Forty Years of Reaganomics

July 18, 2018

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When he was running for president in 1980, Ronald Reagan used to ask his audiences, “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” If they were tired of high gas prices, double-digit inflation, and the Iranian hostage crisis, then voters should choose him over the incumbent, Jimmie Carter.

Reagan’s primary domestic policy aim was to shrink the size of government by cutting taxes, spending, and regulation. If only the government would get out of the way, so the theory went, the private sector could flourish. Although Democrats haven’t always gone along with this agenda, Republicans have had their way often enough to bring about a new era of low taxes and limited government. Even Bill Clinton agreed that the era of Big Government was over. Despite all the talk about how Donald Trump is somehow less Republican or less conservative than his predecessors, his tax, spending and regulatory proposals are right out of the Reagan playbook.

Now that almost forty years have passed since the “Reagan revolution,” we may well ask, “Are we better off than we were forty years ago?” I would like to make a modest contribution to an answer by looking at some of the macroeconomic indicators I have been discussing in recent posts. In order to make it easier to compare statistics across the years, I will express the various indicators as shares of gross national income (GNI) when discussing income, or as shares of gross domestic product (GDP) when discussing expenditures. The difference between GNI and GDP is relatively small and should not create any confusion in this discussion. (See my previous discussion of macroeconomic indicators, especially part 2 and part 3.)

Taxes

National income can go to pay taxes, to consume goods and services, or to save, as expressed in the equation GNI = T + C + S. Tax cuts increase the disposable income available for consumption and saving. Generally, more of that increase goes into consumption than into saving. Since consumption is the largest component of GDP, tax cuts raise what is spent on production. That effect includes a multiplier effect as the increased GDP creates additional income and consumption.

[One technical note: In the national accounting system, the T stands for taxes net of transfer payments, which are payments from the government to its citizens. Payroll deductions for Social Security are taxes and count toward T, but Social Security checks are transfer payments and count against T.  The “tax cuts” discussed here could include some increases in transfer payments, but those too would increase disposable income.]

Before the Reagan election in 1980, taxes had been taking about 17-20% of national income. That includes all kinds of taxes—income, sales, payroll, property—and all payers, personal or corporate. Congress passed substantial tax cuts during the administrations of Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and most recently Donald Trump. The national tax rate dropped from about 18% to 16% by the end of the Reagan and Bush administrations (1992); then to 14% by the end of George W. Bush’s first term (2004). Then came the global financial crisis and the Obama stimulus package, which lowered taxes briefly to 10% of national income. Now the rate is 12%, which reflects the economic recovery and some initial effects of the Trump tax cuts.

The rate of consumption has risen accordingly, whether calculated as a percentage of GNI or of GDP. It was running about 60-61% of GDP before 1980, but it is up to 69% now. That is well above the rate of most wealthy countries. It reflects the fact that we have become a relatively low-tax nation, with a high priority on the purchase of private goods and services.

Some of that increased consumption has gone into imported goods. We were running small trade surpluses in the 1960s, but the higher price of oil helped produce trade deficits in the 1970s. In the era of lower taxes since 1980, imports have grown dramatically. The trade deficit as a percentage of GDP peaked before the global financial crisis of 2007, but has settled back to about 3% recently.

The federal tax cuts have also made the tax code less progressive, so that the wealthy have benefited more than the middle class. Lower taxes give business owners and managers more incentive to claim a higher share of profits for themselves, since the government lets them keep more of their gains. The distribution of both pre-tax and after-tax income has become more unequal during these years.

Government spending

Another goal of Reaganomics was to reduce government spending. That meant especially domestic spending, since military spending was to be kept high. That task proved to be more difficult and contentious.

Although cutting taxes and cutting spending may seem to go together in a program to shrink the size of government, they are quite different matters. Spending changes can actually have a bigger effect on GDP than tax changes, and the effect tends to be in the opposite direction. That’s because government spending has a direct positive effect on GDP. It counts as spending on productive economic activity. Then, by affecting income, it has multiplier effects on consumption as well. Spending cuts lower GDP, other things being equal. Tax cuts raise GDP, but only indirectly through the disposable income that goes into domestic spending rather than spending on imports or saving for the future.

Recall the equation: GDP = C + I + G + NX.
(Gross Domestic Product = Consumption + Investment + Government Spending + Net Exports)

Government spending is a component of GDP. But taxes only effect GDP through their indirect effects on consumption and net exports.

That means that if Americans are willing to incur an additional $100 billion in the annual deficit, increasing spending has a lot to be said for it instead of cutting taxes. The overall effect on GDP should be greater, and the mix of public and private benefits may add to the quality of life. Cutting taxes increases spending on private goods, but raising spending provides public goods (that’s what government spends on) and private goods too (through the effect on income and consumption).

