Sunday, June 5, 2011

Solving The US Income Imbalance

In this post I am going to simplify the US economy and ignore both imports and exports. I know that’s a gross simplification, but with that assumption it is much easier to illustrate my central point. Once we’re through with the analysis you can decide whether including exports and imports (and the fact that we are importing more than exporting) materially changes my basic proposition.

Let’s further simplify and start with an economy of 100 people, no inflation or deflation, no imports or exports. At the beginning of our analysis the economy is “balanced.” It produces exactly 100 units of output. Each person is paid 1 unit of output, is allowed 1% of the produce and owns 1% of the production facilities. We’re starting with a utopian commune.

But we live in a capitalist society and after a short time (say 1 year) the economy has changed. Efficiencies have been discovered and the same 100 people can produce 105 units of output. However, not all people in the economy participated in creating the extra five units. The laborers retain their one unit of purchasing power; the 5% of management employees retain the extra five units. The math is simple: 95 of us are paid (and spend) 1 unit each. The five folks in management receive (and spend) two units each—one unit they spend on “necessities” and one on “luxuries.”

The economy hums along. Growth continues so in year two the economy can produce 111 units of output. The 95% aren’t quite as willing to see all of the productivity accrue to the managers and insist on a raise. Management counters with a dividend of .01 units per share. The masses now receive 1.01 units of output. The top 5% get 2.01 units and pay themselves each a 1 unit bonus for a total of 3.01 units. [Math check: (95 x 1.01 = 95.95) and (5 x 3.01 = 15.05) total 111 – yep good to go.]

The masses spend their 95.95 units (95 on necessities and .95 on luxuries). Management spends say 2.5 each (1 on necessities and 1.5 on luxuries) for a total of 12.5 units for the five of them. They still have a total of 2.55 units left over but have nothing else they really want to buy, so they look for a place to store their accumulated wealth. Let’s say the five get together and decide to buy up some farmland (they aren’t making more, you know). They convince a few of the masses to sell their portion of the country’s farmland and because of the effect of supply and demand, the value of all farmland increases.

Everyone in the economy feels better about that and those of the masses who sold their share of the nation’s farmland take the 2.55 units they received and acquire additional luxuries. The economy is balanced: somebody buys everything that the economy produces. Everyone feels better because they were able to increase their purchasing power and (for those who still retained their portion of the farmland) their net worth increased because of the increase in farmland prices.

This process continues: the economy becomes more productive. Most of the productivity is returned to management in the form of bonuses. They use a portion of those bonuses to acquire assets (farmland and factories). The masses continue to receive their wages and sell off assets to afford some of the luxuries the rich can afford. Some even go into debt to get some luxuries now rather than deferring consumption.

By 2007 in the US the share of income going to the top 1% was about 23%, approximately the same peak level attained in 1928, the year before the Great Depression started. As a comparison, from the start of World War II through the mid-1990s the share of income going to the top 1% varied from around 9% to 15%. (Source: Piketty & Saez: “The Evolution of Top Incomes: A Historical and International Perspective)

As reported by the Wall Street Journal, (4/30/2010), a study by New York University economist Edward Wolff estimated the top 1% of wealth holders in the US owned about 35% of all national wealth. Since there is a mismatch between what the top 1% of wealth holders own and what the top 1% of income receivers get, it means wealth is not getting its “fair share” of the income pie. Management (who supposedly work for the owners) have skewed the game to capture an outsized percentage of corporate profits. As one example of this phenomenon, in 2007 the CEO of Bank of America, Kenneth Lewis, took home about $100 million in total compensation (including the value of stock options).

Consider for a moment how you could possibly spend $100 million in a year. Every day you must spend over $270,000—and you can’t skip any holidays or take a vacation from your shopping. Because of the inability for the superrich to spend all their income, there will be a mismatch between what the economy produces and what the people can purchase unless the excess the rich don’t spend on goods and services is taxed away and given to the less well off. This is a far cry from the utopian beginning where production and spending corresponded.

Republicans maintain that if we drop the marginal tax rate on the well-off (they never call them rich) this will magically cause employers to create more jobs and thereby stimulate the economy. Here are some inconvenient facts: The top marginal Federal income tax rate in 1950s was 91-92%. In 1964 it declined to 77% (70% in 1965). In 1982 it dropped again to 50%. In 1987 it decreased to 38.7%. I suspect we would all trade the 1950s economic growth, when Federal tax rates were indeed a confiscatory 91-92%, for that we have experienced in the first decade of the 21st century, when the highest Federal income tax rate was a comparatively modest 39.1%.

Because of advances in technology the US economy produces more goods and services than we can buy, leading to excess capacity. If income were more evenly distributed, consumption would increase. Kenneth Lewis and his ilk have (cue the violins) tremendous difficulty spending all their income; but if we took his $100 million in 2007 and spread it around to 300 million Americans we each wouldn’t have much problem spending an extra thirty-three cents, would we?

We could, of course, attack our US deficit by increasing tax rates and thereby allocate income to more “productive” purposes than bidding up asset prices (farmland, housing prices, gold, etc, etc.). Far better is to allocate a larger percentage of the accumulated productivity gains of the last twenty or thirty years to the middle class—the people who actually created the gains (as opposed to those who managed the creation) through the form of increased wages. Such a redistribution would immediately stimulate the economy. Even if the masses did the “right” thing and saved a significant percentage of their wage increases to prepare for retirement, in the aggregate they would save less than the rich, who cannot spend their money fast enough. The increased consumption would stimulate the economy, provide additional jobs (further stimulating the economy) and, even at current income tax rates, the extra taxes the Federal and state governments collect would go a long way to balancing the various budgets.

To close, I don’t mean to imply that nationally we should be consuming more meals out or plastic dojobbies that will break after a year. In fact, we should be investing in our education, our crumbling infrastructure, our basic research to fuel future productivity gains. Consuming those goods and services will continue to fuel the productivity gains we need to develop a better tomorrow—but that’s a blog for another day.

In the short-term, government spending can (and did the last two years) ameliorate the negative impacts of the recession portion of business cycles. Such spending cannot correct structural imbalances within the economy. To regain a humming economy and full employment we must address the current gross income inequality in the US.

~ Jim

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