A recent article in the New York Times by Dierdre McCloskey boldly states that the answer to income inequality is to allow unfettered growth through free market forces. Unfortunately, this thesis comes straight out of the anti-Communist 1950s. McCloskey puts up a strawman that proponents of addressing inequality directly want to redistribute all wealth via grabbing all assets of the wealthy. Her version of how the economy has worked, and the policy proposals to address inequality are incorrect.
As I posted previously, we’ve already run the experiment comparing the performance of a market-based economy (West Germany) to a centrally-planned socialist economy (East Germany), and the market-based more than doubled the output of the socialist one. That said, the past West German (and the current German) is a far cry from a “free market” economy. It was and is heavily regulated with substantial redistributive policies. No one is seriously advocating that the U.S. move to a Communist economy (at least not since the 1950s)–they are suggesting that the U.S. consider policies that could redistribute wealth to improve the welfare of almost everyone.
Increased inequality has been found to decrease economic growth, contrary to McCloskey’s implied assertion. Both the OECD and IMF found negative consequences from increased wealth in the top 20% of households. Other studies show that historic U.S. GDP growth has not been impeded by high marginal tax rates, either for individual or corporate taxes.
She also misses the real reason as to why inequality is a concern. She dismisses it as simple envy. But it’s really about relative political and economic power. The wealthy are able to exert more bargaining power in economic transactions, and their greater influence on the political process is well documented.
As a side note, McCloskey appears to grossly underestimating the share of wealth and income held by the wealthiest segment of U.S. society. Her calculation appears to assume that wealth is distributed evenly across all of the income quintiles (“If we took every dime from the top 20 percent of the income distribution and gave it to the bottom 80 percent, the bottom folk would be only 25 percent better off.”) In fact, a recent estimate by the Federal Reserve Board shows that the top 0.1% of U.S. households hold over 40% of the wealth. That means that redistributing the wealth of just 0.1% will lead to a 40% increase in the wealth of everyone else. I’m not advocating such a radical solution, but it does demonstrate the potential scale of redistributive policies. For example, redistributing just 25% of the wealth of the richest 1% could lead to a 10% increase in the wealth of the remaining 99.9%.
When it’s measured against $18,675 billion ($18.7 trillion) produced by the U.S. economy. The Heritage Foundation issued a report claiming the Obama Administration imposed $107 billion in new burdens over seven years. That sounds like a huge amount, but that’s only 0.6% (six-tenths of a percent) of the economy. And that’s spread over seven years which means that this the reduction in the GDP growth rate was only 0.08% (eight hundredths of a percent) per year. Against an annual average growth rate of over 2%, that’s a trivial amount. Another way to think of it is this way: if you had a dinner bill from Applebee’s for $19, would you not by dinner it if cost a dime more? Probably not–you wouldn’t even notice.
Plus, the HF’s estimate ignores the benefits of those regulations. This graphic from the OMB that shows the estimated relative benefits to costs of regulation.
I won’t dig too deeply into the Heritage Foundation’s analysis other than to make a couple of notes about about alternative perspectives that I am familiar with:
- Heritage Foundation claims that the Clean Power Plan has cost $7.2 billion as the single largest increment. Yet Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (which is much better qualified on this issue than the HF) just released a study showing the net financial “costs” of the various renewable portfolio standard (RPS) requirements is actually a benefit $47 to $109 billion. (And that ignores the environmental benefits identified in the report.)
- After the 2008 financial debacle, the industry was going to face increased regulation to reign in its behavior during the previous decade. So increased regulation under Dodd-Frank is to be expected. And the better question might be what is the drag on the economy from high financial-related transaction costs? One study found that transaction costs may be as high at 45% in the U.S. economy. The financial and legal sectors likely are a bigger drag than government regulation.
- On FCC net neutrality, see a previous post about how bigger corporations and economic concentration reduces innovation, which leads to reduced growth. Net neutrality is intended to fight that concentration.
Much was made during the Presidential campaign of manufacturing jobs being “exported” due to unfavorable trade pacts. Yet when we look at the data since 1960, we don’t see evidence for this claim. If jobs were being exported, then manufacturing output associated with those jobs would be leaving to. Instead, as shown above, we see that manufacturing output (and value added which is the value added to production inputs, e.g., the car value after paying for the iron, aluminum, rubber and plastic) has grown steadily with momentary dips for recessions in 1981, 2001 and 2008. Meanwhile manufacturing jobs remained fairly stable from the peak in 1979 to 2001. And then the bottom fell out: employment fell one-third from 2000 to 2009.
So if those jobs weren’t exported (obviously since the output growth was largely unchanged), then what might have happened? The chart above provides one explanation: Technological innovation replaced those jobs. The chart compares a rolling five-year average of productivity gains (measured as output per job) to sector job growth. Productivity growth had an early peak in the 1970s that coincided with the flattening of job growth through the 1990s. Then in 2001 productivity growth begins to rise to a new peak just before the Great Recession and manufacturing job growth plunges to new depths. (Note that this contrasts with the decline in overall productivity cited by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank that I posted.) Only in the last couple of years has the sector brought back jobs in the recovery.
Data from the countries where the U.S. has supposedly “exported” jobs in fact reinforces this point–they are also losing manufacturing jobs. The simple truth is that, as happened with agriculture at the turn of the 20th century, increased productivity means that fewer jobs are needed to make ever more goods. We could never feed everyone in the world if we had stopped innovation in farming in 1900; change was inevitable and largely beneficial. We can never return to the “good old days.”
Instead of trying to stop the future, we need to turn our attention to how we help those left behind by these changes. In 1900, farmers were able to move to the cities and find jobs that paid better than their farmwork. This time around, that doesn’t seem to be the case–we can’t just “leave it to the market.”
This post seems particularly apt for the electricity industry. IOU CEOs typically are “executioners” not “visionaries,” and this is at the heart of their existential conumdrum.
What happens to a company when a visionary CEO is gone? Most often innovation dies and the company coasts for years on momentum and its brand. Rarely does it regain its former glory. Here’s why. Mi…
Source: Why Tim Cook is Steve Ballmer and why he still has his job at Apple • The Berkeley Blog
Paul Brown talks about how chasing “optimization” is a fruitless distraction, which I happen to agree with. We should be focused on exploring the consequences of different pathways and how to mitigate significant vulnerabilities.
Source: WATER SMART INNOVATIONS: Speeding up innovation in the water industry | MAVEN’S NOTEBOOK | Water news