Inequality 7.

According to the CIA, income inequality in the United States now is more extreme than in Red China.[1] So what? What matters is that a “rising tide lifts all boats,” as JFK said when arguing for a tax cut. However, some economists argue that the evidence for this “true that” statement is sketchy (as young people used to say). President Clinton got Congress to raise the top tax rate from 31 percent to 39.6 percent and the economy boomed (admittedly with the “Tech Bubble” that collapsed after he left office); President George W. Bush got Congress to cut taxes on high earners to 35 percent, but the economy floundered (admittedly with the “Housing Bubble” that collapsed before he left office). In this analysis, what really matters is the amount of demand for goods in the economy. That is an argument for shifting resources to consumers.

The “Great Bull Market” of the Twenties (and other stuff that pundits don’t want to know about) led to the Great Depression. The Great Depression led to the New Deal and 20 years of Democratic dominance in Congress. The Depression discredited businessmen as prophets-of-the-New Era. The New Deal imposed all sorts of restrictions on business and raised taxes on the rich swells (who were in some vague way blamed for the Depression). By the 1950s the top rate on marginal incomes had risen to 91 percent, essentially a confiscatory tax on high incomes. Proponents of relative income equality point to this period as the ideal society because it coincided with the period of American economic ease. Good-paying working-class jobs allowed many people with only a high-school diploma to enter some version of the middle class.

However, the Great Depression ended in 1940. By the 1970s a whole new generation of businessmen had come on the scene. They were unburdened by the sins of their elders. They campaigned for a reduction in the punitive tax rates of the New Deal era. One can see this as Republicans responding to the Democratic strategy of “tax, spend, elect” with their own mantra of “tax-cut, spend, elect.” In theory, savings create investment capital and investment capital creates jobs. Therefore, the tax rate on capital gains fell to 70 percent in the 1970s, then to 50 percent in the first Reagan administration, and then to 28 percent in the second Reagan administration. Bill Clinton pushed for and won a reduction in the tax on capital gains from 28 percent to 20 percent. George W. Bush pushed for and won a reduction in the tax on capital gains from 20 percent to 15 percent. However, President Bush also pushed for massive cuts on taxes paid by lower income groups.

Two things resulted from the Bush tax cuts. First, the US government lost $400 billion a year in revenue. Of this lost revenue, “only” $87 billion came from people earning $250,000 a year or more. The other $313 billion came from people earning less than $250,000 a year.[2]

Second, taxation became much more progressive. While cutting taxes overall, Bush shifted the burden of taxation onto upper income earners. After the Bush tax cuts, the top 1 percent of income-earners now pays 40 percent of the income tax bill (and 21 percent of all taxes), while 47 percent of Americans now pay no income tax at all.[3] Despite his bitter condemnation of the Bush Administration on many scores, President Obama fought hard to confirm 98 percent of the cuts.

There are three observations worth making. One is that there are big long-term trends or swings in tax policy. The huge deficits looming as the “Baby Boom” ages may herald an end to low taxation for everyone.

A second is that President Obama has loudly condemned the plutocrats “who tanked the economy” in the financial crisis. How did Bill Gates or Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett or the idiots who ran American car companies “tank the economy”? They didn’t. In fact, only about 14 percent of the richest Americans work in finance. Yet Gates, Jobs, Buffett and a lot of other ordinary, successful entrepreneurs were hammered by the Obama tax increases.[4] They have also been subject to his frequent dispensation of moral opprobrium.[5]

A third is that the Democrats need to define what they mean by “fair.” As in, “the rich should pay their fair share.” The rich are already carrying a disproportionate share of the fiscal weight while almost half of Americans pay nothing at all for the programs that benefit them. As Woody Guthrie might have said (had he been an entirely different person), “A poor man with a ballot-box can rob you just as easily as can a rich man with a pen.”

[1] “Taxing the rich,” The Week, 4 November 2011, p. 11.

[2] Can you impeach a former President?

[3] If “taxation without representation is tyranny,” then what is representation without taxation?

[4] Perhaps it is worth pointing out that of the “one percent,” about 16 percent are in medicine; about 12 percent are lawyers, and about 50 percent of the members of the House of Representatives and the Senate belong to the “one percent.”

[5] See: “Stuff my president says.”

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Inequality 6.

Does economic inequality matter? Citing Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Neil Irwin argues that there is a “deepening consensus…that rising inequality of income and wealth is an important trend over the last two or three decades.”[1] Eduardo Porter regards these social ills as “an existential threat to the nation’s future.”[2] NB: Is he correct? However, a “trend” isn’t either a problem or a solution. It is just an observed movement. People assign meaning to trends. The meaning assigned reflects the ambitions, fears, and beliefs of the people doing the assignment.

