Unequal Poverty: Tricks (Part Two of two)

In the previous installment:

I explained how the general standard of living in America, denoted by real income, grew a great deal between 1975 and a recent date, specifically, 2007. This, in spite of a widespread rumor to the contrary. The first installment touched only a little on the following problem: It’s possible for overall growth to be accompanied by some immobility and even by some regress. Here is a made-up example:

Between the first and the second semester, grades in my class have, on the average, moved up from C to B. Yet, little Mary Steady’s grade did not change at all. It remained stuck at C. And Johnny Bad’s grade slipped from C to D.

Flummoxed by the sturdiness, the blinding obviousness of the evidence regarding general progress in the standard of living, liberal advocates like to take refuge in more or less mysterious statements about how general progress does not cover everybody. Or not everybody equally, which is a completely different statement. They are right either way and it’s trivial that they are right. Let’s look at this issue of unequally distributed economic progress in a skeptical but fair manner.

It’s awfully hard to prevent the poor, women and minorities from benefiting

I begin by repeating myself. As I noted in Part One, it’s too easy to take the issue of distribution of income growth too seriously. Some forms of improvements in living standard simply cannot practically be withheld from a any subgroup, couldn’t be if you tried. Here is another example: Since 1950, mortality from myocardial infarctus fell from 30-40% to 5-8%. (from a book review by A. Verghese in Wall Street Journal 10/26 and 10/27 2013). When you begin looking at these sort of things, unexpected facts immediately jump at you.

Fishing expeditions

The US population of 260 millions to over 300 million during the period of interest 1975-2007 can be divided in an infinity of segment, like this: Mr 1 plus Mr 2; Mr 2 plus Mrs 3; Mr 2 and Mrs 3 plus Mr 332; Mr 226 plus Mrs 1,000,0001; and so forth.

Similarly, the period of interest 1975 to 2007 can be divided in an infinity of subperiods, like this: Year 1 plus year 2; year 1 plus year 3; years 1, 2, 3 plus year 27; and so forth. You get the idea.

So, to the question: Is there a subset of the US population which did not share in the general progress in the American standard of living during some subperiod between 1975 and 2007?

The prudent response is “No.” It’s even difficult to imagine a version of reality where you would be right to affirm:

“There is no subset of the US population that was left behind by general economic progress at any time during the period 1975- 2007.”

Let me say the same thing in a different way: Given time and good access to info, what’s the chance that I will not find some Americans whose lot failed to improve during the period 1975 to 2007? The answer is zero or close to it.

This is one fishing expedition you can join and never come back empty-handed, if you have a little time.

Thus, liberal dyspeptics, people who hate improvement, are always on solid ground when they affirm, “Yes, but some people are not better off than they were in 1975 (or in _____ -Fill in the blank.)” The possibilities for cherry-picking are endless (literally).

Everyone therefore has to decide for himself what exception to the general fact of improvement is meaningful, which trivial. This simple task is made more difficult by the liberals’ tendency to play games with numbers and sometimes even to confuse themselves in this matter. I will develop both issues below.

To illustrate the idea that you have to decide for yourself, here is a fictitious but realistic example of a category of Americans who were absolutely poorer in 2007 that they were in 1975. You have to decide whether this is something worth worrying about. You might wonder why liberals never, but never lament my subjects’ fate.

Consider any number of stock exchange crises since 1975. There were people who, that year, possessed inherited wealth of $200 million each, generating a modest income of $600,000 annually. Among those people there were a number of stubborn, risk-seeking and plain bad investors who lost half of their wealth during the period of observation. By 2007, they were only receiving an annual income of $300,000. (Forget the fact that this income was in inflation shrunk dollars.) Any way you look at it, this is a category of the population that became poorer in spite of the general (average) rise in in American incomes. Right?

Or, I could refer to the thousands of women who were making a living in 1975 by typing. (My doctoral dissertation was handwritten, believe it or not. Finding money to pay to get it typed was the hardest part of the whole doctoral project.) One of the many improvements brought about by computers is that they induced ordinary people to learn to do their own typing. Nevertheless, there was one older lady who insisted all along on making her living typing and she even brought her daughter into the trade. Both ladies starved to death in 2005. OK, I made them up and no one starved to death but you get my point: The imaginary typists fell behind, did not share in the general (average) improvement and their story is trivial.

