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Posts Tagged ‘income

“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 LW

February 23, 2017 at 1:01 am

“The rich get richer and the poor get poorer”*…


The richest families in Florence, Italy have had it good for a while—600 years to be precise.

That’s according to a recent study by two Italian economists, Guglielmo Barone and Sauro Mocetti, who after analyzing compared Florentine taxpayers way back in 1427 to those in 2011. Comparing the family wealth to those with the same surname today, they suggest the richest families in Florence 600 years ago remain the same now.

“The top earners among the current taxpayers were found to have already been at the top of the socioeconomic ladder six centuries ago,” Barone and Mocetti note on VoxEU. The study was able to exploit a unique data set—taxpayers data in 1427 was digitized and made available online—to show long-term trends of economic mobility…

More on the research and it’s import at “The richest families in Florence in 1427 are still the richest families in Florence.”  More on the underlying mechanisms of capital accumulation, the persistence of wealth and income, and their polarization here.

* widely-used aphorism, probably dating back to the Bible verse, “For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath” (Matthew 13:12, King James edition); it’s use was reinvigorated by the popular 1921 song “Ain’t We Got Fun.”


As we dream the American dream, we might spare a rugged thought for Louis Dearborn L’Amour; he died on this date in 1988.  While L’Amour wrote mysteries, science fiction, historical fiction, and non-fiction, he is surely best remembered as the author of westerns (or as he preferred, “frontier stories”) like Hondo and Sackett.  At the time of his death he was one of the world’s most popular writers; dozens of his stories had been made into films, and 105 of his works were in print (89 novels, 14 short-story collections, and two full-length works of nonfiction); as of 2010, over 320 million copies of his work had been sold.

L’Amour was interred in the Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery near Los Angeles.  His grave is marked in a way that acknowledges that death was able to contain him in a way that he successfully resisted throughout his life: while his body is underground, his site is fenced in.



Written by LW

June 11, 2016 at 1:01 am

“Poverty is an anomaly to rich people. It is very difficult to make out why people who want dinner do not ring the bell”*…



It’s easy to be pessimistic about the state of the world; but it does pay to stand back, look at the big picture, and check that pessimism against long term data… which is what our old friend Hans Rosling helps people do. A statistician who specializes in data visualization, here he uses snowballs and toys to explain (to the BBC) the state of income inequality:

Special bonus:  watch Dr. Rosling disabuse WEF-Davos attendees of their misimpressions about sustainable development.

* Walter Bagehot, English economist (1826-1877)


As we remind ourselves that regression can be a useful thing, we might recall that it was on this date in 1908 that Ernest Shackleton’s Nimrod expedition unloaded the first automobile in Antarctica (an air-cooled Arrol-Johnston two-seater).  Shackleton had hoped that the car would speed his progress to the South Pole; in the event, it didn’t perform in the extreme cold.

The expedition’s engineer, Bernard Day, testing the Arrol-Johnston on the Ross Sea Ice Shelf





Written by LW

February 1, 2015 at 1:01 am

Rich and richer…

click image above, or here, for larger interactive version

One can use the interactive chart above (which is based on income tax data, and is adjusted for inflation to 2008 dollars) to see how average incomes in the U.S. have grown as between any two years from 1917 to 2008, and how that change was divided as between the richest 10% of the population and the remaining 90%.

The Wall Street Journal reports today that

A newly resilient U.S. economy is poised to expand this year at its fastest pace since 2003, thanks in part to brisk spending by consumers and businesses.

In a new Wall Street Journal survey, many economists ratcheted up their growth forecasts because of recent reports suggesting a greater willingness to spend.

One wonders how…  indeed, one wonders how long the dynamic that’s defined the last two decades is sustainable in what is fundamentally a consumer-driven economy.

[TotH to @cshirky for the lead to the tool]

As we ponder the different kinds of heart we might celebrate on Valentine’s Day, we might recall that it was on this date in 1967 that Aretha Franklin recorded “Respect” (with her sisters Carolyn and Erma singing backup).  The tune had been written and recorded by Otis Redding two years earlier, and had done well on the R&B charts.  But Atlantic Records exec and producer Jerry Wexler thought that the song was especially suited to showcase Aretha’s vocal gifts, and had the potential to be a cross-over hit.  He was, of course, right on both counts.

