Posts tagged ‘income distribution’

Poverty and the Minimum Wage

Mark Perry had this chart on the demographics of income distribution.  From it, I want to draw a couple of conclusions about minimum wage and poverty

Click to Enlarge

Note the household income per earner for the lowest quintile.  It equates to something over $14 an hour, well above minimum wage almost everywhere in the US and nearly as high as the $15 national minimum wage proposed as an anti-poverty program.

The problem with most poor households is not wage rate, it is getting full time work.  The household income per earner is nearly as high as the average income of the second quintile.  The problem is that most poor households do not have full-time earners.   The key stat is that only 16% worked full-time and only 30% had any sort of job at all.

This is what always amazes me about the minimum wage discussions.  An increased minimum wage doesn't address the root problem of poverty at all, and in fact will tend to make it worse by pricing the 85% of the poor who need a job or need more hours out of the job market.  If they can't find a job at $8, it is the purest insanity to think they will have a better chance with their limited skills of finding a job at $15.**

 

**Postscript:  I suppose there is one set of facts that would lead to a minimum wage increasing employment in this lowest quintile:  If people who don't work in this quintile are not seeking work because they are happy to live on government benefits and other sources of charity.  This would imply that the reason they are not working full-time is not because no work is available but because they choose indolence.  If this were the case, then a rising minimum wage would provide enough incentive, I suppose, for some to get off the couch and go to work.  I am reluctant to buy into this explanation, but I am SURE that those on the Left who promote the idea of rising minimum wages increasing employment would not accept these assumptions.

Do We Care About Income Inequality, or Absolute Well-Being?

I have a new column up at Forbes.com, and it addresses an issue that has bothered me for a while, specifically:

Do we really care about income inequality, or do we care about absolute well-being of our citizens?  Because as I will show today, these are not necessarily the same thing.

What has always frustrated me about income inequality arguments is that no one ever seems to compare the actual income numbers of the poor between countries.  Sure, the US is more unequal, and I suppose from this we are supposed to infer that the poor in the US are worse off than in “more equal” countries, but is this so?  Why do we almost never see a comparison across countries of absolute well-being?

I have never been able to find a good data source to do this analysis, though I must admit I probably did not look that hard.  But then Kevin Drum (in a post titled “America is the stingiest rich country in the world”) and John Cassidy in the New Yorker pointed me to something called the LIS database, which has cross-country income and demographic data.  I can't vouch for the data quality, but it has the income distribution data and it struck me as appropriate to respond to Drum and Cassidy with their own data.

In short, Cassidy made the point that the Gini coefficient (a statistical measure of income inequality) was higher in the US than for most other wealthy western countries.  Drum made the further point that the US is "stingy" because we do the least to coercively alter this pattern through forced redistribution.

But all we ever see are Gini's are ratios.  We never, ever see a direct comparison of income levels between countries.  So I did that with the data.  I won't reiterate the whole article here, but here is a sample of the analysis, in this case for Sweden which has one of the lowest Gini ratios of western nations and which Drum ranks as among the least "stingy".  This is the model to which the Left wants us to aspire:

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I argue that the purchasing power parity(ppp) numbers are the right way to look at this since we are comparing well-being, and on this basis Sweden may be more equal, but more than 90% of the people in the US are better off.  Sweden does not have a lower Gini because their poor are better off (in fact, if you consider the bottom quartile, the poor are better off in the US).

We are going to see months of obsession by the Left and Obama over income inequality -- but which country would you rather live in, even if you were poor?

Read the whole thing, there are lots of other interesting charts.

Other Countries Have Higher Minimum Wages. They Also Have Higher Something Else...

Kevin Drum argues our minimum wage in the US is really low

blog_minimum_wage_median

 

A few quick thoughts:

  • I have a constant frustration that we never see these comparisons just on a straight purchasing power parity absolute dollar number.  Numbers related to income distribution are always indexed to a number that is really high in the US, thus making our ratio low.  I seriously doubt Turkey has a higher minimum wage in the US, it just has a much lower median wage.  Does that really make things better there?  I have this problem all the time with poverty numbers.  The one thing I would like to see is, on a PPP basis, a comparison of post-government-transfer income of the US bottom decile or quintile vs. other countries.  Sure, we are more unequal.  But are our poor better or worse off?  The fact that no one on the Left ever shows this number makes me suspect that the US doesn't look bad on it.    This chart, from a Leftish group, implies our income distribution is due to the rich being richer, not the poor being poorer.

