More Thoughts on Income Inequality

Paul Krugman recently published a good summary of the historical discussions regarding income inequality.

Before diving into climate change, I thought it would represent a reasonable addendum to what has already been posted.

It does venture in a little bit into the territory of why we should reduce income inequality and how we should go about doing that.

First let’s explore the three generally accepted reasons for the current huge income inequality.

People get paid based on the value of their work. The reason some people get paid hundreds or thousands of time more than other people is because they are uniquely capable, skilled, and experienced. It is the old plumber joke. A man calls a plumber because he is having a problem. The plumber walks in, looks around for a minute, and hits a pipe with his hammer. The problem is fixed. The plumber hands the homeowner a bill for $100. The homeowner objects complaining that the plumber was only in the house for 10 minutes. The plumber takes the invoice back, adds these itemizations, and hands it back to the homeowner. Labor – $20. Knowing which pipe to hit and where to hit it – $80.

For the record, I have no problem with those with unique skills getting paid what the market will bear for those skills. Those include athletes, entertainers, and actors as well as brilliant developers and visionary entrepreneurs.

People get rich because they are in the right place at the right time. No better example of that than the recent Powerball lottery. That event produced roughly 5 people each worth $200M or so after taxes. Their chances of winning were ridiculously thin, but they won none the less because there are always winners. Not many who participated in one of our gold rushes struck it rich either, but the number of people who did participate spoke to the belief in this country that we all have an opportunity to strike it rich. But this sort of windfall has nothing to do with character, talent, or persistence. Just luck. That same luck is evidenced in the fact that parentage directly or indirectly accounts for a significant percentage of those who are wealthy today. This whole concept of “wealthy” luck was explored deeply in Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers book.

I have no problem with those who end up being wealthy because they were lucky. I don’t think that they have any standing to suggest that a higher tax rate will somehow reduce the small percentage of people who figuratively or literally win the lottery. But I agree that we have always been a “gold rush” country where we celebrate the good fortune of those who overcame enormous odds through blind dumb luck.

Executives at large corporations who get to set their own compensation programs. Financial speculators who benefit from information that the rest of the market doesn’t have. Fraudsters who get rich off schemes that fleece the naïve or greedy. Power brokers who are able to exchange political power for financial gain.

These are the segment of wealthy that I think are the most troublesome. That’s because they use their wealth to acquire political influence. They use that political influence to gain an unfair advantage. That process is corrosive in a democratic society.

So What
There is the claim that “it has ever been thus”. We’ve always had income inequality, the claim goes. What is so different now?

The difference is that the income inequality is now larger than it has been since the robber baron gilded age. The public’s disgust about the influence of wealth at that time elected reformers like Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. These wealthy civic-minded leaders realized that our democracy couldn’t survive if so much wealth was concentrated in the hands of so few people. That’s because our political system then, and our political system now, allows money to purchase political influence. Those that are driven to dominate industries through economic power see political power as just another opportunity to acquire an unfair advantage over their competitors. Reformers passed legislation to break up the trusts and monopolies built by folks like Morgan, Carnegie, Rockefeller, and Schwab.

I’ve documented how the same thing is going on in markets today. It is clearly more sophisticated, but it is no less insidious.

There are certainly those, like Mark Zuckerberg, who built his fortune on the strength of a great idea that created a whole new category of software. We can talk about his luck of being in the right place at the right time, combined with being born into a wealthy family that could afford to send him to the best schools, to getting accepted at Harvard at a time when the college-based social networks were just taking off. But for every Mark Zuckerberg, there are roughly 30 corporate execs just making a salary.

70% of the top .1% of fabulously wealthy wage earners are corporate execs, financial professionals, real estate speculators, and lawyers. It is this dramatic growth in executive salaries that has been the dominant force in creating a new gilded age.

What Should Government’s Role Be?
That leaves the fundamental question of the purpose of progressive taxation, government oversight in market rules making, and money in politics.

The extraordinary gap between the rich and poor, driven by power rather than luck or skill, demonstrates that money is already providing the “Power” wealthy inordinate influence in politics. The powerful have already reduced the impact of taxation on their annual income as well as increased their ability to preserve their wealth for their heirs. They have manipulated the rules of the marketplace to provide their companies an unfair advantage against both competitors and the public. Finally they have achieved this by becoming the primary funders for political campaigns of those politicians who are willing to do their bidding. Four hundred families have provided half the funding for the current presidential campaign. That is unprecedented.

Progressive taxation is not punishment for success. Instead it is a tool that a democratic society can use to balance the political power that naturally accrues to the wealthy. The purpose of that balance is not to discourage success, but rather to lower the barriers that the “Power” wealthy can put in place to make it more difficult for others to succeed.

