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.

What is Democracy? (64): Plutocracy?

The role of money in democracy is hotly contested. It’s undeniable that democracies spend a lot of money on campaigns, advertising, lobbying etc. Some argue that wealthy individuals or corporations often use their financial means to distort the outcomes of elections or the framing of policy and legislation. There may also be a problem of vote buying: wealthy individuals or politicians paying voters or giving them some other advantages (such as jobs or cheap housing) in an effort to convince them to vote in a certain way. Worries about the effect of income inequality on democracy are partly based on this type of argument, as are efforts to regulate campaign financing.

And indeed, the huge amounts of money going around in democratic politics could potentially move us away of the democratic ideal of equal influence. So the charge of plutocracy isn’t necessarily ridiculous. However, this is essentially an empirical matter and we should therefore look at evidence from political science. Here’s a short and somewhat depressing overview:

With regard to overall spending, Jacobson (1978) was the first to show an effect on vote outcomes, but this effect was mainly present for challengers [in U.S. Congressional elections]. In subsequent years, the effect of challenger spending was confirmed, but others also found effects for incumbent spending as well (e.g. Green & Krasno 1988, Erikson & Palfrey 1995, Gerber 1998). The basic takeaway is that spending more is clearly effective for challengers, and probably also matters for incumbents too, but solving the causal direction problems involved makes it very difficult to be really certain of any of these findings.

One problem is we know that winning candidates generally have more money, but whether money helps candidates or is just a signal of unobserved candidate quality [i.e., people give more money to better candidates] is unclear. Another problem is that not only are donors attracted to high-quality candidates just as voters are, but they are also attracted to winning candidates—that is, if money is given in order to get access to elected officials, donors are more likely to give to candidates who are expected to do well, because the expected return is greater. In both cases, we could observe an empirical relationship between winning and having more money for your campaign, without the money actually “causing” the victory. (source)

So, maybe the “plutocrats” can’t just simply spend in order to have their preferred candidate elected and instead spend money on the candidate who is good and who will win anyway. However, the fact remains that their spending gives them privileged access to politicians and possibly also privileged influence on subsequent policy, and that isn’t something we want in a democracy. If “winning candidates generally have more money” – whether the money causes the win or not – one can reasonably assume that the candidates will in some way be indebted to or influenced by their donors. Also, even if there are doubts about the causal direction, it is worrying that the evidence doesn’t rule out the possibility that campaign spending – especially spending by challengers – can determine who gets elected.

Regarding deterrence – successful fundraising by incumbents deterring challengers from entering a race – the empirical evidence is weak:

there is no consensus in the literature regarding deterrence, and once again there are major questions about causal relationships (i.e., do high-raising incumbents deter, or is it just high-quality incumbents who can raise a great deal of money and simultaneously deter quality challengers for reasons having nothing to do with funding?). (source)

Whatever the evidence on deterrence, it’s clear that money determines who can run. It’s naive to think that a candidate with few means would be able to run against another having a lot of means. The former would simply be invisible, even if he or she feels undeterred.

What about campaign advertising, one of the more visible ways in which money could play a part in politics?

[A]ds appear to be somewhat effective but have wide variance in their effectiveness (that is, some ads help a lot, most help very little or not at all, and a few are counterproductive). (source)

Voter mobilization – face-to-face canvassing, mailings, phone calls – is also very expensive, hence well-funded candidates can do more of it. Whether they in fact do more of it depends on its effectiveness:

mobilization efforts appear to be effective but costly (face-to-face canvassing appears most effective by far, while phone calls & direct mail have much less effect). (source)

The conclusion is that campaign spending is somewhat effective, and that those candidates with more money do somewhat better. This results in a financial arms race between candidates, increasing the risk of donor indebtedness and of unequal access and influence:

Candidates who raise a lot of money tend to do better, and it’s more likely than not that at least part of this relationship is due to money paying for things like ads and canvassers that help candidates win over new voters and/or turn out their bases. (source)

Vote buying is the other channel through which money could potentially influence democratic politics. Here, some of the evidence is more encouraging:

The experiment took place during the March 2011 elections in Benin and involved 150 randomly selected villages. The treatment group had town hall meetings where voters deliberated over their candidate’s electoral platforms with no cash distribution. The control group had the standard campaign, i.e. one-way communication of the candidate’s platform by himself or his local broker, followed (most of the time) by cash distribution.

We find that the treatment has a positive effect on turnout. In addition, using village level election returns, we find no significant difference in electoral support for the experimental candidate between treatment and control villages.

…the positive treatment effect is driven in large part by active information sharing by those who attended the meetings. (source)

In conclusion: democracy is not simply a market transaction, but neither is it silly to worry about the role of money in elections and legislation.

More on money in politics here. More 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.

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.

The Causes of Poverty (60): Early and/or Single Motherhood?

The “culture of poverty” narrative claims that people are poor because they have the wrong values and habits and therefore make the wrong choices: they tend to be unable to resist drugs, violence and crime, they drop out of school, have a problem with punctuality and discipline etc. I’ve already made my own views about this narrative abundantly clear in previous posts. However, I failed to give sufficient attention to one subset of values, namely those related to marriage, family structure and early childbearing. So I’ll briefly have a look at those now.

As is often the case with explanations of poverty based on values and habits, there’s a certain superficial persuasiveness about the claim that early marriage, early childbearing and, most importantly, early out-of-wedlock childbearing result in a lifelong loss of income. Young mothers in general and young single mothers in particular have a relatively hard time finishing their education and finding a well-paying job because the combination of motherhood and work/education is a tough deal.

However, we may be wrong about the direction of causation here. Rather than poverty being the result of bad choices – in this case the choice of becoming a young and/or single mother – it may be the cause of those choices. There’s for example this study which finds that teenage pregnancy rates are indeed higher in U.S. States that have high rates of poverty, but which also postulates that high levels of income inequality cause high teenage pregnancy rates, not vice versa. When young people believe that their society is rigged against people like them, they abandon traditional norms; conversely, people will work hard when they feel that there’s a chance of success. When young women see that their chances of future economic success are slim, then early motherhood may even look appealing: it may give direction and a purpose to their lives, a purpose that would be difficult to find in an economy stacked against them.

“[B]eing on a low economic trajectory in life leads many teenage girls to have children while they are young and unmarried and … poor outcomes seen later in life (relative to teens who do not have children) are simply the continuation of the original low economic trajectory” (source)

In a sense, this is a discouraging finding because it means that the promotion of abstinence or contraceptive use won’t reduce early and/or single motherhood; only poverty reduction and realistic economic opportunities will do that, and that’s a lot more difficult and expensive. And, make no mistake about it, we would want to reduce early and/or single motherhood, because the causation goes in both directions and it’s very implausible to deny that early and/or single motherhood has any effect on income. What you do want to deny is that the “culture of poverty” narrative has an important explanatory value in all of this.

