in fact change—and they’ve been turning against labor (beginning in the mid-1970s) and in favor of capital (since the mid-198os) for decades now.

That’s a fundamental change in the class nature of the U.S. economy that needs to be reflected in economists’ theoretical models—which also needs to be corrected in reality, by radically transforming existing economic institutions.

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Apparently, Richard Reeves is worried that the top echelons of the U.S. middle class—those earning over $120,000—are separating from the rest of the country, and pulling up the drawbridge behind them.

“The upper middle class families have become greenhouses for the cultivation of human capital. Children raised in them are on a different track to ordinary Americans, right from the very beginning,” he writes.

The upper middle class are “opportunity hoarding” – making it harder for others less economically privileged to rise to the top; a situation that Reeves says places stress on the efficiency of the US economic system and creates dynastic wealth and privilege of the kind the nation’s fathers sought to avoid.

That makes sense. The fact is, class mobility has been declining in the United States. The lack of movement up and down the economic ladder, which itself is a product of growing inequality, serves to magnify the obscene levels of inequality in the United States.

The two longstanding myths about U.S. economic and social structures—that classes don’t exist and, even if they do, there is plenty of movement between them—have been shattered in recent years.

But Reeves needs to take another look at what’s going on. First, it’s not an either-or issue—the top 1 percent or the top 20 percent. Both groups are pulling away from the bottom 90 percent.

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The share of income going to the top 10 percent (since I don’t have data on the top 20 percent) has soared over the course of the past four decades from 34 percent to 47 percent. Meanwhile, the share going to the bottom 90 percent has fallen precipitously, from 66 percent to 53 percent.

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The members of the top 1 percent have also pulled away from those at the bottom, since their share of income has grown during the same period from 11 percent to 20 percent.

Both groups—the top 10 percent and the top 1 percent—are pulling away from and leaving everyone else behind.

But there’s also a difference between them, which Reeve also misses. Whereas those at the very top are responsible—via their membership in boards of directors of large corporations as well as their role in sole proprietorships, partnerships, LLCs, and other business forms—for appropriating the surplus, the rest of the top group tend to get a cut of the surplus. In other words, the remaining members of the top 10 (or, for Reeves, 20) percent share in the booty that is extracted from everyone else.

The fact that those at the top are pulling away from everyone else is not just a matter of “legacy” students gaining admittance to top universities or well-placed internships. It’s also about the surplus they manage to capture, both directly and indirectly. That’s what distinguishes them from the 90 percent, who produce but do not share in the surplus—or, for that matter, have any say in what happens to the surplus.

Reeves’s major concern is to celebrate and restore the idea of meritocracy. I get that. The question he doesn’t pose, however, is: where’s the merit in excluding those in the bottom 90 percent from having a say in how much surplus there will be and what to do with it once it’s produced?

The fact is, the organization of U.S. economic and social institutions means that those at the top, whoever they are and however much they might change, are in a position to capture and do what they want with the surplus everyone else creates.

That’s why the current system is “rigged” and those at the top are pulling away from the vast majority at the bottom.

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Special mention

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What happens when you combine conspicuous consumption and consumption productivity?

You get Barracuda Straight Leg Jeans—complete with “crackled, caked-on muddy coating”—on sale for $425 at Nordstrom.

When Thorstein Veblen invented the term “conspicuous consumption,” in his Theory of the Leisure Class (pdf), he was referring to late-nineteenth-century America as having entered the “predatory phase” of culture, when the people at the top obtained their goods by seizure and imputed indignity to the “performance of productive work.”

The clothing of the leisure class reflected this distancing from the world of work—conspicuous consumption combined with conspicuous leisure and conspicuous waste.

In dress construction this norm works out in the shape of divers contrivances going to show that the wearer does not and, as far as it may conveniently be shown, can not engage in productive labor. Beyond these two principles there is a third of scarcely less constraining force, which will occur to any one who reflects at all on the subject. Dress must not only be conspicuously expensive and inconvenient, it must at the same time be up to date.

Nordstrom’s muddy jeans are therefore a perfect example of contemporary predatory culture, when those at the top are afforded the luxury of ironically quoting—but not actually doing—any productive work. Instead, they capture a portion of the surplus and use it to purchase clothing that—in the form of conspicuous consumption, leisure, and waste—shows they are exempted from the exigency of work imposed on everyone else, who are of course required to dress in neat and clean uniforms, just like the servants of the first Gilded Age.

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Now, in the latest stage of predatory culture, those at the top can purchase fake mud-stained jeans while McDonald’s employees will now wear uniforms reminiscent of the Hunger Games.

What’s next, corsets?*

 

*Here again is Veblen:

The dress of women goes even farther than that of men in the way of demonstrating the wearer’s abstinence from productive employment. . .

the woman’s apparel not only goes beyond that of the modern man in the degree in which it argues exemption from labor; it also adds a peculiar and highly characteristic feature which differs in kind from anything habitually practiced by the men. This feature is the class of contrivances of which the corset is the typical example. The corset is, in economic theory, substantially a mutilation, undergone for the purpose of lowering the subject’s vitality and rendering her permanently and obviously unfit for work.