Money, Tax and The Left

Jo Michell has written a good piece in Tribune countering arguments from some on the Left around the necessity of taxation.

It’s a short piece that you should read, but I understood it as going a bit like this:

  • Case 1: If there is lots of economic slack in an economy (think loads of folks unemployed sitting at home wasting their skills and producing nothing), government can spend newly printed cash to boost the economy and there are frankly few immediate downside consequences.
  • Case 2: If there is not much economic slack (eg everyone has a job), printing loads of cash to spend on new projects will mean bidding folks away from their private sector jobs (which were presumably economically productive and need to be filled) and also puts more cash into the system than is wanted, so those with cash balances play a game of hot potato (trying to rid themselves of cash balances and transferring them to one another in exchange for goods, services, financial assets like shares, real assets like houses, or indeed foreign currencies – resulting in higher prices for some or all of these).
  • The problems in Case 2 can be addressed with taxation. This reduces aggregate cash balances and “the wasteful consumption of the wealthy” to make resources available for “socially-useful spending”. And actually, taxation can be deployed in Case 1 too.

Jo’s beef looks to be with the MMT crowd, who I think he reckons have dragged elements within The Left away from understanding taxes as useful (given that the magic money tree really does exist). Jo was pretty careful not to go all inflationista in his piece, but it’s plenty obvious that monetary stability – or what Keynes referred to as confidence in the currency – is at the heart of his argument.

But I do wonder whether some folks on the Left may have taken to MMT either because:

  1. they have different views around the strength of institutions in the political economy (eg, print now and we’ll have no trouble whacking taxes and/ or interest rates up at a later date if we need to). I have my doubts. Or;
  2. they see lower confidence in the currency as a *desirable outcome*.

There are lots (and lots) of problems with capitalism as an organising system, but I would not describe myself as anti-capitalist and as such see a reduction in confidence in money as an undesirable outcome.* If I were an anti-capitalist Leftist then Keynes’ famous argument (citing Lenin) that the best way to destroy the Capitalist System is to debauch the currency makes debauching the currency sound pretty interesting!

I’d always understood this Keynes/ Lenin argument to be that you need money to make capitalism function, and so destroying money as a store of value, unit of account, and ultimately as a medium of exchange through hyperinflation collapses the economic system. Pretty straightforward. If this is what attracts some on the Left to MMT I don’t think Jo’s arguments for creative use of the taxation system will shift them.

But it was interesting today to read chapter 6 of The Economic Consequences of The Peace from which Keynes/ Lenin’s phrase is taken. I’m now less sure that my straightforward understanding of Keynes/ Lenin’s argument was right.

Keynes elaborates that inflation destroysI Capitalism by:

I find this fascinating. These are four points that I would recognise as being pretty zeitgeisty, although not points I would have immediately associated with inflation. I don’t know whether they really are the Four Horsemen for the Capitalist system, but they seem to be gaining ground despite the absence of inflation.

With regard to the use of the tax system, I’m with Jo here, and have been for some time. Monetary financing needn’t spell disaster and may indeed be required to prevent deflationary spirals. But tax serves a purpose – in fact many. What sort of taxes should the Left focus on? Wealth taxes!

=======

* I reckon that many/ most of the problems associated with capitalism can be offset or corrected by a liberal democratic State designing and revising a rules-based framework, with discretion to compensate for inequitable outcomes and the power to offset market failures of many descriptions. This makes me, I think, a social democrat. This may be naive, but I would prefer to channel energy into improving the rules/ governance rather than dismantling the construct.

How equal could UK property wealth be, given the current physical stock?

When trying to estimate inequality in Britain, it sort of depends what you’re looking at.

While UK income inequality rose significantly in the 1980s, it has stayed pretty steady since the early 1990s. Wealth inequality is greater by an order of magnitude, and wealth in the UK means private pension wealth (42% of household wealth) and property (35% wealth), with physical and financial wealth making up the other 24%. I have blogged before about wealth taxes, which I think are a good idea in principle. They may even feature as a key issue in the US Presidential election, depending on who gets the Democratic nomination. But it seems likely that the topic of wealth taxation will be off the agenda for some time in the UK.

