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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More posts in this series are here.

What is Surplus-Value?

It’s a concept from Marxist theory that may still have some relevance today. According to Marxism, a worker creates more value in a day than he gets paid. This extra or surplus-value is taken by the capitalist. Or, in other words: “the wages of the laborer had a smaller exchange-value than the exchange value of the object he produced” (D. McLellan, “Marx”). The object is sold by the capitalist, who buys labor and pockets the difference. “[T]he workers would produce values that exceeded the reimbursement of their labor” (ibidem).

The capitalist forces the worker to work more than the hours necessary to embody in his product the value of his labor power. For example, if the value of labor power, i.e. the wage, is $50 a day, and a worker produces a good (or goods) which is worth $100 during a full day of work, then the second half of the day would yield surplus-value, in this case another $50.

This is theft, according to Marx, because the capitalist takes something which he hasn’t produced or bought. He takes the unpaid labor and products of someone else and lives on the back of someone else, simply because he has the privilege of owning the means of production. The workers have to accept this because they depend on the capitalist. They have to sell their labor power in order to survive because they do not own means of production and hence cannot produce without the consent of the capitalists. As the workers’ energy is not depleted after their own reproduction is guaranteed – through the payment of a wage – capitalists can use it to produce more.

Moreover, the capitalist continuously tries to maximize his surplus-value. He uses technology and science to increase productivity and diminish the necessary labor time per unit of production. Machines allow him to produce more with less labor. If wages stay constant and productivity goes up, then surplus-value goes up.

But wages, says Marx, do not stay constant. The capitalist also tries to make labor as cheap as possible and the working day as long as possible, at least within the boundaries set by labor law. 

If labor law does not permit extensions of the working day and wage reductions, then the capitalist uses the so-called “industrial reserve army“. This is a relatively large group, constantly available but not necessarily made up of the same people. They are unemployed, desperate to work (especially when the social safety net is absent or insufficient), ready to replace the employed and ready to accept a lower wage and a longer working day. This reserve army is a millstone around the neck of the workers, a regulator keeping wages at a low level.

Why do capitalists try to maximize surplus-value? In order to survive the competition with other capitalists.

[T]he wage-worker has permission to work for his own subsistence, that is, to live, only in so far as he works for a certain time gratis for the capitalist (and hence also for the latter’s co-consumers of surplus-value); … the whole capitalist system of production turns on the increase of this gratis labor by extending the working day or by developing the productivity, that is, increasing the intensity of labor power, etc. (K. Marx, “Critique of the Gotha Program”)

The capitalist accumulates surplus-value and wealth, and the worker accumulates misery, Marx predicts. “[P]overty and destitution develop among the workers, and wealth and culture among the non-workers. This is the law of all history hitherto” (ibidem). The “immiserization” (“Verelendung”) of the proletariat is something relative:

Marx was usually wary of claiming that the proletariat would become immiserized in any absolute sense. Such an idea would not have harmonized well with his view of all human needs as mediated through society. What he did claim was that the gap in resources between those who owned the means of production and those who did not would widen. (D. McLellan, “Marx”)

Everywhere the great mass of the working classes were sinking down to a lower depth, at the same rate at least, that those above them were rising in the social scale. In all countries of Europe it has now become a truth demonstrable to every unprejudiced mind, and only denied by those, whose interest it is to hedge other people in a fool’s paradise, that no improvement of machinery, no appliance of science to production, no contrivances of communication, no new colonies, no emigration, no opening of markets, no free trade, nor all these things put together, will do away with the miseries of the industrious masses; but that, on the present false base, every fresh development of the productive powers of labor must tend to deepen social contrasts and point social antagonisms. (K. Marx, “Inaugural Address of the Working Men’s International Association”)

The maximization of surplus-value deepens social divisions, brings despair to the workers, and hence will contribute to the collapse of capitalism, at least that’s how Marx saw it.