In any case, Republicans wanted to shrink government, not expand it, and they had some success in cutting domestic spending. Before 1980, government spending was running at 21-24% of GDP, but now it is down to 17%. (Part of that drop, but only part, is a consequence of using percentages to measure the changes. If one component of GDP increases its percentage share, others must go down, other things being equal. Here C went up and G went down, but neither change was just a mathematical adjustment to the other.) We know from the increased deficit that taxes have been cut more than spending. And since consumption has risen substantially, it’s safe to say that the big tax cuts increased GDP more than the spending cuts lowered it.

Saving and investment

Another goal of Reaganomics was to increase saving and private sector investment. Tax cuts would give people more money to save as well as consume, and strong consumer demand would encourage the investment of those savings in business expansion. Economic growth should remain strong, since the rising investment component of GDP would offset the falling government component.

Some of the consequences of fiscal policy flow from well-established economic principles, such as lower taxes—>higher disposable income—>higher consumption. But higher investment does not automatically follow from lower taxes. It depends on whether businesses find the economic demand sufficient to justify expansion. For example, airlines will meet the demand for more air travel by filling empty seats before they will invest in new planes. Businesses invest more when they anticipate a strong market for their expanded production.

I do not see in the macroeconomic indicators a surge of saving or investment since 1980. Before then, saving was running at about 19-22% of national income, while investment was in the range of 16-18% of GDP. Reaganomics got off to an auspicious start, with saving up to almost 23% and investment up to 20% by the end of Reagan’s first term. But since then, saving and investment have generally been no higher than they were before. Saving is now at 19% of GNI, and investment is at 17%.

I’m not sure why the desired surge of investment did not occur, but here are a few possibilities. Some of the increased consumer demand has gone to support foreign production, which made domestic expansion less necessary. The Federal Reserve has also been very quick to ward off inflation by raising interest rates whenever rising demand started to push up prices. Higher interest rates discourage borrowing for business expansion. And although new technologies have been emerging, how to utilize them productively and profitably in a largely service economy has remained a question.

Sector balances

The economy consists of three sectors, each with its own financial balance resulting from inflows and outflows. They are the government sector, the domestic private sector, and the external (foreign) sector.

Ever since the Roosevelt administration engaged in massive deficit spending to combat the Depression and fight World War II, government has experienced more budget deficits than surpluses. Before 1980, deficits were running about 2-4% of national income. Since 1980, deficits of 4% or more have been common, except during the Clinton presidency, which ended in a small surplus. The deficit rose again in the George W. Bush and Obama presidencies, first because of the Bush tax cuts, and then because of the global financial crisis and the Obama stimulus package. The deficit was 9% of national income in 2012, but is down to 5% now.

As I discussed in my post on sectoral accounting, one sector’s deficit is another sector’s surplus. When the government experiences an income shortfall by spending more than it receives, some other sector must experience an income surplus by receiving more than it spends. Before 1980, that other sector was the domestic private sector. Households and businesses were saving more than they spent either on consumption or investment in real assets, with the difference showing up as financial assets. But since the 1980s, we have had a balance of trade deficit (and a current account deficit, which is the balance of trade adjusted for other financial flows between countries). Now about two-fifths of our government deficit winds up as surplus dollars in the hands of foreigners. By running such a large deficit, government is enabling both Americans and foreigners to accumulate financial assets.

While our government has been enabling the accumulation of private financial assets for some time, it used to do it in a more egalitarian way, through public-sector job creation, wages and the expansion of public goods. Now we do relatively less of that, and more with tax cuts aimed at corporations and the wealthy. That’s another reason why the distribution of income has become more skewed.

Gross domestic product

To summarize the changes in component shares of GDP, the consumption share is up sharply, government spending is down, investment has remained about the same, and net exports have fallen as the trade deficit has worsened. In the era of Reaganomics, we have been relying primarily on tax cuts to grow the economy instead of on public spending, business investment, or global demand for our products.

How much growth has our fiscal policy helped to achieve? I used data on real (inflation-adjusted) GDP to compute the cumulative growth for two different periods, 1945-1980 and 1980-2016 (the last year in that data series). Then I calculated the annual growth rate that would yield, when compounded, the cumulative result.

For 1945-1980, GDP grew 191%, which implies an annual rate of 3.1% compounded.

For 1980-2016, GDP grew 159%, which implies an annual rate of 2.7% compounded.

This confirms what others have reported, that growth in the Reaganomics era has been on average slower than in the previous postwar era.

This slower growth has also come with other costs: some neglect of public goods and services such as infrastructure repairs, a larger national debt, a larger trade deficit, and greater inequality.