One final remark: while I focus here on mothers, many of the same remarks would be valid for young and/or single fathers as well.

More on poverty and family structure here. More posts in this series here.

Measuring Poverty (14): Measuring Income Inequality

Income inequality may or may not be the best definition of poverty,  but it’s certainly one that is often used. In many European countries, you’re counted as poor when your income is below 50% or so of the median income. Maybe this is the wrong way to measure poverty, but if you use absolute measures for poverty (such as a basic income, minimum consumption etc.) you’ll also face some problems. So it’s worthwhile to examine some of the usual methods for measuring income inequality and see how they hold up, while at the same time bracketing the discussion about poverty as either absolute deprivation or unequal distribution.

Methods for measuring income inequality

The Gini coefficient is the most widely used. It’s based on the proportion of the total income of a population that is cumulatively earned by a % of the population; a value of 0 expresses perfect equality where everyone has equal shares of income and a value of 1 expresses maximal inequality where only one person has all the income. A low Gini coefficient indicates therefore a more equal distribution. (The complete formula is here).

A disadvantage of the Gini measure is that it doesn’t capture where in the distribution the inequality occurs: is a society unequal because the top 1% has astronomically high incomes, because the poor are very poor, because there is practically no middle class, or because of some other reason?

Other measures are

  • the ratio of the incomes of the top 10% (best paid) to the bottom 10% (worst paid)
  • the proportion of a population with income less than 50% of the median income
  • a population may be split into segments, e.g. quintiles or deciles, and each segment’s income share is then compared to each other segment’s (for example, the top 10% of the population – “top” in income terms – has x % of total income)
  • some other measures are here.

These different measures can give contradictory numbers: two societies with the same Gini score can have different ratios of top-bottom, top-middle or middle-bottom incomes (see an example here). Hence, no single measure will tell us the last word about inequality in a society.

What is income?

The focus of all these measurement systems is income, but we should first decide what to count as income. Income doesn’t have to be cash or currency. A farmer in a poor country who grows his own products has non-cash income. Perhaps public services such as healthcare or education should count as income. And how about tax reductions, tax refunds, government benefits such as unemployment insurance, food stamps and various vouchers?

All those forms of non-cash or non-labor income are important when measuring income inequality because the poor profit disproportionately from those non-cash or non-labor related forms of income. Hence, including them in total income can make a large difference in income inequality numbers. (Higher income groups may have less or different tax refunds and their education may represent a smaller portion of their total income – the returns of their education may of course be higher, but those returns are typically cash based in the sense that they lead to higher labor compensation).

We should also decide if we want to use income before or after taxation; depends if we want to measure the effectiveness of redistribution or simply gross inequalities. And what about capital gains, imputed house rents from home ownership, inheritance etc. In general, how should wealth be included in income? Or shouldn’t it be?

How do we measure income?

Once we’ve solved the difficult problem of defining income, we’re still left with the practical problem of measuring it. Most cash income is captured in tax return data, but not all, and not equally well in all countries. Sometimes, you’ll need to use consumption data as a proxy for income data, or surveys about living standards. “Informal” income typically does not show up in tax data, but does in consumption data.

Another problem with measures of inequality is that they may be contaminated by notions of fairness. Some deliberately design their measurement system in such as way that inequalities look bigger than they actually are. For example, they use pre-tax inequalities because those are often larger than post-tax inequalities – a lot of tax systems are redistributive towards the poor (e.g. progressive taxation systems). Or they focus on income inequality when consumption inequality may have diminished. Others may mistakenly deduce evaluations of fairness or injustice from the simply fact of income distributions and forget that measures of income inequality are silent about who is on which side of the divide. If person A in a two person economy has twice the income of person B, then the measurement of inequality would be absolutely the same when B switches places with A. Measures of income inequality say nothing about who deserves what, about how income has been acquired, about whether some occupations should yield higher compensation (for example because we want the right incentives), or about how income should ideally be distributed.

And then there is the opposite mistake: assuming that income inequality is always necessary and just because it’s the automatic result of the fact that people have different levels of human capital and productive abilities. This is a mistake because it ignores a number of facts: no one has ever been able to prove that some abilities or occupations deserve higher wages from a moral point of view, and a lot of inequality is the result not of different abilities or efforts but of differences in luck and connections. Hence, fairness remains a legitimate concern. Contrary to the “left-wing mistake”, the “right-wing mistake” will not distort the measurement of inequality: if you believe inequality is not a problem you hardly have a reason for measuring it, let alone distort the measurement.

What I want to stress is how difficult it is to measure income inequality and how many mistakes we can make. This doesn’t mean that the numbers are rubbish. We should just be careful when drawing sweeping conclusions, that’s all.

Something more about the causes of income inequality, rather than the measurement of it, is here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (23): Capital Gains

It’s hard to investigate the causes of income inequality without looking at the sources of income. In turns out that, in the U.S. at least but probably also in other developed countries, the majority of a population gets almost all of its income from wages, while people at the top of the income distribution get most of it from capital gains and dividends.

Dividends are payments made by a corporation to its shareholder members, usually a portion of corporate profits. Capital gains are profits that result from investments into a capital asset, such as stocks, bonds or real estate, which exceeds the purchase price. A capital gain is the difference between a higher selling price and a lower purchase price, resulting in a financial gain for the investor.

Given these differences in the sources of income, income inequality will rise if incomes from capital gains and dividends rise more rapidly than wage incomes, perhaps because taxes on the former are cut. And indeed, most of the recent increase in the Gini score for the US (higher Gini numbers imply a less equal distribution) comes from higher capital gains and dividends and from lower taxes for high earners (lower taxes not only on capital gains, by the way; many taxes have become less progressive in the U.S.).

This cause of income inequality suggest a problem that goes deeper than inequality:

I think a lot of people sense that there’s something unsettling about this shift from labor income to capital incomes. It seems endemic of a society that devalues work while providing outsized rewards for speculation and asset accumulation. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (22): Non-Progressive Taxation and Weak Transfers

This post applies to the U.S., but I guess the same conclusion are valid for a number of other countries as well. In the case of the U.S., very high levels of income inequality could, in theory, be reduced in several ways:

Unfortunately, very little of this is happening. Let’s focus on the last two options. The tax system in the U.S. is not progressive at all. As you can see from this graph, taxation in the U.S. hardly influences income shares.

The poor only get a little bit more thanks to taxes, and the rich only lose a little bit. This is all the more regrettable given the fact that the rich have done very well over the last decades.

Higher tax rates for the wealthy and other more progressive taxes such as a higher inheritance tax, a higher capital gains tax, a Tobin tax etc. are politically impossible it seems.

