Monday, September 20, 2010

Wealth Distribution and The Work Week

In this post I have quite a few links. They vary in political slant and probably somewhat in numerical values, but the overall picture is largely consistent. Often I reference an article rather than the base data because I found the article itself interesting. Sometimes the general articles contain other useful links.

I read a quote a while ago - but cannot find it now. It went something like "Every successful person says they got that way by dint of hard work, intelligence and perseverance. I never met an unsuccessful person who did not blame circumstance and bad luck."

I can interpret this statement in at least three ways, all of which have some truth. One is that successful people work hard and meet adversity with intelligence and persistence while unsuccessful people blame the world around them. A second interpretation is that successful people are likely to pat themselves on the back and attribute to themselves results that may have come from simple luck. A third interpretation is that both sides are correct. Hard work, intelligence and perseverance may be necessary precursors of self earned success. While these traits may be necessary, they are not sufficient. Many people are defeated by events beyond their control.

In my last blog post I requested a 1950 lifestyle in exchange for a work week that corresponds to current productivity compared to 1950 (11 hours per week). With steady increases in productivity it is a reasonable to question why life is as hard as it is and why the work week has not gotten any shorter, and may have gotten longer. I saw an analysis (unfortunately not very good) of hunter-gatherers that estimated they spent about 40 hours a week on survival. That means that in the past 4000 years we have we made no progress on shortening the labor needed to survive. Admittedly "survival" now is much different than 4000 years ago. Life is much more comfortable, longer and, for most of us, less brutish. Still... something seems wrong.

About a century ago an economist named Wilfried Pareto noticed than many phenomena including income and wealth follow what is now called a Pareto Distribution. This is often known as the 80/20 rule and says that 20% of the population have 80% of the wealth/income... The distribution is self similar in that if you take the top 20% it will follow the same distribution. That is, 20% of the most wealthy people will have 80% of the wealth in the wealthy group.

The distribution of wealth is not exactly a Pareto Distribution but it is close, particularly at the high end of the income/wealth scales. This is true in many societies around the globe including medieval Hungary.

When something is this widespread it argues for a common mechanism. This mechanism could be the distribution of brains/work ethic/persistence or it could be something having to do with the nature of economic systems. In 2002 the Harvard Business Review published an article "Wealth Happens" . Simulations based on a few assumptions about money flow show a Pareto Distribution occurring strictly by chance. That is, a few chance events may cause one person to become wealthy while another becomes poor. In their simulations, the basic feedback mechanism was investment. If you gained enough wealth to start investing in things that provided more wealth, you headed up the wealth chain. Wealth is compounding, so the more you have the more you get.

The numbers 80%/20% are really just an example. Different societies have different percentages. Most people underestimate how skewed wealth is and overestimate social mobility (moving from poor to rich or vice versa).

Net worth is the value of everything you own minus all debt. In 2007 the median net worth of a family was $120,000. If this were a stack of $100 bills, it would be a little less than six inches tall. The 400th richest American in 2007 was Kenny Troutt of Excel Communications with a net worth of 1.3 billion. That would be a stack of $100 bills just over a mile tall. Bill Gates topped the world list that year at 59 billion, a stack of $100 bills about 45.5 miles tall.

It is worth a moment to talk about "mean" and "median". In the last paragraph I said the median net worth in 2007 was $120,000. The median is the middle number. That is, if you have 11 different numbers then 5 numbers will be less than the median and 5 numbers will be greater than the median. The "mean" is the average you get by adding up all the numbers and dividing by the total. For the numbers (1,2,3,4, 10000) the median is 3. There are two numbers (1, 2) that are less than the median and two numbers (4, 100000) that are greater than the median. The mean of these numbers is 2002 = (1 + 2 + 3 + 4 + 10000)/5. The difference between the median and the mean is an indication of how skewed a distribution is.

In the case of US family net worth in 2007, the median was $120,000. The mean was $556,380. The Pareto Distribution is quite skewed. If we confiscated all wealth and redistributed it evenly among all families, every family in the US would be around the current 80th percentile of net worth. That is, every single family would be better off than about 80% of the families today.

Before you start the revolution remember the Harvard Business Review article. It indicates that inequality would quickly reassert itself and we would be in the same position as today in relatively short order. Many people would lose almost all their money and a few people would become fabulously wealthy.

Over the past 20 years the US has become less equal in terms of wealth distribution, but the absolute wealth of each class may have increased. That is, the economic pie has gotten bigger so that even though the very wealthy have increased their percentage of the pie, the rest of us still got a little more pie than we used to.

In social mobility there is a general trend for poor families to improve their lot over several generations. In the US it takes about four generations to move from 20% of the average income to about 90% of the average income. There is more social mobility in much of the developed world than in the United States. That is, families pull themselves out of poverty significantly faster in France, Canada, and Denmark than they do in the US.

On a macroeconomic level, measurements indicate productivity and wages are somewhat linked. At and industry level, this correlation does not hold. This can be seen in agriculture. Agricultural production has increased many fold over the past century and a half, but farm wages remain among the lowest of any industry.

I have said that Pareto Distributions of wealth and income probably have some basic underlying cause. That means we will always have a lot of relatively poor people and a very very few fabulously wealthy. However the percentages can and do vary from society to society. I believe that much of the difference is a result of government policy. In a Kleptocracy, 95% of the wealth may be owned by 5% of the population. Social welfare states (most of Western Europe) tend to have less wealth inequality than we have in the US.

The difference between median and mean income in the United States indicates there is plenty of room for increasing the general welfare of people and, at the same time, shortening the work week. The average American worker works 500 hours per year more than the average German worker, yet German quality of life and social security is at least as high. The difference is social policy.

The Pareto Distribution ensures that there will always be a pool of less well off people who may be willing to work more hours or for less pay. Decisions on the length of the work week are political and are based in part on how the populace feels about wealth redistribution. In US politics this topic cannot be discussed rationally. Because structural changes to the economy are likely to further concentrate wealth (possible topic of another blog post) and lack of rational discussion, you can expect to be working even longer hours in the near future.


sf said...


D'Artagnan said...

Unless you do what I did, pull the plug, retire and start collecting. The very rich would be at our mercy if we all refused to play their game. They have bet that we will continue to be manipulated by them and work longer hours for less pay which puts more money in their pockets without them having to lift a finger. They refuse to 'pay it forward' and scream like stuck pigs about paying it back (ie their fair share of taxes). They complain bitterly about tax dollars going to "entitlement" programs but when was the last time anyone of them did an honest day's labor for their income? They complain about illegal immigrants yet they are the only ones who can afford to hire them. They oppose any rational changes to our society simply because they have bet on a 'no change' system and any change from what they bet on is a threat to their 'bottom line' return on that investment they are not willing to tolerate. Because of their degree of influence with the political system, we do not have anything resembling a free market economy. Their strangle hold on the political and economic sectors of our society make it nigh on impossible for us as a people to effect meaningful changes in our society. The rest of the world sees this but Americans can not see the forest for the trees!