With regard to the inequality, Piketty has argued that slower growth itself contributes to it, since workers rely on economic growth for real wage increases. Big investors rely more on the rate of return on capital. As the rate of growth falls farther below the rate of return on capital, the share of income going to capital rather than labor goes up. This is in fact what has been happening, a trend Piketty describes as a “drift toward oligarchy.” I think the drift toward economic oligarchy is related to the current threat to democracy, of which Donald Trump’s authoritarian tendencies are only one manifestation.

Government fiscal policy is by no means entirely to blame for sluggish growth. Factors such as slower population growth, an aging population and the difficult transition from a manufacturing economy to a service economy are also involved. But going forward, we do need to think about what combination of public and private initiatives can help.

We have probably gone about as far as we can go with tax cuts as the way to prop up a struggling economy. And government spending cuts without tax cuts would almost certainly be worse. The question for economists and policymakers today is how to make the best use of government spending to give the economy what it really needs. Among the things it needs are enhancements to human capital to keep up with changing job requirements, development of cleaner energy sources, and a twenty-first-century infrastructure. And as Modern Monetary Theory advocates, creating public jobs for anyone who wants them is one of the most direct ways of boosting national output and income.

The anti-government philosophy that has dominated the Reaganomics era has outlived its usefulness. I think that Republicans will either have to change their tune, or tone down the anti-government chorus so that new music can be heard. Democrats need to convince voters that their proposals serve the common good and not just the needs of particular constituencies. Warrenomics anyone?

 

 


Viking Economics

June 25, 2017

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George Lakey. Viking Economics. Brooklyn: Melville House Publishing, 2016.

This is a book about the economies of four Nordic countries whose peoples have Viking ancestry–Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland. It focuses especially on Norway, where the author, who was born in the US, has spent the most time. Lakey himself is a sociologist, not an economist. Although he draws on the work of economists, the book is not very technical. Lakey supplements his own reading and observations with many interviews and anecdotes.

For people who feel that US economic policy has been moving in the wrong direction, the Nordic countries are a good place to look for alternatives. They have been accomplishing something we have not been lately–a high level of national income without an extreme degree of economic inequality.

According to rankings by international agencies like the IMF and World Bank, the Nordic countries are among the richest in GDP per capita. Norway ranks higher than the US and the others a little lower. According to a Gallup international survey, Norway, Sweden and Denmark are all ahead of the US in median household income. So much of the income from America’s national production is concentrated at the top that households in the middle do not do as well. The Nordic countries have done a better job of maintaining a thriving middle class at a time when the American middle class has been shrinking.

Among 32 developed countries in the OECD, the four Nordic countries studied in this book rank in the top ten for economic equality. The US and the UK rank near the bottom. The OECD has also surveyed the populations of these countries on their life satisfaction. The same Nordic countries are consistently near the top of the rankings, while the United States is only a little better than average. Lakey also draws on research by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Picket on other social indicators that tend to be associated with wide disparities in income: “They find that inequality highly correlates with negative statistics in physical health, mental health, drug abuse, education, imprisonment, obesity, social mobility, violence, teenage pregnancy, and child well-being.”

Equality, productivity and innovation

Lakey acknowledges the widespread belief that differences in economic reward motivate people to do their best, and especially to devise better ways of doing things that the marketplace can reward. “The belief is that inequality motivates, by increasing both the risk and potential reward, attracting talented people who love adventure. The bold ones make the breakthroughs that propel invention and innovation. It sounds reasonable.”

Yes it does. No modern society pays all economic contributors the same. It hardly follows, however, that the extremes of wealth and poverty we see in the United States are optimal for encouraging productivity and innovation. Lakey reports, “Rates of start-up creation in Norway are among the highest in the developed world, and Norway has more entrepreneurs per capita than the United States….” He suggests a couple of ways that economic equality supports potential entrepreneurs: giving them access to education without burdening them with debt, and providing a stronger safety net so they can afford to take risks. People can leave a job to try something new without worrying about losing their health insurance, since coverage is universal. More equal societies do a better job of developing talent across the economic spectrum, and they have higher rates of social mobility.

Lakey also cites research showing a positive association between high productivity and strong unions. This may be counterintuitive, at least for Americans, since “U.S. unions sometimes defend inefficient labor practices and outmoded organization of work, even though undermining productivity–whatever it takes to keep workers in jobs.” However, Lakey argues that this is because the American system leaves workers so insecure. When union membership is higher, high wages are more universal, and the social safety net is stronger, workers have less to fear from productivity-enhancing innovation. In addition, companies may have to boost profits by increasing productivity, since it is harder for them to do it by cutting wages.

Another feature of social organization that contributes to both productivity and equality is the Nordic tradition of cooperatives. They have industrial co-ops, farm co-ops, consumer co-ops, housing co-ops, even parent co-ops providing child care. People are motivated to contribute because they know they will share in the benefits.

