Income Inequality (30): A Primer on Inequality and Economic Growth

Countries that are more equal in income terms are also richer. But how about the relationship between inequality and economic growth? The classic causal story, based on work by Simon Kuznets,

maintains that there’s an inverted U-shaped relationship over long periods of economic development. As emerging economies grow they initially become less equal as the few with high financial endowments profit off of their ownership of key productive resources, like land. Then, as industrialization evolves, much more of the population has the chance to participate in higher value-added work which reduces inequality. (source)

In this argument, growth determines inequality: first growth drives inequality up, and then it gradually reduces it.

However, this Kuznetsian view has come under fire recently. Thomas Piketty for instance, in his “Capital in the Twenty-First Century“, has criticized Kuznets’ view that inequality will eventually stabilize and subside on its own given increasing growth. According to Piketty, increasing wealth concentration is a likely outcome for the foreseeable future. Kuznets findings were based on a historical anomaly. And indeed, the lines in this graph do not turn downwards to form an inverted U-shape.

Which is why it’s perhaps better to look at the causation in another way: maybe inequality or equality determine growth rather than vice versa. For example, there’s this study arguing that high income inequality is likely to inhibit growth, especially in developing countries.

Inequality inhibits growth, especially in developing countries, because

high income inequality can discourage the evolution of the economic and political institutions associated with accountable government (which in turn enable a market environment conducive to investment and growth); and … high income inequality can undermine the civic and social life that sustains effective collective decision-making, especially in multi-ethnic settings. (source)

This study comes to a similar conclusion. It argues that, in general, more inequality endangers the sustainability of growth. Long consistent spells of economic growth are correlated with low levels of income inequality.

A growth spell in this study is a period of at least five years that begins with an unusual increase in the growth rate and ends with an unusual drop in growth.

It may seem counterintuitive that inequality is strongly associated with less sustained growth. After all, some inequality is essential to the effective functioning of a market economy and the incentives needed for investment and growth … But too much inequality might be destructive to growth. Beyond the risk that inequality may amplify the potential for financial crisis, it may also bring political instability, which can discourage investment. Inequality may make it harder for governments to make difficult but necessary choices in the face of shocks, such as raising taxes or cutting public spending to avoid a debt crisis. Or inequality may reflect poor people’s lack of access to financial services, which gives them fewer opportunities to invest in education and entrepreneurial activity. … [S]ocieties with more equal income distributions have more durable growth. … [A] 10 percentile decrease in inequality (represented by a change in the Gini coefficient from 40 to 37) increases the expected length of a growth spell by 50 percent. (source)

Some additional support for this view comes from the fact that redistributive policies – which are anti-inequality policies – don’t actually harm growth. Redistribution doesn’t help either, according to this graph, but maybe it counteracts the negative effect of inequality on growth given that it counteracts inequality. In that sense, it does help.

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Income Inequality (29): The “Get Off the Couch” Solution

When leftists complain about high levels of income inequality, their opponents on the right sometimes argue that inequality is the natural outcome of personal desert. If you’re wealthy, you should be praised for your work, and if you find yourself on the wrong side of inequality you should invest more effort and try harder to be socially mobile. If you think inequality is a problem, then in fact you blame the industrious for being industrious and you exculpate the rest. Societies like the US offer lots of opportunities to escape the social class of your parents, and many do in fact escape. So if you don’t, look at yourself first.

This view is actually quite common on the right. According to a Pew survey, 38 percent of Americans are judgmental, declaring that poverty stems from a lack of individual effort, while 46 percent does not fault the poor, agreeing that their plight is the outcome of unfavorable circumstances. A large majority of Republicans – 57 to 27 – says that people are poor because of a lack of effort.

The right-wing view has a certain prima facie appeal. We all believe that effort should be rewarded. And when social mobility is easy and people aren’t artificially held back and tied to the class of their parents, then perhaps inequality is indeed the result of unequal effort and lifestyle choices. In other words, inequality is what people deserve. If there are few or no obstacles to mobility and people have some level of equal opportunity, then they basically choose their position in society: they choose to invest effort and develop their skills, or they don’t.

However, upon closer inspection the narrative is unpersuasive. It’s not always true that individuals can simply decide to develop their skills and invest effort in their social mobility. Skills aren’t just “developed”; some people are born with more talent than other people, or with talents that yield more financial profit than other talents. True, talent requires development and effort, but even effort may be a naturally acquired capacity or a capacity that requires favorable conditions in early childhood. I think we all agree that a stable and reasonably affluent family life as well as a good education are indispensable, on average, for the development of talent and of a personal ethic that favors effort and discipline. Many people at the wrong end of inequality can offer some of this to their children, but to a much lesser degree than wealthier parents. Here are some data on so-called enrichment expenditures.

And it’s not just expenses. The children of wealthy parents have other advantages compared to poor children, advantages they wouldn’t have in a less unequal society, for instance networks, internship opportunities etc. Because of extra expenses in education and other less material advantages, these children are more likely to end up in a high income group as adults. As a result, inequality counteracts social mobility. And we see that in the numbers: the more unequal a society, the less social mobility. That’s the message of Miles Corak’s famous Great Gatsby Curve.

If you argue that income inequality is not really a problem when there is a high level of social mobility and when people have good opportunities to become socially mobile – in other words when they have good opportunities to climb the social ladder and escape the social class or income group into which they were born – then you’re really taking things backwards. Social mobility can’t be a solution to inequality because inequality makes mobility very difficult. High levels of social mobility assume that we create more equality of opportunity. However, this is a dead end. As I’ve argued here, equality of opportunity is a highly problematic and unrealistic concept.