  • Drum or whoever is his source for the chart conveniently leaves off countries like Germany, where the minimum wage is zero.  Sort of seems like data cherry-picking to me (though to be fair Germany deals with the issue through a sort of forced unionization law that kind of achieves the same end, but never-the-less their minimum wage is zero).
  • All these European countries may have a higher minimum wage, but they also have something else that is higher:  teen unemployment (and I would guess low-skill unemployment).

click to enlarge

Admittedly this only has a subset of countries, but I borrowed it as-is from Zero Hedge.  By the way, by some bizarre coincidence, the one country -- Germany -- we previously mentioned has no minimum wage is the by far the lowest line on this chart.

Matt Yglesias is Reinventing History

Matt Yglesias and I certainly do read history differently.  He writes recently in a Salon article:

The basic economic foundations of industrial capitalism as we've known them for the past 150 years or so have an activist state at their core. Building political institutions capable of doing these things properly is really difficult, and one of the main things that separates more prosperous places from less prosperous ones is that the more prosperous places have done a better job of building said institutions. There's also the minor matter of creating effective and non-corrupt law enforcement and judicial agencies that can protect people's property rights and enforce contracts.

The point is, it takes an awful lot of politics to get an advanced capitalist economy up and running and generating wealth. A lot of active political decisions need to be made to grow that pie. So why would you want to do all that? Presumably because pie is delicious. But if you build a bunch of political institutions with the intention of creating large quantities of pie, it's obviously important that people actually get their hands on some pie. In other words, you go through the trouble of creating advanced industrial capitalism because that's a good way to create a lot of goods and services. But the creation of goods and services would be pointless unless it served the larger cause of human welfare. Collecting taxes and giving stuff to people is every bit as much a part of advancing that cause as creating the set of institutions that allows for the wealth-creation in the first place.

This is counter-historical crap.  Unfortunately, my real job is taking all my time today so I can only give a few quick responses rather than the thorough beating this deserves

  1. Capitalism is not a "system."  It is an un-system.   It is an order that emerges from individuals exchanging goods and services to their mutual self-interest.  While it requires a rule of law, those rules can be exceedingly simple -- at their core they are "don't deal with other people via force or fraud."  Sure, case law can be complex - what happens to a land deed that has one boundary on a river when the river moves.  But I don't think this is what Matt is thinking of.  
  2. Yglesias is following the typical socialist-progressive line that our modern wealth creating capitalist economy was somehow created by the government.  I am sure this line works with the low information voter, but that does not make it any more true.  Industrial capitalism arose long before the government even acknowledged its existence.  The US economy was generating wealth - for everyone, rich and poor - long before politicians stuck an oar into the economic waters.  Go back even 85 years and you will not see anything in the "political economy" that would be recognizable to a modern progressive.  In other words, the wealth creation came first, and then the politics came second.
  3. Again we see this bizarre progressive notion that wealth creation is this thing apart, like a water well in the desert.  Income distribution in this model is a matter of keeping the piggy rich people from hogging all the water.  But in a free society, the economy and its gains are not separate from people, they are integral to the people.  Gains are not somehow independent variables, but are the results of individual gains by each person in the system.  People operate by mutual self-interest.  When I work for you, I get a paycheck, you get your products made -- we both gain.  Steve Jobs grew wealthy selling iPads, but simultaneously my iPad made me vastly better off.
  4. It is wrong to say that all distributions of wealth are arbitrary.  In a free society, there emerges a natural distribution of wealth based on people's exchange with each other.  And contrary to the progressive mythology, that system was floating all boats, not just the rich ones, long before the government gained the power to redistribute wealth.  Yglesias is right in saying that income distribution in a progressive political economy is arbitrary.  In fact, income in any government-managed economy is distributed arbitrarily to whoever can gain power.  I am always amazed at progressives who somehow have this vision that there will be some group of people with absolute power who wukk make sure there will be a flat and equitable income distribution.  When has that ever happened?  Name even a single socialist country where that has happened.
  5. What political decision has ever been made the grows the pie, except perhaps to keep the government's hands off pie creation?  When "political" decisions are made to grow the pie, what you actually get is bailouts of Goldman Sachs, wealth funneled to connected billionaires like Elon Musk, and Solyndra.  Politics don't create wealth, they are a boat anchor lashed to the wealth creators.  The only thing politicians can do productively is make the boat anchor lighter.

Speaking of Income Distribution

This chart, from a book by Branko Milanovic via Carpe Diem reinforces a point about income distribution I make all the time -  for all we talk about income distribution in this country, our poorest 20% would be middle class in many countries of the world.  While I would love to see our poor doing even better, it begs the question of whether distribution or absolute prosperity is more important.

