Category Archives: Inequality

The Elephant Curve – Inequality and Populism

I blogged on this topic late last year – Inequality and the Elephant Curve – but is it correct? – and see that Paul Solman of PBS news has done his own evaluation on the topic – see video and image below. The curve shows the % change in income on the vertical axis and on the horizontal axis is the entire world population, arranged by their incomes – poorest over to the left, the richest to the right. The time period is from 1988 to 2008.

We knew that people in China and large numbers of groups in Asia who were not rich, compared to Americans, have done very well. We knew that lower and middle class Americans and Japanese and Germans have not done well. And that’s exactly what the chart shows. And we also knew that the top 1 percent in the rich countries have done well.

elephant curve.jpeg

Everybody on that chart is above the point where we actually have zero growth. If you really were to be very cosmopolitan and look at the world as if it were one country, you would say, “Look, we have a situation that a large hunk of people — two and a half billion — have done extremely well. The level of global poverty has actually gone down. These people not only now have sewage and electricity, some have even become tourists. They have better jobs.” This is mainly resurgent Asia.

So then you say, “Well, what’s the big deal?”

The problem is that this is a very abstract view of the world, which doesn’t take any cognizance of the political reality. Because the political reality is there are all these people who have done poorly relative to the rest of the world. They feel poor people in Asia breathing down their necks because of outsourcing, because of imports and so on. And then they also see that the top 1 percent in their own countries have done very well.

They are feeling fear from both ends — from one end because the other people are catching up to them and from the other, as people from their own countries are moving further and further ahead.

Source: Branko Milanovic Author, “Global Inequality”:

 

 

Strong case for a Universal Basic Income in India but is it realistic?

UBI IndiaI have blogged about the UBI and read about how India would provide a strong case for its implementation. The rationale for this is the fact that India’s welfare programmes (950 that the central government run) are numerous, inefficiently run and encourage corruption. Add to those the programmes run by each state and you have a bureaucratic nightmare unfolding. However this has been part of Indian society and not so long ago it took businesses 6 months to acquire a permit to import computers. The UBI was raised as an alternative to the inefficiency of welfare handouts and this unconditional cash payment be disbursed not just to the poor but to everyone. In more advanced countries the case for UBI is based on technology making many jobs obsolete and no new jobs being created in their place. Although this is not the case in India and it warrants the UBI for other reasons:

1. UBI is easier to administer than India’s current antipoverty programmes which largely take the form of subsidies paid to sellers of grain, fuel, fertilizer and other essentials. Current programmes are plagued by waste, corruption and abuse. UBI would save 2.07% of GDP.

2. By making everyone eligible, a universal basic income removes the messy task of identifying who is and who isn’t in need of assistance.

3. By paying money directly into bank accounts, it would allow India to do away with the vast administrative machinery currently needed to supply the poor with cheap wheat, rice and other goods.

4. By one estimate, around one-third of the grain set aside for India’s food-welfare program never reached the intended beneficiaries in 2012, the most recent year for which comprehensive data are available. Payments under a giant rural-work program are regularly delayed, leaving families in the lurch.

5. paying a basic income directly into bank accounts would encourage more people to use formal financial services, which would then help banks invest in expanding access to banks and ATMs.

Concerns

1.  households—“especially male members”—may fritter away their basic income on liquor and tobacco

2. India’s underdeveloped financial infrastructure could make it hard for many people to access their entitlements. According to the World Bank, there are only around 20 ATMs for every 100,000 adults in India, compared with 70 in South Africa, 114 in Brazil and 132 in the U.K. Although the government says it has helped open 260 million bank accounts since 2014, one-third of Indian adults remain unbanked.

3. The government paper suggests that 25% of the population should be excluded in order to make it more affordable. However deciding who is poor and who isn’t an easy task especially when over 35% of the richest 1% of Indians benefit from subsidized food to which they are not entitled.

4. There is a risk that a UBI would just supplement the welfare programmes rather than replacing them.

Source: The Economist – Wall Street Journal

Global change in real income – 1988-2008

Below is graphic from ANZ Bank showing the change in real income between 1988 and 2008 at various percentiles of global income distribution (calculated in 2005 international dollars). Global inequality has improved except for the upper middle class.

income-inequality

Some comparisons of income distribution:

  • An American having the average income of the bottom U.S. decile is better-off than 2/3 of world population.
  • The richest 1% of people in the world receive as much as the bottom 57%, or in other words, less than 50 million richest people receive as much as 2.7 billion poor.
  • The three richest people possess more financial assets than the poorest 10% of the world’s population, combined.
  • In 2005, the three richest people in the world have total assets that exceed the annual combined GDP of the 47 countries with the least GDP.
  • In 2005, the 125 richest people in the world have assets that exceed the annual combined GDP of all the least developed countries.
  • In January this year Oxfam calculated that the eight richest men in the world own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorest half of humanity.

