Here are some general pieces on inequality for your weekend reading.
……..Piketty believes that the rise in inequality can’t be understood independently of politics. For his new book, he chose a title evoking Marx, but he doesn’t think that capitalism is doomed, or that ever-rising inequality is inevitable. There are circumstances, he concedes, in which incomes can converge and the living standards of the masses can increase steadily—as happened in the so-called Golden Age, from 1945 to 1973. But Piketty argues that this state of affairs, which many of us regard as normal, may well have been a historical exception. The “forces of divergence can at any point regain the upper hand, as seems to be happening now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century,” he writes. And, if current trends continue, “the consequences for the long-term dynamics of the wealth distribution are potentially terrifying.”
……..In the nineteen-fifties, the average American chief executive was paid about twenty times as much as the typical employee of his firm. These days, at Fortune 500 companies, the pay ratio between the corner office and the shop floor is more than two hundred to one, and many C.E.O.s do even better. In 2011, Apple’s Tim Cook received three hundred and seventy-eight million dollars in salary, stock, and other benefits, which was sixty-two hundred and fifty-eight times the wage of an average Apple employee. A typical worker at Walmart earns less than twenty-five thousand dollars a year; Michael Duke, the retailer’s former chief executive, was paid more than twenty-three million dollars in 2012. The trend is evident everywhere. According to a recent report by Oxfam, the richest eighty-five people in the world—the likes of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and Carlos Slim—own more wealth than the roughly 3.5 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world’s population.
……..Some people claim that the takeoff at the very top reflects the emergence of a new class of “superstars”—entrepreneurs, entertainers, sports stars, authors, and the like—who have exploited new technologies, such as the Internet, to enlarge their earnings at the expense of others in their field. If this is true, high rates of inequality may reflect a harsh and unalterable reality: outsized spoils are going to go to Roger Federer, James Patterson, and the WhatsApp guys. Piketty rejects this account. The main factor, he insists, is that major companies are giving their top executives outlandish pay packages. His research shows that “supermanagers,” rather than “superstars,” account for up to seventy per cent of the top 0.1 per cent of the income distribution. (In 2010, you needed to earn at least $1.5 million to qualify for this élite group.) Rising income inequality is largely a corporate phenomenon.
Defenders of big pay packages like to claim that senior managers earn their vast salaries by boosting their firm’s profits and stock prices. But Piketty points out how hard it is to measure the contribution (the “marginal productivity”) of any one individual in a large corporation. The compensation of top managers is typically set by committees comprising other senior executives who earn comparable amounts. “It is only reasonable to assume that people in a position to set their own salaries have a natural incentive to treat themselves generously, or at the very least to be rather optimistic in gauging their marginal productivity,” Piketty writes.
……..These cases of gross overcompensation for poor performance seem exceptional, but in fact they’re representatives of a trend. A twenty-year review released today by the Institute for Policy Studies found that the records of nearly 40 percent of America’s top-earning executives include leading their firms to bankruptcy, government bailouts, fraud-related fines and settlements, and their own firing.
……..More than a fifth of the highest-paid executives ran firms that either received taxpayer money or collapsed during the financial crisis. Another 14 percent of all top earners ultimately lost their jobs because they were fired, forced to retire, or their company went bankrupt. Then these CEOs walked away with severance packages averaging $47.7 million.
……..As the example of Finland makes clear, it is possible for a rich and successful nation to change its income distribution dramatically through the tax system. (A recent and celebrated research paper from the International Monetary Fund adds some more careful empirical backing to this intuitive idea – although there are too many imponderables in such an analysis for it to clinch any argument.)
……..Step four is to remember the small stuff. Inequality is a consequence of countless policy choices too trivial to trouble finance ministers: whether there are good teachers in most classrooms; whether poorer areas of town are safe at night and have access to affordable public transport; whether toddlers are receiving stimulating childcare; whether the pension system encourages savers without making millionaires out of slick middlemen. We should gather better evidence on such questions and act on that evidence.