More posts on income inequality are here.

Income Inequality (27): What’s Wrong With It? No Moral Justification

The standard “no problem” explanation of income inequality goes as follows: people have different incomes because they have different levels of human capital and productive abilities. Some earn more because they contribute more – to their employers but also to society. They simply deserve, in a moral sense of the word, their higher incomes because of the level and nature of their contributions. Increasing differences in income levels are then simply the reflection of an increasing gap in productivity and human capital between some groups in society.

However, there’s something wrong with this story: it hints at one important element but fails to draw the necessary conclusion from it. Some people contribute more in a quantitative sense of the word, in which case higher returns are probably morally justifiable. If you work more, few would begrudge you your higher income. However, that’s not the type of income inequality that is most common. Usually, people are believed to contribute more in a qualitative sense of the word and get paid more as a result (or vice versa, because they get paid more, they are assumed to have contributed more in a qualitative sense). No one claims that the salary of a CEO should be higher than that of a taxi driver doing two other jobs on the side because the former works more than the latter. He probably doesn’t. The justification people give for a higher salary for the CEO is almost always about quality. (See also here).

Now, how does a society decide which types of contributions are of a higher quality and are therefore more deserving of higher remuneration? In part, the “market” decides: skills and contributions that are highly valued by consumers will earn you a higher income. But biases, prejudices and market manipulation are also factors that determine which contributions are valued higher. For example, there’s a widespread bias in favor of people with a university degree even though their objective skills may not always be higher than those of less educated people; advertisement and popular culture instill the perception that beautiful people are more deserving; stars in sport and music are believed to deserve a very high income, higher than that of the “stars” in science for example. And then there’s the perfectly circular reasoning that some contributions are more deserving because they yield higher earnings.

Many of these social decisions about desert are arbitrary, biased, irrational and unjustifiable. And in no case is there an attempt to justify them on moral grounds. Hence, you cannot conclude that more productive contributions are a moral justification for higher income levels if you first fail to justify which types of productive contributions are morally superior and more deserving.

You could counter this by saying that all skills and contributions, no matter in what field, are in and of themselves sufficient to warrant higher pay. But then you admit that all skillful and productive people across different fields should earn similar incomes, and that is plainly not the case. 

So, even if income inequality could be justified on a moral basis – by first deciding in a rational and unbiased way which skills and contributions are morally superior and then paying more to those people who have been identified as having more of those skills and contributions – that is not how it’s done in practice. And I doubt that it can be done, because there will never be agreement on the choice of morally superior skills and contributions.

Of course, the absence and, presumably, impossibility of a desert based argument for income inequality doesn’t mean that there can’t be other, more successful justifications of income inequality. The most common one is based on incentives rather than desert. We want people to do good, worthwhile and valuable things, and generous rewards for the skillful and productive is one way of having these things. Again, there’s the problem of deciding in an unbiased and rational way which things are indeed valuable, but we may assume that the market offers a close approximation: what people want to buy and consume will often be valuable to them. Perhaps not always valuable in the sense of “valuable after rational reflection free of biases”, but that sense may be unrealistic anyway. So let’s accept – grudgingly in my case – that we don’t have to decide what exactly needs to be incentivized and what is worth incentivizing.

However, even if we assume that value and desert equal market success, there’s a problem with the incentive based argument for income inequality. It’s not right to force morality through the payment of incentives. Ideally there should be good will, and people have to do things of value for their own sake, not because they are incentivized to do it (as G.A. Cohen has argued numerous times).

The conclusion is that income inequality as it is now structured in all societies is not justified and probably not justifiable from a moral point of view. And that this is the only point of view from which it should and could be justified. Of course, the lack of a justification is only one thing that’s wrong with income inequality. More on what’s wrong with it is here, here, here and here.

Income Inequality (26): And Social Mobility

One can argue that high levels of income inequality aren’t much of a problem when social mobility is easy (social mobility being the degree at which people cross into higher or lower income levels than the ones they were born into). Inequality is then the result of skills and effort, the absence of skills and effort, or lifestyle choices. In other words, given easy mobility, inequality is what people deserve or want. If there are few or no obstacles to mobility, people basically choose their position in society: they choose to develop their skills and invest effort, or they don’t.

However, this whitewashing of inequality doesn’t work because the more unequal a society, the less social mobility there is (source).

What is the mechanism here? In part, high levels of income inequality make social mobility more difficult: when income inequality is relatively high, people at the wrong end of inequality can offer comparatively less opportunities to their children than the people at the right end – less quality schooling, less quality healthcare etc. The children of wealthy parents have relatively more advantages compared to poor children then they would have in a less unequal society, and they are therefore more likely to end up in a high income group as adults. I assume that social mobility is a good thing and that people’s income should not be determined by the income of their parents.

So instead of saying that inequality is not a problem because there is mobility, we should instead say that mobility is a problem because there is inequality.

More on social mobility here. More posts in this series are here.

Income Inequality (25): And Economic (In)Efficiency

As I stated before, economic theory suggests that income inequality is a necessary price to pay for economic efficiency: unequal rewards incite those with talents, skill and perseverance to innovate and to be productive, so they can reap higher benefits. Ultimately, this serves the welfare of the whole of society (a process which is then caricatured in trickle down economics). The mirror image of this is reductions of inequality that take away incentives for doing well, and that therefore result in economic inefficiency and less prosperity for all.

