An Analysis of the Trump Tax Plan: Not a Tax Reform, But Rather a Massive Tax Cut for the Rich

A.  Introduction

The Trump administration released on September 27 its proposed tax plan.  It was exceedingly skimpy (only nine pages long, including the title page, and with all the white space could have been presented on half that number of pages).  Importantly, it was explicitly vague on many of the measures, such as what tax loopholes would be closed to partially pay for the tax cuts (simply saying they would do this somehow).  One can, however, examine measures that were explicitly presented, and from these it is clear that this is primarily a plan for massive tax cuts for the rich.

It is also clear that this is not a tax reform.  A tax reform would be revenue neutral.  The measures proposed would not be.  And a reform would focus on changes in the structure of the tax system.  There is little of that here, but rather proposals to cut various tax rates (including in several cases to zero), primarily for the benefit of those who are well off.

One can see this in the way the tax plan was approached.  In a true tax reform, one would start by examining the system, and whether certain deductions and tax exemptions are not warranted by good policy (but rather serve only certain vested interests).  Closing such loopholes would lead to higher revenues being collected.  One would then determine what the new tax rates could be (i.e. by how much they could be cut) to leave the overall level of tax collection the same.

But that was not done here.  Rather, they start with specific proposals on what the new tax rates “should” be (12%, 25%, and 35% for individuals, and 20% for corporations), and then make only vague references to certain, unspecified, deductions and tax exemptions being eliminated or reduced, in order not to lose too much in revenues (they assert).  They have the process backward.

And it is clear that these tax cuts, should they be enacted by Congress, would massively increase the fiscal deficit.  While it is impossible to come up with a precise estimate of how much the tax plan would cost in lost revenues, due to the vagueness on the parameters and on a number of the proposals, Republicans have already factored into the long-term budget a reduction in tax revenues of $1.5 trillion over ten years.  And estimates of the net cost of the Trump plan range from a low of $2.2 trillion over ten years ($2.7 trillion when additional interest is counted, as it should be), to as high as $5 trillion over ten years.  No one can really say as yet, given the deliberate lack of detail.

But any of these figures on the cost are not small.  The total federal debt held by the public as of the end of September, 2017, was $14.7 trillion.  The cost in lost revenue could equal more than a third of this.  Yet Republicans in Congress blocked the fiscal expenditures we desperately needed in the years from 2010 onwards during the Obama years, when unemployment was still high, there was excess capacity in our underutilized factories, and the country needed to rebuild its infrastructure (as we still do).  The argument then was that we could not add to our national debt.  But now the same politicians see no problem with adding massively to that debt to cover tax cuts that will primarily benefit the rich.  The sheer hypocrisy is breath-taking.

Not surprisingly, Trump officials are saying that there will be no such cost due to a resulting spur to our economic growth.  Trump himself asserted that his tax plan would lead the economy to grow at a 6% pace.  No economist sees this as remotely plausible.  Even Trump’s economic aides, such as Gary Cohn who was principally responsible for the plan, are far more cautious and say only that the plan will lead to growth of “substantially over 3 percent”.  But even this has no basis in what has been observed historically after the Reagan and Bush tax cuts, nor what one would expect from elementary economic analysis.

The lack of specificity in many of the proposals in the tax plan issued on September 27 makes it impossible to assess it in full, as major elements are simply only alluded to.  For example, it says that a number of tax deductions (both personal and corporate) will be eliminated or reduced, but does not say which (other than that they propose to keep the deductions for home mortgage interest and for charity).  As another example, the plan says the number of personal income tax brackets would be reduced from seven currently to just three broad ones (at 12%, 25%, and 35%), but does not say at what income levels each would apply.  Specifics were simply left out.

For a tax plan where work has been intensively underway for already the eight months of this administration (and indeed from before, as campaign proposals were developed), such vagueness must be deliberate.  The possible reasons include:  1) That the specifics would be embarrassing, as they would make clear the political interests that would gain or lose under the plan; 2) That revealing the specifics would spark immediate opposition from those who would lose (or not gain as others would); 3) That revealing the specifics would make clear that they would not in fact suffice to achieve what the Trump administration is asserting (e.g. that ending certain tax deductions will make the plan progressive, or generate revenues sufficient to offset the tax rate cuts); and/or 4) That they really do not know what to do or what could be done to fix the issue.

One can, however, look at what is there, even if the overall plan is incomplete.  This blog post will do that.

B.  Personal Income Taxes

The proposals are (starting with those which are most clear):

a)  Elimination of the Estate Tax:  Only the rich pay this.  It only applies to estates given to heirs of $10.98 million or more (for a married couple).  This only affects the top 0.2%, most wealthy, households in the US.

b)  Elimination of the Alternative Minimum Tax:  This also only applies to those who are rich enough for it to apply and who benefit from a range of tax deductions and other benefits, who would otherwise pay little in tax.  It would be better to end such tax deductions and other special tax benefits that primarily help this group, thus making the Alternative Minimum Tax irrelevant, than to end it even though it had remained relevant.

c)  A reduction in the top income tax rate from 39.6% to 35%:  This is a clear gain to those whose income is so high that they would, under the current tax brackets, owe tax at a marginal rate of 39.6%.  But this bracket only kicks in for households with an adjusted gross income of $470,700 or more (in 2017).  This is very close to the minimum income of those in the top 1% of the income distribution ($465,626 in 2014), and the average household income of those in that very well-off group was $1,260,508 in 2014.  Thus this would be a benefit only to the top 1%, who on average earn over $1 million a year.

The Trump plan document does include a rather odd statement that the congressional tax-writing committees could consider adding an additional, higher, tax bracket, for the very rich, but it is not at all clear what this might be.  They do not say.  And since the tax legislation will be written by the congressional committees, who are free to include whatever they choose, this gratuitous comment is meaningless, and was presumably added purely for political reasons.

d)  A consolidation in the number of tax brackets from seven currently to just three, of 12%, 25%, and 35%:  Aside from the clear benefit to those now in the 39.6% bracket, noted above, one cannot say precisely what the impact the new tax brackets would have for the other groups since the income levels at which each would kick in was left unspecified.  It might have been embarrassing, or contentious, to do so.  But one can say that any such consolidation would lead to less progressivity in the tax system, as each of the new brackets would apply to a broader range of incomes.  Instead of the rates rising as incomes move up from one bracket to the next, there would now be a broader range at which they would be kept flat.  For example, suppose the Trump plan would be for the new 25% rate to span what is now taxed at 25% or 28%.  That range would then apply to household incomes (for married couples filing jointly, and in 2017) from $75,900 on the low end to $233,350 at the high end.  The low-end figure is just above the household income figure of $74,869 (in 2016) for those reaching the 60th percentile of the income distribution (see Table A-2 of this Census Bureau report), while the top-end is just above the $225,251 income figure for those reaching the 95th percentile.  A system is not terribly progressive when those in the middle class (at the 60th percentile) pay at the same rate as those who are quite well off (in the 95th percentile).

e)  A ceiling on the tax rate paid on personal income received through “pass-through” business entities of just 25%:  This would be one of the more regressive of the measures proposed in the Trump tax plan (as well as one especially beneficial to Trump himself).  Under current tax law, most US businesses (95% of them) are incorporated as business entities that do not pay taxes at the corporate level, but rather pass through their incomes to their owners or partners, who then pay tax on that income at their normal, personal, rates.  These so-called “pass-through” business entities include sole proprietorships, partnerships, Limited Liability Companies (LLCs), and sub-chapter S corporations (from the section in the tax code).  And they are important, not only in number but also in incomes generated:  In the aggregate, such pass-through business entities generate more in income than the traditional large corporations (formally C corporations) that most people refer to when saying corporation.  C corporations must pay a corporate income tax (to be discussed below), while pass-through entities avoid such taxes at the company level.

The Trump tax plan would cap the tax rate on such pass-through income at 25%.  This would not only create a new level of complexity (a new category of income on which a different tax is due), but would also only be of benefit to those who would otherwise owe taxes at a higher rate (the 35% bracket in the Trump plan).  If one were already in the 25% bracket, or a lower one, that ceiling would make no difference at all and would be of no benefit.  But for those rich enough to be in the higher bracket, the benefit would be huge.

Who would gain from this?  Anyone who could organize themselves as a pass-through entity (or could do so in agreement with their employer).  This would include independent consultants; other professionals such as lawyers, lobbyists, accountants, and financial advisors; financial entities and the partners investing in private-equity, venture-capital, and hedge funds; and real estate developers.  Trump would personally benefit as he owns or controls over 500 LLCs, according to Federal Election Commission filings.  And others could reorganize into such an entity when they have a tax incentive to do so.  For example, the basketball coach at the University of Kansas did this when Kansas created such a loophole for what would otherwise be due under its state income taxes.

f)  The tax cuts for middle-income groups would be small or non-existent:  While the Trump tax proposal, as published, repeatedly asserts that they would reduce taxes due by the middle class, there is little to suggest in the plan that that would be the case.  The primary benefit, they tout (and lead off with) is a proposal to almost double the standard deduction to $24,000 (for a married couple filing jointly).  That standard deduction is currently $12,700.  But the Trump plan would also eliminate the personal exemption, which is $4,050 per person in 2017.  Combining the standard deduction and personal exemptions, a family of four would have $28,900 of exempt income in 2017 under current law ($12,700 for the standard deduction, and personal exemptions of four times $4,050), but only $24,000 under the Trump plan.  They would not be better off, and indeed could be worse off.  The Trump plan is also proposing that the child tax credit (currently a maximum of $1,000 per child, and phased out at higher incomes) should be raised (both in amount, and at the incomes at which it is phased out), but no specifics are given so one cannot say whether this would be significant.

g)  Deduction for state and local taxes paid:  While not stated explicitly, the plan does imply that the deduction for state and local taxes paid would be eliminated.  It also has been much discussed publicly, so leaving out explicit mention was not an oversight.  What the Trump plan does say is the “most itemized deductions” would be eliminated, other than the deductions for home mortgage interest and for charity.

