President Barack Obama has a theory of the case, yes he does. For the past 30 years, the living standards of middle-class Americans have gone nowhere even as the overall U.S. economy has grown markedly. The Obama explanation: Wealthier Americans grabbed all the money. Time to raise their taxes for the sake of “fairness.”
– Here’s Obama in January 2009: “Middle class Americans have been working harder, yet not enjoying their fair share of the fruits of a growing economy.”
– Here’s Obama in Osawatomie, Kansas, last December: “Over the last few decades, the rungs on the ladder of opportunity have grown farther and farther apart, and the middle class has shrunk.”
– And here’s Obama this week: “What drags our entire economy down is when the benefits of economic growth and productivity go only to the few, which is what’s been happening for over a decade now, and gap between those at the very, very top and everybody else keeps growing wider and wider and wider and wider.”
Underlying Obama’s entire thesis is the work of two economists, Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez. According to them, median American incomes rose just 3.2% from 1979 through 2007. (All figures are inflation adjusted.)
So what happened to the rest of the dough? The top 10%, 1% and 0.1% grabbed all the money. Or pretty much most of it. Time to crank up taxes on the rich and spend more on the middle class. It’s not overstating things to say that the findings of Piketty and Saez form the very heart of Obamanomics, giving a powerful economic rationale for Obama policies such as ending the upper-end Bush tax cuts to Obamacare to the Buffett Rule.
But it’s just not true, according to a new study in National Tax Journal from researchers at Cornell University. (Here’s an earlier, working-paper version.) The academics, led by economist Richard Burkhauser, don’t say the findings of Piketty and Saez are wrong — just incredibly, massively incomplete. According to the Cornell study, median household income – properly measured – rose 36.7%, not 3.2% like Piketty and Saez argue. That’s a big miss.
And all income levels got richer. Yes, the very rich did exceptionally well, mostly due to technology and globalization. Incomes rose 63% for the top 5%, 56% for the top 10% and 52.6% for the top 20%. But everyone else made out pretty well, too. Incomes rose 40.4% for households between the 60th and 80th percentiles, 36.9% for the next quintile, 25.0% for the next, and 26.4% for the bottom 20%. There’s the “shared prosperity” Obama says he wants, right in front of his eyes. (Indeed, the study finds, income inequality has actually been shrinking since 1989, with the Gini index falling to 0.362 from 0.372.)
As the Cornell study concludes:
Income inequality increased in the United States not because the rich got richer, the poor got poorer and the middle class stagnated, but because the rich got richer at a faster rate than the middle and poorer quintiles and this mostly occurred in the 1980s. .. the apparent failure of the median American to benefit from economic growth can largely be explained by the use of an income measure for this purpose which does not fully capture what is actually happening to the resources available to middle class individuals.
See, Piketty and Saez made lots of odd choices about what to measure and how to measure it. They chose to measure something called “tax units” rather than households, a move which ignores the statistical impact — including economies of scale — of couples who cohabitate, kids who move back in with their parents after college, and senior parents who live with their adult children.
They chose to ignore the value of all government transfers — including welfare, Social Security, and other government provided cash assistance — received by the household.
They chose to ignore the role of taxes and tax credits.
They chose to ignore the value of healthcare benefits. In short, Piketty and Saez ignored a lot of stuff. Again, Burkhauser and his team;
The apparent failure of the median American to benefit from economic growth can largely be explained by the use of an income measure for this purpose which does not fully capture what is actually happening to the resources available to middle class individuals … When using the most restrictive income definition – pre-tax, pre-transfer tax unit cash (market) income—the resources available to the middle class have stagnated over the past three business cycles. In contrast, once broadening the income definition to post-tax, post-transfer size-adjusted household cash income, middle class Americans are found to have made substantial gains.
So the tax and regulatory polices of the past three decades did not lead to stagnation for the middle class at the hands of the rapacious rich. Claims to the contrary — such as those made by Obama, the Occupy movement, and many liberal economists — never really passed the sniff test of anyone who lived through the past few decades. And now we know why: The inequality and stagnation alarmists were wrong. And so, therefore, is the economic rationale of the president’s class-warfare economic policies. Not that economics ever had much to do with them anyway.
James Pethokoukis is a columnist and blogger at the American Enterprise Institute. Previously, he was the Washington columnist for Reuters Breakingviews, the opinion and commentary wing of Thomson Reuters.
Pethokoukis was the business editor and economics columnist for U.S. News & World Report from 1997 to 2008. He has written for many publications, including The New York Times, The Weekly Standard, Commentary, National Review, The Washington Examiner, USA Today and Investor’s Business Daily.
Pethokoukis is an official CNBC contributor. In addition, he has appeared numerous times on MSNBC, Fox News Channel, Fox Business Network, The McLaughlin Group, CNN and Nightly Business Report on PBS. A graduate of Northwestern University and the Medill School of Journalism, Pethokoukis is a 2002 Jeopardy! Champion.
Pethokoukis can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @JimPethokoukis