I seldom use the New York Times sociological columnist, David Brooks, as a source for my blog posts because I am focused primarily on economic and fiscal issues. But his column today, “Saving The System,” is highly pertinent to my message. “All around, the fabric of peace and order is fraying. The leaders of Russia and Ukraine escalate their apocalyptic rhetoric. The Sunni-Shiite split worsens as Syria and Iraq slide into chaos. China pushes its weight around in the Pacific. … The U.S. faces a death by a thousand cuts dilemma. No individual problem is worth devoting giant resources to. But, collectively, all the little problems can undermine the modern system.”
In addition to all of these pesky worldwide problems, our free enterprise economic system is under siege. Wages have been largely stagnant since the early 1970s and income inequality is growing as the top 1%, and perhaps the top 10 or 15% as well, do much better than everyone else. And just lately we have also learned from the French economist, Thomas Piketty, that wealth inequality has been growing steadily ever since about 1950 and is likely to get substantially worse in the future.
In other words, western civilization is under threat in more ways than one. What are we going to do about it? At the risk of oversimplifying, I believe that the single best thing we can do is to undertake fundamental tax reform to make our economy stronger. Cut everyone’s tax rates and pay for it by closing loopholes and deductions which primarily benefit the wealthy.
Lower tax rates will put more money in the hands of the two thirds of Americans who don’t itemize their tax deductions. These are largely the same people with stagnant wages and so they will spend this extra income they receive.
The resulting increase in demand will put millions of people back to work and thereby increase tax revenues which will help balance the budget. This shift of income from the wealthy to the less wealthy will reduce income inequality.
Although harder to implement politically, a low (between 1% and 2%) wealth tax on financial assets above a threshold of $10 million per individual, would be a highly visible way to address wealth inequality. The substantial sum of revenue raised by this method could be used to fund national priorities as well as paying down the deficit.
I don’t want to leave the impression that I consider this program to be a panacea for strengthening our country. But it would help and we need to make some big changes to maintain our status as world leader.
Yesterday’s New York Times has a very interesting article, “U.S. Middle Class No Longer World’s Richest”, demonstrating that from 1980 -2010 the median wage in many other developed nations has grown faster than in the U.S. The chart below does show that the U.S. median wage is still growing but just not as fast as elsewhere. The authors suggest three reasons to explain what is happening:
Educational attainment in the U.S. is growing more slowly than in the rest of the industrialized world.
A larger portion of business profits in the U.S. is going to top executives meaning less for middle and low income workers.
There is a higher degree of income redistribution (through taxation) in Canada and Western Europe than in the U.S.
The data presented in this article is more elaborate but nevertheless consistent with what other studies are showing. We are still on top but we need to make some major changes in order to stay there. For example:
Most states have adopted the national Common Core curriculum for K – 12 schools. In today’s highly competitive global environment, this will enable a more rigorous evaluation of educational attainment between the states and should, therefore, improve overall academic achievement.
The best way to raise salaries for middle and low-income workers is to boost economic output overall. Fundamental tax reform, with lower tax rates for everyone, offset by closing loopholes and lowering deductions for the wealthy, will put more money in the hands of the people most likely to spend it. This will increase demand and make the economy grow faster.
As a highly visible way of addressing economic inequality in the U.S., institute a relatively small, i.e. 1% or 2%, wealth tax on the assets of individuals with a net worth exceeding $10 million. This would raise up to $200 billion per year which could be used for an extensive infrastructure renewal program, creating lots of jobs and further boosting the economy, with a lot left over to devote to shrinking our massive federal deficits.
A program like this encourages everyone to work hard and reach their highest potential, including accumulating as much wealth as they are able to. But the people at the very top, i.e. the superrich, will be required to give back a little bit more in order to benefit the entire country.
This morning’s Wall Street Journal has a book review by the New York fund manager, Daniel Shuchman, “Thomas Piketty Revives Karl Marx for the 21st Century” of Thomas Piketty’s new book “Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century.” As I recently discussed, Piketty makes the simple observation that income from wealth, i.e. investment income, grows faster than income from wages or GDP. He then provides a large quantity of data showing how this has played out since the end of WWII. He plausibly predicts that the value of private capital as a percentage of national income will continue to grow indefinitely into the future. This much is straightforward. The question is how we should react to a steadily increasing and very large concentration of wealth in the hands of a small percentage of people. Mr. Piketty’s own idea is, for example, to establish an 80% tax rate on incomes starting at “$500,000 or $1,000,000” in order “to put an end to such incomes.” Mr. Shuchman attempts to discredit Mr. Piketty by focusing in on such socialistic views for dealing with the problem rather than discussing the intrinsic merit of Piketty’s basic thesis about the buildup of great wealth in the first place.
My own view is that Mr. Piketty has clearly identified a weakness of capitalism and that it behooves supporters of free markets and private initiative to address this problem in a constructive way, for example, as follows.
