Jan 08 2013

Income inequality as a Market Failure

The prevalence of income inequality in free market economies indicates that inequality may be the result of a market failure. Those who are born rich are more likely to become rich, while individuals who are born poor are more likely to live a life of relative poverty. In a “free” market, it is believed, all individuals possess an equal opportunity to succeed, but due to a mis-allocation of resources in a purely market economy, this may not always be the case.

The resources I refer to here are those required for an individual to escape poverty and earn a higher income. These include public and merit goods that those with high incomes can afford to consume, while those in poverty depend on the provision of from the state, including:

  • Good education
  • Dependable health care
  • Access to professional networks and the employment opportunities they provide

Whenever a market failure exists, it can be argued that there is a role for government in regulating the market to achieve a more optimal distribution of resources. When it comes to income inequality, government intervention typically comes in the form of a tax system that places a larger burden on the rich, and a system of government programs that transfer income from the rich to poor, including welfare benefits, unemployment benefits, healthcare for low income households, public schools and support for economic development in poor communities.

Many politicians and some economists like to argue that income inequality is not as evil as many people make it out to be, and that greater income inequality can actually increase the incentive for poorer households to work harder to get rich, contributing to the economic growth of the nation as a whole. Allowing the rich to keep more of their income, in this way, leads more people to want to work hard to get rich, as they will be able to enjoy the rewards of their hard work.

Another common argument is that higher income inequality leads to social and economic disruptions that can slow economic growth and bring an economy into a recession or a depression, since the middle and lower income groups in the nation will not benefit from a relatively equal share of the nation’s output, and over time will see their living standards drop and their overal productivity and contribution to national output decline.

The debate over inequality and what government can or should do about it is at ther root of many other economic debates today. A recent study by the Political Economy Research Institute of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, provides support for those who support the second argument above. Here are some of the main discoveries from the study, “Searching for the Supposed Benefits of Higher Inequality: Impacts of Rising Top Shares on the Standard of Living of Low and Middle-Income Families”.

Discoveries of the study:

Some believe that increasing inequality leads to more growth, others argue that it leads to less growth.

A more interesting question is whether rising income inequality leads to a higher standard of living for everyone in society, or whether standards of living decline for those in the middle as the percentage of total income earned by the top 10% increases.

The study found that the higher the percentage of income earned by the top 10%, the incomes of those in the middle and bottom of the income distribution actually decreases. Not just the percentage of total income, but the actual incomes of these groups falls as the rich get richer.

The popular belief is that reducing taxes on the rich increases the amount of investment in the economy, creating more jobs and helping increase incomes of the middle and lower income households. This theory is sometimes referred to as “trickle down” economics, as the increased incomes and wealth at the top will “trickle down” and raise the incomes of the rest of society as well.

However, actual data shows that a 10% increase in the share of total income earned by the top 10% of income earners leads to a 2% decline in the incomes of households in the middle of the income distribution (based on data for the period between 1979 and 2005).

It’s not just that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, rather that the rich getting richer makes the poor (and the middle income earners) poorer. This is a breakthrough discovery.

Possible explanations:

  • The rich contribute to growth abroad, rather than at home: Rich households’ higher incomes allow them to consume more domestic output and imported goods and services, but it also allows them to save more, which sometimes translates into more investment. But more investment does not always translate into domestic economic growth, since investment is now global. A rich American saving more does not mean American firms will have access to cheaper capital, as domestic savings may fuel investment in emerging markets or elsewhere abroad. Foreign investment resulting from savings among rich Americans counts as a leakage from America’s circular flow of income, leaving less income within America for the middle and low income earners. Essentially, much of the income earned by the rich is saved abroad, contributing to employment and growth overseas, reducing incomes of the middle class at home.
  • Reduced support for the provision of public goods: When examining living standards, more than just income must be considered, but also access to education, provision of health care and other public goods such as public safety and security. Richer households are less interested in things like public schools and social welfare programs, as they do not rely on these for their own well-being. Therefore, the richer the top 10% become,  the greater their incentive to work against efforts to fund public education, public health and public safety. The underprovision of these social welfare enhancing goods by govenrment further widens the gap between the living standards of the richest and the middle class. Economist Robert Reich refers to this phenomenon as “the secession of the successful”.
  • Wage competition reduces incomes in the middle: Business owners, who make up a large percentage of the richest households in America, increase their own incomes to the extent that they can drive down the wages they pay their employees. In this way a higher share of national income is enjoyed by a smaller proportoin of society. The minimum wage has barely increased over time, and workers have less bargaining power as fewer workers than ever are members of labor unions; this has allowed business owners to pay lower wages over time, concentrating an increasing share of national income in business profits, and less and less in wages for workers.

In the video below, the study’s author shares some of the findings discussed above. Watch the video and respond to the discussion questions that follow.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Summarize the argument against a government taking measures to redistribute its nation’s income to reduce the level of inequality between the rich and the poor.
  2. Summarize the argument for a government reducing inequality.
  3. Popular belief holds that “a rising tide lifts all boats”. In other words, if the total income of a nation is increasing, it does not matter if the rich are enjoying a larger percentage of the higher income than the poor and middle, because everyone is likely to be better off than if total income were not growing at all. Does the study discussed above support this popular view? Why or why not?
  4. What measures can a government take to assure that higher national income leads to higher standards of living for everyone in society, including the middle class and the poor? Why might the highest income earners be opposed to such attempts by government?
  5. Should government intervene to reduce the level of income inequality in society?

About the author:  Jason Welker teaches International Baccalaureate and Advanced Placement Economics at Zurich International School in Switzerland. In addition to publishing various online resources for economics students and teachers, Jason developed the online version of the Economics course for the IB and is has authored two Economics textbooks: Pearson Baccalaureate’s Economics for the IB Diploma and REA’s AP Macroeconomics Crash Course. Jason is a native of the Pacific Northwest of the United States, and is a passionate adventurer, who considers himself a skier / mountain biker who teaches Economics in his free time. He and his wife keep a ski chalet in the mountains of Northern Idaho, which now that they live in the Swiss Alps gets far too little use. Read more posts by this author

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