What use is the concept of surplus-value for us today? Wage aren’t going down, although they are stagnating; and social divisions caused by competition and the maximization of surplus value haven’t brought down capitalism. However, inequality has increased, in part because of wage stagnation, deunionization, and tax policy favoring the “productive” and local companies facing international competition. Competitiveness and productivity have become a fetish in policy circles. Labor laws, as a result, have been somewhat eroded. Blaming all this on surplus-value maximization driven by competitiveness is surely simplistic, but not completely wrong.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (35): Last Place Aversion

It seems that it’s very important to people that there are others who have it worse:

Support for redistribution, surprisingly enough, has plummeted during the recession. For years, the General Social Survey has asked individuals [in the US] whether “government should reduce income differences between the rich and the poor.” Agreement with this statement dropped dramatically between 2008 and 2010, the two most recent years of data available.  Other surveys have shown similar results.

What might explain this trend? First, the change is not driven by wealthy white Republicans reacting against President Obama’s agenda: the drop is if anything slightly larger among minorities, and Americans who self-identify as having below average income show the same decrease in support for redistribution as wealthier Americans.

“[L]ast place aversion” … can lead people near the bottom of the income distribution to oppose redistribution because it might allow people at the very bottom to catch up with them or even leapfrog past them. (source)

Lab experiments have shown that people

choose gambles with the potential to move them out of last place that they reject when randomly placed in other parts of the distribution. In money-transfer games, those randomly placed in second-to-last place are the least likely to costlessly give money to the player one rank below. …

Using survey data, we show that individuals making just above the minimum wage are the most likely to oppose its increase. (source)

I think it’s not far-fetched to assume that this isn’t limited to issues of redistribution and that something like it can lead to the persistence of certain types of rights violations. Perhaps some men in societies with endemic gender inequality actually like the fact that women are below them. And perhaps some groups in some societies need people like the Roma, “illegals”, immigrants or blacks to live in poverty and suffer from discrimination in order to feel better about themselves.

Moreover, individuals in positions of power can use last place aversion to create divisions and antagonism among groups belonging to the lower strata of the population and avoid the formation of a common front against the rulers. Last place aversion therefore leads to first place preservation.

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”.

Why Do Countries Become/Remain Democracies? Or Don’t? (17): Inequality

A transition to democratic government is very unlikely when the population of a country is sharply divided in unequal classes or groups. Some of these groups will try to monopolize political power in order to repress rival groups and maintain the distributional status quo. For example, when there’s a division between a landowning class or an industrial class on the one hand, and a group of impoverished rural or urban workers on the other hand, then the former group will fear election victories by the latter group because such victories will lead to redistribution of land or other assets. Privileged classes will therefore work against democracy. As a result of this, the working classes will radicalize and aim for a revolutionary overthrow and the abolition of property rights altogether, thereby also making democracy less likely.

Something like this is arguably a good description of much of the recent history of Latin America. Positively stated: more economic equality – perhaps following the expansion of a middle class – will make democracy more viable, since different groups have less to lose from a democratic power shift.

But polarization doesn’t have to be exclusively economic in nature. Religious or ethnic divisions can also hinder the creation and continuity of democracy, especially when there’s also a spatial division between groups. This is probably what happened in Africa since decolonization. Of course, non-economic divisions are often exacerbated by economic ones, in which case we can hope that more economic equality will take the sting out of ethnic divisions.

More posts in this series are here.

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 Human Rights Violations (19): Ideology

From Reinhold Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society:

Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold.

That’s the basis of trickle down economics which is a theory about how inequalities ultimately benefit everyone. It’s also the basis of tax schemes such as a flat tax that limit forced redistribution, because the invisible hand will redistribute wealth or make it trickle down automatically.