Just to give you a feel for reading the chart, the US's lowest ventile, or bottom 5%, have income that would put them in the 68th percentile worldwide.    Our poorest 20% (the first 4 ventiles) would be upper middle class or better in Brazil, China, and India.

When comparing to European social democracies, it turns out that while the US's income distribution is wider, that is almost entirely due to the top end being higher.  The poorest 10% make about the same as the poorest 10% in Europe, and I would argue that this analysis (from a leftish think tank) actually underestimates a quality of life advantage for American poor, who come out higher even than the middle class in Europe on things like living space and appliance ownership.

Perhaps more importantly than income inequality, income mobility remains high in this country. More on income inequality concerns here.

Why Are Democrats Promising to Raise Prices?

My new column is up at Forbes, and is on the Democratic push to raise the prices of Chinese goods (either through currency policy or tariffs).  This has to be one of the craziest campaign themes of all time -- please, let us raise your prices.

We should be thrilled that the Chinese government and its people see fit to spend their own money to subsidize lower prices for American businesses and consumers.  Last week, President Obama put substantial pressure on the Chinese prime minister to revalue Chinese currency, a revaluation that would have the effect of raising prices of all Chinese goods in the United States.  What possible sense does such a move make, particularly in a recession?

Christian Broda and John Romalis, a pair of University of Chicago economists, have been doing work on income distribution.  A couple of years ago they published a paper that showed how our measures of income inequality may be exaggerated because the metrics assume that both rich and poor experience the same rate of inflation.  In fact, the researches found, over the last decade or so the poor have seen much lower rates of inflation than the rich, in large part due to goods of the type imported by China and sold at Wal-Mart (another institution Democrats like to demagogue against).

Sadly, prices for low-income Americans could be even lower were it not for past protectionist measures.  When one looks at the goods that have the highest import tariffs, one sees the very same goods that typically make up a disproportionate share of the poor's purchases:  Tobacco, clothing, tires, auto parts, fruits and vegetables.  All of these have their prices raised 20-350 percent by import tariffs.

This means that at the same time Democrats have again raised issues of rising income inequality, they are trying to stop some of the most powerful forces at work mitigating these income differences.  There is no question that if Democrats are successful in changing China's currency policy and/or imposing new tariffs (taxes) on Chinese goods, prices will rise for all Americans, but particularly so for the lower income brackets that are supposedly the Democrats' constituency.

The most frustrating part of this whole effort is that it is aimed at a myth: the declining American manufacturing base.  In fact, American manufacturing output continues to hit new all-time highs "” despite the current recession, American manufacturing output today is still 40% higher than it was in 1990.

Wal-Mart and Income Inequality

First, I have not doubt that income inequality--  in whatever way the folks who care about such things measure it -- has increased.  The analysis that has been making the rounds of liberal blogs show the rich "capturing a higher share" of total output.  The very terminology here reveals their faulty core assumption, treating wealth as a zero-sum that must be grabbed and fought for and can only be gained to someone else's disadvantage.  They always write about incomes as if GDP is a sort of natural fountain in the desert, and the piggy rich crowd in too close to get more than their fair share of water from the fountain.

This is silly.  Wealth is created from the minds of human beings, and there are human minds that create far more wealth than others, and are able to keep some of that wealth for themselves as a reward.  I say "some" because even the richest people tend to keep only a small percentage of the wealth they create.  Sum up the benefits we all get from our iPods and iPhones and iPads, and the total number dwarfs what Apple shareholders have made from these devices.

Anyway, the actual point of this post was to revisit the notion that there are different inflation rates for the rich and poor (via Carpe Diem) that may be skewing income inequality numbers

Using scanner data on household consumption of non-durable goods between 1994 and 2005, we document that the relative prices of low-quality products that are consumed disproportionately by low-income households were falling over this period. This implies that non-durable inflation for the 10th percentile of the income distribution has only been 4.3 percent between 1994 and 2005 (0.4 percent per annum), while the non-durable inflation for the 90th percentile has been 11.9 percent (1.0 percent annually), and 13.4 percent (1.2 percent annually) for the richest 5 percent of households in the sample (see chart above)."...

"A large literature has focused on the rising inequality observed in official statistics, but have mostly abstracted from the fact that these official measures are based on a single price index for a representative consumer. This assumption is not crucial in a world with a stationary relative price distribution or where an identical basket of goods is consumed by different income groups. However, using household data on non-durable consumption, we document that the relative prices of low-quality products that are consumed disproportionately by low-income consumers have been falling over this period.

