Posts Tagged ‘China’

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It should perhaps come as no surprise that, as capitalism has been called into question and socialism generated increasing interest during the past decade, capitalism’s defenders have resorted to a long historical view. Look, they say, how capitalist growth has decreased poverty and led to improvements in people’s lives around the globe. Just stick with it and all will eventually be well.

That’s why, as Jason Hickel points out, the above infographic, based on sketchiest of data going back to 1820, is one of Bill Gates’s favorites. Or why Deirdre McCloskey never tires in scolding the critics of capitalism that “the Great Fact of modern life, the most surprising secular news since the domestication of plants and animals, is the rise of real income per head.”

The past two centuries of economic growth have done more to help the world’s poor than any activity by governments or charities or trade unions.

There are problem, of course, in the data—especially in basing the key series on an absurdly low poverty line of $1.90 a day.* Perhaps even more important, as Hickel explains, the numbers obscure the actual historical process:

that the world went from a situation where most of humanity had no need of money at all to one where today most of humanity struggles to survive on extremely small amounts of money. The graph casts this as a decline in poverty, but in reality what was going on was a process of dispossession that bulldozed people into the capitalist labour system, during the enclosure movements in Europe and the colonisation of the global south.

The masses people who were bulldozed into the capitalist labor system now produce and consume the immense accumulation of commodities that represents the growing wealth of nations around the world.**

But even as the percentage of workers living in extreme poverty has declined, especially in recent decades, they’re falling further and further behind the tiny group at the top. That’s because the incomes generated by economic growth on a global scale have been unevenly distributed.

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As the authors of the World Inequality Report 2018 have shown, while the real incomes of the bottom 50 percent of the world’s population increased (by 94 percent) from 1980 to 2016, they only captured a relatively small share (about 12 percent) of total growth during that period—while the world’s elite (whose incomes increased by 101 percent) captured more than twice that share (27 percent).***

What about those countries, such as China and India, where most of the decline in the population living in extreme poverty took place? There, the differences in total cumulative income growth was even more obscene. In China, for example, the incomes of the bottom 50 percent grew by less than 420 percent, while those of the top increased by 1920 percent. And in India, the growing gap between the bottom 50 percent and the top 1 percent is even more stark: just over 100 percent versus 857 percent.

That spectacular growth in inequality on a global scale is the part of the story the current defenders of capitalism such as Gates and McCloskey don’t want to tell. Yes, the percentage of the world’s population living in extreme poverty (at least according to conventional measures) has fallen. But that growing mass of wage-workers has been enlisted, forcibly or otherwise, in the project of producing a surplus that has been captured not by them, but by a tiny group at the top.

In other words, extreme poverty may have fallen but relative immiseration has proceeded apace—the result of a growing gap between those who have a lot and those who now have a little.

As I see it, declining poverty and growing inequality are two sides of the same historical coin of the growth of capitalism on a global scale.

 

*As Lant Pritchett has explained,

The exclusive reporting of international poverty based on the penurious “dollar a day” poverty line (morphed by inflation into the less lyrical “$1.90 a day” line) was a tool for “defining development down”. . .

A low bar poverty line necessarily treats both people just above the poverty line and people in considerable comfort and prosperity as “not poor” and hence necessarily creates false equivalences in which those just above and just below a poverty line were considered to be different (one “poor” and one “not poor”) but two people above the poverty line with very different incomes were treated the same (both “not poor”).

**I made much the same argument back in 2016:

global capitalism has changed over its history. At one time (especially in the nineteenth century), it meant industrialization in the global north and deindustrialization in the mostly noncapitalist global south (which were, in turn, transformed into providers of raw materials, which became cheap commodity inputs into northern capitalist production). Later, especially after decolonization (following World War II), we saw the beginnings of capitalist development in the south (under the aegis of the state, with a set of policies we often refer to as import-substitution industrialization), which involved a reindustrialization of the south (producing consumer goods that were previously imported) and a change in the kinds of industry prevalent in the north (which both exported consumer goods to the rest of the world, which after the first Great Depression and world war were once again growing, and often provided inputs into the production of consumer goods elsewhere). Later (especially from the 1980s onward), with the accumulation of capital in India, China, Brazil, and elsewhere, noncapitalist economies were disrupted and millions of peasants and rural workers (and their children) were forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work in urban factories and offices. As a result, their monetary incomes rose (which is not to say their conditions of life necessarily improved), which is reflected in the growing elephant-body of the global distribution of income.