Tyler Cowen has framed it like this:

Redistribution of wealth has some role in maintaining a stable democracy and preventing starvation. But the power of wealth redistribution to produce net value is quite limited. The power of wealth creation to produce net value is extraordinary … We should be putting our resources, including our advocacy and our intellectual resources, into wealth creation as much as we can. (source)

But is that really true? There is some evidence that reducing inequality through redistribution actually promotes wealth creation. What’s the mechanism? Sam Bowles claims to have identified one element of it:

Inequality breeds conflict, and conflict breeds wasted resources … [I]n a very unequal society, the people at the top have to spend a lot of time and energy keeping the lower classes obedient and productive. Inequality leads to an excess of what Bowles calls “guard labor”. (source)

More about that effect here and here. Other parts of the mechanism through which inequality impedes and equality promotes growth may be the following:

Poverty causes credit constraints. This stops the poor investing in businesses or education; the low aspirations caused by poverty can have the same effect. … Inequality can create the threat of redistribution which can blunt incentives to invest. Or it can lead to state interventions – such as the minimum wage – that harm wealth creation. … The backlash against wealth-creating processes such as globalization, offshoring and private equity in the UK and US are founded in the view that they create inequality. If we had better redistribution mechanisms (say, a basic income) such backlashes would be reduced, and the wealth creation process enhanced. (source)

That sounds persuasive and I want to see some evidence. In the meantime, it’s perhaps a bit glib to announce that “the power of wealth redistribution to produce net value is quite limited”.

Income Inequality (23): Income Inequality and Poverty

At first sight, income inequality and poverty are completely different things. Poverty is clearly a human rights issue, while income inequality is clearly not, at least not directly (it can have an impact on some human rights). Income inequality is a relative indicator, not an absolute one, and is, for this reason, claimed to be not about poverty at all. Poverty, it is said, is about absolute deprivation and is a lack of the resources necessary to satisfy certain basic needs. Income inequality just describes the unequal possession of resources, basic or otherwise. And indeed, it’s possible to imagine a very rich society in which no one is poor in the sense of lacking basic resources, but in which the distribution of resources is very unequal. Vice versa, there may be countries in which everyone is (almost) equally poor.

However, if we compare countries, we see that the more unequal a society, the larger the numbers of people suffering from poverty. Does that mean that high income inequality leads to more poverty? Not necessarily. That would probably be the case if we saw that a country’s poverty rate grows with increasing inequality. But that doesn’t happen:

If we look across the rich nations, it turns out that there is no relationship between changes in income inequality and changes in the absolute incomes of low-end households. The reason is that income growth for poor households has come almost entirely via increases in net government transfers, and the degree to which governments have increased transfers seems to have been unaffected by changes in income inequality. …

In some countries with little or no rise in income inequality, such as Sweden, government transfers increased and so did the incomes of poor households. In others, such as Germany, transfers and the incomes of low-end households did not increase.

Among nations with sharp increases in top-heavy inequality, we observe a similar disjunction. Here the U.S. and the U.K. offer an especially revealing contrast. The top 1%’s income share soared in both countries, and through the mid-1990s poor households made little progress … But over the next decade low-end American households advanced only slightly, whereas their British counterparts experienced sizable gains [thanks to the Labour government, FS]. (source)

So, in other words, there are countries with soaring inequality that still manage to make the poor better off in absolute terms (not in relative terms obviously) through redistribution. Other countries that witness the same evolution of inequality don’t make their poor better off. And trickle down also doesn’t seem to work, by the way. Vice versa, the less unequal countries also differ in the way they treat the poor. Income inequality doesn’t produce poverty because it doesn’t affect the welfare state.

It’s often argued that income inequality not only fails to produce poverty but actually helps to reduce it. That argument goes something like this. High levels of income inequality – and therefore high wages at the top – are necessary for economic growth. If the top economic performers are allowed to earn very high wages, they will have an incentive to produce and innovate. That will lead to economic growth, which will in turn, through a trickle down mechanism, benefit everyone, including the poor and those earning very little.

However, from the quote above it follows that it’s government transfers rather than automatic mechanisms that have helped the poor during the last decades of increasing inequality. If inequality by itself would reduce poverty, these government transfers would not have been necessary. An increase in income inequality by itself does not improve low-end incomes, as is shown by the example of the US.

And even if it could be shown that rising inequality pushes up the absolute income of the poorest, there are other reasons to object to inequality (such as this for example).

Income Inequality (22): Social Mobility in Anglo-Saxon Economies, Ctd.

After completing my older post on the subject – in which I argued that Anglo-Saxon economies don’t do a very good job promoting social mobility despite the focus on individual responsibility and policies that (should) reward merit (e.g. relatively low tax rates) – I found this graph which I thought would illustrate my point.

Although the US and other Anglo-Saxon countries aren’t in the graph, the UK is. And the effect of parental education on child earnings in the UK is particularly large. The children of the well-off and well-educated earn more and learn more than their less fortunate peers in all countries in the world, and that’s hardly surprising given the importance of a head start, both financially and intellectually. What is surprising is that this is less the case in countries which pride themselves on their systems that offer people incentives to do well (low taxes, minimal safety nets etc.).