The ONS calculates splits UK wealth inequality (with a Gini coefficient^ of 0.63) into net financial wealth (0.91), private pension wealth (0.72), and net property wealth (0.66). I’m guessing that with each of these having a higher Gini than the Gini for total wealth, some households have more pension but less property, some less property and more financial wealth etc.

Gini coefficients for UK wealth and income

gini1

The biggest driver of private pension wealth is whether you are in a pension scheme at all. Only 53% of individuals (aged 16-State Pension age) are in an active scheme, and this is after the +10% bump up that came from auto-enrollment .

If you are in a scheme, the biggest driver of your pension wealth is whether you are in a Defined Benefit scheme or a Defined Contribution scheme. I wrote a thread on the latest data here , and leave you with this cool ONS chart from the threads that shows pension wealth by age and scheme type. This is a big deal, and I would expect it to become an increasingly big deal.

db dc

But, as Arlo Guthrie said, that’s not what I’m here to tell you about. I’m here to talk about property inequality. Or rather, I want to know what level of wealth inequality is embedded in the physical stock of UK property wealth.

The seed of this question grew in the run-up to the General Election. Basically. if you’re going to apply wealth taxes to property (as an asset that can’t flee the country), then given my assumption that wealth inequality is way higher than income inequality (see first chart above), doesn’t this mean that people with top-quartile incomes aren’t going to be able to afford to live in their homes? (Yes, I know, tiny violin time.)

In order to make some headway I asked @resi_analyst for advice, and he kindly pointed me to annual transaction data files. With around 4-5% of residential properties changing hands each year it is maybe not a stretch to infer that they are a reasonable sample of the UK residential stock. I like this a lot more than looking at the (excellent) ONS Wealth & Assets Survey data because the WAS is a survey, while transactions represent a much bigger dataset.

And this is what I found, looking at easily-available from the last six years. The chart is log-scaled and shows the proportion of properties sold by price-point. So in the first 10 months of 2019 the median residential property transaction value was £235k. A quarter of properties changed hands for £355k or more, and 1% of properties changed hands for £1.26m or more. The stuff in the very top one percent is a bit whacky, and is driven by a very small number of super-high property transactions.

UK residential transactions by percentile price point, 2013-Oct 2019

dist1

This top-tail is interesting, but very small. I could imagine some of these being split up into flats (although a fair few are Belgravia flats already), and as such the structure of inequality in the property stock could be amended pretty easily. This would all require building work to do and my question is around the physical stock as it stands today.

If we remove the top-priced property from the distribution and examine only the bottom 99% on transaction values, things look a bit different (still requiring a log-scale, mind).

dist2

I applied a bit of VBA code kindly left hereto then calculate the Gini coefficients of the transaction values.

I was quite surprised by what I found.

Firstly, in contrast to the net property wealth data from the ONS, the level of inequality embedded in the value of physical private residential stock is actually not too far away from the level of income inequality in the UK. Taking out the top and bottom percentile of transactions (of course) makes this even more the case:

gini2

Secondly, if we were to take transaction values as a good proxy for the value of the stock, we have seen an increasing convergence between income inequality (dark blue line) and the embedded inequality attached to the physical stock of UK residential property (red line). Moreover, this isn’t a function of those whacky idiosyncrasies at the very top of the distribution of property transactions. We can see this to be true by looking at the Gini coefficient of the 1-99%ile of transaction values (light blue line).

gini3

The data exists to calculate this going back to 1995, but sadly the ONS data file is too monstrous for me to deal with in simple Excel.

Why is my estimate of the stock of private property stock value inequality so different from the net property wealth measure of inequality from the ONS?

  • Firstly, the whole point of my inquiry was to see how equal property wealth could be, given the current physical stock of property that is in place today. This is very different to measuring the current level of inequality that resides in property assets.
  • Secondly, the ONS net property wealth is calculated by netting mortgage debts off against the value of residential property owned. So If I buy a house for £235k with a mortgage of £200k, my net property wealth is £35k. That’s what net means. I care about the £235k while the ONS cares about the £35k.
  • Third, there are only 20m private sector residential dwellings (out of a total 24.2m dwellings), and I am looking at value-inequality within this dataset. The ONS reckons that there are 27.6m households. It’s not immediately clear to me how households are defined, as they appear to be defined in a way that is detached from homes. Regardless of this quirk, we know that there are a *lot* of households who don’t own.
  • Lastly, there are lots of wild assumptions in my data: that transactions are a decent proxy for the evolution of stock values; that things observed in England & Wales are true for the UK as a whole; that excluding BTL and offshore purchases doesn’t screw things up. Each of these could be wrong.

