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Posts Tagged ‘income inequality’

Low global growth – the new norm?

In the blog post, Global warning, we looked at the use of unconventional macroeconomic policies to deal with the slow pace of economic growth around the world. One of the articles was by Nouriel Roubini. In the linked article below, he argues that slow economic growth may be the new global norm.

At the centre of the problem is a fall in the rate of potential economic growth. This has been caused by a lack of investment, which has slowed the pace of innovation and the growth in labour productivity.

The lack of investment, in turn, has been caused by a lack of spending by both households and governments. What is the point in investing in new capacity, argue firms, if they already have spare capacity?

Low consumer spending is partly the result of a redistribution of income from low- and middle-income households (who have a high marginal propensity to consume) to high-income households and corporations (who have a low mpc). Low spending is also the result of both consumers and governments attempting to reduce their levels of debt by cutting back spending.

Low growth leads to hysteresis – the process whereby low actual growth leads to low potential growth. The reason is that the unemployed become deskilled and the lack of investment by firms reduces the innovation that is necessary to embed new technologies.

Read Roubini’s analysis and consider the policy implications.

Article
Has the global economic growth malaise become the ‘new normal’? The Guardian, Nouriel Roubini (2/5/16)

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by ‘hysteresis’ and how the concept is relevant in explaining low global economic growth.
  2. Why has there been a reduction in the marginal propensity to consume in recent years? What is the implication of this for the multiplier and economic recovery?
  3. Explain what Roubini means by ‘a painful de-leveraging process’. What are the implications of this process?
  4. How important are structural reforms and what forms could these take? Why has there been a reluctance for governments to institute such reforms?
  5. ‘Asymmetric adjustment between debtor and creditor economies has also undermined growth.’ Explain what Roubini means by this.
  6. Why are governments reluctant to use fiscal policy to boost both actual and potential economic growth?
  7. What feasible policy measures could be taken to boost actual and potential economic growth?
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The rise of the machines

What will production look like in 20 years time? Will familiar jobs in both manufacturing and the services be taken over by robots? And if so, which ones? What will be the effect on wages and on unemployment? Will most people be better off, or will just a few gain while others get by with minimum-wage jobs or no jobs at all?

The BBC has been running a series looking at new uses for robots and whether they will take people’s jobs? This complements three reports: one by Boston Consulting one by Deloitte and an earlier one by Deloitte and Michael Osborne and Carl Frey from Oxford University’s Martin School. As Jane Wakefield, the BBC’s technology reporter states:

Boston Consulting Group predicts that by 2025, up to a quarter of jobs will be replaced by either smart software or robots, while a study from Oxford University has suggested that 35% of existing UK jobs are at risk of automation in the next 20 years.

Jobs at threat from machines include factory work, office work, work in the leisure sector, work in medicine, law, education and other professions, train drivers and even taxi and lorry drivers. At present, in many of these jobs machines work alongside humans. For example, robots on production lines are common, and robots help doctors perform surgery and provide other back-up services in medicine.

A robot may not yet have a good bedside manner but it is pretty good at wading through huge reams of data to find possible treatments for diseases.

Even if robots don’t take over all jobs in these fields, they are likely to replace an increasing proportion of many of these jobs, leaving humans to concentrate on the areas that require judgement, creativity, human empathy and finesse.

These developments raise a number of questions. If robots have a higher marginal revenue product/marginal cost ratio than humans, will employers choose to replace humans by robots, wholly or in part? How are investment costs factored into the decision? And what about industrial relations? Will employers risk disputes with employees? Will they simply be concerned with maximising profit or will they take wider social concerns into account?

Then there is the question of what new jobs would be created for those who lose their jobs to machines. According to the earlier Deloitte study, which focused on London, over 80% of companies in London say that over the next 10 years they will be most likely to take on people with skills in ‘digital know-how’, ‘management’ and ‘creativity’.

But even if new jobs are created through the extra spending power generated by the extra production – and this has been the pattern since the start of the industrial revolution some 250 years ago – will these new jobs be open largely to those with high levels of transferable skills? Will the result be an ever widening of the income gap between rich and poor? Or will there be plenty of new jobs throughout the economy in a wide variety of areas where humans are valued for the special qualities they bring? As the authors of the later Deloitte paper state:

The dominant trend is of contracting employment in agriculture and manufacturing being more than offset by rapid growth in the caring, creative, technology and business services sectors.

The issues of job replacement and job creation, and of the effects on income distribution and the balance between work and leisure, are considered in the following videos and articles, and in the three reports.

