Tag Archives: Inequality

Race And American Inequality

This is Black History Month, but rather than a post on black history, I think it may be useful to share some depressing information about the current status of African-Americans vis a vis the White Americans who have occupied a privileged social position in this country even after most of the legal disabilities targeting people of color were repealed.

The Institute for Policy Studies recently issued a report on the wealth gap between whites, Latinos and blacks in the United States.The report looked at trends in household wealth among Black, Latino and White households over the past three decades.

Since the early 1980s, median wealth among Black and Latino families has been stuck at less than ten thousand dollars, while the median wealth of White households, adjusted for inflation, grew from $105,300 to $140,500. The median White family has 41 times more wealth than the median Black family and 22 times more wealth than the median Latino family.

The wealth gap has gotten wider as wealth in America has become extremely concentrated.The median American family of any color has seen its wealth drop 3 percent between 1983 and 2016–a period of time in which the richest 0.1 percent have seen their wealth jump 133 percent. The three wealthiest families–the Waltons, the Kochs and the Mars–have seen their wealth increase by nearly 6,000 percent.

Wealth held by members of the Forbes 400 equals that of all Blacks plus a quarter of Latinos.

The  report takes issue with analyses that treat the racial wealth divide and the growth of economic inequality as two separate issues; instead, it finds that they are mutually reinforcing outcomes of larger economic issues–issues that result from public policies that have favored–and continue to favor–both White Americans and the very wealthy.

Just one example: As this is being written, Mitch McConnell and the Senate GOP are proposing to eliminate what they like to call the “death tax,” and the rest of us call the estate tax.

The estate tax raises $20 billion dollars a year, which is a lot of money, but a pretty insignificant part of the federal budget. It applies only to estates worth more than $5.5 million dollars, and people with lots of money can pretty easily structure their wills to avoid it.

As the Atlantic points out, however, there’s more than money involved in this debate.

The tax code is more than a ledger. It is a national statement of values. And so this little law inspires a great commotion during each tax debate. To its opponents, it is the ultimate (literally) punishment on success and an affront to the family legacy that each striving individual hopes to leave. To its supporters, it is a necessary bulwark against inherited plutocracy, which offends the national virtue of merit over privilege.

The article goes through the arguments advanced in favor of repeal and in favor of retention of the estate tax, and is worth reading for a quick review of the debate. But the argument for retention most relevant to policy’s role in worsening inequality is that, in a period defined by the rising gap between rich and poor, we need to recognize the enormous role played by inheritance.

According to analysis byMatt Bruenig, a writer and the founder of the advocacy group People’s Policy Project, four out of 10 members of the wealthiest 1 percent inherited some money, with an average inheritance in the millions of dollars….

In the last half century, the average wealth of the bottom half has gone from about nothing to about $1,000 in debt. Meanwhile, the returns at the top have accelerated. In the 1960s, families in the top 1 percent were six times wealthier than families in the middle, according to the Urban Institute. By 2016, the 1 percent was 12 times wealthier than the typical family. As wealth inequality has soared, the estate tax has been diminished, with the number of estate tax returns declining by 76 percent between 2006 and 2015. There is little doubt that 21st-century tax policy has assisted the concentration of wealth.

When ostensibly color-blind tax policy benefits “haves,” that policy inevitably benefits Whites.

And let’s face facts: money is power.

It’s Complicated

The usual reason economists oppose monopolies is that when a business effectively dominates a particular market, it is able to raise prices. A monopoly has effectively eliminated the competition that keeps prices low. The higher prices harm consumers, and allow the company to rake in more profit than it would otherwise be able to generate.

One of the criticisms of the current administration (a criticism that tends to get lost among the mountain of others) is that enforcement of anti-trust laws has been somewhere between lax and non-existent.

Despite their almost-universal support for vigorous anti-trust enforcement, however, few economists identified a relationship between monopolies and the growth of  inequality. As a post from Inequality.org informs us, that may change.

