The Causes of Wealth Inequality (32): How Inheritance Not Only Perpetuates But Also Aggravates Inequality

Inherited wealth – the value of all assets (real estate + financial assets – financial liabilities) transmitted at death or through inter-vivos gifts – has become more important over time. Thomas Piketty estimates that

the annual inheritance flow was about 20%-25% of national income around 1900-1910. It then gradually fell to less than 10% in the 1920s-1930s, and to less than 5% in the 1950s. It has been rising regularly since then, with an acceleration of the trend during the past 20 years, and according to the latest data point (2008), it is now close to 15%. (source, source)

The drop between the 1920s and 1950s was caused by the Great Depression and WWII, two events that destroyed a lot of wealth.

Inheritance has always been an important cause of the persistence of wealth inequality. I guess that goes without saying. Capital is unevenly distributed in most populations, and will remain so to the extent that it can stay in the same families. It’s more interesting to look at the mechanisms through which inheritance could, under some circumstances, aggravate inequality. What are those circumstances? Here are some:

  1. Birth rates. People in developed countries have fewer children than they used to, and the children they have survive into adulthood at higher rates. As a result, those children inherit a larger part of their parents wealth. If numerous siblings no longer have to split their inheritance among themselves, the effect of inheritance on wealth inequality becomes stronger. Piketty as well has made this point in a recent talk.
  2. Higher house prices. Housing has become more expensive. This incites people to save more so as to allow their children to buy a house, which has a ripple effect across generations: the biggest savers are those who enjoyed an inheritance because if you’ve inherited a house or the money to buy one it’s easier to save than when you have to rent or pay a mortgage. And if you can save, your children will inherit. And so on.
  3. Inheritance taxes have been reduced in most countries.
  4. Slow economic growth in most developed countries means that the wealth produced in those countries is smaller compared to the wealth inherited.

Not all of these circumstances can be brought under human control. Perhaps an inheritance tax – the dreaded death tax – is a realistic option. I mean, if even Nozick could get behind that, you would need to be an outright fundamentalist about property rights  in order to oppose it.

For increases in the inheritance tax to happen, however, we will need to start thinking differently. When David Cameron, for instance, promised to raise the threshold for inheritance tax to £1m he did so because he believes that people who work hard, save money, and bequeath it to their offspring are somehow doing the noble thing. But while it may be noble to work hard and save, it’s far from noble to live off of an inheritance and its often huge returns. Hard work for one results in an unproductive lifestyle for its beneficiaries. If you want to promote work and productivity, by all means impose a death tax. And if you want the best for your children, it may be tempting to give them cash or other assets, but beware that this will be self-defeating beyond a certain amount.

More posts in this series are here.

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The Causes of Wealth Inequality (31): Automation and the Hollowing Out of the Labor Market

Conventional wisdom has it that automation comes at the expense of low-skilled jobs and aggravates income inequality because of labor displacement at the bottom of the income distribution. It turns out that this is a bit too conventional, and not only because it runs afoul of the lump of labor fallacy (machines need to be built and people can go on and do other things). Mid-level jobs are also hit by automation, and perhaps even more than jobs at the bottom of the skill continuum. This has been called the “hollowing out” of the labor market. This hollowing out, caused in part by automation, in turns causes an increase in income inequality. This is mere arithmetic: if the middle drops, then the extremes become relatively more important and inequality rises. Ryan Avent puts it well:

Work published in 2006 by David Autor, Lawrence Katz, and Melissa Kearney argued that employment and wage growth in America have “polarised” in recent decades, a conclusion that has been reinforced by subsequent research. Employment in high- and low-skill positions has risen substantially relative to middle-skill jobs. The resulting employment distribution generates a distribution of wages that is similarly polarised and more unequal than that which prevailed prior to this period. (source)

Why does technological automation focus mainly on middle skill levels?

Daron Acemoglu and Mr Autor pioneered a “task approach” to labour markets. Tasks can be completed by either labour or capital. The more routine a task is, the more susceptible it is to automation. But whether or not a task is automated depends upon the relative supply—and the real wage—of workers of various skill levels. Subsequent work has shown that automation and trade are responsible for displacement of routine tasks previously done by middle-skill workers, in both manufacturing and clerical or service activities, leading to polarisation of local and national labour markets.  (source)

Technological automation focuses mainly on middle skill levels because it’s relatively easy at that level, easier sometimes than at the extremes of high and low skilled tasks. “Easier” here means both technologically easier and more cost effective. Highly skilled tasks, such as teaching a philosophy course, are difficult for machines to do because they are complex (although we do sometimes see high-skilled jobs being automated, such as legal research for example). In the case of low-skilled tasks, some of these are surprisingly hard to automate, as in the case of truck driving or toilet cleaning. Even low-skilled jobs that aren’t technically hard to automate aren’t always automated because the pay-off may be too low – people doing those jobs are poorly paid so developing expensive machines to do it for them isn’t worth the trouble.

