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Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Inequality that is Not a Problem, and the Inequality that is

"No opera plot can be sensible, for people do not sing when they are feeling sensible." - W. H. Auden

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The Inequality That Matters

"A lot of [the talk about inequality] has been aimed at elevating one political agenda over another rather than elevating our understanding. As a result, there’s more confusion about this issue than just about any other in contemporary American political discourse. The reality is that most of the worries about income inequality are bogus, but some are probably better grounded and even more serious than even many of their heralds realize...

Most analyses of income inequality neglect two major points. First, the inequality of personal well-being is sharply down over the past hundred years and perhaps over the past twenty years as well. Bill Gates is much, much richer than I am, yet it is not obvious that he is much happier if, indeed, he is happier at all... So when average people read about or see income inequality, they don’t feel the moral outrage that radiates from the more passionate egalitarian quarters of society. Instead, they think their lives are pretty good and that they either earned through hard work or lucked into a healthy share of the American dream... Constituents bear no animus toward rich people, only toward undeservedly rich people...

Envy is usually local. At least in the United States, most economic resentment is not directed toward billionaires or high-roller financiers—not even corrupt ones. It’s directed at the guy down the hall who got a bigger raise... Gore Vidal put it honestly: “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies”...

Occasionally the cynic in me wonders why so many relatively well-off intellectuals lead the egalitarian charge against the privileges of the wealthy. One group has the status currency of money and the other has the status currency of intellect, so might they be competing for overall social regard? The high status of the wealthy in America, or for that matter the high status of celebrities, seems to bother our intellectual class most...

The broader change in income distribution, the one occurring beneath the very top earners, can be deconstructed in a manner that makes nearly all of it look harmless. For instance, there is usually greater inequality of income among both older people and the more highly educated, if only because there is more time and more room for fortunes to vary. Since America is becoming both older and more highly educated, our measured income inequality will increase pretty much by demographic fiat. Economist Thomas Lemieux at the University of British Columbia estimates that these demographic effects explain three-quarters of the observed rise in income inequality for men, and even more for women.

Attacking the problem from a different angle, other economists are challenging whether there is much growth in inequality at all below the super-rich. For instance, real incomes are measured using a common price index, yet poorer people are more likely to shop at discount outlets like Wal-Mart, which have seen big price drops over the past twenty years. Once we take this behavior into account, it is unclear whether the real income gaps between the poor and middle class have been widening much at all... “there was no increase of inequality after 1993 in the bottom 99 percent of the population”...

Over this same period of time, inequality of work hours increased too. The top earners worked a lot more and most other Americans worked somewhat less. That’s another reason why high earners don’t occasion more resentment: Many people understand how hard they have to work to get there. It also seems that most of the income gains of the top earners were related to performance pay—bonuses, in other words—and not wildly out-of-whack yearly salaries.

It is also the case that any society with a lot of “threshold earners” is likely to experience growing income inequality. A threshold earner is someone who seeks to earn a certain amount of money and no more. If wages go up, that person will respond by seeking less work or by working less hard or less often... single-occupancy households in the United States are at an all-time high. There are also a growing number of late odyssey years graduate students who try to cover their own expenses but otherwise devote their time to study...

The funny thing is this: For years, many cultural critics in and of the United States have been telling us that Americans should behave more like threshold earners. We should be less harried, more interested in nurturing friendships, and more interested in the non-commercial sphere of life. That may well be good advice. Many studies suggest that above a certain level more money brings only marginal increments of happiness. What isn’t so widely advertised is that those same critics have basically been telling us, without realizing it, that we should be acting in such a manner as to increase measured income inequality...

[There is] a very strong role for the financial sector in driving the trend toward income concentration at the top...

When it comes to professional athletes and celebrities, there isn’t much of a mystery as to what has happened. Tiger Woods earns much more, even adjusting for inflation, than Arnold Palmer ever did... For high-earning celebrities, hardly anyone finds these earnings so morally objectionable as to suggest that they be politically actionable. Cultural critics can complain that good schoolteachers earn too little, and they may be right, but that does not make celebrities into political targets. They’re too popular. It’s also pretty clear that most of them work hard to earn their money, by persuading fans to buy or otherwise support their product. Most of these individuals do not come from elite or extremely privileged backgrounds, either. They worked their way to the top...

In short, there is an unholy dynamic of short-term trading and investing, backed up by bailouts and risk reduction from the government and the Federal Reserve. This is not good. “Going short on volatility” is a dangerous strategy from a social point of view... the “going short on volatility” strategy increases income inequality. In normal years the financial sector is flush with cash and high earnings. In implosion years a lot of the losses are borne by other sectors of society. In other words, financial crisis begets income inequality...

"From 1973 to 1985, the financial sector never earned more than 16 percent of domestic corporate profits... This decade, it reached 41 percent. Pay rose just as dramatically. From 1948 to 1982, average compensation in the financial sector ranged between 99 percent and 108 percent of the average for all domestic private industries. From 1983, it shot upward, reaching 181 percent in 2007."

If you’re wondering, right before the Great Depression of the 1930s, bank profits and finance-related earnings were also especially high.

There’s a second reason why the financial sector abets income inequality: the “moving first” issue... The moving-first phenomenon sums to a “winner-take-all” market. Only some relatively small number of traders, sometimes just one trader, can be first. Those who are first will make far more than those who are fourth or fifth...

What the banks do bears almost no resemblance to a process of getting capital into the hands of those who can make most efficient use of it. And it leads to periodic financial explosions. That, in short, is the real problem of income inequality we face today. It’s what causes the inequality at the very top of the earning pyramid that has dangerous implications for the economy as a whole...

For the time being, we need to accept the possibility that the financial sector has learned how to game the American (and UK-based) system of state capitalism. It’s no longer obvious that the system is stable at a macro level, and extreme income inequality at the top has been one result of that imbalance. Income inequality is a symptom, however, rather than a cause of the real problem. The root cause of income inequality, viewed in the most general terms, is extreme human ingenuity, albeit of a perverse kind. That is why it is so hard to control...

Is the overall picture a shame? Yes. Is it distorting resource distribution and productivity in the meantime? Yes. Will it again bring our economy to its knees? Probably. Maybe that’s simply the price of modern society. Income inequality will likely continue to rise and we will search in vain for the appropriate political remedies for our underlying problems."
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