Posts Tagged ‘income’

loss-income

In the midst of the novel coronavirus pandemic, every story, every piece of information, reveals the degree to which our current economic and social institutions have failed us.

The data show us both how widespread the effects of the COVID crisis are and how uneven those effects are. At each turn, they represent a profound critique of U.S. capitalism.

Consider, for example, the information contained in the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Surveys, which were initiated in late April of this year.

Based on the latest survey, which was conducted between 18 and 23 June 2020, we can see in the chart at the top of the post that almost half (48.1 percent) of U.S. households experienced a loss of employment income since mid-March. The members of those households had either lost their jobs, saw their working hours shortened, or had their pay cut.

But the loss didn’t affect all households equally. For the seventy percent of U.S. households earning less than $100 thousand a year, more than 52 percent had suffered a loss of income. In contrast, about 38 percent of Americans earning more than that experienced a loss of income. And, of course, their large employers have received massive bailouts from the federal government.

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A similarly unequal story emerges from the breakdown of the data according to race and ethnicity in the chart above. While 43.5 percent of White households experienced a loss of income since 13 March of this year, both Black and Hispanic households suffered much more—54.2 percent and 60 percent, respectively.

Both pieces of information challenge the idea that “we’re all in this together.” We never have been, and we certainly aren’t as the consequences of the COVID crisis force Americans to confront how they’ve been abandoned to their own unequal fates by the economic and political elites of their country.

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It must be confessed that though the plague was chiefly among the poor, yet were the poor the most venturous and fearless of it, and went about their employment with a sort of brutal courage; I must call it so, for it was founded neither on religion nor prudence; scarce did they use any caution, but ran into any business which they could get employment in, though it was the most hazardous. Such was that of tending the sick, watching houses shut up, carrying infected persons to the pest-house, and, which was still worse, carrying the dead away to their graves.

— Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year

I’m almost sick of hearing the refrain, “We’re all in this together.”

I say almost, because I do think there’s a utopian moment in that phrase in the midst of the current pandemic. It speaks of solidarity, of being in common, of paying attention to and honoring healthcare workers and others who are currently laboring in “essential” activities while the rest of us are instructed to stay at home. In that sense, it betokens—or at least aspires to—a thinking about and caring for others.

Otherwise, and this is why I’m getting tired of it, the expression serves to deflect our attention from and to paper over the obscene inequalities that afflict American society. I’m referring not only to the pre-existing unequal condition in the United States—the sharp fissures and enormous chasms that have been highlighted by the pandemic—but also to the ways the gap between the haves and have-nots has played an important role in actually causing the spread of the dreaded disease, as well as to the possibility those inequalities will only get worse as a result of the pandemic and the way the response to it has been devised and implemented in the United States.

It has now become almost commonplace, at least within the liberal mainstream media, to note that the unfolding of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing economic crisis have focused a spotlight on the grotesque inequalities that preceded their onset. With every day that has gone by, it has become clearer that the spread of the virus has been profoundly lopsided and uneven—from access to testing and decent, affordable healthcare and who’s been able to shelter in place to the presence of underlying “comorbidities,” all of which have made the virus both more prevalent and more lethal among working-class Americans, including African Americans, who have been left behind.

The pandemic has also brought with it an economic crisis—and that too has reflected existing inequalities. On one hand, tens of millions of low-wage workers have been especially vulnerable to layoffs, with restaurant and retail workers especially at risk, increasingly obliged to acquire sustenance for themselves and their families in the country’s understocked food pantries. On the other hand, millions of other workers—who drive buses, care for hospital patients and the elderly, pack and transport commodities, take their places on the assembly-line in slaughterhouses—have been forced to have the freedom to continue to commute to and labor at their jobs in perilous conditions, increasing the risk of contagion to themselves, their families, and the communities in which they live.

Meanwhile, the former or current employers of those same workers have been lining up to receive loans from private banks and through the various government bailouts, with few of any restrictions (e.g., on stock buybacks and dividends payments to shareholders) and high-profile chief executives of corporations have announced voluntary salary cuts, which turn out to be nothing more than publicity stunts.