This fact implies that measured against the prices of products that poorer consumers actually buy, their "real" incomes have been rising steadily. As a consequence, we find that around half of the increase in conventional inequality measures during 1994"“2005 is the result of using the same price index for non-durable goods across different income groups. Moreover, given that the increase in price dispersion does not seem to be specific to our sample or time period, the overstatement in the increases in inequality from official measures can be even more significant, changing our view of how progress has been distributed in recent decades substantially."

The price of a night at the Four Seasons has gone up more than the price of a shirt at Wal-Mart.

Nostalgianomics

I am a little late on this, but here is the latest from Brink Lindsey, another member of the Princeton Tower Club libertarian blogger set:

Yet the return to peacetime and prosperity did not result in a shift back toward the status quo ante. The more egalitarian income structure persisted for decades. For an explanation, Krugman leans heavily on a 2007 paper by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists Frank Levy and Peter Temin, who argue that postwar American history has been a tale of two widely divergent systems of political economy. First came the "Treaty of Detroit," characterized by heavy unionization of industry, steeply progressive taxation, and a high minimum wage. Under that system, median wages kept pace with the economy's overall productivity growth, and incomes at the lower end of the scale grew faster than those at the top. Beginning around 1980, though, the Treaty of Detroit gave way to the free market "Washington Consensus." Tax rates on high earners fell sharply, the real value of the minimum wage declined, and private-sector unionism collapsed. As a result, most workers' incomes failed to share in overall productivity gains while the highest earners had a field day...

Krugman sees the rise of inequality as a consequence of economic regress"”in particular, the abandonment of well-designed economic institutions and healthy social norms that promoted widely shared prosperity. Such an assessment leads to the conclusion that we ought to revive the institutions and norms of Paul Krugman's boyhood, in broad spirit if not in every detail.

There is good evidence that changes in economic policies and social norms have indeed contributed to a widening of the income distribution since the 1970s. But Krugman and other practitioners of nostalgianomics are presenting a highly selective account of what the relevant policies and norms were and how they changed.

The Treaty of Detroit was built on extensive cartelization of markets, limiting competition to favor producers over consumers. The restrictions on competition were buttressed by racial prejudice, sexual discrimination, and postwar conformism, which combined to limit the choices available to workers and potential workers alike. Those illiberal social norms were finally swept aside in the cultural tumults of the 1960s and '70s. And then, in the 1970s and '80s, restraints on competition were substantially reduced as well, to the applause of economists across the ideological spectrum. At least until now.

The "treaty of Detroit" model, if it ever even existed in the first place, is merely NRA-lite, an echo of the Mussolini-style corporate state FDR tried to create before the war.  Read the whole thing - Brink is, as usual, hard to excerpt.

One thing that is seldom mentioned in discussions of income inequality is the absolute wealth of the lower income brackets.  The evidence is pretty strong that the lowest income brackets in the US do at least as well as comparable brackets in Europe (especially after you correct for immigration), which have pursued the corporate state model Krugman longs for.  Our rich are richer, but our poor are about the same, and unemployment is systematically lower here.  So the problem is, what?  Just envy?

More on income distribution and mobility here.

Don't Get Uppity

I have always wondered how people could describe European countries as more egalitarian than the US.  Yeah, I know the income distribution tends to be flatter, but that is almost entirely because the rich are richer in the US rather than the poor being poorer.  But pure income distribution has always seemed like a terrible way to make comparisons.  My perception has always been that class lines in Europe are much harder than they are in the US.  The elites in Europe have made a sort of arrangement in which they pay off the masses with an income floor and low work expectations in turn for making sure that none of the masses can in turn challenge their elite status or join their ranks.  The government protects large corporations form competition, foreign or domestic.  The government protects existing laborers against new entrants into the labor market.  The government makes it virtually impossible for the average guy to start a business.  The result is a lower and middle class who won't or can't aspire to breaking out of their class.  Elites are protected, and no one seems to care very much when political elites enrich themselves through public office and then entrench themselves and their families in the power system.  This, presumably, is why the American political class thinks so much of the European model.

Bryan Caplan writes via Marginal Revolution:

In the U.S., we have low gas taxes, low car taxes, few tolls, strict zoning that leads developers to provide lots of free parking, low speed limits, lots of traffic enforcement, and lots of congestion.

In Europe (France and Germany specifically), they have high gas
taxes, high car taxes, lots of tolls, almost no free parking, high
speed limits (often none at all), little traffic enforcement, and very
little congestion. (The only real traffic jam I endured in Europe was
trying to get into Paris during rush hour. I was delayed about 30
minutes total).

If you had to pick one of these two systems, which would you prefer?
Or to make the question a little cleaner, if there were two otherwise
identical countries, but one had the U.S. system and the other had the
Euro system, where would you decide to live?