***And, for the middle 40 percent (mostly in North America and Western Europe), the growth in real incomes was much lower (only 43 percent).

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U.S. capitalism has a real problem: there don’t seem to be enough workers to keep the economy growing.

And it has another problem: capitalists themselves are to blame for the missing workers.

As is clear from the chart above, the employment-population ratio (the blue line) has collapsed from a high of 64.4 in 2000 to 59 in 2014 (and had risen to only 60.1 by the end of 2017).* During the same period, the average real incomes of the bottom 90 percent of Americans have stagnated—barely increasing from $37,541 to $37,886.

That should be indicator that the problem is on the demand side, that employers’ demand for workers’ labor power has decreased, and not the supply side, that workers are choosing to drop out of the labor force.

But, as I explained back in 2015, that hasn’t stopped mainstream economists from blaming workers themselves—especially women and young people, for being unwilling to work and turning instead to public assistance programs and raising children and being distracted by social media and digital technologies, as well as Baby-Boomers, who are choosing to retire instead of continuing to work.

So, which is it?

Katharine G. Abraham and Melissa S. Kearney have just completed a study in which they review the available evidence and their conclusion could not be clearer:

labor demand factors, in particular trade and the penetration of robots into the labor market, are the most important drivers of observed within-group declines in employment.

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Over the course of the past two decades, U.S. capitalists have decided both to increase trade with China (through outsourcing jobs and importing commodities) and to replace workers with robots and other forms of automation (it is estimated that each robot installed displaces something on the order of 5-6 workers).

That’s the main reason the employment-population ratio has declined so precipitously and that workers’ wages have stagnated in recent years.

Clearly, U.S. capitalists have been remarkably successful at increasing their profits. But they have just as spectacularly failed the vast majority of people who continue to be forced to have the freedom to work for them.

 

*The Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the employment-population ratio as the ratio of total civilian employment to the 16-and-over civilian noninstitutional population. Simply put, it is the portion of the population that is employed. Thus, for example, in 2000, the total number of civilian employees in the United States was 136.9 million and the figure for the civilian noninstitutional population was 212.6 million. By 2014, the civilian noninstitutional population had grown to 247.9 million but the total number of workers had risen to only 146.3 million. The employment-population ratio differs from both the unemployment rate (the number of unemployed divided by the civilian labor force) and the labor force participation rate (the share of the 16-and-over civilian noninstitutional population either working or looking for work).

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Economic inequality is arguably the crucial issue facing contemporary capitalism—especially in the United States but also across the entire world economy.

Over the course of the last four decades, income inequality has soared in the United States, as the share of pre-tax national income captured by the top 1 percent (the red line in the chart above) has risen from 10.4 percent in 1976 to 20.2 percent in 2014. For the world economy as a whole, the top 1-percent share (the green line), which was already 15.6 percent in 1982, has continued to rise, reaching 20.4 percent in 2016. Even in countries with less inequality—such as France, Germany, China, and the United Kingdom—the top 1-percent share has been rising in recent decades.

Clearly, many people are worried about the obscene levels of inequality in the world today.

In a famous study, which I wrote about back in 2010, Dan Ariely and Michael I. Norton showed that Americans both underestimate the current level of inequality in the United States and prefer a much more equal distribution than currently exists.*

In other words, the amount of inequality favored by Americans—their ideal or utopian horizon—hovers somewhere between the level of inequality that obtains in modern-day Sweden and perfect equality.

What about contemporary economists? What is their utopian horizon when it comes to the distribution of income?

