(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘income

“Where wealth accumulates, men decay”*

One long, brutal game of musical chairs…

It’s easy to place the blame for America’s economic woes on the 0.1 percent. They hoard a disproportionate amount of wealth and are taking an increasingly and unacceptably large part of the country’s economic growth. To quote Bernie Sanders, the “billionaire class” is thriving while many more people are struggling. Or to channel Elizabeth Warren, the top 0.1 percent holds a similar amount of wealth as the bottom 90 percent — a staggering figure.

There’s a space between that 0.1 percent and the 90 percent that’s often overlooked: the 9.9 percent that resides between them. They’re the group in focus in a new book by philosopher Matthew Stewart, The 9.9 percent: The New Aristocracy That Is Entrenching Inequality and Warping Our Culture.

There are some defining characteristics of today’s American upper-middle class, per Stewart’s telling. They are hyper-focused on getting their kids into great schools and themselves into great jobs, at which they’re willing to work super-long hours. They want to live in great neighborhoods, even if that means keeping others out, and will pay what it takes to ensure their families’ fitness and health. They believe in meritocracy, that they’ve gained their positions in society by talent and hard work. They believe in markets. They’re rich, but they don’t feel like it — they’re always looking at someone else who’s richer.

They’re also terrified. While this 9.9 percent drives inequality — they want to lock in their positions for themselves and their families — they’re also driven by inequality. They recognize that American society is increasingly one of have-nots, and they’re determined not to be one of them…

America’s upper-middle class works more, optimizes their kids, and is miserable: “The problem with America’s semi-rich“– Emily Stewart (@EmilyStewartM) talks with Matthew Stewart.

* Oliver Goldsmith


As we rethink requisites, we might recall that it was on this date in 1851 that Richard Bentley, a London publisher, released The Whale, by Herman Melville in a printing of 500 copies. About a month later it was published (in a slighted different version) in the U.S. under its better-known title, Moby Dick.


“A fair day’s-wage for a fair day’s work: it is as just a demand as governed men ever made of governing.”*…

As low-wage employers struggle to find workers, it seems as that labor– which has been left behind over the last several decades, as the economic benefits of growth have flowed to executives and owners– may be about to have its day. But will it? And what might that mean?

In her first statement as Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen said that the United States faced “an economic crisis that has been building for fifty years.” The formulation is intriguing but enigmatic. The last half century is piled so high with economic wreckage that it is not obvious how to name the long crisis, much less how to pull the fragments together into a narrative. One place to start is with the distribution of national income between labor and capital (or, looked at another way, between the wage share and the profit share of national income). About fifty years ago, the share of income going to labor began to decline, forming a statistical record of the epochal collapse of working class power. Episodes of high employment in the 1990s and the late 2010s did not reverse the long-term pattern. Even today, with a combination of easy money and fiscal stimulus unprecedented since World War II, it is unclear what it would take to reverse the trend in distribution.

Few would seriously dispute that hawkish Federal Reserve policies have played a direct role in the decline of the labor share since the 1970s. This is the starting point for thinking about monetary policy and the income distribution, but many questions remain. Today’s expansionary program extends beyond monetary policy to include fiscal stimulus and even industrial policy, but the first sign of an elite rethinking was the Fed’s dovish turn around 2016. (The Fed chair then was Yellen, whose current tenure as Treasury Secretary has been marked by close coordination with her successor, Jerome Powell.) In a fundamental sense, the entire Biden program hangs on the Fed: low interest rates made possible a reevaluation of the cost of massive government debt, which has in turn opened new horizons for a would-be activist government. 

If the age of inequality was the product of a hawkish Fed, could a dovish central bank reverse the damage? Today, there is more reason to speak of a “pro-labor turn” than perhaps at any time over the last half century. But history is not so easily reversed. The new policy regime is not a simple course correction to decades of misguided neoliberalism. There is evidence that the current experiment was made possible by a recognition that workers had suffered a secular defeat—specifically, that they had lost the ability to increase or even defend their share of the national income. What would happen if labor became stronger?…

Tim Barker (@_TimBarker) explores: “Preferred Shares,” in Phenomenal World (@WorldPhenomenal).

On a related note: “The economics of dollar stores.”

