Archive for the 'Inequality' Category

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Inequality And Patents

Dean Baker, in the March issue of the American Prospect (Yes, I am about 3 months behind in my magazine reading – I’ve been busy!) wrote something that surprised me:

In a recent paper, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development found that by far, the largest single factor contributing to the growth of wage inequality over the last three decades was the amount of patent rents earned in a country. Remarkably, few progressives pay any attention at all to patent and copyright policy, despite the enormous sums at stake and the huge impact that such policy has on inequality.

Really? “by far”??? Wow.

The New Global Elites

Last months issue of the Atlantic had a fascinating article on the global elites, here are some snippets I found interesting:

From a global perspective, the impact of these developments has been overwhelmingly positive, particularly in the poorer parts of the world. Take India and China, for example: between 1820 and 1950, nearly a century and a half, per capita income in those two countries was basically flat. Between 1950 and 1973, it increased by 68 percent. Then, between 1973 and 2002, it grew by 245 percent, and continues to grow strongly despite the global financial crisis.  …

Or this:

One reason for the spikes is that the global market and its associated technologies have enabled the creation of a class of international business megastars. As companies become bigger, the global environment more competitive, and the rate of disruptive technological innovation ever faster, the value to shareholders of attracting the best possible CEO increases correspondingly. Executive pay has skyrocketed for many reasons—including the prevalence of overly cozy boards and changing cultural norms about pay—but increasing scale, competition, and innovation have all played major roles.

Or this:

But while their excesses seem familiar, even archaic, today’s plutocrats represent a new phenomenon. The wealthy of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s era were shaped, he wrote, by the fact that they had been “born rich.” They knew what it was to “possess and enjoy early.”

That’s not the case for much of today’s super-elite. “Fat cats who owe it to their grandfathers are not getting all of the gains,” Peter Lindert told me. “A lot of it is going to innovators this time around. There is more meritocracy in Bill Gates being at the top than the Duke of Bedford.” Even Emmanuel Saez, who is deeply worried about the social and political consequences of rising income inequality, concurs that a defining quality of the current crop of plutocrats is that they are the “working rich.” He has found that in 1916, the richest 1 percent of Americans received only one-fifth of their income from paid work; in 2004, that figure had risen threefold, to 60 percent.

Peter Peterson, for example, is the son of a Greek immigrant who arrived in America at age 17 and worked his way up to owning a diner in Nebraska; his Blackstone co-founder, Stephen Schwarzman, is the son of a Philadelphia retailer. And they are hardly the exceptions. Of the top 10 figures on the 2010 Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans, four are self-made, two (Charles and David Koch) expanded a medium-size family oil business into a billion-dollar industrial conglomerate, and the remaining four are all heirs of the self-made billionaire Sam Walton. Similarly, of the top 10 foreign billionaires, six are self-made, and the remaining four are vigorously growing their patrimony, rather than merely living off it. It’s true that few of today’s plutocrats were born into the sort of abject poverty that can close off opportunity altogether— a strong early education is pretty much a precondition—but the bulk of their wealth is generally the fruit of hustle and intelligence (with, presumably, some luck thrown in). They are not aristocrats, by and large, but rather economic meritocrats, preoccupied not merely with consuming wealth but with creating it.

One of the parts that especially struck me was this:

The good news—and the bad news—for America is that the nation’s own super-elite is rapidly adjusting to this more global perspective. The U.S.-based CEO of one of the world’s largest hedge funds told me that his firm’s investment committee often discusses the question of who wins and who loses in today’s economy. In a recent internal debate, he said, one of his senior colleagues had argued that the hollowing-out of the American middle class didn’t really matter. “His point was that if the transformation of the world economy lifts four people in China and India out of poverty and into the middle class, and meanwhile means one American drops out of the middle class, that’s not such a bad trade,” the CEO recalled.

I’ve made this argument several times to a friend at work. He is someone who always pouts and complains every time he hears about another branch of our company operating overseas. I try to explain to him the benefits of free-trade, how it’s not a zero sum economy and more jobs overseas does not mean less jobs here. But even if what he is saying is true, I argue, you have to look at this from a global perspective. More jobs in India, China, and other developing countries has to be a good thing, even if it means less jobs in the richest country in the world. I mean, these are the worlds poorest people and we are the worlds richest people. We will, in the end, be okay.