Eliminating the deduction for state and local taxes appears to be purely political.  It would adversely affect mostly those who live in states that vote for Democrats.  And it is odd to consider this tax deduction as a loophole.  One has to pay your taxes (including state and local taxes), or you go to jail.  It is not something you do voluntarily, in part to benefit from a tax deduction.  In contrast, a deduction such as for home mortgage interest is voluntary, one benefits directly from buying and owning a nice house, and such a deduction benefits more those who are able to buy a big and expensive home and who qualify for taking out a large mortgage.

h)  Importantly, there was much that was not mentioned:  One must also keep in mind what was not mentioned and hence would not be changed under the Trump proposals.  For example, no mention was made of the highly favorable tax rates on long-term capital gains (for assets held one year or more) of just 20%.  Those with a high level of wealth, i.e. the wealthy, gain greatly from this.  Nor was there any mention of such widely discussed loopholes as the “carried interest” exception (where certain investment fund managers are able to count their gains from the investment deals they work on as if it were capital gains, rather than a return on their work, as it would be for the lawyers and accountants on such deals), or the ability to be paid in stock options at the favorable capital gains rates.

C.  Corporate Income Taxes

More than the tax cuts enacted under Presidents Reagan and Bush, the Trump tax plan focuses on cuts to corporate income (profit) taxes.  Proposals include:

a)  A cut in the corporate income tax rate from the current 35% to just 20%:  This is a massive cut.  But it should also be recognized that the actual corporate income tax paid is far lower than the headline rate.  As noted in an earlier post on this blog, the actual average rate paid has been coming down for decades, and is now around 20%.  There are many, perfectly legal, ways to circumvent this tax.  But setting the rate now at 20% will not mean that taxes equal to 20% of corporate profits will be collected.  Rather, unless the mechanisms used to reduce corporate tax liability from the headline rate of 35% are addressed, those mechanisms will be used to reduce the new collections from the new 20% headline rate to something far less again.

b)  Allow 100% of investment expenses to be deducted from profits in the first year, while limiting “partially” interest expense on borrowing:  This provision, commonly referred to as full “expensing” of investment expenditures, would reduce taxable profits by whatever is spent on investment.  Investments are expected to last for a number of years, and under normal accounting the expense counted is not the full investment expenditure but rather only the estimated depreciation of that investment in the current year.  However, in recent decades an acceleration in what is allowed for depreciation has been allowed in the tax code in order to provide an additional incentive to invest.  The new proposal would bring that acceleration all the way to 100%, which as far as it can go.

This would provide an incentive to invest more, which is not a bad thing, although it still would also have the effect of reducing what would be collected in corporate income taxes.  It would have to be paid for somehow.  The Trump proposal would partially offset the cost of full expensing of investments by limiting “partially” the interest costs on borrowing that can be deducted as a cost when calculating taxable profits.  The interest cost of borrowing (on loans, or bonds, or whatever) is currently counted in full as an expense, just like any other expense of running the business.  How partial that limitation on interest expenses would be is not said.

But even if interest expenses were excluded in full from allowable business expenses, it is unlikely that this would come close to offsetting the reduction in tax revenues from allowing investment expenditures to be fully expensed.  As a simple example, suppose a firm would make an investment of $100, in an asset that would last 10 years (and with depreciation of 10% of the original cost each year).  For this investment, the firm would borrow $100, on which it pays interest at 5%.  Under the current tax system, the firm in the first year would deduct from its profits the depreciation expense of $10 (10% of $100) plus the interest cost of $5, for a total of $15.  Under the Trump plan, the firm would be able to count as an expense in the first year the full $100, but not the $5 of interest.  That is far better for the firm.  Of course, the situation would then be different in the second and subsequent years, as depreciation would no longer be counted (the investment was fully expensed in the first year), but it is always better to bring expenses forward.  And there likely will be further investments in subsequent years as well, keeping what counts as taxable profits low.

c)  Tax amnesty for profits held abroad:  US corporations hold an estimated $2.6 trillion in assets overseas, in part because overseas earnings are not subject to the corporate income tax until they are repatriated to the US.  Such a provision might have made sense decades ago, when information systems were more primitive, but does not anymore.  This provision in the US tax code creates the incentive to avoid current taxes by keeping such earnings overseas.  These earnings could come from regular operations such as to sell and service equipment for foreign customers, or from overseas production operations.  Or such earnings could be generated through aggressive tax schemes, such as from transferring patent and trademark rights to overseas jurisdictions in low-tax or no-tax jurisdictions such as the Cayman Islands.  But whichever way such profits are generated, the US tax system creates the incentive to hold them abroad by not taxing them until they are repatriated to the US.

This is an issue, and could be addressed directly by changing the law to make overseas earnings subject to tax in the year the earnings are generated.  The tax on what has been accumulated in the past could perhaps be spread out equally over some time period, to reduce the shock, such as say over five years.  The Trump plan would in fact start to do this, but only partially as the tax on such accumulated earnings would be set at some special (and unannounced) low rates.  All it says is that while both rates would be low, there would be a lower rate applied if the foreign earnings are held in “illiquid” assets than in liquid ones.  Precisely how this distinction would be defined and enforced is not stated.

This would in essence be a partial amnesty for capital earnings held abroad.  Companies that have held their profits abroad (to avoid US taxes) would be rewarded with a huge windfall from that special low tax rate (or rates), totalling in the hundreds of billions of dollars, with the precise gain on that $2.6 trillion held overseas dependant on how low the Trump plan would set the tax rates on those earnings.

It is not surprising that US corporations have acted this way.  There was an earlier partial amnesty, and it was reasonable for them to assume there would be future ones (as the Trump tax plan is indeed now proposing).  In one of the worst pieces of tax policy implemented in the George W. Bush administration, an amnesty approved in 2004 allowed US corporations with accumulated earnings abroad to repatriate that capital at a special, low, tax rate of just 5.25%.  It was not surprising that the corporations would assume this would happen again, and hence they had every incentive to keep earnings abroad whenever possible, leading directly to the $2.6 trillion now held abroad.

Furthermore, the argument was made that the 2004 amnesty would lead the firms to undertake additional investment in the US, with additional employment, using the repatriated funds.  But analyses undertaken later found no evidence that that happened.  Indeed, subsequent employment fell at the firms that repatriated accumulated overseas earnings.  Rather, the funds repatriated largely went to share repurchases and increased dividends.  This should not, however, have been surprising.  Firms will invest if they have what they see to be a profitable opportunity.  If they need funds, they can borrow, and such multinational corporations generally have no problem in doing so.  Indeed, they can use their accumulated overseas earnings as collateral on such loans (as Apple has done) to get especially low rates on such loans.  Yet the Trump administration asserts, with no evidence and indeed in contradiction to the earlier experience, that their proposed amnesty on earnings held abroad will this time lead to more investment and jobs by these firms in the US.

d)  Cut to zero corporate taxes on future overseas earnings:  The amnesty discussed above would apply to the current stock of accumulated earnings held by US corporations abroad.  Going forward, the Trump administration proposes that earnings of overseas subsidiaries (with ownership of as little as 10% in those firms) would be fully exempt from US taxes.  While it is true that there then would be no incentive to accumulate earnings abroad, the same would be the case if those earnings would simply be made subject to the same current year corporate income taxes as the US parent is liable for, and not taxable only when those earnings are repatriated.

It is also not at all clear to me how exempting these overseas earnings from any US taxes would lead to more investment and more jobs in the US.  Indeed, the incentive would appear to me to be the opposite.  If a plant is sited in the US and used to sell product in the US market or to export it to Europe or Asia, say, earnings from those operations would be subject to the regular US corporate income taxes (at a 20% rate in the Trump proposals).  However, if the plant is sited in Mexico, with the production then sold in the US market or exported from there to Europe or Asia, earnings from those operations would not be subject to any US tax.  Mexico might charge some tax, but if the firm can negotiate a good deal (much as firms from overseas have negotiated such deals with various states in the US to site their plants in those states), the Trump proposal would create an incentive to move investment and jobs to foreign locations.

D.  Conclusion

The Trump administration’s tax plan is extremely skimpy on the specifics.  As one commentator (Allan Sloan) noted, it looks like it was “written in a bar one evening over a batch of beers for a Tax 101 class rather than by serious people who spent weeks working with tax issues”.

It is, of course, still just a proposal.  The congressional committees will be the ones who will draft the specific law, and who will then of necessity fill in the details.  The final product could look quite different from what has been presented here.  But the Trump administration proposal has been worked out during many months of discussions with the key Republican leaders in the House and the Senate who will be involved.  Indeed, the plan has been presented in the media not always as the Trump administration plan, but rather the plan of the “Big Six”, where the Big Six is made up of House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Kevin Brady, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Orrin Hatch, plus National Economic Council Director Gary Cohn and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin of the Trump administration.  If this group is indeed fully behind it, then one can expect the final version to be voted on will be very similar to what was outlined here.

But skimpy as it is, one can say with some certainty that the tax plan:

a)  Will be expensive, with a ten-year cost in the trillions of dollars;

b)  Is not in fact a tax reform, but rather a set of very large tax cuts;

and c)  Overwhelmingly benefits the rich.

Productivity: Do Low Real Wages Explain the Slowdown?