And then there’s the added worry that displacement of many low-skilled workers would create a permanent underclass unable to participate in the economy – unable, in other words, to buy the goods and services produced by machines. There’s a famous anecdote about Henry Ford mocking a labor union president in one of his factories, saying it wouldn’t be easy to get the robots to pay their union dues. To which the union president responded that Ford wasn’t going to get the robots to buy his cars.

The hollowing out of the labor market, driven by mid-level automation, has therefore a direct effect on income inequality, but it also a few indirect effects. For example, automation means lower production costs, and the savings or the added value go primarily to shareholders through capital gains and stock appreciation. Since stock ownership and capital income are concentrated among those already better off, income inequality is further increased.

If technology decreases the relative importance of human labor in a particular production process, the owners of capital equipment will be able to capture a bigger share of income from the goods and services produced. (source)

Another indirect effect: increasing automation of manufacturing jobs pushes unionization rates down, which in turn decreases bargaining power among low-skilled workers. This, in the end, aggravates inequality yet again.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (30): Assortative Mating

Intuitively, it seems obvious that assortative mating leads to higher wealth and income inequality. If rich people marry each other and poor people marry each other, then family incomes will be more unequal than when people routinely marry across class divides. Hence, recent increases in inequality may be due to higher rates of assortative mating, at least in the US:

Data from the United States Census Bureau suggests there has been a rise in assortative mating. Additionally, assortative mating affects household income inequality. In particular, if matching in 2005 between husbands and wives had been random, instead of the pattern observed in the data, then the Gini coefficient would have fallen from the observed 0.43 to 0.34, so that income inequality would be smaller. (source, source)

Now, obviously we should prefer a world in which wealthy men have the opportunity to marry high earning and educated women, because such a world is one in which women have more equal opportunities. It’s also a good thing that wealthy women continue working after marriage. In addition, we shouldn’t try to manage people’s marriages, no matter how strong we feel about income inequality. I guess that goes without saying. However, what we could do is modify the tax system so that wealthy individuals do not receive additional benefits when they marry. Or we could tax them more.

Before we do anything we should be realistic about the causal effects that we try to neutralize. There are many causes of inequality, and I think – but can’t prove – that assortative mating isn’t as important as is claimed in the quote above (the authors of the cited study compare the real world to a world in which mating is random, and such a world is inconceivable). A big part of rising inequality is due to the top 1% of the income scale. The people in that bracket probably also look for partners similar to themselves, but assortative mating can’t explain the enormous income gains that they have seen over the last decades.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (29): The Declining Share of National Income Going to Labor

What I want to do here is look at a possible cause of increasing income inequality, namely the relative shares of labor and capital income. Your labor income is your wage, your pension, your bonus, your company health insurance etc. Most people have a labor income. You only have capital income if you receive dividend payments, capital gains, interest payments on savings etc.

During the last decades, the share of labor compensation in total national income has declined, and this has been a global phenomenon, occurring in most countries.

Can we blame this decline for the increase in income inequality during the same period? Only in part, I think, because there has also been a divergence within labor in the sense that some people, mostly high earners, have seen their labor income rise much faster than others. Income inequality is indeed, to some extent, wage inequality. The growth of the finance sector, where people are well-paid, is part of the explanation for the increasing wage inequality, at least in some countries. Tax policy, declining bargaining power among the low earners and wage competition from poorer countries – again affecting mainly low-end workers – may be other explanations for rising wage inequality, also depending on the country (unionization rates, for example, haven’t evolved in the same manner everywhere).

But I guess it’s true that not all of income inequality is wage inequality and that incomes from capital, such as profits, dividends, stock options etc. also explain something. Capital income is, compared to labor income, unevenly distributed across a population, and concentrated among the wealthy.

If capital income is more concentrated among the wealthy then a rise in capital income leads to a rise in income inequality. Part of this is just arithmetical: the flip-side of a lower share of national income coming from labor is a higher share of income coming from capital. Capital income needn’t be higher in absolute terms in order to get a larger share. If there’s widespread wage stagnation – perhaps due to international wage competition, trade and outsourcing – then capital income may rise relatively, if not absolutely. However, in some countries such as the US we also see an absolute rise of capital income.

More on capital gains here. More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (28): Political Capture and Deregulation

Does income inequality result from “political capture” by the rich? Political capture is the process by which wealth buys policies that are favorable to the wealthy, who in turn become more wealthy. Through campaign contributions, lobbying, the monopolization of discourse etc. the wealthy may be able to convince politicians to approve policies such as deregulation, non-progressive tax rates, tax loopholes, weakened social safety nets, IP etc. Policies aimed at undermining the regulation of the role of money in politics also fit the list, in a meta sort of way. “One dollar one vote” rather than “one person one vote” would obviously be a perversion of democracy, but I’ll now focus on the purely economic effects of political capture, and more specifically on how wealth-backed deregulation affects the distribution of income.

