Archive for the ‘Distribution’ Category

Basic Income and the Job Guarantee

Michael Stephens | June 8, 2016

Pavlina Tcherneva was interviewed by Joe Weisenthal yesterday to present the case against a universal basic income policy (a proposed version of which was just voted down in Switzerland). Watch:

Thcerneva Weisenthal_Basic Income v Job Guarantee

Tcherneva has written about the UBI versus Job Guarantee debate, including this contribution (pdf) to a special issue of the journal Basic Income Studies (paywall).

She also spoke about this last November at a roundtable convened by Dissent magazine:
continue reading…


Is Economic Inequality Immoral?

Michael Stephens | September 7, 2015

Harry Frankfurt, whose formal concept of “bullshit” is indispensable to both professional and everyday life, recently published an article for Bloomberg View arguing that (1) economic (income and wealth) inequality is, in and of itself, morally insignificant and (2) “egalitarianism” (being concerned about economic inequality in and of itself) is harmful. The article is an excerpt from a book he has coming out at the end of the month.

According to Frankfurt, egalitarianism is loosely based on the belief that “the possession by some of more money than others is morally offensive.” This belief is false, he says, and it leads us astray. Frankfurt suspects that what most of us are really — and justifiably, in his view — reacting to when we express moral reservations about inequality is the potentially abject condition of those lower down the income distribution; not simply because there are others who have more, but rather if those in the lower income or wealth percentiles do not have enough resources to achieve some substantive standard of well-being (“not a relative quantitative discrepancy but an absolute qualitative deficiency”). In other words, it is poverty, or, more broadly, the condition of not having “enough,” that is morally significant, rather than monetary inequality per se:

“Mere differences in the amounts of money people have are not in themselves distressing. We tend to be quite unmoved, after all, by inequalities between those who are very well-to-do and those who are extremely rich. The fact that some people have much less than others is not at all morally disturbing when it is clear that the worse off have plenty.”

Frankfurt goes further: not only is egalitarianism based on a false belief, it is itself morally disorienting. Being overly focused on other people’s incomes — on the mere quantitative relationships between incomes — he argues, interferes with our ability to determine our own substantive economic needs and interests. (“A preoccupation with the condition of others interferes, moreover, with the most basic task on which a person’s selection of monetary goals for himself most decisively depends. It leads a person away from understanding what he himself truly requires in order to pursue his own most authentic needs, interests, and ambitions.”)

From this perspective, it would seem to follow that a great deal of economic research on patterns of income or wealth distribution not only dwells on morally insignificant issues but, to the extent it is motivated by egalitarian concerns or draws public attention to supposedly trivial monetary differences, such work “contributes to the moral disorientation and shallowness of our time.” In fact, if we buy all this, we might even be compelled to say that income distribution research is less significant (and more harmful) than ever these days, since, as those who study the US distribution have pointed out, so much of the action lately is focused on the increasing distance between the top 1 percent and all the rest (or even the top 0.01 percent).

What should we say about this?

First, even if we grant Frankfurt everything he argues for, this would not necessarily require us to disregard economic inequality or do nothing to remedy it. There are other reasons to worry about inequality. There is, for instance, a macroeconomic case. Papadimitriou, Nikiforos, Zezza, and Hannsgen argue that the growing disparity in the US income distribution has been a major contributor to financial instability and threatens the sustainability of economic recovery. There are also normative political reasons for being concerned about excessive amounts of wealth and income being concentrated in the hands of the few. So even if we’re persuaded by Frankfurt, we would have to weigh these other considerations (macroeconomic, political, social, and so on) against the moral harm he believes results from preoccupation with income differences.*

Second, the implications of Frankfurt’s argument are not necessarily as conservative (for lack of a better term) as some might imagine. continue reading…


Folbre on the Consequences of Ignoring Unpaid Work

Michael Stephens | August 31, 2015

Nancy Folbre, who recently joined the Levy Institute roster as senior scholar, was interviewed by Dollars & Sense on the topic of how conventional economics and policymaking deal with (or rather, fail to deal with) household and caring labor:

D&S: What is the practical consequence of not measuring household labor and production? Are economic policies and institutions different, especially in their impact on women, than what they would be if household labor were fully reflected in statistics on total employment or output?

