Apparently being a masochist, I'm sitting in front of my TV listening to the evening news once again, when suddenly I'm told that, according to the latest data, the income distribution (much like my waistline) has widened. Over the three decades ending in 2007 the share of annual real after-tax income obtained by the top 1% of income earning households doubled, reaching 23.5%. Shock! Horror! Anger!
Oh, the inhumanity of man to man! Who can I vote for who will use the government to take the money from those filthy evil rich, give it to the poor oppressed people and end this obvious injustice?
I soon find out. The network is actually quoting a New York Times article that cited data from a Congressional Budget Office report analyzing changes in the distribution of household income from 1979 to 2007...
The study had been requested several years back by Senators Max Baucus and Chuck Grassley of the Senate Finance committee: a democrat and a Republican, but both of them welfare liberals. The political game is afoot.
Aside from the doubling of the disposable real income share of the top 1%
of income earners, the basic facts reported by the CBO were these:
(a) From 1979 to 2007 the average real (i.e. inflation adjusted) disposable
income obtained by the top fifth (or 5th quintile) of all households
increased by 65%.
(b) The average disposable (i.e. after tax) real income obtained by those in
the middle three quintiles of households increased by about 40%, and
(c) The average real disposable income of those in the bottom quintile (the
poor) increased by 18 percent.
Wait a minute. Second thoughts come creeping into my mind like careful
firefighters to throw cooling water on my burning indignation. Did I see
that right? The average, real disposable income of every quintile went up?
Yup. The poor got richer, the middle class got richer, and the upper class
(or rather, classification) got richer. The gains were simply progressively
larger for the upper quintiles.
Since this is not a story of the rich getting richer and the poor getting
poorer, what justification for anguish is there over a widening income
distribution beyond simple envy and resentment by many of the greater
success of others? Is stimulating that to get votes and power what
Grassley and Baucus and so many other people like them really want?
Isn't it possible that most in the top quintile, and even the 1%, earned their
high incomes? Is it not possible that they did productive things that helped
raise the average real incomes of everyone else?
Didn't entrepreneurial decisions made by Bill Gates result in the cost of
computer memory falling by tens of thousands of percent, so that even the
poor can now afford computers (yes, the poor in America have computers,
and cars, and color TVs, and video games)? Why, beyond malicious envy,
should we punish people who make us better off?
And what about family size? Didn't I read somewhere . . ? Oh yes. Family
size is positively related to position in the quintiles. Wealthy top quintile
households are significantly larger on average than the poor bottom
quintile households. The top quintile may by definition have 20% of the
households, but it contains more than 20% of the population.
The bottom quintile also has 20% of the households, but less than that
proportion of the population. Consequently, the income difference per
person between top and bottom quintile households is exaggerated by the
quintile distribution data.
Top quintile households also have far more income earners on average -
at least three times as many - as bottom quintile households have. That
by itself accounts for a significant fraction of the income disparity between
The average age of people in top quintile families is also higher, and is not
age, at least up to that of retirement, positively associated with income? Is
there injustice in that?
Aha. All this begins to make another mitigating possibility appear through
the diminishing smoke and heat of perceived injustice at an uneven and
widening income distribution. What if not everyone stays in their initial
What if many of those who are in the bottom quintile at a point in time move
up over time, and what if many of those in the top quintile at a point in time
move down? What if many people in the middle three quintiles also move
up or down from year to year?
What real information is conveyed by a quintile income distribution study
comparing the shares of total real income each quintile possesses or the
average real income in the quintiles over time, if many of the people in
those quintiles are swapping places over time, and also being replaced by
deaths and births?
Is talk about rich, poor, middle class, and changes in the income
distribution even meaningful? Or are the quintiles merely empty arithmetic abstractions? Stay tuned for part 2.