This point should be especially persuasive to him, as he is a guy who has a bachelors degree from UCSD, graduating top of his class, a perfect score on the GRE, and a masters from Stanford University. All in the most sought after field, electrical engineering. But still, my arguments largely fall on deaf ears.

Quote Of The Day

“The typical person in the top 5 percent of the Indian population, for example, makes the same as or less than the typical person in the bottom 5 percent of the American population. That’s right: America’s poorest are, on average, richer than India’s richest — extravagant Mumbai mansions notwithstanding.” — Catherine Rampbell, writing in the New York Times book review about “The Haves and the Have-Nots”a book written by World Bank economist and development specialist Branko Milanovic

Inequality In Context

World Inequality

George Mason University economics professor explains:

Along the horizontal axis are within-country income percentiles running from the bottom 5% (1st ventile) to the top 5% (20th ventile). Along the vertical axis are world income percentiles.

The graph shows that the bottom 5% of Brazilians are among the poorest people in the world but the top 5% are among the richest. Thus the vertical range of the curve tells us about within-country inequality.

Comparing between countries we see that the poorest 5% of Americans are among the richest people in the world (richer than nearly 70% of other people in the world). The poorest 5% of Americans, for example, are richer than the richest 5% of Indians.

The Left vs Right Economic Model (aka Europe vs United States model)

My good friend Jon asked an important question: why not prefer the European economic model vs the United States economic model? I didn’t want to bog down his comments section with a long response, so I thought I’d post my longer response here.

Basically, there are two paradigms, two “visions” of an economy. The first, is generally considered left (or European): an economy with a large safety net, strong unions, and generally high taxes. The second, and my preferred, is considered right (or USA model): an economy with a large percentage of immigration, weak unions, weak safety net, and generally low taxes. The leftist economy tends to grow slowly. The rightwing economy tends to grow in a boom and bust way, with higher average growth than the leftist economy.So which one is better? Well that depends on personal preferences. The answer will be different for each person, depending on their personality (It would be like asking someone if they should join a union – it depends). If you are ambitious, entrepreneur minded, and generally a high achiever, you would prefer the United States model economy, where it’s easier to strike it rich (and, similarly, you would tend to oppose union membership). If you are someone who, for example, prefers small gains over large risks, and doesn’t have any ambitions to be CEO one day, you just want a steady pay with little growth – then the leftist economy is better for you (and, similarly, you would probably tend to favor union membership).

It’s kinda like asking someone should you invest their money in stocks or bonds? There is no right answer…it depends on the personality. Stocks give you better long term gains, but they are a lot riskier and volatile. Bonds are safer, but you sacrifice long term growth. It depends on the person (and age group – which is why the young around the world tend to prefer the USA, while the older Canada, see here).

Here is the important thing you have to notice about these two economies: they are mutually exclusive (please, click on the link and read the blog, it’s very pertinent to this discussion ). You can’t have a large safety net, for example, and a large immigration class. And you don’t need high taxes if you don’t have a large safety net. And you don’t get high growth with high taxes. etc. It’s all a domino.

So for example, in the United States, you have a dynamic corporate sector with one company rising to prominence in one decade, and going bankrupt in the next decade. Whereas in Europe, it’s usually the same companies, decade after decade (see here and here). Again, the United States model gives you boom and bust, with more growth, while the European model gives you steady growth, with less long term growth.

Or take immigration. Germany, for example, is not very friendly to the immigrant Turks (only recently, beginning to change, see here). And Germany – like the Scandinavian countries – is generally homogeneous (White).

More importantly,  these dynamics feed off of each other. Because safety nets are indeed zero sum – your welfare gain really is my loss – large safety nets foster an ant-immigrant culture (it’s the same reason that during a recession, anti-immigration sentiment increases – the people feel that in a time of scarce jobs, immigrants are “stealing” their job).