Increased benefits for the poor are equally unrealistic given the fiscal situation and the predominant ideology. Although the poor in the U.S. do profit from the existing benefit system in absolute terms (unemployment insurance for example saves millions from absolute poverty), income inequality barely moves because of it. Income shares after benefits are hardly less unequal than before. This graph shows the influence on income shares of the sum of taxes and transfers, but you get the picture.

Taxes and transfers result in the poor having a bit more and the rich having a bit less, but fundamentally they don’t change the distribution of income.

More posts in this series are 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”.

The Causes of Poverty (50): The Structure of Income Inequality

It seems that one particular aspect of income inequality – namely the degree of inequality between middle income and lower income people – determines the degree of redistribution in a society, and hence the level of poverty of the poorest:

the key factor determining redistribution is the income gap between middle income voters and lower income voters. Where this gap is low, middle class people feel some degree of solidarity with the poor and exhibit what Lupu and Pontussen describe as “parochial altruism.” That is, they are more likely to support income redistribution because they feel that the poor are in some sense, “like them”. When the gap is high, middle class people will have a much weaker sense of solidarity with the poor, and hence be less supportive of redistribution.

Lupu and Pontussen suggest that the US is an outlier, with weaker solidarity than the structure of US inequality would suggest. They argue that the explanation for this is straightforward – “it is clearly attributable to the high-concentration of racial-ethnic minorities in the bottom of the income distribution.” More bluntly put – middle class Americans feel less solidarity with the very poor because the very poor are more likely to be black. (source, source, source)

Yet another reason to worry about income inequality. More posts in this series are here.

Why Do We Need Human Rights? (26): Human Rights and Diminishing Marginal Utility

The marginal utility of something – usually a consumption good or a service – is the utility (pleasure, happiness, wellbeing or whatever) gained from an increase in the consumption of the thing. The law of diminishing marginal utility states that the first unit of consumption of a good or service yields more utility than the second and subsequent units (in other words, the utility of each unit decreases as the supply or consumption of units increases).

The classic example is the buffet-style restaurant promising “all you can eat” for a fixed sum. Each additional plate of food you take provides less utility than the one before. After the first plate, your hunger has been somewhat tamed, meaning that your enjoyment of the second plate is less, and so on. After a certain number of plates, you reach a point at which eating more would make you sick. Utility may therefore become zero or even negative, so-called “disutility”. The restaurant has determined the price of a meal at a level slightly above the level at which the average person decides that the additional marginal utility of one more trip to the buffet isn’t worthwhile (or is zero or negative).

You start of with zero meals; you’re hungry. Your utility, which we’ll call here “satisfaction”, is zero. You eat your first plate, which gives you a whopping utility of 20. You’re very satisfied with it. The next plate is nice as well, but only half as nice. It gives you a satisfaction of 10, and puts your total satisfaction for the dinner party thus far at 30. 10 is the marginal utility of this second plate; 30 the total utility of the evening out. And so it goes on. The third plate only adds another 8 points of satisfaction etc. By the time of the 7th plate, the food doesn’t do anything to you. You eat it just because you want to get the maximum out of the fixed amount that you paid for the use of the buffet. It has zero marginal utility, adding nothing to the total utility of the night out. However, you decide to go for your 8th plate, because, hey, bang for the buck. And, surprise, surprise, it makes you feel slightly sick. It has a negative marginal utility, diminishing the total utility of the dinner party. The 9th plate…, well, no need to elaborate beyond the fact that input equals output and that Monty Python is great. You wish you hadn’t come.

Here it may be noted that the utility of the successive plates diminishes not because they are of inferior quality – all plates are just as tasty. The utility of the successive plates diminishes simply because they happen to be consumed consecutively. I can also mention that in some cases, marginal or total utility diminish but never fall to zero; that may be the case for money for instance.

The law of diminishing marginal utility applies to many things in life, but not all: antibiotics need to be taken till the end, and the utility of the first dose depends on the last dose; people interested in rare collectables may value an additional piece more than the first piece because a larger collection of rare things is more valuable than a small collection; greedy people may value each addition to their assets equally, and so on. Moreover, there’s also something called increasing marginal utility:

[P]icture you are in a room with 10 people screaming. You hate it when people scream, and you can pay a person to get them to stop screaming. … Would you pay a $1 to get the first person to stop screaming, and a penny for the 10th person to stop screaming? No. Getting one person to stop screaming would make very little difference in how much you dislike being in the room. Modern psychology tells us you might not even notice it. You’d probably only pay a penny to get that first guy to stop screaming. However getting the second guy to stop screaming might be worth 10 cents. And the last guy, the difference between some screaming and no screaming, might be worth the full dollar to you. The more quiet it got, the more a marginal difference in how quiet it is would be worth to you. There’s increasing returns to this good; the 10th guy not screaming is worth more than the first guy not screaming, which is the exact opposite dynamic of the 10th cake being less delicious than the first. (source)

The “law” of diminishing marginal utility is therefore not really a law at all; it just describes a rather common phenomenon. And because it’s common, it’s really no surprise that it’s valid in the field of human rights as well. The same inverted U-shape that we see in the graph above for the total utility trend of increased consumption, is present in a lot of human rights related issues. Take the example of freedom, a notion that looms large in human rights language. Let’s simplify the concept and state that a person has more freedom if the number of his or her options – or possible and realistic objectives in life – increases. When, in other words, people or governments don’t block or impose options, and when a person’s resources – education, wealth, health, parents, abilities etc. – are sufficient to know, evaluate and choose objectives from a large and unconstrained set, and also to pursue the chosen objectives with a reasonable chance of success. Freedom is of course a much more complicated concept than this – see here for example – but for present purposes this can suffice.

Hence, a person with only very few options has limited or no freedom; his or her freedom levels off after the number of options reaches a certain point (there’s not much additional freedom going from a life that has the option of 2 holidays a year to one that offers three holidays, although the level of your happiness may rise slightly); and then your freedom decreases sharply beyond a certain number of options because an excess of options is inhibiting and disconcerting.

Something similar happens in the case of equality, also an important concept in human rights language. Individuals who are at the wrong side of inequality in a society – be it income inequality or other types of inequality – resent this and experience this as disutility: their self-esteem and health may suffer, their life expectancy is diminished etc. Their overall wellbeing increases as they manage to achieve more and more equality, more equal rights, more income and social security benefits and so on. However, beyond a certain level of equality, people start to see equality as disutility, since they also value achievement and success, both for themselves and in others.

The same is true on the social level: unequal societies experience less overall trust, more anxiety and illness, more excessive consumption and other failings. However, a very equal society fails to provide incentives for success and is therefore viewed as a negative.

