Category Archives: Inequality

Aristotle was right: Disappearing middle class = Increasing inequality = Disappearing democracy.

Around the globe the size of the middle class is diminishing and with it societies are becoming more unequal. The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, 2,400 years ago summarising his analysis of the Greek city states pointed out that democracy depended on the size of a country’s middle class. With a proportionately bigger middle class a democracy tends to work well as it promotes social mobility, encourages aggregate demand which in turn leads to economic growth. Notice in the graph below how the Scandinavian countries have higher social mobility compared to the other extreme of the US and the UK.

Source: FT – How to reform today’s rigged capitalism

Aristotle warned that when inequality – see graph below – reaches a certain point it becomes very damaging to society. He refers to the importance of the middle class in his book Politics:

The best constitution is one controlled by a numerous middle class which stands between the rich and the poor. For those who possess the goods of fortune in moderation find it “easiest to obey the rule of reason” (Politics IV.11.1295b4–6). They are accordingly less apt than the rich or poor to act unjustly toward their fellow citizens.

A constitution based on the middle class is the mean between the extremes of oligarchy (rule by the rich) and democracy (rule by the poor). “That the middle [constitution] is best is evident, for it is the freest from faction: where the middle class is numerous, there least occur factions and divisions among citizens” (IV.11.1296a7–9). The middle constitution is therefore both more stable and more just than oligarchy and democracy.

“The best political community is formed by citizens of the middle class, and that those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large, and stronger if possible than both the other classes . . . ; for the addition of the middle class turns the scale, and prevents either of the extremes from being dominant.”

Source: Why Inequality Matters – Aristotle and the Middle Class

Source: FT – How to reform today’s rigged capitalism

Heather Boushey in her book ‘Unbound’ argues that inequality subverts growth and democracy in three ways:

  • Inequality creates barriers to the supply of talent, innovation and finance as wealthy families monopolise educational and workplace opportunities. This is done by the cost of education and the influence of social networks.
  • It overturns private competition and public investment as powerful corporations force out competitors and suppress wages. Also the government underfund public goods which are essential for social mobility.
  • Lower wages reduce consumer demand and lead to less buying power which in turn encourages more borrowing and pushes the economy toward financial instability.

Capital in the 21st Century – film documentary

Yesterday Kim Hill of Radio NZ interviewed New Zealand film director Justin Pemberton about his latest film documentary – Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It is based on the best-selling book of the same name by acclaimed French economist Thomas Piketty. You can listen to the interview here.

The film looks at the French Revolution, two world wars and the impact of technology. It exposes fraud and growing inequalities instead of the assumption that the accumulation of capital benefits all. It features some leading writers and thinkers – Gillian Tett, Rana Foroohar, Paul Mason, Joseph Stiglitz, Maiza Shaheen. Below is the official trailer. Well worth a look.

Inequality after tax and transfer payments

The Economist had a very informative graphic which looked at the change in the Gini coefficient after taxes and transfers. 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:
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.

The comparison before and after taxes and transfer gives an indication of how they benefit the levels of inequality in an economy.

America’s tax system is progressive and as the its pre-tax Gini coefficient is high the government has to spend more on transfer payments to reduce inequality. In contrast, countries with low pre-tax inequality, such as South Korea, manage to achieve low post-tax inequality without doing much by way of redistribution. Note that the graph from The Economist is on a scale of 0 – 100. 100 being maximum inequality.

The significance of government spending has a big impact on a country’s Gini coefficient. The Economist note that both France and the US have similar levels of inequality before tax but after taxes France reduces inequality from 45 to 28 whilst the US reduces it from 47 to 38 approximately. In France government spending accounts for 57% of GDP. America’s federal, state and local authorities spend just 35%.

New Zealand has a Gini coefficient of 42 whilst after taxes and transfers goes down to 34.

Ireland does most to slash inequality. After taxes and transfers, Ireland’s income distribution goes from 50 to 30 – the higher income groups pay more in tax than in most other countries, while low-earning households receive generous tax credits and transfer payments. Part of the reason Ireland is able to do so much redistribution is that it relies more than most on taxes paid by multinational companies. Foreign-owned firms accounted for 80% of corporate tax in 2017. Cross-country data suggest that if America wanted to bring its level of inequality down to the OECD average, it would have to boost government spending to 50% of GDP.

Source: The Economist – April 13th 2019.