Nordic countries are also noted for developing the talents and productivity of women. Their rates of female employment exceed that of the United States, although women are still underrepresented in the highest managerial positions. Rates of employment for men are also higher than they are here. The Nordic countries do more to support employed parents, by subsidizing child care and providing paid family leaves for parents of both sexes. And although more adults are employed, annual work hours per worker are lower, for example 1,418 in Norway vs. 1,791 in the US in 2012. That’s 373 more hours off the job, or about 10 weeks. National production does not seem to suffer, since productivity per hour is higher in Norway.

Keeping poverty low

International comparisons of poverty rates often use a relative definition of poverty. They determine what percentage of a population lives on less than the national median income. That could be misleading if two countries have very different medians; a very poor country could appear to have little poverty if it had little variation around its very low median. For countries that are all pretty affluent, the relative definition makes for pretty fair comparisons. UNICEF calculated child poverty rates for the Nordic countries in the range of 4.7% to 7.3%. The rate for the US was 23.1%, the second worst among OECD countries. We should all think about the damage to human potential that figure represents, and its impact on our national productivity and well-being.

Lakey wants to correct the impression that Nordic states are just generous “welfare states,” since their strategy for fighting poverty involves much more than just handing out cash and other benefits to poor people. It is, first of all, a strategy emphasizing full employment and good wages. Norway has a pretty good record for holding unemployment down, keeping wages up, and preparing people for jobs with educational and training opportunities. “Free post-secondary schooling is available for technical fields like seafaring, business, engineering, and agriculture; for arts fields like performance and visual arts; and for professions like medicine and law.” Adult education is so common that one-sixth of the population is taking courses in any given year.

When jobs are available and wages are fairly high, the government can provide some cash assistance to families with children without worrying that the payments will destroy people’s motivation to work. That’s especially true when such benefits are universal rather than provided only to the very poor and unemployed. You have everything to gain and nothing to lose by taking a job.

Universal services and taxation

Programs designed just for the poor don’t have a very good track record for actually eliminating poverty. They tend to be inefficient because a lot of administrative effort has to go into determining eligibility, and potential recipients may try to cheat. They tend to be under-funded because popular support for them is limited (especially when there is a longstanding racial divide between the affluent and the needy). They tend to be stigmatizing for the people who participate in them. They tend to be too individualistic, helping one person at a time instead of changing social conditions more generally. “The twentieth-century descendants of the Vikings figured out that the individualistic charity model of the nineteenth century simply could not alleviate poverty. In each country, the designers turned against programs for the poor and created universal systems instead.”

Among the publicly-funded services available to Norwegians are tuition-free higher education, paid maternity and paternity leave, affordable child care, subsidized public transportation, subsidies for family farms, vocational counseling and job training, free health care and universal public pensions.

To pay for such benefits, Nordic countries tax their citizens at high rates, both through individual income taxes and corporate taxes. (In contrast, although US rates may look high on paper, the tax code has so many loopholes that revenue as a percentage of GDP is among the lowest for OECD countries.) Lakey describes the general Nordic attitude toward taxes as “To get a lot, we pay a lot.” The “lot” they get includes not only the benefits they receive personally, but the general benefits of living in a more egalitarian and less divided society.

Do high taxes inhibit economic growth, as is so often claimed by economic neoliberals in the United States? Lakey cites the work of economist Jeffrey D. Sachs, who modified his own neoliberal views after examining the evidence. He compared the Nordic countries with the Anglo-Saxon countries of Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, UK and United States, countries he characterized as “low-tax, high-income countries that share a historical lineage with nineteenth-century Britain and its theories of laissez-faire.” He concluded, “On average, the Nordic countries outperform the Anglo-Saxon ones on most measures of economic performance.”

Relevance to the United States

Maybe the culture and traditions of the Anglo-Saxon countries are so different from those of the Nordic countries that we are unable to learn much from them. On the other hand, maybe the problem isn’t as much culture and traditions as vested interests standing in the way of the public good. Lakey cites research showing that most Americans want more economic equality than they now have. “In one of the studies, participants were shown two different income distributions, in the form of pie charts. Without saying so, one chart reflected the distribution in Sweden and the second chart that of the United States. 92 percent said they preferred the first.”

Lakey also cites research by political scientists showing that in the US, the wealthy get what they want in political decision-making much more often than any other economic segment of society. He believes that politicians are so dependent on powerful financial interests that voting alone will not move a country in a more egalitarian direction. Only broad social movements featuring nonviolent direct action can bring about the desired changes.