 

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised. Somewhere between ‘a lot’ and ‘almost all of’ the value of a residential property is tied up in its locational value, and this locational value is significantly a function of the proximity to cash flows that flow from employment. If high paying employers set up in a given locality it’s going to boost the locational value of the area. Simples.

 

^ To quote George Banham of the Resolution Foundation, the Gini coefficient measures inequality on a scale from 0 to 1, where 0 is perfect equality and 1 is perfect inequality (a situation where one person has all the wealth).

Tl;dr for the TSC

A few months back the UK Parliament’s Treasury Select Committee (TSC) invited anyone and everyone to submit in 3,000 words their views about post-crisis monetary policy. I can imagine that TSC members’ junior researchers must have been thrilled by the prospect of reading all the submissions for their political masters on the 16 open-ended essay questions set in the terms of reference.

I read all thirty four of the written submissions and post the tl;dr for each below so you wouldn’t have to. Thirty four. I hope that the authors who see each of their 3,000+ word missives so ruthlessly and flippantly précised (with potential misreading) take this in the good spirit in which it is done.

Why did I do this? Erm… It seemed like a better idea at the start than it did by the end?

Actually, three reasons. First, political support for Bank operational independence has been sagging. The Prime Minister has been drawing attention to distributional inequitiesassociated with QE. The Chancellor had to make a statement to Parliament in support of QE after City rumours of private briefings in which he inferred that backing for further rounds of QE would no longer be forthcoming. Senior Conservative politicians have publicly attacked the Bank (for example, here or here). And the Labour front bench have been airing prospective reforms that would remove operational independence. It was in this political context that the TSC, which holds the Bank to account, launched its inquiry into post-2008 monetary policy. I wanted to get a sense as to what the submissions said.

Second, I read a lot of policymakers, academics and investment bank stuff about QE. Much of it is very good. But this is a genuine free for all from bloggers, academics, finance professionals, think tanks, former policymakers and private unaffiliated individuals who could be bothered to express a view. I found in the submissions some perspectives that were genuinely new and interesting to me. Reading them has sparked a bunch of thoughts.

Third, I submitted myself, and so was interested as to where my views sat within the body of submissions.

I also learned during the course of reading these about the Cobden Centre, which appears to have done a decent job of making its presence felt rather firmly. The Centre which appears to campaign for an end to fiat money was founded by Steve Baker MP, a member of the TSC, who used to work in IT at Lehman Brothers before turning to politics. Affiliates of the Centre submitted five of the thirty four written testimonies and gave one of the three oral testimonies. I have no sense as to whether these submissions were coordinated or not, but thought it striking that only one of the five written submissions mentioned their affiliation in their self-description.  Four of these written submissions can probably be summed up with the words ‘buy gold’; the fifth was fascinating. I have put these together at the end.

The summaries are in the order shown on the Parliamentary website, but grouped into policymakers, academics, finance folk, think tank, unaffiliated, and Cobden; I include Twitter handle where I could find it. They start long and get shorter…

 

Current and former MPC members

Ben Broadbent, Deputy Governor Monetary Policy, Bank of England

Monetary policy can affect nominal quantities, but not real ones over the long term. Real bond yields are set globally, diverging due to local risk premia or the market’s currency expectations. As a small open economy, our real rates are imported and low policy rates are a symptom, not a cause. Target saving can’t be a thing if savings rate falling. QE works. DB pension deficit not our fault, but probably haven’t hit growth much. Precautionary hiking to lean against the wind of financial imbalances appropriate only if macropru unavailable; BoE has FPC. Distributional impact analysis shouldn’t leave out impact of looser policy on overall income of both savers and borrowers (Cloyne 2016). Low productivity leads to low rates, not vice-versa. When QE is unwound BoE balance sheet will, nevertheless, need to be pretty big given regulations and banks’ demands for reserves.