Much as it pains me to admit, I would choose to live in the country
with the Euro system. If you're at least upper-middle class, the
convenience is worth the price. Yes, this is another secret way that
Europe is better for the rich, and the U.S. for everyone else.

When They Finally Do the Study the Right Way

Over the last few years, there has been a lot of arguing back and forth about income mobility.  Typically, folks, particularly on the left, look at changes in median incomes and declare that since median incomes aren't moving much, there is not income mobility.  I have criticized this approach to the problem on a number of occasions.  For example, I have argued that median income numbers are skewed downwards because tens of millions of low-skill new immigrants have entered the job market over the last several decades.  As I wrote here,

If you really want to know what the current median wage is on an apples
to apples basis back to 1970, take the current reported median wage and
count up about 10 million spots, and that should be the number -- and
it will be much higher.

What you really have to do is take the same people, and follow their progress through tax returns or whatever data is available.  What this type study finds, time and again, is that income mobility remains high in this country.  And what happens, time and again, is the media and politicians ignore the study in favor of the more flawed approaches that support their narrative better.

Well, the study has been performed again, and the results are the same:  Income mobility remains high in this country, especially for the poorest 20%.

Incomechangesopinionjournal

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and in one chart 60% of the hot air in the Democratic Presidential debates is refuted.

By the way, it is worth noting the drop in income of the top 1%, because it helps to point out a flaw in the usual income distribution numbers we see.  In 2002, I showed no income on my 1040 (because I was starting a new business).  In the income distribution numbers for 2002, my family and I showed up in the bottom 20%, living on less than a $1 a day.  Of course, that is an absurd characterization.  On the opposite end of the scale, imagine a small business owner plugging along making $80,000 or so a year, comfortably middle class, and then in one year sells his business for $1 million.  In that year's statistics, he is rich.  The next year when his capital gains go away, it looks like he has gotten poorer, when no such thing happened.

Of course, some are still struggling, though my suspicion is that this is less related to structural issues in the economy or availability of opportunity than with cultural issues.

Immigration Thought of the Day

Frequent readers will know that I am a strong supporter of open immigration.  I don't disagree with McQ at Q&O when he writes "Open Borders or Welfare State: Pick One," but I don't think that this is the logic of most folks who are anti-immigration.  It may be their public stance, but if more folks really thought this way, there would be serious discussion of tiered citizenship or guest worker models similar to what I have proposed on several occasions.

However, I am tempted to become a close-the-border proponent if the left continue to use numbers skewed by immigration to justify expansions of taxation and the welfare state.  Whether they are illegal or not, whether they should be allowed to stay or not, the fact is that tens of millions of generally poor and unskilled immigrants have entered this country over the last several decades.  These folks dominate the lower quintile of wage earners in this country, and skew all of our traditional economic indicators downwards.  Median wages appear to be stagnating?  Of course the metric looks this way -- as wages have risen, 10 million new folks have been inserted at the bottom.  If you really want to know what the current median wage is on an apples to apples basis back to 1970, take the current reported median wage and count up about 10 million spots, and that should be the number -- and it will be much higher. 

Income distribution numbers are the same way.  I showed in a previous post how these numbers are deceptive, when we compare them to Europe, because though European poor have a higher percentage of the median wage in their country, it is a higher percentage of a lower number.  When you correct for that effect, the US poor look pretty equal.  But immigration exaggerates this effect even more.  Instead of having income distribution numbers comparing, say, a lawyer and a blue collar worker, they are now comparing a lawyer and a non-English-speaking recent unskilled immigrant.  Of course the disparity looks worse!

The folks using these numbers have to be smart enough to understand this issue, so it can only be hugely disingenuous that they simultaneously promote immigration (which I support) while at the same time using immigrant-skewed numbers to say that the average US worker is somehow worse off.  If they keep this tactic up, even I may be tempted to close the borders.

New Orleans, Progressive Paradise

From the USA Today:

In working-class areas here, homes for sale
have begun to move briskly. But in the ritzy Uptown district and other
well-to-do neighborhoods, the picture is bleaker. "New Price" and
"Reduced" signs adjoin grand Victorian homes "” symbols of a struggling
upscale housing market.

They're the lingering effects of Hurricane
Katrina. In coastal Louisiana and Mississippi, a glut of higher-end
homes points to soaring property insurance costs that are pricing many
people out of the market. It also speaks to the legions of doctors and
other professionals who have left the area and have yet to return. The
price of their exodus could be severe: Economic development experts
warn that if these professionals stay away en masse, it could cripple
the region's recovery.