Not only do the consequences of the pandemic appear to reflect existing inequalities. It also seems to be the case that those same inequalities are acting as multipliers on the coronavirus’s spread and deadliness. It is no coincidence that the United States, with the most unequal distribution of income and wealth among rich countries, also has the highest number of confirmed cases of and deaths from the coronavirus. One reason is that, as inequality has increased, health disparities themselves have widened—and lower-income Americans are much likelier than those at the top to have one or more chronic health conditions, thus exposing them to more risk from the coronavirus. Moreover, those same people are the ones who have been continuing to work in their “essential” in-person jobs, which require more contact both with other workers and customers. In other words, workers, who have more health problems and less health care, are at greater risk of transmission.

The pandemic under extreme inequality thus involves a devastating feedback loop, for workers and society as a whole. The people who can least afford it, given their health and working conditions, are forced into the position of being more exposed to contagion and becoming agents of transmitting the disease to others—in their workplaces and households and in the wider community.

And there’s another feedback loop, or cycle of injustice—from existing inequalities through the uneven effects of the pandemic to even more inequality in the future. As Charlie Cooper has argued,

With social distancing here to stay for the foreseeable future, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the next stage of the pandemic is going to change many lives for the worse.

Specifically, it’s going to exacerbate existing inequalities, as the privileged buffer themselves against its pernicious effects while the world’s most vulnerable struggle not to fall through the rapidly widening economic fissures.

For one thing, even after recovery from the immediate affliction, the coronavirus infection may cause lasting damage throughout the body, thereby worsening both the health and economic activity of some (still unknown) portion of an entire generation.

On top of that, the effects of the economic crisis, with tens of millions of workers furloughed or laid off while banks and corporations are bailed out and the stock market is on the rebound, may be even worse than those of the Second Great Depression. Let’s remember that, aside from a brief hiatus (in 2009), the trend of growing inequality that preceded the crash of 2007-08 was quickly restored during and after the so-called recovery.

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For example, in 2007, the top 1 percent of Americans captured 19.9 percent of pretax national income (the blue line in the chart on the left), while the bottom 50 percent had only 13.7 percent (the red line). By 2014 (the last year for which data are available), the percentages were 20.2 and 12.6, respectively. The story of wealth inequality is even more dramatic: while the share of wealth owned by the top 1 percent (the red line in the chart on the right) grew from 34.1 percent in 2007 to 36.6 percent in 2016, the tiny share owned by the bottom 50 percent (the blue line) barely changed, rising from 0.3 percent to 0.4 percent.

Since we’re only at the beginning of the current crisis, we still don’t know what the final results will be. Even a quick, V-shaped economic recovery (about which I have my doubts) would still be accompanied, according to current modeling, with millions of cases of coronavirus and 100 thousand or more deaths, spread unevenly within the U.S. population (especially now that the Trump administration is set to dismantle its coronavirus task force). While the effects of a longer and more severe downturn—a third economic depression, perhaps—will likely be characterized, especially since there have been no major policy changes compared a decade ago, by the same kind of unequalizing dynamic.

All signs, then, point to the fact that existing inequalities will give rise, on their own and through the consequences of the pandemic, to even more obscene levels of inequality in the future—unless, of course, there is a profound change in the way the American economy and healthcare system are currently organized.

Undoing those inequalities is the only way of ensuring that, in reality, “we’re all in this together.”

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No, the stock market is not predictable. And no one knows the exact causes of last week’s carnage on Wall Street—with the Dow down 4.2 percent, the S&P 4.1 percent and the Nasdaq 3.7 percent, representing their worst weekly performances since March.

But the precipitous fall in all major indices, which many analysts blamed at least in part on the earnings blackout period, did serve to highlight one of the factors that has been driving the bull market: corporations purchasing their own stock.

As Matt Phillips explained,

When companies have more cash than they believe they can use productively, they typically return it to shareholders either with cash payments—known as dividends—or by repurchasing shares in the market. Buybacks raise demand, putting upward pressure on share prices.

Such repurchases have boomed this year as the strong economy—and steep cuts in corporate tax rates—have left American companies flush with profits. Companies including Apple, Cisco Systems and Amgen have returned billions in cash to shareholders by buying back shares. Apple is responsible for the largest sum, spending nearly $64 billion on buybacks in the 12 months ending in June 2018, the last period for which full data is available, according to data from S&P Dow Jones Indices.

Generally, around earnings reporting season, corporations avoid repurchasing their own stocks, to avoid the appearance of insider trading. And, without those corporate buybacks, it seems the stock market has fallen off a cliff various times already this year.

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But the overall trend is for U.S. corporations to spend (or to leverage, via debt) a large portion of their profits on buying their own stocks—with plans to spend $770 billion on share buybacks in 2018, and even more next year.*

And when they cut back on those purchases, as they seem to have done last week, a large part of the demand for stocks collapses.