And, when trickle down is discredited and when it turns out to be difficult to prove that inequality is a universal value, we hear that inequality isn’t as big a problem as it seems, and that this is the land of opportunity where even people who are on the wrong side of inequality can make it through hard work and discipline. Even Obama seems to believe this, as is clear from his inauguration speech. That’s a classic case of the anecdote turned into a “scientific” law. Data show that social mobility isn’t what the American Dream dreamers think it is. Implicit in this story is that existing inequalities are the sole responsibilities of individuals who haven’t made diligent use of the many opportunities this land has generously provided them. Discrimination, injustice, greed and lack of compassion are obscured as causes of inequality.

In reality, inequalities are indeed greater than could possibly be defended rationally, in the words of Niebuhr. The defense based on trickle down economics has failed, as has the defense based on the claim that inequalities are the sole result of individual choices and a lack of response to opportunities (this defense completely rejects effects of discrimination, which seems to be misguided).

However, it’s not because inequalities are greater than they should be that all inequalities are wrong. Some inequalities are unavoidable or even valuable. We do want Einsteins and Picassos. Society should reward merit. We all benefit from the recognition of exceptional individuals. Nietzsche for example rightly protested against the modern habit of cutting everyone down who dares to stick his head up. Equality of outcome is in many respects distasteful. And apart from the valuable inequalities, there are unavoidable inequalities. Some inequalities that are the result of the “lottery of birth” are impossible to correct: some people are born with more talent than others or with talents that are more appreciated in the economic or cultural market; and there will always be people who are born in privileged families.We wouldn’t want to engage in genetic engineering in order to redistribute talent, and neither would we be willing to redistribute children across families (at least not for the purpose of equality of opportunity).

Other aspects of the lottery of birth, however, are more difficult to defend. Why should the good luck of being born in a wealthy family with educated parents guarantee you a better education, better healthcare and better economic prospects? But of course it isn’t just the contingency of your place of birth that determines your opportunities and you future place in society. Some people are pulled down by discrimination or bad luck. We justifiably don’t accept that people’s prospects in life are fully determined by their family, luck or discrimination.

Again, equality of opportunity is different from equality of outcome: most of us don’t think it’s a good idea to strive towards equality of outcome in most spheres of life. We’re quite happy to accept that some people earn less money, have less vacation time, have lower social status and recognition levels and have more uncomfortable, dangerous, or physically draining work etc. What we don’t accept is that those outcomes are predetermined by the family they happen to be born in, by discrimination they suffer or by other instances of bad luck.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (5): Globalization

Globalization is supposed to have lowered the earnings of less-educated workers by putting them in direct competition with low-wage workers around the world. This competition put pressure on wages through international trade in goods and services; through the relocation or threat of relocation of production facilities to overseas locations; through competition with immigrants in local labor markets; and through other channels. …

U.S. and European workers are told that … our societies can no longer afford a generous welfare state. …

Contrary to the standard framing, which presents globalization as something that no nation can escape or even attempt to shape, we can choose the terms under which we integrate capital, product, and labor markets across countries. Over the last 30 years we have indeed “chosen” a particular form of globalization in the United States – a form that benefits corporations and their owners at the expense of workers and their communities. If we had chosen globalization on different terms, however, economic integration would not have required rising inequality. Another globalization is possible. (source, source)

So globalization, as it has occurred and is occurring, causes higher inequality in the West in two ways:

  • The direct competition with overseas workers who can produce at lower wages puts downward pressure on wages in the West, especially for low-skilled workers at the wrong end of inequality.
  • Governments in developed countries react to this competition by restricting social safety nets because the taxes necessary for the funding of these safety nets hurts the competitiveness of local businesses, a competitiveness already under pressure from low-cost labor in the developing world. Less generous safety nets obviously also have a negative effect on inequality.

If these effects are real, perhaps they can explain the decline of manufacturing in many developed countries.

However, I’m not sure this pressure on wages is real and significant (I’ll try to find some data), and we also shouldn’t dismiss the benefits for low-wage workers in the West of cheaper products. This particular result of globalization can offset the possible negative wage effects of wage competition.

