Posts Tagged ‘income’

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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.”

SAfr

The world joined most South Africans in cheering when Nelson Mandela was finally released from prison, the apartheid regime was largely dismantled, and multiracial elections were eventually held.

Then, of course, the really hard work of restorative justice began, under the aegis of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. To avoid victor’s justice, no side was exempt from appearing before the commission, which heard reports of human rights violations and considered amnesty applications from all sides. In the end, the commission granted only 849 amnesties out of the 7,112 applications.

The problem is, while the commission exposed human rights abuses, it never took up the issue of economic abuses. And, as is clear from the chart above, the high levels of inequality that characterized South African capitalism under apartheid have only gotten worse.

The share of income captured by the top 1 percent (the blue line in the chart) rose from 10.3 percent in 1993 to 19.2 percent in 2012, while the share captured by the top 10 percent (the red line) was 65 percent.*

It should come as no surprise that the distribution of wealth is even more unequal than the distribution of income. Anna Orthofer (pdf) has surveyed the available data and calculated that the top 1 percent own at least half of all wealth in the country and the 10 percent something like 90 to 95 percent.

That’s why Peter Goodman correctly observes that

In the history of civil rights, South Africa lays claim to a momentous achievement — the demolition of apartheid and the construction of a democracy. But for black South Africans, who account for three-fourths of this nation of roughly 55 million people, political liberation has yet to translate into broad material gains.

Apartheid has essentially persisted in economic form.

Thus far, the existing economic system has been granted a full amnesty.

The day awaits for a new Truth and Reconciliation Commission to be formed, to carry out the project of finding restorative justice with respect to the abuses of the economic system—both during and now after apartheid.

 

*For purposes of comparison, the top 1-percent share in the United States in 2012 was 20.3 percent and that of the top 10 percent was 47.6 percent.

 

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.