So one wonders which fact-free parallel universe David Cameron, the new UK Prime Minister, inhabits:

The differences in child outcomes between a child born in poverty and a child born in wealth are no longer statistically significant when both have been raised by “confident and able” parents… What matters most to a child’s life chances is not the wealth of their upbringing but the warmth of their parenting. (source, my emphasis)

Extolling the virtues of good parenting can never hurt, except if you have a low boredom threshold because it’s so goddamn obvious. But making it sound like parents’ wealth or education are “insignificant” is truly grotesque and an insult to those poor parents who have children that aren’t doing very well. And even for those living in the alternative reality where only bad parents keep children back, the Conservative leader’s position in fact, and unwittingly, should lead to left-wing policies, as Chris Dillow points out:

Because of bad parenting – which begins in the womb – some people do badly in school and therefore in later life; they are less likely to be in work, and earn less even if they are. However, we can’t choose our parents; they are a matter of luck. It’s quite reasonable to compensate people for bad luck, so there’s a case for redistributing income to the relatively poor, as this is a roundabout way of compensating them for the bad luck of having a bad upbringing.

High levels of social mobility can compensate for high levels of income inequality: if people can be socially mobile, and if their earnings and education levels don’t depend on who their parents are but on their own efforts and talents, one can plausibly claim that the existing inequalities are caused by some people’s lack of effort and merit. However, the UK and the US combine two evils: low mobility and high inequality, making it seem that whatever effort you invest in your life, you’ll never get ahead of those rich lazy dumb asses. So why would you even try? Low mobility solidifies high inequality.

Just to show that the U.S. isn’t better than the U.K.:

Parental income is a better predictor of a child’s future in America than in much of Europe, implying that social mobility is less powerful. Different groups of Americans have different levels of opportunity. Those born to the middle class have about an equal chance of moving up or down the income ladder, according to the Economic Mobility Project. But those born to black middle-class families are much more likely than their white counterparts to fall in rank. The children of the rich and poor, meanwhile, are less mobile than the middle class’s. More than 40% of those Americans born in the bottom quintile remain stuck there as adults. (source)

Income Inequality (21): And Economic (In)Efficiency

Standard economic theory suggests that these problems created by income inequality are a necessary price to pay for economic efficiency: unequal rewards – however unpleasant they are and whatever consequences they have – incite those with talents, skill and perseverance to innovate and be productive. Ultimately, this serves the welfare of the whole of society. Reducing inequality means taking away incentives for doing well, and results in economic inefficiency.

Sam Bowles has argued that the opposite is true:

Inequality breeds conflict, and conflict breeds wasted resources … in a very unequal society, the people at the top have to spend a lot of time and energy keeping the lower classes obedient and productive.

Inequality leads to an excess of what Bowles calls “guard labor”. In a 2007 paper on the subject, he and co-author Arjun Jayadev, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, make an astonishing claim: Roughly 1 in 4 Americans is employed to keep fellow citizens in line and protect private wealth from would-be Robin Hoods.

The job descriptions of guard labor range from “imposing work discipline”—think of the corporate IT spies who keep desk jockeys from slacking off online—to enforcing laws, like the officers in the Santa Fe Police Department paddy wagon parked outside of Walmart.

The greater the inequalities in a society, the more guard labor it requires, Bowles finds. This holds true among US states, with relatively unequal states like New Mexico employing a greater share of guard labor than relatively egalitarian states like Wisconsin.

The problem, Bowles argues, is that too much guard labor sustains “illegitimate inequalities,” creating a drag on the economy. All of the people in guard labor jobs could be doing something more productive with their time—perhaps starting their own businesses or helping to reduce the US trade deficit with China. (source)

I must say I’m not entirely convinced. Income inequality creates a lot of problems, but economic inefficiency isn’t the most important one. Justifications for the fight against inequality based on efficiency look a lot less promising than justifications based on justice and fairness.

Income Inequality (20): Social Mobility in Anglo-Saxon Economies

I know that talking about national or international economic models should be avoided because it’s highly simplistic, but I’ll do it anyway because I want to show that people who do sincerely talk about such models make some assumptions about them that are, in my view, incorrect. The Anglo-Saxon economic model, when compared to the mainland European model, is believed to focus more on individual responsibility than on social support. It imposes lower taxes and delivers a less developed social safety net. It’s more “liberal” (in the European sense of the word, meaning less social) and free market oriented. (Anglo-Saxon means English-speaking countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States etc. but there are large differences between the UK and the US, the UK being less “Anglo-Saxon” than the US; and some mainland countries – like some Eastern European countries – are more “Anglo-Saxon” than they are “mainland”. This goes to show that we’re being simplistic; see also here).

The mainland model is often believed to be better at poverty reduction, job security, social services, and income equality. The Anglo-Saxon model on the other hand is said to be more flexible, less state dependent and more competitive (because of lower taxes and less labor regulation) and suffers less unemployment (because of the less generous social safety net; see also here).

For the same reasons, the Anglo-Saxon model is also believed to be less equal and more open to social mobility – social mobility being defined as the difference between the socioeconomic status of parents and the status their children will attain as adults. When the focus is on individual responsibility and when people can keep a larger share of their income after taxes, they are incited to do well, to work hard, to develop their talents, and to innovate. This not only creates a more competitive economy, but also one in which people can be socially mobile and rise in status and wealth. Countries that impose high taxes and offer generous safety nets don’t give the same incentives.

