Posts Tagged ‘income’

Inequality

The latest IMF Fiscal Monitor, “Tackling Inequality,” is out and it represents a direct challenge to the United States.

It’s not just a rebuke to Donald Trump, who with his allies is pursuing under the guise of “tax reform” a set of policies that will lead to even greater inequality—or, for that matter, Republicans in state governments across the country that have sought to cut back on programs targeted at poor Americans. It also takes to task decades of growing inequality in the United States, under both Democratic and Republican administrations.

As is clear from the chart above, the distribution of both income and wealth in the United States has become increasingly unequal since the mid-1970s. The share of income captured by the top 1 percent has more than doubled (from 10 to 20 percent), while it’s share of total wealth has increased dramatically (from 23 percent to 39 percent). Meanwhile, the share of income of the bottom 50 percent has declined precipitously (from 20 percent to 12.5 percent) and it’s share of wealth, which was never very high (at 0.9 percent), is now nonexistent (at negative 0.1 percent).

And what is the United States doing about it? Absolutely nothing. Over the course of the past four decades it’s done very little to tackle the problem of growing inequality—and what it has done has been spectacularly ineffective. Thus, inequality has grown to obscene levels.

What’s interesting about the IMF report is that it raises—and then challenges—every important argument made by mainstream economists and members of the economic and political elite.

Should we worry just about income inequality? Well, no, since “changes in income inequality are reflected in other inequality dimensions, such as wealth inequality.”

redistribution

Doesn’t the United States take care of the problem by redistribution? Absolutely not, since only Israel does less than the United States in terms of lowering inequality (as measured by the Gini coefficient) through taxes and transfers.

But doesn’t tackling inequality through progressive income taxes lower economic growth? Again, no: “There is not strong empirical evidence showing that progressivity has been harmful for growth.”

taxes

Nor is there any justification for low tax rates on those at the top in terms of social preferences. Most Americans, according to a recent Gallup survey, most believe that the rich and corporations don’t pay their fair share of taxes. In fact, the IMF notes, perhaps thinking about the United States, “societal preferences may not be reflected in actual policy implementation because of the concentration of political power in certain affluent groups.”

Clearly, much more can be done to lower the degree of inequality in the United States.

As a sign of the times, the IMF even chooses to discuss the role a Universal Basic Income might play in decreasing inequality.

Proponents argue that a UBI can be used as a redistributive tool to help address poverty and inequality better than means-­tested programs, which su er from information constraints, high administrative costs, and other obsta­cles that limit benefit take-­up. A UBI could also help address increased income uncertainty resulting from the impact of technology (particularly automation) on jobs.

UBI

According to its calculations, a Universal Basic Income in the United States (calibrated at 25 percent of median per capita income, in addition to existing programs) would cost only 6.5 percent of national income and achieve a remarkable reduction in both inequality (by more than 5 Gini points) and poverty (by more than 10 percentage points).

What puts the United States in stark relief is the contrast between the whole panoply of inequality-reducing policies that are available—from more progressive income taxes and the adoption of wealth taxes to reducing gaps in education and health programs—and the fact that the United States is moving in the opposite direction.

The United States is simply not tackling the problem, with the inevitable result: current levels of economic inequality are—by any measure, and especially in comparison to what could be but isn’t being done—grotesque.

Income shares

The latest Federal Reserve Board’s triennial Survey of Consumer Finances (pdf) is out and the news is not good—at least for the majority of Americans. They’re falling further and further behind those at the top.

Sure, on the surface, the results for the latest period of recovery from the Second Great Depression appear to be positive. Between 2013 and 2016, real gross domestic product in the United States grew at an annual rate of 2.2 percent, the civilian unemployment rate fell from 7.5 percent to 5 percent, and the annual rate of inflation averaged only 0.8 percent.

However, data from the 2016 Survey also indicate that the shares of income and wealth held by affluent households have reached historically high levels—and, for the bottom 90 percent, they continue to fall.

