Tag Archives: Inequality

Economics Can’t Explain Why Inequality Decreases

A problem with Piketty’s explanation
By Peter Turchin – In September I went to an international conference in Vienna, Austria, The Haves and the Have Nots: Exploring the Global History of Wealth and Income Inequality. One thing I learned at the conference is that, apparently, economists don’t really know why inequality increases and decreases. Especially, why it decreases.

Let’s start with Thomas Piketty, since Capital in the Twenty First Century is currently the “bible” (or should I say “Das Kapital”?) of inequality scholars.

Piketty provides a good explanation of why inequality increases. It’s good not in the sense that everybody agrees with it, but in the sense of being good science: a general mechanism that is supported by mathematics and by data.

So far so good. But how does Piketty explain the decline of inequality during the middle of the twentieth century? It was a result of unique circumstances—two destructive world wars and the Great Depression. In other words, and forgive me for crudeness, shit happens.

This is not a particularly satisfactory conclusion. Of course, it’s possible that the general trend of inequality is always up, except for random exogenous events that knock it down once in a while. So devastating wars destroy property, and by making the wealthy poorer reduce inequality. This is one of the inequality-reducing forces that Piketty mentions several times in his book.

To me such exogenous explanations are not satisfactory. My intuition (which I understand may not be shared by all) is that when inequality gets too high, there are forces that bring it down. In other words, to some degree it’s a regulatory process, and that’s why we don’t see truly extreme forms of inequality (when one person owns everything).

In Piketty’s view, the only reason we don’t see such extremes is because some kind of random event always intervenes before we get to it. more>

America’s Hot New Job Is Being a Rich Person’s Servant

“Wealth work” is one of America’s fastest-growing industries. That’s not entirely a good thing.
By Derek Thompson – In an age of persistently high inequality, work in high-cost metros catering to the whims of the wealthy—grooming them, stretching them, feeding them, driving them—has become one of the fastest-growing industries.

The MIT economist David Autor calls it “wealth work.”

While there are reasons to be optimistic about this trend, there is also something queasy about the emergence of a new underclass of urban servants.

Wealth work falls into two basic categories. First, full-time retail and service jobs at places like nail salons and spas. “You’re talking about people with $30,000 incomes that are often employed in high-wealth metro areas, or resort economies,” Muro said.

Because they often cannot afford to live near their place o-f work, they endure long commutes from lower-cost neighborhoods. These arrangements aren’t merely time-consuming; they can also be exploitative. For example, New York City nail salons are notorious for flouting minimum-wage laws and other labor regulations, and massage parlors across Florida have served as fronts for human trafficking.

A second category is the “Uber for X” economy—that nebulous network of people contracted through online marketplaces for driving, delivery, and other on-demand services.

Optimistically, these jobs offer autonomy for workers and convenience for consumers, many of whom aren’t wealthy. But the business models that keep these firms aloft rely on the strategic avoidance of laws like the Fair Labor Standards Act, which regulates minimum wage and overtime pay. These laborers often do the work of employees with the legal protections of contractors—which is to say, hardly any. more>

Nobel Economist Says Inequality is Destroying Democratic Capitalism

By Angus Deaton – As at no other time in my lifetime, people are troubled by inequality.

Across the rich world, not only in America, large groups of people are currently questioning whether their economies are working for them. The same can be said of politics. Two-thirds of Americans without a college degree believe that there is no point in voting, because elections are rigged in favor of big business and the rich. Britain is divided as never before and, once again, many believe that their voice doesn’t count either in Brussels or in Westminster. And one of the greatest miracles of the 20th century, the miracle of falling mortality and rising lifespans, is no longer delivering for everyone, and is now faltering or reversing.

At the risk of grandiosity, I think that today’s inequalities are signs that democratic capitalism is under threat, not only in the US, where the storm clouds are darkest, but in much of the rich world, where one or more of politics, economics, and health are changing in worrisome ways. I do not believe that democratic capitalism is beyond repair nor that it should be replaced; I am a great believer in what capitalism has done, not only to the oft-cited billions who have been pulled out of poverty in the last half-century, but to all the rest of us who have also escaped poverty and deprivation over the last two and a half centuries.