NF: One macroeconomic consequence is a tendency to overstate economic growth when activities shift from an arena in which they are unpaid to one in which they are paid  (all else equal). When mothers of young children enter paid employment, for instance, they reduce the amount of time they engage in unpaid work, but that reduction goes unmeasured. All that is counted is the increase in earnings that results, along with the increase in expenditures on services such as paid childcare.

As a result, rapid increases in women’s labor force participation, such as those typical in the United States between about 1960 and the mid-1990s, tend to boost the rate of growth of GDP. When women’s labor force participation levels out, as it has in the United States since the mid 1990s, the rate of growth of GDP slows down. At least some part of the difference in growth rates over these two periods simply reflects the increased “countability” of women’s work.

Consideration of the microeconomic consequences helps explain this phenomenon. When households collectively supply more labor hours to the market, their market incomes go up. But they have to use a substantial portion of those incomes to purchase substitutes for services they once provided on their own—spending more money on meals away from home (or pre-prepared foods), and child care. So, the increase in their money incomes overstates the improvement in their genuinely disposable income.

A disturbing example of policy relevance emerges from consideration of the changes in public assistance to single mothers implemented in the United States in 1996, which put increased pressure on these mothers to engage in paid employment. Many studies proclaimed the success because market income in many of these families went up. But much of that market income had to be spent paying for services such as child care, because public provision and subsidies fell short.

The rest of the interview is posted here at the Triple Crisis blog.

The LIMTIP (Levy Institute Measure of Time and Income Poverty) team has done extensive empirical work around this sort of framework, in which the time and/or money required to meet household production needs is integrated into an assessment of economic well-being — with the aim of providing a clearer picture of the depth and breadth of poverty in many countries.


A Cycle of Financial Fragility?

Greg Hannsgen | June 3, 2015


(click image above to enlarge)

Can a bull market founded largely on credit survive? A forthcoming Levy Institute working paper I wrote with Tai Young-Taft of Bard College at Simon’s Rock (link for those interested) represents an attempt to deal with the role of financial instability—along with other sources of economic fluctuations—in the dynamics of the economy. Here, I’ll focus mostly on the role of margin loans that are used by many investors and traders to leverage positions in stock. The model developed in the paper includes a role for several policy tools that might be used in attempts to stabilize the economy: a fiscal-policy rule with public production and unemployment rate targets, along with public-sector R&D, financial supervision and regulation, and a target for the inflation-adjusted interest rate on government debt.

Now, for the current situation. The figure above highlights one potential threat to stability designed to arise spontaneously in runs of the model: surges in the use of margin debt to finance investments in stock. The chart shows that the amount of such debt outstanding in the US relative to GDP rose sharply during the tech bubble and the period leading up to the financial crisis and recession of 2007–09, achieving a new peak each time. Subsequent financial market collapses led to cyclical declines in the use of this form of leverage. On average, for the first quarter of 2015, this ratio stood at more than .028, suggesting that the stock market’s vigor again rests to a great extent on heavy borrowing (see figure). (Moreover, some different but closely related uses of credit, such as bond issues that wind up financing stock buybacks, have also contributed to the post-recession bull market.) This column from the New York Times’s Floyd Norris from a couple of years back discussed evidence that margin-credit cycles helped fuel cyclical movements in stock prices and the economy. His column displayed a longer but now outdated margin loan series.

In the model, margin loans can generate positive feedback effects: a cycle of increasing margin loan balances and rising stock prices, or vice-versa.  The story is similar to that of the “levered losses” in housing that took place in a number of countries earlier in this decade (see the recent book House of Debt for one account of the story, although even in this version of the story, I am inclined to see excessive optimism about the usual cure by wage and price adjustments); indeed, big, unsustainable run-ups in asset prices tend to be driven at least in part by credit booms. The situation shown in the figure is only one of many somewhat worrisome signs of market fragility. At the moment, fragility generally seems to be manifested most clearly in big increases in the quantities of various assets and liabilities relative to flow variables such as income and GDP, rather than in yield data.