Matthew Yglesias, who lived in Europe, writes on the cultural difference between Europe and the United States:

There’s often a kind of conventional idea on the left that the United States is an unusually racist society. And I think there’s also often a kind of image of Europe as a place where more of the progressive agenda has been achieved than in the USA. But I think that you’ll find if you look at Europe through the eyes of the liberal agenda that while the German left has certainly been more successful than the American left at securing universal health care, it’s been much less successful at promoting a tolerant, integrated, multicultural society. And allowing for the errors implicit in making any kind of sweeping generalization, I’d say that’s pretty generally the case across Europe. …

In the US, in other words, racial problems have been more salient for a long time since we’ve been a racially diverse society for a long time. But by the same token, for all the problems we have with us today, we’ve made enormous progress over the years. Racial and ethnic tensions are a common problem in the world, and the United States manages diversity pretty well in comparison with other places (not just in Europe) even if we fall short in some absolute terms. Just look at Barack Obama. I think we’ll be waiting a while yet before someone of non-European ancestry is elected head of government in a European country. Denmark has some great public policy ideas, but it’s also kind of made itself into the gated community of nations in a way I don’t find particularly appealing.

Just look at this youtube video on Black soccer players to see how different race relations are in Europe compared to the United States.

The United States is much more tolerant of immigrants not because we are inherently different than Europeans, but precisely because of our smaller safety nets. Because immigrants that come here are largely excluded from our safety nets, we don’t feel that they come to steal our piece of the pie – instead they are viewed as coming here to enlarge the pie for everyone (unless of course, you are a poor Black person – in that case you do feel threatened from immigration, and rightly so – which helps explain the high anti-immigration sentiment in the poor Black communities) .

That is not to say that the European economic model is bad for everyone. I agree that some people probably are better off under the European model. If you are a White, not very ambitious member of the middle to lower upper class (think liberal arts university professors, or White union members), the European model probably is better for you than the United States model.

But liberals often speak as if all that mattered were White union members (another example of this is in the minimum wage debate), but immigrants and minorities count as well and so do the non union members (White or not) and the very poor and even the very rich. And so the question is: are they better off under the European economic model?  And on that I would say no. In addition to the exceptions mentioned above, the unemployment rate is significantly higher in European than in the United States (and especially higher if you have the bad luck of being a minority in Europe). And strong welfare nets notwithstanding, having a job counts for a lot (Highly recommended article here). It’s a source of self respect, pride and happiness. Furthermore, the unhappiness associated with being unemployed swamps out any happiness gains from the slightly higher job security gains of others.

And don’t say that ‘a couple percentage points of unemployment is worth it’, since even a couple points of unemployment could have a drastic affect on happiness levels. An economist explains: ‘Think about how hard it was to find a job back in January 2009 when our unemployment rate was 7.2%. The plight of the job-seeker wasn’t 30% worse than it was in May, 2008,  when the unemployment rate was 5.5%.  It was probably more like two or three times worse. Now imagine turning 7.2% unemployment into a way of  life.  It’s pretty awful to imagine, isn’t it?  Well, you don’t just  have to imagine it, because in France and Germany, 7.2% is normal.  The horror!”

So to summarize: the European economic model is better for low ambition White union prone citizens. It’s worse for immigrants and minorities of all  stripes. White non-union members. The United States model is better for those at the bottom and top of the economic ladder, and those who prefer risk and growth over stability.

Quote Of The Day

“Since the mid-1970s, the gap between rich and poor has grown considerably. One of best analyses of this long-term trend is by the Harvard economics professors Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz in their book, “The Race Between Education and Technology.” The authors conclude that widening inequality is largely a symptom of the educational system’s failure to provide enough skilled workers to keep up with the ever increasing demand.” — Greg Mankiw, professor of economics at Harvard University

Quote Of The Day

“The broader change in income distribution, the one occurring beneath the very top earners, can be deconstructed in a manner that makes nearly all of it look harmless. For instance, there is usually greater inequality of income among both older people and the more highly educated, if only because there is more time and more room for fortunes to vary. Since America is becoming both older and more highly educated, our measured income inequality will increase pretty much by demographic fiat. Economist Thomas Lemieux at the University of British Columbia estimates that these demographic effects explain three-quarters of the observed rise in income inequality for men, and even more for women.” — Tyler Cowen, in an article on Income Inequality

