Posts Tagged ‘Wealth Inequality’

Eight people own as much as 3.6 billion do

March 14, 2017
Double click to enlarge

Double click to enlarge

This is old news, I guess, but worth keeping in mind.  In the years right before the French Revolution, did eight aristocrats own as much as the poorest 50 percent of the French peasants?

LINKS

Visualizing a Disturbing Truth: 8 Billionaires Own As Much as 3.6 Billion People for howmuch.   Explains who the eight billionaires are.

Income share for the bottom 50 percent of Americans is collapsing, new Piketty research finds by Steve Goldstein for MarketWatch.

Wealth and income inequality in the USA

September 2, 2016

wealth-share

These two charts, courtesy of Prof. David F. Ruccio, show the changing distribution of wealth and income in the USA.  Please keep in mind that while the chart below refers to the top 1 percent of income earners, the chart above refers to the top 1/100th of 1 percent of wealth holders.

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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.

The difference between average and typical

July 23, 2014

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Here is a case study in statistics—showing why what is statistically average is not necessarily typical.

If all the wealth in the United States were divided equally, every American household would have $301,000.  But only a minority of Americans have that much net worth.  The more meaningful measure is the median, the point that divides the wealthiest half of Americans from the poorest half.  That midpoint is $45,000, a much lower figure.

Some of the reasons middle class Americans have less than their counterparts in other advanced countries is that we have greater debt and less equity in our homes, and also have to pay more for higher education and medical care, which reduces the ability to save.

For details, click on Middle class Americans: Not so rich as we think by Tami Luhby for CNN Money.

Reflections on Piketty’s inequality argument

June 14, 2014

The novels of Jane Austen, Honore de Balzac or Henry James, in which civilized life was confined to a small percentage of the population and the only way most people could acquire significant wealth was to inherit it or marry it.

According to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, there is nothing to stop that kind of world from coming back.

1_percent_decomposed_2.png.CROP.promovar-mediumlargePiketty’s basic argument goes as follows:
•    If the rate of return on investment is a higher percentage than the rate of economic growth, which he expresses as r > g,  the owners of investment property will get an ever-larger share of national income.
•    R > g is the normal state of affairs.
•    Ownership of wealth is distributed even more unequally than income.   The higher the share of income that comes from wealth, the more unequal it will be.
•    The larger the amount of wealth you own, the faster it is likely to compound.   So not only do the rich become richer at a faster rate than ordinary people, the super-rich become richer at a faster rate than the ordinary rich.
•    At some point the process levels off, but the leveling-off point may not come until inequality reaches a point that we associate with 18th century Europe or the Third World

The economic prosperity and relative equality during 1945-1975 were made possible by the destruction of capital during the Great Depression and the two World Wars, according to Piketty.   Of course war and depression left everybody worse off, not just rich people, but when economic growth resumed, a lesser share went to the economic elite.

Piketty’s conclusions are backed up by archival research that traces income and wealth distribution in France, Britain and the USA for two centuries and many other countries for shorter periods of time.  That research shows that r > g is the typical state of affairs in most countries and most periods of history for which information is available.

One striking finding is that there is just as much inequality among the elite as there is among the public at large.  In the USA, the top 10 percent have about half the wealth, the top 1 percent have about half the wealth of the top 10 percent, and the top 0.1 percent have about half the wealth of the top 1 percent.

Another finding, based on comparisons of American university endowment funds, is that the larger the amount of wealth you have to invest, the higher your rate of return is likely to be.   This is probably because the richer you are, the better financial managers you can hire, the better able you are to diversify your investments and the better cushion you have when you make high-risk, high-return investments.

chart_2.png.CROP.promovar-mediumlargePiketty proposes to deal with inequality by means of a graduated tax on wealth to go along with graduated taxes on inheritance and income.  But there are other ways.

You could figure out ways to increase the rate of economic growth, for example.  Or you could figure out ways to achieve a wider distribution of wealth, such as through employee stock-ownership plans or worker-owned enterprises.   Or you could strengthen labor unions, increase minimum wage or take other measures to increase the incomes of the middle class, working people and the poor.

It’s important to keep in mind that Piketty only deals with one specific issue, the concentration of income and wealth in a small elite—an important issue, but not the only one.   Piketty does not tell us how to raise people out of dire poverty, nor how to achieve better productivity, or economic growth, or better education, or a cleaner environment, or any other goal.

And taking money away from the economic elite will not in and of itself make anyone any better off.   A lot of financial wealth was destroyed during the Great Depression and and a lot of tangible wealth was destroyed during World War Two, but this did help anybody at the bottom of the economic scale.  Piketty thinks that destruction of wealth cleared the way for the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, but I don’t think anybody who lived through the 1930s and 1940s would have said it was worth it.

