Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

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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Last week, Thomas Frank welcomed Paul Krugman to the ranks of those who believe that the American working-class in recent decades has often voted against its fundamental economic interests by supporting conservative Republicans.

Appropriately enough, Frank then chastises Krugman for having repeatedly used his New York Times column to argue exactly the opposite, denying the idea that working-class Americans had defected to the Republican Party.

Frank, the author of What’s the Matter with Kansas? then draws the appropriate conclusion: that the tendency on the part of Krugman and other liberals to underestimate working-class conservatism, in both southern and northern states, prepared the way for Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election of November 2016.

To be clear, we’re not talking about the entire American working-class. Working-class whites have been more likely to vote against their economic interests and to be persuaded by the kinds of cultural, identity issues raised by Trump and other Republican politicians. Not so with Hispanics, latinos, and other members of the American working-class—although, according to Stephen Morgan and Jiwon Lee, minorities did have lower turnout in competitive states in 2016.

But I think Frank and Krugman have it only half right. Their view is that the working-class, if it voted according to its economic interests, would stop supporting Republicans and return to the Democratic Party fold.

The problem is, as is clear from the chart at the top of the post, the American working-class has lost out under a long series of both Republican and Democratic administrations. Neither party—conservative or liberal—has reflected the interests of working-class Americans in recent decades.

For example, between 1970 and 2014, the share of wages in national income plummeted from 51.5 percent to 42.3 percent.* As a result, the share of income going to the bottom 50 percent of Americans has literally collapsed, falling from 17.8 percent in 1970 to only 12.5 percent in 2014.

Meanwhile, the top 1 percent has enjoyed enormous success: its share of pre-tax income has soared in the past four and a half decades, rising from 12.5 percent to over 20 percent.

The problem for the American working-class is that neither party represents its interests—and no new party has emerged, at least on a national level, to take their place. So, working-class voters are left to float, under increasingly precarious economic conditions, in support of politicians from both parties who have pandered to a variety of identities and issues but have done nothing to effectively reverse the insults and injuries inflicted upon the American working-class in recent decades.

That’s what’s the matter with the United States.

 

*And, remember (as I explained in 2015), the wage share includes the salaries of CEOs and others at the top of the scale, which should rightly be excluded as distributions of the surplus. If they were subtracted, the share going to working-class Americans would have fallen even further.

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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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profits-stocks

There’s no real mystery behind the spectacular gains in the stock market over the course of 2017. Much of it can be explained by the rise in U.S. corporate profits.

But, as is clear from the chart above, the relationship between corporate profits (after tax, in red, measured on the right-hand side) and the stock market (the Dow Jones Industrial Index, in blue on the left) actually goes back almost a decade. Corporate profits have increased, from their low in the fourth quarter of 2008, some 176 percent. Meanwhile, the stock market has risen 182 percent from its own low in the first quarter of 2009.

Corporate 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 manage to capture a large share of the growing surplus appropriated by corporations, have had a larger and larger mountain cash to speculate on stocks.

Clearly, the United States has had a profit-led recovery since the crash of 2007-08, which is both a cause and consequence of the stock-market bubble.

However, that recovery has left most other Americans behind. First, corporate profits have increased in large part because workers’ wages have largely stagnated. Second, most American workers don’t own any stocks, either directly or indirectly. Stock ownership itself is highly concentrated, as the top 10 percent of households own well over 80 percent of the U.S. stock market.

And looking forward? I don’t make predictions but it’s obvious that the Republican administration is determined to do all it can to keep corporate profits growing and to make sure wealthy individuals keep a larger share of the surplus they receive. As long as that happens, we’ll continue to see the kind of lopsided recovery—including banner gains in the stock market—that has characterized the U.S. economy for the better part of the past decade.