1 percent

How do you like them facts?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 12/09/2017 - 11:00pm in

wage-inequality

Apologists for mainstream economics (such as Noah Smith) like to claim that things are OK because good empirical research is crowding out bad theory.

I have no doubt about the fact that the theory of mainstream economics has been bad. But is the empirical research any better?

Not, as I see it, in the academy, in the departments that are dominated by mainstream economics. But there is interesting empirical work going on elsewhere, including of all places in the International Monetary Fund (as I have noted before, e.g., here and here).

The latest, from Mai Dao, Mitali Das, Zsoka Koczan, and Weicheng Lian, documents two important facts: the decline in labor’s share of income—in both developed and developing economies—and the relationship between the fall in the labor share and the rise in inequality.

I demonstrate both facts for the United States in the chart above: the labor share (the red line, measured on the left) has been falling since 1970, while the share of income captured by those in the top 1 percent (the blue line, measured on the right) has been rising.

labor shares

Dao et al. make the same argument, both across countries and within countries over time: declining labor shares are associated with rising inequality.

And they’re clearly concerned about these facts, because inequality can fuel social tension and harm economic growth. It can also lead to a backlash against economic integration and outward-looking policies, which the IMF has a clear stake in defending:

the benefits of trade and financial integration to emerging market and developing economies—where they have fostered convergence, raised incomes, expanded access to goods and services, and lifted millions from poverty—are well documented.

But, of course, there are no facts without theories. What is missing from the IMF facts is a theory of how a falling labor share fuels inequality—and, in turn, has created such a reaction against capitalist globalization.

Let me see if I can help them. When the labor share of national income falls—the result of the forces Dao et al. document, such as outsourcing and new labor-saving technologies—the surplus appropriated from those workers rises. Then, when a share of that growing surplus is distributed to those at the top—for example, to those in the top 1 percent, via high salaries and returns on capital ownership—income inequality rises. Moreover, the ability of those at the top to capture the surplus means they are able to shape economic and political decisions that serve to keep workers’ share of national income on its downward slide.

The problem is mainstream economists are not particularly interested in those facts. Or, for that matter, the theory that can make sense of those facts.

Tagged: 1 percent, economics, economists, exploitation, facts, inequality, mainstream, outsourcing, surplus, technology, theory, wages, workers

Still hustling after all these years

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 31/08/2017 - 1:07am in

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By now, everyone knows that Joel Osteen, the Prosperity Gospel preacher in Houston’s Lakewood Church, initially refused to open the doors to shelter the victims of Tropical Storm Harvey.

That’s certainly a good reason for people to hate Osteen.

Kate Bowler [ht: ji], the author of Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel, offers three other reasons for hating Osteen:

#1—Osteen represents the Christian 1 percent

From aerial views of his jaw-dropping mansion to the cut of his navy suits, he always looks like a man with a good reason to be smiling. He is a wealthy man who unapologetically preaches that God has blessed him, with the added bonus that God can bless anyone else, too. The promise of the prosperity gospel is that it has found a formula that guarantees that God always blesses the righteous with health, wealth and happiness. For that reason, churchgoers love to see their preachers thrive as living embodiments of their own message. But the inequality that makes Osteen an inspiration is also what makes him an uncomfortable representation of the deep chasms in the land of opportunity between the haves and the have-nots. When the floodwaters rise, no one wants to see him float by on his yacht, as evidenced by the Christian satire website the Babylon Bee’s shot Tuesday at Osteen: “Joel Osteen Sails Luxury Yacht Through Flooded Houston To Pass Out Copies Of ‘Your Best Life Now.’ ”

#2—There is a lingering controversy around prosperity megachurches and their charitable giving

When a church that places enormous theological weight on tithes and offerings is not a leader in charitable giving, the most obvious question is about who is the primary beneficiary of the prosperity gospel? The everyman or the man at the front?