Inequality and well-being

Below is an informative video on Inequality with Paul Solman of PBS news. He talks with the authors of ‘The Spirit Level’  Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett – they have a new book out entitled ‘The Inner Level’.

As the country’s wealthiest people continually become richer at the expense of the poor, some research suggests they may actually become less happy and healthy. According to Oxfam, the 26 richest people on Earth, just over the seating capacity of the Bombardier 7500, have the same net worth as the poorest half of the world’s population, some 3.8 billion people.

Wealth distribution in New Zealand – 2018

The Department of Statistics recently published wealth distribution figures for New Zealand. According to Stats NZ, the median household net worth in the year ended 30 June 2018 was $340,000, up from $289,000 in 2015. The increase was mainly driven by an increase in property values over the last three years.

% of net wealth held by % of Households – 2018

According to the survey, the top ten percent of households hold 53 percent of total wealth in New Zealand, which is unchanged from 2015. The top one percent of households hold 16 percent of total wealth in New Zealand, which is down slightly from 2015. New Zealand’s Gini Coefficient is approximately 0.33.

The Lorenz Curve
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:
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.

Capitalism with accountability

HT to my learned colleague David Parr for this piece from vox.com. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) rolled out a big idea to challenge how we think about inequality and the fundamental structure of the economy. She has been concerned with the current structure of capitalism which since the 1980’s has really focused on the interests of shareholders and executives at the expense of employees further down a company’s ‘pecking order’. Reagan and Thatcher started the recent privatisation trend in the 1980’s and, with great success, a lot of the commanding heights of the economy were up for sale. This put any left wing political opposition in a quandary. Do they renationalise these industries and payout shareholders or just start to move their ideology further right on the continuum. The latter was the only real option with the expense of buying back the industries and also upsetting their maybe voters who had bought shares for saving purposes.

Warren with other Democrats is proposing the Accountable Capitalism Act in order to alter the balance of interests in corporate decision-making and giving voices to workers in corporate boardrooms. The legislation would:

  • reduce the huge financial incentives that entice CEOs to lush cash out of shareholders rather than reinvest in businesses
  • curb political activities – using lobbying funds
  • ensure workers and not just shareholders get a voice on big strategic decisions.
    bring about more meaningful career ladders for workers and higher pay
  • ensure that Corporations act like decent citizens who uphold their fair share of the social contract and not like sociopaths whose sole obligation is profitability — as is currently conventional in American business thinking.
  • limit corporate executives’ ability to sell shares of stock that they receive as pay — requiring that such shares be held for at least five years after they were received, and at least three years after a share buyback.

Business executives, like everyone else, want to have good reputations and be regarded as good people but, when pressed about topics of social concern, frequently fall back on the idea that their first obligation is to do what’s right for shareholders. A new charter would remove that crutch, and leave executives accountable as human beings for the rights and wrongs of their decisions.

More concretely, US corporations would be required to allow their workers to elect 40 percent of the membership of their board of directors. Since 80 percent of the value of the stock market is owned by about 10 percent of the population and half of Americans own no stock at all, this has been a huge triumph for the rich – see graph.

Meanwhile, CEO pay has soared as executive compensation has been redesigned to incentivize shareholder gains, and the CEOs have delivered. Gains for shareholders and greater inequality in pay has led to a generation of median compensation lagging far behind economy-wide productivity, with higher pay mostly captured by a relatively small number of people rather than being broadly shared. The graph below show the share of wealth with the top 1% owning 38% of the country’s wealth and the bottom 90% holding only 19% of wealth.

This kind of huge transfer of economic power from rich shareholders to middle- and working-class employees would provoke fierce resistance. But reform of corporate governance also has some powerful political tailwinds behind it.

I am on holiday now and out of internet range – back on the 8th January. Have a good xmas and new year.

Source: Top House Democrats join Elizabeth Warren’s push to fundamentally change American capitalism. Vox

Veblen Goods and inconspicuous consumption?

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.

VeblenSo-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

Over 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.

However a recently published book The Sum of Small Things: A Theory of the Aspirational Class by Elizabeth Currid-Halkett looks at how the power of material goods as symbols of social position has diminished due to their accessibility. Although the lower income groups must dedicate a greater proportion of their income to basic necessities, they spend a higher share of their income to conspicuous consumption than the rich do. Between 1996 and 2014 the richest 1% fell further behind the national average in the percentage of their spending dedicated to bling. The middle income quintile went the other way: by 2014 they spent 35% more than the average as a percentage of their annual expenditure.