However, we see that the UK and the US aren’t characterized by relatively high levels of social mobility:

A father’s income determines his son’s to a greater extent in Britain than in any other wealthy nation, with half of a high earner’s “economic advantage” being transmitted to their children, a study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has found. … In Britain … background determines a person’s success to a far higher degree than in almost any other rich country. “Education is not as important for social mobility in Britain as for other countries. Class, to be honest, is the most likely explanation,” said Romain Duval, head of division in the Paris-based OECD’s economics department. (source)

Something similar is the case for the US.

It appears that the United States has less intergenerational social mobility than many other industrialized countries. (source)

It’s true that the UK and the US (especially the US) are highly inegalitarian, and increasingly so, but high levels of income inequality do not necessarily go hand in hand with high levels of social mobility. In fact,

social mobility between generations tends to be lower in more unequal societies. (source)

So if you care about social mobility – and I think you should because high levels of social mobility indicate equality of opportunity, something no one objects to – then you should care about reducing inequality rather than promoting it through “Anglo-Saxon” tax and welfare systems (to the extent that there is something like it in the real world).

Income Inequality (19): What To Do About It?

What to do about income inequality? Assuming of course that you agree that income inequality is a problem. How can we do something about the problem without destroying the incentives behind economic growth (assuming that much of economic growth is driven by financial rewards for effort, creativity, innovation etc. and that taking away resources from wealthy successful people takes away their will and creativity, hence driving down growth and making everyone, including the poor, worse off).

One thing that everyone thinks of is taxation, more precisely <a href="http://progressive taxation: this reduces the income of higher-earning families by a larger percentage than the income of lower earning ones. “Spreading the wealth around”, if you want. This makes incomes more equal in a direct way, but also in an indirect way because the tax revenues can be spend on poverty reduction (unemployment benefits, healthcare or education subsidies etc.). (An inheritance tax can also help, because it promotes social mobility and discourages income inequality that is not the result of economic incentives, and because a lack of social mobility is correlated with income inequality).

The problem, however, is that taxation is hardly ever progressive, even if it looks like it is:

Taxation in affluent countries does little to alter the market distribution of income. The reason is that taxes on income and corporate profits-which are progressively structured, reducing the incomes of high-earning households by a greater percentage than those of low-earning ones-are only part of the tax system. [But] their progressivity tends to be largely offset by the regressivity of payroll and consumption taxes. … Payroll and consumption tax rates usually are “flat”: the rate is the same regardless of individual or household income. Payroll taxes tend to be regressive because they apply to earnings rather than income, and wealthy households tend to get a smaller share of their income from earnings than do most households in the middle of the distribution. Also, payroll taxation often features a cap; in the United States, for instance, earnings above roughly $100,000 are not subject to the social security payroll tax. Consumption taxes apply to spending rather than income. They are regressive because lower-income households by necessity spend more of their income than their higher-income counterparts, so more of their income is subject to the tax. Lane Kenworthy (source)

Redistribution, then, does not occur through or because of the tax system itself, but through the systems of public spending.
Some interesting graphs
here. So it’s the amount of taxes, rather than the system of taxes, that enables governments to redistribute and reduce income inequality.

Income Inequality (18): No Such Thing – Good Thing – Necessary Evil – Gone Thing?

Attitudes towards income inequality in the U.S. differ widely.

  • There are those who deny that there is any, or better that there is enough to be worried about (see here for an example, or here).
  • Others say that it’s a good thing, and that there should be more of it. People are very different in their talents and work ethic, and rewarding the highly productive and creative ones for their efforts – which is only “fair” – automatically results in income inequality, because the unproductive and uncreative will not be rewarded, or less generously.
  • And then there are those who believe income inequality is a necessary evil. They don’t particularly like huge differences in rewards for activities which are, after all, often hardly comparable in any quantitive sense (is it so much more worthwhile to invest your efforts and creativity in the development of the iPhone than in the education of your children?). But they do believe that financial rewards stimulate productivity, and that higher rewards stimulate more. And increased productivity ultimately benefits us all, even those who are worse off and on the wrong side of the income inequality. (This is a version of “trickle down” economics).
  • Still others think that income inequality isn’t a problem any longer, given the effect of the recession on high earners.

Note: these 4 views aren’t necessarily incompatible. One and the same person can, as I see it, hold at least 3 of them at the same time. (E.g. you can believe that there isn’t much inequality, that what is left will soon be gone, and that you hope it will be back one day).

I think only the third view has some relation to the truth. Regarding the first view:

The basic conclusion of this data, that the nation [the U.S.] suffers from extreme and growing income inequality, is essentially irrefutable. Bruce Judson (source)

Regarding the second view: I object to it not because I don’t want to reward people or because I think justice has nothing to do with merit. On the contrary. I object to it because it assumes that different people and different activities can be placed on a single scale of merit and reward. It’s impossible to compare activities and say that one deserves a $10.000 per year reward (i.e. income) and another activity, compared to this first, is 10 times more deserving and hence deserves a $100.000 per year reward. Merit isn’t just a financial or quantitative thing, and hence it cannot – at least not exclusively – justify income inequality. Moreover, the income inequality that we see in the real world has little or nothing to do with merit. Most people aren’t paid according to any definition of merit. In the best case, they are paid because of their talents, which isn’t anything anyone deserves. In all other cases – and in the large majority of cases – people’s pay or income is determined by factors such as luck, family, networks, playing on the stock exchange etc., and none of these things are even marginally related to merit. In a society that rewards people for their creativity and productivity, you expect to see high levels of social mobility, and that’s precisely what you don’t see in the U.S.