More on the new paper and the model in it, for those inclined to look into it: continue reading…


How Do We End the Inequality Feedback Loop?

Michael Stephens | April 7, 2015

“As Hyman Minsky argued, there are many varieties of capitalism, some more stable than others—and, we can add, some more equitable than others.” — Pavlina Tcherneva

Pavlina Tcherneva has revisited her (in)famous inequality chart, which showed an ever-rising majority of the income growth during post-1970s economic expansions being captured by the wealthy (specifically the top 10 percent of income earners). In a recently released policy note, “When a Rising Tide Sinks Most Boats: Trends in US Income Inequality,” she has updated the numbers through 2013 and broken down the top decile further (top 1 percent and 0.01 percent), compared the results of including or excluding capital gains, and looked at what happens to the distribution of income growth when we expand our scope to the entire business cycle (Tcherneva looks at NBER-dated GDP cycles as well as “income cycles” based on real income data from Piketty and Saez).

Here are some of the results:

  • The capital gains discussion yields a somewhat counterintuitive result: when you exclude capital gains, the distribution of income growth between the top 1 percent and bottom 99 percent appears more unequal. Tcherneva explains that this is because even though the bottom 99 percent have barely any capital gains income to speak of (2 percent of their income), their shrinking wage incomes meant that, from 2009-13, these meager capital gains were making the difference between declining (excl. cap gains) and merely stagnating (incl. cap gains) incomes for the bottom 99 percent.
  • When we look at entire economic cycles (peak-to-peak GDP or peak-to-peak income) rather than just the expansion periods, the picture doesn’t look any better. In fact, it’s worse. As Tcherneva notes, although the wealthy tend to lose disproportionately more of their income very early on during downturns, they recover faster and stronger than the bottom 90 percent: “Since the ’70s, when we look at the period beginning only one year after a downturn [and ending at the subsequent peak of the income cycle], the cycle delivers between 78 percent and 107 percent of the income growth to the wealthiest 10 percent of families.” In other words, she writes, “the way we grow recovers the incomes of the top 10 percent first.”
  • She also includes the chart below, which, though not quite as striking at first glance, becomes even more galling as you let it sink in. The chart shows the shares of income growth captured by the bottom 99.99 percent and the top 0.01 percent. By contrast with the other charts (90 percent vs. 10 percent and 99 percent vs. 1 percent), the blue bar is still bigger than the red, but keep in mind we’re talking about a tiny fraction of a fraction of the population in that red bar — around 16,000 families — and as you can see, they gobbled up practically one-third of all the income growth in the last full expansion period (2001-07), with the same worrying trend suggesting itself.

Tcherneva_Levy Institute_When a Rising Tide Sinks Most Boats_Fig3

Tcherneva also comments on the need to reorient our broader policy approach (such that it exists) to combating inequality. One of the points she makes is that we give up too much terrain when we focus disproportionately on raising top marginal income tax rates. continue reading…


What’s Wrong with David Leonhardt’s NYT Piece on Inequality?

Pavlina Tcherneva | February 20, 2015

The New York Times made waves this week with another piece on inequality, saying that it has not risen since 2007. The article was based on this paper by GWU’s Stephen Rose.

The article also suggests that expansions are not a good way of looking at trends in inequality (as I have done in the past, also covered by the NYT). Instead, one needs to look at the business cycle. It also concludes that, thankfully, because of government tax and transfer policies, inequality has not been “that bad” over the last few years and governments can clearly do something about it.

So what’s wrong with this picture?

Here is the graph that appeared in the NYT (I’ve reproduced it below showing only the bottom 90% and top 10% of families using the same Saez data).


Now let’s reproduce the exact same graph, using the same data but excluding capital gains. The trends reverse. The bottom 90% of families have lost proportionately more than the top 10% since 2007.


Now, I am not fond of excluding capital gains (I am in favor of annuitizing them), because they are very important to income dynamics, but still, without capital gains, the bottom 90% lose proportionately more (relative to the top 10%) than with them.