GDP per Worker, 1947Q1 to 2016Q2,rev

A.  Introduction, and the Record on Productivity Growth

There is nothing more important to long term economic growth than the growth in productivity.  And as shown in the chart above, productivity (measured here by real GDP in 2009 dollars per worker employed) is now over $115,000.  This is 2.6 times what it was in 1947 (when it was $44,400 per worker), and largely explains why living standards are higher now than then.  But productivity growth in recent decades has not matched what was achieved between 1947 and the mid-1960s, and there has been an especially sharp slowdown since late 2010.  The question is why?

Productivity is not the whole story; distribution also matters.  And as this blog has discussed before, while all income groups enjoyed similar improvements in their incomes between 1947 and 1980 (with those improvements also similar to the growth in productivity over that period), since then the fruits of economic growth have gone only to the higher income groups, while the real incomes of the bottom 90% have stagnated.  The importance of this will be discussed further below.  But for the moment, we will concentrate on overall productivity, and what has happened to it especially in recent years.

As noted, the overall growth in productivity since 1947 has been huge.  The chart above is calculated from data reported by the BEA (for GDP) and the BLS (for employment).  It is productivity at its most basic:  Output per person employed.  Note that there are other, more elaborate, measures of productivity one might often see, which seek to control, for example, for the level of capital or for the education structure of the labor force.  But for this post, we will focus simply on output per person employed.

(Technical Note on the Data: The most reliable data on employment comes from the CES survey of employers of the BLS, but this survey excludes farm employment.  However, this exclusion is small and will not have a significant impact on the growth rates.  Total employment in agriculture, forestry, fishing, and hunting, which is broader than farm employment only, accounts for only 1.4% of total employment, and this sector is 1.2% of GDP.)

While the overall rise in productivity since 1947 has been huge, the pace of productivity growth was not always the same.  There have been year-to-year fluctuations, not surprisingly, but these even out over time and are not significant. There are also somewhat longer term fluctuations tied to the business cycle, and these can be significant on time scales of a decade or so.  Productivity growth slows in the later phases of a business expansion, and may well fall as an economic downturn starts to develop.  But once well into a downturn, with businesses laying off workers rapidly (with the least productive workers the most likely to be laid off first), one will often see productivity (of those still employed) rise.  And it will then rise further in the early stages of an expansion as output grows while new hiring lags.

Setting aside these shorter-term patterns, one can break down productivity growth over the close to 70 year period here into three major sub-periods.  Between the first quarter of 1947 and the first quarter of 1966, productivity rose at a 2.2% annual pace.  There was then a slowdown, for reasons that are not fully clear and which economists still debate, to just a 0.4% pace between the first quarter of 1966 and the first quarter of 1982.  The pace of productivity growth then rose again, to 1.4% a year between the first quarter of 1982 and the second quarter of 2016.  But this was well less than the 2.2% pace the US enjoyed before.

An important question is why did productivity growth slow from a 2.2% pace between the late 1940s and mid-1960s, to a 1.4% pace since 1982.  Such a slowdown, if sustained, might not appear like much, but the impact would in fact be significant.  Over a 50 year period, for example, real output per worker would be 50% higher with growth at a 2.2% than it would be with growth at a 1.4% pace.

There is also an important question of whether productivity growth has slowed even further in recent years.  This might well still be a business cycle effect, as the economy has recovered from the 2008/09 downturn but only slowly (due to the fiscal drag from cuts in government spending).  The pace of productivity growth has been especially slow since late 2010, as is clear by blowing up the chart from above to focus on the period since 2000:

GDP per Worker, 2000Q1 to 2016Q2,rev

Productivity has increased at a rate of just 0.13% a year since late 2010.  This is slow, and a real problem if it continues.  I would hasten to add that the period here (5 1/2 years) is still too short to say with any certainty whether this will remain an issue.  There have been similar multi-year periods since 1947 when the pace of productivity growth appeared to slow, and then bounced back.  Indeed, as seen in the chart above, one would have found a similar pattern had one looked back in early 2009, with a slow pace of productivity growth observed from about 2005.

There has been a good deal of work done by excellent economists on why productivity growth has been what it was, and what it might be in the future.  But there is no consensus.  Robert J. Gordon of Northwestern University, considered by many to be the “dean in the field”, takes a pessimistic view on the prospects in his recently published magnum opus “The Rise and Fall of American Growth”.  Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee of MIT, in contrast, argue for a more optimistic view in their recent work “The Second Machine Age” (although “optimistic” might not be the right word because of their concern for the implication of this for jobs).  They see productivity growth progressing rapidly, if not accelerating.

But such explanations are focused on possible productivity growth as dictated by what is possible technologically.  A separate factor, I would argue, is whether investment in fact takes place that makes use of the technology that is available.  And this may well be a dominant consideration when examining the change in productivity over the short and medium terms.  A technology is irrelevant if it is not incorporated into the actual production process.  And it is only incorporated into the production process via investment.

To understand productivity growth, and why it has fallen in recent decades and perhaps especially so in recent years, one must therefore also look at the investment taking place, and why it is what it is.  The rest of this blog post will do that.

B.  The Slowdown in the Pace of Investment

The first point to note is that net investment (i.e. after depreciation) has been falling in recent decades when expressed as a share of GDP, with this true for both private and public investment:

Domestic Fixed Investment, Total, Public, and Private, Net, percentage of GDP, 1951 to 2015, updated Aug 16, 2016

Total net investment has been on a clear downward trend since the mid-1960s.  Private net investment has been volatile, falling sharply with the onset of an economic downturn and then recovering.  But since the late 1970s its trend has also clearly been downward. Net private investment has been less than 3 1/2% of GDP in recent years, or less than half what it averaged between 1951 and 1980 (of over 7% of GDP).  And net public investment, while less volatile, has plummeted over time.  It averaged 3.1% of GDP between 1951 and 1968, but is only 0.5% of GDP now (as of 2015), or less than one-sixth of what it was before.

With falling net investment, the rates of growth of public and private capital stocks (fixed assets) have fallen (where 2014 is the most recent year for which the BEA has released such data):

Rate of Growth In Per Capita Net Stock of Private and Government Fixed Assets, edited, 1951 to 2014

Indeed, expressed in per capita terms, the stock of public capital is now falling.  The decrepit state of our highways, bridges, and other public infrastructure should not be a surprise.  And the stock of private capital fell each year between 2009 and 2011, with some recovery since but still at almost record low growth.

Even setting aside the recent low (or even negative) figures, the trend in the pace of growth for both public and private capital has declined since the mid-1960s.  Why might this be?

C.  Why Has Investment Slowed?

The answer is simple and clear for pubic capital.  Conservative politicians, in both the US Congress and in many states, have forced cuts in public investment over the years to the current low levels.  For whatever reasons, whether ideological or something else, conservative politicians have insisted on cutting or even blocking much of what the United States used to invest in publicly.

Yet public, like private, investment is important to productivity.  It is not only commuters trying to get to work who spend time in traffic jams from inadequate roads, and hence face work days of not 8 1/2 hours, but rather 10 or 11 or even 12 hours (with consequent adverse impacts on their productivity).  It affects also truck drivers and repairmen, who can accomplish less on their jobs due to time spent in jams.  Or, as a consequence of inadequate public investment in computer technology, a greater number of public sector workers are required than otherwise, in jobs ranging from issuing driver’s licenses to enrolling people in Medicare.  Inadequate public investment can hold back economic productivity in many ways.

The reasons behind the fall in private investment are less obvious, but more interesting. An obvious possible cause to check is whether private profitability has fallen.  If it has, then a reduction in private investment relative to output would not be a surprise.  But this has in fact not been the case:

Rate of Return on Produced Assets, 1951 to 2015, updated

The nominal rate of return on private investment has not only been high, but also surprisingly steady over the years.  Profits are defined here as the net operating surplus of all private entities, and is taken from the national account figures of the BEA.  They are then taken as a ratio to the stock of private produced assets (fixed assets plus inventories) as of the beginning of the year.  This rate of return has varied only between 8 and 13% over the period since at least 1951, and over the last several years has been around 11%.

Many might be surprised by both this high level of profitability and its lack of volatility.  I was.  But it should be noted that the measure of profitability here, net operating surplus, is a broad measure of all the returns to capital.  It includes not only corporate profitability, but also profits of unincorporated businesses, payments of interest (on borrowed capital), and payments of rents (as on buildings). That is, this is the return on all forms of private productive capital in the economy.

The real rates of return have been more volatile, and were especially low between 1974 and 1983, when inflation was high.  They are measured here by adjusting the nominal returns for inflation, using the GDP deflator as the measure for inflation.  But this real rate of return was a good 9.6% in 2015.  That is high for a real rate of return.  It was higher than that only for one year late in the Clinton administration, and for several years between the early 1950s and the mid-1960s.  But it was never higher than 11%.  The current real rate of return on private capital is far from low.

Why then has private investment slowed, in relation to output, if profitability is as high now as it has ever been since the 1950s?  One could conceive of several possible reasons. They include:

a)  Along the lines of what Robert Gordon has argued, perhaps the underlying pace of technological progress has slowed, and thus there is less of an incentive to undertake new investments (since the returns to replacing old capital with new capital will be less).  The rate of growth of capital then slows, and this keeps up profitability (as the capital becomes more scarce relative to output) even as the attractiveness of new investment diminishes.

b)  Conservatives might argue that the reduced pace of investment could be due to increased governmental regulations, which makes investment more difficult and raises its cost.  This might be difficult to reconcile with the rate of return on capital nonetheless remaining high, but in principle could be if one argues that the slower pace of new investment keeps up profitability as capital then becomes more scarce relative to output. But note that this argument would require that the increased burden of regulation began during the Reagan years in the early 1980s (when the share of private investment in GDP first started to slow – see the chart above), and built up steadily since then through both Republican and Democratic administrations.  It would not be something that started only recently under Obama.

c)  One could also argue that the reduced investment might be a consequence of “Baumol’s Cost Disease”.  This was discussed in earlier posts on this blog, both for overall government spending and for government investment in infrastructure specifically.  As discussed in those posts, Baumol’s Cost Disease explains why activities where productivity growth may be relatively more difficult to achieve than in other activities, will see their relative costs increase over time.  Construction is an example, where productivity growth has been historically more difficult to achieve than has been the case in manufacturing.  Thus the cost of investing, both public and private, relative to the cost of other items will increase over time.  This can then also be a possible explanation of slowing new investment, with that slower investment then keeping profitability up due to increasing scarcity of capital.