Continued

 


Glass House (part 3)

April 6, 2017

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The “1% economy”

Brian Alexander’s book Glass House is subtitled “The 1% Economy and the Shattering of the All-American Town.” Alexander is a journalist, not a macroeconomist, and he doesn’t attempt much analysis of the economy as a whole. Nevertheless, he seems sure that the brand of capitalism we have been practicing lately is largely responsible for Lancaster’s decline.

Alexander suggests that owners and investors have more than one route to profit: “You can increase profits by building value through research and development, creating new products, investing in plants and equipment. But that takes time….Instead, you can also increase company profit by making the same products with the same sales volumes, but cutting expenses.” Which route is chosen dramatically affects people’s lives: “If you were the target company employee, or a small town where that company was located, you might prefer to add value through investment in people, machines, and research and development, for a long-term benefit.”

I didn’t see anywhere in the book where Alexander explained how this choice is affected by the general nature of the “1% economy,” but I’ll offer a few thoughts. Two features of the 21st-century US economy thus far are extreme economic inequality and sluggish economic growth. (Some would say the two are related, although the relationship may not be simple.) The wealthy minority have a lot of capital available to invest. But very weak income growth for the majority limits their ability to spend on new products. Under those conditions, it is not surprising that a lot of capital would go to buy existing enterprises rather than create new ones; nor is it surprising that cost-cutting rather than expansion of production would be a favored route to profit. If this strategy works to make the 1% richer despite hollowing out the middle class, that only reinforces the inequality and sluggish growth, creating a vicious cycle.

Ideological responses

The workers and townspeople who are the victims of economic decline have little knowledge of macroeconomics or high finance. Without understanding the underlying causes, they react to the symptoms they see–the wage concessions, the layoffs, the family instability, the reduced commitment to work, the drug problem and the crime. They try to interpret what they see within a traditional belief system linking hard work, self-reliance, economic success and strong families. If more people are failing, well, that must be due to some mysterious decline in personal responsibility and achievement.

Like many Midwestern small towns, Lancaster, Ohio had always been at least moderately conservative. But as economic conditions deteriorated, “A significant faction within Lancaster lost its moderate conservatism. Stoked by cable news, internet videos, and right-wing politicians, they insisted that most of Lancaster’s problems had to be the natural product of an over-generous social service system that coddled lazy, irresponsible people.” Few stopped to consider what work ethic the high-flying financiers were living by when they made millions off of other people’s misfortunes.

Dependency on government was increasing in two ways: direct assistance through programs like food stamps and Medicaid (whose expansion under Obamacare Ohio chose to implement), and reliance on public money to create jobs. “Medicaid and Medicare supplied over 60 percent of the hospital’s income. The public schools were the second-largest employer in town.” Glass-maker Anchor Hocking had dropped to third. But the increasing dependency was accompanied by denial or resentment.

A certain kind of racism was entangled with popular attitudes toward the needy, but Alexander is careful to qualify it. It was more complicated than a simple prejudice against people who looked and acted different. It was more the resentment of struggling whites against any suggestion that people of color deserved more help than they did, or the idea that one group should have to bear the costs of some other group’s failures. It was easier to direct hostility across racial lines than to identify the shadowy financial interests and economic forces that were really responsible for their problems. “Somebody, they thought, was screwing them out of the good-life lottery. Somebody was screwing them. It just wasn’t who they thought.”

Political fallout

The political leaders of Lancaster and many of its higher-income residents were Republicans. Alexander describes them as having an anti-tax philosophy that kept them from raising the money to maintain the town’s infrastructure and institutions. They also had a “pro-business bias [that] blinded them to how Newell and Cerberus [new owners of the glass company] picked their pockets.”

The blue-collar workers of Lancaster were more likely to vote Democratic, if they voted at all. But they were turned off by the Party’s preoccupation with the rights of minorities like African Americans and gay people.

In 2012, Fairfield County, where Lancaster was located, voted 57% for Romney, although Ohio went narrowly for Obama. In 2016, the county went 60% for Trump, helping turn the state red again.  The great irony here is that by voting for Romney and Trump, the people of Lancaster were casting their lot with the kind of financial wheelers and dealers Alexander holds responsible for the town’s decline.

Donald Trump promised the downwardly mobile workers of towns like Lancaster to “make America great again.” What those workers couldn’t acknowledge was that “buccaneering free-market finance” had done so much to undermine that greatness. It was so much easier to blame “sin, laziness, scientists, immigrants, unions, and any number of other enemies of the American Way.” Trump cleverly combined populist anger with right-wing conservatism. The good manufacturing jobs would come back if the government would defend the borders, make tougher trade deals with other countries, and lighten the tax and regulatory burden on business. Trump shared Romney’s admiration for the wealthy as the job creators. What was missing from his critique was any suggestion that they might be investing the country’s wealth unwisely.