In any case, if we include the top 1% and the 0.01% in the above two charts, one would find that they do lose proportionately more including or excluding capital gains.

However, the bottom line is this: this exercise gives an extremely narrow look at income distribution trends, based on a very incomplete picture. As Nick Bunker from the Washington Center for Equitable Growth put it:

“Reasonable people can disagree about the best benchmark. But what isn’t reasonable is using a peak as a benchmark to claim inequality hasn’t increased over an incomplete business cycle.”

So let’s look at complete business cycle data. The following chart shows how the distribution of income growth has evolved from one peak to another.


There is a clear shift in trend after the ’80s. During 3 out of the last 4 complete business cycles, the wealthy 10% have gotten a proportionately greater share of the growth. And in the last full business cycle (2000-2007), they got all of the growth, while incomes of the bottom 90% fell. Yes, since 2007, both groups shared the losses about equally, but why should we be surprised that the top 10% shouldered 45% of the decline? (Again, this is not a complete business cycle yet!)

We live in a casino economy driven by serial asset bubbles, where the incomes of the wealthy (and not just their capital gains) are increasingly tied to stock market performance.

So when the biggest bubble in human history popped, the wealthy families lost a ton of income. At the same time middle class households fell into poverty, lost their decent jobs and pay, and got unemployment insurance or food stamps from the government. Can one really conclude from this that inequality is not “that bad”?

As an example, inequality will not be “that bad” if one person in the US earned 100% of all the national income, and then the ‘evil government’ (or ‘benevolent dictator’; take your pick) decided to tax most it and then gave transfers to the rest. But is this the kind of ‘better’ income distribution that we are aiming for? Aren’t we all talking about an economy where most people have decent jobs, decent wages, decent salary growth prospects, and a decent chance to participate and share in that growth?

There are many ways to slice and dice this data.

I have looked at expansions because they answer a very specific question: Once the economy returns to some normalcy and promises to deliver prosperity, to whom does it keep its promise? And the answer is, increasingly to the top 10%.

The problem with the NYT article is not the inequality chart, even though it shows an incomplete and thus misleading business cycle picture. The problem is the conclusion: that ‘taxes’ and ‘transfers’ are the solution to the deep structural economic problems that are causing the generation and distribution of incomes to be so inequitable from the very outset.

So the next time someone tells you that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” you can respond “no, increasingly it sinks most.”

(cross-posted from New Economic Perspectives)


“The Top 10 Percent Get It All”

Michael Stephens | January 30, 2015

Yesterday on the floor of the US Senate, Sen. Bernie Sanders delivered a speech featuring Pavlina Tcherneva’s widely-discussed chart, which illustrates how the bottom 90 percent’s share of income gains during economic expansions has shrunk to (literally) less than nothing. Watch (beginning at 26min50s):


Looking Beyond the Tax System to Fight Inequality

Michael Stephens | January 22, 2015

In the context of last Tuesday’s State of the Union, Pavlina Tcherneva was interviewed by Wall Street Journal Live‘s Sara Murray on the issue of the effectiveness of policies to combat widening income inequality.


In the interview, Tcherneva comments that while some of the progressive taxation policies outlined by the President may be part of the solution, we ought to be focusing more on raising wages at the bottom and middle of the income distribution through the promotion of tight full employment — with direct job creation policies playing a key role. She notes that the President’s proposal to create more infrastructure jobs would help on that front, but that we are still well short of full employment.*

Tcherneva memorably captured the increasing severity of the problem — economic expansions that have left the bottom 90 percent further and further behind — with the chart below. She lays out a brief summary of her alternative, “bottom-up” approach to fiscal policy in this one-pager: “Growth for Whom?

Tcherneva_Distribution of Income Growth_Levy OP 47

*(Note that Tcherneva’s concept of tight full employment would ultimately bring the unemployment rate below what is conventionally understood as “full employment.” With a maximal job guarantee policy, anyone ready and willing to work would have access to a paid job in the public, nonprofit, or social entrepreneurial sectors.)


