Tag Archives: inequality

Tax Policy Revisionism

By James Kwak

In an otherwise unobjectionable article about The Piketty, the generally excellent David Leonhardt wrote this sentence: “In the 1950s, the top rate exceeded 90 percent. Today, it is 39.6 percent, and only because President Obama finally won a yearslong battle with Republicans in early 2013 to increase it from 35 percent.”

Is “yearslong” really a word?

But that’s not what I mean to quibble with. It’s that “yearslong battle with Republicans.”

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Where Do You Want to Be Born?

By James Kwak

That seems like a nonsensical question. Of course, each of us born where he or she was born, and we didn’t have much choice in the matter. But, philosopher John Rawls asked, if you lived behind a veil of ignorance, not knowing what position you would occupy in the socio-economic hierarchy, what rules would you choose to govern society?

Rawls was reasoning from a situation in which people could decide on any set of rules.* In the real world, the set of existing countries gives us a limited set of options to choose from; among those, if you didn’t know if you were going to be rich or poor, where would you choose to be born? On Friday, I was discussing this question with a scholar who is in the United States for a year, and one thing we noted was the instinctive tendency of many Americans to assume that we must be the best at everything and have the best of everything in the world (best health care, best Constitution, best hockey team, etc.).

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The Desperation of the Vanishing Middle Class

By James Kwak

I recently finished reading Pound Foolish, by Helaine Olen, which I discussed earlier (while one-third of the way through). The book is a condemnation of just almost every form of personal financial advice out there, from the personal finance gurus (Suze Orman, Dave Ramsey) to the variable annuity salespeople to the peddlers of real estate get-rich-quick schemes to Sesame Street‘s corporate-sponsored financial education programs. (Of them all, Jane Bryant Quinn is one of the few who generally come off as more good than evil.)

A lot of what’s going on is just semi-sleazy entrepreneurs trying to make a buck, taking “advice” that is equal parts routine, wrong, and contradictory and packaging it into attractive-looking books, TV shows, and in-person events. A lot of the rest is marketing by the real financial industry, which either (a) wants to make a show of promoting financial education so people will think they are good or (b) wants to teach people that they need their products. (You pick.)

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Good Times for Capital

By James Kwak

Last week, the Wall Street Journal highlighted a Federal Reserve report on total household net worth. Surprise! Americans are richer than ever before, both in nominal and real terms.

At the same time, though, wealth inequality is increasing from its already Gilded Era levels. The main factor behind increasing household net worth over the past year was the rising stock market (followed far behind by rising housing prices). These obviously only help you if you own stocks—not if, say, you never had enough money to buy stocks, or you had to cash out your 401(k) in 2009 because you were laid off. Put another way, rising asset values help you if you are a supplier of capital more than a supplier of labor.

Is there anything we can do about this? The conventional wisdom from the political center all the way out to the right fringe is that we shouldn’t tinker too much with the wealth distribution—otherwise people won’t work as hard, which is bad for everyone. But perhaps it isn’t true.

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Retirement Inequality

By James Kwak

The Economic Policy Institute put out a series of charts detailing inequality in retirement savings across several different demographic characteristics. The most obvious picture is that the shift to 401(k) plans has produced vast increases in retirement inequality across income groups.

Here’s one:

Screen shot 2013-09-12 at 9.23.15 AM

 

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File Under Fascinating

By James Kwak

A reader pointed me to “Instability and Concentration in the Distribution of Wealth,” a paper by Ricardo and Robert Fernholz (Vox summary here). It’s a pretty mathematical paper (and I’m not just talking about the usual multivariate regression here), and I didn’t make it through all the equations. But the basic idea is to come up with a model that might explain the high degree of income and wealth inequality we see in advanced economies and particularly in the United States, where 1 percent of the population holds 33 percent of all wealth.

What’s fascinating is that the model assumes that all households are identical with respect to patience (consumption decisions) and skill (earnings ability). Household outcomes differ solely because they have idiosyncratic investment opportunities—that is, they can’t invest in the market, only in things like privately-held businesses or unique pieces of real estate. Yet when you simulate the model, you see an increasing share of wealth finding its way into fewer and fewer hands:

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Correlation, Causation

By James Kwak

XKCD (blacked out until tomorrow).

Economix has a table listing undergraduate majors by the percentage of graduates in each major that are in the “1 percent” (by income, which I think is less important than by wealth). The data are interesting, but I don’t think it’s correct to say that “the majors that give you the best chance of reaching the 1 percent are pre-med, economics, biochemistry, zoology and, yes, biology, in that order.”

All of the pre-med/life sciences majors (numbers 1, 3, 5, 8, and 11 on the list) do arguably increase your chances of making the 1% because they help you become a doctor, and many specialists are in the 1%. Of course, since many science majors are considered more difficult by undergraduates, you could argue that the inherent traits people bring to college are just as important as the majors they choose. Economics is #2, but that’s in part because many of the people who want to be in the 1 percent major in economics.

But the interesting cases are art history (#9), area studies (#12), history (#14), and philosophy (#17), all of which are disproportionately represented in the 1%. (History, for example, ranks right behind finance.) I don’t think anyone would argue that knowledge of art history is likely to earn you a high income; there just aren’t that many executives at Sotheby’s and Christie’s. I think what’s going on is that these are the kinds of things that people study at elite schools—in particular, if you’re not that worried about what you’re going to do after graduation. These are not the things that most people at normal schools study. In 2009, for example, art history didn’t even show up on the list of majors (it’s probably tucked into “liberal arts and sciences, general studies, and humanities,” which came in 11th), area studies was one of the least popular majors, and so was philosophy.

So there are two possible reasons why these people make the top 1 percent. One is that they are talented, hardworking people who succeed (financially) despite what they majored in—but then why are talented, hardworking people overrepresented in these majors? The other is that they are children of the elite who go to elite schools, study whatever they feel like, and succeed because of their upbringing and connections. (The reasons are not mutually exclusive.) Given the increasing evidence that America, the land of opportunity, is actually one of limited social mobility, I think we can’t overlook the latter explanation.