Alexander does not discuss the 2016 election, but I think he would agree that it does not portend a reversal of fortunes for towns like Lancaster. What I fear it does is add a layer of political exploitation to the economic exploitation that has already occurred.


The Distribution of National Income (part 3)

February 23, 2017

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I admit that my last two posts have been pretty heavy on the facts and figures. But now we can use the conclusions to shed some light on the political polarization of the country.

Two main conclusions of Piketty, Saez, and Zucman’s analysis stand out. First, the distribution of pre-tax income is now more uneven than at any time since the 1920s. The top tenth of the population is getting almost half the national income, while the entire bottom half of the population is getting only one-eighth of it. Second, taxation and government spending are only mildly progressive and redistributive. Redistribution reduces the top tenth’s share from 47% to 39%, while increasing the bottom half’s share from 12.5% to 19.4%.

The politics of redistribution

To start assessing the political implications of these conclusions, let’s do a mental experiment. Imagine that each of the broad income groups described in the report took a position on government taxes and spending based solely on their narrow economic self-interest. We would expect people in the top tenth of the distribution to oppose the government’s redistributive role, since they pay more of its costs and qualify for fewer of its benefits. The lower-half of the population should be more supportive, since they receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes.

However, the political stance of the remaining two-fifths–those with incomes in the upper half but not in the top tenth–is likely to be more ambivalent. Their pre- and post-tax shares of national income are about the same (40.5% vs. 41.6%). What they receive in benefits offsets what they pay in taxes. Bear in mind that post-tax income in this analysis includes all forms of government benefits–monetary transfers, in-kind transfers, and general spending for the public good. If they focus on the benefits, they may support government spending; but if they focus on the costs, they may support tax cuts. (Or they can support a lot of both, and put up with deficits and more national debt.)

Since the major political parties disagree so much on taxes and spending, we would expect higher-income people to prefer the Republican Party and lower-income people to prefer the Democratic Party. This is true up to a point. Income is a fair predictor of party affiliation and voting, and the effect of income on voting has actually increased as the gap between rich and poor has widened. Gelman, Kenworthy and Su reported, “For the nation as a whole…there is a broad similarity between the trends in income inequality and the rich-poor gap in partisan voting. Each declined after the 1940s and then rose beginning in the 1970s or 1980s” (Social Science Quarterly, December 2010).

Gallup surveys have found that Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to believe that the present distribution of wealth is unfair, and that higher-income groups should pay more taxes.

The role of beliefs

Narrow self-interest is not the only basis on which people vote, however, even on questions of economics. Beliefs about how the economy works or should work are important, as well as beliefs about the impact of public policy on the general prosperity. Politics in a democracy is partly a struggle for the hearts and minds of the people, especially the hearts and minds of the middle class. They may align themselves with either the rich or the poor, depending on whose interests they think best represent the general good.

The upper-tenth have a disproportionate share of the money, but only a minority of the votes. To have their way politically–and they’ve been doing a pretty good job of that lately–they need good arguments against high taxes on the rich and high spending for the less fortunate.

One of those arguments is the appeal to meritocracy. Higher-income people can defend the very unequal pre-tax income distribution as a reflection of people’s real contribution to society. The successful deserve what they get; the unsuccessful deserve less; and the trouble with redistribution is that it punishes achievement and rewards failure. A related argument is that the rich are the job creators who use their incomes and wealth to invest in economic growth for the benefit of all.

Support for these views is widespread. Gallup has reported that when Americans are given a choice between taking steps “to distribute wealth more evenly” or “to improve overall economic conditions and the jobs situation,” people of all political affiliations and income levels prefer the latter by a wide margin.

That helps explain the working-class conservatism reported, for example, by J. D. Vance in Hillbilly Elegy. Although many low-income whites have more to gain from government spending than they have to lose from taxation, they cling to an ideology of self-reliance and hostility to government “handouts”. Reliance on government carries with it a stigma that I see as partly a racial stigma. Slavery, segregation and discrimination impeded black achievement and fostered government dependence, contributing to a stereotype of black laziness. Whites could maintain their sense of superiority by dissociating themselves from such dependency. That meant dissociating themselves from Big Government and liberal politics, especially after the Democratic Party embraced the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Progressives need to change the national conversation about economic inequality, so that it is no longer about industrious job creators at the top, undeserving slackers at the bottom, and families in the middle who should be grateful to the rich for whatever wages they are offered. They need to challenge the dubious assumption that private wealth is always invested for the public good, while government spending is nothing but a drag on the economy. Considering our low rate of economic growth, our lagging productivity, and our wage stagnation, it isn’t obvious that concentrating more and more financial capital at the top has been such a winning strategy. Meanwhile, we cannot seem to find the money to make vital investments in our human capital, so that young people can get educations without accumulating a mountain of debt. People should not have to apologize for getting help to develop their human potential, especially when that enhances their capacity to contribute to society.