#3—The Prosperity Gospel’s answer to the question about evil in the world is not unlike the one offered by neoclassical economics

Its central claim — “Everyone can be prosperous!”—contains its own conundrum. How do you explain the persistence of suffering? It might be easier to say to someone undergoing a divorce that there is something redemptive about the lessons they learned, but what about a child with cancer? This week, the prosperity gospel came face-to-face with its own theological limits. It was unable to answer the lingering questions around what theologians call “natural evil.” There is a natural curiosity about how someone like Osteen will react in the face of indiscriminate disaster. Is God separating the sheep from the goats? Will only the houses of the ungodly be flooded? The prosperity gospel has not every found a robust way to address tragedy when their own theology touts that “Everything Happens for a Reason.”

For neoclassical economists, everything happens—good and evil, both prosperity and poverty—because of people’s choices.

I have offered my own reasons for questioning the Prosperity Gospel—what I have called the American Hustle—and yet for taking it seriously—especially in terms of support for Donald Trump.

Tagged: 1 percent, capitalism, Christianity, economics, election, neoclassical, Prosperity Gospel, religion, Trump, United States

Cartoon of the day

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 30/08/2017 - 9:00pm in

What could and should we do about inequality?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 29/08/2017 - 10:00pm in

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Almost very time MFA hears a mainstream economist speak—on topics ranging from the danger of raising the minimum wage to how we all benefit from free trade and globalization—she responds, “Where did they get their degree, from a Cracker Jack box?”

No doubt, she’d react in the same manner if she listened to the members of the closing panel at the 2017 Lindau Meeting on Economic Sciences, who were asked to answer the following question: what could and should we do about inequality?

It’s a terrific question, given the obscene—and still rising—levels of inequality that characterize contemporary capitalism, in the United States and around the world. But those who take the time to watch the video (available here) just aren’t going to learn much about either the causes of inequality or what we can do about it.

Nobel-inequality

The panel consisted of three winners of the so-called Nobel Prize in Economic SciencesDaniel L. McFadden (2000), James J. Heckman (2000), and Christopher A. Pissarides (2000)—and one “young economist,” Rong Hai.

Individually and together, the panelists simply don’t have anything interesting or insightful to say about inequality.

It’s true, none of the men received their Nobel Prizes for research on inequality, although Hai is currently doing research on inequality (e.g., in relation to credit constraints and tax policy). That itself is a comment on how little inequality has figured as an important concern within mainstream economics. And, given the venue, they’re all mainstream economists. Because of that, there’s little they can say—and a great deal they simply can’t say—about inequality.

Their comments (only some of which were actually prepared) range from the obvious—the issue of poverty is different from that of inequality—to the all-too-frequent sidestep—inequality is caused by globalization and technology.

But they don’t have anything to say about contemporary economic and social institutions, especially those of capitalism, or about history. They don’t discuss in any detail the changes in recent decades that have led to the current obscene levels of inequality or, for that matter, the relationship between the factor distribution of income (e.g, between labor and capital) and the size distribution of income (e.g., the growing gap between the 1 percent and everyone else).

Their concern about and knowledge of the causes and consequences of inequality are, at least to judge from their presentations in this panel, stupefyingly limited.

Maybe MFA is right: they did get their degrees from Cracker Jack boxes.

Tagged: 1 percent, capital, capitalism, economics, economists, inequality, labor, mainstream, Nobel Prize

From oligarchs to Soviets—and back again

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 16/08/2017 - 10:00pm in

R-top1

Russia is back in the news again in the United States, with the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election as well as a growing set of links between a variety of figures (including Cabinet and family members) associated with Donald Trump and the regime of Vladimir Putin.

This year is also the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution, which sought to create the conditions for a transition to communism in the midst of a society characterized by various forms of feudalism, peasant communism, and capitalism. But we shouldn’t forget that, in addition, the Red Century has clearly left its mark on the political economy of the West, including the United States—both in the early years, when the “communist threat” undoubtedly led to reforms associated with a more equal distribution of income, and later, when the Fall of the Wall reinforced the neoliberal turn to privatization and deregulation.

Now we have a third reason to think about Russia, which happens to intersect with the first two concerns. A new study of income and wealth data by Filip Novokmet, Thomas Piketty, Gabriel Zucman reveals just how much has changed in Russia from the time of the tsarist oligarchy through the Soviet Union to rise of the new oligarchy during and after the “shock therapy” that served to create a new form of private capitalism under Putin.