The world’s 8 richest people are, in order of net worth:

1. Bill Gates: America founder of Microsoft (net worth $75 billion)
2. Amancio Ortega: Spanish founder of Inditex which owns the Zara fashion chain (net worth $67 billion)
3. Warren Buffett: American CEO and largest shareholder in Berkshire Hathaway (net worth $60.8 billion)
4. Carlos Slim Helu: Mexican owner of Grupo Carso (net worth: $50 billion)
5. Jeff Bezos: American founder, chairman and chief executive of Amazon (net worth: $45.2 billion)
6. Mark Zuckerberg: American chairman, chief executive officer, and co-founder of Facebook (net worth $44.6 billion)
7. Larry Ellison: American co-founder and CEO of Oracle  (net worth $43.6 billion)
8. Michael Bloomberg: American founder, owner and CEO of Bloomberg LP (net worth: $40 billion)

Sources: ANZ Bank, Wikipedia, Oxfam International

Economics – Holiday Reading.

I will be disappearing for a couple of weeks to the beach where there is no internet access. Therefore here are some books that might be worthwhile reading over the festive season – reviews are from amazon.com. I will be back again on 10th January – have a great xmas and new year.

makers-and-takersMakers and Takers: The Rise of Finance and the Fall of American Business by Rana Foroohar

Eight years on from the biggest market meltdown since the Great Depression, the key lessons of the crisis of 2008 still remain unlearned—and our financial system is just as vulnerable as ever. Many of us know that our government failed to fix the banking system after the subprime mortgage crisis. But what few of us realize is how the misguided financial practices and philosophies that nearly toppled the global financial system have come to infiltrate ALL American businesses, putting us on a collision course for another cataclysmic meltdown.

 

 

Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup by Andrew Zimbalist

Circus Maximus.jpgThe numbers are staggering: China spent $40 billion to host the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing and Russia spent $50 billion for the 2014 Sochi Winter Games. Brazil’s total expenditures are thought to have been as much as $20 billion for the World Cup this summer and Qatar, which will be the site of the 2022 World Cup, is estimating that it will spend $200 billion. How did we get here? And is it worth it? Both the Olympics and the World Cup are touted as major economic boons for the countries that host them, and the competition is fierce to win hosting rights. Developing countries especially see the events as a chance to stand in the world’s spotlight. This book is also reviewed here by Michael Cameron on his blog Sex, Drugs and Economics.

 

 

Global Inequality: A New Approach for the Age of Globalization by Branko Milanovic

Global Inequality.jpgThis is a scholarly book about global inequality, that is, ‘income inequality among citizens of the world’. It is, as Milanovic explains, ‘the sum of all national inequalities plus the sum of all gaps in mean incomes among countries’.

In his study, Milanovic focusses on the Kuznets hypothesis – that in industrialized countries, inequality will initially increase and then decrease, resulting in an inverted U-shaped curve. In recent times, inequality seems to be rising when all the factors indicate that it should have followed the Kuznets curve. Milanovic explains why the projected pattern did not materialise. One can point to ‘the hollowing of the middle class and the rising political importance of the rich’, but there are other factors. Milanovic explains the phenomenon through the historical data of the Kuznets curve in countries across the world.

This is a learned, but dry and technical treatise on a subject that seems to evade comprehension even by renowned economists and political scientists. That is not to say that Milanovic is a boring writer. This book will be appealing to economic and political science students, but the general reader may find Milanovic’s 2011 book, ‘The Haves and the Have-nots’ more interesting and palatable.

US needs a new direction

Jeffrey Sachs wrote a very good piece in the Boston Globe regarding the way forward for the US economy. Some interesting data:

  • 1.4% GDP between 2009-2015 when it was projected at 2.7%
  • 81% of Americans experienced flat or falling incomes between 2005-2014
  • 1980 – top 1% earn 10% of income
  • 2015 – top 1% earn 22% of income
  • 10% unemployment in October 2009 – dropped to 4.9% today. Mainly caused by those of working age leaving the labour force entirely.
  • Employment relative to working age (25-54) in 2000 was 81.5%. In 2015 it was 77.2%
  • US Treasury debt owed:
  • – 2007 = 35% of GDP
  • – 2015 = 75% of GDP
  • – 2026 = 86% of GDP – forecast
  • – 2036 = 110% of GDP – forecast

Issues with the US Economy

US manufacturing jobs have shifted overseas – remember NAFTA. Northern Mexico saw a huge influx of US companies as they took advantage of cheaper labour costs.