Professor David Miles, ex-MPC member

Like @moyeenislam, reckons post-QE will still see huge reserve balances for banks, but QE need for duration will be absent. So BoE should own UKTBs to limit capital risk.*

*But he knows there aren’t enough T-Bills and so is flagging that the UK government needs to change its debt profile and shift it much shorter as QE unwinds. It could also be interpreted as an area for monetary-fiscal collaboration that saw the BoE signal that it will be a steady holder of short-term financing instruments for HMT and so HMT can benefit from lower debt service costs (if term premia proves to be positive).

Andrew Sentance, PWC and former member of the MPC (October 2006 – May 2011) @asentance

Rate cuts and QE were appropriate responses to crisis but ushered in generally above-target inflation but not stronger growth. Much of the time the BoE was ‘looking through’ ‘one-offs’, but this looks a little silly over a decade. Adverse consequences from post-08 monetary policy felt in housing (boosting prices), pensions (elevating deficits), savings (incentivising people to spend or buy risky assets) and productivity (zombies and service sector getting trade boost from GBP weakness that made it unnecessary to invest). Hike rates.

There is also an oral testimony that you can watch here from Charlie Bean and David Miles,as well as Detlev Schlichter – a guy from (you guessed it) the Cobden Centre.

 

Academics

Professor Huw Dixon, Cardiff Business School @Econdixon

Policy of financial repression is being pursued and is mistaken given economic output and employment are around ‘natural’ levels, hurting savers and retail banks and helps hedge funds and investment banks. Inequality a problem but not one for monetary policymakers. Hiking rates to 3-4% will boost confidence. Doesn’t seem to understand basic monetary economics double-entry book-keeping.

Professor Emeritus Sheila Dow, University of Stirling, and former special advisor on monetary policy to the Treasury Select Committee (2001-10) @sheilacdow

Distributional effects of monetary policy changes should be analysed ex ante as they impact effectiveness of policy transmission. Also, in concerning itself with aggregates rather than distribution, a value judgement is made that market processes ensure a just distributional outcome (wages and salaries reflect worth, etc). Distributional impact of monetary policy can create social problems that require fiscal spend to fix. Bank-HMT cmte should form to discuss interdependencies.

Professor Richard A. Werner, D.Phil. (Oxon), Chair in International Banking, University of Southampton who invented the term Quantitative Easing as a recommended policy for Japan in 1995 @ProfessorWerner

Interest rates are not a useful tool of monetary policy but should rise. BoE should desist QE, try to steepen the curve, and pressure UK banks to lend to non-financial SMEs. Bank credit creation determines nominal GDP growth. HMT should stop issuing bonds and borrow from banks.

Isaac T. Tabner, PhD, CFA, DipPFs, Senior Lecturer in Finance, University of Stirling Management School @IsaacTabner

Lower interest rates make house prices rise, absent generalised deflation.

Roger E. A. Farmer, Research Director for Macroeconomics, NIESR @farmerrf

There is no NAIRU or natural rate of interest. If inflation doesn’t rise, BoE should hike rates while either HMT does coordinated fiscal easing or BoE buys lots of equities. FPC can and should maintain a price for the average value of publicly traded equities that is consistent with full employment.

Lord Skidelsky, cross-bencher and Keynes biographer @RSkidelsky

Near-ZIRP & QE have probably helped at the margin but the distributional impact has been counterproductive and adverse, threatening independence. Fiscal is better. British Investment Bank. People’s QE.

Tony Yates, Professor of Economics, University of Birmingham @T0nyyates

QE was necessary (although not flawlessly executed); Forward Guidance was pants; inflation target should be raised to 4%; MPC should declare expected rate path; and an institutional architecture should be prepared for large-scale private asset market intervention, technocratic fiscal coordination, and introduction of helicopter money.

Professor Philip Haynes, University of Brighton @profpdh

QE boosted asset prices, including house prices. Rents too. And wealth inequality. Monetary policy should target credit at productive investment, working with the Chancellor.

