Posts tagged ‘PPP’

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

I am going to reprise parts of an article I wrote in Forbes several years ago, because I think the conclusions are particularly relevant given the Democrats' discussion of income inequality and the Scandinavian economic model.

When folks like Bernie Sanders say that we have more income inequality than Sweden or Denmark, this is certainly true. By just about any test, such as Gini ratios, we have a much wider range of incomes.

However, we Sanders implies that this greater income equality means the poor are better off in these countries, he is very probably wrong.  Because the data tends to show that while the middle class in the US is richer than the middle class in Denmark, and the rich in the US are richer than the rich in Denmark, the poor in the US are not poorer than those in Denmark.

And isn't this what we really care about?  The absolute well-being of the poor?

I am not a trained economist or economic researcher, but I have looked for a while for a data source to get at this.  I can find Gini ratios all over the place, but how do I compare the absolute well-being of poor in one country to poor in another?

The first clue that I was maybe on the right track was this chart that actually came from a left-wing group trying to promote the idea of reducing income inequality.  The chart is hard to read (the study is no longer online and all I have is a bad screenshot), but it seemed to show that the poor in the US were no worse off than the poor in Denmark and Sweeden

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So the data had to be there somewhere.  Finally I found a set of data that seemed to does the trick.  I used data from the LIS Cross-National Data Center.  I cannot vouch for their data quality, but it is the same data set used by several folks on the Left (John Cassidy and Kevin Drum) to highlight inequality issues, so I used the same data source.  I then compared the US to several other countries, looking at the absolute well-being of folks at different income percentile levels.  I have used both exchange rates and purchasing price parity (PPP) for the comparison but my feeling is that PPP is a better approach when we are comparing consumer well-being.

You can click through the Forbes article to see all the comparisons, but I will focus here on Sweden and Denmark since they are very much in the policy-making discussion on income inequality.  As usual, you can click to enlarge:

click to enlarge click to enlarge

What does this mean?  If the data is correct, it means that all the way down to at least the 10th percentile poorest people, the poor in the US are as well or better off than the poor in Denmark and Sweden.  And everyone else, including those at the 20th and 25th percentile we would still likely call "poor", are way better off in the US.

All this talk about reducing income inequality by emulating Denmark is thus not about making the poor better off, but just about cutting the rich and middle class down to size.

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

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



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.

Coyote in the Press on Parks

Handshake Magazine, a publication of the International Finance Corporation (a branch of the World Bank), has a series of interviews on parks and PPP's.  It has an article by Len Gilroy of the Reason Foundation on Park PPP's on page 32, a case study about our company and its operations on page 36, and an interview with me starting on page 38.

A Brief Thought on Wealth

One of the pieces of data that turns out to be nearly impossible to find is a direct comparison of the median income by quartile on a PPP basis between countries.  In other words, how does the income of, say, the US lower quartile compare to other countries?  There are a zillion sites with metrics of income inequality and GINI indexes and such, but to my mind these are meaningless.  OK, the poor in the US are much less wealthy than the rich in the US, but how do they compare to the poor of other nations.  The few studies I have seen have reluctantly (remember, these are leftish academics) admitted that the US poor do pretty well vs. the poor in other nations.  Here is data for US vs. Europe.

I got a lot of grief a few years ago when I said, related to Kwanzaa:

Every African-American should wake up each morning and say "I give
thanks that my ancestors suffered the horrors of the slavery passage,
suffered the indignity and humiliation of slavery, and suffered the
poverty and injustices of the post-war South so that I, today, can be
here, in this country, infinitely more free, healthier, safer and
better off financially than I would have been in Africa."

I wanted to actually make this comparison more real.  I used the CIA Factbook to estimate the share of per capita GDP on a PPP basis earned by the top decile, or top 10% wealthiest individuals, in a number of African nations (Example page here for Ethiopia -- calculation would be [25.5%/10%] x $700 per capita). 

So here are the results:

  • Ethiopia top 10%:      $1,785
  • Nigeria top 10%:        $6,972
  • Zimbabwe top 10%:    $800

Hopefuly this is enough of a sample to give you an idea of the range.  Only South Africa is a real outlier from this range.  Now, by the same methodology and source, here is the average share of the per capita GDP for the bottom 10% of earners in the US:

  • United States bottom 10%:   $9,160
  • United States African-American avg (est):  $32,060**

Wow!  This means that the average person in the bottom 10% in the US, most of whom we classify as below the poverty line, would easily, by multiples and orders of magnitude, be in the top 10% richest people in most African nations.   And the surviving decedents of those poor folks who got dragged to the US in slavery would be the Bill Gateses of their mother countries.

The point being, of course, that the size of the pie is typically more important than how you divide it up.  And it is nearly an axiom that government efforts to divide the pie more evenly almost always make it smaller.

** estimated based on 2006 median black household wages being about 70% of the US median household wages.  Yes, I know, we are wildly mixing apples and oranges here to get African American share of GDP per capita in the US, but its in the ballpark -- certainly close enough to make my basic point.  And yes, I know there are flaws in measuring income across countries even on a PPP basis.  If anyone knows of how to get this data more directly, please email me.

Not Surprising in the Least

Via Tyler Cowen:

The Asian
Development Bank presented official survey results indicating China's
economy is smaller and poorer than established estimates say. The
announcement cited the first authoritative measure of China's size
using purchasing power parity methods. The results tell us that when
the World Bank announces its expected PPP data revisions later this
year, China's economy will turn out to be 40 per cent smaller than
previously stated......The number of people in China living below the
World Bank's dollar-a-day poverty line is 300m - three times larger
than currently estimated.

Well, this is a bit sad, as I would hope everyone likes seeing people emerge from poverty**.  But it is really not surprising.  Strongly state-run economies are notoriously hard to measure from the outside, and westerners systematically overestimated the size of the economy of the old Soviet Union.

**  I make this statement because I am an optimistic guy full of confidence in the generally good intentions of mankind.  Because if I were not such a person, and actually judged people by their actions, I would come to the conclusion that a lot of people DO NOT want people in countries like China to emerge form poverty.  Trade protectionism, apologias for looting dictators like Castro or Chavez, anti-globalization riots, anti-growth initiatives, and calls for rollbacks in fossil fuel consumption all share in common a shocking disregard for people trying to emerge from poverty -- often from folks on the left who purport to be the great defenders of the poor.  I tried to explain the phenomenon before, at least among self-styled "progressives':

Progressives do not like American factories appearing in third world
countries, paying locals wages progressives feel are too low, and
disrupting agrarian economies with which progressives were more
comfortable.  But these changes are all the sum of actions by
individuals, so it is illustrative to think about what is going on in
these countries at the individual level. 

One morning, a rice farmer in southeast Asia might faces a choice.
He can continue a life of brutal, back-breaking labor from dawn to dusk
for what is essentially subsistence earnings.  He can continue to see a
large number of his children die young from malnutrition and disease.
He can continue a lifestyle so static, so devoid of opportunity for
advancement, that it is nearly identical to the life led by his
ancestors in the same spot a thousand years ago.

Or, he can go to the local Nike factory, work long hours (but
certainly no longer than he worked in the field) for low pay (but
certainly more than he was making subsistence farming) and take a shot
at changing his life.  And you know what, many men (and women) in his
position choose the Nike factory.  And progressives hate this.  They
distrust this choice.  They distrust the change.  And, at its heart,
that is what the opposition to globalization is all about - a deep
seated conservatism that distrusts the decision-making of individuals
and fears change, change that ironically might finally pull people out
of untold generations of utter poverty.