Posts Tagged ‘income’

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.*


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.


Skellington is right: in my post on Tuesday, I did not separate out people at the very top from the rest of those at the top. That’s because, in the data I presented, those in the top 0.1 percent were included in the top 1 percent.

Unfortunately, I don’t have the same kind of breakdown in the composition of incomes as I used in those charts. What I do have are data on the shares of income and wealth for the top 0.1 percent versus the remainder of the top 1 percent (so, top 1 percent to but not including the top 0. 1 percent).


Clearly, income within the top 1 percent is unequally distributed—and has gotten more unequal over time. While the top 0.1 percent (approximately 326.5 thousand individuals) captured about 9.3 of pre-tax income in 2014 (up from 3.9 percent in 1979), the remainder of the top 1 percent (and thus about 2.9 million individuals) took home about 10.9 percent of pre-tax income in 2014 (up from 7.3 percent in 1979). Over time (from 1979 to 2014), the top 0.1 percent has increased its share of the income going to the top 1 percent from a bit more than a third (35 percent) to almost half (46 percent).


The distribution of wealth within the top 1 percent is even more unequally distributed than the distribution of income—and it, too, has become more unequal over time. While the top 0.1 percent owned about 19.1 percent of total household wealth in 2014 (up from 7.2 percent in 1979), the remainder of the top 1 percent owned about 18. 2 percent of household wealth in 2014 (up from 15.2 percent in 1979). Thus, over time, the top 0.1 percent has increased its share of household wealth owned by the top 1 percent from about one third (32 percent) to over half (51.3 percent).

The conclusions, then, are straightforward: For decades now, those at the top have managed to pull away—in terms of both income and wealth—from everyone else in the United States. And, by the same token, those at the very top have been distancing themselves from everyone else at the top.

No matter how much they do battle over their respective shares, the one thing that ties together those at the top and those at the very top is that their income and accumulated wealth derive from the surplus created by the bottom 90 percent.


According to recent news reports, Kevin Hassett, the State Farm James Q. Wilson Chair in American Politics and Culture at the American Enterprise Institute (no, I didn’t make that up), will soon be named the head of Donald Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers.

Yes, that Kevin Hassett, the one who in 1999 predicted the Down Jones Industrial Average would rise to 36,000 within a few years.


Except, of course, it didn’t. Not by a long shot. The average did reach a record high of 11,750.28 in January 2000, but after the bursting of the dot-com bubble, it steadily fell, reaching a low of 7,286 in October 2002. Although it recovered to a new record high of 14,164 in October 2007, it crashed back to the vicinity of 6,500 by the early months of 2009. And, even today, almost two decades later, it’s only just cracked the 20,000 barrier.

But, no matter, mainstream economists and pundits—like Greg Mankiw, Noah Smith, and Tim Worstall—think Hassett is a great choice.

Perhaps, in addition to his Dow book, they want to place the rest of Hassett’s writings on an altar.

Like Hassett’s claim (which I discuss here) that “lowering corporate taxes is the only real cure for wage stagnation among American workers.”

Or his other major claim (which I discuss here), that poverty and inequality in the United States are merely figments of our imagination.

Let’s focus on that last claim. As regular readers of this blog know, income inequality—whether measured in terms of fractiles (e.g., the 1 percent versus everyone else) or classes (e.g., profits and wages)—has been increasing for decades now. But for conservative economists like Hassett (who was an economic adviser to Mitt Romney before being a candidate to join the Trump team), inequality has not been growing and poor people are actually much better off than they and the rest of us normally think. What they do then is substitute consumption for income and argue that consumption inequality has actually not been growing.

So, what’s the big problem?

But even in terms of consumption they’re wrong. As Orazio Attanasio, Erik Hurst, Luigi Pistaferri have shown, once you correct for the measurement errors in the Consumer Expenditure Survey (which Hassett and his coauthor, Aparna Mathur, don’t do), and bring in other sources of consumption information (including the well-regarded Panel Study of Income Dynamics), consumption inequality has increased substantially in recent decades—more or less at the same rate as inequality in the distribution of income.

Overall, our results suggest that there has been a substantial rise in consumption and leisure inequality within the U.S. during the last 30 years. The rise in income inequality translated to an increase in actual well-being inequality during this time period because consumption inequality also increased.


And, remember, that doesn’t take into account other forms of inequality, such as the increase in the unequal distribution of wealth, which has exploded in recent decades. The poor and pretty much everyone else—the 90 percent—are being left behind.

It’s the spectacular grab for income, consumption, and wealth by the small group at the top that Hassett and the new administration will be trying to protect.


As regular readers know, I’ve been warning for years that growing economic inequality puts the existing order—both economy and society—at risk.

Well, as it turns out, the 700 or so “experts” surveyed by the World Economic Forum have finally woken up to that fact.*

According to the Global Risks Report 2017 (pdf),

“Growing income and wealth disparity” is seen by respondents as the trend most likely to determine global developments over the next 10 years, and when asked to identify interconnections between risks, the most frequently mentioned pairing was that of unemployment and social instability. . .

The slow pace of economic recovery since 2008 has intensified local income disparities, with a more dramatic impact on many households than aggregate national income data would suggest. This has contributed to anti- establishment sentiment in advanced economies, and although emerging markets have seen poverty fall at record speed, they have not been immune to rising public discontent – evident, for example, in large demonstrations against corruption across Latin America.

I think they’re right: high and still-rising inequality creates the conditions for growing unemployment and and profound social instability.

But that’s where the agreement ends. Clearly, the view of the Davos folk is that “their” order is put at risk by growing inequality. The Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election—not to mention the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders’s campaign and the rise of “fringe,” anti-mainstream political movements around the world—are threatening to upend existing economic and social institutions.