For example, examining the chart at the top of this post, the share of income captured by the top 1 percent of families, which was 20.3 percent in 2013, rose to 23.8 percent in 2016. The top 1 percent of families now receives nearly as large a share of total income as the next highest 9 percent of families combined (percentiles 91 through 99), who received 26.5 percent of all income—a share that has remained fairly stable over the past quarter of a century. Correspondingly, the rising income share of the top 1 percent mirrors the declining income share of the bottom 90 percent of the distribution, which fell to less than half (49.7 percent) in 2016.

wealth shares

And the degree of inequality in the distribution of wealth is even worse. The share of the top 1 percent climbed from 36.3 percent in 2013 to 38.6 percent in 2016, surpassing the wealth share of the next highest 9 percent of families combined. After rising over the second half of the 1990s and most of the 2000s, the wealth share of the next highest 9 percent of families has actually been falling since 2010, reaching 38.5 percent in 2016. Similar to the situation with income, the wealth share of the bottom 90 percent of families has been decreasing for most of the past 25 years, dropping from 33.2 percent in 1989 to only 22.8 percent in 2016.

net worth

Another way of illustrating the grotesquely unequal distribution of wealth in the United States is in terms of median net worth (as in the table above). As it turns out, the median net worth of the top decile is more than four times the level of the next highest decile group and more than 230 times that of the bottom two deciles—in both cases, even larger than the gaps that existed in 2013.

No one in charge—whether in the government, at the head of large corporations and banks, or in the discipline of economics—has a single idea or policy to offer to fix these growing income and wealth disparities.

And the rest of us? Once again, we’re learning to appreciate the “Feelin’ Bad Blues.”

WP

Everyone’s seen the screaming headlines: the middle-class is back!

The statistic backing up those headlines is median household income (as reported by the Census Bureau), which in 2016 was $59,039.

median

After years of decline, following the crash of 2000-01 and then again in 2007-08, real median household income (in 2016 dollars) has finally surpassed its previous high—of $58,665 in 1999.

But that’s not the whole story.

First, consider the fact that it took real incomes more than a decade and a half to recover from the collapse. The “good news” is not much consolation for people who endured almost two decades of zero growth in what they took home: their incomes, pensions, and wealth are permanently damaged and likely won’t be repaired within their lifetimes.

Second, the Census Bureau data show that the bulk of the gains in real income in 2016 was explained by one factor: higher employment. In other words, hours worked rose but wages did not. The members of American median households are working harder at more jobs to finally get an increase in incomes.

mean-median

Finally, consider what is measured in those headline numbers. The median, as folks might remember from a statistics course (or just a teacher’s explanation of how they grade), is the “middle” value: half above, and half below. But we can also calculate the mean (or “average” value) and compare the two. As is clear from the chart, while both the median and mean values (the green and red lines in the chart, measured on the left, respectively) have reached all-time highs, the gap between them—the “skew” in the distribution—has also grown over time. In fact, the ratio of the mean and median incomes (the blue line, measured on the right) has increased—from 1.23 in 1980 to 1.41 in 2016.

This is a clear indication that, while median household incomes in the United States have finally recovered from the crises of recent years, the middle-class itself is falling further and further behind those at the top.

Wouldn’t it be useful if those income statistics were reported in the headlines!

R-top1

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.

R-top1-1980

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.

R-shares

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.

comparison

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.

billionaires

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.

decade

Narayana Kocherlakota, professor of economics at the University of Rochester and past president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, is right: in some ways, the 2007-08 was worse than the Great Depression.

It certainly has been worse for average households in the United States. Real median household income (the red line in the chart above) is still below what it was in 2007—and lower still from what it was even earlier, in 1999.

