Tag Archives: inequality

Economics 101, Economism, and Our New Gilded Age

By James Kwak

My new book—Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality—is coming out on January 10 (although, of course, you can pre-order it from your local monopoly now). If you’d like more information about the book, the book website is now up at economism.net. (I used Medium instead of WordPress.com this time.) The post below, which is also the top story on the book website, summarizes the main themes of the book.

Income inequality is at levels not seen for a century. Many working families are struggling to get by, only kept afloat by Medicaid and food stamps. The federal minimum wage is just $7.25 per hour—below the poverty line even for a family of two. The bright outlook for corporate profits has driven the S&P 500 to record levels. Surely it makes sense to raise the minimum wage, forcing companies to dip into those profits to pay their workers a bit more.

But that’s not what you learn in Economics 101. The impact of a minimum wage is blissfully easy to model using the supply-and-demand diagram that dominates first-year economics courses.

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A price floor in the labor market—that’s what a minimum wage is—causes demand to exceed supply. The difference is unemployment, and the reduction in the employment level represents value lost by society. People who want the minimum wage are well-meaning but muddle-headed do-gooders who don’t understand economics. As Milton Friedman wrote in Capitalism and Freedom, “minimum wage laws are about as clear a case as one can find of a measure the effects of which are precisely the opposite of those intended by the men of good will who support it.”

That’s what Economics 101 teaches you—but it’s not what many economists actually think.

Economists polled by the Chicago Booth School of Business are evenly split on whether an increase in the minimum wage to $9—or even $15—would significantly increase unemployment. Professional opinion is divided exists because detailed empirical research is inconclusive, with several recent studies (e.g., Dube, Lester, and Reich 2010 and 2014) and meta-studies (Doucouliagos and Stanley, Belman and Wolfson) showing no significant impact on employment.

In policy debates and public relations campaigns, however, what you are more likely to hear is that a minimum wage must increase unemployment—because that’s what the model says. This conviction that the world must behave the way it does on the blackboard is what I call economism. This style of thinking is influential because it is clear and logical, reducing complex issues to simple, pseudo-mathematical axioms. But it is not simply an innocent mistake made by inattentive undergraduates. Economism is Economics 101 transformed into an ideology—an ideology that is particularly persuasive because it poses as a neutral means of understanding the world.

In the case of low-skilled labor, it’s clear who benefits from a low minimum wage: the restaurant and hotel industries. In their PR campaigns, however, these corporations can hardly come out and say they like their labor as cheap as possible. Instead, armed with the logic of supply and demand, they argue that raising the minimum wage will only increase unemployment and poverty. Similarly, megabanks argue that regulating derivatives will starve the real economy of capital; multinational manufacturing companies argue that new trade agreements will benefit everyone; and the wealthy argue that lower taxes will increase savings and investment, unleashing economic growth.

In each case, economism allows a private interest to pretend that its preferred policies will really benefit society as a whole. The usual result is to increase inequality or to legitimize the widening gulf between rich and poor in contemporary society.

I became aware of the subtle power of economism during the 2009–2010 financial reform debate, when bank lobbyists invoked economic logic to protect their clients’ profits from new regulations. As far as I can recall, I first wrote about it in a 2011 blog post titled “The Smugness of Unintended Consequences.” My new book, Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality, offers an intellectual history of the rise of economism in the late twentieth century, case studies of its impact in several different policy domains, and—I hope—the tools to enable readers to understand both the merits and the limitations of arguments based on Economics 101. Because the first step in overcoming an ideology is understanding how it works.

The Deduction Fairy

By James Kwak

Incoming Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin promised a big tax cut for corporations and the “middle class,” but not for the rich. “Any tax cuts for the upper class will be offset by less deductions that pay for it,” he said on CNBC.

This is impossible.

The tax cutting mantra comes in two forms. The more extreme one claims that reducing the overall tax burden on the rich will turbocharge the economy because they will save more, increasing investment, and will also work more, starting companies and doing all those other wonderful things that rich people do. The less extreme version is that we should lower tax rates to reduce distortions in the tax code, but we can maintain the current level of taxes paid by the rich by eliminating those famous “loopholes and deductions.” Donald Trump the candidate stuck with the former: his tax proposal, as scored by the Tax Policy Center, gave 47% of its total tax cuts to the top 1%, who also enjoyed by far the largest reduction in their average tax rate.