Automation – the advent of smart machines seems to be shifting income from workers to capital, driving down wages and leading to frustration of low wage workers.

As well as debt sustainability the US economy needs to shift its reliance on carbon-based energy to non carbon energy sources – hydro, wind, solar etc. Some have argued that the US has simply run out of big new inventions to sustain growth levels but ultimately the world has got to change its model as resources will eventually run out. We can’t keep relying on people buying more and more stuff to maintain growth or the Chinese building more cities and blowing up and rebuilding bridges.

Sustainable Development 

Jeffrey Sachs argues that sustainable development works best when it focuses simultaneously on 3 big issues:

  1. Promoting economic growth and decent jobs
  2. Promoting fairness to women, the poor, and minority groups
  3. Promoting environmental sustainability.

US growth has tended to focus on economic growth and neglect inequality and environmental issues. Future growth needs to focus less on current consumption but investment in future knowledge, education, skills, health, infrastructure and environmental protection. Furthermore if the investment is carried out efficiently the economy can growth in an environmentally safe as well as being fair. Good investment requires two things:

  1. Planning – need to overcome complex challenges for our future – e.g. energy
  2. Public investment  – replacement of a crumbling infrastructure – roads, bridges, water systems, seaports etc

Jeffrey Sachs recent research measured how 150 countries performed with regard to sustainable development and the progress that countries will need to make to achieve the recently adopted SDGs – see image below. The Scandinavian countries came in top – Sweden, Denmark, Norway – the US was 22nd out of the 34 high-income countries whilst Canada was 11th.

Click the link below for an article on income inequality from the Boston Globe by Jeffrey Sachs

Facing up to income inequality

Sustainable Development Goals_E_Final sizes

Inequality and the Elephant Curve – but is it correct?

Below is a very interesting video from the FT about the Globalisation and Income Inequality. Globalisation is often held responsible for the problems of inequality in the world today. The elephant chart seems to explain why globalization has been blamed – see below. The chart shows income growth across the globe from 1988-2008 and how middle income people across the world (e.g.China) have had a significant growth in income as have the super rich. However some income groups have suffered namely the lower middle classes who have experienced almost no growth over the last 30 years.

elephant-curve

However the Resolution Foundation in the UK produced a paper entitled “Examining an elephant: globalisation and the lower middle class of the rich world” which focused on whether and to what extent the conclusions from the graph are justifed, by digging into the data underpinning the elephant curve.

Policy makers and commentators looking to understand how income growth has actually been experienced risk drawing the wrong, or overly- strong, conclusions without a detailed understanding of what lies behind the elephant curve. Their analysis of the underlying data shows:

  1. Overall income growth is understated because of changing country selection. The chart is not about the income growth rates of particular people. For example, the globally poor in 1988 and those in 2008 are not necessarily the same groups of people – so growth doesn’t refer to individuals. But furthermore, different countries are included in the 1988 and 2008 datasets that underpin the elephant curve.
  2. Uneven population shifts suppress the recorded income growth of parts of the global distribution. Population changes, rather than just income changes, have driven the income growth distribution in the elephant curve. Because the population of poorer countries has grown disproportionately, and the population share of mature economies has shrunk, average incomes have been dragged down.
  3. The aggregate data hides big variation between developed economies. Further exploring the apparent losers of globalisation, the weak figures for the mature economies as a whole are driven by Japan (reflecting in part its two ‘lost decades’ of growth post-bubble, but primarily due to likely awed data) and by Eastern European states (with large falls in incomes following the collapse of the Soviet Union after 1988).

 

The Birkin Handbag – is it a Veblen Good?

Conspicuous consumption was introduced by economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen in his 1899 book The Theory of the Leisure Class. It is a term used to describe the lavish spending on goods and services acquired mainly for the purpose of displaying income or wealth. In the mind of a conspicuous consumer, such display serves as a means of attaining or maintaining social status.

Economists and sociologists often cite the 1980’s as a time of extreme conspicuous consumption. The yuppie materialised as the key agent of conspicuous consumption in the US. Yuppies didn’t need to purchase BMWs or Mercedes’ cars for example; they did so in order to show off their wealth. This period had its origins in the 1930’s with Austrian economists Ludwig von Mises and Fredrick von Hayek – the latter being the author of “The Road to Serfdom”, in which he said that social spending rather than private consumption would lead inevitably to tyranny. Margaret Thatcher (UK Prime Minister 1979-1990) and Ronald Reagan (US President 1981-1989) believed in this ideology and cut taxes and privatised the commanding heights in a move to a free market environment.

