Inequality is in the news a lot right now. How should we be thinking about it and trying to get our heads around it?Go read the whole article.
Inequality is one of the things that has changed quite a lot in the United States and other economies over the last three decades or so. A lot of things don’t change radically, but inequality has. Understanding why that has happened and what it implies for our society is important. So it’s a good thing that it’s in the news, it’s an important topic and there is no reason for it to be taboo. Having said that, there is no broad consensus among social scientists about how to talk about inequality, and the average economist probably thinks about it very differently than the average layman. I’m not saying one is right and one is wrong, but the conversation needs to be expanded to bring these different viewpoints to the table.
What’s the economist’s view?
The default position of economists is that inequality reflects the unequal human capital or productive capabilities of different workers. If you start with that premise – that what people earn is commensurate with their contribution to their employer, and also perhaps to society – then greater inequality tells you something about how people’s productivities have evolved over time. This is by no means what every economist believes, but it’s a common view. Economists have cut their teeth on inequality by looking at things like the increase in the college premium over the last 30 years in the US and other economies, as well as the increase in the gap between relatively high earners – the 90th percentile of income distribution – versus the bottom 10th percentile. We’ve seen a big increase in inequality, measured in various ways, and this reflects the fact that the top people, the more educated, high earners have become more skilled. Technology has favoured them, globalisation has favoured them, and inequality has increased for that reason.
So if a CEO is earning $5 million a year, that’s because he deserves that $5 million?
That’s why I put emphasis on the 90th versus the 10th percentile, because once you get to that very high level, the story becomes a little harder to swallow. Economists have, for the most part, not focused on the CEOs for two reasons. This is changing, but one reason is that most of the publicly available data sources don’t have information on CEOs. That’s because there are not that many CEOs, or multimillionaires. So when you take a sample – for example, a 1% sample of all the US households – you’re not going to get many of them. Secondly, data are top coded. You don’t actually see people’s exact earnings. You see that they are at the very top, which might be $250,000, but you don’t see if they’re making $25 million. For that reason, a lot of the labour economics literature has focused on things like, do people with college degrees earn more than high school graduates? Do postgraduates earn more? What has happened to earnings inequality among lawyers or doctors or among production workers?
In terms of the actual figures, how bad is inequality in the US and, say, the UK?
Based on the work of Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, if you look from the 1950s up to the end of the 1970s, the share of total national income in the US earned by the richest 1% was about 10%. If you look at the 2000s, it’s well over 20%. It rose up to nearly 25% and then came down. In the UK it’s at about 15%, up from 7% or so. The trend towards inequality over the last 50 years has been very similar in the Anglo-Saxon economies, though it’s important to say that it’s not just an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon. There are similar trends in many economies, though there are a few that haven’t experienced it to any notable extent.
That’s what’s interesting about Occupy Wall Street. Its supporters aren’t just crazy lefties who don’t believe in free markets, but respected economists.
I’m definitely in that camp. I do believe in markets. I passionately believe in the importance of property rights and private property. I think they are absolute sine qua nons for prosperity. But I also believe that these things are very political and the politics shouldn’t be one-sided. Gore Vidal said, “The United States has only one party – the property party. It’s the party of big corporations, the party of money. It has two right wings; one is Democrat and the other is Republican.” If that is true, that’s a real threat to a free market and a fair society. For that reason I think Occupy Wall Street is very important. It’s a grassroots movement that tries to stand up to this tendency of our political system.
The growing inequality is creating class warfare and will lead to the US becoming a banana republic.