Paul L. Caron

Friday, December 30, 2022

The Myth Of American Income Inequality

Wall Street Journal Book Review:  Believe Your Eyes, Not the Statistics, by Charles W. Calomiris (Columbia; Google Scholar) (reviewing Phil Gramm, Robert Ekelund & John Early, The Myth of American Inequality: How Government Biases Policy Debate (2022)):

Myth 3According to Mark Twain, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know that ain’t so.” “The Myth of American Inequality,” by Phil Gramm, Robert Ekelund and John Early, quotes that wisdom, then offers 250 pages of analysis proving it. ...

Media commentators and politicians seem to believe that little progress has been made in raising average American living standards since the 1960s; that poverty has not been substantially reduced over the period; that the median household’s standard of living has not increased in recent years and inequality is currently high and rising (“a truth universally acknowledged,” according to the Economist magazine in 2020).

The authors—a former chairman of the Senate banking committee, a professor of economics at Auburn University and a former economist at the Bureau for Labor Statistics—show that these beliefs are false. Average living standards have improved dramatically. Real income of the bottom quintile, the authors write, grew more than 681% from 1967 to 2017. The percentage of people living in poverty fell from 32% in 1947 to 15% in 1967 to only 1.1% in 2017. Opportunities created by economic growth, and government-sponsored social programs funded by that growth, produced broadly shared prosperity: 94% of households in 2017 would have been at least as well off as the top quintile in 1967. Bottom-quintile households enjoy the same living standards as middle-quintile households, and on a per capita basis the bottom quintile has a 3% higher income. Top-quintile households receive income equal to roughly four times the bottom (and only 2.2 times the lowest on a per capita basis), not the 16.7 proportion popularly reported.

What explains the disconnect between reality and belief? Government statistical reports exclude “noncash” sources of income, which excludes most transfers from social programs. Taxes (paid disproportionately by high earners) are also ignored in official calculations. Furthermore, even the government’s “cash” income numbers are reported in a way that understates improvements in real (inflation-adjusted) income over time because government inflation measures fail to use the appropriate chained price indexes or take account of new products and services. ...

“The Myth of American Inequality” will have a positive effect on the quality of policy discussions, and may well achieve its objective of changing the ways in which government agencies report information about American household income and consumption. At a time when partisan tribalism makes serious discussion almost impossible in Washington, this book shows that economics is still a powerful tool kit for informing and disciplining our thinking across the partisan divide.

Cato Institute, The Myth of American Income Inequality

Prior TaxProf Blog coverage:

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