Mnuchin’s comment implies that he favors the latter version: lowering rates but making it up by “broadening the base.” This math might work for the merely rich—say, families making $200,000–400,000 per year. Take away the mortgage interest tax deduction, the deduction for retirement plan contributions, and the exclusion for employer-provided health care—which together can easily shield $50–75,000 in income—and you could probably fund several percentage points of rate decreases. (Of course, it would be politically impossible to completely eliminate those tax breaks, but that’s another story.)

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The Problem with Personality Contests

By James Kwak

This presidential election has come down to a referendum on Donald Trump, the man muppet whatever he is. Tactically speaking, that’s probably a good thing. Trump is an absolutely horrendous life form, and as long as he can’t get more than 43% of the vote, he almost certainly can’t be president. (Gary Johnson just isn’t that appealing.) Of course, focusing on personal attributes has been the Hillary Clinton strategy all along, even dating back to the primaries, when she focused on her experience and seriousness in the face of Sanders’s popular proposals (single payer, free college, etc.). It’s been even more true of the general election, in which Clinton has gone out of her way to portray Trump as a unique, rather than as the culmination of the evolution of the Republican Party.

Ordinarily we bemoan the focus on personalities rather than issues. (How many millions of times have Democrats complained about voters who chose George W. Bush because they would rather have a beer with him than Al Gore or John Kerry?) This time around, we seem happy enough with the personality contest, either because it increases Clinton’s chances of winning, or because Trump is so toxic that, this time, personality really does matter.

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Is Inequality Rising or Falling?

By James Kwak

Last week, Council of Economic Advisers chair Jason Furman took to the Washington Post to announce that President Obama has “narrowed the inequality gap.” Furman’s argument, bolstered by charts and data from a recent CEA report, has won over some of the more perceptive commentators on the Internet, including Derek Thompson, who concludes that Obama “did more to combat [income inequality] than any president in at least 50 years.” In 538, the headline on Ben Casselman’s summary reads, “The Income Gap Began to Narrow Under Obama.”

But is it true?

I already wrote about the key misdirection in Furman’s argument: his measures of reduced inequality compare the current world not against the world of eight years ago, but against a parallel universe in which, essentially, the policies of George W. Bush remained in place. (This is not something either Thompson or Casselman fell for; they both realized what Furman was actually arguing.) Today I want to address the larger question of whether inequality is actually getting worse or better.

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This Chart Does Not Say What You Think It Says

By James Kwak

[Note: Usually I post things here first, then on Medium. This time I did the opposite.]

Jason Furman, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, is in a celebratory mood:

Looking at that chart, and at Furman’s triumphant tweet, you would think inequality had declined during the Obama administration.

Not so fast.

The first thing to understand is what that chart actually says. It does not say that the top 0.1 percent’s share of national income has gone down by almost one percentage point (rightmost column) since Barack Obama took office, nor does it say that the bottom 20 percent’s income share has gone up by more than half a percentage point (leftmost column).

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Confused About Taxes

By James Kwak

In the Times a couple of days ago, Gregory Mankiw made a half-hearted case for eliminating the estate tax that was so weak I’m not even sure he convinced himself. The core of his argument is that the estate tax violates the principle of horizontal equity, according to which “similar people should face similar burdens.” The problem, on his view, is that between two rich couples that each amass $20 million, the Profligates who consume their wealth before death end up paying lower taxes than the Frugals who maintain a modest lifestyle. “To me, this does not seem right,” Mankiw concludes.

First of all, it’s not even clear why this example violates horizontal equity. The Profligates and the Frugals are not “similar people”—Mankiw specifically constructed the example that way. They may have each earned the same amount of money, but they have vastly different consumption habits.

Second, it’s not clear that the Frugals are paying more tax than the Profligates. Their estate will pay higher taxes, but by then they are dead; the estate tax does not directly limit their personal consumption in the slightest. In fact, the ones whose estate will pay the tax are the ones who apparently are not interested in consumption in the first place. Now, the defense of Mankiw is that the Frugals do care about how much money they can pass on to their children, so the estate tax does affect their utility. But that brings up the third, and most important point . . .

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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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