So, I repeat, given some time resources, I could always come up with a category of the US population whose economic progress was below average. I could even find some segment of the population that is poorer, in an absolute sense, than it was at the beginning of the period of observation. Note that those are two different finds. Within both categories, I could even locate segments that would make the liberal heart twitch. It would be a little tougher to find people who both were poorer than before the period observation and that would be deserving of liberal sympathy. It would be a little tough but I am confident it could be done.

So, the implication here is that when it comes to the unequal distribution or real economic growth you have to do two things:

A You have to slow down and make sure you understand what’s being said; it’s not always easy. Examples below.

B You have to decide whether the inequality being described is a moral problem for you or, otherwise a political issue. (I, for one, would not lose sleep over the increased poverty of the stock exchange players in my fictitious example above. As for the lady typists, I am sorry but I can’t be held responsible for people who live under a rock on purpose.)

Naively blatant misrepresentations

A hostile liberal commenter on this blog once said the following:

“Extreme poverty in the United States, meaning households living on less than $2 per day before government benefits, doubled from 1996 to 1.5 million households in 2011, including 2.8 million children.”

That was a rebuttal of my assertion that there had been general (average) income growth.

Two problems: first, I doubt there are any American “households” of more than one person that lives on less than $2 /day. If there were then, they must all be dead now, from starvation. I think someone stretched the truth a little by choosing a misleading word. Of maybe here is an explanation. The commenter’s alleged fact will provide it, I hope.

Second, and more importantly, as far as real income is concerned, government benefits (“welfare”) matter a great deal. Including food stamps, they can easily triple the pitiful amount of $2 a day mentioned. That would mean that a person (not a multiple person- household ) would live on $1080 a month. I doubt free medical care, available through Medicaid, is included in the $2/day. I wonder what else is included in “government benefits.”

The author of the statement above is trying to mislead us in a crude way. I would be eager to discuss the drawbacks of income received as benefits in- instead of income earned. As a conservative, I also prefer the second to the first. Yet, income is income whatever its source, including government benefits.

The $2/day mention is intended for our guts, not for our brains. Again, this is crude deception.

Pay attention to what the other guy asserts sincerely about economic growth.

Often, it implies pretty much the reverse of what he intends. In an October 2013 discussion on this blog about alleged increasing poverty in the US, asked the following rhetorical question:

“Or have Americans’ standard of living only improved as the gap [between other countries and the US] closed?“

I meant to smite the other guy because the American standard of living has only increased, in general, as we have seen (in Part One of this essay posted). A habitual liberal commenter on my blog had flung this in my face:

“….Since 1975, practically all the gains in household income have gone to the top 20% of households…” (posted 10/23/13)

(He means in the US. And that’s from a source I am not sure the commenter identified but I believe it exists.)

Now, suppose the statement is totally true. (It’s not; it ignores several things described in Part One.) The statement says that something like roughly 60 million Americans are richer than they, or their high income equivalents were in 1975. It also says that other households may have had almost stationary incomes (“practically”). The statement does not say in any way that anyone has a lower income in 1975. At best, the statement taken literally, should cause me to restate my position as follows:

“American standards of living have remained stationary or they have improved….”

You may not like the description of income gains in my translation of the liberal real statement above. It’s your choice. But the statement fails to invalidate my overall assertion: Americans’ standard of living improved between 1975 and 2007.

What the liberal commenter did is typical. Liberals always do it. They change the subject from economic improvement to something else they don’t name. I, for one, think they should be outed and forced to speak clearly about what they want to talk about.

Big fallacies in plain sight

Pay attention to seemingly straightforward, common liberal, statist assertions. They often conceal big fallacies, sometimes several fallacies at once.

Here is such an assertion that is double-wrong.

“In the past fifteen years the 20% of the population who receive the lowest income have seen their share of national income decrease by ten percentage points.” (Posted as a comment on my blog on 10/21/13)

Again, two – not merely one – strongly misleading things about this assertion. (The liberal commenter who sent it will assure us that he had no intention to mislead; that it’s the readers’ fault because, if…. Freaking reader!)

A The lowest 20% of the population of today are not the same as those of fifteen years ago, nor should you assume that they are their children. They may be but there is a great deal of vertical mobility in this country, up and down. (Just look at me!) The statement does not logically imply that any single, one recognizable group of social category became poorer in the interval. The statement in no way says that there are people in America who are poor and that those same people became poorer either relatively or in an absolute sense. Here is a example to think about: The month that I was finishing my doctoral program, I was easily among the 20% poorest in America. Hell, I probably qualified for the 5% poorest! Two months later, I had decisively left both groups behind; I probably immediately qualified for the top half of income earners. Yet, my progress would not have falsified the above statement. It’s misleading if you don’t think about it slowly, the way I just did.

