Economics Lesson: Income Inequality

French economist Thomas Piketty’s bestselling book on wealth inequality, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” has become the focus of a debate over increasing income inequality in the US and many other countries. I have not read the book, which apparently presents lots of interesting data, the use and interpretation of which is also being debated. A recent paper on Piketty worth reading is by a young PhD candidate at MIT: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/wonkblog/wp/2015/03/19/meet-the-26-year-old-whos-taking-on-thomas-pikettys-ominous-warnings-about-inequality/

The issue that interests me in this note is the great divide in attitudes toward inequality and thus the policies proposed to address it. Some people think income inequality, or at least too much of it, is bad per se. Thus taxing the rich and redistributing the proceeds to middle and lower income families is the solution. For me, and many others, the issue is whether the wealthy (to simplify) earned their income fair and square (to be explained below) and is thus a just reward for their contributions to the economy providing an important incentive for their efforts. To the extent that they have not (monopoly power, government favors, etc.) the solution is to attack and remove the policies and impediments to competitive markets that made their exorbitant incomes possible.

If it is not desirable (fair) for some people to be wealthy when others are not, the collateral damage from income redistribution may be a price worth paying. This collateral damage is well known. If the wealthy cannot keep the income they get from their efforts and/or from their investments in innovative technology, miracle drugs, or the companies that produce what we want and provide our jobs, they will reduce their efforts and investments, thus reducing the income available to us all and available to redistribute. At the other end—recipient—of the redistribution, if the programs through which middle and lower income families receive such income are not well designed they will reduce incentives to work and or misallocate resources further reducing the income available to redistribute. The policy issues become how to design such programs and what is the optimal balance between the “good” effect of more equal income distribution and the bad effects of lower income.

In my book of moral principles, disapproval of the higher incomes of others per se is due to envy, and envy is not a virtue and should be resisted. There is some evidence that many people care both about their absolute income and their income relative to others. Such envy should be discouraged in my view. My standard of morality in this area is that people deserve what they fairly earn but this requires an understanding and agreement on what income is fair. Economists have a straightforward definition of “fair” income. Profits (revenue in excess of costs) earned without artificial government help (subsidies, regulations that keep out or discourage competitors, or state sanctioned monopolies) are fair because they are the (ultimately) competitive return on providing something people value. With competition, profits will be normal, what economists call a normal rate of return on investment.

Unless the government interferes, excessive profits (those above a normal rate of return) will ultimately be competed away as others enter the field to grab some of the high return. While the inventor and developer of a new technology or product may enjoy a quasi monopoly return initially, as long as there are no artificial impediments to competition, i.e. as long as the monopoly is contestable, returns will ultimately become normal. George Will provides some relevant and interesting cases drawn from a new book by John Tamny. “With the iPod, iPhone and iPad, unique products when introduced, Jobs’ Apple created monopolies. But instead of raising their prices, Apple has cut them because ‘profits attract imitators and innovators.’ Which is one reason why monopolies come and go.” “Since 2000, the price of a 50-inch plasma TV has fallen from $20,000 to $550.” “Henry Ford doubled his employees’ basic wage in 1914, supposedly to enable them to buy Fords. Actually, he did it because in 1913 annual worker turnover was 370 percent. He lowered labor costs by reducing turnover and the expense of constantly training new hires.” http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/how-income-inequality-benefits-everybody/2015/03/25/1122ee02-d255-11e4-a62f-ee745911a4ff_story.html

There are many examples of profits that are not normal or contestable, which by definition are unfair. Those on my side of this issue would look for the government favors or interferences that made them possible and seek to remove them. There is no doubt, for example, that US monetary and regulatory policies have made possible lopsided returns from one-sided risk taking by Wall Street (the moral hazard of tax payer bail outs when excessive bank risk taking goes wrong). These policies need to be reformed in order to make the economy fairer and more efficient. See my Letter from the Editorial Board in the next issue of the Cayman Financial Review.

A very large political/policy battlefield in America today is between those who wish to redistribute income to make it more equal and those who want to make income distribution more equal by reducing or removing the economic rents generated by excessive and inappropriate government regulations and subsidies. They are each motivated by dramatically different philosophies and conceptions of what is fair and what is good. We might call these positions “egalitarianism” and “capitalism.” The motivation of an egalitarian to redistribute income from the rich to the poor is dramatically different than the desire of virtually all American’s to provide what Ronald Reagan called an adequate social safety net for the truly disadvantaged and those who have fallen off the ladder. I am on the side of capitalism.

More on cell phones in planes

My blog Friday was meant to contrast two attitudes toward the desired role of government—regulating our behavior for our own good (Big Brother), or regulating our behavior when necessary for the protection of third parties.  But the more I thought about the cell phones in airplanes issue, the more convoluted it seemed.

There is no evidence, despite lots of testing, of any danger from cell phones, iPads, PCs, etc. for the operations of airplanes. See the article by a WSJ staff reporter: http://www.cs.ccsu.edu/~pelletie/local/news/telecom/Cell_phones_on_planes.html. The Big Brother argument that it protects those of us preferring quite from the conversations of other passengers is also bogus. Not only are people free to carry on conversations with other (willing) passengers, but we have been able to talk to people on the ground from phones in our arm rests for well over two decades. So what is going on? Without denying that many well-meaning, public-spirited people go into government service, the answer seems to lie in the usual place. Government regulations very often come to protect the interests of the incumbent members of the industry being regulation. Most monopoly power of private companies is bestowed by government. Please save me from Big Brother.