One problem with each of the possible explanations described above is that they all depend on capital investments becoming less attractive than before, either due to higher costs or due to reduced prospective return.  If such factors were indeed critical, one would need to take into account also the effect of taxes on investment returns.  And such taxes have been cut sharply over this same period.  As discussed in an earlier blog post, taxes on corporate profits, for example, are taxed now at an effective rate of less than 20%, based on what is actually paid after all the legal deductions and credits are included.  And this tax rate has fallen steadily over time.  The current 20% rate is less than half the effective rate that applied in the 1950s and 1960s, when the effective rate averaged almost 45%.  And the tax rate on long-term capital gains, as would apply to returns on capital to individuals, fell from a peak of just below 40% in the mid-1970s to just 15% following the Bush II tax cuts and to 20% since 2013.

Such sharp cuts in taxes on profits implies that the after-tax rate of return on assets has risen sharply (the before-tax rate of return, shown on the chart above, has been flat).  Yet despite this, private investment has fallen steadily since the early 1980s as a share of GDP.

Such explanations for the reason behind the fall in private investment since the early 1980s are therefore questionable.  However, the purpose of this blog post is not to debate this. Economists are good at coming up with models, possibly convoluted, which can explain things ex post.  Several could apply here.

Rather, I would suggest that there might be an alternative explanation for why private investment has been declining.  While consistent with basic economics, I have not seen it before.  This explanation focuses on the stagnant real wages seen since the early 1980s, and the impact this would have on whether or not to invest.

D.  The Impact of Low Real Wages

Real wages have stagnated in the US since the early 1980s, as has been discussed in earlier posts on this blog (see in particular this post).  The chart below, updated to the most recent figures available, compares the real median wage since 1979 (the earliest year available for this data series) to real GDP per worker employed:

Real GDP per Worker versus Real Median Wage, 1979Q1 to 2016Q2, rev

Real median wages have been flat overall:  Just 3% higher in 2016 than what they were 37 years before.  But real GDP per worker is almost 60% higher over this same period.  This has critically important implications for both private investment and for productivity growth. To sum up in one line the discussion that will follow below, there is less and less reason to invest in new, productivity enhancing, capital, if labor is available at a stagnant real wage that has changed little in 37 years.

Traditional economics, as commonly taught, would find it difficult to explain the observed stagnation in real wages while productivity has risen (even if at a slower pace than before). A core result taught in microeconomics is that in “perfectly competitive” markets, labor will be paid the value of its marginal product.  One would not then see a divergence such as that seen in this chart between growth in productivity and a lack of growth in the real wage.

(The more careful observers among the readers of this post might note that the productivity curve shown here is for average productivity, and not the marginal productivity of an extra worker.  This is true.  Marginal productivity for the economy as a whole cannot be easily observed, nor indeed even be well defined.  However, one should note that the average productivity curve, as shown here, is rising over time.  This can only happen if marginal productivity on new investments are above average productivity at any point in time.  For other reasons, the real average wage would not rise permanently above average productivity (there would be an “adding-up” problem otherwise), but the theory would still predict a rise in the real wage with the increase in observed productivity.)

There are, however, clear reasons why workers might not be paid the value of their marginal product in the real world.  As noted, the theory applies in markets that are assumed to be perfectly competitive, and there are many reasons why this is not the case in the world we live in.  Perfect competition assumes that both parties to the transaction (the workers and employers) have complete information on not only the opportunities available in the market and on the abilities of the individual worker, but also that there are no costs to switching to an alternative worker or employer.  If there is a job on the other side of the country that would pay the individual worker a bit more, then the theory assumes the worker will switch to it.  But there are, of course, significant costs to moving to the other side of the country.  Furthermore, there will be uncertainty on what the abilities of any individual worker will be, so employers will normally seek to keep the workers they already have to fill their needs (as they know what these workers can do), than take a risk on a largely unknown new worker who might be willing to work for a lower wage.

For these and other reasons, labor markets are not perfectly competitive, and one should not then be surprised to find workers are not being paid the value of their marginal product.  But there is also an important factor coming from the macroeconomy. Microeconomics assumes that all resources, including labor resources, are being fully employed.  But unemployment exists and is often substantial.  Additional workers can then be hired at the current wage, without a need for the firm to raise that wage.  And that will hold whether or not the productivity of those workers has risen.

In such an environment, when unemployment is substantial one should not be surprised to find a divergence between growth in productivity and growth in the real wage.  And while there have of course been sharp fluctuations arising from the business cycle in the rate of unemployment from year to year, the simple average in the rate since 1979 has been 6.4%.  This is well in excess of what is normally considered the full employment rate of unemployment (of 5% or less).  Macro policy (both fiscal and monetary) has not done a very good job in most of the years since 1979 in ensuring there is sufficient demand in the aggregate in the economy to allow all workers who want to be employed in fact to be employed.

In such an environment, of workers being available for hire at a stagnant real wage which over time diverges more and more from their productivity, consider the investment decision a private firm faces.  Suppose they see a market opportunity and can sell more. To produce more, they have two options.  They can hire more labor to work with their existing plant and equipment to produce more, or they can invest in new plant and equipment.  If they choose the latter, they can produce more with fewer workers than they would otherwise need at the new level of production.  There will be more output per unit of labor input, or put another way, productivity will rise if the latter option is chosen.

But in an economy where labor is available at a flat real wage that has not changed in decades, the best choice will often simply be to hire more labor.  The labor is cheap.  New investment has a cost, and if the cost of the alternative (hire more labor) is low enough, then it is more profitable for the firm simply to hire more labor.  Productivity in such a case will then not go up, and may indeed even go down.  But this could be the economically wise choice, if labor is cheap enough.

Viewed in this way, one can see that the interpretation of many conservatives on the relationship between productivity growth and the real wage has it backwards.  Real wages have not been stagnant because productivity growth has been slow.  Labor productivity since 1979 has grown by a cumulative 60%, while real median wages have been basically flat.

Rather, the causation may well be going the other way.  Stagnant and low real wages have led to less and less of an incentive for private firms to invest.  And such a cut-back is precisely what we saw in the chart above on private (as well as public) investment as a share of GDP.  With less investment, the pace of productivity growth has then slowed.

As a reflection of this confusion, conservatives have denounced any effort to raise wages, asserting that if this is done, jobs will be lost as firms choose instead to invest and automate.  They assert that raising the minimum wage, which is currently lower in real terms than what it was when Harry Truman was president, would lead to minimum wage workers losing their jobs.  As a former CEO of McDonalds put it in a widely cited news report from last May, a $15 minimum wage would lead to “a job loss like you can’t believe.”   Fast food outlets like McDonalds would then find it better to invest in robotic arms to bag the french fries, he said, rather than hire workers to do this.

This is true.  The confusion comes from the widespread presumption that this is necessarily bad.  Outlets like McDonalds would then require fewer workers, but they would still need workers (including to operate the robotic arms), and those workers would be more productive.  They could be paid more, and would be if the minimum wage is raised.

The error in the argument comes from the presumption that the workers being employed at the current minimum wage of $7.25 an hour do not and can not possess the skills needed to be employed in some other job.  There is no reason to believe this to be the case.  There was no problem with ensuring workers could be fully employed at a minimum wage which in real terms was higher in 1950, when Harry Truman was president, than what it is now.  And average worker productivity is 2.4 times higher now than what it was then.

Ensuring full employment in the economy as a whole is not a responsibility of private business.  Rather, it is a government responsibility.  Fiscal and monetary policy need to be managed so that labor markets are tight enough to ensure all workers who want a job can get a job, while not so tight at to lead to inflation.

Following the economic collapse at the end of the Bush administration in 2008, monetary policy did all it could to try to ensure sufficient aggregate demand in the economy (interest rates were held at or close to zero).  But monetary policy alone will not be enough when the economy collapsed as far as it did in 2008.  It needs to be complemented by supportive fiscal policy.  While there was the initial stimulus package of Obama which was critical to stabilizing the economy, it did not go far enough and was allowed to run out. And government spending from 2010 was then cut, acting as a drag which kept the pace of recovery slow.  The economy has only in the past year returned to close to full employment.  It is not a coincidence that real wages are finally starting to rise (as seen in the chart above).

E.  Conclusion

Productivity growth is key in any economy.  Over the long run, living standards can only improve if productivity does.  Hence there is reason to be concerned with the slower pace of productivity growth seen since the early 1980s, and especially in recent years.

Investment, both public and private, is what leads to productivity growth, but the pace of investment has slowed since the levels seen in the 1950s and 60s.  The cause of the decline in public investment is clear:  Conservative politicians have slowed or even blocked public investment.  The result is obvious in our public infrastructure:  It is overused, under-maintained, and often an embarrassment.

The cause of the slowdown in private investment is less obvious, but equally important. First, one cannot blame a decline in private investment on a fall in profitability:  Profitability is higher now than it has been in all but one year since the mid-1960s.