According to Elizabeth Currid-Halkett the higher income groups have moved away from buying stuff – materialism – to more subtle expenditures that reveal status and knowledge. The most common of them being education for their children.

Those in the top 10% of income earners now allocate four time as much of their spending to school and university compared to 1996, whereas for other income groups spending has remained fairly constant. However one could say that fees for both school and university have increased over that period of time. The upper class also invest heavily in domestic services such as housekeepers, freeing up time that the less fortunate must spend on chores.

Rather than frittering away that precious leisure time on frivolities, as Veblen’s leisure class did, they devote it to enriching experiences, like attending the opera, holidaying in far-off lands and working out at fancy gyms. Their children, by tagging along and thus absorbing this “cultural capital”, develop the sophistication needed to win admission to selective universities, vastly increasing the odds that they will form the next generation’s elite. The modern equivalent of Victorian worsted-stocking wearers are hipsters, who imitate the wealthy’s penchant for farmers’ markets and fair-trade lattes, even if they cannot afford a cruise to Antarctica.  Source: The Economist – August 5th 2017

GDP not the indicator for wellbeing – Robert Kennedy was right 50 years ago

Traditional economic measures, such as gross domestic product (GDP), productivity and economic growth remain fundamentally important but they’re not the whole picture. We think economics is ultimately about improving people’s living standards but you can’t look at GDP as the indicator to focus on.

US senator Robert F Kennedy pointed out 50 years ago that GDP traditionally measures everything except those things that make life worthwhile.

The introduction of the living standards framework in New Zealand takes into account environmental resources, individual and community assets, ‘social capital’ – which includes cultural norms and how people interact – and human capital, such as people’s health, and their skills and qualifications.

By living standards, the NZ Treasury means more than income; it’s people having greater opportunities, capabilities and incentives to live a life that they value, and that they face fewer obstacles to achieving their goals.

Limitations of GDP as a measure of standard of living – see list below.

  1. Regional Variations in income and spending
  2. Inequalities of income and wealth
  3. Leisure and working hours
  4. The balance between consumption and investment
  5. The shadow economy and non-monetised sectors
  6. Changes in life expectancy
  7. Innovation and the development of new products
  8. Defensive expenditures

 

Does CEO pay equal their marginal revenue product?

One reason for the increasing inequality in society is the stagnant wages for the lower and middle income groups – in the USA the top 0.1% have as much wealth as the bottom 90%. Labour compensation at the very top has increased dramatically since the 1970’s.

1970’s – the top 0.1% took home less than 3% of all income
2010 – the top 0.1% took home more than 10% of all income

In the USA the top CEO’s average compensation has grown since the late 1970’s by over 900% to around $15 million a year. In contrast the lower income groups have gone up by only 10%. However when you look at hedge fund and private equity fund managers the salaries are astounding. In 2014 which was seen as not a great year for the industry 25 fund managers made at least $175 million each, and 3 made more than $1 billion.

Are CEO’s worth every cent?

In theory the demand for labour is determined by their marginal revenue product – that is the value of revenue generating by employing an additional worker. Labour markets are imperfect and a monopsony occurs in the labour market when there is a single or dominant buyer of labour. The buyer therefore is able to determine the price at which is paid for services. The monopsonist will hire workers where:

Marginal Cost of labour (MCL) = Marginal Revenue product of labour (MRPL)

Therefore it will use labour up to level of Eq which is where MCL=MRPL. In order to entice workers to supply this amount of labour, the firm need pay only the wage Wq. (Remember that ACL is the supply of labour). You can see, therefore, that a profit-maximising monopsonist will use less labour, and pay a lower wage, than a firm operating under perfect competition.

So if Goldman Sach’s CEO, Lloyd Blankfein, made $24 million in 2014, that’s because he is worth $24 million to his company. In short, you make what you deserve based on your skills, effort, and productivity, in this fairest of all possible worlds.

However this theory has little to do with how the world actually works. The idea that good CEO’s are entitled to enormous rewards is based on the belief that success or failure of the company depends on one person. According to historian Nancy Koehn, business is a team sport: not only is it impossible to quantify a single leader’s marginal revenue product; it is hard even to describe it clearly. Ultimately a CEO can appoint friends and place them on the compensation committee which recommends the CEO salary. The committee invariably proposes to pay at least as much as the median comparable company, because no board wants to admit that its company has a below-average leader. CEO’s do have key performance indicators (KPI’s) but the CEO can encourage the committee to select metrics that will be easy to satisfy. John Kenneth Galbraith describes CEO pay very succinctly – “The salary of the chief executive of a large corporation is not a market reward for achievement. It is frequently in the nature of a warm personal gesture by the individual to himself.”