Videos
What is artificial intelligence? BBC News, Valery Eremenko (13/9/15)
What jobs will robots take over? BBC News, David Botti (15/8/14)
Could a robot do your job? BBC News, Rory Cellan-Jones (14/9/15)
Intelligent machines: The robots that work alongside humans BBC News, Rory Cellan-Jones (14/9/15)
Intelligent machines: Will you be replaced by a robot? BBC News, John Maguire (14/9/15)
Will our emotions change the way adverts work? BBC News, Dan Simmons (24/7/15)
Could A Robot Do My Job? BBC Panorama, Rohan Silva (14/9/15)

Articles
Technology has created more jobs in the last 144 years than it has destroyed, Deloitte study finds Independent, Doug Bolton (18/8/15)
Technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed, says 140 years of data The Guardian, Katie Allen (18/8/15)
Will a robot take your job? BBC News (11/9/15)
Intelligent Machines: The jobs robots will steal first BBC News, Jane Wakefield (14/9/15)
Robots Could Take 35 Per Cent Of UK Jobs In The Next 20 Years Says New Study Huffington Post, Thomas Tamblyn (14/9/15)
The new white-collar fear: will robots take your job? The Telegraph, Rohan Silva (12/9/15)
Does technology destroy jobs? Data from 140 years says no Catch news, Sourjya Bhowmick (11/9/15)

Reports
Takeoff in Robotics Will Power the Next Productivity Surge in Manufacturing Boston Consulting Group (10/2/15)
Agiletown: the relentless march of technology and London’s response Deloitte (November 2014)
Technology and people: The great job-creating machine Deloitte, Ian Stewart, Debapratim De and Alex Cole (August 2015)

Questions

  1. Which are the fastest growing and fastest declining occupations? To what extent can these changes be explained by changes in technology?
  2. What type of unemployment is caused by rapid technological change?
  3. Why, if automation replaces jobs, have jobs increased over the past 250 years?
  4. In what occupations is artificial intelligence (AI) most likely to replace humans?
  5. To what extent are robots and humans complementary rather than substitute inputs into production?
  6. “Our analysis of more recent employment data also reveals a clear pattern to the way in which technology has affected work.” What is this pattern? Explain.
  7. Why might AI make work more interesting for workers?
  8. Using a diagram, show how an increase in workers’ marginal productivity from working alongside robots can result in an increase in employment. Is this necessarily the case? Explain.
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The rich discuss poverty

The World Economic Forum has been holding its annual meeting in the up-market Swiss ski resort of Davos. Many of the world’s richest and most powerful people attend these meetings, including political leaders, business leaders and representatives of various interest groups.

This year, one of the major topics has been the growth in inequality across the globe and how to reverse it. According to a report by Oxfam, Wealth: Having it all and wanting more:

The richest 1 per cent have seen their share of global wealth increase from 44 per cent in 2009 to 48 per cent in 2014 and at this rate will be more than 50 per cent in 2016. Members of this global elite had an average wealth of $2.7m per adult in 2014.

Of the remaining 52 per cent of global wealth, almost all (46 per cent) is owned by the rest of the richest fifth of the world’s population. The other 80 per cent share just 5.5 per cent and had an average wealth of $3851 per adult – that’s 1/700th of the average wealth of the 1 per cent.

Currently, the richest 85 people in the world have the same amount of wealth as the poorest 50% of the world’s population. It might seem odd that those with the wealth are talking about the problem of inequality. Indeed, some of those 85 richest people were at the conference: a conference that boasts extremely luxurious conditions. What is more, many delegates flew into the conference in private jets (at least 850 jets) to discuss not just poverty but also climate change!

Yet if the problem of global inequality is to be tackled, much of the power to do so lies in the hands of these rich and powerful people. They are largely the ones who will have to implement policies that will help to raise living standards of the poor.

But why should they want to? Part of the reason is a genuine concern to address the issues of increasingly divided societies. But part is the growing evidence that greater inequality reduces economic growth by reducing the development of skills of the lower income groups and reducing social mobility. We discussed this topic in the blog, Inequality and economic growth.

So what policies could be adopted to tackle the problem. Oxfam identifies a seven-point plan:

Clamp down on tax dodging by corporations and rich individuals;
Invest in universal, free public services such as health and education;
Share the tax burden fairly, shifting taxation from labour and consumption towards capital and wealth;
Introduce minimum wages and move towards a living wage for all workers;
Ensure adequate safety-nets for the poorest, including a minimum income guarantee;
Introduce equal pay legislation and promote economic policies to give women a fair deal;
Agree a global goal to tackle inequality.

But how realistic are these policies? Is it really in the interests of governments to reduce inequality? Indeed, some of the policies that have been adopted since 2008, such as bailing out the banks and quantitative easing, have had the effect of worsening inequality. QE drives up asset prices, particularly bond, share and property prices. This has provided a windfall to the rich: the more of such assets you own, the greater the absolute gain.

The following videos and articles look at the problem of growing inequality and how realistic it is to expect leaders to do anything significant about it.

Videos and podcasts
Income inequality is ‘brake on growth’, Oxfam chief warns Davos France 24, Winnie Byanyima (22/1/15)
Davos dilemma: Can the 1% cure income inequality? Yahoo Finance, Lizzie O’Leary and Shawna Ohm (21/1/15)
Richest 1% ‘Will Own Half The World’s Wealth By 2016′ ITN on YouTube, Sarah Kerr (19/1/15)
The Price of Inequality BBC Radio 4, Robert Peston (3/2/15 and 10/2/15)

