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:
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.
Some believe that increase 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.
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.
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.
Summarize the argument for a government reducing inequality.
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?
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?
Should government intervene to reduce the level of income inequality in society?
According to a blog post in the New York Times from April 2009, America’s America’s “progressive” tax system is not as progressive as many may believe it to be:
Research has found that many states and local governments have… regressive tax systems… that might offset the progressiveness of [US] federal tax rates.
The research from Citizens for Tax Justice — a liberal organization that advocates “fair taxes for middle and low-income families” — uses 2008 data for all federal, state and local taxes combined. It found that the average effective tax rate is 29.8 percent, and that including state and local taxes makes the tax curve look much less steep:
In the graph above, the horizontal axis shows the income group. The vertical axis shows the percentage of income that the average member of that group pays in taxes. Taxes include all federal, state and local taxes (personal and corporate income, payroll, property, sales, excise, estate, etc.). Incomes include cash income, employer-paid FICA taxes and corporate profits net of taxable dividends.
The article continues:
The group also finds that in 2008 the share of total federal, state and local taxes paid by each income group was relatively close to the share of income that that group brings in, at least as compared to comparable 2006 numbers for effective federal tax rates:
The horizontal axis shows the income group. Taxes include all federal, state and local taxes (personal and corporate income, payroll, property, sales, excise, estate, etc.). Incomes include cash income, employer-paid FICA taxes and corporate profits net of taxable dividends.
The research discussed above poses several interesting questions about the make-up of a nation’s tax revenues. Despite popular belief, it appears that the rich in America do not pay “more than their fair share”, as many argue is the case. Study the graphs carefully, and answer the questions that follow:
Based on the data above, do the rich in America pay an unfair proportion of the total taxes the US government collects? Why or why not?
Why do the richest 5% in America actually pay a lower level of tax on average than the 5% below them?
How much of America’s total income is earned by the richest 1% compared to the poorest 20%? Does America’s progressive tax system destroy the incentive for Americans to work hard and become rich? Why or why not?
Use the data to construct a Lorenz Curve for the United States. Does the gap between the richest and the poorest Americans surprise you? What kinds of changes could be made to the tax system to narrow the gap between the top income earners and the middle and low income earners in America? Should this be done, why or why not?
Some say that Global Warming may be the greatest market failure of all. This podcast was originally broadcast in January of 2007 while George Bush was still in office. The commentator claims that global warming is “nothing but one giant market failure”, arguing that the United States therefore must get serious about tackling the problem.
The allocation of resources towards carbon emitting industries has almost undoubtedly contributed to the warming of the planet over the last half century. Only recently have governments begun taking active measures to reduce the impact of industry on the environment through greater regulation of polluting industries, employing corrective taxes in some instances and market-based approaches to pollution reduction in others.
US President Barack Obama, unlike his predecessor, appears to be serious about correcting the “market failure” represented by global warming:
Obama’s budget, announced Thursday, looks to fund a host of new energy programs, from carbon sequestration to electric transmission upgrades. It would also provide the EPA with a $10.5 billion budget for 2010, a 34% increase over the likely 2009 budget. Nineteen million dollars of that would be used to upgrade greenhouse gas reporting measures.
The Interior Department would get $12 billion for 2010. The agency would use part of the money to asses the availability of alternative energy resources throughout the country.
Funding comes from elaborate carbon “cap and trade” program, which puts a price on emitting pollution and is the core of Obama’s plans. Starting in 2012, the government would sell permits giving businesses the right to emit pollution, generating $646 billion in revenue through 2019.
During those years, the number of available permits would gradually decline, forcing businesses to buy the increasingly scarce, and costly, rights to pollute on an open market. Obama hopes that the rising cost of permits will encourage businesses to invest in clean technologies as a cheaper alternative to meeting pollution mandates, helping to cut greenhouse gas production to 14% below 2005 levels by 2020.
Below is a diagram that illustrates precisely how the Obama cap and trade plan is meant to work. Notice that between 2012 and 2020 the cost to firms of emitting pollution will increase dramatically, while at the same time the total amount of carbon emissions in the US economy will fall due to regular reductions in the number of permits issued to industry.
The Obama cap and trade scheme is not the first experiment with such a market based approach to externality reduction:
Europe established such a market in 2005. But some E.U. governments allocated too many credits at the outset, causing the value of some permits to fall by half and making it relatively easy for large polluters to simply buy credits rather than cut emissions. Overall emissions grew in 2005 and 2006. In 2008, E.U. emissions dropped 3%; 40% of that drop was attributed to the carbon trading scheme.