But it hasn’t been a lost decade for the members of the top 1 percent. Their share of income (the blue line in the chart above), which was already an obscene 19 percent in 2007, is today even higher, at 19.6 percent.*

Still, Kocherlakota’s warning is appropriate:

financial crises and the responses to them can have highly persistent adverse effects on economic potential. The risk of such large costs means that policy makers must have better safeguards in place, and be willing to respond vigorously through monetary and fiscal stimulus when crises nonetheless happen.

So what’s happening along these lines? The Trump administration’s nominee to be vice chair of supervision and regulation at the Federal Reserve wants to make the big banks’ stress tests less stringent — and that’ll make a financial crisis more, not less, likely. . .

In short, I see little evidence that policymakers have learned the lessons of the last decade. I hope that situation will change before another crisis occurs.

 

*Both of the data series represented in the chart above end in 2014. That’s because the series on the share of income captured by the top 1 percent ends in that year. Median household income in 2015, the last year for which those data are available, was still below what it was in 2007.

We don’t have comparable data series for the first Great Depression.

GD

What we do know is that the share of income of the bottom 90 percent, which was 52.4 percent in 1928, hovered at roughly the same level throughout the 1930s, ending the decade at 52.5 percent, and then rose dramatically beginning in 1940. Meanwhile, the share of income captured by the top 1 percent, which stood at 21.2 percent in 1928, never managed to rise to that level during the 1930s and, by 1948, it had fallen to 15.6 percent.

46panamapapers

Most of us pay the taxes we’re required to pay. That’s because there aren’t many ways to avoid them. Sales, property, payroll, or income—the tax is paid at the time of the purchase, the amount is deducted from our paychecks, or the records go directly to the government. There’s no real way around them. And we pay those taxes out of wages and salaries more or less willingly, since that’s how government services are financed.

Not so for those who are able to capture the surplus. Large corporations and wealthy individuals pay far less than their fair share of taxes. Their ability to evade taxes is only matched by their insistent demand that their tax rates be lowered even more.

We’ve known for a long time that large corporations use a variety of mechanisms—from claiming tax deductions and using loopholes to stashing profits in tax havens abroad—to lower their effective tax burden.

corp-taxes

source

Thus, for example, according to Oxfam America (pdf), between 2008 to 2014, the top 50 companies in the United States paid an effective tax rate (to the federal government as well as to states, localities, and foreign governments) of just 26.5 percent overall, 8.5 percent points lower than the statutory rate of 35 percent and just under the average of 27.7 percent paid by other developed countries. And then they use their tax savings to lobby for even more tax advantages.

federal1

One of the results of corporate tax evasion is, I’ve argued before, the tax burden has been shifted from corporations to individuals.

tax evasion

But not to wealthy individuals. As new research by Annette Alstadsaeter, Niels Johannsen, and Gabriel Zucman has shown (pdf), the top 0.01 percent of the wealth distribution—a group that includes households with more than $40 million in net wealth—evades about 30 percent of its personal income and wealth taxes. This is an order of magnitude more than the average evasion rate of about 3 percent.

The main reason those at the very top of the wealth distribution are able to evade a large portion of their tax burden is because they’ve managed to use their cut of the surplus to accumulate personal wealth—and then to hide that wealth offshore.

Ownership of wealth is, of course, extremely concentrated. Offshore wealth even more so. According to Alstadsaeter et al., the top 0.01 percent of the distribution owns about 50 percent of offshore wealth, which means the top 0.01 percent manage to hide about one quarter of their true wealth.

We now have an economy in which more and more surplus is captured by a small number of large corporations and wealth individuals, who in turn manage to evade a larger and larger portion of their fair share of taxes by hiding the surplus.

Oxfam’s view is that

Rather than engaging in a mutually destructive race to the bottom, the US should stake out a leadership role in addressing structural problems in the global tax system. The US should push for a truly inclusive process where all governments are able to build mutually beneficial tax rules that improve information sharing, transparency and accountability globally.

