Sunday, 25 December 2016

Is the concept of inequality the best way of thinking about our economic problems?

This question is asked by Tyler Cowen in a chapter in a new book The US Labor Market: Questions and Challenges for Public Policy, edited by Michael Strain, which is freely available online from the American Enterprise Institute. The issues raised in the book are relevant to more countries than just the US.

Cowen opens by making an interesting comparison,
I find it useful to compare the productivity slowdown and the increase in income inequality. It seems the productivity slowdown has been of much greater consequence for human welfare, including for lower-income groups. For instance, if American productivity growth had not slowed after 1973, today the median household would earn $30,000 more each year. Alternatively, if income inequality had not accelerated after 1973, today the median household would earn an extra $9,000 more. That is less than one-third of the loss from the productivity slowdown.
One question I would ask is why income inequality and not consumption inequality? Consumption seems more relevant to people's well being.

Cowen goes on to say,
I wish to suggest a simple hypothesis: income inequality (or for that matter wealth inequality) is not the real problem. Rather, the problem is that many Americans are not seeing their lives improve as much as we would like. This is a problem whether or not the top 1 percent is seeing big gains. The problem has to do with the low level of earnings or health or well-being or opportunity for some individuals, not the disparity per se. That is a simple point, but it is difficult to communicate in today’s discourse on these issues, and it turns out to have significant concrete implications for how we should seek remedies.
Later Cowen notes,
Practically speaking, that conceptual mistake misdirects the focus to making people or their outcomes more alike, rather than elevating opportunity for those at the bottom and also in the middle. In fact, opening up enterprise and opportunity for large numbers of people often increases measured income inequality, even when it makes life better for most people, including those at the bottom. Let’s say for instance that global markets were opened up to additional trade, or occupational licensure were relaxed and new commercial opportunities were created. Some people could use these new opportunities to earn much more than others, perhaps millions or even billions more. Probably most people would be better off, but since measured inequality might well rise, analysts who focus on inequality are likely to overlook or undervalue these potential remedies. Keep in mind that the larger a market economy, the larger a country, and the higher the level of aggregate wealth, the higher the level of inequality is likely to be for purely natural reasons; if everything and everyone is clustered at or near zero, inequality just can’t get very high.
Relevant to my question about consumption inequality Cowen points out that,
If we look at the inequality of consumption, rather than income, and count government benefits as a relevant part of income, it turns out actual inequality is considerably lower than many popular or even academic discussions might indicate.
If global inequality is part of the inequality we are worried about, then we should worry less.
Another striking and under-discussed feature of the inequality debates is that global income inequality has been going down for over 20 years. The very poorest people in the world are now much wealthier than before, and significant portions of China, India, Africa, and other developing parts of the world now belong to a growing global middle class. Several billion people have been lifted out of extreme poverty into better circumstances, and over time we can expect the emerging economies to grow at faster rates than the wealthy ones, which will limit inequality all the more. At the same time, scourges such as malaria, polio, and other diseases have for the most part lost ground, most of all in poorer countries. The last 20 to 30 years are probably the most egalitarian time, in terms of income, the world has ever seen. So to the extent income equality is important, we should be celebrating like never before. More specifically, every discussion of income inequality, if it is to be accurate and scientific, should open by framing its worries in the context of a time that has made unparalleled strides toward limiting income inequality overall. Of course for political reasons that is not a popular presentation, but it is an accurate one.
Cowen then looks at key drivers of the increase in inequality. He shows that it makes sense to disaggregate "the inequality problem," as a lot of it isn’t a problem at all, or again it is a problem of some kind other than an inequality problem.

Take as an example one issue you see much discussed which is skills-biased technical change. And there could be a problem here. It is bad that some individuals do not work well with information technology, which is becoming so much more important to most people's work, and this does harm their wages and future opportunities. But the problem part of that equation is not an inequality problem; it is an education problem and a retraining problem. Cowen also discusses issues to do with global markets and rent-seeking.

Cowen sums up this section by saying,
In sum, America [and likely New Zealand] has serious problems of inadequate education, lack of retraining, and some quite bad policies in particular areas. In most cases that disaggregation is a better way of understanding what is going on rather than emphasizing inequality at the macro-economic level. The gap between rich and poor is neither the major driver of the actual problems nor the most important symptom of the most significant problems. Lack of opportunity in absolute terms is the main symptomatic problem.
In the last section of his chapter Cowen looks at the question, How Should Policy Respond? He briefly discusses five areas, Health Care, Occupational Licensing, Education Cheaper Rent and Lower Home Prices, Discontinue or Ameliorate the War on Drugs and End Crony Capitalism.

With regard to house prices and rents, an issue New Zealanders can relate to, Cowen writes,
These days it is harder for Americans to migrate successfully to some of the most economically dynamic American cities, in large part because of high rents and restrictive building codes, stemming from the NIMBY mentality. For a low-skilled worker, the higher wages in New York or San Francisco do not always make up for the much higher rental costs. In the 1950s, a typical apartment in New York City rented for about $60 a month, or adjusting for inflation about $530 a month; today that is closer to the cost of a parking space in Manhattan. If it were cheaper to move into major American cities, more Americans would have an easier path toward a higher salary and a brighter future. Economists Chang-Tai Hsieh and Enrico Moretti have argued that the American economy could become much richer if more workers could move from the low-productivity cities to the high-productivity cities; that would increase income mobility, too. Hsieh and Moretti estimate that lower rents, through building deregulation, could increase American GDP by almost 10 percent. A lot of those gains would go to Americans who cannot currently afford to move to San Francisco and other high-productivity cities.
The size of the effect on GDP of having people move from low-productivity areas to high-productivity areas did come as a surprise to me.

Cowen ends by saying that the United States has some very real and obvious problems, many of which impact the low- and middle-income earners of America in particular, but the concept of inequality is not the best conceptual starting point for finding or evaluating potential solutions.

There are many other interesting points made in Cowen's chapter and it is well worth the read, no matter what your current view of inequality.

The book containing Cowen's chapter also has many other useful chapters on a variety of issues to do with labour markets. Anyone interested in such markets should give it a read.


Mark Hubbard said...

PAUL you posted this at 2.58AM on Xmas morning!


Loved reading your blog this year. Have a great festive season (I guess it's buying a mansion in 2017 out of book sales).

Paul Walker said...

Thanks Mark. Early mornings do show that an economists life is not a happy one! So far I have gotten exactly zero from book sales so it will have to be a very small mansion.

Mark Hubbard said...

Ah. Probably publishers only payout out in $1million blocks. Once you get up to that, start shopping.