Regarding the third view, I do believe that it is essentially correct, but it obfuscates many of the problems caused by income inequality. Hence, even if economic efficiency doesn’t justify efforts to limit income inequality, other things do.

The fourth view would seem to make sense intuitively. A lot of the income of the very wealthy comes from the stock markets, and the recession has pushed these markets down.

Professor Saez concludes that “the most likely outcome is that income concentration will fall in 2008 and 2009.” But, he follows this conclusion by stating that in the absence of significant policy actions such declines will be temporary: “Based on the US historical record, falls in income concentration due to recessions are temporary unless drastic policy changes, such as financial regulation or significantly more progressive taxation, are implemented and prevent income concentration from bouncing back. Such policy changes took place after the Great Depression during the New Deal and permanently reduced income concentration till the 1970s. In contrast, recent downturns, such as the 2001 recession, lead to only very temporary drops in income concentration.” Bruce Judson (source)

Moreover, the poor are also suffering as a result of the recession, not in the same absolute measures as the rich, but that is because they have less to lose in the first place. However, what they do lose as a result of the recession is for them relatively more important.

Recent data show that income inequality hasn’t actually decreased in 2008. Maybe in 2009… The recession only got started late in 2008.

Income Inequality (16b): Its Moral Significance

Will Wilkinson’s recent paper on income inequality argues that it’s an overrated problem (see also here). Before I deal with his arguments in detail, a quick reminder of my personal views on income inequality. From the point of view of human rights (which is my default starting point), the most urgent problem is not necessarily the unequal distribution of wealth or income, but the insufficient wealth and income of the poor in a given population. The urgent problem is absolute poverty, rather than relative poverty. Or, in other words, what we have to tackle first is some people’s inability to gather sufficient resources necessary to survive in a decent way, not the fact that some people have more resources than others. The human rights of people in a very poor but highly egalitarian society can be violated more extensively than the human rights of the relatively poor in a society that is very rich on average but highly inegalitarian. Eliminating or reducing income inequality – or “killing the rich” (metaphorically) as in the image above – doesn’t necessarily help the poor.

However, inequality can be a problem. The absence of poverty or the availability of sufficient resources for a decent human life is a human right, but it isn’t the only human right (some would even say that it isn’t a right at all, but I disagree, together with the drafters of the Universal Declaration). Human rights also include political human rights, and these political human rights usually mean the right to democratic participation in government and legislation. Income inequality makes these political rights highly problematic. Democracy is based on the equal influence of every citizen, but income inequality, by definition, gives the wealthier citizens more influence in politics.

In addition, income inequality may also lead to social fragmentation, with negative consequences for the cohesiveness of a society. We see that highly inegalitarian societies, such as the U.S., are also societies with relatively low levels of social mobility. One could argue that income inequality isn’t much of a problem when everyone has the same chance to be on the good side of the inequality. But when it is combined with social rigidity and stratification, it undermines meritocracy and equality of opportunity, which in turn enhances social fragmentation.

Finally, people in more egalitarian societies tend to be healthier, to live longer and to be happier (as Wilkinson should know).

These are serious issues from the point of view of human rights. If reducing income inequality (for example through progressive taxation, public spending – on welfare, education, healthcare etc. –  and regulation of political funding and lobbying) can go some way towards a solution, we should consider it.

One last point: all these issues are based on the assumption that income inequality is the outcome of just processes. In other words, we assume that people’s incomes are the result of their own desert and effort. If, on the other hand, we assume – more correctly in my view – that income and wealth distributions are affected by unjust processes (such as colonialism, slavery, discrimination, inheritance and a lack of social mobility etc.) than we have additional reasons to do something about income inequality. And these reasons have nothing to do with the negative consequences of inequality. They are, instead, related to its origins.

(If you want to know more about my views on income inequality, before I tackle Wilkinson’s views, you can read this old post).

Wilkinson claims that

income inequality is a dangerous distraction from the real problems: poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and systemic injustice.

Those are real problems indeed, and even more urgent problems, as I’ve stated above. But income inequality is also a real problem, and I fail to see how one problem is necessarily a distraction from another problem. Human beings are perfectly capable of tackling several problems at the same time.

He also states that

there is little evidence that high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery slope to the destruction of democracy and rule by the rich.

That’s not true, as you can read here and here. Income inequality obviously doesn’t necessarily “destroy” democracy or replace it with “plutocracy”, but it significantly reduces its meaning, on both sides of the income gap: wealthy people use their wealth, their higher education, their networks etc. to gain influence, and poor people tend to participate less and thereby lose influence. While it’s true that wealthy people can use their political influence for the benefit of their poor fellow-citizens, it’s still a fact that many don’t. If we cherish democracy, we should implement policies that limit the risk of selfish interventions by disproportionately influential individuals or groups, as well as policies that encourage participation of relatively less influential individuals and groups. It’s not sufficient, as Wilkinson does, to point to the fact that many wealthy people voted for Obama, knowing that he would raise their taxes.

Wilkinson also believes that the level of American income inequality was not caused by exploitative, institutional mechanisms. Given the historical inheritance of slavery and discrimination, I think this opinion is false. This inheritance, combined with astonishingly high levels of correlation between parental income and the income of children, does suggest that there are institutional mechanisms which perpetuate income inequality. While it’s wrong to claim that the inheritance of racism and slavery is to blame for the poverty of African-Americans living today, it’s very likely that it has some effect.

