Archive for the 'Income' Category

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 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.

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?

66 responses so far

Nov 08 2012

Tax progressivity in the US: Do the rich pay more than their fair share? The evidence indicates NO!

Just How Progressive Is the Tax System? – Economix Blog – NYTimes.com

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:

Discussion Questions:

  1. 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?
  2. Why do the richest 5% in America actually pay a lower level of tax on average than the 5% below them?
  3. 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?
  4. 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?

128 responses so far

Sep 14 2009

Jobless Growth? How could this be?

Economic Growth Yet to Hit Job Market – washingtonpost.com

In AP and IB Economics, we understand the importance of macroeconomics to policymakers, whose primary macroeconomic goal is growth. Economic Growth, defined as an increase in a nation’s total output of goods and service (and therefore the national income), is desidred not only for the sake of growth itself (producing more stuff requires more resources, and may not necessarily make the average citizen better off), rather growth is needed in order to achieve full-employment of a nation’s labor force.

Growth is good. This tenet of economics is rooted in two basic observations: 1. Growth leads to an improvement in the average standard living of a nation’s people, and 2. Growth is needed to employ the growing workforce of a nation experiencing population growth and immigration.

America’s work force is a diverse group of people of all skill levels. 150 million strong, the nation’s workforce requires a healthy national economy with strong investment and consumption to maintain enough jobs to keep unemployment low.   In the last two years, however, the prospect of employment in America has diminished as the number of people out of work has grown to nearly 15 million.

Involuntary unemployment is perhaps the most serious cost of an economic slowdown. A willing and able worker (or 15 million of them!), skilled in mind and body, unable to find prouductive work, represents a monumental failure of a nation’s economy. Policies aimed at promoting growth are in fact aimed at creating employment.

The costs of unemployment affect not only the unlucky  individuals who have have lost their job. Social costs include increased crime and poverty, psychological costs include stress, anxiety, loss of self-image and depression. The economic costs are myriad. Unemployed workers become dependent on the rest of society for support, in one way or another. Benefits for the unemployed payed by the government require greater budget deficits or increased tax burden on the employed. The large pool of jobless citizens seeking work puts downward pressure on the wages of those still working, as employers find it difficult to keep paying high wages while demand for their products has fallen and millions of job seekers are willing to work for less.

The families and friends to whom unemployed workers turn for help find their already stretched incomes spread even thinner. Without steady incomes, the unemployed consume less, putting further strain on an already depressed economy. Deflation can result from unemployment, which can lead to futher layoffs by pessimistic firms, excacerbating the situation and plunging the economy into what’s known as a deflationary spiral.

For all the reasons above, policymakers strive to promote growth. When monetary policy fails to incite spending, the government must pick up the slack, hence the stimulus package so discussed in America today. China’s stimulus of over $500 billion (twice that of the US, as a percentage of its GDP) has had a positive effect on both GDP and the job market.

Employment levels in China began to recover over the past three months in the latest evidence of the rapid rebound in the economy from the international financial crisis as a result of heavy public investment.

Yin Weimin, China’s labour minister, said there had been a modest increase in the number of jobs in the economy during June, July and August, reversing the sharp slump in employment which began last October.

America’s stimlus has also begun to restore growth, but the rise in employment has so far not occured:

Despite an emerging economic expansion, businesses were sufficiently skittish about the future that the job market continued its long, steep decline in August, according to a new government report Friday. The unemployment rate rose to 9.7 percent, from 9.4 percent, as employers shed jobs for the 20th straight month, the Labor Department said.

“Our clients tell us they will not hire in anticipation

of a recovery, but will wait until they see it,” said Jonas Prising, an executive vice president at Manpower, the giant employment services firm. “In a normal recession, people would now start to feel more comfortable and start hiring, but nobody is doing that today. They’ll do it when they see real orders and real business.”

The “silver lining” of the latest unemployment figures is hardly encouraging. The rise in unemployment is not as sharp as over most of the last year. In other words, workers are definitely worse off, but not as badly as they could have been if things were as dismal as they were earlier this year.

While the unemployment rate, as seen on the graph to the right, has risen almost every month since August of 2008, the rate at which the rate has increased has begun to slow. In other words, the economy is probably close to “bottoming out”.

The tally of lost jobs now stands at 6.9 million since the beginning of the recession in December 2007. But the rate of job losses has been declining, if haltingly, since winter. The 216,000 jobs eliminated in August is down from 276,000 cut in July and a peak of 741,000 lost in January.

Here’s what I find most interesting from in the current data. The unemployment rate’s recent rise may actually be a sign that the economy is beginning to recover. Recovery means growth in output, which should mean less unemployment. However, if workers who have been unemployed for a long time, and have therefore stop seeking employment suddenly feel more optimistic about the prospects of getting a job and begin seeking work again, then the nation’s unemployment rate actually rises! How’s that for “silver lining”? The 216,000 additional people added to the list of unemployed may have already been out of work but since they were notactively seeking employment they were not included in last month’s data.