The fact is, corporations have three major ways of goosing their golden goose, which they and a small group of wealthy households in the United States benefit from.

First, employers endeavor to keep workers’ wages low, even as productivity increases, thereby boosting their pretax profits (of which they then distribute a portion in the form of salaries to their CEOs and dividends to stockowners).

Second, corporations lobby for tax breaks on their profits, an effort that once Donald Trump was elected delivered a slashing of the tax rate, from 35 percent to 21 percent.

Third, businesses use a portion of those higher post-tax profits to purchase their own stocks, which tends to boost the price of shares, producing additional wealth for shareholders who hang onto their stock. It also improves per-share performance on key metrics like earnings, which in turn attracts more stock purchases from other institutional and noninstitutional investors with their own growing share of the surplus.**

The result, of course, is an increase in the already-obscene degree of income and wealth inequality in the United States.

stocks

According to my calculations (illustrated in the chart above), the top 1 percent in the United States owns (as of 2014, the last year for which data are available) 62 percent of equities, which has been climbing since the late 1970s. Meanwhile, the share of the entire bottom 90 percent has been falling, and is now only 11 percent.

So, it’s really only the small group at the top that is in a position to receive a cut of corporate profits in the form of dividends and to increase their wealth as corporate buybacks boost the prices of the stocks they keep in their portfolios.

Everyone else is forced to have the freedom to try to get by on their stagnant wages—and to watch with both fascination and horror the ongoing spectacle in the Trump White House.

 

*For most of the twentieth century, stock buybacks were deemed illegal because they were thought to be a form of stock market manipulation. But since 1982, when they were essentially legalized by the Securities and Exchange Commission, buybacks have become perhaps the most popular financial engineering tool in the American corporate tool shed.

*According to the S&P Dow Jones Indices, the top 100 stocks with the highest buyback ratios in the S&P 500 have regularly outperformed the overall S&P 500 index (as seen in the chart below).

buybacks

global wealth

The premise and promise of capitalism, going back to Adam Smith, have been that global wealth would increase and serve as a benefit to all of humanity.* But the experience of recent decades has challenged those claims: while global wealth has indeed grown, most of the increase has been captured by a small group at the top. The result is that an obscenely unequal distribution of the world’s wealth has become even more unequal—and, if business as usual continues, it will turn out to be even more grotesquely unequal in the decades ahead.

The alarm was most recently sounded by Michael Savage, in the Guardian, who cited a projection produced by the House of Commons library to the effect that, if trends seen since the 2008 financial crash were to continue, then the top 1% will hold 64% of the world’s wealth by 2030.”

Byrne

I finally managed to track down that report, which was commissioned by MP Liam Byrne, who is the chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Inclusive Growth. It relies on data compiled by Credit Suisse and a projection assuming that total wealth grows at the same rates as during the period 2008-17.

The problem, of course, is global wealth is notoriously difficult to calculate—for both empirical and theoretical reasons—and Credit Suisse doesn’t reveal its methodology.

That’s why the work of the World Inequality Lab is so important.** They’re doing the painstaking work of calculating the wealth that has been generated by global capitalism and how its ownership is distributed.

Thus far, they have reasonably good data for a selection of nations: China, Europe (represented by three countries, France, Spain, and the United Kingdom), and the United States. Those are the numbers illustrated in the chart at the top of this post (with the vertical green line, at 2015, separating past trends from future projections). What they find is that

At the global level represented by China, Europe, and the United States), wealth is substantially more concentrated than income: the top 10% owns more than 70% of the total wealth. The top 1% wealthiest individuals alone own 33% of total wealth in 2017. This figure is up from 28% in 1980. The bottom of the population, on the other hand, owns almost no wealth over the entire period (less than 2%).

The share owned by the top 1 percent is less than reported by Byrne but it’s still an astounding one-third of global wealth. (The share for the top 1 percent in the United States is even higher: an astounding 41.8 percent in 2012.)

But the projection looking forward is similarly dramatic: according to the World Inequality Lab, if present trends continue the share of each of the top groups—the top 1 percent, the top 0.1 percent, and the top 0.01 percent—would grow by one percentage point every five years. What that means is that, by 2050, the share of each group would increase dramatically. In particular, the share owned by the top 0.1 percent would eventually match that of the declining middle group—at a quarter of global wealth.