Not surprisingly, economists are fundamentally divided. They hold radically different views about the distribution of income, which both inform and informed by their different utopian visions.

For example, neoclassical economists, the predominant group in U.S. colleges and universities, analyze the distribution of income in terms of marginal productivity theory. Within their framework of analysis, each factor of production (labor, capital, and land) receives a portion of total output in the form of income (wages, profits, or rent) within perfectly competitive markets according to its marginal contributions to production. In this sense, neoclassical economics represents a confirmation and celebration of capitalism’s “just deserts,” that is, everyone gets what they deserve.

From the perspective of neoclassical economics, inequality is simply not a problem, as long as each factor is rewarded according to its productivity. Since in the real world they see few if any exceptions to perfectly competitive markets, their view is that the distribution of income within contemporary capitalism corresponds to—or at least comes close to matching—their utopian horizon.

Other mainstream economists, especially those on the more liberal wing (such as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Thomas Piketty), hold the exact same utopian horizon—of just deserts based on marginal productivity theory. However, in their view, the real world falls short, generating a distribution of income in recent years that is more unequal, and therefore less fair, than is predicted within neoclassical theory. So, bothered by the obscene levels of contemporary inequality, they look for exceptions to perfectly competitive markets.

Thus, for example, Stiglitz has focused on what he calls rent-seeking behavior—and therefore on the ways economic agents (such as those in the financial sector or CEOs) often rely on forms of power (political and/or economic) to secure more than their “just deserts.” Thus, for Stiglitz and others, the distribution of income is more unequal than it would be under perfect markets because some agents are able to capture rents that exceed their marginal contributions to production.** If such rents were eliminated—for example, by regulating markets—the distribution of income would match the utopian horizon of neoclassical economics.***

What about Marxian theory? It’s quite a bit different, in the sense that it relies on the assumptions similar to those of neoclassical theory while arriving at conclusions that are diametrically opposed. The implication is that, even if and when markets are perfect (in the way neoclassical economists assume and work to achieve), the capitalist distribution of income violates the idea of “just deserts.” That’s because Marxian economics is informed by a radically different utopian horizon.

Let me explain. Marx started with the presumption that all markets operate much in the way the classical political economists then (and neoclassical economists today) presume. He then showed that even when all commodities exchange at their values and workers receive the value of their labor power (that is, no cheating), capitalists are able to appropriate a surplus-value (that is, there is exploitation). No special modifications of the presumption of perfect markets need to be made. As long as capitalists are able, after the exchange of money for the commodity labor power has taken place, to extract labor from labor power during the course of commodity production, there will be an extra value, a surplus-value, that capitalists are able to appropriate for doing nothing.

The point is, the Marxian theory of the distribution of income identifies an unequal distribution of income that is endemic to capitalism—and thus a fundamental violation of the idea of “just deserts”—even if all markets operate according to the unrealistic assumptions of mainstream economists. And that intrinsically unequal distribution of income within capitalism becomes even more unequal once we consider all the ways the mainstream assumptions about markets are violated on a daily basis within the kinds of capitalism we witness today.

That’s because the Marxian critique of political economy is informed by a radically different utopian horizon: the elimination of exploitation. Marxian economists don’t presume that, under capitalism, the distribution of income will be equal. Nor do they promise that the kinds of noncapitalist economic and social institutions they seek to create will deliver a perfectly equal distribution of income. However, in focusing on class exploitation, they both show how the unequal distribution of income in the world today is affected by and in turn affects the appropriation and distribution of surplus-value and argue that the distribution of income would likely change—in the direction of greater equality—if the conditions of existence of exploitation were dismantled.

In my view, lurking behind the scenes of the contemporary debate over economic inequality is a raging battle between radically different utopian visions of the distribution of income.

 

*The Ariely and Norton research focused on wealth, not income, inequality. I suspect much the same would hold true if Americans were asked about their views concerning the actual and desired degree of inequality in the distribution of income.

**It is important to note that, according to mainstream economics, any economic agent can engage in rent-seeking behavior. In come cases it may be labor, in other cases capital or even land.