Voters shouldn’t have to choose between policies that create jobs and those that alleviate inequality. In a properly functioning democracy, they ought to go hand in hand, as they did during the postwar economic boom.

Progressive beliefs have the potential to spread to all class levels, just as conservative beliefs have. Already there are many higher-income individuals, such as Warren Buffet and George Soros, who advocate for more egalitarian policies.

Trump: populist or plutocrat?

Where does President Trump fit into the politics of redistribution? As a billionaire, he stands near the top of the economic pyramid. Like many other rich men, he sees his success as a sign of his superior merit, no matter what Trump University students or other detractors say in their lawsuits. Indeed, he declares himself to be uniquely suited to save the US economy.

Trump has filled his cabinet mainly with other rich folks who are not noted for their egalitarian views. Mother Jones reported that his cabinet selections have an average net worth of $357 million. The richest 1% of American households have an average net worth of only (did I say “only”?) $18.7 million.

Why is Trump so popular? I think primarily because he presents himself as the ultimate job creator, who will boost economic growth by bringing back lost American jobs. He will use the unorthodox strategy of getting other countries to give us more favorable terms of trade, so that our manufacturing industries prosper, presumably at someone else’s expense. All Americans will benefit, especially downwardly mobile workers, when he puts America first and makes America great again.

We are supposed to be so impressed by these promises that we overlook his tendency to favor the privileged over the rest of society. Strip away his economic nationalism, and what’s left is the usual Republican tax breaks for the rich and benefit cuts for the poor. We don’t have the detailed plans yet, but all indications point to a tax reform bill that will give the biggest reductions to the top brackets, and an Obamacare replacement that will make health insurance less affordable for the poor. Although Trump appealed to enough Democrats and independents to eke out an electoral college victory, the core of his support is among  Republicans.

The Trump administration has a real potential to exacerbate income inequality and political polarization. Maybe he can grow the economic pie so much that people don’t care how unequally it is divided, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

 


The Distribution of National Income (part 2)

February 21, 2017

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We have been looking at a report on the distribution of national income from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, authored by Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman. What makes it special is its attempt to account for all forms of income, not just those most often reported in surveys and tax returns. Based on this more complete accounting, the authors conclude that between 1980 and 2014, the top tenth of the adult population increased their share of the pre-tax national income from 34.2% to 47.0%. The share going to the next two-fifths of the population declined from 45.9% to 40.5%, and the share going to the bottom half of the population declined from 19.9% to 12.5%. During this period, economic growth was sluggish compared to the postwar era (1946-1980), but average real income more than doubled for the top tenth, while remaining essentially unchanged for the bottom half.

These figures are only for pre-tax income, however. They leave open the question of what role taxes and government spending play in the distribution of national income. Does post-tax income tell a different story?

Post-tax income

By considering the distribution of the entire national income, the report challenges the way we normally think about after-tax income. In our everyday experience, it’s what’s left after the taxes are taken out. That makes it always less than gross income. But in the national income accounting, total post-tax income and pre-tax income are the same! That’s because the national income does not go down just because some of it is taxed. The tax dollars are spent directly or indirectly on someone’s behalf, and so they can be counted as somebody’s income. Post-tax income is not a reduction in national income, but just a redistribution of national income.

The calculation of post-tax income from pre-tax income requires two steps: the subtraction of taxes paid, and the addition of government benefits received. Taxes include all levels (federal, state, local) and all types (income, sales, payroll, property). Government benefits include both monetary transfers (earned income tax credit, cash assistance payments, food stamps) and in-kind transfers (mainly health benefits through Medicare and Medicaid). Some cash income is already included in pretax income, such as Social Security payments.

The trickiest type of government benefit to account for is “collective consumption expenditures.” This is government spending on behalf of society in general. One might apportion it equally, on the assumption that each citizen gets the same benefit from it. But the researchers distribute it in proportion to other income, reasoning that higher-income people usually get more benefits from general public spending. For example, wealthier people are more likely to live in communities where the taxes support higher spending per student in the public schools. They are also more likely to be shareholders who benefit from the profits earned by defense contractors. The authors acknowledge that “our treatment of public goods could easily be improved as we learn more about who benefits from them.”

What if the government spends more than it receives in tax revenue? Then the deficit has to be allocated to individuals too, as a kind of negative benefit. Otherwise, total benefits received would be larger than total taxes paid, making post-tax income larger than total national income, upsetting the logic of the entire analysis.

The distribution of taxes and benefits

In general, the distribution of taxes and benefits is mildly progressive, but not markedly so. With all forms of taxation considered, higher incomes are a little more heavily taxed. The effective tax rates are 33.9% for the top tenth of adults, 28.6% for the next two-fifths, and 24.4% for the bottom half. The effective tax rate for the adult population as a whole is 30.5%.

