I’m an “inequality skeptic”, first, with respect to its measurement and trends; and second, with respect to its consequences. Economic inequality in the U.S. has not increased over the past 60 years as often claimed. And some degree of ex post inequality, in and of itself, has no implication for real economic well-being at any point on the socioeconomic spectrum, the growls of class-warmongers aside. So I’m not just a skeptic. I’m telling you the inequality narrative is BS! The media has been far too eager to promote distorted metrics that suggest widening disparities and presumed injustice. Left-wing politicians such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez pounce on these reports with opportunistic zeal, fueling the flames of class warfare among their sycophants.
Comparisons of income groups and their gains over time have been plagued by a number of shortcomings. Jeff Jacoby reviews issues underlying the myth of a widening income gap. Today, the top 1% earns about the same share of income as in the early 1960s, according to a recent study by two government economists, Gerald Auten and David Splinter.
Jacoby recounts distortions in the standard measures of income inequality:
- The comparisons do not account for tax burdens and redistributive government transfer payments, which level incomes considerably. As for tax burdens, the top 1% paid more taxes in 2018 than the bottom 90% combined.
- The focus of inequality metrics is typically on households, the number of which has expanded drastically with declines in marriage rates, especially at lower income levels. Incomes, however, are more equal on a per capital basis.
- The use of pension and retirement funds like IRAs and 401(k) plans has increased substantially over the years. The share of stock market value owned by retirement funds increased from just 4% in 1960 to more than 50% now. As Jacoby says, this has “democratized” gains in asset prices.
- A change in the tax law in 1986 led to reporting of more small business income on individual returns, which exaggerated the growth of incomes at the high-end. That income had already been there.
- People earn less when they are young and more as they reach later stages of their careers. That means they move up through the income distribution over time, yet the usual statistics seem to suggest that the income groups are static. Jacoby says:
“Contrary to progressive belief, America is not divided into rigid economic strata. The incomes of the wealthy often decline, while many taxpayers go from being poor at one point to not-poor at another. Research shows that more than one-tenth of Americans will make it all the way to the top 1 percent for at least one year during their working lives.”
Mark Perry recently discussed America’s record middle-class earnings, emphasizing some of the same subtletles listed above. A middle income class ($35k-$100k in constant dollars) has indeed shrunk over the past 50 years, but most of that decrease was replaced by growth in the high income strata (>$100k), and the lower income class (<$35k) shrank almost as much as the middle group in percentage terms.
What drives the inequality we actually observe, after eliminating the distortions mentioned above? The reflexive answer from the Left is capitalism, but capitalism fosters great social and economic mobility relative to authoritarian or socialist regimes. That a few get fabulously rich under capitalism is often a positive attribute. A friend of mine contends that most of the great fortunes made in recent history involve jobs for which the product or service produced is highly scalable. So, for example, on-line software and networks “scale” and have produced tremendous fortunes. Another way of saying this is that the marginal cost of serving additional customers is near zero. However, those fortunes are earned because consumers extract great value from these products or services: they benefit to an extent exceeding price. So while the modern software tycoon is enriched in a way that produces inequality in measured income, his customers are enriched in ways that aren’t reflected in inequality statistics.
Mutually beneficial trade creates income for parties on only one side of a given transaction, but a surplus is harvested on both sides. For example, an estimate of the consumer surplus earned in transactions with the Uber ride-sharing service in 2015 was $1.60 for every dollar of revenue earned by Uber! That came to a total of $18 billion of consumer surplus in 2015 from Uber alone. These benefits of free exchange are difficult to measure, and are understandably ignored by official statistics. They are real nevertheless, another reason to take those statistics, and inequality metrics, with a grain of salt.
Certain less lucrative jobs can also scale. For example, the work of a systems security manager at a bank produces benefits for all customers of the bank, and at very low marginal cost for new customers. Conversely, jobs that don’t scale can produce great wealth, such as the work of a highly-skilled surgeon. While technology might make him even more productive over time, the scalability of his efforts are clearly subject to limits. Yet the demand for his services and the limited supply of surgical skills leads to high income. Here again, both parties at the operating table make gains (if all goes well), but only one party earns income from the transaction. These examples demonstrate that standard metrics of economic inequality have severe shortcomings if the real objective is to measure differences in well-being.
Economist Robert Samuelson asserts that “workaholics drive inequality“, citing a recent study by Edward E. Leamer and J. Rodrigo Fuentes that appeals to statistics on incomes and hours worked. They find the largest income gains have accrued to earners with high educational attainment. It stands to reason that higher degrees, and the longer hours worked by those who possess them, have generated relatively large income gains. Samuelson also cites the ability of these workers to harness technology. So far, so good: smart, hard-working students turn into smart, hard workers, and they produce a disproportionate share of value in the marketplace. That seems right and just. And consumers are enriched by those efforts. But Samuelson dwells on the negative. He subscribes to the Ludditical view that the gains from technology will accrue to the few:
“The Leamer-Fuentes study adds to our understanding by illuminating how these trends are already changing the way labor markets function. … The present trends, if continued, do not bode well for the future. If the labor force splits between well-paid workaholics and everyone else, there is bound to be a backlash — there already is — among people who feel they’re working hard but can’t find the results in their paychecks.“
That conclusion is insane in view of the income trends reviewed above, and as a matter of economic logic: large income gains might accrue to the technological avant guarde, but those individuals buy things, generating additional demand and income gains for other workers. And new technology diffuses over time, allowing broader swaths of the populace to capture value both in consumption and production. Does technology displace some workers? Of course, but it also creates new, previously unimagined opportunities. The history of technological progress gives lie to Samuelson’s perspective, but there will always be pundits to say “this time it’s different”, and it probably sounds heroic to their ears.
The usual discussions of economic inequality in media and politics revolve around an egalitarian ideal, that somehow we should all be equal in an absolute and ex post sense. That view is ignorant and dangerous. People are not equal in terms of talent and their willingness to expend effort. In a free society, the most talented and motivated individuals will produce and capture more value. Attempts to make it otherwise can only interfere with freedoms and undermine social welfare across the spectrum. This post on the Declination blog, “The Myth of Equality“, is broader in its scope but makes the point definitively. It quotes the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
The poster, “Thales”, goes on to say:
“The context of this was within an implied legal framework of basic rights. All men have equal rights granted by God, and a government is unjust if it seeks to deprive a man of these God-given rights. … This level of equality is both the basis for a legal framework limiting the power of government, and a reference to the fact that we all have souls; that God may judge them. God, being omniscient, can be an absolute neutral arbiter of justice, having all the facts, and thus may treat us with absolute equality. No man could ever do this, though justice is often better served by man at least making a passing attempt at neutrality….”
Attempts to go beyond this concept of ex ante equality are doomed to failure. To accept that inequalities must always exist is to acknowledge reality, and it serves to protect rights and opportunities broadly. To do otherwise requires coercion, which is violent by definition. In any case, inequality is not as extreme as standard metrics would have us believe, and it has not grown more extreme.