The French economist Thomas Piketty is creating a huge stir with the publication in English of his new book “Capital in the 21st Century.” Mr. Piketty develops a very simple idea, with reams and reams of data. Namely that income from wealth, i.e. investment income, typically grows faster than income from wages and GDP. This means that the value of private capital is growing steadily as a percentage of national income. This trend has been occurring ever since 1950, at the end of WWII, and is likely to continue indefinitely absent new mega shocks to the global economy such as another world war. In other words, wealth inequality is rapidly increasing just as is income inequality. Today’s New York Times has an interesting article “Taking on Adam Smith (and Karl Marx)” discussing Mr. Piketty’s background and how it has influenced his research. “No revolutionary, Mr. Piketty says that inequality by itself is acceptable to the extent it spurs individual initiative and the generation of wealth. But extreme economic inequality, he contends, will have a deep and deleterious impact on democratic values,” says the reporter.
Now that income inequality and wealth inequality are clearly well documented, the question is how our democratic society will respond through the political process. First of all, we need to agree to take the problem seriously. Equality of opportunity and economic mobility still exist but it is getting harder and harder to move up the income ladder. What our country badly needs right now is an economic program that will get our economy growing faster in order to create more jobs as well as bringing in more tax revenue to pay for government.
One way to accomplish this is with
Broad-based tax reform to lower rates in order to put more money in the hands of people who will spend it on basic necessities as well as business expansion. Lower rates can be paid for by closing loopholes and deductions which primarily affect the wealthy.
A low percentage (1% or 2%) tax on wealth (i.e. financial assets) with a fairly high personal exemption of perhaps $10 million in order to only include the most wealthy. This would raise about $200 billion per year which could be used to fund a wide scale infrastructure renovation program which would provide employment to millions of people.
Such a wealth tax would be a highly visible means of addressing economic inequality in a way which would greatly benefit to the economy at the same time.
Two of my favorite columnists are the Brooking Institution’s William Galston, a social economist who has a weekly column in the Wall Street Journal and the economics journalist Robert Samuelson who writes for the Washington Post. Most people agree that income inequality in the U.S. is steadily getting worse. Mr. Galston make a good case (see my last post) that it is primarily caused by the large gap between the rising productivity of American workers and the stagnant level of their pay which has developed since 1973. He thinks that we need a fundamentally new social contract which links worker compensation to productivity. This, of course, is a tall order and it is not at all clear how such a new order would be achieved. Mr. Samuelson has a different perspective: “Myth-making about Economic Inequality”. For example:
The poor are not poor because the rich are rich
Most of the poor will not benefit from an increase in the minimum wage because only 6% of the 46 million poor people have full time jobs
All income groups have gained in the past three decades, even though the top 1% has gained the most (see the above chart from the CBO, December 2013)
Widening economic inequality did not cause the Great Recession
These two perspectives on inequality are quite different but not contradictory. Basically what Mr. Samuelson is saying is that we have to be careful in how we address this problem or we’ll just make it worse. Raising taxes on the rich is unlikely to help and might hurt if it slows down the economy. Raising the minimum wage will only raise a fairly small number of people out of poverty and may cause a lot of unemployment along the way.
My solution: focus on boosting the economy to create more jobs in the short run (tax reform, immigration reform, trade expansion) and improved educational outcomes for the long run (early childhood education, increasing high school graduation rates, better career education).
But I agree with Mr. Galston that it is imperative to lessen income inequality, one way or another. Otherwise as a society we’ll have big trouble on our hands.
Several days ago, David Bonior, a former Congressman from Michigan, wrote in the New York Times about “Obama’s Free-Trade Conundrum”. “The President cannot both open markets and close the wage gap.” There is an “academic consensus that trade flows contribute to between 10 and 40 percent of inequality increases.” This happens because “there is downward pressure on middle-class wages as manufacturing workers are forced to compete with imports made by poorly paid workers from abroad.” But there is another point of view, provided, for example, by the report “NAFTA at 20: Overview and Trade Effects”, prepared by the Congressional Research Service about a year ago. “U.S. trade with its NAFTA partners has more than tripled since the agreement took effect (in 1993). (Canada and Mexico) accounted for 32% of U.S. exports in 2012. 40% of the content of U.S. imports from Mexico and 25% of U.S. exports from Canada are of U.S. origin. In comparison, U.S. imports from China are said to have only 4% U.S. content.” In other words, NAFTA at least has been a huge success.
Being able to trade with others is the foundation of private enterprise. Foreign trade is simply an extension of domestic trade. To limit trading opportunities with other countries would be a huge barrier to economic growth and therefore to future prosperity as well.
But at the same time we do want a more equal society as well as well as a more prosperous one. The key to resolving this “conundrum”, as Mr. Bonior puts it, is to address “opportunity inequality” as well as “income inequality.”
It is estimated that each billion dollars in U.S. exports provides employment for about 5000 workers. Nebraska, for example, exported $12.6 billion worth of goods and services in 2012 which translates into 63,000 jobs.
More jobs and better jobs are what create economic opportunity. One way to create more jobs and better jobs is to promote foreign trade by removing as many trade barriers as possible. Hopefully Congress and the President can work together to get this done!