Professor Mariana Mazzucato @MazzucatoM and research fellow Matteo Deleidi, University of London

Lower rates boost household demand for housing and goods, pushing debt higher; corporates investment intentions don’t respond to changing price of debt. Fiscal expansion would’ve been better than QE.

Eric J. Levin, Reader in Economics (Retired), University of Stirling and Robert E. Wright, Professor of Economics, University of Strathclyde

Viscous loop in play: demographics forcing up savings rates, pushing down demand and interest rates, wrecking pensions funding and boosting demand for bonds.

Professor Francis Breedon, Queen Mary’s University of London

QE could have been £2bn cheaper if executed via HMT issuing directly to BEAPFF (although this would have been illegal under Art 123 of Lisbon Treaty).

 

Finance folk

Association of British Insurers (although written by NIESR) @BritishInsurers

QE has increased DB pension deficits and lowered annuity rates. Under Solvency II, lower interest rates increase both the value of liabilities and the quantity of capital that insurers need to hold to insure their non-market risk, creating a trade-off between the fund’s valuation and its solvency. The highly sensitive nature of these movements to interest rates can generate volatility, which is a challenge to manage, dis-incentivises the insuring of longevity risk, and acts pro-cyclically. 50bp rate change moves Risk Margin by 20%.

Robin Churchouse (Finance Director) and Andrew McPhillips (Chief Economist), Yorkshire Building Society @Yorkshire_BS

Savers hit by QE, and markets have grown dependent on central bank support. Target saving not really observed, but nor have low rates reduced saving. Distribution is a matter for HMT.

Professor Mark Blyth, Brown University, @MkBlyth and Eric Lonergan, fund manager at M&G @ericlonners

QE1 was good, less so later versions. Success of policy 1980-2008 maybe dependent on coming from starting position of anachronistically high real rates. Monetary policy largely out of road; heli-money to households is the way the BoE should best respond to a downturn, should it come before rates are high enough to be cut in response.

Toby Nangle, Global Co-Head of Multi Asset, Columbia Threadneedle Investments @toby_n

Target saving a thing, but jury out on how big. QE sorta worked by boosting asset prices but houses are assets too. Death of DB pension system accelerated by QE, but regs and global environment too; low rates an opportunity for HMT. Nangle-Goodhart. Awesome charts.

Building Societies Association @BSABuildingSocs

QE was necessary, but further rate cuts, and in particular negative rates, could be counterproductive. Target savers abound, their number boosted by rising house prices and falling rates. Brexit will hit investment and economic growth.

Peter Dixon, senior economist at Commerzbank AG @commerzbank

Monetary policy is overburdened in the UK but the BoE has done a decent job. Target saving is a thing.

Neil Smith, Altus Investments & Plymouth University @NelsonSmythe

QE is bad unless it’s People’s QE. Abba Lerner was right and the UK should embrace Functional Finance.

 

Think tanks

Tomorrow’s Company, think tank @Tomorrows_co

QE sort of worked by boosting asset prices and household wealth (unsustainably), but a shame it was needed. Sectoral flows approach taken and monetary toolbox empty, absent overt monetary financing. Companies never reduced their hurdle rates so diminished monetary transmission. BoE chat kept GBP firm, undermining international rebalancing.

Positive Money, think tank @PositiveMoneyUK

Banks don’t really lend to businesses any more so low rates & QE just boosts asset prices (incl housing) and heighten inequality, especially between generations. People’s QE.

New Economics Foundation, think tank @NEF

Loans make deposits. QE1 stopped a liquidity crunch but made the rich richer. Bank lending overwhelmingly secured on property so property cycle key. BoE should target inflation, finl stability, inequality, house price inflation and employment at a regional level, public and trade deficits and ecological considerations. And a pony.

Jubilee Centre, a Christian think tank @JubileeCentre

The system is broken. Move to 100% reserve-based banking, complete household deleveraging, and abolish LOLR as well as tax breaks associated with incurring debt.

pH report

The UK population is ageing. We can prove it. Also, monetary policy isn’t set up to deal with this.

 

Unaffiliated

Michael R Garrard, a straight-talking autodidact

This man has been successively ripped off, is rightly pissed off, and is articulate. Reckons MPC is not in control: private companies are.