A final example has to do with rights themselves. A society that doesn’t recognize any rights is obviously failing in “utility”. Once different rights receive recognition, utility increases. However, societies can recognize too many rights: rights inflation empties the notion of rights of its meaning, resulting in disutility. Rights have to be relatively scarce in order to be able to do their work.

So far, these examples of the applicability of the law of diminishing returns in the field of human rights seem to help us to make the world a better place: they tell us that freedom is about more than just multiplying our options, that equality can have a downside beyond a certain point, and that we should be careful when extending the language of human rights to new areas of concern. Another interesting policy implication of the law is in poverty reduction, another human rights issue. The diminishing marginal utility of money can justify redistribution: taking $100 from the rich hurts them a little, while it helps the poor enormously if they receive this $100 through redistribution mechanisms such as social security, unemployment benefits etc. While billionaires do care about losing $100, their loss of utility (happiness, satisfaction, wellbeing) is small compared to the gain in a poor person’s utility when he or she receives the same amount. (On the other hand, the diminishing marginal utility of money can be an argument against doing something about income inequality; after all, if the extra dollars of the rich don’t matter as much for wellbeing, inequality also doesn’t matter as much. I think this argument is wrong because the extra dollars of the rich matter for democratic politics, but that’s a different issue).

However, one can just as easily see negative human rights implications of the law of diminishing returns. A torturer can use this law in order to determine the optimal amount of pain to inflict. Too little pain results in low levels of “utility”, just as too much pain. In the former case, the victim will not divulge information or confess; in the latter case, the victim will say anything.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (18): Government Backed Corporate Expropriation

Consider these two commonly accepted ideas:

  1. the interests of business and government are incompatible: business wants as little government as possible, and government wants to regulate and tax business for the common good
  2. wealth or income inequality is to some extent or perhaps even principally caused by differences in effort, talent and productivity: those who have greater wealth deserve it.

These ideas have intuitive appeal and are undoubtedly correct in some cases. As overall assessments, however, they are clearly false. Inequality has many causes. Regarding #2: very deserving people may end up very poor, and very undeserving people may end up very rich. Many other factors besides effort or talent determine monetary outcomes, such as disability, the coincidence of place of birth, parental influence, education facilities, tax policy, discrimination, technological evolution etc.

Regarding idea #1: one could just as easily make the case that big business depends on government and uses government to acquire unfair advantages, thereby deepening the inequality gap. These unfair benefits should perhaps even be called forcible expropriation because some people are getting better off at the expense of those who have less, and are using the government for this purpose.

For example, you often see big corporations embracing government regulation of their business (e.g. Philip Morris accepting restrictions on cigarette advertising) because they know that smaller competitors will have a much harder time digesting the regulatory burden (and, in the case of Philip Morris, filling the name recognition gap when advertising is prohibited). Regulation in such cases gives big companies and big earners a competitive advantage, and causes the income gap to widen. Another example of regulation are quality standards: those also favor big existing companies and make it harder for new and smaller players to enter a market. The same is true for intellectual property rules, zoning restrictions, occupational licensing, capitalization requirements and many other types of regulation. Legislation or regulation is often embraced by big business and wealthy economic actors as a means to benefit at the expense of smaller actors.

Some types of collusion between big corporations and government are even more direct and open: protectionist import tariffs, subsidies, bailouts, expropriation of private property for corporate use (through eminent domain rules) and military interventions abroad.

By the way, this logic does not only widen the wealth gap but also drives the growth of government. Big business leads to big government, which in turn favors big business. Even if you don’t identify as a libertarian – and I don’t – you’ll probably do well to accept that government backed corporate expropriation is a thing.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (17): Education

People who have enjoyed a relatively high level of education tend to have higher wages. They are more likely to be employed. And their marketable skills give them a competitive advantage. It would seem to follow from this that countries with low percentages of the population having completed some specified level of education (say secondary education) should also be countries that have relatively high levels of income inequality. However, that’s not really the case (the correlation is obviously weak if it’s there at all).

It’s also true that educational attainment levels have risen in countries where income inequality has risen. All this would suggest that it’s not insufficient education that causes income inequality and that it’s futile to try to reduce income inequality by way of broadening the levels of education in a country.

However, that statement may go a bit too far. Education probably helps, but its effects are swamped by the effects of other factors that go the other way and aggravate income inequality. For instance, wage premiums aren’t the simple product of one’s education level. The type of education also matters (engineers will probably always earn more than philosophers), as do some noncognitive traits that are fostered by education but that are also more difficult if not impossible to equalize through education (such as discipline and intelligence). Add to this all the other elements that determine the levels of income in a society – the nature of one’s parents, peers and neighborhood, the social selection of desirable skills, international wage competition, regulation, corporate governance, taxation etc. – and it becomes clear that education alone can’t possibly produce a lot more income equality.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t help or that it shouldn’t be promoted for other reasons. Education is a good in itself, regardless of its effects on inequality. Furthermore, education promotes social mobility (the correlation between parents’ earnings and children’s earnings). See here; a much stronger correlation, especially without the US.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (16): Wages in the Financial Sector

[I]nequality has been soaring in part because of politics. Piketty and Saez document that the very rich today are different than those several decades ago, most importantly because they are not rentiers enjoying returns on their or their parents’ capital, but W-2 earners, enjoying very, very high salaries. Recent research by Thomas Philippon and Ariel Resheff shows a concurrent increase in salaries in the financial sector relative to the rest of the economy, confirming the pattern suggested by casual empiricism that many of these very high W-2 earners are in the financial sector.

But the expansion of the financial sector and the salaries therein over the last two decades may not have been just an unavoidable consequence of economic tides but a very political process. The deregulation of finance, despite the presence of implicit and explicit government guarantees to financial institutions which would have ordinarily necessitated significant regulation, appears to have been partly won by the financial industry as a result of lobbying, campaign contributions and the access to politicians that the industry enjoys (though this is not to argue that some of this deregulation did not have a compelling economic logic nor that free-market ideology played no role). If so, politics may have been the key factor in setting in motion the forces that have led to the massive rise in top inequality. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (44): Human Rights Between Cosmopolitanism and Partiality

Cosmopolitanism and partiality (or parochialism if you don’t mean it in a negative sense) are two very strong and yet contradictory moral intuitions. Let’s start with the former. Most of us have a strong sense of the arbitrariness of national borders. The accident of being born on one or the other side of a border – just like the accident of being born black or female – shouldn’t have any moral weight and shouldn’t determine one’s life prospects, as it unfortunately does.