Until that happens, the rest of us—who are not members of the boards of directors of large corporations or wealthy individuals—will continue to be forced to shoulder the burden of paying taxes to finance government services. And the distribution of income and wealth will become, year by year, increasingly unequal.

Greg Kahn

I am quite willing to admit that, based on last Friday’s job report, the Second Great Depression is now over.

As regular readers know, I have been using the analogy to the Great Depression of the 1930s to characterize the situation in the United States since late 2007. Then as now, it was not a recession but, instead, a depression.

As I explain to my students in A Tale of Two Depressions, the National Bureau of Economic Research doesn’t have any official criteria for distinguishing an economic depression from a recession. What I offer them as an alternative are two criteria: (a) being down (as against going down) and (b) the normal rules are suspended (as, e.g., in the case of the “zero lower bound” and the election of Donald Trump).

By those criteria, the United States experienced a second Great Depression starting in December 2007 and continuing through April 2017. That’s almost a decade of being down and suspending the normal rules!

Now, with the official unemployment rate having fallen to 4.4 percent, equal to the low it had reached in May 2007, we can safely say the Second Great Depression has come to an end.

However, that doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods, or that we can forget about the effects of the most recent depression on American workers.*

GDP.jpg

For example, while Gross Domestic Product per capita in the United States is higher now than it was at the end of 2007 ($51,860 versus $49,586, in chained 2009 dollars, or 4.6 percent), it is still much lower than it would have been had the previous trend continued (which can be seen in the chart above, where I extend the 2000-2007 trend line forward to 2017). All that lost output—not to mention the accompanying jobs, homes, communities, and so on—represents one of the lingering effects of the Second Great Depression.

HS  college

And we can’t forget that young workers face elevated rates of underemployment—11.9 percent for young college graduates and much higher, 30.9 percent, for young high-school graduates. As the Economic Policy Institute observes,

This suggests that young graduates face less desirable employment options than they used to in response to the recent labor market weakness for young workers.

income  wealth

Finally, the previous trend of growing inequality—in terms of both income and wealth—has continued during the Second Great Depression. And there are no indications from the economy or economic policy that suggest that trend will be reversed anytime soon.

So, here we are at the end of the Second Great Depression—no longer down and with the normal rules back in place—and yet the effects from the longest and most severe downturn since the 1930s will be felt for generations to come.

 

*As if often the case, readers’ comments on newspaper articles tell a different story from the articles themselves. Here are two, on the New York Times article about the latest employment data:

John Schmidt—

Any discussion about “full employment”, when there are so many people who’ve essentially given up looking for work or who’re working in low-skill or unskilled labor positions, seems like the fiscal equivalent of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. Based on data from the Fed and the World Bank, GDP per capita has doubled since 1993, while median household income has risen ~10%. Most of the newly-generated wealth and gains from productivity increases are being funneled upward, such that the average worker very rarely sees any sort of pay increase. Are we expected to believe that this will change now that we’ve [arguably] passed some arbitrary threshold? Why should we pat ourselves on the back for reaching “full employment”? Shouldn’t we be seeking *fulfilling* employment for everyone, instead, at least inasmuch as that’s possible? Shouldn’t we care that the relentless drive for profit at the expense of everything else is creating a toxic environment where the only way to ensure a raise is to hop from job to job, eroding any sense of two-way loyalty between companies and their employees?

I’m not sure what the solution is, but I know enough to see there’s a problem. Inequality of this sort is not sustainable, and it’s not going to magically disappear without some serious policy changes.

David Dennis—

There is a critical parameter missing from full employment data. very critical. Here in Pontiac, Michigan before the collapse of American manufacturing, full employment meant 10, 000 jobs working at GM factories and Pontiac Motors making above the mean wages with excellent health insurance as well as retirement pensions. You can not compare full employment at McDonalds and Walmart with the jobs that preceded them. The full employment measure doesn’t mean much if it isn’t correlated with a index that compares that employment with a standard of living as it relates to a set basket of goods, services, and benefits.