18 February 2008

Long live inequalities: The several gaps between rich and poor

Last week, Greg Mankiw quoted an article in The New York Times, by Cox and Alm, who report:

[I]f we compare the incomes of the top and bottom fifths, we see a ratio of 15 to 1. If we turn to consumption, the gap declines to around 4 to 1. [...]

Let’s take the adjustments one step further. Richer households are larger — an average of 3.1 people in the top fifth, compared with [...] 1.7 in the bottom fifth. If we look at consumption per person, the difference between the richest and poorest households falls to just 2.1 to 1.

The article touches on a very important issue, which is the way we measure inequality. This theme got special attention with Krugman's Conscience of a Liberal[1], where he "explains what can be done to narrow the wealth and income gap"[2]. The debate involves several aspects, such as its statistical measurement (see Mark Thoma’s “Increasing Inequality is Not a Statistical Illusion”) or, as the quoted NYT op-ed puts it, whether we should substitute consumption for income calculations.

The thing that troubles me, however, in all this wealth/income/consumption inequality debate, is very few people actually question its central assumption that inequality is bad! In that case, there’s another type of inequality we should really look into, because it could help explain some more of the above 2:1 proportion. Steven Landsburg provides an insight it for us:

In 1965, leisure was pretty much equally distributed across classes. People of the same age, sex, and family size tended to have about the same amount of leisure, regardless of their socioeconomic status. But since then, two things have happened. First, leisure (like income) has increased dramatically across the board. Second, though everyone's a winner, the biggest winners are at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. […]

[W]hen you compare modern Americans to their 1965 counterparts—people with the same family size, age, and education—the gains are still on the order of 4 to 8 hours a week, or something like seven extra weeks of leisure per year.

But not for everyone. About 10 percent of us are stuck in 1965, leisurewise. At the opposite extreme, 10 percent of us have gained a staggering 14 hours a week or more. (Once again, your gains are measured in comparison to a person who, in 1965, had the same characteristics that you have today.) By and large, the biggest leisure gains have gone precisely to those with the most stagnant incomes—that is, the least skilled and the least educated. And conversely, the smallest leisure gains have been concentrated among the most educated, the same group that's had the biggest gains in income.

Aguiar and Hurst can't explain fully that rising inequality, just as nobody can explain fully the rising inequality in income. But there are, I think, two important morals here.

First, man does not live by bread alone. Our happiness depends partly on our incomes, but also on the time we spend with our friends, our hobbies, and our favorite TV shows. So, it's a good exercise in perspective to remember that by and large, the big winners in the income derby have been the small winners in the leisure derby, and vice versa.

Second, a certain class of pundits and politicians are quick to see any increase in income inequality as a problem that needs fixing—usually through some form of redistributive taxation. Applying the same philosophy to leisure, you could conclude that something must be done to reverse the trends of the past 40 years—say, by rounding up all those folks with extra time on their hands and putting them to (unpaid) work in the kitchens of their "less fortunate" neighbors. If you think it's OK to redistribute income but repellent to redistribute leisure, you might want to ask yourself what—if anything—is the fundamental difference.

My moral here is: if we really want to end inequality, why not go all the way and adopt a totalitarian communist system? This reductio ad absurdum may seem odd, but it’s not the case that people are equal. Nor can we say for sure how they are different, but our ignorance should make us turn to a more merit-based system.

Such system would allow agents to make their own choices regarding the income they wish to work for, the wealth they aim at accumulating and how much leisure they are willing to give up for those. It’s not an easy choice: we all would like to consume more, accumulate money – be it for increasing consumption, leaving it for your kids or anything else – while having more free time.

This reminds me of a story about a very successful Brazilian investor. He and some friends were at a bar going through the financial reports of a firm, trying to find something to give an edge over the market. After hours of scrutinizing the books, they finally found what they were looking for and decided to celebrate. As they looked around looking for the waiter, they noticed the bar was empty. They had been working for hours, it was already evening (around 9pm to my recollection) and the place should be filled with people. This puzzled them until someone solved the mystery: it was New Year’s eve!

Of course the reporter interviewing him asked if he wasn’t upset about working so late during New Year’s eve, but no, he wasn’t. Now, how many people would be willing to work late on December 31st? Is it fair to infringe this person’s liberty by taxing him more than his co-worker who was enjoying his vacations instead of studying accounting books? I believe this answer involves not a subjective judgement, but can be answered by verifying which would yield more wealth to society.

The reality is we are constrained by time and some people are more productive, others are willing to work harder, while others would just like to earn their living and enjoy life. Why should we be opposed to a genius work-a-holic making millions of dollars, if he produces much more than that to society and few of us have that characteristic?

Let each person pick his own bundle of ability-effort-output and there shall be no (legitimate) envy. And inequality will undoubtedly be a good thing, for it will motivate harder work, simultaneously allowing more leisure.


[1] For his summary of the theme and the book, you can check Krugman’s first blog post. There is also a highly controversial NYT review. You can also go straight for Mark Thoma’s comment on this, which gathers different sources.
[2] Quote from the book's back flap.

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