“…what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned at school.”*

A guest post from Scenarios and Strategy (here, with an almanac entry)…

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reminds us that it’s smart to stay in school:

But as Calculated Risk reports, while unemployment among the best educated is still lowest, it’s increased as much in percentage terms for them during this current recession as for any other group.

click to enlarge

One notes that all four groups** were slow to rebound after the 2001 recession– not an encouraging reminder if one is hoping for a brisk employment-led, consumption-fueled recovery this time around.

But in some ways more striking is a difference we might expect, but that hasn’t yet emerged.  Calculated Risk:

I’d expect the unemployment rate to fall faster for workers with higher levels of education, since their skills are more transferable, than for workers with less education. I’d also expect the unemployment rate for workers with lower levels of education to stay elevated longer in this “recovery” because there is no building boom this time. Just a guess and it isn’t happening so far … currently the unemployment rate for the highest educated group is still increasing.

Clearly, from an individual’s point-of-view, it’s still smarter to get more education than less.  But the perturbations of past periods remind us that the gearing between between academic degrees and financial success isn’t always perfectly tight…  Indeed, those with sharply-defined professional credentials in fields– e.g, finance– that are unlikely even in the intermediate term (if ever) to recover their bubble-fueled growth rates, may find their advanced degrees at best unhelpful; at worst, downright prejudicial.

Economic recovery and growth will be driven to some large extent by innovation; that innovation will create new– and new kinds of– jobs.  Looking even just five years out, much less ten, one has to admit that it’s just not possible to predict what these emergent jobs, nor their requirements, will be.  (Consider, e.g., the hottest topic– and job category– in marketing/advertising these days: “social media marketing”…  which wasn’t even a glimmer a decade ago, and was just being born five year ago.)  This is a challenge for those new to the work force, who have to wrangle the product of their schooling and their personal experience into a shape that can fit the entry-level positions they seek.  It is a much bigger challenge for those  mid-career who find themselves needy of making a move:  these more mature folks have not only to learn new fields, they also have to re-direct the considerable momentum of perception and habit that characterized their old– and they have to do those things, usually, in ways that justify salaries way north of entry-level.

All of which underlines for your correspondent the extraordinary value of a liberal arts education.  When one is faced with a “working adulthood” that is one transitional challenge after another, no skill is more valuable than the capacity to adapt.  And no capability is more central to that adaptation than the ability effectively and efficiently to learn.

This is precisely what, at its core, a liberal arts education is about:  learning to learn.

There are many, many other reasons, rooted in personal and societal benefits, to pursue a liberal arts education, and top support a strong foundation of liberal arts in higher education.  But the lessons of the last couple of years– indeed, of the last several decades– suggest that the economic rationale is plenty strong as well…

And besides, it’s fun.

* “Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school.”
– Albert Einstein

** To put these cohorts into perspective, the Census Bureau suggests that, of these folks “25 yrs. and over” (in 2008):
– 13.4% had less than a high school diploma.
– 31.2% were high school graduates, no college.
– 26.0% had some college or associate degree.
– 29.4% had a college degree or higher.

UPDATE:  Reader JK directs our attention to another treatment of the data, in the NY Times. As he suggests, even more dramatic.

As we revisit our course catalogues, we might recall that it was on this date in 1933 that Congress passed the Emergency Banking Act, the first major legislative step in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal  program.  The sense of urgency was sufficiently high– four days earlier Roosevelt had declared a “Banking Holiday,” closing all of the nation’s banks– that most legislators passed the Act without even reading the single copy that was available for review.  The EBA gave the government authority to shutter insolvent banks; that, coupled with the Federal Reserve’s informal-but-explicit pledge to guarantee the deposits of banks allowed to reopen (de facto deposit insurance), eased the crisis of public confidence:  within two weeks of banks’ re-opening on March 13, Americans had re-deposited over half the cash they’d withdrawn and hoarded through the period of bank failures that marked the first chapter of the Great Depression.  Later that year, the (more considered and embracing) Banking Act of 1933 replaced the EBA, and established such lasting practices and institutions as the FDIC.

Roosevelt signing the Emergency Banking Act

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