Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The mismeasure of inequality

Kip Hagopian and Lee Ohanian have a wonderful new policy review titled "the mismeasurement of inequality."  Calmly, and with careful grounding in facts and review of research, it destroys most of the current liberal myths about the amount of inequality and its importance. The promise:
We will show that much of what has been reported about income inequality is misleading, factually incorrect, or of little or no consequence to our economic well-being. We will also show that middle-class incomes are not stagnating; in fact, middle-class incomes have risen significantly over the 29 years covered by the cbo study. Lastly, we will address assertions that the rich are not paying their “fair share” of taxes
"Address" should be "destroy", but they're being careful. Some nuggets:

Standard measures of inequality are based on pretax cash income, ignoring transfer payments from the government, goods provided directly (housing), benefits (health insurance, retirement contributions), all home-produced goods, and focus on income rather than consumption, which is often suspiciously higher than reported income.  Kip and Lee do their best. When done, the increase in inequality disappears.

Looking at consumption (though still imperfect, as it leaves out home production) yields surprising results:
In 1960–61 consumption expenditures in the lowest quartile were 112 percent of reported income, rising to 140 percent (in the lowest quintile) in 1972–73, and 198 percent (in the lowest quintile) in 2005. Thus, a family claiming $22,300 in income in 2005 would have reported about $44,000 in expenditures in that year. ... the gap between reported income and consumption is filled by various categories of government transfer payments (including Medicaid, food stamps, subsidized housing, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, etc.), family savings, imputed income from owner-occupied housing, barter, support from family and friends, and income from the underground economy.
The poor did not get poorer, or stagnate.
..on average America’s poor live in housing that totals 515 square feet per person, about 40 percent more per person than the living quarters of the average European household. (The average American household lives in about 845 square feet per person, or 2.3 times the average European household.)
In addition to food, clothing, and shelter, some of the most meaningful indicators of well-being are the properties and amenities that make life more comfortable or enjoyable. Based on data from the 2009 “American Housing Survey,” Rector and Sheffield report that 42 percent of poor households own a home (median price: $100,000); 80 percent have air conditioning; 98 percent have a color tv (65 percent have two or more); 99.6 percent have a refrigerator; 98 percent have a stove and oven; 75 percent have a car or truck (31 percent have two or more); 81 percent have a microwave oven; 78 percent have a dvd or vcr; 64 percent have a satellite connection; and 25 percent have a dishwasher. 
Our purpose is not to make light of the deprivations the poor suffer every day. [My emphasis. Liberals always try to say "you don't care" because you don't want to swallow the latest scheme.]  There is no doubt that the poorest Americans struggle mightily, and that too many Americans are poor. But these data are useful in understanding the difficulties in defining poverty, and for constructing effective policies aimed at helping those in need
Since "are we becoming Europe?" and "how bad is that really?" are often in the news, a fact based comparison is interesting
...the U.S. has a significantly higher standard of living than almost all of the most advanced economies. According to “The Luxembourg Wealth Study,” the data source used by the oecd for international comparisons, in 2002 (the latest year for which results were available), median disposable personal income in the U.S., adjusted to reflect purchasing power parity, was 19.3 percent higher than in Canada; 68 percent higher than in Finland; 45 percent higher than in Germany; 59 percent higher than in Italy; 31 percent higher than in Norway; 73 percent higher than in Sweden; and 31 percent higher than in the United Kingdom.
 Europe doesn't look so bad when you go visit? Answer: averages matter. Not every body lives on the Via Veneto, dear tourist.
The figures for gdp per capita and median income understate America’s economic performance advantage because the median age of the U.S. population (36.8 years) is about four years lower than the average median age in the European Union and almost eight years lower than in Japan. Age, as a proxy for experience, is a significant contributor to income until individual earnings peak sometime between age 50 and 55. 
A good point I hadn't thought of.

Taxes, and "fair share"?
The U.S. income tax system is, by any measure, quite progressive. In fact, according to a study released in 2008 by the oecd, the U.S. federal income tax system is the most progressive of any of the 24 countries in the “oecd-24,” which includes Canada, Japan, Australia, and all of the richest European nations: Germany, France, the United Kingdom, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Sweden. In fact, the U.S. progressivity index is 22 percent higher than the average for the 24 countries...
In addition to economic efficiency considerations, we believe that taxing any income from savings and investment is inequitable. Here’s why: Assume two people, Angelina and Brad, have exactly the same lifetime earned income, but Angelina saves ten percent of her after-tax income and Brad saves nothing. In this hypothetical, if income from savings is taxed, Angelina will pay more lifetime tax than Brad, simply because Angelina saved. We believe this is clearly inequitable.
Angelina will also get a lot fewer government benefits. She'll pay more college tuition, get less out of social security, have all her subsequent income taxed at higher marginal rates, and so on. (Investment income may not be taxed that highly iteslf, but it pushes you into a high adjusted gross income bracket and then makes your other income subject to more taxation.)
So what is a “fair share”? The U.S. tax system is more progressive than that of any other advanced economy. Higher-income workers already pay a substantially disproportionate amount of the income tax relative to their share of income. The top five percent pay 44 percent more in taxes than the bottom 95 percent, while 47 percent of tax filers pay no tax at all. The bottom 50 percent of filers pay only 2.3 percent of taxes, and the bottom quintile gets money back. Based on these facts, how does one make a case that the rich are not paying their fair share?
OK, as they admit, nobody has defined "fair," still well written.

I prefer cause and effect, positive analysis. Will redistribution through taxation make us better off, or consign us to egaliatrian misery? I want to raise the living standards of less well off Americans every bit as much as my lefty colleagues. Will redistribution help them or leave them worse off?
We are unaware of persuasive evidence that reducing income inequality will increase economic well-being for the majority of citizens; in fact, America’s superior standard of living and economic growth relative to other advanced economies is evidence to the contrary. 
For arguably the most commonly used measure of inequality and for the Census Bureau’s most comprehensive definition of income, inequality has not risen since 1993. Moreover, the rise in income inequality that occurred before that year appears to have been, at least in part, a byproduct of the remarkable success of a group of entrepreneurs who in the past few decades created countless jobs and contributed substantially to the higher living standards we all currently enjoy. ..
A final cheer:
Rather than focusing on income inequality, policymakers should address the very real impediments to achieving equality of opportunity, particularly for the youngest and least-skilled workers among us. We believe such efforts should begin with fixing our k-12 education system, which is failing to train many young Americans to be competitive in today’s global labor market. If we can solve this problem, we will enable future generations of young people to climb the economic ladder and achieve the economic success that has long made the United States the world’s leading economy
Yes. What the public education system in this country has done to the poor and less well off is a scandal (I don't like the term "middle class," as I reject the idea that we are a class-based society).

I'm not doing justice to the careful argument in the report. Go read the original