We need fundamental broad-based tax reform, i.e. lower tax rates in exchange for closing loop-holes and lowering deductions, in order to boost the economy and create more jobs. As part of a major tax overhaul, we could also establish a relatively small wealth tax, of about 1% or 2%, on assets over $10,000,000, which would raise as much as $200 billion per year. This much money could be used to begin a large scale program of infrastructure renewal as well as leaving a lot left over to make significant payments on reducing our annual deficit.
Such an overall plan would address both income inequality and wealth inequality in a highly visible manner while simultaneously helping our economy.
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.
Many political commentators have been complaining recently about the financial difficulties of the American middle class. For example, a recent report from Bill Moyers and Company, “By the Numbers: The Incredibly Shrinking American Middle Class”, has a chart showing that the median middle class salary, adjusted for inflation, is now no better than it was in 1989 and not much higher than in 1979: But there is another point of view, very well described by the two economists, Donald Boudreaux and Mark Perry, in the Wall Street Journal just about a year ago, “The Myth of a Stagnant Middle Class”. They make several pertinent points:
The Consumer Price Index overestimates inflation by underestimating the value of improvements in product quality and variety.
Wage figures ignore the rise over the past few decades in the portion of worker pay taken as (nontaxable) fringe benefits. Health benefits, pensions, paid leave, etc. now amount to almost 31% of total compensation according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The average hourly wage has been held down by the great increase of women and immigrants into the workforce over the past three decades. Because the economy was (before the Great Recession) so strong, it created millions of jobs for the influx of often lesser skilled workers into the workforce.
Messrs. Boudreaux and Perry point out several other improvements in the quality of life which Americans enjoy:
Life expectancy has increased to 79 years for an American born today, five years longer than in 1980. And the gap in life expectancy between whites and blacks has narrowed.
Spending by households on the basics of food, housing, utilities, etc. has shrunk from 53% of income in 1950, to 44% in 1970 to 32% today.
Although income inequality is rising when measured in dollars, it is falling when measured in terms of our ability to consume. For another example, air travel is now as common as was bus travel in an earlier era. And another: the latest electronic products are available to even middle class teenagers.
Conclusion: We should stop complaining about inequality and thank our lucky stars for the free enterprise system which has been so successful in improving our quality of life.
In yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, the economist Robert Grady addresses “Obama’s Misguided Obsession With Inequality”. The basic problem is that an important Congressional Budget Office report in 2011, “ Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007”, is easy to misrepresent and misinterpret. Here are three basic pieces of data from the CBO report: The first chart shows that yes, between 1979 and 2007 the rich did indeed get richer relative to the rest of the population. The second chart shows, however, that median household income increased by 62% during this same time period. And the third chart shows that all five income groups made substantial gains at the same time.
As Mr. Grady says, “Here is the bottom line. In periods of high economic growth, such as the 1980s and 1990s, the vast majority of Americans gain and have the opportunity to gain. In periods of slow growth, such as the past four and a half years since the recession officially ended, poor people and the middle class are hurt the most, and opportunity is curbed. … The point is this: If the goal is to deliver higher incomes and a better standard of living for the majority of Americans, then generating economic growth – not income inequality or the redistribution of wealth – is the defining challenge of our time.”
So then, what is the best way to address income inequality? Should we concentrate on raising taxes on the rich and increasing spending on social programs like we have done in the last five years? Or should we rather concentrate on speeding up economic growth, as Mr. Grady says, in order to create more jobs and more opportunities for advancement?
Compare the enormous growth in the period from 1979 to 2007 with the stagnation of the past five years. Isn’t it obvious which is the better way to proceed?
A recent article in Bloomberg View by Cass Sunstein, “How Did the 1 Percent Get Ahead So Fast?“, discusses the significance of new research by the economist Emmanuel Saez, ”Striking it Richer: The Evolution of Top Incomes in the United States”. Referring to Saez’s table and chart below, the conclusion is that income inequality has been getting steadily worse since the early 1980s and has been especially pronounced since June 2009 when the Great Recession ended. In particular, 95% of all income gain in the last four years has gone to the top 1%. This is a much greater disparity than during the so-called Clinton Expansion, from 1993 – 2000 (45% to the top 1%) or during the Bush Expansion, from 2002 – 2007 (65% to the top 1%). According to Mr. Sunstein, “one point is clear: through 2012 the gains from the current recovery were concentrated among the top 1 percent, and that pattern, extreme though it is, fits with a general surge in economic inequality over the last 40 years.” But there is more to the story! Looking at the final chart, just above, it is clear that the economy grew much faster during the Clinton Expansion than during the Bush Expansion, and, in turn, much more slowly during the Obama Recovery. In other words, the way to reduce inequality is to speed up economic growth. There are tried and true ways to speed up growth (e.g. tax reform with lower rates, emphasis on deregulation, boosting entrepreneurship, etc.). It is unfortunate that too many in Congress, as well as the President have ideological blinders which prevent them from moving in this direction!