As a result of this intuition, we believe that all people have the same moral worth, and this in turn convinces us that we shouldn’t condone the notion that the suffering or oppression of a fellow-citizen is more urgent or more important than the equal suffering of someone far away. There is something like humanity and all members of the human species have equal value. Being partial and favoring the alleviation of the suffering of some over the alleviation of the suffering of others, just doesn’t sound like the right thing to do. We should help people because they are human beings, not because they are compatriots. If I see a compatriot and a foreigner drowning in a pool I have no reason to save one before the other.

That’s the cosmopolitan intuition. On the other hand, there’s an equally strong intuition favoring some level of partiality. A father watching his daughter and her friend drown in a pool is allowed to save his daughter first if he can save only one. People care more about their friends and family than about strangers, and that’s completely uncontroversial. A bit less uncontroversial but perfectly common is the fact that citizens of a country – through their tax payments – typically provide relatively generous social security and welfare to their fellow-citizens and much less development aid, even though the beneficiaries of development aid are much less well off than many of the beneficiaries of the welfare state. Countries also impose immigration restrictions as a means to protect the prosperity of their reasonably well off citizenry, even if doing so means condemning foreigners to poverty. And finally, states generally enforce the other human rights of their citizens (poverty is a human rights violation) much more rigorously than the rights of foreigners.

Without staking out my position regarding these two contradictory intuitions, I would argue that imposing strict immigration and aid restrictions means taking partiality too far and that we should have more migration, more global redistribution and more international intervention aimed at the protection of human rights. However, you can demand this and still favor some level of partiality over strict cosmopolitanism.

So, the conclusions people draw from the partiality intuition aren’t always morally defensible, but the intuition itself is. And the same is true for the cosmopolitan intuition. In what follows I will ignore those who draw extreme conclusions from either intuition because they tend thereby to ignore the other intuition. Extreme nationalists, chauvinist patriots, racists, “ethical egoists” à la Rand etc. on one side, and the much less numerous “uprooted” citizens of the world and the corporate or non-governmental “modern nomads” who ridicule origins and meaningful national affiliations on the other side. It’s generally not a good idea to deny strong moral intuitions, and certainly not in this case. So I’ll focus on those who recognize the two intuitions and somehow try to juggle them.

How do people do that? Some choose one as the most important and believe that the other can only be followed in addition. Others just accept this as a case of irreconcilable value pluralism and believe that we can’t solve the dilemma. And still others deny that there’s always a conflict between the two intuitions.

Let’s look at those who favor the priority of partiality, see what reasons they have, and how those who favor cosmopolitanism respond. Many of those who favor the partiality intuition agree that we can and should do more to help others in distant places, but they also claim that we shouldn’t do as much for the billions of poor and oppressed people in the world as we do for our local charity, our relatives and friends and even our compatriots. They believe that once we’ve provided a minimum of care and aid to humanity in general, we’re allowed to focus our attention on a partial group or a limited circle of people that have a special meaning to us. They may provide different reasons for this claim. Let’s look at a few and at the ways in which cosmopolitans can reply:

  • Parochialists may argue that we need global institutions similar to national ones in order to provide the same amount and quality of care and aid to humanity as a whole. For example, you need a global welfare state to provide social security to everyone, and an effective global judiciary to punish gross violations of human rights in despotic regimes elsewhere in the world. We can call this the institutional objection to cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitans could point to the progress in international criminal justice that has already been made, and could also argue that international redistribution of resources doesn’t necessarily require a global welfare state.
  • Parochialist can defend their limited partiality by claiming that relatively small groups of people are best placed to help each other, and that long distance help isn’t the most effective. For example, local judiciaries are better placed to judge local human rights violations than “ivory tower” international institutions, and small groups of people are better able and more motivated to give each other material assistance. Closeness means that you can do more, and if you can do more you should do more. It also means that appeals to help will be better heard and be more persuasive. People far away simply don’t have the necessary information or motivation to help effectively. We can call this the effectiveness and motivational objection to cosmopolitanism. Cosmopolitans could reply that there’s a certain circularity in this argument and that globalization has eroded much of the salience of closeness. I can go to an internet site and donate money to a specific person thousands of miles away. And the modern media have made the suffering of such a person much more salient and motivating.
  • Parochialists can argue that relatively small groups of people are not only best placed to help each other, but have a right to help each other and should be allowed to do so before the international humanitarians come barging in. This is akin to arguments about self-determination and cultural relativism. Caring about other places on the globe means wanting to intervene in those places in order to promote human rights and alleviate suffering. Such intervention may amount to cultural aggression. We can call this the cultural objection to cosmopolitanism. I’ve argued against cultural relativism elsewhere so I won’t repeat myself here.
  • Parochialists may claim that partiality is the result of the importance of community membership. People want to belong to communities. This belonging is important for many reasons, notably for personal identity. In order to maintain a community, there have to be special duties towards fellow members. We can call this the community objection to cosmopolitanism. The cosmopolitan could argue that those special duties are different from the global duties imposed on us by human rights and humanitarianism and don’t diminish or replace those global duties.
  • Parochialists can argue that global duties and a global morality are meaningless concepts. Perhaps a real understanding of what a moral duty is can only arise from the communal traditions and language of a particular culture. Morality is then culturally situated, embedded and determined. Moral impartiality and global justice are then oxymorons. This objection to cosmopolitanism is related to the cultural objection, and we can call it the meta-ethical objection. A cosmopolitan could reply that this is a rather strange conception of morality. It’s not uncommon for people to be influenced by moralities from far away. Hence, it’s wrong to claim that morality is completely embedded in culture.
  • Parochialists can argue that cosmopolitanism and the need to treat everyone equally imply the imposition of excessive burdens on the wealthier members of humanity and would therefore be both unrealistic and unfair. Treating everyone equally would leave them with little for themselves and for their partial circle of care. None of them would still wear expensive watches or clothes, go on vacations or give their children an expensive education. We can call this the feasibility objection to cosmopolitanism. The cosmopolitan could answer in different ways. First, things aren’t entirely zero-sum as the parochialist seems to believe. For example, a well-educated child can more effectively help humanity. Hence, the two intuitions don’t have to cancel each other out and people don’t always have to choose. Love for humanity and love for certain people don’t necessarily clash. Secondly, even if it’s not feasible to help everyone, that doesn’t mean we have to be partial. The moral equality of all human beings may require that we select a random group of people to help, rather than our inner circle. Such a random choice would guarantee that we help strangers just as much as relatives, friends and compatriots, even though we can’t help everyone equally. The problem with such a random choice is that you need to know about people in order to be able to help (see the effectiveness objection above). The cosmopolitan could reply that random selection isn’t really necessary and that we can help a lot of people a lot more than we may think, without completely undermining our own wellbeing. It’s not absolutely clear that the world doesn’t hold enough resource to give everyone a decent life.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (15): Slavery

Income inequality doesn’t have the same causes everywhere, as is evident from this study which points to the fact that slavery in the U.S., which was abolished almost 150 years ago, still has nefarious effects today.