Each group’s share of all taxes paid depends on how much income they have to begin with, as well as the rate at which it is taxed. In 2014, the top tenth got 47.0% of the pre-tax income and paid 52.2% of the taxes (hardly an unreasonable burden in my humble opinion). The next two-fifths got 40.5% of the income and paid 38% of the taxes. The bottom half of the population got 12.5% of the income and paid 10% of the taxes.

On the government benefits side, the top tenth got the smallest share–26.0%–which is lower than their share of income and taxes, but still much higher than their share of population. Although they didn’t qualify for means-tested assistance programs like Medicaid and food stamps, they got a lot of the general benefits of government spending. The next two-fifths, however, got the largest share–41.6%–roughly proportional to their share of the population. What they pay in taxes they get back in benefits such as good schools. The lower half of the population got 32.6% of the benefits, which is much more than their tax burden but much less than their 50% share of the population.

The redistribution of national income

The result of government taxation and spending is that a modest portion of national income is redistributed, primarily from the top tenth of the population to the bottom half.  A simple comparison of pre- and post-tax income shows this clearly.

Because the top tenth paid more in taxes than they received in benefits, their post-tax share of national income was 8 percentage points lower than their pre-tax share in 2014 (39.0% vs. 47.0%).

For the next two-fifths of the population, pre- and post-tax income came out about the same. They started out with 40.5% of the pre-tax income, paid 38% of the taxes, got 41.6% of the government benefits, and wound up with 41.6% of the after-tax national income. All the figures are roughly proportional to their 40% population size, so this group didn’t win or lose much from income redistribution.

The bottom half of the population gained more in benefits than they paid in taxes, so their post-tax share of national income was 6.9 points greater than their pre-tax share (19.4% vs. 12.5%). That difference consists mainly of non-cash benefits. That’s because their meager pretax incomes–averaging $16,200–were taxed at 24.4%, and that more than offset any cash benefits they received. The net benefits they got were primarily from health insurance programs.

To summarize, in 2014 the US transferred 8% of the national income by taxing the top tenth of the population, with 7 points of that going to the bottom half and 1 point to the other two-fifths. The transfer reduced the top tenth’s sizeable after-tax income by 17%. But the transferred income loomed much larger in the lives of the people at the bottom who received it in one form or another. Since they had so much less to begin with, it boosted their income by 54%. In dollar terms, it meant an increase in average income from $16,200 to $25,000, a significant improvement, but still leaving them far behind everyone else.

Redistribution and the trend toward inequality

Has the redistribution of income through taxes and government spending helped to offset the trend toward greater inequality? One would expect that as the rich got richer, they would be forced into higher tax brackets, increasing the tax revenue available for redistribution. One might also expect that as incomes at the bottom stagnated, political pressure would build to increase spending to augment them.

The point about tax revenue has some truth to it. Between 1980 and 2014, the top tenth increased their share of pre-tax national income from 34.2% to 47.0%, but some of that gain was offset by taxes. Still, their after-tax share of national income went from 29.5% to 39.0%. The increase in post-tax income was about three-quarters of the increase in pre-tax income. In other words, they got to keep three-fourths of their gains.

For the other nine-tenths of the population, tax offsets worked to reduce losses instead of gains. For the bottom half, the decline in their share of post-tax income was 85% as large as the decline in their share of pre-tax income. For the two-fifths of the population in between, the decline in their share of post-tax income was only  59% as large as the decline in their share of pre-tax income. To put it another way, the government absorbed 15% of the losses for the bottom half and 41% of the losses for the two-fifths in the upper middle of the distribution.

What the country did not do in those years was increase the overall rate of taxation or make the tax rates more progressive. The average tax rate considering all taxes went down slightly from 30.8% to 30.5%. Moreover, the effective rate of taxation went down for the upper half of the population (due mainly to income tax cuts), but went up for the lower half (due mainly to increases in payroll taxes). That’s why the government absorbed more losses for the upper-middle class than for the bottom half. Redistribution from top to bottom could still go up a little, because the rich had more money that could be taxed. But non-progressive tax policies left most of the increase in inequality untouched.

As for the second point, about political pressure to increase spending on the poor, that was outweighed by pressure to cut tax rates for the middle and upper classes. Between 1980 and 2014, the percentage of national income going to finance government benefits for the bottom half remained stuck around 10%, while benefits for the upper half remained around 20%. The upper middle class played a crucial political role here. With their own share of the national income shrinking, a majority of them sided with the rich in supporting low taxes, rather than with the poor in supporting policies to reduce inequality. I will have more to say about the political implications of the income distribution in my next post.

Continued