Tag Archives: Wealth

Why Society’s Biggest Freeloaders are at the Top

No, wealth isn’t created at the top. It is merely devoured there.
By Rutger Bregman – This piece is about one of the biggest taboos of our times. About a truth that is seldom acknowledged, and yet – on reflection – cannot be denied. The truth that we are living in an inverse welfare state.

These days, politicians from the left to the right assume that most wealth is created at the top. By the visionaries, by the job creators, and by the people who have “made it”. By the go-getters oozing talent and entrepreneurialism that are helping to advance the whole world.

Now, we may disagree about the extent to which success deserves to be rewarded – the philosophy of the left is that the strongest shoulders should bear the heaviest burden, while the right fears high taxes will blunt enterprise – but across the spectrum virtually all agree that wealth is created primarily at the top.

So entrenched is this assumption that it’s even embedded in our language. When economists talk about “productivity”, what they really mean is the size of your paycheck. And when we use terms like “welfare state”, “redistribution” and “solidarity”, we’re implicitly subscribing to the view that there are two strata: the makers and the takers, the producers and the couch potatoes, the hardworking citizens – and everybody else.

In reality, it is precisely the other way around. In reality, it is the waste collectors, the nurses, and the cleaners whose shoulders are supporting the apex of the pyramid. They are the true mechanism of social solidarity. Meanwhile, a growing share of those we hail as “successful” and “innovative” are earning their wealth at the expense of others. The people getting the biggest handouts are not down around the bottom, but at the very top. Yet their perilous dependence on others goes unseen. Almost no one talks about it. Even for politicians on the left, it’s a non-issue.

To understand why, we need to recognize that there are two ways of making money. The first is what most of us do: work. That means tapping into our knowledge and know-how (our “human capital” in economic terms) to create something new, whether that’s a takeout app, a wedding cake, a stylish updo, or a perfectly poured pint. To work is to create. Ergo, to work is to create new wealth.

But there is also a second way to make money. That’s the rentier way: by leveraging control over something that already exists, such as land, knowledge, or money, to increase your wealth. You produce nothing, yet profit nonetheless. By definition, the rentier makes his living at others’ expense, using his power to claim economic benefit. more>

What’s Elizabeth Warren’s wealth tax worth?

By Isabel V. Sawhill and Christopher Pulliam – On both sides of the Atlantic, economic inequality has rocketed up the political agenda and inspired a new wave of populism. Wealth inequality is high and rising in the UK and staggeringly so in the US. The top 1% of American households now have more wealth than the bottom 90%. In the UK, the top 10% holds over half the wealth. The richest 400 individuals in the US average a net worth of $7.2 billion.

How did we get to this point? As Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital, famously argued, a capitalist economy left to its own devices will tend to produce not just inequality but ever-rising inequality of wealth – and the income derived from wealth. The main reason is because the returns earned on assets such as stocks and bonds normally exceed the growth of wages.

Imagine an economy with one capitalist and one wage earner. If the annual rate of return to financial assets is, say, 3%, but wages are only growing by 2%, more and more income ends up in the hands of the capitalist. Wealth then begets more wealth as the capitalist, not needing to spend all of his added income, adds to his existing wealth and reaps ever-growing income from that wealth. Unless a war or other shock destroys his wealth (think depression or the devastation in Europe after the Second World War), or government decides to tax it away, we end up with the rise in wealth inequality that we are now seeing in many rich countries – the US in particular.

There is something deeply disturbing about Piketty’s work. If one takes his thesis seriously, it means that the inequality of wealth and its corollary, income inequality, along with their continued growth, is the new normal. They are baked into a capitalist economy.

Of course, some financial capital gets invested in productive assets that help the economy grow. But productive investment and growth have slowed in recent decades, making it hard to argue that the rise in wealth at the top has benefited everyone. In the meantime, the accumulation of wealth in high-income households is one reason that income inequality is rising so sharply at the very top. While the richest 20% of US households, which benefit from a lot of human capital but not a lot of wealth, saw their market incomes rise by 96% between 1979 and 2016, the top 1% – which receives far more of their income from wealth – saw their incomes rise by a staggering 219%.