Few people argue for a completely egalitarian society. I certainly don’t. Some inequalities are perfectly just, and probably necessary from the point of view of economic efficiency. But there are many who argue for the opposite: don’t do anything about inequality. While I don’t believe Wilkinson is one of them, his statement that “income inequality is a dangerous distraction” encourages those who believe that we shouldn’t care about inequality.

Income Inequality (15): Progressive Taxation

Yes, I know… another post (and a long one) on income inequality, something which isn’t even a human rights issue, strictly speaking. I repeat, the most important thing to me is the provision of basic necessities, not the unequal distribution of these necessities. The fact that someone is poor and homeless is a more important problem than the fact that some people earn more or have bigger houses. Human rights address the first problem, not the second. When human rights address the problem of inequality, it’s usually not income inequality but other types of inequality (unequal rights, discrimination, unequal representation or access to information etc.).

What’s the problem?

However, as I stated here, income inequality IS a problem. It can destroy the cohesiveness of a society when it surpasses certain limits. People lose their self-esteem when they see that they are relatively worse off (even though not necessarily poor), especially when their position in society isn’t completely their own fault, which is often the case. People’s income, even in supposedly meritocratic societies such as the U.S. and the U.K., depends heavily on their family and social environment, and not only on their own achievements. Income inequality therefore becomes a problem of justice, social justice. And it can also become a problem for democracy, in which case it becomes a human rights issue (democracy is a human right). On top of that, people tend to be healthier and to live longer in more egalitarian societies.

And finally, this paper shows that

increased income (or wealth) generally does not increase … happiness significantly, and to the extent that it does, relative income plays a greater role than absolute income. In light of this … redistribution, via a progressive income tax, will increase people’s utility (happiness) by improving their relative incomes.

What can we do?

So, there are many good reasons to reduce income inequality, or at least slow down the trend of increasing inequality. There are also many ways to do this. Progressive taxation, rather than regressive taxation or a flat tax, is one way, as stated in the quote (and here/here). Public social spending is another way, as are some measure to increase social mobility and reduce the correlation between parents’ income and that of their offspring (e.g. an inheritance tax). Better funding for education, and helping lower income people gain access to education (by way of vouchers or scholarships etc.) is also good policy.

In the current post, however, I want to focus on one aspect of policy, namely taxation. I want to defend progressive taxation against regressive or flat taxation, not because of reasons of economic efficiency – although these are important – but because it is a policy which can reduce income inequality.

What is progressive taxation?

Progressive taxation (an idea going back to Adam Smith if not before) means that those with a higher income pay a relatively larger share of their income on taxes, and that this share rises progressively when income levels rise. Earning more means paying more taxes, both in absolute terms (the amount of taxes paid) and in relative terms (the percentage of income paid on taxes). A concept often used to describe this is “increasing tax burden”, but that is misleading, as Ezra Klein has pointed out. A person paying more taxes both in absolute and relative terms, doesn’t necessarily carry a bigger burden:

A strong person carrying a 50 pound bag may feel less burdened than a weak person carrying a 20 pound bag.

Even if the 50 pound is larger compared to the body weight of the strong and healthy person than the 20 pound is to that of the weak and sick person. Klein again:

The average after-tax income of the average person in the middle income quintile is $52,100. That’s down from about $60,700 after an effective tax rate of 14.2%. In the top quintile, the after-tax income is $184,400, down from $248,400 after a 25.8% effective federal tax rate. The rich person certainly pays more, both in absolute terms and as a share of income. But is his burden greater than the middle-income taxpayer left with $52,100? It’s hard for me to see how.

A progressive tax system can also be defined by comparing it to the so-called flat tax. A flat tax usually means that everyone pays the same tax rate. As a result, rich people pay more taxes in absolute terms, but the same taxes as poor people in relative terms. Proponents of a flat tax system say that it stimulates economic growth because it takes away less money from the wealthy, who can then invest it in the economy. Such higher growth in turn leads to more revenue for the government, and hence more means to benefit the poor, for instance. A flat tax also leads to more revenue because lower tax rates for the rich means that they will be less inclined to cheat or avoid taxes, and because its simplicity eliminates loopholes and deductions.

However, these advantages, to the extent that they are real, don’t address the inherent injustice of the system.

How do you make taxation progressive?

The “progressivity” of taxes can be achieved in different ways:

  1. The most obvious way: a higher income means a higher tax rate.
  2. Rather than increasing the tax rate together with increases in the taxable amount (usually the wage or other types of income), one can also choose to increase the taxable amount for wealthier people while leaving the tax rate identical for everyone. Wealthier people would then have a larger “tax base”. For example, they may have less exemptions, deductions, tax credits etc., or they may have to pay taxes on luxury goods that only they can afford to buy. With one and the same tax rate for all, we still are able to introduce progressivity. This looks a bit like the flat tax.
  3. Or one can decide to have, like in the previous case, only one tax rate rather than rates rising with income levels, and exempt from taxes all income below $50,000 or something. This as well is a progressive tax, because people with higher incomes pay more taxes, both in an absolute and a relative sense.

Progressivity can not be achieved by moving the tax system away from income and towards sales taxes, VAT or consumption taxes. Such taxes are by definition regressive, because they impose a relatively higher burden on lower income taxpayers, who, after all, spend a larger proportion of their wealth and income on consumption, and therefore pay a greater share of their income on taxes.