***More recently, some mainstream economists (such as Piketty) have started to look outside the economy, at the political sphere. They’ve long held the view that, within a democracy, if voters are dissatisfied with the distribution of income, they will support political candidates and parties that enact a redistribution of income. But that hasn’t been the case in recent decades—not in the United States, the United Kingdom, or France—and the question is why. Here, the utopian horizon concerning the economy is the neoclassical one, or marginal productivity theory, but they imagine a separate democratic politics is able to correct any imbalances generated by the economy. As I see it, this is consistent with the neoclassical tradition, in that neoclassical economists have long taken the distribution of factor endowments as a given, exogenous to the economy and therefore subject to political decisions.

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One of the most important stories I read, but did not write about, while I was away was the launch of the World Inequality Report 2018.*

The authors of the report confirm what Branko Milanovic and others had previously discovered: that a representation of the unequal gains in world economic growth in recent decades looks like an elephant. Thus, the real incomes of the bottom 50 percent of the world’s population (except the poorest, at the very bottom) have increased, the incomes of those in the middle (especially the working-class in the United States and Western Europe) have decreased, and the global top 1 percent has captured an outsized portion of world economic growth since 1980.**

As I explained back in 2016, the “elephant curve” makes sense of some of the significant changes within global capitalism:

At one time (especially in the nineteenth century), [capitalist globalization] meant industrialization in the global north and deindustrialization in the mostly noncapitalist global south (which were, in turn, transformed into providers of raw materials, which became cheap commodity inputs into northern capitalist production). Later, especially after decolonization (following World War II), we saw the beginnings of capitalist development in the south (under the aegis of the state, with a set of policies we often refer to as import-substitution industrialization), which involved a reindustrialization of the south (producing consumer goods that were previously imported) and a change in the kinds of industry prevalent in the north (which both exported consumer goods to the rest of the world, which after the first Great Depression and world war were once again growing, and often provided inputs into the production of consumer goods elsewhere). Later (especially from the 1980s onward), with the accumulation of capital in India, China, Brazil, and elsewhere, noncapitalist economies were disrupted and millions of peasants and rural workers (and their children) were forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work in urban factories and offices. As a result, their monetary incomes rose (which is not to say their conditions of life necessarily improved), which is reflected in the growing elephant-body of the global distribution of income.

But that’s not the real elephant in the world. The big issue that everyone is aware of, but nobody wants to talk about, is the obscene degree of economic inequality in the United States.

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As it turns out, if the global distribution of income in the future followed the trajectory set by the United States, inequality would significantly increase. As is clear in the chart above, the share of income going to the top 1 percent would rise dramatically (from less than 21 percent today to close to 28 percent of global income by 2050) and that of the bottom 50 percent would fall off precipitously (from approximately 10 percent today to close to 6 percent).

The grotesque level of inequality in the United States—now and as it worsens looking forward, with stagnant wages and enormous tax cuts for large corporations and wealthy individuals—is the real elephant in the world.

 

*The World Inequality Report, created by the World Inequality Labis the latest in a series of major surveys of the world economy, which includes the World Bank’s World Development Report (beginning in 1978), the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook (beginning in 1980, first published annually, then biannually), and the United Nation’s Human Development Report (beginning in 1990). Each, of course, uses a different lens to make sense of what is going on in the world economy.

**The elephant curve combines two different scaling methods of the horizontal axis: one by population size (meaning that the distance between different points on the x-axis is proportional to the size of the population of the corresponding income group), the other by the share of growth captured by income group (such that the distance between different points on the x-axis is proportional to the share of growth captured by the corresponding income group), as in the charts below:

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The United States, as I have shown over the past week (e.g., here, here, and here), has an obscenely unequal distribution of wealth.

As illustrated in the chart above, the members of the bottom 90 percent own only 27.8 percent of total household wealth, while the bulk of the wealth is held by the top 10 percent: 43.9 percent by the top 10 to 1 percent, 18.2 percent by the top 1 to 0.1 percent, 9.4 percent by the top 0.1 to 0.01 percent, and finally 9.7 percent by the top 0.01 percent.