Articles
Richest 1% will own more than all the rest by 2016 Oxfam blogs, Jon Slater (19/1/15)
Global tax system can cut inequality The Scotsman, Jamie Livingstone (23/1/15)
A new framework for a new age Financial Times, Tony Elumelu (23/1/15)
The global elite in Davos must give the world a pay rise New Statesman, Frances O’Grady (22/1/15)
New Oxfam report says half of global wealth held by the 1% The Guardian, Larry Elliott and Ed Pilkington (19/1/15)
Davos is starting to get it – inequality is the root cause of stagnation The Guardian, Larry Elliott (25/1/15)
Inequality isn’t inevitable, it’s engineered. That’s how the 1% have taken over The Guardian, Suzanne Moore (19/1/15)
Why extreme inequality hurts the rich BBC News, Robert Peston (19/1/15)
Eurozone stimulus ‘reinforces inequality’, warns Soros BBC News, Joe Miller (22/1/15)
Hot topic for the 1 percent at Davos: Inequality CNBC, Lawrence Delevingne (21/1/15)
Global inequality: The wrong yardstick The Economist (24/1/15)
A Richer World (a compendium of articles) BBC News (27/1/15)

Data
OECD Income Distribution Database: Gini, poverty, income, Methods and Concepts OECD
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income ONS

Questions

  1. Why has inequality increased in most countries in recent years?
  2. For what reasons might it be difficult to measure the distribution of wealth?
  3. Which gives a better indication of differences in living standards: the distribution of wealth or the distribution of income?
  4. Discuss the benefits and costs of using the tax system to redistribute (a) income and (b) wealth from rich to poor
  5. Go through each of the seven policies advocated by Oxfam and consider how practical they are and what possible objections to them might be raised by political leaders.
  6. Why is tax avoidance/tax evasion by multinational companies difficult to tackle?
  7. Does universal access to education provide the key to reducing income inequality within and between countries?
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Inequality and economic growth

What is the relationship between the degree of inequality in a country and the rate of economic growth? The traditional answer is that there is a trade off between the two. Increasing the rewards to those who are more productive or who invest encourages a growth in productivity and capital investment, which, in turn, leads to faster economic growth. Redistribution from the rich to the poor, by contrast, is argued to reduce incentives by reducing the rewards from harder work, education, training and investment. Risk taking, it is claimed, is discouraged.

Recent evidence from the OECD and the IMF, however, suggests that when income inequality rises, economic growth falls. Inequality has grown massively in many countries, with average incomes at the top of the distribution seeing particular gains, while many at the bottom have experienced actual declines in real incomes or, at best, little or no growth. This growth in inequality can be seen in a rise in countries’ Gini coefficients. The OECD average Gini coefficient rose from 0.29 in the mid-1980s to 0.32 in 2011/12. This, claims the OECD, has led to a loss in economic growth of around 0.35 percentage points per year.

But why should a rise in inequality lead to lower economic growth? According to the OECD, the main reason is that inequality reduces the development of skills of the lower income groups and reduces social mobility.

By hindering human capital accumulation, income inequality undermines education opportunities for disadvantaged individuals, lowering social mobility and hampering skills development.

The lower educational attainment applies both to the length and quality of education: people from poorer backgrounds on average leave school or college earlier and with lower qualifications.

But if greater inequality generally results in lower economic growth, will a redistribution from rich to poor necessarily result in faster economic growth? According to the OECD:

Anti-poverty programmes will not be enough. Not only cash transfers but also increasing access to public services, such as high-quality education, training and healthcare, constitute long-term social investment to create greater equality of opportunities in the long run.

Thus redistribution policies need to be well designed and implemented and focus on raising incomes of the poor through increased opportunities to increase their productivity. Simple transfers from rich to poor via the tax and benefits system may, in fact, undermine economic growth. According to the IMF:

That equality seems to drive higher and more sustainable growth does not in itself support efforts to redistribute. In particular, inequality may impede growth at least in part because it calls forth efforts to redistribute that themselves undercut growth. In such a situation, even if inequality is bad for growth, taxes and transfers may be precisely the wrong remedy.

Articles
Inequality ‘significantly’ curbs economic growth – OECD BBC News (9/12/14)
Is inequality the enemy of growth? BBC News, Robert Peston (6/10/14)
Income inequality damages growth, OECD warns Financial Times, Chris Giles (8/10/14)
OECD finds increasing inequality lowers growth Deutsche Welle, Jasper Sky (10/12/14)
Revealed: how the wealth gap holds back economic growth The Guardian, Larry Elliott (9/12/14)
Inequality Seriously Damages Growth, IMF Seminar Hears IMF Survey Magazine (12/4/14)
Warning! Inequality May Be Hazardous to Your Growth iMFdirect, Andrew G. Berg and Jonathan D. Ostry (8/4/11)
Economic growth more likely when wealth distributed to poor instead of rich The Guardian, Stephen Koukoulas (4/6/15)
So much for trickle down: only bold reforms will tackle inequality The Guardian, Larry Elliott (21/6/15)

Videos
Record inequality between rich and poor OECD on YouTube (5/12/11)
The Price of Inequality The News School on YouTube, Joseph Stiglitz (5/10/12)

Reports and papers
FOCUS on Inequality and Growth OECD, Directorate for Employment, Labour and Social Affairs (December 2014)
Trends in Income Inequality and its Impact on Economic Growth OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, Federico Cingano (9/12/14)
An Overview of Growing Income Inequalities in OECD Countries: Main Findings OCED (2011)
Redistribution, Inequality, and Growth IMF Staff Discussion Note, Jonathan D. Ostry, Andrew Berg, and Charalambos G. Tsangarides (February 2014)
Measure to Measure Finance and Development, IMF, Jonathan D. Ostry and Andrew G. Berg (Vol. 51, No. 3, September 2014)