Quote Of The Day

“I don’t know how much money you make. But whatever it is, I wish you and everyone else would work twice as many hours and earn twice as much income. Why? With one exception (discussed below) your earning more money can’t possibly harm me. In three very important ways it will benefit me. Your higher level of spending on goods and services will almost certainly increase the market for whatever I produce. Your increased saving and investment will lead to more capital and more inventions and almost certainly allow me to produce more within an hour’s worth of work. And (not to be overlooked) with more income you are more likely to buy your own health insurance and pay for other necessities instead of expecting me to pay for them.” — John Goodman, healthcare economist

The Inequality Debate

A good friend of mine, recently turned lefty, has been harping on the income inequality tune lately. It’s new to him, so he finds it quit convincing. We’ve been going back and forth on it now for some months (see here and here, for example) but he tried to address all of my arguments in one post. See here.

My response was too long for a single comment, so I broke it down into bits. I thought I’d post it here in full (with some minor typo and other corrections) for others to see as well. It’s a good intro to the income inequality debate and the response to it from those that disagree.

You can start with his post here and my response is below.

Finally, a response. You have been harping the income inequality argument for some time now, and simply ignoring the responses that have come (see here and here, for recent examples). Lets discuss.

First, family size. You write, I’m told that the increase in inequality is due to the changing family structure. More single family homes. It’s interesting that a lot of these responses I get come without evidence. It’s just a claim that sounds plausible.

This is the wrong way to look at it Jon. Remember, it’s not the right that is making the income inequality argument, it’s the left. The reason you don’t find a lot of responses controlling for family size is because frankly, there are few, if any solid ones. But that speaks ill of the left, not the right: after all, income inequality is their argument – their primary argument, in many ways – and the fact that they haven’t taken the time to control for such basic differences speaks badly of their academic objectivity, wouldn’t you say?

With that said, all you had to do was ask. Here is one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight and nine responses that deal directly with family size.  Remember, it’s not just divorce rates and working hours that matter, it’s also immigration and more importantly, the rise in single mothers and the age of the population that matters.

Second, total compensation. Were not just talking about 401k’s here, were primarily talking about healthcare costs. And when you factor those in, almost all of the income inequality disappears. Cornell University professors Richard Burkhauser and Kosali Simon write in a NBER paper:

In this paper we take estimates of the value of different types of health insurance received by households and add them to usual pre tax post transfer measures of income from the Current Population Survey’s March Annual Demographic Supplement for income years 1995-2008 to investigate their impact on levels and trends in measured inequality. We show that ignoring the value of health insurance coverage will substantially understate the level of economic well being of Americans and its upward trend and overstate the level of inequality and its upward trend. (emphasis mine)

But again, doesn’t the dearth of studies that take into account health care costs and 401k’s say something about the academic integrity of those that constantly put forth the income inequality argument (the economists, that is)? It’s like they are cherry picking the data that most fits what they want to believe.

Third, consumption inequality. Then there are mitigating factors to income inequality. Income inequality just looks at the inputs to income but what about the outputs? In other words, instead of looking at wages, lets look at purchasing power. And when you do that, you see that the trend is the opposite:

Looking at trade data between 1994 and 2005, Broda and Romalis construct inflation rates for different income groups and find that rates for the richest outpaced rates for the poorest by about 4 percent over the period. Since income inequality between the top and bottom 10 percent of earners grew by about 6 percent, the different inflation rates among income groups wipes out about two-thirds of the rise in inequality.

This study is by two University of Chicago economists. This is how University of Chicago economist Steve Levitt (and author of Freakonomics) puts it:

Their argument could hardly be simpler. How rich you are depends on two things: how much money you have, and how much the stuff you want to buy costs. If your income doubles, but the prices of the things you consume also double, then you are no better off.

When people talk about inequality, they tend to focus exclusively on the income part of the equation. According to all our measures, the gap in income between the rich and the poor has been growing. What Broda and Romalis quite convincingly demonstrate, however, is that the prices of goods that poor people tend to consume have fallen sharply relative to the prices of goods that rich people consume. Consequently, when you measure the true buying power of the rich and the poor, inequality grew only one-third as fast as economists previously thought it did — or maybe didn’t grow at all.