Within the US, the institution of slavery has historically been associated more heavily with specific areas – primarily the South. This geographic differentiation allows us to identify the link between past slavery and current outcomes. We start by reviewing, over a cross section of counties, the effect of the intensity of slavery in 1870 on the current level of income per capita. For the year 2000, we find no evidence that those counties that employed slave labour more heavily are poorer than those that did so to a lesser extent or not at all (even though a negative relationship between slavery and income was still present until 1970).

Next we turn to the impact of slavery on current income disparities and we find that it is indeed associated with a higher degree of income inequality. In other words, former slave counties are more unequal in the present day. They also show a higher poverty rate and a higher degree of racial inequality. Moreover, the data say that the impact of slavery on economic inequality and poverty runs through its impact on racial inequality, and not vice versa. (source)

How exactly does slavery lead to long turn income inequality? If slavery is seen as a symptom of feelings of racial superiority, then it’s not far-fetched to assume that those feelings didn’t die with slavery and continued to affect blacks by way of discriminatory policies and practices, including in wage determination and other areas that influence economic inequality, such as the provision of education.

This, by the way, also makes the case for reparations a bit stronger. More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (14): Wage Stagnation at the Bottom of the Income Distribution

Income inequality has risen in many countries during the last decades, including the U.S. The causes of this evolution obviously differ from country to country, although some causes may be universal. If we focus on the U.S., one important cause is wage stagnation for middle class and poor families since the 1970s. This stagnation, combined with the fact that the incomes of the wealthy continued along their pre-1970s growth path, caused increasing income inequality. The 1970s are a clear turning point, as you can see here.

The decades before the 1970s were what has been called a time of “shared prosperity”. Maybe trickle down economics really did work back then. Since the 1970s, however, income gains went almost entirely to the very wealthy, without much of the gains trickling down.

If that is why inequality has increased, we still have to answer the question why lower wages have stagnated. Maybe the decline of the minimum wage has something to do with it.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (13): Deliberate Policy?

Some say that the increase in income inequality in countries such as the U.S. has been the result of deliberate government policy. That’s quite an accusation. It’s not controversial to assume that tax policy under right wing governments tends to be less burdensome on the rich, and that social welfare policy under such governments tends to be more stingy. If you look at it like this, it’s not crazy to argue that right wing policies can aggravate income inequality. But it’s quite another thing to claim that right wing governments use these policies in order to deliberately aggravate income inequality. That accusation is incompatible with right wing ideology, which claims that the preferred policies also and ultimately help the poor (trickle down economics etc.), and that left wing policies supposedly favoring the poor are in fact self-destructive (unemployment benefits create labor disincentives, taxes create production disincentives, etc.). However, it’s possible that this ideology is just a smokescreen for anti-poor policies. But I guess that’s somewhat difficult to prove.

If we look at the tax rates, it’s true that the rates for the wealthy tend to go down under Republican presidents:

In 1979, the effective tax rate on the top 0.01 percent (i.e., rich people) was 42.9 percent. … By Reagan’s last year in office it was 32.2 percent. (source)

However, things aren’t as simple as that:

From 1989 to 2005, … as income inequality continued to climb, the effective tax rate on the top 0.01 percent largely held steady; in most years it remained in the low 30s, surging to 41 during Clinton’s first term but falling back during his second, where it remained. The change in the effective tax rate on the bottom 20 percent (i.e., poor and lower-middle-class people) was much more dramatic, but not in a direction that would increase income inequality. Under Clinton, it dropped from 8 percent (about where it had stood since 1979) to 6.4 percent. Under George W. Bush, it fell to 4.3 percent. (source)

The tax rate for the rich dropped somewhat around 2005 following the Bush tax cuts, but all the tax effects over the last decades taken together don’t really make a good case that tax policy is the major cause of rising income inequality. So it’s even more difficult to make the case that tax policy was part of a conscious strategy to aggravate inequality. The increase in inequality has been too big compared to the possible impact of taxation. That’s corroborated by the fact that pre-tax inequality in the U.S. rose faster than after-tax inequality.

What’s interesting, however, is that pre-tax inequality in the U.S. tends to rise much faster under Republican rule. So inequality can still be the result of policy, but policy expressed in other ways than taxation. Other policies that may have contributed – deliberately or not – to rising income inequality are anti-labor union policies, decreases in the minimum wage, etc.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (12): Immigration

Immigrants are usually somewhat poorer than natives, mainly

  • because they come from poorer countries,
  • because they are less well educated and less skilled (on average) and
  • because they are sometimes more at risk of being unemployed.

So it’s tempting to use data on increasing immigration flows – such as those that occurred in the U.S. during the last decades – in order to explain rising income inequality. Inequality is then viewed, not as the result of an unjust economic system, but as the mechanical result of demographic changes.

The timing is hard to ignore. During the Great Compression, the long and prosperous mid-20th-century idyll when income inequality shrank or held steady, immigration was held in check by quotas first imposed during the 1920s. The Nobel-prizewinning economist Paul Samuelson saw a connection. “By keeping labor supply down,” … a restrictive immigration policy “tends to keep wages high.” After the 1965 immigration law reopened the spigot, the income trend reversed itself and income inequality grew. (source)

However, there’s little evidence that immigration keeps wages low at the bottom end of the native income distribution (except for high-school dropouts and to a limited extent), which is where immigration’s effect on inequality is supposed to occur. See here for a discussion of the evidence. One can even make the case that immigration benefits the poorest sections of the native population. See this post. So, immigration can’t explain rising income inequality. But perhaps the sheer number of poor immigrants can account for rising inequality? Maybe immigration doesn’t produce inequality by pushing down native wages but simply by changing the demographic: more poor people (in this case immigrants) means higher inequality.

Gary Burtless [notes] that immigrants “accounted for one-third of the U.S. population growth between 1980 and 2007”. [E]ven if they failed to exert heavy downward pressure on the incomes of most native-born Americans, the roughly 900,000 immigrants who arrive in the United States each year were sufficient in number to skew the national income distribution by their mere presence. [However,] [h]ad there been no immigration after 1979, he calculated, average annual wages for all workers “may have risen by an additional 2.3 percent”. (source)

And that number would have been hardly sufficient to stop the actual increase in income inequality. So even if there had been no immigration, inequality would have increased. There must therefore be other causes and explanations.

Maybe you’re wondering what the problem is, in which case you can go here. More on immigration is here. More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (11): Family Structure

In the U.S., and probably in other countries as well, there’s been an increase in the number of single parent families. Most of the time, that means a single mother, divorced or unmarried, or with a husband in prison, and raising one or several children on her own. As a result:

The percentage of children living with one parent has doubled since 1970, from 12 percent to more than 26 percent in 2004. (source)

There are about 13.7 million single parents in the United States today, and those parents are responsible for raising 21.8 million children. 84% of those single parents are mothers.

