Real Wages & Wealth Disparity

This post is just my gathering some data and analysis about the changes in wages and various factors related to it. But first I want to put it in the context of wealth disparity.

In some ways, average Americans are better off than in the past, but in many ways they are worse off. It’s hard to know if the good is greater than the bad. What is clear is that an increase of wealth disparity correlates to an increase of social problems. So, the increase in wealth disparity is definitely bad and even worse is that it was intentionally created.

– – –

The debate over ending the Bush tax cuts for the rich sidesteps a serious problem. The issue is not just whether the wealthiest Americans should be taxed, but can they be taxed?

The ultra rich have extraordinary means to engage in tax avoidance and evasion that ordinary citizens do not. In the first decades after World War II, the richest Americans began paying large fees to armies of professionals whose sole task was to help them avoid taxes.

By the 1960s, an entire Income Defense Industry had arisen to satisfy this demand. It has grown more sophisticated and effective with each passing decade.

The industry lobbies key committees in Congress, quietly inserts provisions in a tax code only top attorneys in the industry comprehend, structures complex partnerships and tax shelters few auditors at the IRS can disentangle, and often uses these instruments to move wealth and income offshore.

All of this is done off the political radar screen and there is no countervailing lobby or parallel income defense industry for the average Joe. The few public interest organizations arguing for “tax justice” on behalf of average citizens are vastly out-staffed and out-funded.

The Senate estimates that the industry helps the wealthiest Americans avoid paying nearly $70 billion in taxes a year through “abusive offshore tax avoidance schemes” alone. The number is much higher if corporations are included.

[ . . . ] The ultra rich who avoid and evade taxes in this way face almost zero legal risk and reap huge savings. No matter how massive the tax fraud perpetrated, the wealthy taxpayer is shielded behind a phalanx of Income Defense Industry professionals paid to devise the schemes.

In the notorious KPMG case settled in 2007, it was the firm that was fined for the fraudulent “tax products” it provided to ultra rich clients, many of whom had the chutzpah to turn around and sue KPMG for selling them inferior tax shelters after they had to pay hundreds of millions in back taxes and penalties.

Average taxpayers are far more likely to be held criminally liable for tax evasion than ultra rich citizens who have the resources to litigate for years.

They hire lawyers in the same Income Defense Industry to intimidate IRS auditors and legal teams.

The IRS manual instructs staff to weigh the “necessary expense” as well as the “expected hazards of litigating the case” when considering cutting quiet deals out of court with big tax cheats.

Re-imposing the Bush tax cuts on the top 2 percent of income earners creates the mistaken impression that the richest of the rich will finally have to shoulder a fairer share of the tax burden. But those at the very top will not.

The vast majority of Americans in that top 2 percent are what the wealth management industry calls the “mass affluent,” a segment of the market they do not serve because households earning a few hundred thousand a year up to a couple million cannot afford tax letters, shelters, or the costs of restructuring assets and moving income flows offshore.

These are the doctors, lawyers, and other professionals who are not only in the top tax bracket, but actually have to pay the rate of their bracket — something the ultra rich never do.

In 1992, the top 400 income earners paid 85 percent of the published bracket income tax rate. By 2007 their effective tax rate had dropped below 50 percent.

Ironically, many of the mass affluent professionals in the top 2 percent earn their comfortable incomes through fees they get helping the richest 150,000 Americans above them keep tens of billions in unpaid taxes each year.

Jeffrey Winters, associate professor of political science at Northwestern University, talked of the wealthy in America in terms of oligarchy. And he advanced an argument against what he called the “income defense industry.”

The term referred to the accountants, lawyers and financial advisers employed by the wealthy — and the merely affluent — to manage their financial affairs. Mr. Winters argued that this group was hurting the non-elite by minimizing tax collection. He estimated that $70 billion was lost yearly just from offshore accounts.

There is no denying that members of the elite have a lot of money and would like to hang on to as much of it as they can. But that’s true of most people.

Olivier Godechot, a French academic on the sociology panel, presented research that quantified just how skewed the increase in wealth at the very top has become. Mr. Godechot, a researcher at the National Center for Scientific Research in France, said that two professions — finance and business services — accounted for almost all of the increase in income inequality.

