(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘inequality

“The combination of economic inequality and economic segregation is deadly”*…

When we think of a social safety net, we tend to think about things like health care and environmental protection, social security, child care; lately here’s been lots of talk of Universal Basic Income. All of them are surely part of an answer. But if we want a social infrastructure that not only protects against personal and family challenges, but also creates personal and family opportunities, we need to look further– we need to look to something we might call Universal Basic Assets. The always-illuminating Rana Foroohar explains…

If American states are, as former US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once put it, the “laboratories of democracy,” then it’s worth watching closely what’s happening in California right now.

The threat of rising taxes and a “soak the rich” political atmosphere has led some wealthy Golden State residents, including a number of technology entrepreneurs, to leave for cheaper pastures such as Austin or Miami. This has, in turn, prompted worries of a larger migration that would have an impact not only on the state’s tax base, but on the growth and innovation that have made California the world’s fifth-largest economy.

It is an exceptionally fraught situation. While nobody these days has much sympathy for wealthy individuals or companies (witness the recent justified fury about the ProPublica leaks showing how little tax the wealthiest Americans pay), or really believes in trickle-down economics, the threat of tax and regulatory arbitrage by other states is real.

The good news is that California is applying some typically creative thinking to the problem. What if there was another way to harness company and citizen wealth for the benefit of all?  

One such idea gaining popularity is what has been called “pre-distribution.” Unlike traditional methods of redistribution, in which the state taxes existing wealth and then uses it to bolster various projects and constituents, pre-distribution is all about harnessing capital the same way investors do, and then using the proceeds of the capital growth (which as we know far outpaces income growth) to fund the public sector…

It could help better align public and private incentives and rewards. The massive wealth accrued by leading companies is in part down to the strength of the public commons — good schools, decent infrastructure, basic research, and so on. As economists like Mariana Mazzucato frequently note, why should taxpayers pick up the bill for, say, laying high speed fibre without getting any of the commercial upside?

California Senate majority leader Robert Hertzberg, a Democrat… along with some very rich Californians like former Google chief executive Eric Schmidt and Snap founder Evan Spiegel, have proposed… something called “universal basic capital”. The idea is that seed contributions of equity from companies or philanthropists could be invested into a fund that would then be used by individual Californians for things like retirement security, healthcare and so on…

If pre-distribution works in the laboratory of California, I expect it will be adopted in some way at the federal level. The Obama administration actually tried to implement its own version of the CalSavers programme for the country as a whole, called myRA, but it failed in part because the funds were invested only in super safe low yielding Treasury bills at a time when the market as a whole was rising far faster. Even at this politically polarised moment, it’s an idea whose time may have come. Pre-distribution is supported by such unlikely bedfellows as hedge funder Ray Dalio and leftwing economist Joseph Stiglitz. Perhaps that’s because while it doesn’t fundamentally alter the market system, it does broaden share ownership: a mix of capitalism and socialism that is right for our time…

Capital for the people — an idea whose time has come“: @RanaForoohar explains how California’s nascent experiments in Universal Basic Assets could be a model for the nation.

In thinking about national possibilities, your correspondent’s favorite rationale/approach is Cornell economic historian Louis Hyman‘s formulation (toward the end of) this post.

* “The combination of economic inequality and economic segregation is deadly. It reinforces the advantages of those at the top while exacerbating and perpetuating the disadvantages of those at the bottom. Taken together, they shape not just inequality of economic resources, but also a more permanent and dysfunctional inequality of opportunity.” – Richard Florida


As we share and share alike, we might send grateful birthday greetings to the Electronic Frontier Foundation; it was founded by John GilmoreJohn Perry Barlow, and Mitch Kapor on this date in 1990. Over the last 30 years, EFF has become the leading nonprofit defending digital privacy, free speech, and innovation.

Happy Birthday– and many more!

“An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics”*…

… so, how we measure it matters…

In 2015, Greece, Thailand, Israel, and the UK were equally unequal. That is, all four countries had the same Gini coefficient, a common measure of income inequality.

The number suggests that the spread of incomes in the four nations was the same. However, a close look at the poorest and wealthiest in those societies reveals a very different picture. The ratio between income held by the richest 10% and the poorest 10% ranged significantly, from 13.8 in Greece to 4.2 in the UK. 

The fact is, just because the Gini coefficient is so well known doesn’t mean it’s a particularly useful measurement. Its appeal comes from its simplicity—a number between 0 and 1 that can encapsulate a complex distribution in a single figure—as well as its popularity. It is also regularly published and updated by powerful international organizations like the OECD, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund

However, it has a number of serious limitations. So many, in fact, that the World Inequality Database, one of the world’s leading sources of income inequality data, steers clear. And it’s not alone. While some economists defend the Gini coefficient’s continued use, most agree that as a way to understand income inequality, it’s insufficient on its own…

A primer on the dominant measure of economic inequality, and on some alternatives/supplements to it: “Gini coefficient: An introduction.”

