Posts Tagged ‘Obama’


Yesterday, I questioned the case—presented by Jason Furman and the White House Council of Economic Advisers—that the Obama administration had made a “historic achievement in reducing inequality.”

James Kwak, as it turns out, had much the same reaction:

inequality is every bit the problem we’ve always thought it was. It’s not as bad today as it would be if John McCain had been elected eight years ago. But we’re no closer to addressing its fundamental causes.


First, Kwak explains that the key chart behind the Obama administration claim (which I’ve reposted above) is not what it seems. It doesn’t show inequality has actually declined by the stipulated amounts. What it does show is that (a) in 2017 (and therefore a forecast for next year) and (b) in comparison to a world in which the Bush-era tax cuts didn’t expire and without the Affordable Care Act (and therefore a parallel universe of lower tax rates and pre-Obama health coverage rates) “our universe is a little less unequal than that parallel universe.”

In summary, the economic factors that produce higher pre-tax income inequality—stagnant middle-class wages, high corporate profits, and booming asset markets—are alive and well, and it doesn’t seem the Obama administration has done much about them. The administration did pass the Affordable Care Act and let the Bush tax cuts expire for the rich, both of which helped mitigate the pre-tax inequality produced by contemporary American capitalism. But even if Barack Obama called inequality the “defining challenge of our time,” he has done little to tackle its fundamental causes. Let’s hope the next president does better.


Kwak then takes on the larger issue of whether inequality has actually been getting worse or better under the Obama administration. What he shows (much as I argued yesterday) is that, while tax-and-transfer policies have made the distribution of income less unequal than it otherwise would have been (thus, the red line is lower than either the green or blue lines), they’ve done nothing to change the “underlying economic factors that determine inequality of pre-tax income.”

What we’ve seen then is pre-tax inequality has continued to grow and, even though tax-and-transfer policies lower the degree of inequality (and, indeed, have widened the gap between pre-tax and post-tax inequality), overall inequality has continued to grow under the Obama administration.

And looking forward?

Yes, 2015 was a good year for middle-class families, but it didn’t come close to making up for several bad years during the current expansion. There’s no obvious reason why the pre-tax income share of the 1% will stop rising anytime soon—except for the next recession, after which it will most likely continue its long-term ascent.

That, in my view, is why “economic inequality will remain the ‘defining challenge of the next generation, too’.”

Tom Toles Editorial Cartoon - tt_c_c160926.tif

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Inequality may be the “defining challenge of our time.” But you wouldn’t know so from Monday evening’s presidential debate, in which neither candidate directly addressed the issue.

But the Obama administration seems to be in full gear—with an op-ed piece by chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers Jason Furman and an extensive report by the Council of Economic Advisers (pdf)—celebrating its own “historic achievement in reducing inequality.”*

Tax changes enacted since 2009 have boosted the share of after-tax income received by the bottom 99 percent of families by more than the tax changes of any previous Administration since at least 1960. President Obama has also overseen the largest increase in Federal investment to reduce inequality since the Great Society, largely reflecting the coverage provisions of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) and expanded tax credits for working families.

And the results? Together, the changes in tax policy and the ACA provisions will increase the share of after-tax income received by the bottom quintile in 2017 by less than one percentage point and reduce the share received by the top 1 percent by all of 1.2 percentage points.

That’s something, it is true, but it does not reverse the spectacular growth in inequality the United States has witnessed in recent decades (when the share of income captured by the top 1 percent rose from 9 percent in 1971 to 22 percent in 2015), and it doesn’t even touch the even-more-dramatic inequality in the distribution of wealth (such that in 2013, the last year for which data are available, families in the top 10 percent of the wealth distribution held 76 percent of all family wealth, families in the 51st to the 90th percentiles held 23 percent, and those in the bottom half of the distribution held no more than 1 percent).

So, what’s the problem? We already know, thanks to a 2015 Brookings Study (pdf), that the effect of changes in top individual tax rates (including a redistribution of all new revenues to household in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution) are “exceedingly modest.”** And, of course, changes in tax rates on income have little if any effect on the unequal distribution of wealth.

The fact that the current administration can cite its own policies as a “historic achievement” just confirms how little other administrations have done to moderate growing inequality in the United States over the course of the past three decades.

They also confirm the fact that, unless and until the United States decides to tackle the issue of wealth ownership and the resulting unequal market distribution of income— especially the ability of the tiny group at the top to capture and invest for their own sake the enormous surplus created by everyone else—it’s clear that economic inequality will remain the “defining challenge of the next generation, too.”


*The same issue has been taken up on the other side of the pond, about whether the last Labor government did anything to reverse “the rise of inequality seen under the previous Conservative administration.” According to the data cited by Simon Wren-Lewis, the best that can be said is Labor did not continue the previous rise in inequality, although it certainly didn’t reverse it.