Data
OECD Income Distribution Database: Gini, poverty, income, Methods and Concepts OECD
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income ONS

Questions

  1. Explain what are meant by a Lorenz curve and a Gini coefficient? What is the relationship between the two?
  2. The Gini coefficient is one way of measuring inequality. What other methods are there? How suitable are they?
  3. Assume that the government raises taxes to finance higher benefits to the poor. Identify the income and substitution effects of the tax increases and whether the effects are to encourage or discourage work (or investment).
  4. Distinguish between (a) progressive, (b) regressive and (c) proportional taxes?
  5. How will the balance of income and substitution effects vary in each of the following cases: (a) a cut in the tax-free allowance; (b) a rise in the basic rate of income tax; (c) a rise in the top rate of income tax? How does the relative size of the two effects depend, in each case, on a person’s current income?
  6. Identify policy measures that would increase both equality and economic growth.
  7. Would a shift from direct to indirect taxes tend to increase or decrease inequality? Explain.
  8. By examining Tables 3, 26 and 27 in The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13, (a) explain the difference between original income, gross income, disposable income and post-tax income; (b) explain the differences between the Gini coefficients for each of these four categories of income in the UK.
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Even more dwarfs and fewer but larger giants

In his 1971 book, Income Distribution, Jan Pen, a Dutch economist, gave a graphic illustration of inequality in the UK. He described a parade of people marching by. They represent the whole population and the parade takes exactly one hour to pass by. The height of each person represents his or her income. People of average height are the people with average incomes – the observer is of average height. The parade starts with the people on the lowest incomes (the dwarfs), and finishes with those on the highest incomes (the giants).

Because income distribution is unequal, there are many tiny people. Indeed, for the first few minutes of the parade, the marchers are so small they can barely be seen. Even after half an hour, when people on median income pass by, they are barely waist high to the observer.

The height is growing with tantalising slowness, and forty-five minutes have gone by before we see people of our own size arriving. To be somewhat more exact: about twelve minutes before the end the average income recipients pass by.

In the final minutes, giants march past and then in the final seconds:

the scene is dominated by colossal figures: people like tower flats. Most of them prove to be businessmen, managers of large firms and holders of many directorships and also film stars and a few members of the Royal Family.

The rear of the parade is brought up by a few participants who are measured in miles. Indeed they are figures whose height we cannot even estimate: their heads disappear into the clouds and probably they themselves do not even know how tall they are.

Pen’s description could be applied to most countries – some with even more dwarfs and even fewer but taller giants. Generally, over the 43 years since the book was published, countries have become less equal: the giants have become taller and the dwarfs have become smaller.

The 2011 Economist article, linked below, uses changes in Gini coefficients to illustrate the rise in income inequality. A Gini coefficient shows the area between the Lorenz curve and the 45° line. The figure will be between 0 and 1 (or 0% and 100%). a figure of 0 shows total equality; a figure of 1 shows a situation of total inequality, where one person earns all the nation’s income. The higher the figure, the greater the inequality.

The chart opposite shows changes in the Gini coefficient in the UK (see Table 27 in the ONS link below for an Excel file of the chart). As this chart and the blog post Rich and poor in the UK show, inequality rose rapidly during the years of the 1979–91 Thatcher government, and especially in the years 1982–90. This was associated with cuts in the top rate of income tax and business deregulation. It fell in the recession of the early 1990s as the rich were affected more than the poor, but rose with the recovery of the mid- to late 1990s. It fell again in the early 2000s as tax credits helped the poor. It fell again following the financial crisis as, once more, the rich were affected proportionately more than the poor.

The most up-to-date international data for OECD countries can be found on the OECD’s StatExtracts site (see chart opposite: click here for a PowerPoint). The most unequal developed county is the USA, with a Gini coefficient of 0.389 in 2012 (see The end of the American dream?), and US inequality is rising. Today, the top 1% of the US population earns some 24% of national income. This compares with just 9% of national income in 1976.

Many developing countries are even less equal. Turkey has a Gini coefficient of 0.412 and Mexico of 0.482. The figure for South Africa is over 0.6.

When it comes to wealth, distribution is even less equal. The infographic, linked below, illustrates the position today in the USA. It divides the country into 100 equal-sized groups and shows that the top 1% of the population has over 40% of the nation’s wealth, whereas the bottom 80% has only 7%.

So is this inequality of income and wealth desirable? Differences in wages and salaries provide an incentive for people to work harder or more effectively and to gain better qualifications. The possibility of increased wealth provides an incentive for people to invest.

But are the extreme differences in wealth and income found in many countries today necessary to incentivise people to work, train and invest? Could sufficient incentives exist in more equal societies? Are inequalities in part, or even largely, the result of market imperfections and especially of economic power, where those with power and influence are able to use it to increase their own incomes and wealth?

Could it even be the case that excessive inequality actually reduces growth? Are the huge giants that exist today accumulating too much financial wealth and creating too little productive potential? Are they spending too little and thus dampening aggregate demand? These arguments are considered in some of the articles below. Perhaps, by paying a living wage to the ‘tiny’ people on low incomes, productivity could be improved and demand could be stimulated.