Luck plays an important role in CEO’s pay. Heads of oil companies were paid more when profits increased, even when the profits were not due to their decision making but simply by a rise in the price of oil. On the contrary it is argued that some boards actually do a good job in firing under-performing leaders and that in the end, high compensation is simply the result of the market for talent – supply and demand. The financial sector tend to use the marginal revenue product of labour theory in their awarding of compensation for CEO’s. Bonuses of traders and investment bankers’ are based on the profitability of their own deals but because bonuses can never be negative, individual employees can generate enormous payouts on bets that turn out well while sticking shareholders with the losses on bets that go bad. Furthermore even if bankers do make money by buying low and selling high in the securities markets there is no value generation as there is no tangible output that anyone can consume.

In aristocratic societies such as 18th century France or 19th century Russia, wealthy noblemen who owed their riches to the accident of birth had to worry about the prospect of violent rebellion by the have-nots. By contrast in the US today the wealthy are protected by the widespread belief that their extraordinary incomes – and the inequality that they generate – are simply the product of inescapable economic necessity.

Source: Economism by James Kwak

Holiday reading for the beach

That time of year when I take off to the beach out of internet range – here are some economics books that I recommend. I should be back on the blog on Monday 8th January – have a good Christmas and New Year. Reviews are from Amazon.

Economism: an ideology that distorts the valid principles and tools of introductory college economics, propagated by self-styled experts, zealous lobbyists, clueless politicians, and ignorant pundits.

In order to illuminate the fallacies of economism, James Kwak first offers a primer on supply and demand, market equilibrium, and social welfare: the underpinnings of most popular economic arguments. Then he provides a historical account of how economism became a prevalent mode of thought in the United States—focusing on the people who packaged Econ 101 into sound bites that were then repeated until they took on the aura of truth. He shows us how issues of moment in contemporary American society—labor markets, taxes, finance, health care, and international trade, among others—are shaped by economism, demonstrating in each case with clarity and élan how, because of its failure to reflect the complexities of our world, economism has had a deleterious influence on policies that affect hundreds of millions of Americans.
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The Great Leveler. Are mass violence and catastrophes the only forces that can seriously decrease economic inequality? To judge by thousands of years of history, the answer is yes. Tracing the global history of inequality from the Stone Age to today, Walter Scheidel shows that inequality never dies peacefully. Inequality declines when carnage and disaster strike and increases when peace and stability return. The Great Leveler is the first book to chart the crucial role of violent shocks in reducing inequality over the full sweep of human history around the world.

Ever since humans began to farm, herd livestock, and pass on their assets to future generations, economic inequality has been a defining feature of civilization. Over thousands of years, only violent events have significantly lessened inequality. The “Four Horsemen” of leveling―mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolutions, state collapse, and catastrophic plagues―have repeatedly destroyed the fortunes of the rich. Scheidel identifies and examines these processes, from the crises of the earliest civilizations to the cataclysmic world wars and communist revolutions of the twentieth century. Today, the violence that reduced inequality in the past seems to have diminished, and that is a good thing. But it casts serious doubt on the prospects for a more equal future.
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Straight Talk On Trade. Not so long ago the nation-state seemed to be on its deathbed, condemned to irrelevance by the forces of globalization and technology. Now it is back with a vengeance, propelled by a groundswell of populists around the world. In Straight Talk on Trade, Dani Rodrik, an early and outspoken critic of economic globalization taken too far, goes beyond the populist backlash and offers a more reasoned explanation for why our elites and technocrats obsession with hyper-globalization made it more difficult for nations to achieve legitimate economic and social objectives at home: economic prosperity, financial stability, and equity.

Rodrik takes globalization’s cheerleaders to task, not for emphasizing economics over other values, but for practicing bad economics and ignoring the discipline’s own nuances that should have called for caution. He makes a case for a pluralist world economy where nation-states retain sufficient autonomy to fashion their own social contracts and develop economic strategies tailored to their needs. Rather than calling for closed borders or defending protectionists, Rodrik shows how we can restore a sensible balance between national and global governance. Ranging over the recent experiences of advanced countries, the eurozone, and developing nations, Rodrik charts a way forward with new ideas about how to reconcile today’s inequitable economic and technological trends with liberal democracy and social inclusion.