Andrew Leigh is both a member of the Australian Parliament and an economist, and his recent research is making waves.

Working with a team of Australian, Canadian, and American analysts, he’s been studying how much the prices corporate monopolies charge impact inequality.

The conventional wisdom has a simple answer: not much. Yes, the reasoning goes, prices do go up when a few large corporations start to dominate an economic sector. But those same higher prices translate into higher returns for corporate shareholders.

Thanks to 401(k)s and the like, the argument continues, the ranks of these corporate shareholders include millions of average families. So we end up with a wash. As consumers, families pay more in prices. As shareholders, they pocket higher dividends.

But this nonchalance about the impact of monopolies, Andrew Leigh and his colleagues counter, obscures “the relative distribution of consumption and corporate equity ownership.” Average families do hold some shares of stock, but not many. In the United States, for instance, the most affluent 20 percent of households own 13 times more stock than the bottom 60 percent.

In other words, when prices rise, low- and middle-class families pay and wealthy families profit. According to Leigh and his fellow researchers, this redistribution from the less affluent to the wealthy via corporate concentration has shifted 3 percent of national income out of the pockets of poor and middle-class families and into the wallets of the affluent.

The research also shows that corporations grow large because there are incentives to growth to which their executives respond.

Indeed, firm size determines how much executives make more than any other factor, as research has shown repeatedly over the years. Executives don’t have to “perform”— make their enterprises more efficient and effective — to make bigger bucks. They just to need to make their enterprises bigger.

Executives, in short, have a powerful incentive to grow their companies, and that powerful incentive, as the latest research from Andrew Leigh and his colleagues shows, isn’t just making these executives richer. It’s leaving our societies much more unequal.

An obvious lesson from this research is that we need much more robust anti-trust enforcement. Another remedy, just now being tried, is a requirement that corporations publish the  pay ratio between their CEOs and their workers. (Portland, Oregon imposes an “inequality tax” on companies reporting too wide a disparity.)

Evidently, size does matter–at least, in corporate America.

Connect The Dots!

It’s not just easy access to guns–although that access certainly facilitates rising American homicide rates.

As the Guardian recently reports, there is a strong–if surprising– connection between income inequality, respect, and increases in violence.

A 17-year-old boy shoots a 15-year-old stranger to death, apparently believing that the victim had given him a dirty look. A Chicago man stabs his stepfather in a fight over whether his entry into his parents’ house without knocking was disrespectful. A San Francisco UPS employee guns down three of his co-workers, then turns his weapon on himself, seemingly as a response to minor slights.

These killings may seem unrelated – but they are only a few recent examples of the kind of crime that demonstrates a surprising link between homicide and inequality.

The article cites emerging research that strongly suggests that inequality plays a pivotal role in escalating passions in encounters that might otherwise end with some profanity and fisticuffs–that it raises the stakes of fights for status among men.

The connection is so strong that, according to the World Bank, a simple measure of inequality predicts about half of the variance in murder rates between American states and between countries around the world. When inequality is high and strips large numbers of men of the usual markers of status – like a good job and the ability to support a family – matters of respect and disrespect loom disproportionately.

Inequality predicts homicide rates “better than any other variable”, says Martin Daly, professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at McMaster University in Ontario and author of Killing the Competition: Economic Inequality and Homicide.

Other studies show that rates of gun ownership rise when inequality does. Rising inequality also predicts the re-emergence of cultural traits like placing more emphasis on “honor.”

“About 60 [academic] papers show that a very common result of greater inequality is more violence, usually measured by homicide rates,” says Richard Wilkinson, author of The Spirit Level and co-founder of the Equality Trust.

Why would financial inequality lead to a renewed emphasis on status and respect? Researchers explain:

When someone bumps into someone on the dance floor, looks too long at someone else’s girlfriend or makes an insulting remark, it doesn’t threaten the self-respect of people who have other types of status the way it can when you feel this is your only source of value.