What we’ve been seeing in recent decades is that an unequal distribution of wealth leads to even more inequality, since wealth inequality is amplified as wealth is concentrated in the hands of a small group at the top. First, past wealth is capitalized at a faster pace, since the rate of return on wealth is faster than the rate of growth of the economy. Moreover, this effect is reinforced by the fact that rates of return tend to increase with the level of wealth: the rates of return available to large financial portfolios are usually much higher than those open to small bank deposits and the other savings vehicles available to everyone else.

None of this is new. Those in the small group at the top have long been able to put distance between themselves and everyone else precisely because they’ve been able to capture the surplus and then convert their share of the surplus into ownership of wealth. And the returns on their wealth allow them to capture even more of the surplus produced within global capitalism.

In short, unless radical economic changes are made within nations, the unequal distribution of global wealth created by contemporary capitalism is both the premise and promise of an even more unequal distribution of wealth in the decades to come.

 

*To be clear, the “wealth of nations” that Smith referred to was current production or, as it is currently measured, Gross Domestic Product—the “immense accumulation of commodities” produced and exchanged in a country’s economy over a particular period of time. Mainstream economists (such as Robert Barro) often claim that inequality in global capitalism is decreasing, because of “convergence,” that is, growth rates in developing countries of the Global South are faster than in the developed North and the gap in GDP per capita is closing. Today, wealth refers to the ownership of assets, both financial (stocks, bonds, etc.) and nonfinancial (especially housing)—as against income (flows of value associated with either doing or owning) or sums of transactions (which is what is captured in GDP).

**The other major sources of information on global wealth are Forbes (which publishes global rankings on the world’s billionaires) and the French business consulting company Capgemini (which issues an annual World Wealth Report focused on the wealth of global High Net Worth Individuals).

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The economic crises that came to a head in 2008 and the massive response—by the U.S. government and corporations themselves—reshaped the world we live in.* Although sectors of the U.S. economy are still in one of their longest expansions, most people recognize that the recovery has been profoundly uneven and the economic gains have not been fairly distributed.

The question is, what has changed—and, equally significant, what hasn’t—during the past decade?

DJCA

Let’s start with U.S. stock markets, which over the course of less than 18 months, from October 2007 to March 2009, dropped by more than half. And since then? As is clear from the chart above, stocks (as measured by the Dow Jones Composite Average) have rebounded spectacularly, quadrupling in value (until the most recent sell-off). One of the reasons behind the extraordinary bull market has been monetary policy, which through normal means and extraordinary measures has transferred debt and put a great deal of inexpensive money in the hands of banks, corporations, and wealth investors.

profits

The other major reason is that corporate profits have recovered, also in spectacular fashion. As illustrated in the chart above, corporate profits (before tax, without adjustments) have climbed almost 250 percent from their low in the third quarter of 2008. Profits are, of course, a signal to investors that their stocks will likely rise in value. Moreover, increased profits allow corporations themselves to buy back a portion of their stocks. Finally, wealthy individuals, who have managed to capture a large share of the growing surplus appropriated by corporations, have had a growing mountain of cash to speculate on stocks.

Clearly, the United States has experienced a profit-led recovery during the past decade, which is both a cause and a consequence of the stock-market bubble.

banks

The crash and the Second Great Depression, characterized by the much-publicized failures of large financial institutions such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers, raised a number of concerns about the rise in U.S. bank asset concentration that started in the 1990s. Today, as can be seen in the chart above, those concentration ratios (the 3-bank ratio in purple, the 5-bank ratio in green) are even higher. The top three are JPMorgan Chase (which acquired Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual), Bank of America (which purchased Merrill Lynch), and Wells Fargo (which took over Wachovia, North Coast Surety Insurance Services, and Merlin Securities), followed by Citigroup (which has managed to survive both a partial nationalization and a series of failed stress tests), and Goldman Sachs (which managed to borrow heavily, on the order of $782 billion in 2008 and 2009, from the Federal Reserve). At the end of 2015 (the last year for which data are available), the 5 largest “Too Big to Fail” banks held nearly half (46.5 percent) of the total of U.S. bank assets.

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Moreover, in the Trump administration as in the previous two, the revolving door between Wall Street and the entities in the federal government that are supposed to regulate Wall Street continues to spin. And spin. And spin.

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As for everyone else, they’ve barely seen a recovery. Real median household income in 2016 was only 1.5 percent higher than it was before the crash, in 2007.