Richard Simmons studied as an economist and has worked in businesses

QE should fund big venture capital funds that can equity-finance early, mid, late-stage projects or infrastructure, with spin-out privatisations profiting the state.

Ralph Musgrave, economics blogger and unsuccessful British National Party PPC in the 2010 General Election @RalphMus

Today’s regime is a dog’s dinner! People’s QE.

 

Cobden Centre @CobdenCentre

I thought it best to group all the affiliates of the Cobden Centre together (where affiliates are defined as people described by the Cobden Centre on their website as their authors, founding fellows, directors etc). The Cobden Centre campaigns for an end to fiat money and was co-founded by Steve Baker MP who sits on the TSC.

Toby Baxendale, former vendor of wet fish and co-founder of The Cobden Centre @TobyBaxendale; Max Rangeley, founder of ReboundTAG @NotesfromMax

QE is immoral; shift to 100% reserve banking and a low tax regime should happen. The global liberal elite should be worried. Things will end badly.

Alasdair Macleod, Head of Research at Goldmoney @MacleodFinance

Buy gold. We need a policy of sound money to build solid foundations for economic growth, and a gold standard works deliver sound money. Buy gold.

Vishal Wilde, student who ‘devote[s] his life to fighting for Freedom and Justice because he believes God’s Will is a Free and Just Will’ and has written for the Adam Smith Institute

Multiple monies in circulation and free banking would be great.

Keith Weiner, founder of the Gold Standard Institute USA @kweiner01

Whatever the question, gold is the answer.

Anthony J. Evans, ESCP Europe Business School and IEA @anthonyjevans

BoE should target nominal income rather than inflation. Policy is too loose and has generated malinvestment. Markets provide better answers than policymakers. Some nice framing of epistemological questions.

 

–Fin–

Still an awesome chart!

Today the Resolution Foundation released an excellent and fascinating paper looking at data behind Branco Milanovic’s ‘elephant chart’, and asking what conclusions can be realistically drawn from it.

My tweets may have played some small role in popularising the chart – the reporting of an opinion I tweeted that it is ‘the most important of the last decade’ is footnoted a couple of times in the paper, and it even appeared in a Dutch Trade Minister’s speech a couple of weeks ago.

Here’s the tweet, which I drew on my iPad of a picture that I snapped while reading Milanovic’s terrific book:

I have been thrilled to have had a role in drawing attention to the work that Milanovic’s and Lakner have conducted, a summary of which can be read here.

But judging from my Twitter feed this morning you would think that the Resolution Foundation paper has found major methodological flaws that makes a nonsense of the chart.

Not so.

To reiterate, the elephant chart is an amazing chart. It paints in one graphic a picture of the global economy that is (in my opinion) unrivalled. It is so good precisely *because* it combines income changes and demographic changes; it tells the story of recent global history and the degree to which the rise of China (and India) have changed the world. It also illustrates that lower income households in the West have largely not participated in the remarkable global growth over the two decades. The original Milanovic & Lakner paper  dwelt at length on the compositional issues behind the chart, and there was even an animated gif that @MaxCRoser put together using country-specific compositional data contained therein which is pretty stunning, and was widely distributed before inexplicably disappearing from Twitter. Luckily I have been able to find and embed a copy below: global-income

The Resolution report does the world a service by further drawing out the data behind the chart, discussing what policy implications can and cannot be drawn from the chart, and reminding people of the compositional issues.

Compositional issues are hard. And this is probably the most striking chart in the report for people interested in the impact of compositional issues. It even makes its way into the FT.

unknown

This chart is complicated. As its title suggests, it shows ‘Growth in average per capita household income of each percentile group (rolling average) if there had been no income growth and changes were solely due to uneven population growth’.

I think that this means that it imagines a situation where:

  1. every worker is put into an country-specific income decile in 1988, and the mean income of the decile is then fixed in real terms;
  2. net new workers per country are distributed evenly across these country-specific deciles;
  3. all countries for which there is data have their country-specific deciles chucked into a spreadsheet in 2008;
  4. the income required to make it into each percentile in 2008 is then compared to the income required to make it into each percentile in 1988.