Also, I’m not sure governments in the West are actively attacking safety nets (here it says they haven’t during the last decades, but it seems that the recent economic crisis has convinced some to start cutting benefits). And finally, we should remember that inequality isn’t just a national problem. The inequality between countries is just as, if not more, important. And globalization has had a beneficial effect on inter-country inequality because it has redistributed wealth from rich countries to poor countries. For example, it’s hard to imagine how China could have had the same success in poverty reduction without globalization. The question is of course whether this redistribution had to come from low skilled workers in the West, rather than from their more wealthy fellow citizens. The fact that it did come, however, was undoubtedly beneficial to the poor in the receiving development countries.

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.

The Causes of Wealth Inequality (2): Positive Feedback

Wealth begets wealth:

I think that perhaps the most important trend of the past thirty years is the increased importance of cognitive skills relative to physical labor. Obviously, this has been going on for more than just the past thirty years, but during the past thirty years we saw an acceleration. This has had a number of consequences:

1. It changed the role of women. Their comparative advantage went from housework to market work.

2. This in turn, as Wolfers and Stevenson have pointed out, changed the nature of marriage. Men and women look for complementarity in consumption rather than in production.

3. This in turn leads to more assortative mating, with achievement-oriented men looking for interesting mates rather than for good maids.

4. This in turn leads to greater inequality across households. It also fosters greater inequality among children. The children of two affluent parents are likely to have much better genetic and environmental endowments than the children of two (likely unmarried) low-income parents.

5. Inequality is exacerbated by globalization and technological change. If your comparative advantage is basic physical labor, you have to compete with machines as well is with workers from the Third World.

The net result is an economy that has improved considerably for people with high cognitive skills, but which has improved only somewhat for people with relatively low cognitive skills. Arnold Kling (source, source)

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).

Racism (4): Competition v Racial Bias

Gary Becker looked at the well-documented fact that African-Americans in the U.S. earn less than whites, partly because on average they are less well educated. But even if corrected for this, there remains an unexplainable difference in wages. Unexplainable apart from racial bias. There have been many studies that have proven the existence of bias. For example, firms are 1.5 times as likely to interview someone for a job if they think the person is white, even if all other characteristics such as education and experience are equal.

The interesting thing about Becker is that he goes beyond education, positive discrimination or labor legislation in his search for solutions. He mentions increased competition between firms. A racially biased firm will only hire a white who is more expensive and perhaps even less qualified than a black, if this firm is not under pressure from competitors. If its market is opened to competition, then other firms can and will produce the same goods at cheaper prices by hiring the black guy/gal. The biased firm would then be forced to do the same. It may remain biased – opinions on such matters are notoriously hard to change – but it no longer has the luxury of acting on its bias.

So this sounds promising, and market freedom is beneficial for other reasons as well, so it’s worth to pursue it. But don’t expect too much of the free market. There’s no invisible hand, leading those motivated by selfish motives to destroy racism without really wanting to. Much more needs to be done.

Marx and Human Rights

According to Marx, human rights are the “rights of the egoistic man, separated from his fellow men and from the community”. They are the rights of man as an isolated, inward looking, self-centered creature

  • who regards his free opinion as his intellectual private property instead of a part of communication
  • who uses his right to private property not in order to create a beach-head for his public and cultural life but to accumulate unnecessary wealth and to protect unequal property relationships
  • who uses the right to privacy as a wall keeping out the poor snoopers watching the rich people
  • who considers fellow men as the only legitimate restraint on his own freedom, and therefore as a limit instead of the source of his own thinking, identity and humanity (this is the way in which Marx read art. 6 of the French constitution of 1793: “Liberty is the power which man has to do everything which does not harm the rights of others”)
  • who considers freedom to be no more than the ability to pursue selfish interests and to enjoy property, unhindered by the need to help other people, “without regard for other men and independently of society”
  • and who considers equality to be the equal right to this kind of freedom (everybody can emancipate himself by becoming a bourgeois).