What caused this dramatic drop in the prices of goods purchased primarily by the poor vs those by the rich? Levitt explains that as well:

Why did the prices of the things poor people buy fall relative to the stuff rich people buy? Lefties aren’t going to like the answers one bit: globalization and Wal-Mart!

China is able to produce clothes, electronics, and trinkets incredibly cheaply. Poor people spend more of their income on these sorts of things and less on fancy cars, expensive wine, etc. According to Broda and Romalis, China alone accounts for about half of their result….

MIT economist Jerry Hausman (who taught me econometrics in my first year of graduate school) and co-author Ephraim Leibtag have analyzed the impact of the entrance of a Wal-Mart superstore on local food prices.

Not only are Wal-Mart’s prices lower, but its entry also induces competitors to lower prices. The impact is much larger on the poor than the rich, both because the poor are more likely to shop at Wal-Mart and because they spend more of their income on food.

In other words, the two greatest forces in mitigating the impact of income inequality are precisely the other two things the left dislikes most: globalization via China and Walmart.

With that said, I don’t want to leave the impression that I think there has been no increase in income inequality. I do believe that there has been in fact real inequality and it has been growing (and for precisely the same reasons economists generally believe: technology, greater division of labor etc). I just disagree with the magnitude and more so, the importance of it.

Fourth, culture. Much of the increase in income inequality is a result of cultural changes, specifically in marriage mating. Arnold Kling writes:

There is also another factor at work. A trend is underway in America for marriage to be increasingly “assortative.” That means children of well-educated parents tend to marry one another and the children of less educated parents tend to marry one another. This was less the case a few generations ago. For example, sociologists Christine Schwartz of the University of Wisconsin and Robert Mare of UCLA found that beginning in the early 1970s there was a striking “decline in the odds that those with very low levels of education marry up.” And they found that between 1940 and the late 1970s the likelihood that someone with only a high-school diploma would marry someone with a college degree dropped by over 40 percent.

Indeed, economists Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania believe that a revolution in modern marriage has taken place. According to their view, two generations ago, a husband and wife married in order to share production, with the man working in the market and the woman working at home. Today, the husband and wife are both likely to work in the market, and they choose one another because they have similar tastes in consumption….

Stevenson and Wolfers point out that it may well have been the case a few generations ago that “opposites attract” and the production-based marriage benefited from differences in backgrounds and skills. Today, the consumption-based marriage benefits from the couple’s similarities. Thus, marriage becomes less a driver of mobility across income segments and more a driver of income inequality.

The full article, which I highly recommend, can be found here.

Fifth, the benefits of income inequality. Let’s remember from our basic economics course that some income inequality is good. It serves as a signal mechanism to encourage more productive behavior, such as, getting an education. This is the basic argument that Gary Becker and Kevin Murphy of the University of Chicago make here.

Sixth, the irrelevance of income inequality.There are powerful arguments on why income inequality should be ignored. For example, here and here. But my favorite of em all, is the growing irrelevance of income inequality. Don Boudreaux explains:

But I here suggest that economic growth, even as it might generate ever-larger income inequality, increasingly renders these same differences in money income or wealth less and less relevant as a measure of differences in quality of life. Some examples:

– Inexpensive consumer electronics enable almost all Americans, even the poorest, to listen at their leisure to the world’s finest orchestras perform great music; contrast now with, say, 1880, when only the relatively rich could afford to hear great music – and only the superrich (by hiring their own chamber orchestras) could enjoy listening to such music whenever they wished.

– Today’s inexpensive Chevrolets and Kias are more reliable and better equipped than were top of the line Cadillacs of 40 years ago.

– Fifty years ago European vacations were a luxury enjoyed mostly by the rich and upper middle classes; today – chiefly because of inexpensive air travel – such vacations are within the means of a much greater proportion of the population.

– The clothing worn by wealthy Americans is virtually indistinguishable from the clothing of ordinary Americans; Bill Gates, Tom Hanks, and Laura Bush are not distinguished from the vast majority of Americans by their clothing. In both quality and quantity, clothing is nearly super-abundant in modern western society.