For anyone with a stake in the region's recovery, the loss of
higher-income residents "” and their job skills "” is alarming. The
problem is compounded by the shortage of upper-income buyers willing to
put down stakes to replace those who have left.

So what is the problem?  I thought this would make New Orleans a progressive paradise.  No rich to get richer and create envy in the working classes.  No issues with income distribution.  Just a worker's paradise with no capitalist oppressors.  Huge portions of the populations dependent on the government and refusing to rebuild until they get government handouts to do so.  This sounds like everything Progressives are working for.  But...

Doctors, bankers and other professionals are "the backbone of the
community," says William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings
Institution, a Washington think tank. "They're the people who will help
the tax base. If they leave, they are going to be very hard to replace."

Oh, I see.  We don't really want them around, but we need milch cows we can tax so we can have handouts for everyone else.  It must be a hard tightrope for progressives to walk -- they hate rich people but need them to pay for their schemes.

Income Inequality and Game Theory

Consider this situation:  You are a member of a four-person rock band.  Each member of the band has contributed somewhat equally over time, and band revenues have always been split evenly, 25% to each member, though its total earnings on an absolute basis have been small  However, the band has suddenly become the next U2.  It is likely the band will make tens of millions of dollars over the coming years.  Just as this is happening, the other three band members come to you and threaten to make you Pete Best.  They will allow you to stay with the band, but only if you accept a reduction in your share of the earnings to 10%.  You perceive this move as unfair given your equal contribution to the band to date.  However, even 10% of the band's new fortunes would be a LOT of money (and fame) and you honestly believe that even a 10% share is better than you could do with any other band or occupation.  What do you do -- take 10% or quit?  (assume you want to be famous and you have no legal recourse against the other members)

In an analytical vacuum, one might predict that any rational person would take the deal -- while it is less than might be hoped, it is certainly a better deal than one could get any place else.  A pure profit maximizing decision would be to stay with the band (and watch you back at night for more knives).

However, numerous studies and surveys have shown that in fact, a  large number of people would choose to give up the money rather than feel cheated.  Just look at the number of professional football players who have held out for a whole season to try to get a better contract.  In every case, the present value of the salary lost for that season is far greater than any increase in salary in the future from taking the tough stand.  But these players would rather be paid nothing than feel underpaid.

TJIC had a pointer to an interesting article on game theory.  In it, the author talks about this behavior in the context of a game that divides up pies, and summarizes:

Apparently, making money is not the players' only concern; participants have a sense of pride and care about how they are treated by others, economists have concluded. Thus, offers perceived to be "unfair" are rejected out of a desire for revenge.

In fact, revenge and/or envy has been tested in a number of games, where scientists gave players trailing in the game the ability to spend money solely to take away money from the leading players  (e.g. you can spend your last $10 to make $10 of your opponents money disappear).  There is something in human behavior that wants to bring down the winners, even when doing so makes one worse off himself.  (Question to Red Sox fans:  would you accept a lifetime bad of the Sox from the World Series if you were guaranteed the Yankees would never make the World Series either?)

I guess I don't really have a problem with such behavior in consensual transactions (though I personally work pretty hard to purge my ego from business decisions).  My problem comes when people motivated in this way vote in our society that has proven to have inadequate protections of the minority, at least when we refer to the minority of rich and successful

In Closing of the American Mind,  Allan Bloom tells the story of a question he used to ask his classes vis a vis income inequality.  He would ask something like "Would you vote for a law that reduced income inequality but at the same time reduced total wealth, such that the poor might get a larger slice of a smaller pie, and might even be worse off on an absolute basis afterwards."  Apparently, he would get solid majorities for "yes" and in fact I have been in classes where this same question was asked and at least 40% said "yes."  This is a situation a bit similar to the one above, but without it being personal.  In other words, no one has explicitly hosed you, they have just done better.

I hope you can see the parallel.  Large numbers of people are willing to pay (or equivalently make less money) to reduce the earnings of people who are wealthy and/or successful. They are even  more willing to do so if they think that they have been treated unfairly.  Which is why you see so many politicians and media outlets working so hard right now to convince the middle class that current income distribution patterns are somehow "unfair."  Politicians are pandering to this base human emotion, the desire to spitefully bring someone else down (in the case of income equality laws, someone the person has likely never even met or transacted with) even if it makes oneself worse off.   

I can understand why Pete Best might harbor a grudge against the Beatles.  But why do so many Americans harbor a grudge against people they have never met, just because they make more money?