The tricky thing about macroeconomic policy is this:  Monetary and fiscal policies can put billions of dollars into the nation’s banks and households’ and firms’ pockets through tax breaks, government bailouts, subsidies, infrastructure spending and “troubled asset swaps”… but all the money and income in the world will not lead the nation towards full-employment unless the nation’s consumers and producers feel confident. I teach my students that national income is made up of the sum of wages, interest, rent and profit; its spending consists of consumption, investment, government spending and net exports… but without the “big C” of confidence, expansionary policies aimed at increasing employment will come to nought. Confidence, according to John Maynard Keynes, is an animal spirit, a trait of humans beyond the assumption of rational behavior. Until confidence is restored, America’s output and employment levels will remain low.

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May 05 2009

3 million job openings! Good news… or is it?

Help Wanted: Why That Sign’s Bad – BusinessWeek

This week’s cover story in Business Week magazine tells an interesting story about unemployment in America. Listen to the podcast or follow the link above to read more of this story:

Surprising statistic: In the midst of the worst recession in a generation or more, with 13 million people unemployed, there are approximately 3 million jobs that employers are actively recruiting for but so far have been unable to fill. That’s more job openings than the entire population of Mississippi.

Sound like good news? It’s not. Instead, it’s evidence of an emerging structural shift in the U.S. economy that has created serious mismatches between workers and employers. People thrown out of shrinking sectors such as construction, finance, and retail lack the skills and training for openings in growing fields including education, accounting, health care, and government. At the same time, the worst housing bust in decades has left the unemployed frozen in place. They can’t move to get work because they can’t sell their homes.

In IB and AP Economics we teach that there are three types of unemployment an economy may experience, ranked roughly in order from the least undesirable to the most undesirable (from a macroeconomic perspective):

  • Frictional unemployment: This accounts for people who are “in between jobs” or fresh out of college looking for their first jobs.
  • Structural unemployment: This is caused by the changing structure of an economy. As America’s manufacturing sector shrinks and its education and health care sectors grown, those whose skills lie in manufacturing become structurally unemployed.
  • Cyclical unemployment: This is also called “demand-deficient” unemployment because it is caused by a fall in aggregate demand or overall spending in the economy.

America today is clearly experiencing all three types, but due to the particular circumstances of the recession, the American worker is finding it it harder than ever to match his skills with an appropriate job. Below are some of the industries with the most and the fewest job openings today:

Most openings:

  • Education
  • Health care
  • Government
  • Energy (such as wind, oil, natural gas)
  • “Analytics” (i.e. business data analysis by firms such as IBM)

Fewest openings:

  • Construction
  • Manufacturing

Unfortunately for the large numbers of unemployed construction and factory workers, the kinds of skills required to work in the fields with the most job openings are prohibitively different from those learned in their previous industries. In addition to a mismatch of skills between the industries in which jobs are being lost and those in which labor is in demand, there is also a geographic mismatch in the labor market. Below are the states with the least and the most job openings:

Most job vacancies (states with large energy sectors: oil, natural gas and windmills)

  • North Dakota
  • Wyoming

Least job vacancies (states with large manufacturing and construction sectors)

  • North Carolina
  • California
  • Michigan

Historically, the geographic factor has not posed an issue to American workers, and when jobs opened up in one part of the country, Americans would pack up and move where necessary to find work. Today, however, with the collapse of house prices, more and more Americans find themselves stuck with a house they can’t sell in a part of the country where they can’t find a job.

To paraphrase the podcast above, “the US in danger of looking like Europe. The European job market has been described as ‘sclerotic'; people don’t respond to want ads because of the generous long-term unemployment benefits offered by European governments. Europeans have historically been geographically immobile due to nationalist ties to their home countries.” Today, the US job market reflects some of the same “sclerosis” as that of Europe.

America is facing the perfect storm of unemployment. At the same time that the economy is undergoing its most significant structural change since the Industrial Revolution brought millions of American workers from the farm fields into factories, it is facing the most significant decline in private sector spending (consumption, investment and exports) since the great depression. Put this together with the relative immobility of the American worker caused by the housing crisis, and unemployment has climbed to its highest level in three decades.

This interesting story ends with a glimmer of hope for the American worker:

To fight this sclerosis, the White House is using $3.5 billion of the stimulus for training, while boosting support for community colleges. Classes for factory workers seeking entry-level health-care careers have shown some success.

The truth is, displaced workers may have to move down a few rungs as they switch careers because their skills are irrelevant in their new roles… Many laid-off Wall Street financial engineers still haven’t absorbed that, says Fred Wilson, a partner in Union Square Ventures, a New York venture capital firm. “For them to take a job that pays a lot less, they have to make a meaningful change in their lifestyle. And that is an issue.”