Europe’s cap and trade program took a few years before it began having any noticeable impact on the emission of carbon by European industry. While unpopular among the firms who are forced to pay to pollute, the fall in emissions in Europe shows that a market for carbon may be effective in forcing firms “internalize” the costs of carbon emissions, which until now have been born by society and the environment in the form of the negative effects of global warming.
Why do you think tradeable pollution permits are more politically viable than a direct tax on firms’ carbon emissions?
Why did Europe’s carbon emission permit market fail to reduce emissions over its first couple of years of implementation?
Is making firms pay to pollute a good idea in the middle of a recession? Do you think that we should even be worrying about the environment when millions of people are losing their jobs and entire industries are struggling to survive?
Teaching at an international school affords me the privilege of encountering and learning from truly unique and diverse individuals. Last week, my Economics classes were lucky to have as a guest speaker one very interesting and inspirational young man named Andrew Cunningham. Andrew, originally from Vermont, graduated from Duke University in 2008 and has helped co-found a non-governmental organization (NGO) focused on promoting grassroots strategies for economic development. WISER (Women’s Institute for Secondary Education and Research) serves a community of 35,000 in Kenya’s Muhuru Bay, an area where the per capita income is around $1 a day and 38% of the population is HIV positive.
Traditionally, less than 5% of young girls complete primary school in Muhuru Bay. In the town’s history, only ONE girl has ever gone to university (she would become the only Muhuru Bay native to complete her PhD and would eventually co-found WISER with Andrew). A combination of tradition, culture, and most importantly poverty had prevented improvements in the plight of woman in this poor corner of Africa. What was needed, decided Andrew and his founding partners, was an all-girls boarding school where opportunities for young women were promoted and academic achievement encouraged and fostered. WISER opened the community’s first all-girls secondary school in 2010 to 130 local girls who had made it through primary school.
Beyond female education, WISER have embarked on several other development projects in the last year and a half. In his visit to our IB Economics class, Andrew told the story of human development in Muhuru Bay as occurring primarily in three realms.
Education is a primary and fundamental strategy for eradicating poverty. A nation’s human capital is its most vital resource, and the road to prosperity requires an effective education system that does not discriminate based on race, gender, or socioeconomic status. In Muhuru Bay, which is 14 hours by car across un-paved roads from Kenya’s capitol, the education system had failed to achieve meaningful results, both for boys and girls. Student performance on national examinations across the primary grade levels had historically averaged around 11% passing rates. Boys out-performed girls, but as a whole only about one in ten Muhuru Bay children passed the examination required for admittance to secondary school in Kenya.
WISER wished to improve this dismal statistic. If they were going to build a secondary school for girls, they would need to first get girls to pass the national exam for entrance to secondary school, or else their new building would be full of empty desks.
Andrew first talked to my class about the traditionaldevelopment community (think World Bank, UNICEF, USAID) approach to promoting education in Africa. You are probably thinking the way to help these kids is to give them resources to improve their education. Build better schools, give them textbooks and school supplies, maybe uniforms, build a library, electricity in the classroom, chalk boards, heck, how about we give them laptop computers! All of these ideas represent the traditional development community’s approach to improving education in poor countries. The problem is that these strategies focus only on the inputs into education, and completely fail to look at the output.
Inputs and outputs are common topics of discussion in any Economics class. To produce anything, three resources are required: land, labor, and capital. The traditional approach to improving education in Africa focused primarily on the land and capital. Things such as pens, notebooks, laptops, and new libraries are great, but they have little actual impact on what gets learned in a school. The neglected factor was the labor (i.e. the teachers!) In Muhuru Bay, teachers were paid so miserably and worked in such dismal conditions that the incentive to actually improve their students’ results was just too weak! With passing rates at 11% on national exams, WISER set about figuring out how to use incentives to improve the outputs of education in Muhuru Bay.
A simple and relatively low-cost plan was put into action. Teachers were told that if their students’ scores increased by only 15% on the exams, they would receive a 100% increase in their salary. Andrew and WISER worked with the national education ministry to develop interim exams that could be given quarterly to help the teachers measure their students’ improvement before the annual national examination.
With only minimal investments on the land and capitalresources (i.e. textbooks and classroom materials) in Muhuru Bay schools, and by spending less than $10,000 on teacher raises, the passing rate among Muhuru Bay schools increased in one year from 11% to 36%. Hundreds of students, boys and girls, who would not have been able to enter secondary school the previous year, instead passed the exam and were eligible for a secondary education, a crucial step towards a better future!