“If your social reputation in that milieu is all you’ve got, you’ve got to defend it,” says Daly. “Inequality makes these confrontations more fraught because there’s much more at stake when there are winners and losers and you can see that you are on track to be one of the losers.”

Social science is methodically enumerating the negative social consequences of extreme inequality. Most reasonably well-educated people recognize that inequality produces social instability–history teaches us that growing anger from those with nothing to lose leads to riots, even revolutions–but most of us are less familiar with other ancillary effects.

There is ample evidence that large gaps between the rich and poor retard economic growth, depress marriage rates, and raise crime and homicide rates. (Ignoring the 41 million Americans who live in abject poverty in order to gift your already obscenely wealthy donors with a tax cut also implicates that pesky little thing called morality.) Historical precedent suggests that these effects–left unaddressed– ultimately destroy societies.

None of that evidence, evidently, is persuasive to the Paul Ryans and Mitch McConnells of this world. Or perhaps they know and just don’t care. They are perfect examples of what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.”


Rawls And Masson Are Right

Doug Masson can always be counted upon for thoughtful observations about policy proposals, whether those are at the state or federal level. In a recent post,  he took a look at the GOP’s tax bill, and made a point that is often missed–or misunderstood.

After criticizing Orrin Hatch’s nonsensical justification for a provision that would widen the gap between the rich and poor, Masson writes

I always get grief from my conservative friends when I say stuff like this, but reducing wealth disparities in the country isn’t just a matter of bleeding-heart, feel-good liberal mumbo jumbo like fairness and equality. Concentration of large amounts of wealth in a few hands distorts markets and democratic processes. The system can tolerate — even thrives under — certain amounts of inequality. It creates incentives that fuel the economy. But, beyond a certain point, things start to break down.

The most common defense of Masson’s position–a defense that is entirely accurate, albeit incomplete–is historical. Most countries that have experienced persistent large-scale inequalities have eventually been destabilized by revolt or revolution. This country is already seeing signs of citizen unrest; continued Congressional theft from the poor in order to bestow even more goodies on the rich will be met with anger and resistance, and it won’t be pretty.

Economists also support Masson’s thesis. They point out (as I’ve done several times on this site) that 70% of American economic activity is dependent upon consumption, and when large numbers of Americans have little or no disposable income with which to consume–when they are barely able to afford necessities–the economy can’t grow. When demand is weak, employers don’t increase production–which means they don’t create new jobs.

Those practical arguments are persuasive, but we shouldn’t ignore the fairness argument, because it goes to the heart of what makes a just society.

John Rawls was the pre-eminent political philosopher of the 20th Century, and his book Justice as Fairness established a framework within which political philosophers still argue. Rawls believed that all social primary goods–by which he meant liberty and opportunity, income and wealth, and what he termed “the bases of self-respect”–should be distributed equally, unless an unequal distribution of any or all of these is to the advantage of the least favored. 

Inequality, in other words, can be justified, but only if that inequality is necessary to the improvement of the lives of the least fortunate.

When Masson writes “The system can tolerate — even thrives under — certain amounts of inequality. It creates incentives that fuel the economy. But, beyond a certain point, things start to break down,” I read that as another way of making Rawls’ point.

When markets work–when we have genuine capitalism, not the corporatism that characterizes the United States today–they usually meet Rawls’ criteria. Invent that better mousetrap, and everyone’s mouse-catching is improved. The money earned by the inventor provides an incentive to other ambitious folks, prompting them to invent something else that will improve life for many people, including  poor people. A rising tide really does lift all the boats–we just have to be careful to define what constitutes a “rising tide.”

The fact that our mousetrap inventor has more money than someone else is thus a permissible inequality, because he has earned it in a way that improves–in some way, to some extent– the lives of the less fortunate.

This definition of justifiable inequality doesn’t reflect the inequities in today’s America. As Masson points out, money acquired isn’t necessarily the same thing as money earned; there’s a difference between that inventor/entrepreneur and those whose wealth was inherited or acquired as a reward for  “gaming the system” or helping others to do so. Bigly.