* Plutarch


As we aim to understand, we might note that today is the Summer Solstice, the day on which the earth’s north pole is maximally tilted toward sun, and there are more hours of daylight than on any other day of the year (in the Northern Hemisphere; in the Southern, it is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day). The June solstice is the only day of the year when all locations inside the Arctic Circle experience a continuous period of daylight for 24 hours. And perhaps more immediately, it is the “official” start of Summer.

(The 21st is the traditional date; in the event, the solstice falls on the 20th, 21st, or 22nd– this year, on the 20th… still, the traditional date is the one folks tend to mark.)

Not coincidentally, today is also National Daylight Appreciation Day.


“Justice is not the work of the law: on the contrary, the law is only the declaration and application of what is just in all circumstances where men have relations with one another”*…

This essay proposes a new model of personal and public wealth-building that can address the current crisis of inequality in the United States. We place contemporary American wealth inequality into its historical context by tracing how federal government policies have worked to support personal and public wealth building across three periods: the First Industrial Revolution of the mid-19th century, the Second Industrial Revolution of the early 20th century, and the Information and Communication Technology revolution of the late-20th century. We then suggest a series of potential governmental policies that can help to ensure a more equitable wealth distribution in the future. Our proposed “mutualist” model of political economy would allow for the large-scale diffusion of productivity gains that may follow the installation of deployment of the next wave of general-purpose technologies. This new social contract will move beyond the welfare state’s focus on insurance toward a more radical notion of shared ownership of returns on capital via universal individual capital endowments and new public investment channels that control shares in firms and intellectual property…

Addressing inequality in the U.S.: “The Mutualist Economy: A New Deal for Ownership“– Nils Gilman (@nils_gilman) and Yakov Feygin (@BuddyYakov) offer a powerfully-provocative proposal.

They join a growing chorus. See also, e.g., Louis Hyman (toward the end of this essay) and Lynn Forester de Rothschild (in this interview).

[Image above: source]

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, describing an ideal state


As we rethink what isn’t working, we might send gilded birthday greetings to Johns Hopkins; he was born on this date in 1795. A businessman who is largely remembered as a philanthropist, he operated wholesale and retail businesses in the Baltimore area; he built his fortune by judiciously investing his proceeds in myriad other ventures, most notably, the Baltimore and Ohio (B & O) Railroad. In 1996, Johns Hopkins ranked 69th in “The Wealthy 100: From Benjamin Franklin to Bill Gates – A Ranking of the Richest Americans, Past and Present

His bequests founded a number institutions bearing his name, the best-known of which are, of course, Johns Hopkins Hospital and Johns Hopkins University.

Although Hopkins is widely-noted as an abolitionist, recent research indicates that Johns Hopkins was a slave owner for at least part of his life.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 19, 2021 at 1:01 am

“A prudent question is one-half of wisdom”*…

Some of the music to which we listened in 1971 [source]

What a difference five decades makes…

1971 was an eventful year: Intel released the world’s first commercial microprocessor, the 4004; the Aswan Dam was completed; Charles Manson and three of his followers received the death penalty: National Public Radio (NPR) broadcast for the first time; Walt Disney World opened in Florida: Mount Etna erupted (again): The “Pentagon Papers” were made public; the Attica Prion riots happened; the 26th Amendment (lowering the voting age to 18) was ratified; Amtrak, FedEx, the Nasdaq, and Greenpeace were created; China was admitted to the U.N.; Qatar and what is now the UAE were freed from British colonial rule; and so very much more…

Richard Nixon was U.S. President. Average income in the U.S. was $10,600; the average home price was $25,250. A movie ticket cost $1.50; a gallon of gas, $0.33. We listened to music the featured the albums pictured above; we saw Dirty Harry, A Clockwork Orange, The Last Picture Show, and Diamonds Are Forever at the movies; and we watched The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Partridge Family, McCloud, and Walter Cronkite on TV.

As we look back fifty years, we can see that 1971 seems– beyond the idiosyncratic consequences of the many events that distinguished it– to have been a point of inflection, of sustained changes in direction economically, politically, socially, and culturally:

A small selection from a plethora of charts that ask: “WTF Happened In 1971?

* Francis Bacon


As we hit the stacks, we might recall that it was on this date in 1964 that the Surgeon General of the United States, Dr. Luther Terry, M.D., published the landmark report Smoking and Health: Report of the Advisory Committee to the Surgeon General of the United States saying that smoking may be hazardous to health– and sparking national (and worldwide) anti-smoking efforts. While it wasn’t the first such declaration (nor even the first declaration by a U.S. official), it is notable for being arguably the most famous such declaration for its lasting and widespread effects both on the tobacco industry and on the worldwide perception of smoking. A federal ban on cigarette advertising on television went into effect… in 1971.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 11, 2021 at 1:01 am

“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

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