What has caused the stagnation in most incomes? Since 1973 productivity growth in the American economy has slowed dramatically.[3] That is the principal cause of the stagnation in most incomes. According to the most-recent Economic Report of the President, the failure to maintain the productivity-growth of the pre-1973 period means that the average American family now earns $30,000 a year less than it would have earned. In contrast, the increase in income inequality over the same period accounts for $9,000 a year for the same family.[4]

Regardless of the causes of rising inequality, liberals see a correlation between rising inequality and social problems. The teen-age birth-rate in the United States is about seven times as high as in France. More than one in four children lives with a single parent. More than twenty percent of Americans live in poverty. Seven out of every thousand adults is in prison.[5] A child born to a white, college-educated, married woman has the same chance of survival as does a child born to a similarly-circumstanced woman in Europe. However, children born to non-white, poor, single women have a much greater chance of dying young. Mental illness is more common among poor people than among wealthy people. Between 2009 and 2013, 9 percent of people with incomes below the poverty level reported “serious psychological distress,” while only 1.2 percent of people earning more than $80,000 so reported.[6] NB: Hard to get ahead if you’re mentally ill. On the other hand, 91 percent of people below the poverty level did not report “serious psychological distress.” Why not? Shouldn’t you be all wrought-up over your miserable situation? “People in low-income households don’t live as long [as people in high income households].”[7] By one measure, where there is a great disparity in income, upper income people live almost two days longer for every one-point increase in income disparity. In places with high inequality, you can live eleven days less than in places with low economic inequality. “But what causes the drop in life expectancy is debatable.”

Why this social disaster in the midst of so much other success? The conservative argument offered by Charles Murray and others is that the welfare state itself undermined the character of its beneficiaries. The liberal argument offered by Eduardo Porter is that Americans have been guided by a shared disdain for collective solutions and the privileging of individual responsibility. Therefore, America had relied on continuing prosperity instead of a welfare state. When long-term economic troubles hit, many Americans plunged through the cob-web of a “safety net.”

[1] Neil Irwin, “Things Bernanke Should Blog About,” NYT, 31 March 2015.

[2] Eduardo Porter, “Income Inequality Is Costing The Nation on Social Issues,” NYT, 29 April 2015.

[3] Tyler Cowen, “It’s Not the Inequality; It’s the Immobility,” NYT, 5 April 2015.

[4] This suggests that the policy prescriptions of Bernie Sanders target the smaller source of Americans’ discontent.

[5] That is three times the rate of 1975.

[6] “Noted,” The Week, 12 June 2015, p. 16.

[7] Margot Sanger-Katz, “How Income Inequality Can Be Bad for Your Health,” NYT, 31 March 2015.

Our Kids.

A new book by the Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam has instantly attracted attention (and criticism from the left), so it will be much in the news for a while.[1] Combining research in the scholarly literature with many interviews, Putnam explores the disintegration of America into polarized communities of rich and poor that threaten to become hereditary castes.

Broadly, “rich” kids have parents who finished college; grow up in two-parent families; get a lot more attention from their parents while young; get better quality day-care when their mothers get fed up and go back to work; get dragged to church on Sunday[2]; attend better schools and have more access to developmental extra-curricular activities; eat dinner as a family; are much more likely than are “poor” kids to graduate from college (and to attend better colleges at that).

Broadly, “poor” kids have parents who went no farther than high school; “are increasingly entering the world as an unplanned surprise”; grow up in increasing numbers in broken homes; get about a third less time from their parent; get lower quality day care when their stressed-out mothers have to go back to work; skip church in favor of watching cartoons; don’t eat dinner as a family; are much less likely to attend college (and to attend lesser colleges when they go).

Jason DeParle concludes that Putnam’s “research is prodigious. His spirit is generous. His judgments are thoughtful and fair.”[3] Nevertheless, Putnam’s approach frustrates DeParle. “What [Putnam] omits… is a discussion of the political and economic forces driving the changes he laments.” Doing what Putnam left undone, DeParle argues that income inequality has grown “radically”; that the wealthy exert great influence in politics in defense of their interests; that inequality “gives those at the top [the power] to pull up the ladder”; and that Putnam “overlooks the extent to which it’s … a story about interests and power.” How can it be that, “though Putnam is a political scientist, his account is politics-free”? Doesn’t Putnam read the Times, where all of these things are high-lighted?

What DeParle fails to acknowledge is that some element of success or failure is volitional or behavioral. People drop out of high-school or out of community college; people don’t use contraceptives[4]; and people reject the life structures pursued by the successful. How is more progressive taxation or broader government programs going to counter these behaviors?

Tellingly (but perhaps without having thought through the implications), DeParle remarks that “for most [of the poor kids] the troubles seem to date back generations.” That is, long before economic inequality became a grave issue. Probably the same is true for most of the rich kids: the advantages date back generations.

Perhaps we need to ask follow-on questions. What changed to make long-standing individual failings and family dysfunction into a social disaster? What changed to make conventional bourgeois behavior into such a life advantage? Here we might look for answers in the long-term evolution of the American economy away from heavy industry and toward an economy that disproportionately rewards education. We might also look at the white flight from cities in response to both disorder and integration. Or we can stick with conspiracy theories.

[1] Robert D. Putnam, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015).

[2] Or to synagogue on Saturday, or to the mosque on Friday. Faith doesn’t matter. Apparently what matters is making your kids endure difficulty.

[3] Jason DeParle, “No Way Up,” NYT Book Review, 8 March 2015.

[4] $19.99 for a pack of 20 Durex at Walgreen, so don’t start with the cost of birth-control pills.