In theory, political capture doesn’t necessarily aggravate income inequality because the economy isn’t always zero sum: policies favorable to the rich, and pushed by the rich, can also have benefits for the rest. Some types of deregulation may be an example. The word “deregulation” summons images of large companies being allowed to pollute, to pay their workers below subsistence wages etc. However, deregulation can also mean getting rid of occupational licensing which often serves no other purpose than to protect incumbents and frustrate enterprising low-income individuals. Deregulation more generally – again in theory – may lead to increased competition and therefore lower prices, something that also benefits the poor.

However, in practice we see that the wave of deregulation during the last decades, especially in the financial and banking sector, has coincided with increasing income inequality, at least in the US.

It’s not just the total level of inequality that is correlated with deregulation; more specifically, wages in the finance sector show the same trend.

Of course, correlation is not causation. Deregulation may not have been the product of political capture, or not entirely, and may not have been an important cause of rising inequality. But the correlations shown in the graphs above do put the burden of proof on those who deny causation.

But also if you accept the possibility of causation, you’ll need a convincing story. It’s true, I think, that deregulation has increased the number of activities that financial companies can engage in, and has therefore led to a rising demand for higher skilled workers and to more performance related compensation. Financial professionals made up almost twice as much of the top 1 percent of the US income distribution in 2005 as they did in 1979. However, deregulation is only part of the explanation of the disproportionate rise in compensation in the finance sector. Stock options and tax policy are also to blame. Of course, tax policy can also result from political capture, but that just goes to show that any explanation of inequality needs to look at a variety of factors. Inequality isn’t just the product of deregulation.

Another post on the same topic is here. More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (26): The Length of Your First Name

Incredible:

On average, the shorter your first name, the more you will earn. In fact, the data show each extra letter “costs” you about $3,600 in annual salary. (source)

Online job matching site TheLadders has six million members … and a lot of salary data. For Mothers’ Day, the company decided to sort and analyze its information to see whether what our parents call us impacts our earning potential. (source)

More, and I think more serious posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (25): Globalization, Ctd.

Globalization is the usual suspect when people discuss the causes of contemporary increases in income inequality in many Western nations. As a result of easier transportation, trade and communication, low skilled workers in those nations now face ever tougher competition from cheap workers in developing countries, and this competition drives down wages at the poor end of Western income distributions: workers have to swallow wage reductions under the threat of outsourcing. Increased immigration – another facet of globalization – has the same effect.

At the top end of the income distribution, the reverse is happening: the job of a CEO is now more complicated in our globalized world, and hence his pay is higher. The threat of relocation also has an effect on income inequality through the channel of the welfare state: companies threaten to relocate, not just because of labor costs, but also because of tax rates. Taxes in Western countries tend to be relatively high because social security tends to be relatively generous. The threat of relocation convinces governments to reduce tax rates, but the price to pay is often a less generous welfare state. This as well puts pressure on the income distribution.

All this sounds convincing, but I’m afraid it’s too simple. The effects of globalization on inequality starts to look more complicated when we take consumption into account. Globalization tends to lower the consumption prizes of a lot of goods, and cheaper consumption can counteract downward pressures on wages and social security. If you can buy more and better stuff with your paycheck, your unemployment benefit or your disability check, then perhaps you’re not worse off.

There’s an interesting paper here by Broda and Romalis in which they look at

the compositional differences in the basket of goods consumed by the poor and the rich in America. Using household data on non-durable consumption between 1994 and 2005 we document that much of the rise of income inequality has been offset by a relative decline in the price index of the poor. By relaxing the standard assumptions underlying the representative agent framework we find that inflation for households in the lowest tenth percentile of income has been 6 percentage points smaller than inflation for the upper tenth percentile over this period. The lower inflation at low income levels can be explained by three factors: 1) The poor consume a higher share of non-durable goods —whose prices have fallen relative to services over this period; 2) the prices of the set of non-durable goods consumed by the poor has fallen relative to that of the rich; and 3) a higher proportion of the new goods are purchased by the poor. We examine the role played by Chinese exports in explaining the lower inflation of the poor. Since Chinese exports are concentrated in low-quality non-durable products that are heavily purchased by poorer Americans, we find that about one third of the relative price drops faced by the poor are associated with rising Chinese imports.

When measuring income inequality, we should correct for the different prices of goods and services consumed by people in different income groups. This doesn’t mean that we should be happy about the fact that poor people live on cheap stuff; it simply means that some of the rising income inequality is compensated by cheaper stuff. And we have cheaper stuff because of globalization. Turning globalization into some sort of bogey man is therefore rather too simple. Income inequality has many causes, and it’s not clear that globalization is, everything considered, an important one.

Finally, a word about the supposed wage pressures of increased immigration: they are indeed no more than supposed.

More posts in this series.