Infographic
Wealth Inequality in America YouTube, Politizane (20/11/12)

Articles
The rise and rise of the cognitive elite The Economist (20/1/11)
Inequality in America: Gini in the bottle The Economist (26/11/13)
Pen’s Parade: do you realize we’re mostly dwarves? LVTFan’s Blog (21/2/11)
Here Are The Most Unequal Countries In The World Business Insider, Andy Kiersz (8/11/14)
Inequality in the World Dollars & Sense, Arthur MacEwan (Nov/Dec 14)
Britain is scared to face the real issue – it’s all about inequality The Observer, Will Hutton (19/1/14)
The tame inequality debate FundWeb, Daniel Ben-Ami (Nov 14)
Is inequality the enemy of growth? BBC News, Robert Peston (6/10/14)

Data
GINI index World Bank data
List of countries by income equality Wikipedia
The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13 ONS (see table 27)
Income Distribution and Poverty: Gini (disposale income) OECD StatExtract

Questions

  1. Distinguish between income and wealth. Is each one a stock or a flow?
  2. Explain how (a) a Lorenz curve and (b) a Gini coefficient are derived.
  3. What other means are there of measuring inequality of income and wealth other than using Gini coefficients (and giants and dwarfs!)?
  4. Why has inequality been rising in many countries over the years?
  5. How do (a) periods of rapid economic growth and (b) recessions affect income distribution?
  6. Define ‘efficiency wages’. How might an increase in wages to people on low incomes result in increased productivity?
  7. What is the relationship between the degree of inequality and household debt? What implications might this have for long-term economic growth and future financial crises? Is inequality the ‘enemy of growth’?
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Rich and poor in the UK

The ONS has just released its annual publication, The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income. The report gives data for the financial year 2012/13 and historical data from 1977 to 2012/13.

The publication looks at the distribution of income both before and after taxes and benefits. It divides the population into five and ten equal-sized groups by household income (quintiles and deciles) and shows the distribution of income between these groups. It also looks at distribution within specific categories of the population, such as non-retired and retired households and different types of household composition.

The data show that the richest fifth of households had an average pre-tax-and-benefit income of £81,284 in 2012/13, 14.7 times greater than average of £5536 for the poorest fifth. The richest tenth had an average pre-tax-and-benefit income of £104,940, 27.1 times greater than the average of £3875 for the poorest tenth.

After the receipt of cash benefits, these gaps narrow to 6.6 and 11.0 times respectively. When the effect of direct taxes are included (giving ‘disposable income’), the gaps narrow further to 5.6 and 9.3 times respectively. However, when indirect taxes are also included, the gaps widen again to 6.9 and 13.6 times.

This shows that although direct taxes are progressive between bottom and top quintiles and deciles, indirect taxes are so regressive that the overall effect of taxes is regressive. In fact, the richest fifth paid 35.1% of their income in tax, whereas the poorest fifth paid 37.4%.

Taking the period from 1977 to 2012/13, inequality of disposable income (i.e. income after direct taxes and cash benefits) increased from 1977 to 1988, especially during the second two Thatcher governments (1983 to 1990) (see chart opposite). But then in the first part of the 1990s inequality fell, only to rise again in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, with the Labour government giving greater cash benefits for the poor, inequality reduced once more, only to widen again in the boom running up to the banking crisis of 2007/8. But then, with recession taking hold, the incomes of many top earners fell and automatic stabilisers helped protect the incomes of the poor. Inequality consequently fell. But with the capping of benefit increases and a rise in incomes of many top earners as the economy recovers, so inequality is beginning to rise once more – in 2012/13, the Gini coefficient rose to 0.332 from 0.323 the previous year.

As far as income after cash benefits and both direct and indirect taxes is concerned, the average income of the richest quintile relative to that of the poorest quintile rose from 7.2 in 2002/3 to 7.6 in 2007/8 and then fell to 6.9 in 2012/13.

Other headlines in the report include:

Since the start of the economic downturn in 2007/08, the average disposable income has decreased for the richest fifth of households but increased for the poorest fifth.

Cash benefits made up over half (56.4%) of the gross income of the poorest fifth of households, compared with 3.2% of the richest fifth, in 2012/13.

The average disposable income in 2012/13 was unchanged from 2011/12, but it remains lower than at the start of the economic downturn, with equivalised disposable income falling by £1200 since 2007/08 in real terms. The fall in income has been largest for the richest fifth of households (5.2%). In contrast, after accounting for inflation and household composition, the average income for the poorest fifth has grown over this period (3.5%).

This is clearly a mixed picture in terms of whether the UK is becoming more or less equal. Politicians will, no doubt, ‘cherry pick’ the data that suit their political position. In general, the government will present a good news story and the opposition a bad news one. As economists, it is hoped that you can take a dispassionate look at the data and attempt to relate the figures to policies and events.