As is clear from the chart, income inequality was extremely high in Tsarist Russia, then dropped to very low levels during the Soviet period, and finally rose back to very high levels after the fall of the Soviet Union. Thus, for example, the top 1-percent income share was somewhat close to 20 percent in 1905, dropped to as little as 4-5 percent during the Soviet period, and rose spectacularly to 20-25 percent in recent decades.

R-top1-1980

The data sets used by Novokmet et al. reveal a level of inequality under the new oligarchs that is much higher that was the case using survey data—a top 1-percent income share that is more than double for 2007-08.

R-shares

Novokmet et al. also show that the income shares of the top 10 percent and the bottom 50 percent moved in exactly opposite directions after the privatization of Russian state capitalism in the early 1990s. While the top 10-percent income share rose from less than 25 percent in 1990-1991 to more than 45 percent in 1996, the share of the bottom 50 percent collapsed, dropping from about 30 percent of total income in 1990-1991 to less than 10 percent in 1996, before gradually returning to 15 percent by 1998 and about 18 percent by 2015.

comparison

In comparison to other countries, Russia was much more equal during the Soviet period and, by 2015, had approached a level of inequality higher than that of France and comparable only to that of the United States.

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Finally, Novokmet et al. have been able to estimate the enormous growth of private wealth under the new oligarchy, especially the wealth that was captured by a tiny group at the very top and is now owned by Russia’s billionaires. As the authors explain,

The number of Russian billionaires—as registered in international rankings such as the Forbes list—is extremely high by international standards. According to Forbes, total billionaire wealth was very small in Russia in the 1990s, increased enormously in the early 2000s, and stabilized around 25-40% of national income between 2005 and 2015 (with large variations due to the international crisis and the sharp fall of the Russian stock market after 2008). This is much larger than the corresponding numbers in Western countries: Total billionaire wealth represents between 5% and 15% of national income in the United States, Germany and France in 2005-2015 according to Forbes, despite the fact that average income and average wealth are much higher than in Russia. This clearly suggests that wealth concentration at the very top is significantly higher in Russia than in other countries.

Clearly, there is nothing “natural” about the distribution of income and the ownership of wealth. This new study demonstrates that different economic structures and political events create fundamentally different levels of inequality in both income and wealth, both within and between countries.

The Russian experience is a perfect example how inequality can fall and then, later, be reversed with radical economic and political transformations—thus creating a new oligarchy that dominates the national political economy and seeks to intervene in other countries.

Not unlike the United States.

Tagged: 1 percent, billionaires, chart, economy, income, inequality, politics, revolution, Russia, United States, wealth

Broken

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 10/08/2017 - 10:00pm in

DL

Over the years, I’ve reproduced and created many different charts representing the spectacular rise of inequality in the United States during the past four decades.

Here’s the latest—based on the work of Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman—which, according to David Leonhardt, “captures the rise in inequality better than any other chart or simple summary that I’ve seen.”

I agree.

The chart shows the different rates of change in income between 1980 and 2014 for every point on the distribution. The brown line illustrates the change in the distribution of income in the 34 years before 1980, when those at the bottom saw larger growth than those at the top. In contrast, in the decades leading up to 2014, only those at the very top saw high levels of income growth. Everyone else experienced very little gain.

broken

Lest we forget, however, the U.S. economy was already broken by 1980: the bottom 90 percent only took home about 65 percent of national income, while the top 1 percent managed to capture 10.6 percent of total income in the United States. There was nothing fair about that situation.

A bit like a car that looks good, when shiny and new, but is designed with cheap parts to fail as soon as the warranty expires.

Well, the warranty on the U.S. economy expired in the late 1970s. And then it really began to break down.

By 2014, that already-unequal distribution of income had become truly obscene: the share of income going to the bottom 90 percent had fallen to less than 53 percent, while the share captured by the top 1 percent had soared to over 19 percent.

Leonhardt is right: “there is nothing natural about the distribution of today’s growth — the fact that our economic bounty flows overwhelmingly to a small share of the population.”

Yes, as Leonhardt argues, different policies would produce a somewhat more equal outcome. And, it’s true, “President Trump and the Republican leaders in Congress are trying to go in the other direction.”