In short, growing wealth inequality spawns growing income inequality, so if we care about the latter, we cannot focus only on redistributing income. We need to tackle the accumulation of wealth as well.

What to do? Senator Elizabeth Warren, a serious contender for the US presidency, has proposed a wealth tax. 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>

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>


How Adam Smith became a (surprising) hero to conservative economists

By Glory M Liu – People like to fight over Adam Smith. To some, the Scottish philosopher is the patron saint of capitalism who wrote that great bible of economics, The Wealth of Nations (1776). Its doctrine, his followers claim, is that unfettered markets lead to economic growth, making everyone better off. In Smith’s now-iconic phrase, it’s the ‘invisible hand’ of the market, not the heavy hand of government, that provides us with freedom, security and prosperity.

To others, such as the Nobel prizewinning economist Joseph Stiglitz, Smith is the embodiment of a ‘neoliberal fantasy’ that needs to be put to rest, or at least revised. They question whether economic growth should be the most important goal, point to the problems of inequality, and argue that Smith’s system would not have enabled massive accumulations of wealth in the first place. Whatever your political leanings, one thing is clear: Smith speaks on both sides of a longstanding debate about the fundamental values of modern market-oriented society.

But these arguments over Smith’s ideas and identity are not new. His complicated reputation today is the consequence of a long history of fighting to claim his intellectual authority.

Smith’s first biographer, Dugald Stewart, deliberately portrayed him in the 1790s as an introverted, awkward genius whose magnum opus was an apolitical handbook of sorts. Stewart downplayed Smith’s more politically subversive moments, such as his blistering criticism of merchants, his hostility towards established religion, and his contempt for ‘national prejudice’, or nationalism. Instead, Stewart shined a spotlight on what he believed was one of ‘the most important opinions in The Wealth of Nations’: that ‘Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism, but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice; all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things.’

Stewart’s biography (first delivered as an eulogy in 1793, then published in 1794 and 1795) appeared in the wake of major events that terrified British audiences: the French Revolution of 1789, the Reign of Terror that followed and the sedition trials that followed in both England and Scotland. As the British historian Emma Rothschild has shown, Stewart’s depiction of Smith’s ideas cherrypicked in order to imbue political economy with scientific authority. She writes that he wanted to portray political economy as ‘an innocuous, technical sort of subject’, to help construct a politically ‘safe’ legacy for Smith during politically dangerous times. Stewart’s effort marked the beginning of Smith’s association with ‘conservative economics’.

Smith would soon earn a reputation as the father of the science of political economy – what we now know as economics. more>

They Don’t Just Hide Their Money. Economist Says Most of Billionaire Wealth is Unearned.

By Didier Jacobs – The 62 richest people in the world own as much wealth as half of humanity. Such extreme wealth conjures images of both fat cats and deserving entrepreneurs. So where did so much money come from?

It turns out, three-fourths of extreme wealth in the US falls on the fat cat side.

A key empirical question in the inequality debate is to what extent rich people derive their wealth from “rents”, which is windfall income they did not produce, as opposed to activities creating true economic benefit.

Economists define “rent” as the difference between what people are paid and what they would have to be paid to do the work anyway. The classical example is the farmer who owns particularly fertile land.

With the same effort, she can produce more than other farmers working on land of average productivity. The extra income she gets is a rent. Monopolists also get rent by overcharging customers as compared to what they could charge in competitive markets.

More generally, economists have identified a series of “market failures”, which are situations where full competition does not prevail and where someone can therefore overcharge – they would be ready to do the work for less, but lack of competition allows them to make a quick extra buck. Government can alleviate market failures through proper economic regulation; or it can make them worse.

Political scientists define “rent-seeking” as influencing government to get special privileges, such as subsidies or exclusive production licenses, to capture income and wealth produced by others.