So-called Veblen goods (also as know as snob value goods) reverse the normal logic of economics in that the higher the price the more demand for the product – see graph below

VeblenOver the last three decades conspicuous consumption has accelerated at a phenomenal level in the industrial world. Self-gratification could no longer be delayed and an ever-increasing variety of branded products became firmly ingrained within our individuality. The myth that the more we have the happier we become is self-perpetuating: the more we consume, the less able we are to tackle the myth.

The Economist 1843 bi-monthly magazine had a very good article on Hermès’s Birkin handbag (named after Jane Birkin, an Anglo-French actress who spilled the contents of a overfull straw bag in front of Jean-Louis Dumas, Hermès’s chief executive) and how it has become one of the world’s most expensive – prices start at $7,000; in June Christie’s Hong Kong sold a matte Himalayan crocodile-skin Birkin with a ten-carat diamond-studded white-gold clasp and lock for $300,168. The rationale for its expense is that it is hand crafted and can take up to 18 hours to complete although the production cost is estimated to be around $800.

Birkin Bag

One would think that this would be a Veblen Good – a good in which the higher the price the more demanded. However there are a couple of ways that the Birkin handbag is not.

1. The bag is not all that conspicuous as although most people can identify Gucci, Louis Vuitton or Chanel, a Birkin is not so easy to find. In fact it is an inconspicuous but expensive bag. This theory was explained in the article “Signalling status with luxury goods: the role of brand prominence” from the Journal of Marketing (2010). It divided the high income earners into two groups;

Parvenus – who want to associate themselves with other high income groups and distinguish themselves from those who do not have material wealth.

Patricians –  who want to signal to other people in their high income bracket and not to the masses. They are of the belief that more expensive luxury goods aimed at them will have less obvious branding than cheaper products made by the same company. This was achieved with smaller logos for more expensive items and larger ones for cheaper goods which are aimed at the masses. People who cannot afford the luxury items will buy the big logo items (louder products) and this is where the counterfeiters have a field day.

2. Normally producers of Veblen goods should raise the price till the point where the demand curve starts to follow it normal shape – downward sloping from left to right. However with Birkin they maintain its exclusivity not by raising the price but by limiting the supply. Unlike other Veblen goods you just can’t walk into a shop and buy a Birkin bag – you have to place an order and wait for it to arrive. But you would wonder why they don’t sell more and make more money? It is a supply constraint – limited availability of high-quality skins and craftspeople to make them – it takes two years training. Hermès suggests, Birkins are mined, not simply made.

Commercial Reasons to limit supply of Birkins

Rationing by supply rather than price does make good commercial sense for the following reasons:

1. It gives Hermès a buffer as if demand drops, sales will not.

2. It creates excess demand for the bags, which overflows into demand for other Hermès products – wallets, belts, beach towels etc.

3. Profitability in the short run would reduce its exclusiveness as the main buyers of the bags would eventually be those concerned with social climbing. Therefore the rich may lose interest in the bags and so will those that aspire to be like them.

However I not sure Hermès actually want you to buy their amazingly expensive bag.

Should we stop consumption?

Geoffrey Miller is his book – Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behaviour – examines conspicuous consumption in order to rectify marketing’s poor understanding of human spending behaviour and consumerist culture. His thesis is that marketing influences people—particularly the young—that the most effectual means to show that status is through consumption choices, rather than conveying such traits as intelligence and personality through more natural means of communication, such as simple conversation. He argues that marketers still tend to use naive models of human nature that are uninformed by advances in evolutionary psychology and behavioural ecology. As a result, marketers “still believe that premium products are bought to display wealth, status, and taste, and they miss the deeper mental traits that people are actually wired to display—traits such as kindness, intelligence, and creativity.

The recent recession has sent out a few mixed messages. Firstly there has been the reduction in consumption as people’s credit lines have dried up but there are those that believe that you should spend more to maintain growth and employment in the economy. With household budgets being very tight smarter consumption rather than less consumption has been advocated by Geoffrey Miller. He refers to this as more ethical consumption where the production of produce does not involve the abuse of natural resources or the exploitation of people or animals.

Rural China making a more equal society

The presence of technology in rural China is evidence that it is not just the booming cities that are the sources of growth. Furthermore, it suggests that inequality which has been symbolised by the ‘country versus city’ divide is now starting to decline.

Since the 1980’s China has gone through massive growth but it hasn’t been evenly shared. Income inequality is traditionally measured by using the Gini coefficient.