Why Income Distribution Doesn't Matter in This Country

The NY Times has somehow decided that one of America's real problems is widening income distribution, or more specifically, the exponentially increasing wealth of the top tenth of one percent of US earners.  The series seems to be running to about 47 episodes (actually 10), but a key article is here, entitled "Richest Are Leaving Even the Rich Far Behind,"  There are a number of ways to attack this article.  One is to fisk their really abused and misused numbers, which George Reisman does here on the Mises Economics Blog

Lets accept that the very very rich are getting richer.  So lets move from there to the question of...

"so what?"

The Times is a little weak on the "so what".  I presume that in their intellectual-statist readership,  it is an axiom that rich people suck and rich people getting richer sucks more.  However, it is possible to pull out four things the Times extended editorial-masquerading-as-a-news-story finds bad about increasing income inequality:

  • As the rich get richer, there is less money left for the rest of us
  • The process of the rich getting richer reduces opportunities for the rest of us
  • Having very rich people around make the rest of us feel bad
  • The rich are only getting richer because the rest of us are subsidizing them through tax policy

It has been a while since I have really gotten carried away writing about a topic (at least three or four days) so I will now proceed to address each of these in turn and in some detail.

As the rich get richer, there is less money left for the rest of us.  At the end of the day - this is what is in most people's minds when they decry aggregations of wealth.  There are many, many people in the world, even in this country, who think of wealth as a fixed pie, as a zero sum game where one person's victory requires another persons loss.

If we were living in 17th century France, where the rich nobility got that way by taxing the crap out of the working peasantry, this would probably be an adequate view of reality.  Wealth came from the land and its products, whose supply, given no technology improvements for decades, were both relatively fixed.  This zero sum view of commerce led to a mercantilist view of the world economy, where it was thought that wealth was fixed, and that the only thing that could be done to it was to move it around, or tax it, or steal it, or loot it.

But we don't live in 17th century France.  We live in a modern, dynamic capitalist society where wealth is created.  One proof of this is so obvious that it amazes me anyone clings to the implicit zero sum economy assumption:  Compare the US in 2000 to the US in 1900.  We are so much wealthier top to bottom in our society than in 1900 its not even worth spending much time on the proof.  This is not just in real dollar terms, but in things that affect ones life, from average life span to leisure time to entertainment to technology.  People who live in the poorest 20 percentile today have things -- such as a lifespan over 70, access to cancer cures, cars, computers, VCRs -- that not even the richest one half of one percent had in 1900.  The poorest 20 percentile in this country would be the upper middle class or even the rich in many countries of the world today.

Michael Dell and Bill Gates are both in that evil 1/10 of 1% of richest people.  But how did they get that way?  They made their fortunes by providing me with this incredible tool on my desk that was unimaginable when I was born 40+ years ago, but now is pedestrian.  Right now I am typing on a Dell computer using Microsoft Windows, which I bought from the suppliers for a mutually agreeable price in a totally uncoerced manner.  My computer provides me with thousands of dollars of value - in productivity, in entertainment, in the ability to do new things that could never be done before (e.g. blog).  Most of this value I keep for myself; some, about $1200 in this case, went to the suppliers of labor and materials to build and program this thing.  And a small portion, less than $100, went towards the fortunes of Mr. Dell and Mr. Gates who had the vision to build the businesses they did.  The PC I have creates new value all around:  Thousands of dollars of new value for me the user and  hundreds of dollars in the form of jobs and new markets for suppliers.  Mr. Dell and Mr. Gates keep just a small portion of all that value created.  At some level, they are working cheap. And any one of us, had we had the vision, could have piggy-backed on Mr Gate's or Mr. Dell's wealth creation by buying stock in their firms.

The process of the rich getting richer reduces opportunities for the rest of us.  Since the "zero sum" argument is so easy to disprove, proponents of rich=bad have morphed their argument to this one.  This accusation comes up several times in the NY Times series, but is hard to refute mainly because the authors never explain the mechanism that they think is at work here or show any shred of proof.  The articles cite folks such as Warren Buffett, George Soros, and Ted Turner.  But how has their fortune-making reduced my personal opportunities one iota? 

Do I have less opportunity because Warren Buffet has made good investing decisions?  Heck, one can argue that any American has always had the opportunity to gain wealth in direct proportion to Buffet at any time, merely by buying Berkshire Hathaway stock.

How about Ted Turner.  Do I have less opportunities to improve myself because Ted Turner got rich creating CNN?  I guess I could facetiosly argue that by his creating CNN, others can no longer create a 24-hour cable news service because he has locked up the market, but Fox has disproved even this narrow argument.