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Piketty’s inequality argument in six charts

June 14, 2014

Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has stirred up a lot of controversy.  As well it should.  If he is right, there is nothing to stop a tiny elite from growing richer and richer at the expense of the rest of us.

The important thing to remember of Piketty’s argument is that it is not based on economic theory.   It is based on years of research on sources of wealth and income through history in different countries.   And, as quantitative information, it lends itself to charts.

I think Piketty’s research is important to understand for the future of our country and the world.   I’m reproducing six charts based on Piketty’s data from an article by John Cassidy in The New Yorker, which sum up Piketty’s findings well.

The first chart shows the share of American income taken by the best-paid 10 percent.

chart-01The chart shows that half of the income earned by all Americans went to the top 10 percent just prior to the stock market crash of 1929, that their income share fell to between 30 and 35 percent between 1945 and 1975 and now it is going back up again to 1920s levels.

Piketty explained this with his equation, r > g.   When the rate of return on investment is a higher percentage than the rate of economic growth, the holders of capital will get an ever-increasing share of income.   For the purposes of his book, Piketty has a special definition of capital, which is different from economists’ standard definition.  He defines capital as anything you can own that will give you an income, including agricultural land, government bonds, houses (which you can rent), common stocks or anything else.   In the Old South, prior to the Civil War, slaves were a form of capital.

Income distribution in the 20th century USA became more equal for a time partly because the Great Depression destroyed the value of so many financial assets, but mostly because of the high rate of economic growth following the Second World War.

Of late the pay of financiers and corporate executives has gone up much faster than the pay of middle-class and poor people, but, as the following chart shows, inequality in ownership of financial assets is a bigger factor in the income share of the top 1 percent than inequality in wages and salaries.

top1%sharechart-02

The next chart shows that same trend exists among the top 1 percent in all the major English-speaking countries.

chart-03

The next Cassidy chart shows the income shares of the top 1 percent in some of the developing countries.

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Piketty on the power of inherited wealth

May 1, 2014

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living-standards-in-france-by-birth-cohort-as-multiple-of-the-average-income-top-1-inheritors-top-1-labor-earners_chartbuilder-1

In Balzac’s story Pere Goriot, set in the early 1800s, the struggling law student Rastignac lives in the same boarding house as the master criminal Vautrin and the impoverished former millionaire Goriot.   Vautrin explains to Rastignac the odds against his ever achieving success sufficient to earn a life with dignity, and advises him to woo and wed a rich heiress instead.

In the charts above and below, Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, showed the gap in those days between inherited wealth and wealth achieved through one’s own efforts.   He didn’t have comparable data for the United States, and doesn’t think the flow of inherited wealth was as great in the USA.

That gap has narrowed, Piketty warned that there is nothing to prevent those days from returning.  A Sam Walton may build a retail empire through his own efforts, but all his children and grand-children have to do in order to be rich is simply to mess up.  His research indicates that great wealth compounds faster than moderate wealth, because the ultra-rich can diversify their investments and call upon the best expert advice.

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Piketty’s Capital21: why is inequality rising?

April 28, 2014

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a great book.  It consists of the working out of the implications of a simple principle, namely, that if the return on investment is a higher percentage rate than economic growth, wealth and income will become more and more concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority.

He said there is nothing to prevent wealth from becoming as concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite as it was in France and England in the 18th and 19th centuries — which is not the same thing as saying this is certain to occur.   I’m now re-reading Piketty’s book, from which I’m learning a lot, but l think it is important to be clear on what he’s saying and not saying,

He says that historically return on investment has exceeded the rate of economic growth, or, as he puts it, r > g,ut, like most economists, he writes of this as if it were the impersonal workings of the economy.  He lumps all income-producing forms of property together, which is legitimate for his purposes, but I make a distinction between (1) innovators who create value, (2) inheritors and passive investors and (3) usurers and manipulators.  The first deserve rich rewards, the second deserve average rewards, the third deserve to be unemployed or maybe in prison.   I think the rise of people in the third category is a big reason for the upward distribution of income in the USA.

Extreme inequality of income is a bad thing because it gives a small group of people too much power over the rest of us.  But curbing the excessive power of the top 0.1 percent or top 0.01 percent of income earners will not, in and of itself, create economic growth or end poverty.   These are not Piketty’s topics.

His preferred solution to excessive concentration of wealth is a progressive tax on capital along with progressive taxes on incomes and inheritances.  I’m not opposed to this, but I think there are other, better ways to change the r > g equation.  Promoting economic growth is one way.  Empowering wage-earners, such as by stronger labor unions or higher minimum wage laws, is another.

Below are links for those who want to know more, but don’t have time to read the 585 pages of his book and 78 pages of end notes.

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