The Gini Coefficient is derived from the same information used to create a Lorenz Curve. The co-efficient indicates the gap between two percentages: the percentage of population, and the percentage of income received by each percentage of the population. In order to calculate this you divide the area between the Lorenz Curve and the 45° line by the total area below the 45° line eg.
Area between the Lorenz Curve and the 45° line  ÷  Total area below the 45° line

The resulting number ranges between:Lorenz 2

0 = perfect equality where say, 1% of the population = 1% of income, and

1 = maximum inequality where all the income of the economy is acquired by a single recipient.

* The straight line (45° line) shows absolute equality of income. That is, 10% of the households earn 10% of income, 50% of households earn 50% of income.

In 2010 China’s Gini coefficient was 0.61 which was one of the world’s most unequal countries however officially it has been falling for seven years from 0.49 in 2008 to 0.46 in 2015. Rural incomes have grown more quickly that their urban counterparts – in 2009 the average urban income was 3.3 times that of a rural worker but now it is 2.7 times. Many of those living in rural areas actually work in cities but are prevented from living there because of the strict residency system. Also companies have now been looking to the rural areas for cheap labour.

But at the top end you would get the impression that inequality of wealth is extremely high – wealth = what you own, as opposed to what you earn. China has more dollar billionaires (596) than the USA (537). Research has shown that 1% of the population control a 1/3 of China’s assets.

A Level Revision: Comparing living standards over time and between countries

National income figures, usually GDP at factor cost, are the man figures used to compare living standards. This is because most countries keep and publish detailed national income data.

However, care has to be taken in using national income figures to compare living standards both over time and between countries. It is important to use GDP at constant prices (i.e. real national income) so that a misleading impression is not given because of the effects of inflation. It is also important to take into account differences in population size. A country with a large population is likely to produce more than a country with a small population. However, this output has to be shared out among more people so living standards are not necessarily higher. This is why economist divide output by population and compare real GDP per capita. Even when adjustments have been made for inflation and differences in population size, national income figures as a measure of living standards have to be interpreted cautiously.

A rise in real GDP per capital may have resulted from an increase in the output of capital goods. In the longer run this will increase productive capacity and result in more consumer goods being produced. However, in the short run people may not feel any benefit from more capital goods being made. An increase in weapons will also increase GDP but, again, may not necessarily improve living standards. If more police are employed and crime is reduced, the quality of people’s lives will be improved. However, if more police are employed to keep pace with rising crime, people will be feeling worse off. So economists have to look not only at the amount of goods and services produced but also at the composition of those goods and why the quantity has changed. In addition, the quality of goods and services produced should be examined. The same quantity could be produced this year as last year or five years ago but if the quality of the output has risen, living standards will have improved.

The distribution of income also has to be taken into account. National income may rise but if it is concentrated in the hands of a few, the living standards of the majority may not rise. See graph below from The Economist showing the Gini coefficient of income inequality.

Gini Coef Nordic

National income figures also fail to take into account some items which affect the quality of people’s lives. A certain amount of economic activity is not declared, either to avoid paying taxes or because it is illegal. If there is an increase in, say, people providing home hairdressing services but not declaring them, people’s living standards may rise, although this increase will not be reflected in the official figures.

Differences in working hours and working conditions are also not taken into account. If output remains constant but working hours fall, people are likely to have a higher quality of life.

National income figures only take into account economic activities for which a payment is made. They do not take into account externalities and non-marketed activities. So, for example, an increase in pollution will reduce living standards while an increase in people decorating the homes of old people, on a voluntary basis, will improve the quality of life of the elderly. Neither of these will be recorded in national income figures.

All of these factors have to be taken into account in using national income figures to make comparisons both over time and between countries. However, some additional factors have to be considered when making international comparisons. Different statistical methods are employed in some countries and the degree of accuracy can vary. Tastes and needs can be different in different countries. For example, people living in a cold climate have to spend more on heating than those in warm countries, merely to enjoy the same standard of living. There is also the problem of selecting a rate of exchange to make the comparison. Exchange rate fluctuate and do not always reflect relative prices in compared using purchasing power parities which compare the cost of a given basket of goods in different countries.

Inequality – 'The Price We Pay'

Below is a trailer to the documentary ‘The Price We Pay’. The present-day reality of big-business tax avoidance has been extremely prevalent in the news. Multinationals have been depriving governments of trillions of dollars in tax revenues by hiding profits in offshore havens. Tax havens, originally created by London bankers in the 50s, today put over half the world’s stock of money beyond reach of  public treasuries. Tax avoidance by big corporations and the wealthy are leading to historic levels of inequality and placing the tax burden on the middle class and the poor.