Rather, one needs to recognize that the incentive to invest in productivity enhancing tools will not be there (or not there to the same extent) if labor can be hired at a wage that has stagnated for decades, and which over time became lower and lower relative to existing productivity.  It then makes more sense for firms to hire more workers with their existing stock of capital and other equipment, rather than invest in new, productivity enhancing, capital.  And this is what we have observed:  Workers are being hired, but productivity is not growing.

An argument is often made that if firms did indeed invest in capital and equipment that would raise productivity, that workers would then lose their jobs.  This is actually true by definition:  If productivity is higher, then the firm needs fewer workers per unit of output than they would otherwise.  But whether more workers would be employed in the economy as a whole does not depend on the actions of any individual firm, but rather on whether fiscal and monetary policy is managed to ensure full employment.

That is, it is the investment decisions of private firms which determine whether productivity will grow or not.  It is the macro management decisions of government which determine whether workers will be fully employed or not.

To put this bluntly, and in simplistic “bumper sticker” type terms, one could say that private businesses are not job creators, but rather job destroyers.  And that is fine.  Higher productivity means that a firm needs fewer workers to produce what they make than would otherwise have been needed, and this is important for ensuring efficiency.  As a necessary complement to this, however, it is the actions of government, through its fiscal and monetary policies, which “creates” jobs by managing aggregate demand to ensure all workers who want to be employed, are employed.

The Impact of Increased Inequality on the Social Security Trust Fund, and What To Do Now

Social Security Trust Fund to GDP, with benefit changes, 90% of Wages from 1984 or 2016, 1970 to 2090, revised

A.  Introduction

It is well known that with current Social Security tax and benefit rates, the Social Security Trust Fund is projected to run out by the 2030s.  The most recent projection is that this will happen in 2034.  And it is commonly believed that this is a consequence of lengthening life spans.  However, that is not really true.  Later in this century (in the period after the 2030s), life spans that are now forecast to be longer than had been anticipated before will eventually lead, if nothing is done, to depletion of the trust funds.  But the primary cause of the trust funds running out by the currently projected 2034 stems not from longer life spans, but rather from the sharp growth in US income inequality since Ronald Reagan was president.  Had inequality not grown as it has since the early 1980s, and with all else as currently projected, the Social Security Trust Fund would last to about 2056.

This particular (and important) consequence of the growing inequality in American society over the last several decades does not appear to have been recognized before.  Rather, the problems being faced by the Social Security Trust Fund are commonly said to be a consequence of lengthening life expectancies of Americans (where it is the life expectancy of those at around age 65, the traditional retirement age, that is relevant).  I have myself stated this in earlier posts on this blog.

But this assertion that longer life spans are to blame has bothered me.  Social Security tax rates and benefit formulae have been set based on what were thought at the time to be levels that would allow all scheduled benefits to be paid for the (then) foreseeable future, based on the forecasts of the time (of life expectancies and many other factors). Thus it is not correct to state that it is longer life spans per se that can be to blame for the Social Security Trust Fund running out.  Rather, it would be necessary for life spans to be lengthening by more than had been expected before for this to be the case.

This blog post will look first at these projections of life expectancy – what path was previously forecast in comparison to what in fact happened (up to now) and what is forecast (now) for the future.  We will find that the projections used to set the current Social Security tax and benefit rates (last changed in the early 1980s) had in fact forecast life spans which would be longer than what transpired in the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.  That is, actual life expectancies have turned out to be shorter than what had been forecast for those three decades.  However, life spans going forward are currently forecast to be longer than what had been projected earlier.  On average, it turns out that the earlier forecasts were not far off from what happened or is now expected through to 2034.  Unexpectedly longer life spans do not account for the current forecast that the Social Security Trust Fund will run out by 2034.

Rather, the problem is due to the sharp increase in wage income inequality since the early 1980s.  Only wages up to a ceiling (of $118,500 in 2016) are subject to Social Security tax.  Wages earned above that ceiling amount are exempt from the tax.  In 1982 and also in 1983, the ceiling then in effect was such that Social Security taxes were paid on 90% of all wages earned.  But as will be discussed below, increasing wage inequality since then has led to an increasing share of wages above the ceiling, and hence exempt from tax.  It is this increasing wage income inequality which is leading the Social Security Trust Fund to an expected depletion by 2034, if nothing is done.

This blog post will look at what path the Social Security Trust Fund would have taken had wage inequality not increased since 1983.  Had that been the case, 90% of wages would have been covered by Social Security tax since 1984, in the past and going forward.  But since it is now 2016 and we cannot change history, we will also look at what the path would be if the ceiling were now returned, from 2016 going forward, to a level covering 90% of wages.  The final section of the post will then look at what would happen if the wage ceiling were lifted altogether so that the rich would pay at the same rate of tax as the poor.

One final point for this introduction:  In addition to longer life spans, many commentators assert that it is the retiring baby boom generation which is depleting the Social Security Trust Fund.  But this is also not true.  The Social Security tax and benefit rates were set in full knowledge of how old the baby boomers were, and when they would be reaching retirement age.  Demographic projections are straightforward, and they had a pretty good estimate 64 years ago of how many of us would be reaching age 65 today.

B.  Projections of Increasing Life Spans for Those in Retirement

Life expectancies have been growing.  But this has been true for over two centuries, and longer expected life spans have always been built into the Social Security calculations of what the Social Security tax rates would need to be in order to provide for the covered benefits.  The issue, rather, is whether the path followed for life expectancies (actual up to now and as now expected for the future) is higher or lower than the path that had been expected earlier.

What we have seen in recent decades is that while life spans for those of higher income have continued to grow, they have increased only modestly for the bottom half of income earners.  Part of the reason for this stagnation of life expectancy for the bottom half of the income distribution is undoubtedly a consequence of stagnant real incomes for lower income earners.  As discussed in an earlier post on this blog, median real wages have hardly risen at all since 1980.  And indeed, average real household incomes of the bottom 90% of US households were lower in 2014 than they were in 1980.

Thus it is an open question whether life spans are turning out to be longer than what had been projected before, when Social Security tax and benefit rates were last adjusted.  The most recent such major adjustment was undertaken in 1983, following the report of the Greenspan Commission (formally titled the National Commission on Social Security Reform).  President Reagan appointed Alan Greenspan to be the chair (and later appointed him to be the head of the Federal Reserve Board), with the other members appointed either by Reagan or by Congress (with a mix from both parties).

The Greenspan Commission made recommendations on a set of measures (which formed the basis for legislation enacted by Congress in 1983) which together would ensure, based on the then current projections, that the Social Security Trust Fund would remain adequate through at least 2060.  They included a mix of increased tax rates (with the Social Security tax rate raised from 10.8% to 12.4%, phased in over 7 years, with this for both the old-age pensions and disability insurance funds and covering both the employer and employee contributions) and reduced benefits (with, among other changes, the “normal” retirement age increased over time).

It is now forecast, however, that the Trust Funds will run out by 2034.  What changed? The common assertion is that longer life spans account for this.  However, this is not true. The life spans used by the Greenspan Commission (see Appendix K of their report, Table 12) were in fact too high, averaging male and female together, up to about 2010, but are now forecast to be too low going forward.  More precisely, comparing those forecasts to those in the most recent 2015 Social Security Trustees Report:

Projected Life Expectancies at Age 65 - As of 1982 vs 2015, Up to 2090

 

The chart shows the forecasts (in blue) used by the Greenspan Commission (which were in turn taken from the 1982 Social Security Trustees Report) overlaid on the current (2015, in red) history and projections.  The life span forecasts used by the Greenspan Commission turned out actually to be substantially higher than what were the case or are forecast now to be the case for females to some point past 2060, higher up to the year 2000 for males, and based on the simple male/female average, higher up to about 2010 for all, than what were estimated in the 2015 report.  For the full period from 1983 to 2034 (using interpolated figures for the periods when the 1982 forecasts were only available for every 5 and then every 10 years), it turns out that the average over time of the differences in the male/female life expectancy at age 65 between the 1982 forecasts and those from 2015, balances almost exactly. The difference is only 0.01 years (one-hundreth of a year).

For the overall period up to 2034, the projections of life expectancies used by the Greenspan Commission are on average almost exactly the same as what has been seen up to now or is currently forecast going forward (cumulatively to 2034).  And it is the cumulative path which matters for the Trust Fund.  Unexpectedly longer life expectancies do not explain why the Social Security Trust Fund is now forecast to run out by 2034.  Nor, as noted above, is it due to the pending retirement of more and more of the baby boom generation.  It has long been known when they would be reaching age 65.

C.  The Ceiling on Wages Subject to Social Security Tax

Why then, is the Social Security Trust Fund now expected to run out by 2034, whereas the Greenspan Commission projected that it would be fine through 2060?  While there are many factors that go into the projections, including not just life spans but also real GDP growth rates, interest rates, real wage growth, and so on, one assumption stands out. Social Security taxes (currently at the rate of 12.4%, for employee and employer combined) only applies to wages up to a certain ceiling.  That ceiling is $118,500 in 2016. Since legislation passed in 1972, this ceiling has been indexed in most years (1979 to 1981 were exceptions) to the increase in average wages for all employees covered by Social Security.

The Greenspan Commission did not change this.  Based on the ceiling in effect in 1982 and again in 1983, wages subject to Social Security tax would have covered 90.0% of all wages in the sectors covered by Social Security.  That is, Social Security taxes would have been paid on 90% of all wages in the covered sectors in those years.  If wages for the poor, middle, and rich had then changed similarly over time (in terms of their percentage increases), with the relative distribution thus the same, an increase in the ceiling in accordance with changes in the overall average wage index would have kept 90% of wages subject to the Social Security tax.