Employers need to bend as well, recognizing that the candidates they’re seeking may not exist. Mark Mehler, co-founder of CareerXRoads, a staffing strategy consulting firm in Kendall Park, N.J., tells employers: “You’re hiring potential….You’ve got to train them.”

A mismatch of work and workers is never a good thing. But smart policy—combined with realism on the part of employers and job seekers—can minimize the disruption.

Discussion Questions:

  1. In what way may structural unemployment be a sign of a healthy economy, rather than a sick one?
  2. Part of the Obama stimulus package includes increased benefits for unemployed Americans. How may this pose an obstacle to reducing unemployment in America?
  3. Historically, the natural rate of unemployment in most European economies has been higher than that of the United States. Why is this?
  4. Do you think America’s NRU will return to its historic level (4-6%) when the economy eventually recovers from the current crisis? Why or why not?

39 responses so far

Feb 25 2009

Starbucks instant coffee: a sign of the times?

Chicago, Seattle first markets to get instant Starbucks — chicagotribune.com

I consider myself a Seattleite. I discovered the joy of drinking coffee in the home of Starbucks, Tully’s, Seattle’s Best, and countless local coffee shops that inhabit every corner of the rainy city.http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Guardian/Pix/pictures/2008/02/25/0225_starbucks_460x276.jpg To me, the experience of drinking a latte, machiato, cappuccino, or simply a “coffee of the week” encapsulates the smells, soft decor and friendly greetings from the barista at my favorite coffee shop. Living overseas, I have turned to Starbucks over and over for a taste of Seattle and a feeling of home.

There is no denying that the Starbucks experience is one that does not come cheap. Here in Switzerland, a grande latte, my drink of choice, sets the consumer back nearly $7. In an economic downturn such as that the US and the rest of the world are experiencing right now, such expenses are often the first to be reduced by cash strapped consumers. In fact, I recently began bringing a thermos of homemade coffee to work every day, rather than stopping at the Starbucks at the train station as I had done for several months not long ago.

Starbucks, which recently announced the closure of hundreds of its locations around the world, is actually expanding its product line while simultaneously closing down shops. It may not be in the way you expect, though. Soon, I’ll be able to get my $7 cup of coffee for as little as $1, it will just come in a different form:

Starbucks Corp. will launch its new instant coffee product next month in Chicago and its home turf of Seattle, with a full-scale, national offensive set for the fall.

Starbucks on Tuesday formally unveiled the new product, called Via Ready Brew. It will be available in Starbucks retail outlets in the Chicago and Seattle areas on March 3, Howard Schultz, the company’s chief executive, said in an interview with the Tribune.

Instant coffee from the king of gourmet blends? Sounds suspicious. Well, it’s all about economics, you see. Starbucks coffee is a normal good, one for which demand falls as incomes fall, as evidenced by falling sales at its coffee shops around the world. In order to maintain its customer base even as incomes fall, a company like Starbucks must expand its product line to include inferior products, or those for which demand increases even as incomes fall. Clearly, instant coffee is viewed as an inferior product, due to its significantly lower price and reputation of poor quality.

Furthermore, Starbucks’ new product is in response to increased competition from lower-end fast food chains that traditionally did not compete in the coffee market, but recently have begun offering various blends and varieties of coffee to the price-sensitive coffee consumers, further harming business at Starbucks’ higher end coffee outlets.

Via marks Starbucks second announcement this month of a cheaper menu alternative, as the famous coffee chain struggles in a weak economy. Starbucks is also now selling pairings of coffee and breakfast offerings for $3.95.

Starbucks’ troubles have occurred at the same time value-oriented fast-food chains, particularly Oak Brook-based McDonald’s Corp., have thrived. McDonald’s owes part of its success to improving the quality of its basic coffee, and expanding into new drinks like iced coffee, and, more recently, flavored specialty coffees such as lattes and cappuccinos.

Still, Schultz said McDonald’s coffee offensive hasn’t really affected Starbucks: “We have a lot of respect for McDonald’s as a company. But we have not seen any significant issues with McDonald’s share of the coffee business affecting Starbucks.”

McDonald’s offers “a different product, a different value proposition,” he said. In fact, Schultz said McDonald’s should expand the overall coffee market, thus leading some customers to “trade up” to Starbucks.

Despite the CEO’s claims that Starbucks and McDonald’s coffees are “different” products, it is clear by his firm’s decision to expand into the instant coffee market that Starbucks is concerned about the loss of customers to lower-end coffee retailers.

The theory of firm behavior as studied in AP and IB Economics teaches us that firms in oligopolistic or monopolistically competitive markets, such as that for coffee shops in the US, tend to compete using non-price methods such as product differentiation and advertising. Rather than slashing the prices of all of its coffee in the face of a recession and falling consumer incomes, Starbucks has instead diversified its product line to include lower end options for consumers whose sensitivity to price and demand for gourmet coffee have been adversely affected by the weak economy.

29 responses so far