But a different economy—a radically different way of organizing economic and social life—would eliminate the conditions that led to unequalizing growth in the first place. Both before 1980 and in the decades since then.

The fact is, the supposed Golden Age of American capitalism was based on a set of institutions that allowed the boards of directors of large corporations to appropriate a growing surplus and to distribute it as they wished. At first, during the immediate postwar period, that meant growing incomes for those in the bottom 90 percent. But, even then, the mechanisms for distributing income remained in the hands of a very small group at the top. And they had both the interest and the means to stop the growth of wages, get even more surplus (from U.S. workers and, increasingly, workers around the globe), and distribute a greater share of that surplus to a tiny group at the very top of the distribution of income.

Those are the mechanisms that need to be challenged and changed. Otherwise, inequality will remain out of control.

Tagged: 1 percent, capitalism, chart, inequality, surplus, United States, wages, workers

Death, taxes, and Trumpcare

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 28/06/2017 - 10:00pm in

bcra

According to Donald Trump, “Nobody Knew Health Care Could Be So Complicated.” But the latest version of the plan to repeal and replace Obamacare, negotiated behind closed doors and finally publicly presented by Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans, isn’t very complicated. In fact, it’s quite simple: the Better Care Reconciliation Act of 2017 trades the health of tens of millions of Americans for tax cuts that would be captured by a tiny group at the top.

According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Senate bill would increase the number of people who are uninsured by 22 million in 2026 relative to the number under current law, only slightly fewer than the increase in the number of uninsured estimated for the House-passed legislation. By 2026, an estimated 49 million people would be uninsured, compared with 28 million who would lack insurance that year under current law.

Moreover, the increase in the number of uninsured people would be disproportionately larger among older people with lower income—particularly people between 50 and 64 years old with income less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s largely because of the cuts to Medicaid, which would result in 15 million fewer Medicaid enrollees by 2026 than projected under current law. The Office also estimates that, by 2026, 7 million fewer people would obtain coverage through the nongroup market—because the penalty for not having insurance would be eliminated and, starting in 2020, because the average subsidy for coverage in that market would be substantially lower for most people currently eligible for subsidies (and for some people that subsidy would be eliminated entirely).

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Tens of thousands (perhaps hundreds of thousands) of additional deaths will occur as a result of the enormous increase in people without health insurance.

As Clio Chang succinctly states:

If we send people to war, people will die. If we consign people to live in poverty, people will die. If we take away health insurance, people will die.

And what will Americans get in exchange for those cuts in healthcare coverage and additional deaths?

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According to the Tax Policy Center, nearly 45 percent of the benefit of the tax cuts proposed in the Senate bill (much as in the bill the House passed) would go to the top 1 percent of households, those making $875,000 or more.

The lowest income 20 percent of households (that will make about $28,000 or less in 2026) would receive an average tax cut of about $180, or 1 percent of their after-tax income. Middle-income households (that will make $55,000-$93,000) would receive an average tax cut of $280, raising their after-tax incomes by about 0.4 percent.

By contrast, the top one percent of households (who will be making $875,000 or more) are in line for an average tax cut of more than $45,000, raising their after-tax incomes by 2 percent. And those in the top 0.1 percent (who will be making $5 million or more) would receive an average tax cut of nearly $250,000, boosting their after-tax incomes by 2.5 percent.

In the coming weeks, Senate Republicans will be debating details of the proposed healthcare plan and cutting deals to get some of their number to drop their opposition and vote with the leadership. That may get complicated (and already has, causing McConnell to delay a vote until after the 4th of July recess).

However, when it comes to death and taxes, there is no such complication: the Senate plan would take away health coverage from 22 million people, and likely kill tens of thousands of low-income Americans, in order to create an enormous tax cut that would largely benefit the nation’s highest income households.

Tagged: 1 percent, deaths, health insurance, Obamacare, Senate, tax cuts, Trumpcare

Capital’s rising shares

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 09/06/2017 - 10:00pm in

capital shares

Yesterday, I showed that conventional thinking about factor shares has been finally overturned: they are not necessarily constant, especially within existing economic institutions.

In fact, labor’s shares have been declining for decades now.

The opposite is true of capital’s shares: they’ve been rising for almost three decades.