Single mothers often earn relatively lows wages, partly because they can’t afford to work long hours. Combine that with the fact that they have higher per person expenses (heating a house costs just as much for a two parent family as for a single parent family) and the fact that women in general have lower wages, and you have a recipe for inequality.

However, the growth in the number of single parent families in the U.S. flattened when income inequality continued to increase. So, family structure may be a good although partial explanation of poverty levels, but not necessarily of inequality. There must be other causes, some of which are discussed here.

Income Inequality (23): U.S. Public Opinion on Income Inequality

Despite what foreigners usually believe about the U.S., and despite the confused ramblings of a tiny group of anti-“socialist” loudmouths high on tea, U.S. public opinion is actually very egalitarian:

Americans are in broad agreement on the need for a more equal distribution of wealth. … that’s what a forthcoming study by two psychologists, Dan Ariely of Duke University and Michael I. Norton of Harvard Business School, has concluded. First, Ariely and Norton asked thousands of Americans what they thought the nation’s actual wealth distribution looks like: how much is owned by the wealthiest 20 percent of the population, the next-wealthiest 20 percent, and on down. The researchers then asked people what, in an ideal world, they would like the nation’s wealth distribution to be.

Ariely and Norton found that Americans think they live in a far more equal country than they in fact do. On average, those surveyed estimated that the wealthiest 20 percent of Americans own 59 percent of the nation’s wealth; in reality the top quintile owns around 84 percent. The respondents further estimated that the poorest 20 percent own 3.7 percent, when in reality they own 0.1 percent.

And when asked to give their ideal distribution, they described, on average, a nation where the wealth distribution looks not like the U.S. but like Sweden, only more so—the wealthiest quintile would control just 32 percent of the wealth, the poorest just over 10 percent. “People dramatically underestimated the extent of wealth inequality in the U.S.,” says Ariely. “And they wanted it to be even more equal.” (source)

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (10): Racism

In the U.S., the median annual income for black families is 38 percent lower than for their white counterparts. So, income inequality in the U.S. has a racial component, and some of the explanations or causes of income inequality may have something to do with racism. I say “may” because if income inequality were essentially or mainly a consequence of racism, then there wouldn’t be any white poverty. Moreover, given the growth of total income inequality in the U.S. during the last decades, the income gap between whites and blacks should have grown in the same proportion if racism is the sole cause. And that didn’t happen:

the black/white gap in median family income has stagnated; it’s a mere three percentage points smaller today than it was in 1979. … [D]uring the current economic downturn, the black/white income gap widened somewhat. … [T[he black/white income gap can’t be a contributing factor to the [increase in inequality] if it hasn’t grown over the past three decades. And even if it had grown, there would be a limit to how much impact it could have on the national income-inequality trend, because African-Americans constitute only 13 percent of the U.S. population. (source)

The growth of income inequality in the U.S over the last decades can’t be blamed on racism, since inequality has risen across social groups, but perhaps part of the level of income inequality can be blamed on it. I don’t know how large a part, but probably not a very large part, given all the other likely causes of income inequality.

Still, I focus on the U.S. here, and that isn’t by far the only country plagued by inequality. If racism isn’t a particularly good explanation for income inequality in the U.S., maybe it is in other countries, and then I’m thinking in particular about some South American countries.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (9): Merit

In my ongoing exploration of the possible causes of high income inequality in rich countries, I stumbled across this politically incorrect quote:

A reason for the “wealth or income gap”: Smart people keep on doing things that are smart and make them money while stupid people keep on doing things that are stupid and keep them from achieving.

People who get an education, stay off of drugs, apply themselves, and save and wisely invest their earnings do a lot better than people who drop out of school, become substance abusers, and buy fancy cars and houses that they can’t afford, only to lose them.

We don’t have an income gap. We have a stupid gap. (source)

It’s not only politically incorrect, it’s just plainly no-qualifier-needed incorrect. Of course, people’s efforts and wise decisions do make a difference. As well as their different talents (or lack thereof). So there will always be inequality. But society rewards certain talents more than others – or, if you object to the description of society as a moral agent, “we all” reward the talents of our fellow humans differently. And we often do so in a morally arbitrary way: we reward some talents more whereas other talents would perhaps, from a moral point of view, deserve higher rewards. The same is true for efforts: we reward some types of efforts more than others, and this isn’t always just.

So some people, because of their talents and efforts, create better outcomes for themselves, reap more lucrative rewards, and thereby create an income gap. However, this fact doesn’t necessarily imply that the resulting gap is morally right: society – all of us – may have been morally mistaken about the kinds of talents and efforts that we reward. Hence the gap can be immoral. Even if income inequality could be explained entirely by differences in effort and talent – which is implied in the quote but which I think isn’t true – that would not necessarily have any moral significance. Income inequality could still be wrong.

And we could still go one step further: even if income inequality could be explained entirely by morally significant differences in effort and talent – in other words, even if only morally worthy efforts and talents were rewarded by society – that would not necessarily exhaust all moral considerations. The moral judgments regarding efforts and talents could be offset by superior moral considerations about inequality.

And anyway, how does the guy from the quote above explain the fact that different countries have different levels of income inequality? Do we really believe that the American population has a higher standard deviation around average intelligence, talent and effort? In other words, does the U.S. have more smart and more stupid people than Sweden? Are the bell curves for intelligence, talent and effort flatter in the U.S.? I don’t think so. And if I’m right, then you need other and more sophisticated answers to the question why inequality is relatively high in the U.S.

The Ethics of Human Rights (38): Should People Be Equal or Should They Have Enough?

There are people who believe income inequality is a major problem – and I’m one of them – and there are others who say that the real problem isn’t a relational one but rather one of absolute means. Harry Frankfurt for example argues that it’s not important whether a person has less than another regardless of how much either of them has. What is important is whether people have enough of what they need for a decent human life.

Sufficientarianism

This so-called sufficientarian approach – as opposed to the egalitarian one – is supposedly not comparative or relational but humanitarian. It focuses on the alleviation of absolute suffering and deprivation instead of relative inequalities. Rather than diminishing the distance between the worst off and the best off, it wants to improve the situation of the worst off. The latter goal can be the result of the former, but doesn’t have to be. Or it can promote the former but doesn’t have to. For example, imagine a society where incomes are highly unequal but where none of the people at the wrong side of this inequality are below a threshold value of wellbeing (the threshold determines the difference between suffering and non-suffering). So, according to the sufficientarian approach, there’s no need to diminish inequality in such a society. There’s no need to do anything, in fact. Conversely, you can have a society – not so imaginary perhaps – with low levels of inequality but almost all of the people live below the threshold. Tinkering with inequality will not do much good in that society. What you have to do is raise the living standard of almost all the population.