The further back you go in history, the greater were the material differences that separated rich from poor. Many of these distinctions were evident to the untrained eye (for example, the rich rode in carriages; the poor walked). Fewer of the distinctions today between rich Americans and middle-class Americans – even poor Americans – are as palpable, as salient, as stark, as were the distinctions of generations past.

Bill Gates has many more zeroes in the accounts of his finances than I have in the accounts of my finances. But I don’t see these. What is seen, what is experienced, what is palpable, as differences between Gates’s financial status and that of ordinary Americans is increasingly disappearing.

In other words, whats important here is economic growth, if you have that, income inequality matters less and less.

Update: Jon responds here.

Quote Of The Day

“Scientists now think that King Tut may have died of malaria….this is a good excuse to meditate on just how rich we are.  King Tut was probably the wealthiest man in the world during his time.  He died of something that wouldn’t kill the most abjectly immiserated welfare mother in the United States today, because of a combination of public health efforts, and cheap antimalarial drugs. You always need to factor in things like this when you talk about changes in living standards over time.  All the positive changes in society mean that the absolute difference between the income of Bill Gates and the man who valets his car is larger than it has ever been in history.  But the actual difference in comfort between the two of them is probably much smaller than the difference between JP Morgan and his stableboy.  And both Gates and the valet are almost immeasurably better off than their predecessors.” — Megan McArdle

Quote Of The Day

“Fifty percent of the variance in inequality in lifetime earnings is determined by age 18. The family plays a powerful role in shaping adult outcomes that is not fully recognised by current American policies. As programs are currently configured, interventions early in the lives of disadvantaged children have substantially higher economic returns than later interventions such as reduced pupil-teacher ratios, public job training programs, convict rehabilitation programs, adult literacy programs, tuition subsidies, or expenditure on police. This is because life-cycle skill formation is dynamic in nature. Skill begets skill; motivation begets motivation. Motivation cross-fosters skill, and skill cross-fosters motivation. If a child is not motivated to learn and engage early on in life, the more likely it is that when the child becomes an adult, he or she will fail in social and economic life. The longer society waits to intervene in the life cycle of a disadvantaged child, the more costly it is to remediate disadvantage.” —James J. Heckman, nobel laureate and Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, discussing the achievement gaps in todays society

Quote Of The Day

What the American people really should feel awkward and defensive about is the level of inequality and excess of political power. Instead of asking ourselves what we can do about Warren Buffett or Bill Gates, we should be asking ourselves about what we can do about the Clintons and the Spitzers. Those who want more and more power should be our biggest concern.” —Arnold Kling, on the rising inequality of political power

Quote Of The Day

“Krugman and Bartels think the problem is the influence rich people have on public opinion and the policy process….They also keep banging straight into the problem that if government is empowered to heavily affect people’s fortunes, then people with the biggest fortunes will have the most at stake when it comes to influencing government. The idea that the government should do much much less is completely unacceptable, so they are left chasing their tail — trying to get money out of politics without simply increasing the incentive for money to get into politics — with mounting indignation.” — Will Wilkinson

Quote Of The Day

“We examine changes in the characteristics of American youth between the late 1970s and the late 1990s, with a focus on characteristics that matter for labor market success. We reweight the NLSY79 to look like the NLSY97 along a number of dimensions that are related to labor market success, including race, gender, parental background, education, test scores, and variables that capture whether individuals transition smoothly from school to work. We then use the re-weighted sample to examine how changes in the distribution of observable skills affect employment and wages. We also use more standard regression methods to assess the labor market consequences of differences between the two cohorts. Overall, we find that the current generation is more skilled than the previous one. Blacks and Hispanics have gained relative to whites and women have gained relative to men. However, skill differences within groups have increased considerably and in aggregate the skill distribution has widened. Changes in parental education seem to generate many of the observed changes.” — Joseph Altonji, professor of economics at Yale University. Tyler Cowen has more. Arnold Kling has more.