[Image above: source]

* Thomas Carlyle


As we re-slice the pie, we might send acquisitive birthday greetings to Claude-Frédéric Bastiat; he was born on this date in 1801 (though some sources give tomorrow as his birthday). An economist and writer, he was a prominent member of the French Liberal School. As an advocate of classical economics and the views of Adam Smith, his advocacy for free markets influenced the Austrian School; indeed, Joseph Schumpeter called him “the most brilliant economic journalist who ever lived”… which is to say that Bastiat was a father of the neo-liberal economic movement that’s been central to creating the situation we’re in.


“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning”*…

In the past few decades, the Gini coefficient—a standard measure of income distribution across population segments—increased within most high-income economies. The United States remains the most unequal high-income economy in the world. The disparity reflects a surge in incomes for the richest population segments, along with sluggish or even falling incomes for the poorest, especially during bad economic times.

At the same time, the middle class is shrinking. The percent of Americans in the middle class has dropped since the 1970s, from 61 percent in 1971 to 51 percent in 2019. Some have moved up the income ladder, but an increasing number are also moving down. The middle class has also shrunk considerably in countries like Germany, Canada, and Sweden, but other advanced economies have generally experienced more modest declines.

From the introduction to the Petersen Institute for International Economics report “How to Fix Economic Inequality?

Founded by Pete Petersen (Lehman Brothers Chair, Nixon’s Secretary of Commerce, and co-founder, with Trump supporter Stephen Scharzman, of investment giant Blackstone), and overseen by trustees who include Larry Summers, Alan Greenspan, and George Schultz, PIIE is hardly a “progressive” think tank. But they are worried: quite apart from its obvious humanitarian toll, inequality at the scales that have emerged is highly unlikely to be sustainable (even at the human cost that we’ve so far been willing to pay). Put more bluntly, it is ever more likely to torpedo the domestic (and large hunks of the global) economy and indeed to threaten the stability of democratic society.

Other sources suggest that they have very good reason for concern:

• Even as the stock market hits new highs, 26 million Americans are suffering food insecurity (See also: “The boom in US GDP does not match what’s happening to Americans’ wallets.”

• The distribution of assets in the US (and other developed economies, but most egregiously in the U.S.) is even more skewed than income: see data in the PIIE report and “The Asset Economy.”

• And lest we think that this issue is confined to the U.S., social democracies throughout the developed world are feeling the same pressures (albeit mostly less dramatically).

FWIW, your correspondent doesn’t have terrifically strong confidence in the remedies mooted in the PIIE report. Even as the authors recognize that the issues are deeply structural, they confine themselves to recommending (what seem to your correspondent) relatively timid and incremental steps– which, even if taken (and most require legislative or regulatory action) are more likely to slow the polarization underway than to reverse it.

But they are worth contemplating, if only to provoke us to more fundamental measures (e.g., here). And in any case, it’s telling– and one can only hope, encouraging– that determined champions of the very neoliberal economics that have gotten us here recognize, at least, that unless we change course, we’re speeding into a dead end.

* Warren Buffett


As we agree that fair’s fair, we might recall that it was on this date in 2001 that Enron, once #7 in the Fortune 500, declared bankruptcy. Six months earlier, it’s stock had traded as high as $90; it closed November 30th at 26 cents, wiping out billions in wealth (a appreciable part of it disappearing from employees’ pension plans). At the time, Enron had $63.4 billion in assets, earning it the honor of being the nation’s largest bankruptcy to that date. (It would be surpassed by the WorldCom bankruptcy a year later.)

Jeff Skilling, Enron’s CEO served 11 years in prison on several counts of fraud; Andy Fastow, Enron’s CFO, would served about 5 years. Chairman Ken Lay was also found guilty, but died before his sentencing. Enron’s accounting firm, Arthur Andersen (at the time a leader among the “Big 5”), which at least “missed” the egregious fraudulent practices in their audits of Enron, was effectively forced to dissolve after the scandal.

Published a year before the scandal broke


Written by (Roughly) Daily

December 2, 2020 at 1:01 am

“Oh, I am fortune’s fool!”*…


The distribution of wealth follows a well-known pattern sometimes called an 80:20 rule: 80 percent of the wealth is owned by 20 percent of the people. Indeed, a report last year concluded that just eight men had a total wealth equivalent to that of the world’s poorest 3.8 billion people.