[ . . . ] His concern is what the concentration of wealth means for American society in the future. He said he wondered whether the post-World War II era in America — as defined by prosperity and rising income levels — was a historical anomaly and was coming to an end.

He cited data showing that the United States now had the second-lowest level of intergenerational income mobility in the world, after England.

“If we lose this truly American thing — that you can become anything if you just work at it — then you’re really going to lose what makes America America,” he said. “It already appears that it will take a tremendous amount of time for people to bring their families out of poverty and for the wealthy to fall from the advantages they have.”

The data we present here reveal that, for the period 1979-2000, married-couple families with children increased their hours worked by 16 percent, or almost 500 annual hours. Yet the data also demonstrate that without the increase in women’s work, middle-quintile families would have experienced an average real income increase of only 5 percent — instead of the actual 24 percent — while families in the bottom two quintiles would have experienced a decrease in real income over that period — by about 14 percent for the bottom quintile and about 5 percent for the second quintile.

These data reveal that the economic engine for middle- and lower-income advancement is in low gear.

Remarkably, this is true even when productivity has grown at a healthy clip. These trends represent a departure from those of the post-War years when median family income doubled — tracking productivity growth. Today, middle- and lower-income families no longer see increasing returns to their hours worked in the same way that the previous generation did. The only way many of these families can keep their total income growing — or not shrinking — is to work harder and harder. For the complete document, please see the attached PDF version.


Here’s my capsule view of the great financial meltdown of 2008: For the past couple of decades, the benefits of economic growth have gone almost entirely to the rich. But the middle class still wanted to prosper, so the rich loaned them money to continually improve their lifestyles. That worked for a while. And then it didn’t.

[ . . . ] Growth in a modern mixed economy2 is fundamentally based on consumer spending, and middle class consumers can increase their spending in only three ways: (1) real wage growth, (2) borrowing, or (3) drawing down savings. Only the first is sustainable. So if we want the American economy to grow consistently over long periods, we have to focus our economic machinery on median wage growth. We’ve done it before, we can do it again if we’re smart, and the result would be good for everyone: the rich would get richer, the middle class would get richer, and the poor would get less poor. The alternative is booms, busts, and continued social erosion.
I do want to point out this section about Raghuram Rajan (whose Saving Capitalism from the Capitalists is a book that I enjoyed and is relevant today). It’s pretty interesting:

In a new book he is working on, entitled “Fault Lines,” Rajan argues that the initial causes of the breakdown were stagnant wages and rising inequality. With the purchasing power of many middle-class households lagging behind the cost of living, there was an urgent demand for credit. The financial industry, with encouragement from the government, responded by supplying home-equity loans, subprime mortgages, and auto loans. (Notwithstanding the government’s involvement, this is ultimately a traditional Chicago argument: in response to changing economic circumstances, the free market provided financial products that people wanted.) The side effects of unrestrained credit growth turned out to be devastating-a possibility that most economists had failed to consider.

I didn’t expect to read that line of thought from Rajan. I’ve talked about this before, both housing equity as the new social contract, as well as the way excessive debt smoothed out the high-risk income-trapped structure of current families. Rather than focusing on how nice of a refrigerator the poorest can buy, it might be worthwhile to look at how inequality has played out in the middle-and-working classes here (which ultimately effects mobility among the poorest too). I’m curious as to the drivers he finds between inequality and a middle-and-working-class squeeze. Spending on housing and education are the obvious ones.
That situation is adding to fears among Republicans that the economy will hurt vulnerable incumbents in this year’s midterm elections even though overall growth has been healthy for much of the last five years.
The median hourly wage for American workers has declined 2 percent since 2003, after factoring in inflation. The drop has been especially notable, economists say, because productivity — the amount that an average worker produces in an hour and the basic wellspring of a nation’s living standards — has risen steadily over the same period.
As a result, wages and salaries now make up the lowest share of the nation’s gross domestic product since the government began recording the data in 1947, while corporate profits have climbed to their highest share since the 1960’s. UBS, the investment bank, recently described the current period as “the golden era of profitability.”