The Inequality Myth

Brad Schiller, professor of economics at American University and the University of Nevada, Reno writes on the inequality myth:

While there is some substance to these fears of widening inequality and middle-class stagnation, the situation is not nearly as clear-cut. Demographic changes in the size and composition of U.S. households have distorted the statistics in important ways.

First, we can easily dismiss the notion that the poor are getting poorer. All the Census Bureau tells us is that the share of the pie consumed by the poor has been shrinking (to 3.4% in 2006 from 4.1% in 1970). But the “pie” has grown enormously. This year’s real GDP of $14 trillion is three times that of 1970. So the absolute size of the slice received by the bottom 20% has increased to $476 billion from $181 billion. Allowing for population growth shows that the average income of people at the bottom of the income distribution has risen 36%.

They’re not rich, but they’re certainly not poorer. In reality, economic growth has raised incomes across the board.

The Census data originate from an annual survey of households. The data don’t track individual households from year to year, but instead just take a snapshot of the households in existence in March of each year. From these annual snapshots, we try to infer what’s happening to the typical household over time.

The “typical” household, however, keeps changing. Since 1970 there has been a dramatic rise in divorced, never-married and single-person households. Back in 1970, the married Ozzie and Harriet family was the norm: 71% of all U.S. households were two-parent families. Now the ratio is only 51%. In the process of this social revolution, the average household size has shrunk to 2.57 persons from 3.14 — a drop of 18%. The meaning? Even a “stagnant” average household income implies a higher standard of living for the average household member.

Last year, the Census Bureau published a new set of income statistics that adjusted for changing household size and composition. In a single year (2006), this “equivalence-adjusted” computation increased the income share of the poor by 8% and reduced the standard measure of inequality (Gini coefficient) by 4%. Such “equivalency” adjustments would mute unadjusted inequality trends even more.

A closer look at household trends reveals that the percentage of one-person households has jumped to 27% from 17%. That’s right: More than one out of four U.S. households now has only one occupant. Who are these people? Overwhelmingly, they are Generation Xers whose good jobs and high pay have permitted them to move out of their parental homes and establish their own residences. The rest are largely seniors who have enough savings and income to escape from their grandchildren and enjoy the serenity of an independent household. Both transitions are evidence of rising affluence, not increasing hardship. Yet this splintering of the extended family exerts strong downward statistical pressure on the average income of U.S. households. Had the Generation Xers and their affluent grandparents all stayed under the same roof the average household income would be higher, but most of us would be worse off.

The supposed decline of the poor and middle class is exaggerated even more by the dynamics of population growth. When people look at the “poor” in any two years, they think they’re looking at the same people. That’s rarely true, especially over longer periods of time.

Since 1998, the U.S. population has increased by over 20 million. Nearly half of that growth has come from immigration, legal and illegal. Overwhelmingly, these immigrants enter at the lowest rungs on the income ladder. Statistically, this immigrant surge not only reduces the income of the “average” household, but also changes the occupants of the lowest income classes.

To understand what’s happening here, envision a line of people queued up for March Madness tickets. Individuals move up the line as tickets are purchased. But new people keep coming. So the line never gets shorter, even though individuals are advancing.

Something similar happens with the distribution of income. People keep entering the distribution line from the bottom. Even though individuals are moving up the line, the middle of the line never seems to move. Hence, an unchanged — or even receding — median marker could co-exist with individual advancement. The people who were at the middle marker before have moved up the distribution line. This is the kind of income mobility that has long characterized U.S. income dynamics.

When you look at the really big picture, it’s apparent that living standards are rising across the entire spectrum of incomes. Just since 2000, GDP has risen by 18% while the population has grown by 6%. So per capita incomes have clearly been rising. The growth of per capita income since 1980 or 1970 has simply been spectacular.

Some people would have you believe that all of this added income was funneled to the rich. But the math doesn’t work out.

The increase in nominal GDP since 2000 amounts to over $4 trillion annually. If you assume that all that money went to the wealthiest 10% of U.S. households, that bonanza would come to a whopping $350,000 per household. Yet according to the Census Bureau, the top 10% of households has an average income of $200,000 or so. The implied bonanza is so absurd that the notion that only the rich have gained from the economic growth can be dismissed out of hand. Clearly, there is a lot of economic advancement across a broad swath of population. Dramatic changes in household composition, household size and immigration tend to obscure this reality.