For the rest of us, the “risks” posed by growing inequality actually represent an opportunity—to imagine and enact alternative institutions and thus a radically different economic and social order.


*Although the Davos understanding of the problem of inequality is more than a bit strange. One of the so-called experts in a session on inequality, “Squeezed and Angry: How to Fix the Middle-Class Crisis,” is none other than hedge-fund billionaire Ray Dalio.



Mainstream economists and economic commentators continue to invoke the so-called “dignity of work” to criticize the idea of a universal basic income.

It’s an argument I’ve dealt with before (e.g., here and here). As I see it, there’s nothing necessarily dignified about most people being forced to have the freedom to sell their ability to work to a tiny group of employers. The idea may be intrinsic to capitalism—but that doesn’t mean it contributes to the dignity of people who work for a living, especially when they have no control over how they work or what they produce when they work.

Matt Bruenig, to his credit, suggests an alternative argument against the critics of a universal basic income:

these writers dislike the fact that a UBI would deliver individuals income in a way that is divorced from working. Such an income arrangement would, it is argued, lead to meaninglessness, social dysfunction, and resentment.

One obvious problem with this analysis is that passive income — income divorced from work — already exists.

Bruenig is making a distinction between income related to work and income that comes from other sources—passive or not-work—which represents a fundamental divide within contemporary society.

As is clear from the data in the chart above, very little of the income (15 percent in 2014) of the bottom 90 percent of Americans stems from not-work (and, even then, most of their apparently not-work income is actually related to previous work, in the form of pension incomes). However, for the tiny group at the top, most of their income (59 percent for the top 1 percent, 75 percent for the top 0.01 percent) is related to not-working (and, of course, most of their work-related income is based on sole proprietorships and elevated executive salaries). In other words, most of their income represents a claim on the extra work performed by others.

So, when critics of a universal basic income rely on the “dignity of work” argument, what they’re really doing is reinforcing the idea that most people can and should derive dignity from working for a small group of employers. At the same time, critics are presuming there’s no loss of dignity for the tiny group at the top, those who have managed to capture most of their income from sources related not to their own work, but the work of everyone else.*

Where’s the dignity in that?

*Now, it’s true, as Noah Smith observes, “many rich people believe that investing constitutes work.” But spending a few minutes a day reading the business press and examining alternative investments does not constitute work—at least as most people understand what it means to work. Or are those rich people referring to the fact that they hire a whole host of other people, from financial advisors to accountants, to do the actual work of managing their not-work investments?


Neil Irwin is right: “Poor and working-class Americans have fallen behind over the last generation, receiving few of the gains of an expanding economy.” So, he wants to devise a tax plan to change that.

The problem is, Irwin only looks at raising the income of the bottom 20 percent of families to where they would be if they shared equally in the gains since 1979.

So what would it all cost? The Tax Policy Center crunched the numbers: The policy would deplete federal coffers by $1.02 trillion over a decade.

That is serious money.

Sure, it’s serious money. But it’s only the tip of the iceberg. By my calculations (illustrated in the chart above), national income per adult and the average income of the bottom 90 percent (both in 2013 dollars) were almost equal in 1970. But national income per adult has risen a whopping 87 percent since 1970, while the average income of the bottom 90 percent has actually fallen, by 6.7 percent.

If we want to make up that gap, it’s going to cost much more than $1.02 trillion. In fact, it would take about $5.6 trillion—equal to the amount of the tax cuts President-elect Donald Trump wants to shower on wealthy individuals and large corporations—just to close the gap for one year.*

Now that’s serious money.

And it doesn’t begin to make up for all the pay working-class Americans have lost since 1970.

The only way to close the gap and to compensate working-class Americans for the pay they’ve lost over recent decades is to not to tinker with the tax system (or, for that matter, close the trade deficit, boost economic growth, or attempt to protect the safety net), but to change the existing set of economic institutions—by giving workers a real say in how the extra income they create gets distributed.


*My back-of-the-envelope calculation (90 percent of tax units times the gap between national income per adult and average income of the bottom 90 percent) is for 2013.


The total income reported on the top 400 individual tax returns rose 20 percent in 2014, according to Internal Revenue Service (pdf) data released last Thursday.

The figures reveal the concentration of earnings at the summit of the income distribution, in a club that required $126.8 million of adjusted gross income to enter. That tiny group, out of nearly 150 million tax returns in 2014, took home $175.5 million on average (that’s in 1990 dollars) and 1.3 percent of total U.S. adjusted gross income.

President-elect Donald Trump and the Republicans who control Congress have promised to lower the taxes on this group. First, they plan to repeal Obamacare and its taxes, which would bring the long-term capital gains rate down to 20 percent. A potentially even bigger benefit for the top 400 will come from  Trump’s proposal to slash the tax on corporate income from 35 percent to 15 percent. That rate would also apply to at least some of the “passthrough” income from S Corporations and partnerships that is reported directly on individual income tax returns and is now taxed at a top rate of 39.6 percent.

A lower rate for passthrough income would disproportionately benefit the über rich, just as the lower rate on capital gains does. In 2014, the top 400 earners reported 1.3 percent of all adjusted gross income in the U.S., but 2.94 percent of all partnership and S corp net income, and 10 percent of capital gains taxed at a lower rate.

We know the top 400 will benefit enormously from those tax changes. But we won’t be able to measure it, since the IRS also announced it would no longer release data on the top 400, which it has compiled going back to 1992. Instead, future reports will focus on the top 0.001 percent, which included 1,396 households for 2014.