But we need to think about repairs for democratic capitalism, either by fixing what is broken, or by making changes to head off the threats; indeed, I believe that those of us who believe in social democratic capitalism should be leading the charge to make repairs. As it is, capitalism is not delivering to large fractions of the population; in the US, where the inequalities are clearest, real wages for men without a four-year college degree have fallen for half a century, even at a time when per capita GDP has robustly risen. more>

The exploitation time bomb

Worsening economic inequality in recent years is largely the result of policy choices that reflect the political influence and lobbying power of the rich.
By Jayati Ghosh – Since reducing inequality became an official goal of the international community, income disparities have widened. This trend, typically blamed on trade liberalization and technological advances that have weakened the bargaining power of labor vis-à-vis capital, has generated a political backlash in many countries, with voters blaming their economic plight on ‘others’ rather than on national policies. And such sentiments of course merely aggravate social tensions without addressing the root causes of worsening inequality.

But in an important new article, the Cambridge University economist José Gabriel Palma argues that national income distributions are the result not of impersonal global forces, but rather of policy choices that reflect the control and lobbying power of the rich.

The driving force behind these trends is market inequality, meaning the income distribution before taxes and government transfers. Most OECD countries continually attempt to mitigate this through the tax-and-transfer system, resulting in much lower levels of inequality in terms of disposable income.

But fiscal policy is a complicated and increasingly inefficient way to reduce inequality, because today it relies less on progressive taxation and more on transfers that increase public debt. For example, European Union governments’ spending on social protection, health care and education now accounts for two-thirds of public expenditure, but this is funded by tax policies that let off the rich and big corporations while heavily burdening the middle classes, and by adding to the stock of government debt. more>

As U.S. expansion notches record, recovery may have only just begun

By Howard Schneider – It was only last year that U.S. gross domestic product caught up with estimates of its potential, surpassing where Congressional Budget Office analysts feel it would have been if the housing bubble hadn’t burst in 2007, investment bank Lehman Brothers hadn’t failed the following year, and the world had not cratered into a deep recession.

The periods when GDP exceeds potential are typically when workers enjoy the greatest wage gains and members of historically sidelined communities find jobs. In recent years, those periods have not lasted long, a fact that Fed and other officials are wrestling with as they weigh possible interest rate cuts and assess just where the U.S. economy now stands.

The approach of the decade-long expansion mark has boosted speculation about how much longer the recovery might last, whether a recession is inevitable in the next couple of years, and whether the Fed and U.S. government are adequately prepared to fight another downturn.

For the type of progress Fed and elected officials feel is needed to rebuild middle-class incomes, it may take several more years.

But the environment has changed.

In the short-term, global trade disputes and other risks could slow the economy no matter what the Fed does. more>


A radical legal ideology nurtured our era of economic inequality

By Sanjukta Paul – Where does economic power come from? Does it exist independently of the law?

It seems obvious, even undeniable, that the answer is no. Law creates, defines and enforces property rights. Law enforces private contracts. It charters corporations and shields investors from liability. Law declares illegal certain contracts of economic cooperation between separate individuals – which it calls ‘price-fixing’ – but declares economically equivalent activity legal when it takes place within a business firm or is controlled by one.

Each one of these is a choice made by the law, on behalf of the public as a whole. Each of them creates or maintains someone’s economic power, and often undermines someone else’s. Each also plays a role in maintaining a particular distribution of economic power across society.

Yet generations of lawyers and judges educated at law schools in the United States have been taught to ignore this essential role of law in creating and sustaining economic power.

Instead, we are taught that the social process of economic competition results in certain outcomes that are ‘efficient’ – and that anything the law does to alter those outcomes is its only intervention.

These peculiar presumptions flow from the enormously powerful and influential ‘law and economics’ movement that dominates thinking in most areas of US law considered to be within the ‘economic’ sphere.

Bruce Ackerman, professor of law and political science at Yale University, recently called law and economics the most influential thing in legal education since the founding of Harvard Law School.

The Economics Institute for Federal Judges, founded by the legal scholar Henry Manne, has been a hugely influential training program in the law and economics approach. more>

Was the Rise of Neoliberalism the Root Cause of Extreme Inequality?

Financial meltdown, environmental disaster and even the rise of Donald Trump – neoliberalism has played its part in them all.
By George Monbiot – Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism.

The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it. Neoliberalism: do you know what it is?

Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump. But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalyzed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?

So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognize it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimized, public services should be privatized. The organization of labor and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers.

Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve. more>

Eight Reasons Why Inequality Ruins the Economy

What matters is not so much the level of inequality as the effect it has.
By Chris Dillow – Roland Benabou gave the example (pdf) of how egalitarian South Korea has done much better than the unequal Philippines. And IMF researchers have found (pdf) a “strong negative relation” between inequality and the rate and duration of subsequent growth spells across 153 countries between 1960 and 2010.

Correlations, of course, are only suggestive. They pose the question: what is the mechanism whereby inequality might reduce growth? Here are eight possibilities:

1. Inequality encourages the rich to invest not innovation but in what Sam Bowles calls “guard labor” (pdf) – means of entrenching their privilege and power. This might involve restrictive copyright laws, ways of overseeing and controlling workers, or the corporate rent-seeking and lobbying that has led to what Brink Lindsey and Steven Teles call the “captured economy.

An especially costly form of this rent-seeking was banks’ lobbying for a “too big to fail” subsidy. This encouraged over-expansion of the banking system and the subsequent crisis, which has had a massively adverse effect upon economic growth.

3. “Economic inequality leads to less trust” say (pdf) Eric Uslaner and Mitchell Brown. And we’ve good evidence that less trust means less growth.

One reason for this is simply that if people don’t trust each other they’ll not enter into transactions where there’s a risk of them being ripped off.

5. Inequality can cause the rich to be fearful of future redistribution or nationalization, which will make them loath to invest. National Grid is belly-aching, maybe rightly, that Labour’s plan to nationalize it will delay investment. But it should instead ask: why is Labour proposing such a thing, and why is it popular? more>

Capitalism is failing. People want a job with a decent wage – why is that so hard?

By Richard V. Reeves – Before capitalism, there was work. Before markets, before even money, there was work. Our remotest ancestors, hunting and gathering, almost certainly did not see work as a separate, compartmentalized part of life in the way we do today. But we have always had to work to live. Even in the 21st century, we strive through work for the means to live, hence the campaign for a “living wage.”

As a species, we like to define ourselves through our thoughts and wisdom, as Homo sapiens. But we could as easily do so through the way we consciously apply effort towards certain goals, by our work – as Homo laborans. It nonetheless took two revolutions, one agricultural, one industrial, to turn “work” into its own category.

Industrial capitalism sliced and diced human time into clearly demarcated chunks, of “work” and “leisure”. Work was then bundled and packaged into one of the most important inventions of the modern era: a job. From this point on, the workers’ fight was for a job that delivered maximum benefits, especially in terms of wages, in return for minimum costs imposed on the worker, especially in terms of time.

For Karl Marx, the whole capitalist system was ineluctably rigged against workers. Whatever the short-run victories of the trade unions, the capitalist retained the power; the ultimate control, over workers’ time. And the worker would remain forever alienated from their work. The goal was to assert sovereignty over our own time, free of the temporal control of the capitalist, able “to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner.”

The problem of alienation is far from solved. more>

Inequality: from redistribution to predistribution and beyond?

Soaring income inequality inevitably raises discussion of more progressive taxation. But a more fundamental focus on the ownership of capital is needed.
By Liam Kennedy – The now much-traveled line from the historian Rutger Bregman at Davos 2019 is a perfect encapsulation of the Zeitgeist: inequality is out of control, we know more or less how to reduce it but, instead of actually doing anything, here we are pretending to be baffled by the state of the world.

Outside those snow-capped peaks, there is, of course, widespread recognition of the need to tackle spiraling inequality. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has spoken about it, the International Monetary Fund has written about it and reducing inequalities is enshrined in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

Unfortunately, this evidence does not always translate into coherent political action. In the United Kingdom, for example, top rates of income tax have become less progressive over the decades while corporation tax has been consistently cut since 2010. Acknowledging the inequality problem is a crucial first step—but there is also a strong case for looking beyond ‘taxes, taxes, taxes’ if it is to be truly tackled.

Additionally, UK income-inequality statistics are plagued with problems which militate against any consistent understanding of how much income those at the very top of the distribution are actually ‘earning’.  To put it bluntly, the rich are even richer than we realize.

The truth is that the initial fall in income inequality seen after the financial crisis was an aberration which has allowed the government to mask the more systemic and continuing rise in inequality the UK has experienced since the late 1970s. more>