Income inequality for sufficientarians is relevant only to the extent that the wealth of those who are better off is a useful means to alleviate the suffering of the worst off. Diminishing inequality isn’t a goal in itself, and inequality doesn’t do any harm in itself.

It’s an appealing view, and I have been tempted by it myself. Even if you believe, as I do, that inequality can be harmful no matter what the income levels of the worst off are (harmful to democracy for instance) and that more equal societies almost always do better, you may still agree that the most urgent priority is the suffering of those who are worst off. Income inequality should then only be tackled afterwards. Anyway, tackling that first priority is a good step on the way to more equality; helping the worst off will reduce inequality almost automatically I would believe.

However, appealing though it may be, is sufficientarianism really all that much different from egalitarianism? As soon as you talk about the “worst off”, you have already engaged in comparative and relational analysis, by necessity. Another problem with sufficientarianism is the setting of the threshold: that is bound to be somewhat arbitrary. Of two people in very similar situations only one will receive help. You may say that cut offs are always inevitable, and perhaps that’s true, but sufficientarianism makes them painfully obvious to those concerned. People just above the threshold are told that they don’t matter, even if their neighbors who are just below matter a great deal. And finally, basic needs change over time, hence also the meaning of “suffering”. Will sufficientarians keep the threshold fixed, or allow it to rise over time? In the latter case, the difference between their approach and that of egalitarians is again rather small.

Prioritarianism

Some of these problems are sidestepped by a similar view called prioritarianism, made famous by Temkin and Parfit: benefiting people is more important the worse off they are. No need for a threshold here. When having to choose between two policies, you always take the one that is best for the worst off, whatever their level of well-being.

Benefits to the worse off matter more than benefits to the relatively better off. A benefit has greater moral value the worse the situation of the individual to whom it accrues. If we have some benefit to distribute, and this benefit has a value of x (no matter how we define “value”), it’s better to give this to the worst off than to anyone else. Strict utilitarianism, as opposed to prioritarianism, doesn’t care about who gets the benefit of x, because who gets it doesn’t change overall well-being. However, utilitarianism does take into account the possibility of the diminishing marginal utility of something: lots of money for a rich person isn’t as useful as the same amount of money for a poor person. But when comparing two people who would benefit just as much from such an amount of money, utilitarianism – as opposed to prioritarianism – doesn’t care who gets it; either person, the better off or the worse off, can get it. Prioritarianism doesn’t merely say that the worse off person should get it, but also says – contrary again to utilitarianism – that we should benefit the worse off even if that means diminishing total well-being; e.g. we can harm the interests of the better off if that means improving the well-being of the worse off:

Imagine choosing between two outcomes: In outcome 1, Jim’s well-being level is 110 (blissful); Pam’s is -73 (hellish); overall well-being is 37. In outcome 2, Jim’s well-being level is 23; Pam’s well-being level is 13; overall well-being is 36. Prioritarians would say that outcome 2 is better or more desirable than outcome 1 despite being lower than outcome 1 in terms of overall well-being. Bringing Pam up by 86 is weightier than bringing Jim down by 87. If we could move from a society described by outcome 1 to one described by outcome 2, we ought to. (source)

So prioritarianism avoids some of the counterintuitive implications of strict utilitarianism. And it also avoids the equally counterintuitive implications of strict egalitarianism. The latter may demand bringing everyone down to the level of the worst off while benefiting no one. Prioritarianism on the contrary does not propose a move toward more equality if that doesn’t benefit the worse off. And finally, it avoids some of the practical problems of sufficientarianism, while maintaining the appeal of the sufficientarian focus on the absolute deprivation of the worst off.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (4): Technology

[T]he diffusion of computers and related technology in the early 1980s steadily increased the demand for skilled workers relative to less-skilled workers, driving up the wages and incomes of more-educated workers and depressing the wages and incomes of less educated workers…

However, the technological explanation removed policy, politics, and power from the discussion of inequality, by attributing rising economic concentration to “technological progress,” a force that could be resisted only at our peril. (source, source)

Indeed, taken in isolation, this explanation obscures more than it reveals. To the extent that it reflects reality – and I think to some extent it does – we’ll still have to ask ourselves why there’s such a wide and growing distance between people with and without skills: why can’t we educate more people so that they can enjoy the wage premium of high-tech labor? Inequality isn’t just the outcome of technology but of choices regarding education, personal ones but also social and political ones.

And there’s another problem with the technological explanation of income inequality. It’s undoubtedly true that higher levels of technology increase demand for higher skilled people, and hence increases their wages (and vice versa for lower skilled people). When you combine this with the disappearance of a high number of jobs at the lower end of the wage sprectrum that are automated and replaced by computers, you end up with a strong push towards more inequality. However, this can’t explain the relatively large increase in income inequality in the U.S. and the U.K. when compared to other countries that are equally technologically advanced.

And neither can it explain why inequality is so top-heavy, in other words why the increase in income is concentrated in a tiny minority of individuals (the top 1% in the U.S.) whose skills aren’t that much different from those just below in the income distribution, if at all. Alex Tabarrok offers an interesting explanation of the fact that income inequality seems to be driven by very high earnings in the very top of the distribution. It also has something to do with technology, but not necessarily with skills:

J.K. Rowling is the first author in the history of the world to earn a billion dollars. … Why? Consider Homer, he told great stories but he could earn no more in a night than say 50 people might pay for an evening’s entertainment. Shakespeare did a little better. The Globe theater could hold 3000 and unlike Homer, Shakespeare didn’t have to be at the theater to earn. … By selling books Tolkien could sell to hundreds of thousands, even millions of buyers in a year … And books were cheaper to produce than actors which meant that Tolkien could earn a greater share of the revenues than did Shakespeare … Rowling has the leverage of the book but also the movie, the video game, and the toy. And globalization, both economic and cultural, means that Rowling’s words, images, and products are translated, transmitted and transported everywhere …

Rowling’s success brings with it inequality. Time is limited and people want to read the same books that their friends are reading so book publishing has a winner-take all component. Thus, greater leverage brings greater inequality. The average writer’s income hasn’t gone up much in the past thirty years but today, for the first time ever, a handful of writers can be multi-millionaires and even billionaires. The top pulls away from the median.

The same forces that have generated greater inequality in writing – the leveraging of intellect, the declining importance of physical labor in the production of value, cultural and economic globalization – are at work throughout the economy. Thus, if you really want to understand inequality today you must first understand Harry Potter.

More on inequality.