Revenues generated from higher taxes on those that I characterize as “powerful”, can be used to build a stronger social safety net and provide access for all citizens to the tools (education, investment, and government subsidies) needed to participate in the start-up economy. The 50’s and 60’s were the period of our most rapid growth and technological progress. We also had much higher top tax rates and much lower income inequality. Sweden is a good example of a high-tax, low-inequality state today. They have high marginal tax rates on their top earners and a very healthy start-up economy. They use the revenue generated from these high taxes on top earners to build a strong social safety net. They claim that this strong safety net encourages more risk taking because it reduces the personal costs of failure.

Creating markets that operate more fairly than today’s markets protect investors and reward innovation in ways that our current markets don’t. Most start-ups get acquired today because big companies continue to have significant market advantages over small ones. Freeing up small companies from issues of tortuous patent infringement, contractual barriers to competition, and de-facto monopolies will benefit consumers and the economy in general.

Breaking the connection between money and political influence will deliver on the promise of our democracy. One person. One vote.

The issue is not wealth.

The issue is not talent.

The issue is not luck.

The issue is how we want our economy to function.

We currently have a wealth-based economy. Wealth-based economies are inherently less stable than consumer-based economies. Our wealth-based economy was not the natural outgrowth of the disruptive events of automation. It was the unnatural influence of money on government policies. Those government policies encouraged a dramatic increase in corporate executive compensation that was not justified by company performance, allowed insider trading and stock manipulation, and increased corporate power and protection which weakening the bargaining power of workers.

I submit that a wealth-based economy is also not sustainable in a democracy. That’s because the natural tendency of those who have wealth is to protect it. That “protection” inevitably becomes influence on government policies from taxation, to market rules, to executive compensation.

At some point, those who are not part of the wealthy class will begin to realize that they are playing a game that is rigged against them. Rewards don’t go to those who are willing to work hard and play by the rules. Rewards go those who make the rules.

In a democracy the rules should be made by and for the largest number of voters. Right now many of our rules benefit only a small minority – an oligarchy.

One of those rules will be a rejection of the myth that high taxes discourage investment innovation. There is no data to support that claim. Innovation suffers when markets are dominated by large companies and rules/monopolies prevent the emergence of disruptive technologies.

If we want to encourage innovation, subsidize education, promote new business formation, expand the social safety net, and invest in emerging technologies. That would increase the number of “Productivity” billionaires even with high marginal tax rates. We would return to the meritocracy of the 60’s where talent and determination opened the doors to opportunity. Today, parentage is the primary determination of success.

We would not reduce the number of “lucky” wealthy because taxes have no impact on luck. Those who are lucky will continue to be lucky and should in some ways be willing to give back to a society that afforded them an opportunity that they didn’t themselves deserve.

We WILL reduce the number of those who achieve their wealth through warping the marketplace to their own benefit. The savings will diversify our economy, reduce those companies that became “too big to fail”, and close all of the loopholes and shortcuts to prosperity that only the “smart” money could take advantage of. In other words, those who in the past depended on Power to secure their wealth will now have to work for it just like everyone else.

That may result in some of the fabulously wealthy becoming just wealthy. It may also reduce inequality, but inequality will always be with us. It will expand opportunity which has always been the basic promise of this country.

2 Responses to “More Thoughts on Income Inequality”

  1. Edward Wechtel says:

    You are overlooking the fact that corporate executives
    have experienced a pay growth that is ten times faster
    than that of their hourly employees, according to several
    economic think tanks and watch groups.
    In 2010, the highest paid CEO in the U.S. earned 87
    million dollars. Was he worth 87 times more than the
    President of the United States? No. Does he have more
    than 3 million employees? No. Who ran the auto industry
    into near bankruptcy? Millionaire executives. Who ran
    the banking industry into deep financial trouble?
    Millionaire executives. These people are NOT worth
    what they get paid, especially when they keep their
    millions, and stocks, and benefits, after doing a bad
    The definition of a “Banana Republic” is a country
    where 90% of the money is owned by 10% of the
    population. In the U.S., we passed that benchmark a long
    time ago. 90% of the money in this country is owned
    by just 6% of the people.
    Our economy works by our workers selling goods and
    services to other Americans. The rich buy very few items,
    and far too many are expensive imported things like
    Maseratis and Lamborghinis, which only provide jobs for
    foreigners. Then these overpaid executives ship good
    paying jobs to Mexico or China, further weakening our
    Study your history. Both the French and Russian
    revolutions started with riots by workers protesting
    low pay and high food prices. It was economic imbalance
    which started those revolts. Don’t think it couldn’t happen

  2. Jeff Beamsley says:

    We’re on the same page here Edward.

    The details on this post were simply to address some of the conservative arguments that the situation we are experiencing now is just a natural evolution of the market.

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