Posts Tagged ‘Wealth Inequality in America’

The rich are richer, the rest of us are poorer

July 13, 2015

inequality1108k_0Source: The Economist.

Americans of all stripes, from the Tea Party to the Occupy movement, are angry.  They think government doesn’t represent them.

Rep. Alan Grayson, a Florida Democrat, thinks they’re right about that.  He said he knows congressional representatives whose mail was running 1oo to 1 against “fast track” approval of trade agreements who  nevertheless voted for it.

But, he explained, the reason for their anger is more deep-seated—

For most Americans, life simply is getting harder.  This was painfully obvious from a Sage Foundation study last year, following up on an article in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.  The study looked at changes in the wealth of American households over a decade, from 2003 to 2013.  The study found that median net worth had dropped by 36 percent, from $87,992 to $56,335.

Rep. Alan Grayson

Rep. Alan Grayson

Let me repeat that: The net worth of the average American household dropped by more than one-third in ten years.  The decline from the 2007 peak was almost 50 percent, in just six years.  (Most of that loss was in the value of one’s home — home is where the heartache is.)

That’s why everyone is so angry.

The net worth decline of someone at the 25th [75th] percentile (meaning that three-quarters of all household are richer than you) was even more extreme — from $10,129 to $3200.  And among the bottom five percent, whose net worth is negative, their debt tripled.

Only the top 10 percent of all Americans improved their standards of living during that decade.  As the study summarized, “wealth inequality increased significantly from 2003 through 2013; by some metrics inequality roughly doubled.”

via Rep. Alan Grayson.

My friends who are content to always vote for the “lesser evil” are correct in one respect.  Things could be worse—a lot worse—than they are now.

But I don’t believe the present situation is sustainable.   The anger of the American people will boil over at some point.  If change for the better seems impossible within the current political and economic system, democracy and constitutional government will be at risk.

∞∞∞

Why Is Everybody Angry?  I’ll Tell You Why by Rep. Alan Grayson for the Huffington Post.

The Typical Household, Now Worth a Third Less by Anna Bernasek for The New York Times.

Wealth Levels, Wealth Inequality and the Great Recession by Fabian T. Pfeffer, Sheldon Danziger and Robert F. Schoeni for the Russell Sage Foundation.

Piketty’s formula: its scope and limits

April 4, 2014

Source: Emmanuel Saez and Garbriel Zucmanhttp://www.hup.harvard.edu/features/capital-in-the-twenty-first-century-introduction.html

http://www.yjs.fi/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/Thomas-Piketty-pres..pdf  [Thomas Piketty’s Power Point presentation]

Click to access SaezZucman2014Slides.pdf

http://www.slate.com/blogs/moneybox/2014/04/02/wealth_inequality_is_it_worse_than_we_thought.html

The brilliant French economist Thomas Piketty has an economic formula which shows why, most of the time, the wealthy elite captures a larger and larger share of a nation’s income, and also why, some of the time, the rest of the nation catches up.

pikettybookcover00While my previous post about Piketty and his great book was long, I didn’t really explain his formula and how it works.

His formula, which he calls the fundamental law of capitalism, is as follows:

The capital income ratio (a) equals the rate of return on capital (r) times the national wealth (beta*),

That is, if the national wealth – every form of property that can produce an income for its owner, which is what Piketty calls capital – is six times, or 600 percent, of the nation’s annual output, and the average rate of return on capital is 2 percent, then owners of capital will receive 12 percent of the nation’s income in that year.

If a nation’s annual income is static and the owners of capital reinvest some of their income, then capital will be a larger multiple of the national income the following year, and the owners of capital will receive a larger share of national income.  If a nation’s annual income is growing, but the return on investment is a higher percentage than the growth rate, the owners of capital will get a larger share of national income the following year.

Once this is explained, it seems obviously true – at least to me.   And it seems to be a problem – at to me.   The graph above, prepared by Emmanuel Saez of the University of California (Piketty’s long-term collaborator) and Gabriel Zucman of the London School of Economics, shows how unequally wealth is distributed in the USA.  More than 1/5th of U.S. wealth is owned by 1/1000th of the population.  It is easy to see how the normal working of Piketty’s formula could cause them to suck up more and more of the nation’s income.

Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty

What do you do about it?   Piketty proposed graduated taxes on income, inheritance and wealth itself, sufficient to bring return on investment down to the rate of economic growth. 

I don’t see anything wrong in principle with a wealth tax.   I pay a property tax on my house.  Why shouldn’t a billionaire pay taxes on his investment portfolio?    But this is going to take a long time to bring about, even if everybody agrees.  For one thing, it will require the elimination of all the tax havens where the super-rich hide their money, which will require international agreement.  For another, increasing the government’s revenue does not necessarily benefit the public – if taxes are used to finance aggressive war, for example.

There are other possible solutions, because there are other factors in the equation.  If strong economic growth can be restarted, if the economic growth rate exceeds the return on investment rate, that would solve the problem.   Strong labor unions and minimum wage laws would increase the income share of working people and the middle class.   There are many possible approaches.

In theory, the solution could be wider ownership of capital by the public, such as by ESOPs (employee stock ownership plans) or by pension funds.  Back in the 1970s, the management analyst Peter Drucker noticed that pension funds were acquiring a bigger and bigger share on the U.S. stock market.  Eventually, he predicted, this would accomplish the Marxist dream of worker ownership of the means of production!

This didn’t happen because the corporations that controlled the pension funds didn’t allow it to happen.  But if workers controlled their pension funds, it would be a different story.  This would not be a practical reality any time soon, or perhaps ever.  The point is that tax policy is not the only means to deal with hyper-concentration of wealth.

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As inequality rises, opportunity declines

June 13, 2013

o-GREAT-GATSBY-CURVE-570

Some Americans like to say that while we are less equal in income and wealth than some of the western European countries, we have greater opportunity to rise on the economic scale.   If everybody has a reasonably fair chance to acquire wealth, based on talent and hard work, then we should not complain about inequality of wealth, or so the argument goes.

The chart above shows the problem with that argument.   Among 10 industrial nations, the United States had the greatest concentration of income at the top, measured by the Gini coefficient, and the second least equality of opportunity, based on correlation of your income with your parents’ income.

This stands to reason.   The steeper and higher the slope, the hardest it would be to climb up.

The chart is based on figures for 1985, which was nearly 30 years ago.   Income inequality has grown since then, and there is a dot on the chart extrapolating the decline in economic mobility for 2010 based on the Gini coefficient of wealth concentration for that year.

Click on The Great Gatsby Curve for an animated GIF of the chart, which makes it easier to understand.

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The facts about U.S. wealth and poverty

March 7, 2013

This video strikingly illustrates the concentration of wealth in the United States and the gap between the rich and the masses, which is greater than most Americans realize.  I came across it on the occasional links and commentary web log.

If you see nothing wrong with the degree of inequality described in this video, I would ask if there is any degree of inequality that would bother you.