That broad swath of economic advancement shows up in personal consumption. According to the Labor Department, personal consumption spending has risen by $2.5 trillion since 2000. More Americans own homes and new cars today than ever before, despite slowdowns in both industries. Laptop computers, iPhones and flat-panel TVs are fast becoming necessities rather than luxury items.

The average American household is doing pretty well. The evident gap between income realities and political rhetoric may help explain why the “two Americas” theme, first asserted by John Edwards and since echoed by Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama, may ultimately fail to resonate with voters. On Election Day, voters may well turn to the candidate with the greater focus on a strong economy that increases everyone’s income.

The full article can be found here.

This is one of the many reasons why I don’t particularly care about income inequality. I could think of many scenarios where income inequality, as far as poverty alleviation and a rise in mobility is concerned, is a good thing. The above demonstrates one of those scenarios.

Arthur Laffer On President Clinton And The Economy

I met Arthur Laffer in July of this year, at the Libertarians FreedomFest Convention in Las Vegas. I found him to be, by far, the most entertaining and provocative speaker (He is also, btw, a HUGE illegal immigration supporter). Since then, I added him to my “Must Read Anything They Write” list of economists. So I was excited to find this interview of Arthur Laffer, though surprised to find him say this:

The evidence I cited there on Kennedy, it’s clear. Kennedy went from a deficit to a surplus with the tax cuts and the pro-growth policies. I do not believe that was luck. I don’t believe that Reagan was luck. I don’t believe that Bill Clinton was luck. I think Clinton did a great job as president.

One income tax cut that almost cost him almost everything. Then he became more Reagan than Reagan the day afterwards. He lost the House, he lost the Senate, he lost the governorships, he lost the state legislatures. And then he became more Reagan than Reagan: He got Nafta through Congress, against the unions, against his own party. He reappointed Reagan’s Fed chairman twice. He signed welfare reform, that you actually have to look for a job to get welfare. He cut government spending as a share of GDP by 3.5 percentage points. No president ever has come anywhere near him on that. He had the biggest capital gains tax cut in our nation’s history in ’97. He got rid of the retirement test on Social Security. This guy was a great president and I voted for him twice.

An argument I have made several times in the past – Bill Clinton was one of the best conservative Presidents this country has had in a long time (speaking w.r.t. economics, not social issues).

He gets even better, he states:

What Chait did in his article was he said the income disparity has increased dramatically. I’ll stipulate that, counselor. There’s no question that income disparity has risen. I don’t mind rich people making more money. That doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is poor people making less money. That bothers me a lot.

Now the question is, how do you raise the income levels of the lowest group? If you wanted to reduce income distribution discrepancies, let me go to the extreme, you would reduce it to zero. Everyone who made above the average wage, you would tax them 100% of the excess. And everyone who made below the average wage, you’d subsidize them up to the average wage.

That will reduce income discrepancies. That will. But you’ll have everyone making the same at zero. And that’s intolerable.

I don’t believe that Chait and these other people are aware or care about that by reducing the incomes of the upper incomes you’re going to lower the incomes of the lower incomes. That I really believe is true. That to me is far more important than any goddamned Laffer curve. I don’t mind running deficits, if you make people better off. Do you?

It’s what you’re investing the money in. With Reagan it ended up looking like a good investment to spend all that money on the military.

And with Clinton he did it perfectly correctly paying down the debt. He didn’t need the money. What Clinton did was he gave Bush the fiscal flexibility to do what was right, fiscally. By the time Bush took office on Jan. 20, 2001, we were in the midst of a real problem. The market had been crashing for a year. And then we get bombed 8 months later. What was the guy supposed to do? Raise taxes on the last three people working? He needed to stimulate the economy and spend for defense spending, and Clinton gave him the ability to do that. I mean, my hat’s off to Clinton. As I told you I voted for him twice.

As I said, Art Laffer is a must read. I wish he would write a book explaining his overall view of the economy, I’d immediately put it at the top of my reading list.