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That’s because, even though the underemployment rate (the annual average rate of unemployed workers, marginally attached workers, and workers employed part-time for economic reasons as a percentage of the civilian labor force plus marginally attached workers, the blue line in the chart) has fallen in the past ten years, it is still very high—9.6 percent in 2016. In addition, the share of low-wage jobs (the percentage of jobs in occupations with median annual pay below the poverty threshold for a family of four, the orange line) remains stubbornly elevated (at 23.3 percent) and the wage share of national income (the green line) is still less than what it was in 2009 (at 43 percent)—and far below its postwar high (of 50.9 percent, in 1969).

Clearly, the recovery that corporations, Wall Street, and owners of stocks have engineered and enjoyed during the past 10 years has largely bypassed American workers.

income

One of the consequences of the lopsided recovery is that the distribution of income—already obscenely unequal prior to the crash—has continued to worsen. By 2014 (the last year for which data are available), the share of pretax national income going to the top 1 percent had risen to 20.2 percent (from 19.9 percent in 2007), while that of the bottom 90 percent had fallen to 53 percent (from 54.2 percent in 2007). In other words, the rising income share of the top 1 percent mirrors the declining share of the bottom 90 percent of the distribution.

wealth

The distribution of wealth in the United States is even more unequal. The top 1 percent held 38.6 percent of total household wealth in 2016, up from 33.7 percent in 2007, that of the next 9 percent more or less stable at 38.5 percent, while that of the bottom 90 percent had shrunk even further, from 28.6 percent to 22.8 percent.

So, back to my original question: what has—and has not—changed over the course of the past decade?

One area of the economy has clearly rebounded. Through their own efforts and with considerable help from the government, the stock market, corporate profits, Wall Street, and the income and wealth of the top 1 percent have all recovered from the crash. It’s certainly been their kind of recovery.

And they’ve recovered in large part because everyone else has been left behind. The vast majority of people, the American working-class, those who produce but don’t appropriate the surplus: they’ve been forced, within desperate and distressed circumstances, to shoulder the burden of a recovery they’ve had no say in directing and from which they’ve been mostly excluded.

The problem is, that makes the current recovery no different from the run-up to the crash itself—grotesque levels of inequality that fueled the bloated profits on both Main Street and Wall Street and a series of speculative asset bubbles. And the current recovery, far from correcting those tendencies, has made them even more obscene.

Thus, ten years on, U.S. capitalism has created the conditions for renewed instability and another, dramatic crash.

 

*In a post last year, I called into question any attempt to precisely date the beginning of the crises.

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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.

Oxfam

According to Oxfam’s analysis of data produced by Credit Suisse (which I analyzed in a different manner late last year), 42 billionaires now own the same wealth as the bottom half—3.7 billion people—of the world’s population.

Together, those 3.7 billion people own only one half of one percent (0.53 percent) of the world’s wealth, a figure that rises to just about one percent (0.96 percent) when net debt is excluded.

In 2017, 42 billionaires on the Forbes billionaires list had a cumulative net worth of $1,498 billion—more than the wealth of the bottom 50 percent. When debt is excluded, that figure rises to 128 billionaires, who had a net worth of $2,694 billion.

Over the last decade, ordinary workers have seen their incomes rise by an average of just 2 percent a year, while billionaire wealth has been rising by 13 percent a year—nearly six times faster.

Without a fundamental change in economic institutions, the arc of capitalist history will continue to bend toward greater inequality.

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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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Yesterday, I discussed the mean-spiritedness of the Republican tax cuts—which are being sold as a gift to the middle-class but, in reality, represent a massive transfer to a small group of large corporations and wealthy individuals.

But, of course, the real violence associated with the tax-cut gift occurs before federal taxes are even levied, in the pre-tax distribution of income.

As is clear from the chart above, since the mid-1970s, the share of income captured by the top 1 percent (the red line, measured on the right-hand side) has almost doubled, rising from 10.6 percent to over 20 percent. Meanwhile, the share of income going to the middle 40 percent (the blue line, on the left) has eroded, falling from 45.2 percent to 40.4 percent.

But that’s not enough for those at the top. They want even more—and their growing share of the surplus has given them more power to elect the candidates and write the rules to obtain even more income, both before and after taxes.

Meanwhile, many in the languishing middle-class, having given up hope for any improvement in their pre-tax income share, threw in their lot with the Republicans and their promise of tax relief.