The teachers’ incentive pay program was such a success in Muhuru Bay last year that the state government has taken notice and intends to implement it in other rural communities throughout Kenya. By focusing on the outputs (student learning), rather than the inputs (classroom resources) WISER has assured that when their all-girls school opens in January, its seats will be filled with qualified students who successfully completed their primary education.
The second topic of Andrew’s discussion with my IB Economics classes focused on health and sanitation, specifically solving the problem of open defecation (“OD” is a technical term used in the development community referring to the fact that in many poor communities basic latrines are non-existent, and therefore people shit in the open). OD in Muhuru Bay contributed to the poor health and low life expectancy of locals; According to Andrew an estimated 60 people were dying each year of cholera, a disease spread via human waste.
In the health realm of traditional economic development programs, the same basic dilemma between focusing on the inputs or the outputs had stymied previous attempts to reduce OD in Muhuru Bay. Recently, an outside aid organization had made loans to the community to build 30 public latrines. Within a year, however, the latrines had fallen into disrepair and were essentially useless. When Andrew and his team asked the community members why they had let the latrines fall into such a poor state, their answer was predictable. These were not their latrines, they belonged to the aid organization that had built the latrines. If they were broken, the aid organization could fix them! Such logic reflects a common problem in economics, that of the tragedy of the commons. Because the latrines were public, no one owned them. Because no one owned them, no one cared for them. When the latrines fell out of repair, people quickly reverted back to OD, and instances of cholera and other diseases increased once more.
WISER decided to tackle this problem using a similar approach as the one used to fix primary education in Muhuru Bay, by focusing on the output, rather than the inputs. In this case, the goal was simple: create incentives for people to build their OWN latrines, which they would then have an incentive to take care of and use. The strategy for promoting personal latrines they decided to employ is one that has been successfully implemented throughout the developing world, and is now funded by UNICEF, which trains facilitators to go into a community and in a very short time, and at a very low cost, incentivize the locals to take sanitation into their own hands and build their own latrines.
Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) is a mind-blowing and shockingly blunt way to promote sanitation. Rather than spending thousands of dollars to build public latrines, the CLTS approach brings community members together for an afternoon of discussion and education about sanitation issues. Locals are asked to take an index card and go to “where they shit” and collect a sample of their own waste. A large pile of human waste is placed on a table in front of a room full of locals right next to a large selection of delicious foods. The facilitator then goes about discussing basic facts related to OD in the community, such as “If you added up all the shit your community produces in a year, how many donkeys would it weigh as much as?” or, “How many bags of rice would you have to eat to create this much shit?” In the mean time, of course, hundreds of flies have descended on the pile of waste in the front of the room, and the community members look on in utter disgust as the flies jump from the feces to the food and back again.
At the end of the lecture, the facilitator turns to the food and says, “Well, it’s time for lunch, who’s hungry?” In utter disgust, the locals ask the facilitator if he has gone mad. The lesson, of course, is that the food and water the community consumes is most likely being contaminated by the waste they produce and deposit in the open around their village. Within a few weeks of the CLTS project in Muhuru Bay, 256 new latrines were built by the community members themselves. Whereas previously, only around 15% of the locals used latrines regularly, after the CLTS project around 75% had access to the “facilities”.
The total cost of the CLTS sanitation project? Around $55, a tiny fraction of the cost of building the public latrines that had previously been neglected by the community. By focusing on the outputs rather than the inputs, real development in the health of the community was achieved at a very low financial cost.
The final approach to human development in Muhuru Bay Andrew discussed with my classes focused on the economic empowerment of community entrepreneurs. Micro-lending is a much talked about and widely used development strategy that provides financial credit or technology loans to entrepreneurs in poor communities to create small businesses, ideally ones with a socially beneficial purpose. Watch the first 12 minutes of the video below to get a better idea of the history and purpose of micro-finance as a strategy for achieving economic development.
In Muhuru Bay, the micro-lending scheme Andrew has pioneered involved not financial capital, but physical capital(i.e. technology).
WISER was able to secure several technology donations, including a copy machine, several laptop computers with cellular internet connections, a foot pump for water, and a digital LCD projector. WISER then solicited loan requests from several “young entrepreneurs”. Young men and women wrote business plans outlining how they would use the technology loans to generate income for themselves and the community, and provide services that would benefit others in the Muhuru Bay community. The technology would not be donated to the recipients; rather they would be required to pay back the value of the capital through their business revenues.