Our gilded age inequality fails all three tests: history, economics and fairness.

We need to fix it.

Listen To Nick Hanauer

Recently, I posted about the difference between tax cuts and tax reform, and why we need the latter but not the former. That argument was made–far more persuasively than I made it–by billionaire Nick Hanauer, in a recent post to Politico.

The Republican tax plan is a scam—a massive and destructive financial giveaway masquerading as pro-growth tax reform. Which is why our first response must be to demand not one penny of tax cuts for big corporations and rich guys like me. In fact, if I were Benevolent Dictator, I would substantially raise taxes on myself and my wealthy friends. Why? It is the only way to sustainably grow the economy, boost productivity, increase business opportunities, and create more and better jobs.

Hanauer takes aim at the central premise of GOP tax policy, what I have referred to as an “article of faith,” because when you take something on faith, it’s because you have no empirical evidence for its validity. In this case, as Hanauer points out, we have substantial evidence that the premise is fatally flawed.

There is is simply no empirical evidence nor plausible economic mechanism to support the claim that cutting top tax rates spurs economic growth. When President Bill Clinton hiked taxes, the economy boomed. When President George W. Bush slashed taxes, the economy ultimately collapsed. It wasn’t until after most of the Bush tax cuts expired during the Obama administration that the post-Great Recession recovery started to pick up steam—an ongoing recovery that, as uneven as it has been, has grown into one of the longest economic expansions in U.S. history.

And then, of course, there’s Kansas.

As we all know, and as Hanauer reminds us, Kansas dramatically “underperformed ” the rest of the country in economic growth and job creation after Sam Brownback, its “true believer” Governor, slashed taxes on individuals and corporations. And as he also reminds us, California, which horrified those true believers when it imposed the nation’s top income tax rate, has thrived.  By 2015, California had the fastest-growing economy in the nation. Kansas? Dead last.

For several years, Hanauer has been arguing that Republicans have the economic argument exactly backwards–that inequality, not high tax rates, retards economic growth and job creation.

But the Republicans’ problem is that they have economic cause and effect reversed: Low wages and rising inequality are not symptoms of slow growth, low wages and rising inequality are the disease that causes slow growth—and inequality cannot be cured by creating even more inequality. In reality, our modern technological economy is best understood as an evolutionary feedback loop between innovation and demand. Innovation is the process through which we evolve new solutions to human problems, while consumer demand is the mechanism through which the market selects and propagates successful innovations. And it is economic inclusion—the full participation of as many people as possible in as many ways as possible, as innovators, entrepreneurs, workers and robust consumers—that drives both innovation and demand. The more we invest in the American people—in our wages, our education, our health care and our infrastructure—the more dynamic that feedback loop, and thus the faster and more prosperous our economy grows.

As I tell my students, if you own a widget factory, and no one is buying your widgets, you are unlikely to hire more workers to increase widget production. When consumers lack disposable income with which to buy your widgets, you cut back–or stop making widgets entirely.

As Hanauer explains:

The real problem with our economy is that we are concentrating wealth in the hands of people who aren’t spending or investing it, while starving working- and middle-class Americans of the ability to invest in themselves—not to mention sapping the consumer spending power that accounts for 70 percent of GDP. We rich Americans may not all be idle, but these days, much of our money is—and you will not get it flowing back through the economy again by cutting our taxes even further. I already earn about 1,000 times more per hour than the average American, but I couldn’t possibly buy 1,000 times more stuff. I only own so many pairs of pants. My family and I can only eat three meals a day. We enjoy a luxurious lifestyle, but we already own several houses, a private jet and one too many yachts (turns out, the optimal number is two). Cutting our taxes will make us richer, but it won’t incentivize me or my venture capital partners to spend or invest more than we already do. What’s holding us back isn’t a shortage of cash, but rather a shortage of demand—from you.


Thank you to everyone who wished me a happy birthday yesterday. It was much appreciated!