How do we put that grotesque level of inequality into perspective? One way is by taking a historical perspective; the other is by looking across the world today.

As it turns out, Nature (unfortunately behind a paywall) has just published a study in which the authors attempt to estimate the degree of wealth inequality in ancient societies for which we do not have written records.* What they did is collect data from 63 archaeological sites or groups of sites, used the distribution of house sizes as a proxy for wealth, and assigned Gini coefficients to each society.**

What they are able to show is that wealth disparities generally increased with the domestication of plants and animals and with increased sociopolitical scale. The basic idea is that wealth disparities cannot accumulate within lineages until mechanisms for the transmission of wealth across generations become common, as is much more likely within sedentary societies. Thus, less wealth is typically transmitted across generations in hunter-gatherer and horticultural societies than in agricultural or pastoral societies.

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As is clear from the chart above, there were huge differences in the responses of societies to these factors in the New World (North America and Mesoamerica) and the Old World (Euroasia) after the end of the Neolithic period. Much to the researchers’ surprise, inequality kept rising in the Old World while it hit a plateau in the New World. They argue that the generally higher wealth disparities identified in post-Neolithic Eurasia were initially due to the greater availability of large mammals that could be domesticated, because they allowed more productive agricultural extensification, and also eventually led to the development of a mounted warrior elite able to expand polities to sizes that were not possible in North America and Mesoamerica before the arrival of Europeans.

These processes increased inequality by operating on both ends of the wealth distribution, increasing the holdings of the rich while decreasing those of the poor.

The authors note that the highest modeled wealth Gini coefficients in their Old World sample (0.48 at around ad 1, 0.60 at around ∆6,000 in the chart above) are similar to contemporary values for the Slovak Republic (0.45) and Spain (0.58), although much lower than for China (0.73) or the United States in 2000 (0.80).

Thus, the authors conclude,

Even given the possibility that the Gini coefficients constructed here may underestimate true household wealth disparities, it is safe to say that the degree of wealth inequality experienced by many households today is considerably higher than has been the norm over the last ten millennia.

How right they are!

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According to the latest Credit Suisse Research Institute’s Global Wealth Report, the members of the global top 1 percent now own more than half (50.1 percent) of all household wealth in the world.

In terms of wealth bands, the United States has by far the greatest number of millionaires: 15.4 million, an increase of 1.1 million adults over 2016. For 2017, that amounts to 43 percent of the world total. (Japan holds second place, with only 7 percent of the world’s millionaires, a decline of 338 from 2016 to 2017.)

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Much the same degree of concentration also occurs at the top of the pyramid. According to the Credit Suisse calculations, 148,200 adults worldwide can be classed as ultra-high net worth individuals, with a net worth above US$50 million—an increase of 13 percent (19,600 adults) during the past year.

Once again, the United States dominates the regional rankings, with 75,000 ultra-high net worth residents (51 percent), with China occupying second place with 18,100 ultra-high net worth individuals (up 3,000 on the year).

The authors of the report are clear: since the crash of 2007-08, top wealth holders benefited in particular and, across all regions, wealth inequality has risen, as median wealth declined. And their projections for 2022 suggest “more pessimistic scenarios for the immediate years ahead.”

Yes, indeed, the arc of recent capitalist history appears to be following that of millenia of prehistory, which bends toward greater inequality.

 

*The archaeological contexts sampled from the Old World range from around 11,000 to about 2,000 years ago (plus one recent set of !Kung San encampments), and in the Americas, from around 3,000 to about 300 years ago.

**The Gini coefficient (named after the Italian statistician Corrado Gini) is a measure of statistical dispersion intended to represent the distribution of income or wealth among the members of a group (e.g., a nation). Inequality on the Gini scale is measured between 0, where everybody is equal, and 1, where all the income or wealth is captured by a single person. I have expressed my own reservations about comparing Gini coefficients across countries or regions here.