Why Income Matters

| Mon Sep. 27, 2010 9:10 PM EDT

I'm a little bored at the moment. How about another post on income inequality to liven things up? That should bring the page views pouring in, shouldn't it?

I'm going to start by reporting on Will Wilkinson's emotional state: he's sad. He's been trying to explain the idea that there can be different inflation rates for different groups of people, but it's a complicated concept and hard to get across. However, he thinks it's an important part of the inequality argument, and that's the part I want to address.

So here's the simple version. Suppose that rich people tend to consume lots of Porsches and tins of Beluga caviar, while poor people tend to consume lots of Chevrolets and hot dogs. Now suppose that over the past decade the price of Porsches and caviar has gone up 20% while the price of Chevrolets and hot dogs has stayed the same.

Got that? Now suppose you read that the incomes of the poor had been flat during the aughts while the incomes of the rich had gone up 20%. You would be outraged. The rich are getting richer while the poor are stagnating! Inequality is rising! When will it ever stop?

And yet....rich people are consuming the exact same number of BMWs and tins of caviar as they did ten years ago and poor people are consuming the exact same number of Chevrolets and hot dogs. Looking at income is misleading. Both groups are doing about the same.

Now, measuring inflation is hard enough already, and the measurement problems associated with trying to figure out separate inflation rates for rich and poor are convoluted enough to make grown econometricians cry. What's more, you can't just assume that everyone is buying the same stuff today that they bought in the past. Maybe purchasing patterns have changed over time in response to different growth rates in wages. It's a tough nut to crack.

In theory, though, it's a legitimate topic of research if you're interested in understanding the lived experience of different groups. You also need to consider government transfers, tax rates, household compositions, number of hours worked, and lots of other things. It's a fertile field of study.

As it happens, though, it's not the topic I'm usually interested in. The topic that's my normal preoccupation is understanding how the private economy works. That is, how does the private economy reward various groups of people? How has this changed over time? Why has it changed over time? Is it healthy? Can it last?

This second question is purely one of income and wealth distribution. I just want to know how money flows to different classes of people. Because while it's reasonable to say that a particular industry can be a growth driver during some particular period — electricity in the early 20th century, cars during the middle, and computers later on, for example — it's not really reasonable to say that a particular income class is a growth driver. Does anyone really think that 30 years ago rich people suddenly became more responsible for economic growth than the poor or the middle class?

I don't, and the comparative international evidence doesn't suggest it either. Rather, I think the rich in America have simply managed to reengineer our political and economic institutions to suppress middle class income, thus producing a vast pool of money that flows in their direction. As a result, their share of national income becomes ever more swollen. And this is horribly corrosive. I believe pretty strongly that a modern mixed economy can remain healthy only if prosperity is broadly shared, economic values are widely regarded as fair, and the middle class is becoming steadily wealthier. If that stops happening over an extended period of time it spells trouble on a whole bunch of fronts. The middle class becomes alienated and discouraged. The rich wall themselves off from the rest of us. The political process becomes increasingly co-opted. Boom and bust cycles become ever more pronounced.

You can mask this, of course. Technological improvements can make life better even with a stagnant income. Globalization can make low-end consumer goods seemingly cheaper. The rich can loan money to the middle class — for a while. Government programs can redistribute wealth a bit.

But those are just band-aids. The real long-term problem is that the fruits of economic growth are being increasingly funneled to a small group of the super rich in the first place. This just isn't sustainable without becoming a banana republic. Eventually, if we want a prosperous society, the private economy needs to distribute economic growth reasonably equitably in the first place.

Plus there's this: money is money. Even if stagnant incomes can produce growing consumption for a while, it comes at the cost of other things money can buy: leisure, retirement, savings cushions, etc. Rising incomes for the middle class would allow them more of everything that money can buy, not just more consumer goods.

Bottom line (so to speak): how people live their lives is an important topic. But it's not the only topic. How the private economy distributes wealth and income is important too. And on that score, all the signs point to an ever-widening gulf between rich and poor — an unhealthy, unsustainable gulf. We can't just shrug our shoulders and accept it.

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