**Here’s the authors’ conclusion:

In this analysis we have simulated the effects of increasing the top income tax rate under three possible reforms: (a) raise the top individual income tax rate from 39.6 to 45 percent; (2) raise the top individual income tax rate from 39.6 to 50 percent; and (3) raise the top individual income tax rate to 50 percent for income greater than $1 million for joint filers, $750,000 for single filers. We calculate the resulting change in income inequality under these scenarios assuming an explicit redistribution of all new revenue to households in the bottom 20 percent of the income distribution. The resulting effects on overall income inequality are exceedingly modest, with changes in the Gini coefficient of less than 0.01.

That such a sizable increase in the top personal income tax rate leads to a strikingly limited reduction in overall income inequality speaks to the limitations of this particular approach to addressing the broader challenge. It also reflects the fact that the high level of U.S. income inequality is characterized by a wide divergence in income between higher-income households and those at the middle and below.



Everyone knows wealth in the United States is unequally distributed, even more than the nation’s income (and that’s saying something).

For example, according to a new report from the Congressional Budget Office [ht: ja],

In 2013, families in the top 10 percent of the wealth distribution held 76 percent of all family wealth, families in the 51st to the 90th percentiles held 23 percent, and those in the bottom half of the distribution held 1 percent. Average wealth was about $4 million for families in the top 10 percent of the wealth distribution, $316,000 for families in the 51st to 90th percentiles, and $36,000 for families in the 26th to 50th percentiles. On average, families at or below the 25th percentile were $13,000 in debt.

But, wait, it gets worse. The distribution of wealth among the nation’s families was more unequal in 2013 than it was in 1989. For instance, the difference in wealth held by families at the 90th percentile and the wealth of those in the middle widened from $532,000 to $861,000 over the period (both in 2013 dollars). The share of wealth held by families in the top 10 percent of the wealth distribution increased from 67 percent to 76 percent, whereas the share of wealth held by families in the bottom half of the distribution declined from 3 percent to 1 percent.*

Yes, that’s right: in 2013, the bottom half of U.S. families held only 1 percent of the nation’s wealth.


And it gets even worse: from 1989 to 2013, the average wealth of families in the bottom half of the distribution was less in 2013 than in 1989. It declined by 19 percent (in contrast to the 153-percent increase for families in the top 10 percent). And the average wealth of people in the bottom quarter was thousands of dollars less in 2013 than it was in 1989.**

poor wealth

So, let’s get this straight. The share of wealth going to the top 10 percent of households, already high, actually increased between 1989 and 2013. And the share held by the bottom 50 percent, already tiny, fell. And, finally, the average wealth for families in the bottom half of the distribution was less in 2013 than in 1989 and many more of them were in debt.

Now, to put things in perspective, the United States had Democratic presidents (Bill Clinton and Barack Obama) during thirteen of the twenty-four years when workers and the poor were being fleeced.

And now they’re being asked to vote for one more Democrat, with the same economic program, because it will “make history”?


*To be clear, a large portion of the decline in wealth for the bottom 50 percent occurred after the crash. Still, compared with families in the top half of the distribution, families in the bottom half experienced disproportionately slower growth in wealth between 1989 and 2007, and they had a disproportionately larger decline in wealth after the 2007-09 recession.

**In 1989, families at or below the 25th percentile were about $1,000 in debt. By 2013, they were about $13,000 in debt, on average. Overall indebtedness also increased during the same period: by 2013, 12 percent of families had more debt than assets, and they were, on average, $32,000 in debt.


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Not so fast!

Posted: 18 August 2016 in Uncategorized
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real wages-revised

Everyone has read or heard the story: the labor market has rebounded and workers, finally, are “getting a little bigger piece of the pie” (according to President Obama, back in June).

And that’s the way it looked—until the Bureau of Labor Statistics revised its data. What was originally reported as a 4.2 percent increase in the first quarter of 2016 now seems to be a 0.4 decline (a difference of 4.6 percentage points, in the wrong direction).

What’s more, real hourly compensation for the second quarter (in the nonfarm business sector) is down another 1.1 percent.

So, already in 2016, the decline in real wages has eaten up more than half the gain of 2.8 percent reported in 2015 (and after a mere 1.1 percent gain in 2014).

And, since 2009, real hourly wages have increased only 4 percent.

Workers may be getting a little bigger piece of the economic pie since the official end of the Great Recession but the emphasis should really be on “little.”


P.S. I’m not a conspiracy theorist by nature. And I don’t plan to start now. As far as I’m concerned, the revision in the real-wage data should not be understood as any kind of deliberate manipulation by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But it does represent a cautionary tale about the precision of the numbers we use to understand what is going on in the U.S. economy—and about the willingness of some (like Paul Krugman) to dismiss workers’ anxiety about the state of the economy.


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