Deflation in the Air

Greg Hannsgen | December 22, 2014

A New York Times article over the weekend delves into the history and rationale of the 2 percent inflation target, beloved of central bankers everywhere and a fairly recent innovation. Of course, the US Federal Reserve has a dual mandate, which includes both inflation and employment goals. The Fed said last week that it was most likely to start raising interest rates around the summer of 2015, but many countries’ central banks are moving in the opposite direction, solely because inflation is falling short of their targets.

Private borrowers—who usually have higher propensities to spend than lenders—benefit from an easing of the burden of debt when wages and prices move broadly upward. Also, for governments with debts that they cannot service with their own currency, inflation eases the burden of making payments, as tax revenues tend to rise in step with nominal wages and prices. Of course, falling prices have the opposite effect. The resulting changes in spending reverberate through the rest of the economy. Recent data show that there exists a strong threat of deflation around the world in economies such as Japan and the Eurozone, where core inflation has recently turned negative.

The effect of deflation on spending by indebted households was noted by Keynes in Chapter 19 of the General Theory (pp. 268-269). Michal Kalecki also argued to this effect in a critique of the so-called Pigou effect (falling prices would supposedly restore full employment by raising the inflation-adjusted wealth of households). The New York Times emphasizes instead the point that lower inflation makes it easier for some inflation-adjusted wages to fall, given that wages do not move downward as easily as upward. It also mentions that modest inflation permits central banks to lower real short-term interest rates below zero. Thoughts that deflation might be coming in much of the world are very sobering.


Exclusive Growth

Michael Stephens | October 8, 2014

This chart, a version of which Pavlina Tcherneva posted on Twitter, has been getting a lot of attention (e. g., NYTimes, Vox, NPRWaPo, Slate, Moyers & Co.).

Tcherneva_Distribution of Income Growth_Levy OP 47

The chart shows, for each postwar economic recovery in the United States (trough to peak), the share of income growth going to the bottom 90 percent and top 10 percent of the income distribution. And the trend is unmistakable. This is how Tcherneva puts it in a new One-Pager: “For the vast majority of people in the United States, economic growth has become little more than a statistical sideshow.”

This is a picture of an economy that has been broken for some time; well before the cartoonish result in the last partial expansion (during that 2009-12 period, the top 10 percent received 116 percent of the income growth [possible because the bottom 90 percent saw their incomes drop] — and the top 1 percent alone captured 95 percent of the gains).

But Tcherneva also has a particular view of how we can change our policies to help solve this problem. She writes about two ways of improving the income distribution through public policy:

“One is to work within existing structures and reallocate income through various income redistribution schemes after income has been earned. The other is to change the very way income is earned from the outset.”

The way we normally use fiscal and monetary policy to stabilize the economy represents a lost opportunity to affect the income distribution through the second channel, she says. Most conventional policies operate by aiming primarily to boost investment and growth, with the employment effects following as mere byproducts of this process. These conventional stabilization tools (including fiscal pump-priming) don’t do enough to disrupt what she describes as a broken “income-generating mechanism”; one that benefits capital over labor and the incomes of high-wage workers over low-wage workers.

Tcherneva argues that direct job creation policies are different. They can stabilize the economy by targeting the incomes and employment prospects of people at the bottom of the income scale, rather than, for instance, waiting for the effects of improved bank balance sheets to trickle down through the income distribution. By having the government fund employment in the public, nonprofit, and social entrepreneurial sectors for all who are ready and willing to work, her “bottom-up” reorientation of fiscal policy is meant to bring about full employment while raising incomes at the bottom of the distribution faster than those at the top.

As Tcherneva points out, severe income inequality doesn’t just raise concerns about distributive justice, it’s also a serious economic problem: for instance, the Levy Institute’s last strategic analysis argued that inequality has been a significant driver of financial instability in the US economy.

Download the One-Pager: “Growth for Whom?” (pdf)


Related: An older version of this chart appeared in a Levy working paper, and more recently, in an article published in the Journal of Post Keynesian Economics.