Human rights, in this view, serve only to protect egoism and the unequal distribution of property, and to oppress the poor who question this and who try to redistribute property. On top of that, human rights obscure this fact because they are formulated in such a way that it seems that everybody profits from them. Contrary to what is implicit in their name, “human” rights are not general or universal rights. They are the rights of those who have property and who want to keep it. A specific situation of a specific group of people is generalized in human rights.

Of course, this criticism can be correct. No one will deny that human rights can serve to protect and justify egoism, oppression of the poor and indifference. They can help to shield people behind private interest and to transform society into a collection of loose, self-centered, self-sufficient, withdrawn, independent, sovereign and isolated individuals. Because the rich have more means to use, for example, their freedom of expression, this freedom can be an instrument of the rich to monopolize political propaganda and political power and to use this power to maintain their privileged situation. Economic relationships can be maintained by legal means.

However, in order to judge and possibly reject a phenomenon, one should also look at its intended and ideal functions, not only at the ways in which it can be abused. Human rights not only protect man against the attacks and claims of other people (for example the attacks and claims on his property); they also create the possibility of forcing people to help each other. They do not allow you to do something to other people (taking their property, determining their opinions etc.), but at the same time they invite you to do something with other people. In other words, they are not only negative. They not only limit the way we relate to other people, they also stimulate and protect the way we relate to other people.

Economic Human Rights (8): Poverty

Poverty is a violation of human rights. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration states:

“Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.”

And we all know the devastating effects of poverty on other human rights.

Economic Human Rights (4): Taxation

What if different kinds of equality contradict each other? For example equality before the law on the one hand (laws must be equal for everybody and should not discriminate) and material equality as promoted by economic rights on the other hand.

Material equality is often promoted by way of taxation based on legislation. The purpose of taxation is the redistribution of property. The problem is that redistribution only benefits one group of people and harms the interests of the rest of the population. Taxation laws do not seem to be equal for everybody and do not have the same result for everybody. It seems as if they discriminate against certain people. A wealthy person can claim that laws must be the same for everybody and that a law which forces one person to give and allows another to receive is illegitimate. A law against murder does not, at the same time, force one person to abstain from murder and allow another person to murder. So why should a law on taxation be allowed to discriminate?

First of all, there is no reason to believe that the principle of equality before the law is an absolute principle. It must be possible to make trade-offs between principles. If one principle – for example equality before the law – does serious harm to another principle – for example material equality – then it may be acceptable to sacrifice or limit one principle for the sake of another. Sometimes, one has to make a choice and one has to establish priorities. This goes both ways. Too much attention to material equality can be counteracted by way of the principle of equality before the law.

However, it may not be necessary to limit the principle of equality before the law. Taxation laws do not discriminate, at least when we define discrimination as giving something to one person and denying it to another without good reason. Economic rights indeed give something to one person and not to another. Even more so, they take away something from one person in order to give it to another. However, the former person is not denied the thing that is given to the latter. He or she has and continues to have the same thing as the one given to the latter. The consequences of taxes are equal for everybody because they make sure that everybody has the same minimum of material means. Taxation laws do not cause discrimination or inequality. On the contrary, they are designed to eliminate discrimination and inequality, not only at the level of material well-being but also at the level of political influence, because material inequality causes political inequality.

We have discrimination when a law only benefits one group of persons and when there is no good reason why other persons should not benefit. It is clear that there is no good reason why wealthy people should benefit from taxation laws in the same way as poor people, except of course when they themselves become poor. Everybody can be in a position in which he or she needs taxation laws.

The right to free speech does not benefit everybody in an equal way either. Some people gain more from this right than other people. A colored person suffering from discrimination needs this right more than a white, middle-class person without political worries. However, there is no reason to claim that this right contradicts the principle of equality before the law.