Report
The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13 ONS (26/6/14)

Data
Reference tables in The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2012/13 ONS (26/6/14)
The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, Historical Data, 1977-2012/13 ONS (26/6/14)
Rates of Income Tax: 1990-91 to 2014-15 HMRC

Articles
Inequality is on the up again – Osborne’s boast is over New Statesman, George Eaton (26/6/14)
Disposable incomes rise for richest fifth households only Money.com, Lucinda Beeman (26/6/14)
Half of families receive more from the state than they pay in taxes but income equality widens as rich get richer Mail Online, Matt Chorley (26/6/14)
Rich getting richer as everyone else is getting poorer, Government’s own figures reveal Mirror, Mark Ellis (26/6/14)
The Richest Households Got Richer Last Year, While Everyone Else Got Poorer The Economic Voice (27/6/14)

Questions

  1. Define the following terms: original income, gross income, disposable income, post-tax income, final income.
  2. How does the receipt of benefits in kind vary across the quintile groups? Explain.
  3. What are meant by the Lorenz curve and the Gini coefficient and how is the Gini coefficient measured? Is it a good way of measuring inequality?
  4. Paint a picture of how income distribution has changed over the past 35 years.
  5. Can changes in tax be a means of helping the poorest in society?
  6. What types of income tax cuts are progressive and what are regressive?
  7. Why are taxes in the UK regressive?
  8. Why has the fall in income been largest for the richest fifth of households since 2007/8? Does this mean that, as the economy recovers, the richest fifth of households are likely to experience the fastest increase in disposable incomes?
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The end of the American dream?

Growing inequality of income and wealth is a common pattern throughout the world. In the boom years up to 2008, the rich got a lot richer, but at least those on low incomes generally saw modest rises in their incomes. Since 2008, however, the continually widening gap between rich and poor has seen the poor and many on middle incomes getting absolutely poorer.

The problem is particularly acute in the USA. Indeed, in his 2012 State of the Union address, President Obama said that it was the ‘defining issue of our time.’

No challenge is more urgent. No debate is more important. We can either settle for a country where a shrinking number of people do really well, while a growing number of Americans barely get by. Or we can restore an economy where everyone gets a fair shot, everyone does their fair share, and everyone plays by the same set of rules.

The good news for the poor in the USA is that at last their incomes have stopped falling, thanks to stronger economic growth. But their share of the growth in GDP is tiny. As The Economist article states:

The main message is a grim one. Most of the growth is going to an extraordinarily small share of the population: 95% of the gains from the recovery have gone to the richest 1% of people, whose share of overall income is once again close to its highest level in a century. The most unequal country in the rich world is thus becoming even more so.

Apart from the ethical question of whether it is desirable for a society, already highly unequal, to become even more so, there is the question of whether this growth in inequality threatens economic recovery. Joseph Stiglitz argues that the rich have a low marginal propensity to consume and that this is threatening recovery.

Then there is the question of investment. Because most Americans have not seen any significant rise in incomes, it is easy for them to believe that the country cannot afford to invest more. And certainly it is difficult to persuade people that higher taxes are warranted to fund education, infrastructure or research.

The following articles consider the problem and its implications and look at various policy alternatives.

Articles and videos
Inequality: Growing apart The Economist (21/9/13)
What is income inequality, anyway? CNN, John D. Sutter (29/10/13)
Inequality is literally killing America Press TV (22/11/13)
It’s Economic Inequality Stupid – What to Do About the Biggest Crisis Facing America Huffington Post, Robert Creamer (14/11/13)
US Inequality Now Literally Off the Chart Truthout, Salvatore Babones (8/6/13)
Inequality moves to the front line of US politics Financial Times, Richard McGregor (20/11/13)
Is wealth inequality slowing growth? BBC News, Linda Yueh (21/11/13)
American Inequality in Six Charts The New Yorker, John Cassidy (18/11/13)
Income Inequality ‘Profoundly Corrosive’ Wall Street Journal, Larry Summers (19/11/13)
21 Charts On US Inequality That Everyone Should See Business Insider, Gus Lubin (12/11/13)

Data, information and reports
Income inequality in the United States Wikipedia
Inequality Data & Statistics Inequality.org
Income Main United States Census Bureau
World of Work Report 2013: Snapshot of the United States ILO
World of Work Report 2013 ILO
StatExtracts OECD (Search for Gini)

Questions

  1. How may income inequality be measured?
  2. Comment on the Gini coefficients in the above link to the StatExtracts site.
  3. Why has inequality grown in the USA?
  4. The Swiss have just voted in a referendum to reject a proposal to limit executive pay to 12 times that of the lowest paid worker in the same company. What are the arguments for and against the proposal?
  5. What features of an unequal society tend to perpetuate or even deepen that inequality over time?
  6. What features of a well functioning market economy would help to reduce income inequality?
  7. Are higher marginal tax rates and higher welfare payments the best way of reducing inequality? What other policy options are there?
  8. Compare the views of Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz on the effects of growing inequality on economic growth. How significant is the difference in the marginal propensity to consume of the rich and the poor in explaining the relatively low rate of US economic growth?
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Divided we stand

Divided we stand is the title of a new report by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Its sub-title is “Why inequality keeps rising”. The report shows how the gulf between rich and poor has widened in most countries, both developed and developing. As the introduction states:

In the three decades prior to the recent economic downturn, wage gaps widened and household income inequality increased in a large majority of OECD countries. This occurred even when countries were going through a period of sustained economic and employment growth.

The report analyses the major underlying forces behind these developments. Its conclusion is that inequality looks set to continue widening, especially with the worldwide economic slowdown and rise in unemployment. However, the report says that “there is nothing inevitable about growing inequalities. Globalisation and technological changes offer opportunities but also raise challenges that can be tackled with effective and well-targeted policies.”