I once tried to make the left-liberal vice-president of a Jesuit university understand this simple logical matter and I failed. He had a doctorate from a good university in other than theology. Bad mental habits are sticky.

B Percentages are routinely abused

There is yet another mislead in the single sentence above. Bear with me and ignore the first fallacy described above. The statement is intended to imply that the poorer became poorer. In reality, it implies nothing of the sort. Suppose that there are only two people: JD and my neighbor. I earn $40, neighbor earns $60. In total, we earn $100. Thus my share of our joint income is 40%, neighbor’s is 60%. Then neighbor goes into business for himself and his income shoots up to $140. Meanwhile, I get a raise and my income is now $60.

In the new situation, my share of our joint income has gone down to 30% (60/60+140), from 40%. (Is this correct? Yes, or No; decide now.) Yet, I have enjoyed a fifty percent raise in income. That’s a raise most unions would kill for. I am not poorer, I am much richer than I was before. Yet the statement we started with stands; it’s true. And it’s misleading unless you pay attention to percentages. Many people don’t. I think that perhaps few people do.

My liberal critic was perhaps under the impression that his statement could convince readers that some Americans had become poorer in spite of a general (average rise) in real American income. I just showed you that his statement logically implies no such thing at all. If he want to demonstrate that Americans, some Americans, have become poorer, he has to try something else. The question unavoidably arises: Why didn’t he do it?

Was he using his inadequate statement to change the subject without letting you know? If you find yourself fixating on the fact that my neighbor has become even richer than I did because he more than doubled his income, the critic succeeded in changing the subject. It means you are not concerned with income growth anymore but with something else, a separate issue. That other issue is income distribution. Keep in mind when you think of this new issue that, in my illustration of percentages above, I did become considerably richer.

Liberals love the topic of unequal progress for the following reason:

They fail to show that, contrary to their best wish, Americans have become poorer. They fail almost completely to show that some people have become absolutely poorer. They are left with their last-best. It’s not very risky because, as I have already stated, it’s almost always true: Some people have become not as richer as some other people who became richer!

Policy implications of mis-direction about income growth

The topic matter because, in the hands of modern liberals any level of income inequality can be used to call for government interventions in the economy that decrease individual liberty.

Here are a very few practical, policy consequences:

A Income re-distribution nearly always involves government action that is, force. (That’s what government does: It forces one to do what one wouldn’t do out of own inclination.) That’s true for democratic constitutional governments as well as it is for pure tyrannies. In most countries, to enact a program to distribute the fruits of economic growth more equally it to organize intimidation and, in the end, violence against a part of the population. (For a few exceptions, see my old but still current journal article: “The Distributive State in the World System.“ Google it.) This is a mild description pertaining to a world familiar to Americans. In the 1920s, in Russia, many people (“kulaks”) were murdered because they had two cows instead of one.

Conservatives tend to take seriously even moderate-seeming violations of individual liberty, including slow-moving ones.

B Conservatives generally believe that redistribution of income undermines future economic growth. With this belief, you have to decide between more equality or more income for all, or nearly all (see above) tomorrow?

It’s possible to favor one thing at the cost of bearing the travails the other brings. It’s possible to favor the first over the second. This choice is actually at the heart of the liberal/conservative split. It deserves to be discussed in its own right; “Do your prefer more prosperity or more equality?” The topic should not be swept under the rug or be made to masquerade as something else.

If you are going to die for a hill, make sure it’s the right hill.

PS: There is no “income gap.”

Growing Poverty, a Declining Standard of Living: Watch Out for…. Part 1.

It’s vital to the liberal narrative that pretty much everything has to go generally downhill (except global warming, of course, which is always going up even when it’s not, like right now). Life has to deteriorate, they think. That things are getting worse is an article of faith among liberals; it’s even a tenet of their faith. (If things are swimming along fine, what excuse is there for government intrusion?) You might even say that most liberals hate most good news. Prominent among the liberals’ permanent myths is the belief that Americans have become poorer except for a tiny minority of the very rich __________% (Fill in the blank.) In its most common version the idea is that Americans’ real standard of living has done nothing but decline since sometimes in the seventies. This, whatever the numbers say.