What about George Soros?  I guess you could argue that from time to time my Sony Walkman was a buck or two more or less expensive because of some currency game he was playing in the markets, but I don't see how my opportunity has been reduced.  A better argument is that Soros's being wealthy might really threaten my opportunity if only because he funds so many statist-socialist causes with his billions.

In fact, this is one of those black-is-white arguments.  The reality is exactly the opposite.  When most rich people get rich (with the exception maybe of Peter Angelos and other tort lawyers) they do so by creating new value and thereby opportunity.  While all these folks may be really wealthy, in reality the wealth they have amassed is but a small percentage of the wealth and value that they created.  Where did the rest go?  To all of us, of course, in the form of jobs, and tools, and longer lifespans, and better entertainment.

Having very rich people around make the rest of us feel bad.  OK, this sounds like a problem for group therapy, but you see it in print all the time.  The disparity of incomes is "troubling" and could lead to "resentment".  If one were living in Venezuela or Nigeria or some country where, like 17th century France, wealth came from looting rather than the free exchange of goods, then I would agree that the income disparity would be troubling.  Shoot, if people were much wealthier than I because they were using the legal system to loot the rest of us, I would be pissed off (ironically, this is the case with the billionaire tort lawyers, but this is the last group that the Times will ever challenge). 

However, in this country, where most of the very rich got that way through hard work and better ideas, the result of free and uncoerced commerce, why be resentful?  Sure, I would love to have a G-V aircraft and hot Swedish wife [ed note:  oops, my wife might read this] like Tiger Woods, but lacking these, I have zero desire to deny them to Tiger.  I don't even begrudge super-tramp Paris Hilton her millions (but she did inspire me to change my will so my kids don't inherit from me until they are well past their majority).  Heck, I have spent whole vacations touring the discarded toys of the super-rich (e.g. mansions in Newport, RI).  What fun would there be without a moving target to aspire to?

So why do the Times and some many intellectualls legitimize this envy?  This type of envy has driven anti-semitism and in fact all sorts of racism through the ages.

The rich are only getting richer because the rest of us are subsidizing them through tax policy.  Around my house, I joke that everything, at least in my family's opinion, turns out to be my fault.  The equivilent at the NY Times is that everything is Bush's fault, and in particular, the fault of Bush's tax cuts.  The Mises article cited above does a pretty good job of fisking the argument that the tax system post-cuts favors the rich.  I took on took this notion here and here.  The Times "analysis" makes two major mistakes:

  • Social Security Tax hide and seek:  The NY Times article shows the very wealthy paying lower marginal rates than lower level earners.  As I pointed out here, this is entirely because they are including social security taxes in their analysis and that the taxes are capped at $90,000.  If you look at only income taxes, then marginal rates do not drop at higher incomes.

The left's argument here is highly contradictory.  When wanting to make the "rich are not paying enough" argument, they include Social Security taxes, knowing that since those taxes are regressive, they make it look like the rich are somehow getting off easy.  However, when discussing Social Security, the don't want to think of them as taxes - because they want Social Security to be insurance with premiums rather than a transfer program with taxes

  • Bracket Creep: The TImes points out that the income tax rate for the super rich is no higher than the rate for the merely rich or even $100,000 earners.  The implication is that the super rich are somehow getting a better deal.  But in fact, the problem is that the definition of rich, vis a vis taxes, has been lowered through the years.  The whole history of the income tax is to sell a tax as applying only to the very very rich, and then broadening the applicability over time.  The federal income tax followed this path, as has the AMT.  More recently, the top rate on California income taxes is seeing the same creep.  The statist trick is to apply a rate to the super rich, then creep it down so eventually it applies to everyone.  Then, they cry that - hey, the super rich aren't paying more than the middle class, so they institute a new higher super rich rate.  Rinse and repeat.

Conclusion.  I will leave you with the lyrics from Rush's The Trees:

There is unrest in the forest
There is trouble with the trees
For the maples want more sunlight
And the oaks ignore their pleas

The trouble with the maples
(and they're quite convinced they're right)
They say the oaks are just too lofty
And they grab up all the light
But the oaks can't help their feelings
If they like the way they're made
And they wonder why the maples
Can't be happy in their shade?

There is trouble in the forest
And the creatures all have fled
As the maples scream `oppression!`
And the oaks, just shake their heads

So the maples formed a union
And demanded equal rights
'the oaks are just too greedy
We will make them give us light'
Now there's no more oak oppression
For they passed a noble law
And the trees are all kept equal
By hatchet,
Axe,
And saw ...

Update:  Several people said I missed the point about mobility, rather than just the rich getting richer.  I respond to this here.