So just what is the extent of inequality? How has it changed over time? And what can be done to reduce inequality? The webcast produced by the OECD to accompany the report looks at the problem, and the report and articles look at what can be done about it.

Webcast
Record inequality between rich and poor OECD (5/12/11)

Articles
Governments need will to fix growing inequality Times Colonist (Canada), Paul Willcocks (8/12/11)
Capitalism defies the laws of gravity Sydney Morning Herald, (7/12/11)
UK pay gap rises faster than any rich nation – OECD The Telegraph, (5/12/11)
The Income Inequality Boom: It’s Real and It’s Everywhere The Atlantic, Derek Thompson (6/12/11)
Income inequality growing faster in UK than any other rich country, says OECD Guardian, Randeep Ramesh (5/12/11)
OECD inequality report: how do different countries compare? Guardian datablog (5/12/11)
Inequality in Britain: faring badly in an unfair world Guardian (5/12/11)
OECD calls time on trickle-down theory Financial Times, Nicholas Timmins (5/12/11)
Wage inequality ‘getting worse’ in leading economies BBC News, Adam Fleming (5/12/11)

OECD Report and Documents
Governments must tackle record gap between rich and poor, says OECD OECD Press Release (5/12/11)
Divided we Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising – Introduction by Angel Gurría, OECD Secretary-General, at Press Conference OECD (5/12/11)
Divided we Stand: Why Inequality Keeps Rising – 4-Page Summary of Report (5/12/11)
An Overview of Growing Income Inequalities in OECD Countries: Main Findings OECD (5/12/11)

Questions

  1. Why may inequality be seen as a ‘bad thing’ for society as a whole and not just the poor?
  2. Does it matter for the poor if rich people’s incomes grow at a greater rate than those of the poor so long as the incomes of the poor do indeed grow?
  3. Explain what is meant by the Gini coefficient. What has happened to the Gini coefficient over the past few years across the world?
  4. Are there any common explanatory features in the economies of those countries where income inequality is growing rapidly? Similarly, are there any common explanatory features in the economies of those countries where income inequality is not growing, or growing only very slowly?
  5. What are the causes of rising inequality?
  6. Identify policies that can be adopted to tackle growing inequality.
  7. What problems arise from policies to reduce inequality by (a) reducing inequalities in disposable income; (b) providing more free services to all, such as healthcare and education? How might these problems be mitigated?
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Growing inequality in Russia

Inequality is growing in most countries. This can be illustrated by examining what has been happening to countries’ Gini coefficient. The Gini coefficient measures income inequality, where 0.00 represents perfect equality, with everyone in the country earning the same, and 1.00 represent perfect inequality, with one person earning all the country’s income. (Note that sometimes it is expressed as the ‘Gini index’, with 100 representing perfect inequality). In virtually all countries, the Gini coefficient has been rising. In the OECD countries it has risen by an average of 0.3% per annum over the past 25 years. The OECD average is now 0.31.

But despite the fact that the Gini coefficient has been rising, its value differs markedly from one country to another, as does its rate of change. For example, Finland’s Gini coefficient, at 0.26, is below the average, but it has been rising by 1.2% per annum. By contrast, Turkey’s Gini coefficient, at 0.41, is above the average and yet has been falling by 0.3% per annum.

The most unequal of the developed countries is the USA. According to OECD data, its Gini coefficient is 0.38, well above the values in the UK (0.34), Japan (0.33), Germany (0.30) France (0.29) and Denmark (0.26). What is more, inequality in the USA has been increasing by an average of 0.5% per annum since the mid 1980s.

According to the United Nations’ Human Development Report 2010, the USA’s Gini coefficient is even higher, at 0.41 (see Table 3 of the report). But this is still below that of Russia, with a figure of 0.44, a figure that has markedly worsened over time, along with those of other former Soviet countries. According to the report (page 72):

The worsening is especially marked in countries that were part of the former Soviet Union – which still have relatively low Gini coefficients because they started with low inequality. Transition has eroded employment guarantees and ended extensive state employment. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, 9 of 10 people in socialist countries were employed by the state, compared with 2 of 10 in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development economies. While the privileged elite (the nomenklatura) often attained higher material well-being, the measured differences in income were narrow.

The Gini coefficient for Russia is the same as the average of the 39 developing countries with the lowest level of human development &nbash; and developing countries are generally much less equal than developed ones. Of course, some developing countries have an even higher Gini coefficient: for Angola the figure is 0.59; for Haiti it is 0.60.

The following three webcasts look at aspects of the growing inequality in Russia.