This seems to occur in all societies at all scales. It is a well-studied pattern called a power law that crops up in a wide range of social phenomena. But the distribution of wealth is among the most controversial because of the issues it raises about fairness and merit. Why should so few people have so much wealth?

The conventional answer is that we live in a meritocracy in which people are rewarded for their talent, intelligence, effort, and so on. Over time, many people think, this translates into the wealth distribution that we observe, although a healthy dose of luck can play a role.

But there is a problem with this idea: while wealth distribution follows a power law, the distribution of human skills generally follows a normal distribution that is symmetric about an average value. For example, intelligence, as measured by IQ tests, follows this pattern. Average IQ is 100, but nobody has an IQ of 1,000 or 10,000.

The same is true of effort, as measured by hours worked. Some people work more hours than average and some work less, but nobody works a billion times more hours than anybody else.

And yet when it comes to the rewards for this work, some people do have billions of times more wealth than other people. What’s more, numerous studies have shown that the wealthiest people are generally not the most talented by other measures.

What factors, then, determine how individuals become wealthy? Could it be that chance plays a bigger role than anybody expected? And how can these factors, whatever they are, be exploited to make the world a better and fairer place?…

A new computer model of wealth creation confirms that the most successful people are not the most talented, just the luckiest. Learn more at: “If you’re so smart, why aren’t you rich? Turns out it’s just chance.

* Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet


As we muse on merit, we might send carefully-calculated birthday greetings to a forbearer of the researchers who did the work recounted above, Sir Roy George Douglas Allen; he was born on this date in 1906.  A mathematician and statistician turned economist, he was a leader in the field of mathematical economics, writing a number of influential texts including  Mathematical Analysis for EconomistsStatistics for Economists, and Mathematical Economics.



Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 3, 2018 at 1:01 am

“To be wealthy and honored in an unjust society is a disgrace”*…


What does having money mean for us and for our neighbors? When the art critic John Ruskin took up this question in 1860, he started from the assertion that more money for us means less money for them, and he didn’t have to go much further to conclude that disparity, after all, might be the whole point of the enterprise…

Suppose any person to be put in possession of a large estate of fruitful land, with rich beds of gold in its gravel; countless herds of cattle in its pastures; houses, and gardens, and storehouses full of useful stores; but suppose, after all, that he could get no servants?

In order that he may be able to have servants, someone in his neighbourhood must be poor and in want of his gold—or his corn. Assume that no one is in want of either, and that no servants are to be had. He must, therefore, bake his own bread, make his own clothes, plough his own ground, and shepherd his own flocks. His gold will be as useful to him as any other yellow pebbles on his estate. His stores must rot, for he cannot consume them. He can eat no more than another man could eat, and wear no more than another man could wear. He must lead a life of severe and common labour to procure even ordinary comforts; he will be ultimately unable to keep either houses in repair, or fields in cultivation; and forced to content himself with a poor man’s portion of cottage and garden, in the midst of a desert of wasteland, trampled by wild cattle, and encumbered by ruins of palaces, which he will hardly mock at himself by calling “his own.”

The most covetous of mankind would, with small exultation, I presume, accept riches of this kind on these terms. What is really desired under the name of riches is, essentially, power over men; in its simplest sense, the power of obtaining for our own advantage the labour of servant, tradesman, and artist; in wider sense, authority of directing large masses of the nation to various ends (good, trivial, or hurtful, according to the mind of the rich person).

Via Lapham’s Quarterly, John Ruskin on the Master/Slave paradox: “Blessed are the Poor.” (From Ruskin’s “The Veins of Wealth.”)

[Image above, from here.]

* Confucius, The Analects


As we wonder about wealth, we might recall that it was on this date in 1940 that Woody Guthrie wrote (the first version, he varied the lyrics over time) of “This Land is Your Land.”; he didn’t record the song until 1944, nor publish it until 1954.

Guthrie wrote the lyrics (to an extant tune) in response to to Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, which Guthrie considered unrealistic and complacent. Tired of hearing Kate Smith sing it on the radio, he lifted his pen…as he’d considered writing a retort, he’d thought to name it “God Blessed America for Me”; happily, it surfaced with the title we know.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

February 23, 2017 at 1:01 am

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