They now know that that’s a dead end, too.

The American middle-class continues to lose out, both when they exchange their ability to work for an income in markets and afterwards, when they pay their taxes to the government.

Meanwhile, the tiny group at the top has been able to rig both mechanisms, exchange and taxes, to capture and keep more of the surplus.

Something clearly has to give.

income  wealth

Inequality in the United States is now so obscene that it’s impossible, even for mainstream economists, to avoid the issue of surplus.

Consider the two charts at the top of the post. On the left, income inequality is illustrated by the shares of pre-tax national income going to the top 1 percent (the blue line) and the bottom 90 percent (the red line). Between 1976 and 2014 (the last year for which data are available), the share of income at the top soared, from 10.4 percent to 20.2 percent, while for most everyone else the share has dropped precipitously, from 53.6 percent to 39.7 percent.

The distribution of wealth in the United States is even more unequal, as illustrated in the chart on the right. From 1976 to 2014, the share of wealth owned by the top 1 percent (the purple line) rose dramatically, from 22.9 percent to 38.6 percent, while that of the bottom 90 percent (the green line) tumbled from 34.2 percent to only 27 percent.

The obvious explanation, at least for some of us, is surplus-value. More surplus has been squeezed out of workers, which has been appropriated by their employers and then distributed to those at the top. They, in turn, have managed to use their ability to capture a share of the growing surplus to purchase more wealth, which has generated returns that lead to even more income and wealth—while the shares of income and wealth of those at the bottom have continued to decline.

But the idea of surplus-value is anathema to mainstream economists. They literally can’t see it, because they assume (at least within free markets) workers are paid according to their productivity. Mainstream economic theory excludes any distinction between labor and labor power. Therefore, in their view, the only thing that matters is the price of labor and, in their models, workers are paid their full value. Mainstream economists assume we live in the land of freedom, equality, and just deserts. Thus, everyone gets what they deserve.

Even if mainstream economists can’t see surplus-value, they’re still haunted by the idea of surplus. Their cherished models of perfect competition simply can’t generate the grotesque levels of inequality in the distribution of income and wealth we are seeing in the United States.

That’s why in recent years some of them have turned to the idea of rent-seeking behavior, which is associated with exceptions to perfect competition. They may not be able to conceptualize surplus-value but they can see—at least some of them—the existence of surplus wealth.

The latest is Mordecai Kurz, who has shown that modern information technology—the “source of most improvements in our living standards”—has also been the “cause of rising income and wealth inequality” since the 1970s.

For Kurz, it’s all about monopoly power. High-tech firms, characterized by highly concentrated ownership, have managed to use technical innovations and debt to erect barriers to entry and, once created, to restrain competition.

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Thus, in his view, a small group of U.S. corporations have accumulated “surplus wealth”—defined as the difference between wealth created (measured as the market value of the firm’s ownership securities) and their capital (measured as the market value of assets employed by the firm in production)—totaling $24 trillion in 2015.

Here’s Kurz’s explanation:

One part of the answer is that rising monopoly power increased corporate profits and sharply boosted stock prices, which produced gains that were enjoyed by a small population of stockholders and corporate management. . .

Since the 1980s, IT innovations have largely been software-based, giving young innovators an advantage. Additionally, “proof of concept” studies are typically inexpensive for software innovations (except in pharmaceuticals); with modest capital, IT innovators can test ideas without surrendering a major share of their stock. As a result, successful IT innovations have concentrated wealth in fewer – and often younger – hands.

In the end, Kurz wants to tell a story about wealth accumulation based on the rapid rise of individual wealth enabled by information-based innovations (together with the rapid decline of wealth created in older industries such as railroads, automobiles, and steel), which differs from Thomas Piketty’s view of wealth accumulation as taking place through a lengthy intergenerational process where the rate of return on family assets exceeds the growth rate of the economy.

The problem is, neither Kurz nor Piketty can tell a convincing story about where that surplus comes from in the first place, before it is captured by monopoly firms and transformed into the wealth of families.

Kurz, Piketty, and an increasing number of mainstream economists are concerned about obscene and still-growing levels of inequality, and thus remained haunted by the idea of a surplus. But they can’t see—or choose not to see—the surplus-value that is created in the process of extracting labor from labor power.

In other words, mainstream economists don’t see the surplus that arises, in language uniquely appropriate for Halloween, from capitalists’ “vampire thirst for the living blood of labour.”