The profit share of national income has, of course, a cyclical (short-term) component. It falls in the period preceding each recession, and begins to rise again during recessions. That’s how capitalism works.

But the profit share (illustrated by the blue line in the chart above, measured on the left side) also exhibits secular (longer-term) movements—and, since 1986 (when it reached a low of 7 percent), it more than doubled (to a peak of 15.4 percent in 2006) and remains still very high (at 13.6 percent in 2016).

Over that same period, the share of income captured by individuals at the top—the top 10 percent and, a smaller group, the top 1 percent (in the red and green lines, respectively, measured on the right)—who receive distributions of the surplus, also increased dramatically. The share of income of the top 10 percent rose by 29.7 percent (from 36.4 to 47.2 percent of total factor income) and of the top 1 percent by even more, 40.2 percent (from 25.4 to 35.6 percent).

To expand the conclusion I reached yesterday: under existing economic institutions, factor shares do in fact change—and they’ve been turning against labor (beginning in the mid-1970s) and in favor of capital (since the mid-198os) for decades now.

That’s a fundamental change in the class nature of the U.S. economy that needs to be reflected in economists’ theoretical models—which also needs to be corrected in reality, by radically transforming existing economic institutions.

Tagged: 1 percent, capital, inequality, labor, profits, United States

Pulling away

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 06/06/2017 - 10:00pm in

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Apparently, Richard Reeves is worried that the top echelons of the U.S. middle class—those earning over $120,000—are separating from the rest of the country, and pulling up the drawbridge behind them.

“The upper middle class families have become greenhouses for the cultivation of human capital. Children raised in them are on a different track to ordinary Americans, right from the very beginning,” he writes.

The upper middle class are “opportunity hoarding” – making it harder for others less economically privileged to rise to the top; a situation that Reeves says places stress on the efficiency of the US economic system and creates dynastic wealth and privilege of the kind the nation’s fathers sought to avoid.

That makes sense. The fact is, class mobility has been declining in the United States. The lack of movement up and down the economic ladder, which itself is a product of growing inequality, serves to magnify the obscene levels of inequality in the United States.

The two longstanding myths about U.S. economic and social structures—that classes don’t exist and, even if they do, there is plenty of movement between them—have been shattered in recent years.

But Reeves needs to take another look at what’s going on. First, it’s not an either-or issue—the top 1 percent or the top 20 percent. Both groups are pulling away from the bottom 90 percent.

top10

The share of income going to the top 10 percent (since I don’t have data on the top 20 percent) has soared over the course of the past four decades from 34 percent to 47 percent. Meanwhile, the share going to the bottom 90 percent has fallen precipitously, from 66 percent to 53 percent.

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The members of the top 1 percent have also pulled away from those at the bottom, since their share of income has grown during the same period from 11 percent to 20 percent.

Both groups—the top 10 percent and the top 1 percent—are pulling away from and leaving everyone else behind.

But there’s also a difference between them, which Reeve also misses. Whereas those at the very top are responsible—via their membership in boards of directors of large corporations as well as their role in sole proprietorships, partnerships, LLCs, and other business forms—for appropriating the surplus, the rest of the top group tend to get a cut of the surplus. In other words, the remaining members of the top 10 (or, for Reeves, 20) percent share in the booty that is extracted from everyone else.

The fact that those at the top are pulling away from everyone else is not just a matter of “legacy” students gaining admittance to top universities or well-placed internships. It’s also about the surplus they manage to capture, both directly and indirectly. That’s what distinguishes them from the 90 percent, who produce but do not share in the surplus—or, for that matter, have any say in what happens to the surplus.

Reeves’s major concern is to celebrate and restore the idea of meritocracy. I get that. The question he doesn’t pose, however, is: where’s the merit in excluding those in the bottom 90 percent from having a say in how much surplus there will be and what to do with it once it’s produced?

The fact is, the organization of U.S. economic and social institutions means that those at the top, whoever they are and however much they might change, are in a position to capture and do what they want with the surplus everyone else creates.

That’s why the current system is “rigged” and those at the top are pulling away from the vast majority at the bottom.

Tagged: 1 percent, chart, inequality, surplus, United States

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