Until the last year, stagnating wages were somewhat offset by the rising value of benefits, especially health insurance, which caused overall compensation for most Americans to continue increasing. Since last summer, however, the value of workers’ benefits has also failed to keep pace with inflation, according to government data.

At the very top of the income spectrum, many workers have continued to receive raises that outpace inflation, and the gains have been large enough to keep average income and consumer spending rising.

[ . . . ] Economists offer various reasons for the stagnation of wages. Although the economy continues to add jobs, global trade, immigration, layoffs and technology — as well as the insecurity caused by them — appear to have eroded workers’ bargaining power.

Trade unions are much weaker than they once were, while the buying power of the minimum wage is at a 50-year low. And health care is far more expensive than it was a decade ago, causing companies to spend more on benefits at the expense of wages.

Every 34th wage earner in America in 2008 went all of 2009 without earning a single dollar, new data from the Social Security Administration show. Total wages, median wages, and average wages all declined, but at the very top, salaries grew more than fivefold.
Not a single news organization reported this data when it was released October 15, searches of Google and the Nexis databases show. Nor did any blog, so the citizen journalists and professional economists did no better than the newsroom pros in reporting this basic information about our economy.
The new data hold important lessons for economic growth and tax policy and take on added meaning when examined in light of tax return data back to 1950.
The story the numbers tell is one of a strengthening economic base with income growing fastest at the bottom until, in 1981, we made an abrupt change in tax and economic policy. Since then the base has fared poorly while huge economic gains piled up at the very top, along with much lower tax burdens.
[ . . . ] From 1950 to 1980, the average income of the bottom 90 percent grew tremendously. Not so since then:

% Increase
% Increase

Had income growth from 1950 to 1980 continued at the same rate for the next 28 years, the average income of the bottom 90 percent in 2008 would have been 68 percent higher, instead of just 1 percent more.

That would have meant an average income for the vast majority of $52,051, or $21,110 more than actual 2008 incomes. How different America would be today if the typical family had $406 more each week — less debt, more savings, and more consumption.

Wage growth, currently running at about 3% YoY and declining quickly, stinks.  In fact, only twice in the last 45 years has there been real wage growth (i.e., in excess of the inflation rate)for more than a year or so: once, in the post-war economic golden era of the 1960s and early 1970s; and again during the tech boom of the 1990s.  Here is a graph showing that entire 45 years history (as long as the series exists), comparing wages (in orange) with CPI inflation (in blue):

As you can easily see, real wage growth essentially stagnated in 1974, and ever since the Reagan revolution, almost all growth from productivity has been vacuumed up by the very top of the income scale.

Americans have somehow survived despite this stagnation by resorting to a small bag of budgeting tricks. But now, with one possible exception, those tricks aren’t going to work any more.  Simply put, from here on in, we’re not going to have any sustained economic growth until real wages finally grow too.  I’ll show you why, below.

[ . . . ] In other words,  since 1980, facing stagnated real wages, the only way American consumers have been able to significantly improve their lifestyles is either:
– to take on more debt, using assets which have appreciated in value as collateral (stock investments, housing), or
– to refinance their existing debt at lower interest rates.

When consumers were unable to do either of those things, they cut back on spending, triggering consumer-led recessions.  Since 1980, this confluence of negative factors had only happened twice: in the deep Reagan recession of 1981-82, and again briefly from July 1990 to March 1991.

As of 2007, household income was still below 1999 levels.  Interest rates had not receded to their 2003 levels, so refinancing activity could not increase.  House prices were already in marked decline.  Consumers were already starting to cut back, albeit not yet that significantly on debt.  Only stock prices, by the barest of margins (.02%), were positive.  I concluded then that “In order to avoid a recession, house price declines must stop, stock market gains must accelerate, or household income must increase significantly.  Failing at least one these three things, if households have continued to cut back on debt, as appears likely, America will probably enter (or may already have entered) only its 3rd consumer recession since 1980.”

That last conclusion was certainly proven correct!  With a declining 401k value, crashing house prices, increasing Oil-fed inflation, and paltry wage gains, the recession started just a few months later in December 2007.