I, for one, know it’s not true. I was there, after all, from the beginning, even from before the beginning! I remember well how bad the good old days were in many respects. I am distressed that some people with apparently conservative or libertarian ideas have now also espoused this false belief. In this essay in two parts, I try to help readers find their way in the midst of often misleading or downright false statements that seem to support this erroneous belief. As usual, I do not address myself to specialists but rather to the intelligent but ignorant. Specialists are welcome to comment if they agree to do it in English or in some other official language.

Two forewords

1 I don’t contend that I understand what happened to American real incomes during the current crisis, say, between 2009 and 2013. I will say nothing about this recent period. (If I told you what I suspect happened, you might be astounded, though.) I refer in this essay only to the period 1975-2007.

2 I believe poverty and prosperity have to be measured in terms of real income, income as experienced by real human beings: It’s not how many dollar bills you have in your wallet, it’s what your paycheck actually buys that matters. This brings up several tough technical problems we will get into presently or in the next episode. If you think of poverty in different terms, I am not sure I have anything useful to say to you.

The superficial facts

General federal statistics, all OECD figures, all World Bank numbers show that on the average Americans have become considerably richer since 1975. Nevertheless, these statistics, contrary to a now common belief – significantly understate the economic progress of Americans. We, in general, have become vastly richer than were were then.

I will deal later explicitly with the issue of possible differences between what the average shows and the economic progress of sub-categories of the US population. In the meantime, I must point out that some common forms of enrichment cannot be confined to a particular group. Cleaner drinking water, for example, is usually cleaner for everyone. It would be impractical to reserve wells of dirty, polluted water for the poor or for racial minorities. (However, if you search a little you might actually find liberal allegations of such segregation or, at least, the intimations of such. National Public Radio is a good bet.)

Here is what I don’t intended to do, don’t do: I do not accuse government statistics of lying. I help others read them and complement them where they need to be complemented. There is not government conspiracy designed to mislead us about the living standards of Americans, I think.

Major (unintended) sources of bias.

There are three major sources of bias in expressing standard of living that understate, underestimate, understate economic betterment. I explain them below.

Ballooning health expenditures

Since the seventies, most employed Americans have taken most of their pay raises in the form of health benefits. This results from a historically accidental peculiarity of the American wage and benefit system going back to WWII. (It may be getting removed by the implementation of Obamacare as I write in 2013). The large increase in health expenditures provided by employers do not appear in wage statistics. Yet, they constitute consumption in a way similar to straight wages. In fact, wherever people are given a choice between more steak and more health care, they seem to chose more steak and more health care. Health care possesses an interesting characteristic all of its own: While there is a limit to how much steak an individual can ingest, there is no limit at all to how much health care -broadly defined – the same individual can absorb. It’s close to infinite. Why, I am considering right now some surgery to correct a nose I have not really liked for more than sixty years!

Whether it is a wise societal choice to spend apparently limitless resources on health care, much of it for the old and economically unproductive is an interesting issue in its own right. However, it’s not my issue here. Health services have been produced in vast quantities since 1975. They were eagerly consumed by Americans. Health expenditures constitute a part of the standard of living. If you don’t believe this, just ask yourself if the withdrawal of all health care would not be a lowering of the standard of living.

Better quality of common goods

Common objects on which comparisons of living standard across time are based have improved tremendously in quality. This is difficult, sometimes impossible to measure. Indices of comparison across time (1975 to 2007) don’t do a good job of it.

Nominal wages, the numbers printed on your paychecks, have to be corrected for inflation. We all know that a dollar does not buy as much as it did in 1975. (Around that time, my salary of $20,000/year was quite comfortable.) Federal international and private organizations in charge of these things do their very best to correct raw numbers in meaningful ways. However, they meet with several limitations because things of 1975 are often radically different from what bears the same name in 2007.

(Note: The agencies in charge do their best and mostly intelligently. Again, I am not faulting their efforts. Also, I think there is little intellectual fraud involved in this work because their results are among the most and best scrutinized in the history of the world.)

Here is an example: I suspect that the average television set of 1975 was like mine was then: It was small, offered only black and white images, often had scratchy sound, and gave access to little more than three national networks. Watching television then was like eating in a mediocre restaurant that offered only three dishes ( and there was maybe a hot dog stand outside).

When economists correct for inflation, they have little choice but to compare that television set with a modern ultra-flat etc… Hence, when they report that the cost of a television set has increased in face dollars by, say, 100%, they are not able to take into account that the actual service (the enjoyment) attached to a contemporary set with precise colors, faithful sound that is a gateway to 300 sources is ten times, or one hundred times, greater than what I derived from my 1975 B&W set.