So how much of extreme wealth derives from rents? more>

Why Wealth Is Determined More by Power Than Productivity

By Laurie Macfarlane – The process of how wealth is accumulated has been subject of much debate throughout history.

If you pick up an economics textbook today, you’ll probably encounter a narrative similar to the following: wealth is created when entrepreneurs combine the factors of production – land, labor and capital – to create something more valuable than the raw inputs. Some of this surplus may be saved, increasing the stock of wealth, while the rest is reinvested in the production process to create more wealth.

How the fruits of wealth creation should be divided between capital, land and labor has been subject of considerable debate throughout history. In 1817, the economist David Ricardo described this as “the principal problem in political economy.”

The measure of wealth used by the OECD is ‘mean net wealth per household’. This is the value of all of the assets in a country, minus all debts. Assets can be physical, such as buildings and machinery, financial, such as shares and bonds, or intangible, such as intellectual property rights.

But something can only become an asset once it has become property – something that can be alienated, priced, bought and sold.

The amount of wealth does not just depend on the number of assets that are accumulated – it also depends on the value of these assets. The value of assets can go up and down over time, otherwise known as capital gains and losses.

The price of an asset such as a share in a company or a physical property reflects the discounted value of the expected future returns. If the expected future return on an asset is high, then it will trade at a higher price today. If the expected future return on an asset falls for whatever reason, then its price will also fall. more>

Capitalism Redefined


Theory of Value, Author: Gerard Debreu.
The Origin of Wealth, Author: Eric Beinhocker.

By Nick Hanauer and Eric Beinhocker – For everyone but the top 1 percent of earners, the American economy is broken.

Since the 1980s, there has been a widening disconnect between the lives lived by ordinary Americans and the statistics that say our prosperity is growing. Despite the setback of the Great Recession, the U.S. economy more than doubled in size during the last three decades while middle-class incomes and buying power have stagnated. Great fortunes were made while many baby boomers lost their retirement savings. Corporate profits reached record highs while social mobility reached record lows, lagging behind other developed countries.

These facts don’t just highlight the issues of inequality and the growing power of a plutocracy. They should also force us to ask a deeper set of questions about how our economy works—and, crucially, about how we assess and measure the very idea of economic progress.

How can it be that great wealth is created on Wall Street with products like credit-default swaps that destroyed the wealth of ordinary Americans—and yet we count this activity as growth?

Likewise, fortunes are made manufacturing food products that make Americans fatter, sicker, and shorter-lived. And yet we count this as growth too—including the massive extra costs of health care.

Global warming creates more frequent hurricanes, which destroy cities and lives. Yet the economic activity to repair the damage ends up getting counted as growth as well.

Great debates rage about whether to raise or lower interest rates, or increase or decrease regulation, and our political system has been paralyzed by a bitter ideological struggle over the budget. But there is too little debate about what it is all for.

Hardly anyone ever asks: What kind of growth do we want? What does “wealth” mean? And what will it do for our lives? more>

An ambitious project to measure the wealth of nations shows how GDP is a deceptive gauge of progress

By Eshe Nelson, Dan Kopf – Is gross domestic product a sufficient measure of an economy’s health?

Many argue that GDP, which counts the sum of the goods and services produced by a nation, fails to reflect a population’s well-being, because it accounts for neither distribution of income nor extractive effects such as pollution.

Wealth includes all assets, which means human capital (the value of earnings over a person’s lifetime), natural capital (energy, minerals, agricultural land), produced capital (machinery, buildings, urban land), and net foreign assets.

Assessing an economy by GDP instead of wealth is like looking exclusively at a company’s income statements without considering the assets on its balance sheet. A company can make its income look good for a short time by liquidating assets, but over the long run this will reduce the firm’s productive capacity and other means of generating income in the future.

The same applies to a country. GDP “does not reflect depreciation and depletion of assets, whether investment and accumulation of wealth are keeping pace with population growth, or whether the mix of assets is consistent with a country’s development goals,” the report states. more>