[ . . . ] is this one of those “your wages won’t increase but Wal-mart has very cheap goods so feel rich” arguments? If you are like me and view money as something that buys both consumption goods and autonomy in a liberal capitalist democracy, then the consumption good deflator only covers half the reason of why a worker values getting a dollar after a day of work.

II: Wage Growth

As for the increase in household median income from the late 1970s to 1999, I’m under the impression from many sources that the majority of it is simply households working more hours, particularly by getting a second worker into the workforce. That’s right, right? Here’s Steve Ross who is quoted as an excellent source in the critique for middle-class numbers:

It is true that much (but not all)* of household income gain can be attributed to wives working more, but neopopulists see the increased female workload in an entirely negative context and as a burden on women and families. We suspect many working women want to work….* If the working hours of wives are held constant at 1979 levels, median incomes at the 50th percentile for prime-age couple households would still have risen by 9 percent in real dollars from 1979 to 2004. For households at the 70th percentile, the increase would be 22 percent.

I’m happy many more women are in the workforce. But if the real driver of household wage growth is simply that households are working more hours, then that isn’t exactly wage growth. “I want to make more money so I doubled my shifts” isn’t really the same statement as “they are paying me more money.” Winship points out male wages have increased around 8% over a 35 year period, for an annual growth rate of 0.23%. Something eventually had to give: maxed out at capacity, both in the number of hours in a day and the line of credit approved – if this was a firm, would you want to invest?

I also wish to note that my analysis didn’t include real estate taxes and numerous other expenses that most folks have to pay. So even if you are extremely frugal and careful with your money, it is impossible to “get by” in the US without using credit cards, home equity lines of credit or burning through savings. The cost of living is simply TOO high relative to incomes.

This is why there simply cannot be a sustainable recovery in the US economy. Because we outsourced our jobs, incomes fell. Because incomes fell and savers were punished (thanks to abysmal returns on savings rates) we pulled future demand forward by splurging on credit. Because we splurged on credit, prices in every asset under the sun rose in value. Because prices rose while incomes fell, we had to use more credit to cover our costs, which in turn meant taking on more debt (a net drag on incomes). Wages

Basically, the basic bargain was roughly this–if you worked hard and became more productive, you would see that sweat of the brow in your wages. And from the post-war era until the 1970s, that deal basically held–as you can see from the lines that are basically close together until the 1970s.

Then, the lines diverge–dramatically. You can see it yourself. If the lines had continued to track closely together as they did prior to the 1970s, the MINIMUM WAGE would be more than $19 an hour. THE MINIMUM WAGE!!!

So, in short: people had no money coming in in their paychecks so they were forced to pay for their lives through credit–either plastic or drawing down equity from their homes. There are lots of reasons that this happened–greed, the attack against unions, de-regulation, dumb trade deals.

But, the point is: we will never fix the economic crisis, whether through short-term economic stimulus and certainly not through tax cuts, until paychecks are re-inflated. Dramatically.

I outlined a whole set of solutions to bailout American workers but the main one is simple: raise wages. Dramatically. And end–and I know some people cringe at the term–the class warfare that has been underway for the past three decades.

2 thoughts on “Real Wages & Wealth Disparity

    • I look around the world. I see the corruption, oppression, disenfranchisement, enforced suffering, state violence, victimization, scapegoating, power-mongering, lack of compassion, lack of social responsibility, and on and on. I see all of that and I can’t help thinking that evil really does exist in the world.

      Some people, entire classes of people, are simply sociopathic, under the thrall of some demented mentality. They don’t care about destroying the lives of others. They don’t even care about destroying entire communities, countries, economies, and ecosystems. They just don’t care, as long as they get to maintain their power, privilege, and wealth.

      But it even ends up being self-destructive in the long term. It’s an irrational malevolence. It disconnects them from reality, not just the reality of poor and working class people; it plain disconnects them from even the reality directly impacting them. It blinds them from all major consequences, as if it were just a child’s game.

      Some day people like that are going to have a rude awakening, as reality comes crashing down upon them.

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