This example can pretty much be turned into a general rule: Everything is better, works better, tastes better, gives more service than its equivalent back then. When you find a seeming exception, you soon discover that it’s not real. Two examples of exceptions that don’t resist examination:

A     Cars are more expensive now than then by several measures. This means that it takes more days of mean (average) American wages to buy the cheapest car in American than it did then. But the cheapest car on American roads today are vastly better in every way than their supposed equivalent back then. They break down less often; they are safer (weight for weight); they require much less maintenance. (Older people will remember the days when every car required an oil change every 5,000 miles and when prudent car owners changed oil every 3,500 miles.)

In addition, much of the rise in real car prices is due to mandated safety and environmental buffers now built into them that did note exist in 1975. (It’s startling to see in not-so-old movies parents getting into the family car with their children and driving off with no one buckling safety belts because there aren’t any.) No matter how one feels about the current health and environmental restrictions pushing upward car prices, they are undeniably form of consumption. It’s useless to cry,” I don’t want it” when you imposed it on yourself through the political process you deem legitimate in every way.

B     Many older people, and I am often tempted to join them, believe that any number of produce just tasted better back then, produce such as tomatoes and strawberries, for example. This is pure delusion. Here is how I know: Several times, I have steeled my resolve, put cash in my pocket and directed my steps to the local farmers’ market. There, against all my instincts, I purchase a pound of organic tomatoes or a tiny basket of grossly priced strawberries. Now organic produce is not better for you (See “organic food” on this blog.) but it’s often fresher, and often handpicked. Each time, I recovered in my mouth the taste of produce of my youth. Each time, I did the calculations only to rediscover anew that the outrageous cost of the farmer’s market produce was actually less, as a percentage of any income, or in inflation-corrected dollars, than the equivalents did when I was young.

We have become used to paying little for mediocre produce, the better produce of yesteryear are still available. They are not even especially expensive. They appear expensive because we are spoiled by general low food prices.

An then, of course, there is the coffee. It was so vile then, coast-to-coast, in 1975 that if anyone but a drunks’ bar served it today he would probably be indicted. And then, there is bread that would have qualified as light construction material. The list is endless: In the good old days, most things were mediocre to very bad and they were, in fact expensive. Current measures are seldom able to take improvement in quality into account. For this reason, they understate average economic progress in America between 1975 and 2007.

I repeat that this average economic progress is also mostly widespread, available to all parts of the population. There are, in fact, few corner bakeries operating especially in the ghetto and specializing in nutritionally unsound, bad-tasting bread for African-Americans.

There may be an exception to the general rule that things have become cheaper in thirty years with constant quality I am not able to deal with here. It may be a major exception: Housing in all its forms may be more expensive in real terms now than it was in 1975. Much housing is the same now as it was then, so prices matters a great deal. Thus, better quality would not explain superior cost. I am eager to see sources on this issue and to publish them here.

New goods, new services

When comparing the prices of things and services then and now, economists are not able, of course, to take into account objects and services that simply did not exist then. This inescapable fact also understates the real progress in living standards. I repeat: Some good things are not counted at all in comparisons of the standard of living then and now because they did not exist at all then. This fact in itself constitutes an overstatement of the standard of living of then. The Internet and its many manifestations, its many subordinate services, such as Google, are a case in point.

I hasten to add that this judgment does not depend on how much you, personally value the Internet and its multiple offerings. To demonstrate that it’s a form of consumption, it’s enough to observe that few of those who can have access to the Internet actually turn it down. I, for example, like most residents of developed societies probably know more than one thousand people. Of the people I know, only three refuse to gain Internet access (and they periodically cheat by catching a ride on a relative’s network tool!)

I can hear some older readers grumble ( as one did recently on this blog) that newfangled technical innovations, such as the Internet and hugely better television, actually made life worse. I smile sarcastically inside for the following reason: Very few Americans seem to be following the primitivist dream implicit in such judgment and make for the wilderness. This, although it would be easy because there is probably more and more undeveloped, empty space in America as the population become more concentrated in a few mega cities. This is too has improved since 1975: There is more and wilder wilderness.

Summary

Large health expenditures, better products, more products have increased the general standard of living of Americans considerably beyond what wage and income statistics show. This statement is implicitly based on averages. The demonstration above does not exclude the logical possibility that some sectors of American society were worse off in 2007 than they, or their equivalents were in 1975. This issue is dear to liberal sensitivity. I deal with it in Part 2, soon forthcoming.