However, wages did not change in this balanced way.  Rather, the changes were terribly skewed, with wages for the rich rising sharply since the early 1980s while wages for the middle classes and the poor stagnated.  When this happens, with wages for the rich (those earning more than the Social Security ceiling) rising by more (and indeed far more) than the wages for others, indexing the ceiling to the average wage will not suffice to keep 90% of wages subject to tax.  Rather, the share of wages paying Social Security taxes will fall.  And that is precisely what has happened:

Social Security Taxable Wages as Share of Total Wages, 1982 to 2090

Due to the increase in wage income inequality since the early 1980s, wages paying Social Security taxes fell from 90.0% of total wages in 1982 and again in 1983, to just 82.7% in 2013 (the most recent year with data, see Table 4.B1 in the 2014 Social Security Annual Statistical Supplement).  While the trend is clearly downward, note how there were upward movements in 1989/90/91, in 2001/02, and in 2008/09.  These coincided with the economic downturns at the start of the Bush I administration, the start of the Bush II administration, and the end of the Bush II administration.  During economic downturns in the US, wages of those at the very top of the income distribution (Wall Street financiers, high-end lawyers, and similar) will decline especially sharply relative to where they had been during economic booms, which will result in a higher share of all wages paid in such years falling under the ceiling.

Why did the Greenspan Commission leave the rule for the determination of the ceiling on wages subject to Social Security tax unchanged?  Based on the experience in the decades leading up to 1980, this was not unreasonable.  In the post-World War II decades up to 1980, the distribution of incomes did not change much.  As discussed in an earlier post on this blog, incomes of the rich, middle, and poor all grew at similar rates over that period, leaving the relative distribution largely unchanged.  It was not unreasonable then to assume this would continue.  And indeed, there is a footnote in a table in the annex to the Greenspan Commission report (Appendix K, Table 15, footnote c) which states:  [Referring to the column showing the historical share in total wages of wages below the ceiling, and hence subject to Social Security tax] “The percent taxable for future years [1983 and later] should remain relatively stable as the taxable earnings base rises automatically based on increases in average wage levels.”

Experience turned out to be quite different.  Income inequality has risen sharply since Reagan was president.  This reduced the share of wages subject to Social Security tax, and undermined the forecasts made by the Greenspan Commission that with the changes introduced, the Social Security Trust Fund would remain adequate until well past 2034.

Going forward, the current forecasts for the path of the share of wages falling under the ceiling and hence subject to Social Security tax are shown as the blue curve in the chart. The forecasts (starting from 2013, the year with the most recent data when the Social Security Administration prepared these projections) are that the share would continue to decline until 2016.  However, they assume the share subject to tax will then start a modest recovery, reaching a share of 82.5% 2024 at which it will then remain for the remainder of the projection period (to 2090).  (The figures are from the Social Security Technical Panel Report, September 2015, see page 64 and following.  The annual Social Security Trustees Report does not provide the figures explicitly, even though they are implicit in their projections.)

This stabilization of the share of wages subject to Social Security tax at 82.5% is critically important.  Should the wage income distribution continue to deteriorate, as it has since the early 1980s, the Social Security Trust Fund will be in even greater difficulty than is now forecast.  And it is not clear why one should assume this turnaround should now occur.

Finally, it should be noted for completeness that the share of wages subject to tax varied substantially over time in the period prior to 1982.  Typically, it was well below 90%.  When Social Security began in 1937, the ceiling then set meant that 92% of wages (in covered sectors) were subject to tax (see Table 4.B1 in the 2014 Social Security Annual Statistical Supplement).  But the ceiling was set in nominal terms (initially at $3,000), which meant that it fell in real terms over time due to steady, even if low, inflation.  Congress responded by periodically adjusting the annual ceiling upward in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, but always simply setting it at a new figure in nominal terms which was then eroded once again by inflation.  Only when the new system was established in the 1970s of adjusting the ceiling annually to reflect changes in average nominal wages did the inflation issue get resolved.  But this failed to address the problem of changes in the distribution of wages, where an increasing share of wages accruing to the rich in recent decades (since Reagan was president) has led to the fall since 1983 in the share subject to tax.

Thus an increasing share of wages has been escaping Social Security taxes.  The rest of this blog post will show that this explains why the Social Security Trust Fund is now projected to run out by 2034, and what could be achieved by returning the ceiling to where it would cover 90% of wages, or by lifting it entirely.

D.  The Impact of Keeping the Ceiling at 90% of Total Wages

The chart at the top of this post shows what the consequences would be if the ceiling on wages subject to Social Security taxes had been kept at levels sufficient to cover 90% of total wages (in sectors covered by Social Security), with this either from 1984 going forward, or starting from 2016.  While the specific figures for the distant future (the numbers go out to 2090) should not be taken too seriously, the trends are of interest.

The figures are calculated from data and projections provided in the 2015 Social Security Trustees Annual Report, with most of the specific data coming from their supplemental single-year tables (and where the share of wages subject to tax used in the Social Security projections are provided in the 2015 Social Security Technical Panel Report).  Note that throughout this blog post I am combining the taxes and trust funds for Old-Age Security (OASI, for old age and survivor benefits) and for Disability Insurance (DI).  While technically separate funds, these trust funds are often combined for analysis, in part because in the past they have traditionally been able to borrow from each other (although Republicans in Congress are now trying to block this flexibility).

The Base Case line (in black) shows the path of the Social Security Trust Fund to GDP ratio based on the most recent intermediate case assumptions of Social Security, as presented in the 2015 Social Security Trustees Annual Report.  The ratio recovered from near zero in the early 1980s to reach a high of 18% of GDP in 2009, following the changes in tax and benefit rates enacted by Congress after the Greenspan Commission report.  But it then started to decline, and is expected to hit zero in 2034 based on the most recent official projections.  After that if would grow increasingly negative if benefits were to continue to be paid out according to the scheduled formulae (and taxes were to continue at the current 12.4% rate), although Social Security does not have the legal authority to continue to pay out full benefits under such circumstances.  The projections therefore show what would happen under the stated assumptions, not what would in fact take place.

But as noted above, an important assumption made by the Greenspan Commission that in fact did not hold true was that adjustments (based on changes in the average wage) of the ceiling on wages subject to Social Security tax, would leave 90% of wages in covered sectors subject to the tax.  This has not happened due to the growth in wage income inequality in the last 35 years.  With the rich (and especially the extreme rich) taking in a higher share of wages, the wages below a ceiling that was adjusted according to average wage growth has led to a lower and lower share of overall wages paying the Social Security tax.  The rich are seeing a higher share of the high wages they enjoy escaping such taxation.

The blue curves in the chart show what the path of the Social Security Trust Fund to GDP ratio would have been (and would be projected going forward, based on the same other assumptions of the base case) had the share of wages subject to Social Security taxes remained at 90% from 1984.  The dark blue curve shows what path the Trust Fund would have taken had Social Security benefits remained the same.  But since benefits are tied to Social Security taxes paid, the true path will be a bit below (shown as the light blue curve). This takes into account the resulting higher benefits (and income taxes that will be paid on these benefits) that will accrue to those paying the higher Social Security taxes.  This was fairly complicated, as one needs to work out the figures year by year for each age cohort, but can be done.  It turns out that the two curves end up being quite close to each other, but one did not know this would be the case until the calculations were done.

Had the wage income distribution not deteriorated after 1983, and with all else as in the base case path of the Social Security Trustees Report (actual for historical, or as projected going forward), the Trust Fund would have grown to a peak of 26% of GDP in 2012, before starting on a downward path.  It would eventually still have turned negative, but only in 2056.  Over the long term, the forecast increase in life expectancies (beyond what the Greenspan Commission had assumed) would have meant that further changes beyond what were enacted following the Greenspan Commission report would eventually have become necessary to keep the Trust Fund solvent.  But it would have occurred more than two decades beyond what is now forecast.

At this point in time, however, we cannot go back in time to 1984 to keep the ceiling sufficient to cover 90% of wages.  What we can do now is raise the ceiling today so that, going forward, 90% of wages would be subject to the tax.  Based on 2014 wage distribution statistics (available from Social Security), one can calculate that the ceiling in 2014 would have had to been raised from the $117,000 in effect that year, to $185,000 to once again cover 90% of wages (about $187,000 in 2016 prices). 

The red curves on the chart above show the impact of starting to do this in 2016.  The Trust Fund to GDP ratio would still fall, but now reach zero only in 2044, a decade later than currently forecast.  Although there would be an extra decade cushion as a result of the reform, there would still be a need for a longer term solution.   

E.  The Impact of Removing the Wage Ceiling Altogether

The financial impact of removing the wage ceiling altogether will be examined below.  But before doing this, it is worthwhile to consider whether, if one were designing a fair and efficient tax structure now, would a wage ceiling be included at all?  The answer is no. First, it is adds a complication, and hence it is not simple.  But more importantly, it is not fair.  A general principle for tax systems is that the rich should pay at a rate at least as high as the poor.  Indeed, if anything they should pay at a higher rate.  Yet Social Security taxes are paid at a flat rate (of 12.4% currently) for wages up to an annual ceiling, and at a zero rate for earnings above that ceiling.

While it is true that this wage ceiling has been a feature of the Social Security system since its start, this does not make this right.  I do not know the history of the debate and political compromises necessary to get the Social Security Act passed through Congress in 1935, but could well believe that such a ceiling may have been necessary to get congressional approval.  Some have argued that it helped to provide the appearance of Social Security being a self-funded (albeit mandatory) social insurance program rather than a government entitlement program.  But for whatever the original reason, there has been a ceiling.

But the Social Security tax is a tax.  It is mandatory, like any other tax.  And it should follow the basic principles of taxation.  For fairness as well as simplicity, there should be no ceiling.  The extremely rich should pay at least at the same rate as the poor.