The outcome is then charted. (Apologies if I’ve misinterpreted.)

If this understanding is correct, the chart then shows the impact on the elephant chart of

  1. poorer countries having had faster population growth than richer countries;
  2. starting the exercise in 1988 when the global income distribution had the following shape:

unknown-1

Or, as the author of the Resolution report, Adam Corlett, puts it:

“For example, the poorest decile of people in the US were in the 70-75th percentile range in 1988. But population growth among poorer countries would have pushed those Americans up into the 75th-80th percentile range by 2008. The bottom US decile would be replaced in the 70-75th percentile part of the global distribution by the richest urban Chinese, but the latter’s average income was around $1,500 compared to the former’s $2,600: producing a fall in the average income of those percentiles.”

And so, when holding constant the country population share the elephant chart looks as follows (red line):

unknown-2

Is this a ‘truer’ version of the original elephant chart? Not at all. In fact, holding constant population shares stable is a nonsense: it no longer shows a picture of profound changes that have been experienced across the global economy as a whole. The author both understands this and makes no attempt to conceal it, because he is trying to do something important and useful to which this new chart is particularly well-suited: to correct a misperception as to what the original elephant chart showed.

Specifically, it issues a corrective to claims that working class developed market incomes have *stagnated* in real terms during the period. And here, despite being one of the people who actually read Milanovic & Lakner, I am at least partly culpable. In a blog for voxeu among other places, I have used the elephant chart and stated “there is a large section of people who are well-off in global terms who have largely not participated in global growth over the past 20 years. That section is populated largely by the Western lower middle and working classes”.  The words may not be technically incorrect, but to say that they fail to draw attention to the compositional issues underlying the chart is more than fair. Furthermore, they mask the fact that while I have looked at US income distribution in some depth, and think myself relatively familiar with the data that is published in the UK, the impact of Japanese income data on the overall chart had passed me by.

When we look at the constant country population share chart from the Resolution paper we can see that my claim that a large section of Western lower middle and working classes largely not participating in global growth might more accurately (but not massively more accurately) be described as having experienced a cumulative real income growth of c25% (although this will vary *meaningfully* by country – with Japanese lower income deciles experiencing contraction, US lower income deciles experiencing low but positive growth, and Western European lower deciles experiencing c45% cumulative income growth). These levels of cumulative income growth have been lower than the income growth at the top of each of the income distributions for the respective developed market block (leading in many developed countries to higher levels of income inequality), and lower than the income growth of the global median or global poor (leading to lower levels of income inequality across the globe, principally due to the rise of China). And so while real incomes have risen for lower middle and working classes in absolute terms, the bottom 80% labour share of GDP in the UK and US has declined as a proportion of GDP (defined as the labour share of GDP multiplied by the proportion of labour income received by the bottom 80% of the income distribution, see chart below), while the relative cost of labour in the West vs the rest of the world has reduced. (It is also notable that the big decline in the UK occurred in the 1980s, with an evening out thereafter.)

unknown

I don’t think that all these things are disconnected, and I’m pretty sure that the Resolution Foundation report isn’t arguing that they are disconnected. Instead, it is seeking to quash a meme that real incomes have stagnated for developed market middle class workers on account of globalisation. It does so with aplomb. As Torsten Bell, also of the Resolution Foundation, blogsboth those saying globalisation automatically benefits everyone and those saying that developed world middle classes have seen no income growth are wrong. Perhaps most crucially, where individual countries lie in between those extreme positions is to a significant degree down to policy choices.”

Given that I read Milanovic & Lakner’s compositional discussions in the original paper, why did I not major on these compositional discussions? Well, I didn’t think that they change the use to which I put the chart (discussing the global labour glut that came about with China joining the global trading system, the associated substitution of capital for labour, and the loss of labour bargaining power in a variety of developed market economies). Although I was not aware of the contribution the Japan had made to the distribution until reading the report.

I tend not to be accused of oversimplifying things. But given the reaction to the Resolution Foundation report, I certainly feel complicit in propagating the end-product of a complex piece of analysis without due caveats.

However, it’s still an awesome chart.