Webcasts
Gap between rich and poor widens in Russia BBC News, Jamie Robertson (29/5/11)
Corruption slows Russian modernisation BBC News, Emma Simpson (29/5/11)
Corruption and poverty in Russia’s far east Al Jazeera (28/2/11)

Articles
Russia’s rich double their wealth, but poor were better off in 1990s Guardian, Tom Parfitt (11/4/11)
Russia’s growing wealth gap BBC News, Jamie Robertson (28/5/11)
A Country of Beggars and Choosers Russia Profile, Svetlana Kononova (16/5/11)
Rich and poor, growing apart The Economist (3/5/11)

Data
Distribution of family income – Gini Index CIA World Factbook (ranked by country in desending order)
Society at a Glance 2011 – OECD Social Indicators OECD: see particularly the Excel file 6. Equity Indicators: Income inequality (click on No if prompted about a linked workbook)
Russia Distribution of family income – Gini index Index Mundi
Chart of the week: inflation stoking inequality in China and India Financial Times, Andrew Whiffin (24/5/11)
List of countries by income equality Wikipedia

Reports
Growing Income Inequality in OECD Countries: What Drives it and How Can Policy Tackle it? OECD Forum on Tackling Inequality (2/5/11)
Human Development Report 2010 United Nations Development Programme

Questions

  1. Explain what is meant by the Gini coefficient. How does it relate to the Lorenz curve? What does a figure of 0.31 mean?
  2. Why has income inequality been growing in most countries of the world? Has the process of globalisation dampened or exacerbated this trend?
  3. What specific factors in Russia can explain the growing inequality?
  4. How is privatisation likely to affect income distribution??
  5. Why is it difficult to quantify the extent of inequality in Russia?
  6. What maxim of taxation has been used in setting income tax rates in Russia?
  7. What role does corruption play in determining the degree of inequality in Russia?
  8. What policy measures, if any, could realistically be adopted in Russia to reduce inequality? What constraints are there on adopting such policies?
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Bosses gain – workers’ pain

Two reports released by Incomes Data Services tell dramatically contrasting stories about pay in the UK. One report focuses on average pay in the public and private sectors, which are both likely to fall in real terms in 2011. Most public-sector workers will see a freeze in their wages and, whilst private-sector workers’ pay could rise by an average of 3%, this will still be below the rate of inflation. The press release Pay awards may rise but will trail inflation (6/1/11) to the report stated that:

Private sector pay settlements in 2011 could well be higher than in 2010, as long as the economic recovery remains on track. But following the latest increase in VAT, they are likely to trail inflation, meaning that the cost of living may be set to rise faster than average pay settlements for the second year running.

However, the press release to an earlier report, FTSE-100 bosses see earnings rise 55% (29/10/10), stated that:

FTSE-100 directors saw their total earnings boosted by an average of 55% while across the FTSE 350 as a whole total board pay went up by an average 45%, according to the latest Directors Pay Report, published by Incomes Data Services. (Year to June 2010)

On the back of these increases FTSE 100 chief executives took home £4.9 million on average in total earnings during the year.

Meanwhile, there is continuing public outcry over the levels of bank pay and bonuses. Despite billions of pounds of public money having been poured into banks to prevent their collapse, bank bosses are set to receive huge remuneration packages worth several million pounds in some cases. And, despite being condemned by the government, it seems there is little it can do to curb them.

So what are the causes of the growing income divide between those at the top and everyone else? And what are the economic consequences? The following articles explore the issues.

Articles: IDS reports
Year of pain predicted for workers.. while bosses’ salaries continue to grow Daily Record, Magnus Gardham (7/1/11)
Another 12 months of pay freeze misery for workers… but bosses enjoy a huge 55% salary increase Daily Mail, Becky Barrow (6/1/11)
Private-sector pay set to trail behind inflation People Management, Michelle Stevens (6/1/11)
Private pay deals to lag behind inflation Financial Times, Brian Groom (6/1/11)
UK boardroom pay rises 55% in an age of austerity Guardian, Simon Goodley and Graeme Wearden (29/10/10)
Private sector pay ‘to trail inflation’ in 2011 BBC News (6/1/11)
Staff morale warning over bosses’ pay rises Independent, Jon Smith (6/1/11)
‘Dose of reality’ call over top pay BBC Today Programme, Robert Peston, Brendan Barber and Garry Wilson (6/1/11)
‘Severe squeeze’ on average pay BBC Today Programme, Ken Mulkearn (Editor of the Incomes Data Services pay review) (6/1/11)
UK inflation rate rises to 3.7% BBC News , Ian Pollock (18/1/11)

Articles: bankers’ bonuses
Bank bonuses ‘to run to billions in 2011′ BBC News, (7/1/11)
Cameron says banks ‘should pay smaller bonuses’ BBC News, (9/1/11)
David Cameron warns RBS over bonuses Guardian, (9/1/11)
Banks say ‘no’ to bonus backdown Management Today, Andrew Saunders (7/1/11)
Banks to pay out billions in bonuses BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (6/1/11)
Why government can’t stop big bonus payments BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (7/1/11)
Diamond: ‘I am compelled to pay big bonuses’ BBC News blogs: Peston’s Picks, Robert Peston (11/1/11)

Data
Average Weekly Earnings Incomes Data Services

Questions

  1. Why are average earnings likely to be less than the rate of inflation in 2011?
  2. Why were the directors of the FTSE 100 companies paid an average 55% pay increase for the year to October 2010?
  3. To what extent can marginal productivity theory explain the huge increases of bosses of top companies?
  4. If remuneration committees base executive pay increases on the average of the top 25% of increases of equivalent people in other companies (to stop ‘poaching’), what will be the implications for executive pay rises over time?
  5. What market failures are there in determining executive pay?
  6. What will be the implications for staff morale if their earnings are falling in real terms while their bosses are receiving huge pay increases? Should these implications be taken into account when deciding executive remuneration packages?
  7. Are shareholders in FTSE 100 companies likely to welcome the pay increases of their top executives? If so, why? If not, why not?
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