Other options?

As mentioned above, progressive taxation is only one way to reduce income inequality, and perhaps not even the most useful one. Yglesias and Kenworthy have shown that it’s not the tax system as such but targeted government spending that equalizes things. The important thing is to have a tax system that generates enough revenue to spend on counter-inequality measures (such as education, benefits etc.). Whether this system is progressive or not is secondary. According to Kenworthy, countries with higher tax revenues but not necessarily more progressive tax systems achieve more inequality reduction.

Income Inequality (13): Social Mobility in the U.S. and Britain

America and Britain … have the highest intergenerational correlations between the social status of fathers and sons; the lowest are found in egalitarian Norway and Denmark. Things are even worse for ethnic minorities; a black American born in the bottom quintile of the population (by income) has a 42% chance of staying there as an adult, compared with 17% for a white person. The Economist (source)

If equality of opportunity is important – and I think it is – then it’s unacceptable that people’s income is to a large extent determined by the income of their parents or by their race. Equality of opportunity means that individuals who grow up in poor families can use their talent and effort to become wealthy, and that individuals who have wealthy parents end up with relatively meager incomes because of their lack of talent and/or effort.

Now, a lack of social mobility isn’t such a big problem in very egalitarian societies with high average incomes, because (almost) everyone already has a decent and more or less equal income, something which cancels out or softens the injustice of seeing your income level determined by that of your parents. But, of course, Britain and the U.S. are not egalitarian. On the contrary, among developed countries they are among the least egalitarian with income inequality far beyond the average.

So, what to do about it? If we do nothing, then we may as well say out loud that we are a society based on injustice, a society in which one’s fate is determined by the lottery of birth, by the good luck or bad luck of being born into a certain  family. Maybe a “death tax” could help.

Income Inequality (11): Why Should We Care?

It’s a fact that many rich countries – rich in terms of total GDP – have a substantially unequal distribution of income; or, to put it in other words, these countries accept that there is huge inequality of wealth between people. It’s also a fact that, in many countries and particularly the U.S., these inequalities in income or wealth have become wider over the last decades.

What’s the problem, you may ask. Well, according to me this inequality poses some problems. But these problems are of relative importance. More important to me is the problem of absolute poverty. Absolute poverty is a lack of certain resources that are necessary to meet certain basic needs. This is not a problem of inequality. People may live in a very unequal society and at the wrong end of inequality, but they may nevertheless have no problem whatsoever meeting their basic needs.

More important as well, in some aspects at least, are the problems posed by other types of inequality. Gender inequality in some countries may be much more of a problem than income inequality (although these different types of inequality are probably connected).

Nevertheless, income inequality engenders some important problems. One is self-esteem. People suffering from relative poverty – i.e. finding themselves on the wrong end of an unequal income distribution – may suffer psychologically and emotionally. It’s also likely that their relative disadvantage isn’t very fair. In other words, it’s probably not solely based on questions of merit and desert. We don’t live in a world of equality of opportunity and level starting conditions. There’s also a correlation between relative and absolute poverty, so we may have to worry about relative poverty as a cause of absolute poverty.

Income inequality can also cause a problem for democracy. The rich can use their financial means to pervert the democratic procedures and to distort the equal influence on which democracy is based. Another way in which income inequality may pervert democracy is its divisiveness. It polarizes societies and it can antagonize regions within countries. None of this is helpful for the adequate functioning of democracy.

More on income inequality here and here.

Income Inequality (9): Absolute and Relative Poverty

The problem of poverty and related problems such as income inequality have received a lot of attention on this blog, because I consider poverty to be one of the most urgent human rights problems. Now and again, I’ve also mentioned the possibility of distinguishing between different types of poverty, and one such possibility in particular, namely the difference between absolute and relative poverty. Absolute poverty meaning the lack of basic resources, and relative poverty meaning income inequality.

I’ve taken the view that absolute poverty is a more urgent priority than relative poverty, and that therefore measurements of income inequality – such as the Gini coefficient – are less relevant than measurements of absolute poverty – such as the $1 a day measure. It’s the absolute income of people that matters, not the fact that other people are richer than you are and can afford more luxuries, at least from a human rights point of view (the absence of a certain minimum amount of basic resources is a human rights violation in itself and renders many other human rights meaningless).

Inequality of wealth or income is less urgent than the fight against absolute poverty, and a lot of opposition to income inequality can be easily categorized as the politics of envy. If inequality really matters it is the inequality of opportunity and other types of inequality not related to wealth (<discrimination for example).

But this is perhaps putting it too strongly. There are negative effects of high levels of income inequality, for example on the adequate functioning of democracy. There is also a correlation between relative poverty and absolute poverty: countries with relatively unequal income distribution don’t score well on absolute poverty measures either.

Richard Wilkinson has pointed out, some time ago already, that relative poverty matters. Once economic growth has pushed up absolute (albeit average per capita) income levels and done away with penury, people tend to be more healthy and live longer if levels of income inequality are relatively low. Countries with lower per capita income levels but also lower income inequality, can do better in terms of public health than high income countries with higher levels of income inequality. Poorer countries with a more equal wealth distribution are healthier and happier than richer, more unequal ones. There’s also a link between inequality (measured not by Gini but by way of the concentration of wealth in the 10% richest people) and both life expectancy and child mortality.

Some of the reasons for this are the stress of living at the bottom of the pecking order, the stress of disrespect and the lack of esteem and respect (including self-respect).