It is simply amazing how a few pieces of second-hand technology, items that we in the rich North would take for granted as relatively common and thus of very little social or economic value, can completely change a poor community in Africa for the better. Here’s how some of the capital Andrew and WISER loaned to young entrepreneurs were put to use to achieve meaningful development in Muhuru Bay:
The copy machine was installed and powered by a generator. It was the first such machine ever installed in Muhuru Bay. Local businesses, students, job seekers and other could now, for a few cents, photo-copy their documents locally, avoiding the two hour drive previously required for such a service.
The laptops were installed in an internet café and made available to local students and businesses. Farmers and fisherman could check product prices in the cities hours away, increasing efficiency and bargaining positions when middle-men came to town to buy their produce. Job openings in the city newspapers’ classifieds could be printed and posted for the local community to see, improving information symmetry between the poor countryside and the cities where job opportunities existed. The cost of access to these services was cheap, yet the entrepreneurs who were granted the laptop loan were able to pay back the cost of the technology in no time at all, and the community as a whole benefited from their existence.
My favorite entrepreneurial venture involved the LCD projector. This piece of technology, which now hangs from the ceiling of thousands of classrooms around the rich world, had never before been seen in Muhuru Bay. You may think it ended up in a classroom or in an office building, but no; the entrepreneurs who received the projector hooked it up to a satellite dish which captured and projected English Premier League football matches onto the wall of a large room in a local building. The business was to sell tickets to local football fans who were more than happy to pay to watch English football matches in full color on a wall-sized screen. Before the projector, dozens would have huddled around a tiny television with poor reception to watch football matches. The “football theater” business was the most successful of all, and paid back its loan fastest.
All three of these entrepreneurial endeavors were very low cost, using donated technologies. The reason for their successes, however, must be attributed to the model for implementation. They were not simply “given” to the community. Such a strategy would certainly have led to the same “tragedy of the commons” experienced when the outside aid organization funded the construction of public latrines. The capital would have been neglected and fallen into disrepair. By lending the technology to businesses, however, the incentive for innovative and socially beneficial ventures was created, and a business model was developed to best utilize the resources in a profit-earning, sustainable manner. With very little inputs, fantastic outputs were achieved, enriching not only the entrepreneurs, but the entire Muhuru Bay community.
Andrew’s visit to Zurich International School was eye-opening in many ways. He brought to light both the successes of WISER and other community projects in rural Kenya, but also shined a light on the failures of the traditional development community’s agenda. When I think about the hundreds of billions of dollars that have been committed to economic development in Africa over the past decades, and on into future decades, I wonder whether the diplomats and the politicians in the “aid community” have any idea how much has been accomplished on the ground in places like Muhuru Bay thanks to community-based organization like WISER.
With so little, so much can be accomplished. The poor of Africa and the world need resources, but more importantly they need education, health and sanitation, and business opportunities so that they can enjoy the benefits of development from the bottom up. Development aid, as it has traditionally been distributed, comes from the top down, funneled through national governments. Waste and corruption are rampant, and typically only a fraction of what has been given ends up on the ground in places like Muhuru Bay. Even when it does, the tragedy of the commons often results in inefficiency and waste, as the “inputs” are managed and distributed from the top down, leading to uncertainty of ownership and misaligned incentives once the resources are on the ground.
Perhaps aid from the outside is still needed, but Andy’s visit showed me and my students that something much more basic lies at the core of successful economic development. Education focusing on outputs rather than inputs, sanitation focusing on outputs rather than inputs, and entrepreneurship that empowers business leadership, have improved the lives of thousands in one Kenyan community. What could such a re-thinking of development strategies do for the rest of Africa and the developing world?
Fair trade schemes aim to get more of the money we spend on our stuff into the hands of the workers in less developed countries where they originate. Some examples of goods produces in fair trade cooperatives in poor countries include fruits, tea, coffee and cocoa. Some handicrafts and textiles are also available from Fair trade programs as well.
It is estimated that approximately 7.5 million producers in the developing world participate in fair trade programs, producing $5 billion worth of output.
a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks greater equity in international trade. It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalized producers and workers – especially in the South.
Fair Trade organisations (backed by consumers) are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade”.
Fair trade as a strategy for economic development is controversial, as many argue that either fails at raising the incomes of the farmers it is supposed to serave or that it incentivizes farmers to remain in the low-productivity agricultural sector rather than seeking higher productivity jobs in manufacturing, thereby contributing to poverty in poor countries.
Below are two videos that proclaim the benefits of free trade. After watching the videos, discuss the benefits of fair trade with your class.
Outline the possible advantages of a country specializing in manufactured goods instead of primary products.
What factors explain the growth in importance of multinational corporations over recent decades? Illustrate your answer where possible by making reference to your own or other countries. Do multinational corporations work in favor of or against the interests of Less Developed Countries?