One could go further and argue that the rates should be progressive, with marginal rates rising for those at higher incomes.  There are of course many options, and I will not go into them here, but just note that Social Security does introduce a degree of progressivity through how retirement benefits are calculated.  The poor receive back in pensions a higher amount in relation to the amounts they have paid in than the rich do.  One could play with the specific parameters to make this more or less progressive, but it is a reasonable approach.  Thus applying a flat rate of tax to all income levels is not inconsistent with progressivity for the system as a whole.

Leaving the Social Security tax rate at the current 12.4% (for employer and employee combined), but applying it to all wages from 2016 going forward and not only wages up to an annual ceiling, would lead to the following path for the Trust Fund to GDP ratio:

Social Security Trust Fund to GDP, with benefit changes, All Wages from 2016, 1970 to 2090, revised

The Trust Fund would now be projected to last until 2090.  Again, the projections for the distant future should not be taken too seriously, but they indicate that on present assumptions, eliminating the ceiling on wages subject to tax would basically resolve Trust Fund concerns for the foreseeable future.  A downward trend would eventually re-assert itself, due to the steadily growing life expectancies now forecast (see the chart in the text above for the projections from the 2015 Social Security Trustees Annual Report). Eventually there will be a need to pay in at a higher rate of tax if taxes on earnings over a given working life are to support a longer and longer expected retirement period, but this does not dominate until late in the forecast period.

As a final exercise, how high would that tax rate need to be, assuming all else (including future life expectancies) are as now forecast?  The chart below shows what the impact would be of raising the tax rate to 13.0% from 2050:

Social Security Trust Fund to GDP, with benefit changes, All Wages from 2016, 1970 to 2090, revised #2

The Social Security Trust Fund to GDP ratio would then be safely positive for at least the rest of the century, assuming the different variables are all as now forecast.  This would be a surprisingly modest increase in the tax rate from the current 12.4%.  If separated into equal employer and employee shares, as is traditionally done, the increase would be from a 6.2% tax paid by each to a 6.5% tax paid by each.  Such a separation is economically questionable, however.  Most economists would say that, under competitive conditions, the worker will pay the full tax.  Whether labor markets can be considered always to be competitive is a big question, but beyond the scope of this blog post.

F.  Summary and Conclusion

To summarize:

1)  The Social Security Trust Fund is projected to be depleted under current tax and benefit rates by the year 2034.  But this is not because retirees are living longer.  Increasing life spans have long been expected, and were factored into the estimates (the last time the rates were changed) of what the tax and benefit rates would need to be for the Trust Fund not to run out.  Nor is it because of aging baby boomers reaching retirement.  This has long been anticipated.

2)  Rather, the Social Security Trust Fund is now forecast to run out by the 2030s because of the sharp increase in wage income inequality since the early 1980s, when the Greenspan Commission did its work.  The Greenspan Commission assumed that the distribution of wage incomes would remain stable, as it had in the previous decades since World War II.  But that turned out not to be the case.

3)  If relative inequality had not grown, then raising the ceiling on wages subject to Social Security tax in line with the increase in average wages (a formula adopted in legislation of 1972, and left unchanged following the Greenspan Commission) would have kept 90% of wages subject to Social Security tax, the ratio it covered in 1982 and again in 1983.

4)  But wage income inequality has grown sharply since the early 1980s.  With the distribution increasingly skewed distribution, favoring the rich, an increasing share of wages is escaping Social Security tax.  By 2013, the tax only covered 82.7% of wages, with the rest above the ceiling and hence paying no tax.

5)  Had the ceiling remained since 1984 at levels sufficient to cover 90% of wages, and with all other variables and parameters as experienced historically or as now forecast going forward, the Social Security Trust Fund would be forecast to last until 2056.  While life expectancies (at age 65) in fact turned out on average to be lower than forecast by the Greenspan Commission until 2010 (which would have led to a higher Trust Fund balance, since less was paid out in retirement than anticipated), life expectancies going forward are now forecast to be higher than what the Greenspan Commission assumed.  This will eventually dominate.

6)  If the wage ceiling were now adjusted in 2016 to a level sufficient to cover once again 90% of wages ($187,000 in 2016), the Trust Fund would turn negative in 2044, rather than 2034 as forecast if nothing is done.

7)  As a matter of equity and following basic taxation principles, there should not be any wage ceiling at all.  The rich should pay Social Security tax at least at the same rate as the poor.  Under the current system, they pay zero on wage incomes above the ceiling.

8)  If the ceiling on wages subject to Social Security tax were eliminated altogether, with all else as in the base case Social Security projections of 2015, the Trust Fund would be expected to last until 2090.

9)  If the ceiling on wages subject to Social Security tax were eliminated altogether and the tax rate were raised from the current 12.4% to a new rate of 13.0% starting in 2050, with all else as in the base case Social Security projections of 2015, the Trust Fund would be expected to last to well beyond the current century.

Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance Are at Record Lows

Weekly Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance, January 7, 2006, to November 21, 2015

Weekly Initial Claims for Unemployment Insurance as a Ratio to Employment, January 1967 to October 2015

 

Initial claims for unemployment insurance are now at their lowest level, in terms of absolute numbers, in forty years, and the lowest ever when measured relative to employment (although the series goes back only to 1967).  There has been a steady improvement in the job market since soon after Barack Obama took office in January 2009, with (as discussed in a recent post on this blog) a steady increase in private sector jobs and an unemployment rate now at just 5.0%.  Yet the general discussion still fails to recognize this.  I will discuss some of the possible reasons for this perception later in this post.

Initial claims for unemployment insurance provides a good measure of the strength of the labor market, as it shows how many workers have been involuntarily laid off from a job and who are then thus eligible for unemployment insurance.  The US Department of Labor reports the figure weekly, where the numbers in the chart above are those updated through the release of November 25, 2015 (with data through November 21).  While there is a good deal of noise in the weekly figures due to various special factors (and hence most of the focus is on the four week moving average), it does provide a high frequency “yardstick” of the state of the labor market.  The charts above are for the four week moving averages.

The measure has been falling steadily (abstracting from the noise) since soon after President Obama took office.  News reports have noted that the weekly figures have been below 300,000 for some time now (close to a year).  This is a good number.  Even in the best year of the Bush administration (2006, at the height of the housing bubble), weekly initial claims for unemployment insurance averaged 312,000.  So far in 2015 (through November 21) it has averaged 279,000, and the lowest figure was just 259,250 for the week of October 24.  Initial claims for unemployment have not been so low in absolute numbers since December 1973.

But the population and labor force have grown over time.  When measured as a ratio to the number of those employed, initial claims for unemployment insurance have never been so low, although the series only begins in January 1967.  It is now well below the lowest points ever reached in the George W. Bush administration, in the Reagan administration, and even in the Clinton administration, under which the economy enjoyed the longest period of economic expansion ever recorded in the US (back to at least 1854, when the recession dating of the NBER begins).

Why then has the job market been seen by many as being especially weak under Obama? It should not be because of the unemployment rate, which has fallen steadily to 5.0% and is now well below where it was at a similar point during the Reagan administration.  Private job creation has also been steady and strong (although government jobs have been cut, for the first time in an economic downturn in at least a half century).  There has also been no increase in the share of part time employment, despite assertions from Republican politicians that Obamacare would have led to this.  And growth in GDP, while it would have been faster without the fiscal drag of government spending cuts seen 2010, has at least been steady.

What has hurt?  While no one can say for sure as the issue is some sense of the general perception of the economy, the steady criticism by Republican officials and pundits has probably been a factor.  The Obama administration has not been good at answering this.

But also important, and substantive, is that wages have remained stagnant.  While this stagnation in wages has been underway since about 1980, increased attention is being paid to it now (which is certainly a good thing).  In part due to this stagnation, the recovery that we have seen in the economy since the trough in mid-2009 has mostly been for the benefit of the very rich.  Professor Emmanuel Saez of UC Berkeley has calculated, based on US tax return data, that the top 1% have captured 58% of US income growth over the period 2009 to 2014.  The top 1% have seen their real incomes rise over this period by a total of 27% in real terms, while the bottom 99% have seen income growth over the period of only 4.3%.  Furthermore, most of this income growth for the bottom 99% only started in 2013.  For the period from 2009 through 2012, the top 1% captured 91% of the growth in national income.  The bottom 99% saw their real incomes rise by only 0.8% total over that period.

The issue then is not really one of jobs or overall growth.  Rather it is primarily a distribution problem.  The recovery has not felt like a recovery not because jobs or growth have been poor (although they would have been better without the fiscal drag), but rather because most of the gains of the growth have accrued to the top 1%.  It has not felt like a recovery for the other 99%, and for an understandable reason.

The Highly Skewed Growth of Incomes Since 1980: Only the Top 0.5% Have Done Better Than Before

Piketty - Saez 1947 to 2014, June 2015, log scale

A)  Introduction

The distribution of the gains from growth have become terribly skewed since around 1980, as the chart above shows and as has been discussed in a number of posts on this blog (see, for example, here, here, here, here, and here).  From 1980 to 2014, the bottom 90% of households have seen their real income fall by 3%, while the top 0.01% have enjoyed growth of 386%.  This was not the case in the post-war years up to 1980:  Over those decades the different income groups saw similar increases in their real per household incomes:  By 87% for average income for the period between 1947 and 1980. But that ended around 1980.

The data underlying these figures were recently updated to include estimates for 2014, and this may be an opportune time to look at them again and more closely.   Specifically, most analyses (as well as the chart above) focus on the incomes of the top 10%, the top 1%, and so on, even though these are overlapping groups.  The top 10% includes the top 1%, and an open question is the extent to which the gains of the top 10% reflects gains primarily in the top 1% or also gains of those in the 90 to 99% income range.  This will be examined below.  Finally, the post will look at the question of what share of the growth in overall incomes over the full 1980 to 2014 period went to the various groups.  As one would expect, the gains were highly concentrated for the rich.  What one might find surprising is how concentrated it was.

