Opinion

The Great Debate

from Lawrence Summers:

On inequality

Inequality has emerged as a major economic issue in the United States and beyond.

Sharp increases in the share of income going to the top 1 percent of earners, a rising share of income going to profits, stagnant real wages, and a rising gap between productivity growth and growth in median family income are all valid causes for concern. A generation ago, it could have been plausibly asserted that the economy’s overall growth rate was the dominant determinant of growth in middle-class incomes and progress in reducing poverty. This is no longer plausible. The United States may well be on the way to becoming a Downton Abbey economy.

So concern about inequality and its concomitants is warranted. Issues associated with an increasingly unequal distribution of economic rewards will likely be with us long after the cyclical conditions have normalized and budget deficits finally addressed.

Those who condemn President Barack Obama’s concern about inequality as “tearing down the wealthy” and un-American populism have, to put it politely, limited historical perspective. Consider a sampling of past presidential rhetoric.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt, talking about the financial industry in his first Inaugural Address in 1933, said “Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion …. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision and when there is no vision the people perish.”

How do we measure whether Americans are better off than in the past?

Are you better off than you were twenty years ago? Probably not relative to very rich people today, but what about relative to you, or to someone your age and position twenty years ago? Income inequality has been called the defining issue of our time. Powerful leaders, from President Obama to Pope Francis, have cited it as evidence that the unfettered capitalism that has enriched the wealthy hasn’t been shared. Of course, there’s a difference between the gains in income being shared evenly, shared a little, or making everyone else poorer. In many ways the average American is much better off than he used to be; in other ways he’s worse off.  But even if we focus on what’s gotten better, we may still need to worry about the future.

The most common metric used to measure changes in our economic condition is income, but several other factors determine quality of life: health, consumption, leisure time, financial security, and prospects for the future. Which of these factors matters most comes down to personal values. Some people prefer more leisure to income. If they work less, even at the cost of lower earnings, they’ll be happier. Some people are more comfortable with risk; health care coverage and financial security matter less if they can buy more stuff.

In order to assess economic improvement, we must also consider demographics. Over the course of your lifetime, you will probably see an increase in earnings and wealth and accumulate goods. Most people get pay raises as they age and acquire more skills. They also become more risk averse and have more years to collect wealth. In this respect, the relevant question is: are your finances improving at the same rate they used to? Or did people your age used to have more than you do now?

Heads, the rich win; tails, the poor lose

The rich, to mangle F. Scott Fitzgerald slightly, they rationalize differently than you and me. Whether they succeed or fail, they’ve always got a pseudo-scientific excuse. If they do well, it’s because their habits are better than those of the rest of us peons. If they do badly, it was their upbringing, since wealthy parents too readily substitute lucre for love.

Don’t believe me? Let’s turn to the headlines.

Last month, personal finance and self-responsibility guru Dave Ramsey posted a list on his website entitled, “20 Things the Rich Do Every Day,” originally written by New Jersey accountant and certified financial planner Thomas C. Corley, who, according to his website “studied the daily activities of 233 wealthy people and 128 people living in poverty.”

The list, which quickly went viral, was filled with the self-improvement tropes that could be called “Why the Rich Deserve Their Money.” Prosperous people eat less junk food than poor people. They read more books. They watch less reality television and make their children volunteer more time to charity.

Why the wealthy don’t object to Obama’s “class warfare”

By David Callahan
The opinions expressed are his own. 

Here in the egalitarian paradise of the United States, there is apparently nothing worse than “class warfare” – which is why Republicans are trying to affix this damning label to President Obama’s new plan to raise taxes on the rich. One hitch, though, is that the billionaire Warren Buffett is not alone in his willingness to pay higher taxes. Many other wealthy Americans are also ready to see their taxes go up. The battle over taxes, its turns out, is not just between the rich and everyone else; the upper class itself is divided on this issue. That is good news for Obama, who’ll need all the help he can get to enact deficit reduction that balances spending cuts with new revenue.

Various wealthy Americans have praised the President’s tax plan since it was unveiled Monday. “It’s time for millionaires – like me and the ones in Congress – to step up to the plate and start paying their fair share,” said Guy Saperstein, a wealthy lawyer who is part of a group called Patriotic Millionaires for Fiscal Strength. Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, not exactly known for his noblesse oblige, chimed in, writing on his blog right after Obama’s speech that paying taxes is the most “patriotic thing you can do.”

Obama’s call for higher taxes on the rich is not new. He pledged repeatedly to raise taxes on high earners during his 2008 run for President – and won the vote of these same Americans, those making over $200,000, by a comfortable margin.

from The Great Debate UK:

Women on course to control larger proportion of wealth

cr_mega_503_JaneFoley-150x150

- Jane Foley is research director at Forex.com and blogs regularly for Reuters Great Debate. The opinions expressed are her own. Reuters will host a “follow-the-sun” live blog on Monday, March 8, 2010, International Women’s Day. Please tune in. -

Projections indicate that by 2050 the world’s population will stand at around 9.2 billion, up from around 6.7 million at present.  The vast majority of this increase will be in the developing world.  In developed world countries populations may start tapering off after 2025.

It seems likely that this explosion in population in the developing world will do nothing to address the fact that that per capita wealth is massively skewed towards the developed world.  Using World Bank data for 2000, the average per capital wealth in the top 10 wealthiest countries is a staggering 170 times greater than the average in the bottom ten.
Demographics in the developed world are defined by low fertility and low mortality rates.  This translates into an ageing population.  Added to this mix is the fact that male mortality rates are higher than female in the developed world.  As a consequence, as these populations age they are becoming predominantly female.  It follows that women are on course to control an increasing proportion of the world’s wealth.
Reports that suggest that women are responsible for buying 80 percent of household goods in the U.S. will not be a surprise to the seasoned shopper.  Over the past decade or so it appears that the advertising industry has been waking up to the notion that women’s responsibilities stretch further than making decisions on washing powder.

Debate surrounding the world economic crisis

World leaders vowed to work together in overhauling the global financial system as they headed to Washington for a summit on wresting the global economy from recession and avoiding future meltdowns.

Far from the confines of Washington, Reuters readers launched into a lively debate, sparked by Reuters columnists and experts, on what this means for the global financial crisis.

One of the more lively discussions arose from a column theorizing the financial crisis is the greatest threat to international security. Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University and Global Security Consultant to Oxford Research Group argues:

from Tales from the Trail:

McCain says he wants people to ‘get wealthy’

johnmc.jpgGREEN, Ohio - John McCain wants Americans to get rich.

That was the message from the Republican presidential hopeful Wednesday as he focused again on the differences in his tax proposals and those of Democratic rival Barack Obama.

The Arizona senator has hammered Obama in recent days for a philosophy of spreading Americans' wealth around, articulated by the Illinois senator in a now famous exchange with an Ohio man dubbed Joe the Plumber.

McCain promised at an outdoor rally with an enthusiatic crowd he and his running mate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, would not make people or businesses send more money to the federal government.

  •