B)  Real Income Growth (or Decline) Between 1980 and 2014 

As seen in the chart above, the rich got far richer in the period since 1980, while not just the poor but even those making up fully 90% of the population, got poorer.

The data in the chart come from Professor Emmanuel Saez of UC Berkeley, who has for some years been providing the figures from which the incomes of the very rich can be calculated, often in collaboration with the now better known Thomas Piketty.  In late June, Saez released data updated through 2014:  See his June 29 post at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth website, with links there to an Excel spreadsheet from which the data used here was downloaded.  The basic data are now also available at the World Top Incomes Database, of Facundo Alvaredo, Tony Atkinson, Thomas Piketty, and Emmanuel Saez.  Note that this data for 2014 reflects initial estimates.  They may change as more detailed figures are released by the IRS (the ultimate source for the data).

The chart covers the 1947 to 2014 period, indexed to 1980 = 100 for each of the groups. A logarithmic scale is used as equal proportional changes will then show as equal distances on the vertical axis.  That is, the distance between index values of 50 and 100, between 100 and 200, and between 200 and 400, will all be equal as all represent a doubling on income.  This makes it easier to see and track relative changes in values across different periods, for example between 1947 and 1980 in comparison to 1980 to 2014.

The data through 2014 confirm the trends discussed before in this blog, with a sharp increase in inequality since 1980 but also with large year to year fluctuations.  The year to year fluctuations are especially large for the very richest.  The incomes reported here come from anonymized tax return data, and hence reflect incomes by tax reporting units (generally households) with incomes as defined for tax purposes.  The income figures include income from realized capital gains, and hence one sees peaks (especially among the very rich) around 2000 (due to the dotcom bubble) and again in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s (coinciding with the housing as well as stock market bubbles of those years). The fluctuations between 2012 and 2014 can also be explained, at least in part, from tax law changes.  The Bush tax cuts were allowed to expire for the very rich in 2013 (they were made permanent for everyone else), which created an incentive for the rich to bring forward their taxable incomes into 2012.  This increased reported income in 2012 (when their tax rates were lower) while reducing it in 2013.  There was then a return to more normal levels in 2014.

Average household incomes rose only by 27% over 1980 to 2014, a sharp slowdown from the 87% growth achieved on average between 1947 and 1980 (with one less year as well in that period, compared to 1980 to 2014).  An earlier post on this blog discussed the immediate factors that led to this sharp deceleration in growth for average incomes (at least for wages).  But I want to focus here on the growth in incomes of the higher income groups, where there was no such slowdown.

Between 1980 and 2014, the top 10% saw their average incomes rise by 82%.  This was far better than the 27% growth in overall average household income in the period, and even more so than the 3% fall in incomes for the bottom 90%.  But it is actually similar to the growth seen for most income groups between 1947 and 1980, when average incomes rose by 87%.  One could reasonably argue that the top 10% did not do especially well over this period, but rather only saw a continuation for them of the previous trend growth.

The ones who undisputedly did especially well post 1980 were the top 1%, top 0.1%, and especially the top 0.01%.  The richer you were, the greater the increase enjoyed in the post-1980 economy.  Note there is no necessity in this:  The households are stratified by their rank in income in each year, but the growth in incomes over the period could be greater for the top 10%, say, than the top 1%.  Indeed, this was the case over the 1947 to 1980 period.  But between 1980 and 2014, the higher your income, the higher your growth in income:  The average income of the top 1% rose by 169% between 1980 and 2014, by 281% for the top 0.1%, and by 386% for the top 0.01%.

It should not be surprising that the extreme rich are pleased with how their incomes have grown since 1980, which many have not unreasonably attributed to the election that year of Ronald Reagan.  But you have not done well if you are in the bottom 90% of the population – your real income has stagnated over this period of more than a third of a century, and indeed even fell slightly.

C)  Real Income Growth of Non-Overlapping Groups

As noted above, there is a potential issue when figures are provided for the top 10%, top 1%, top 0.1%, and top 0.01%.  Even though commonly done, the figures for the top 10% include the incomes of the top 1% (and the top 0.1% and top 0.01%).  That is, these are overlapping groups, and one cannot determine just from figures presented in such a way whether the share of the top 10% increased because of higher incomes for most of those in the group, or because those in the top 1% saw an especially sharp increase.  Similarly for the top 1% and top 0.1%.  Since the very richest enjoyed such a sharp increase in their incomes, one cannot say with certainty from just these figures whether the widening distribution reflected higher incomes for most of those with higher incomes, or just for the extremely rich.

Thus it is of interest to break down the population categories into non-overlapping groups:

Piketty - Saez 1947 to 2014, by exclusive categories, log scale, June 2015The bottom 90% is as in the chart at the top of this post (decline of 3% in their real per household incomes between 1980 and 2014), and growth was 27% for average household incomes over this period.

But then it is of interest to note that those with incomes in the 90 to 99% range of households saw real income growth over this period of just 47%.  While better than the overall average of 27%, it is worse than the average growth achieved of 87% in the third of a century before 1980.  It would be difficult to argue that they have done especially well in the period since 1980.  They did worse than what average growth for everyone was before.

The group in the 99 to 99.5% percentile of income (in red in the graph) saw their incomes over the 1980 to 2014 period as a whole rise by 89%.  This was almost exactly what their growth in incomes would have been had they grown at the same rate as average incomes grew between 1947 and 1980.  Thus they did not do worse post-1980, but also not better than what the average for everyone was before.

The groups that did do better post-1980 were those in the top 0.5% of the distribution. Those whose income put them in the top 99.5 to 99.9% of the population saw income growth of 127% over this period; those in the top 99.9 to 99.99% of the population saw income growth of 219%; while those in the top 0.01% enjoyed income growth of 386%. These groups did extremely well in the post-1980 economy.

Thus the slogans about the top 1% should perhaps be refined.  It is really the top 0.5%.

D)  The Share of Growth Going to the Rich

Finally, one can calculate what share of the growth in the economy over this period accrued to the different income groups.  The measure used here is the one the Professor Saez has used in his work, and has applied to various periods (although not to the 1980 to 2014 period).  It shows what share of the growth in the overall economy was captured, in per household terms, by the group identified:

Bottom 90%

Top 10%

Top 1%

Top 0.5%

Share of income in 1980

65%

35%

10%

7%

Share of 1980-2014 growth

-7%

107%

63%

54%

Share of income in 2014

50%

50%

21%

17%

Difference in Share 1980 – 2014

-15%

15%

11%

10%

The top 10% of households accounted for a little over a third (35%) of overall household incomes in 1980.  But between 1980 and 2014, they captured 107% of the gains in overall growth, raising their share of overall incomes to 50%.  The bottom 90%, in contrast, saw their per household real incomes fall.  They “gained” a negative share of the income growth, of -7% (the mirror image of the top 10%).  Their share of overall incomes fell from almost two-thirds (65%) in 1980 to just one-half (50%) by 2014.  These are huge changes in national income shares over such a period.

Breaking this down further, it is the top 1% and even more the top 0.5% that accounted for the bulk of this worsening in distribution.  The top 1% captured 63% of the gain in overall incomes between 1980 and 2014 (in per household terms), and saw their share of overall income more than double to 21% in 2014 from “just” 10% in 1980.  But the top 0.5% captured 54% of the gains, and saw their share rise from 7% to 17% over this period, or an increase of 10% points.  That is, the increased share of the top 0.5% accounted for, by itself, fully two-thirds of the 15% point increase for the top 10%.  Yet there are only one-twentieth (1/20) as many households in the top 0.5% as the 10%.

The distribution of the gains from growth have become extremely concentrated.  Just the top 0.5% (five-thousandths of the population) captured more than half of income growth generated by the economy over this 34 year period.

E)  Conclusion

The gains from growth have accrued overwhelmingly to the very rich since 1980.  And it is not really the top 10% who have done so well, nor even the top 1%, but rather the top 0.5% .  At the same time, the bottom 90% have seen their real incomes fall.

Something changed around 1980.  Growth before then (in the period since 1947) had been much more evenly distributed, with the rich as well as the bottom 90% doing similarly well, with growth of 1.9% per annum in average household incomes (a cumulative 87%).  To be fair, one cannot say with certainty that the turning point was in 1980 rather than a few years before or a few years after.  Incomes in any given year will depend a good deal on whether the economy is growing strongly or is in recession, and (especially for the rich) whether the stock market and other asset prices are booming or in a bust. The economy was also already struggling in the 1970s.  It is therefore difficult to mark when there has been a change in trend as opposed to fluctuations caused by year to year factors.  But something happened to the economy in either 1980 or in the years surrounding it.

Ronald Reagan was of course elected president in 1980.  He launched a broad set of policies that conservatives like to praise as the “Reagan Revolution”.  There is no doubt that a deterioration in distribution resulted from many of the policies that Reagan won (large tax cuts focussed on the rich, attacks on labor unions, a focus of macro policy on inflation rather than unemployment, deregulation of financial markets and other sectors, changing wage norms which led to giant compensation packages for CEOs and others at the top, and so on).  But to be fair, one should add that other structural changes in the economy in recent decades have also had an impact on distribution, such as changes in technology, from globalization, and following from these, an increasing number of “winner-take-all” markets.

But whether due to policy or structural changes or (almost certainly) a combination of both, it is clear that policy did not counteract the resulting extreme concentration in the benefits of growth accruing to very rich.  And that is a challenge that needs to be addressed.