Whose Economy You Talkin’ About?

July 25th, 2013 at 6:34 pm

The Tax Policy Center has added some strong new hamsters to turn the wheels of their much used income and tax model, and in doing so they’ve expanded their definition of income.  You can read all about it here, but just eyeballing their figure 1, pasted in below (you need to click on it to get a better view), I was struck by the changing patterns of income composition as you go up the scale.

Like they say, where you stand is often a function of where you sit.  Though these data are not surprising, they do serve as a reminder that the concept of “the economy” means different things to different people for good reasons.  How a given policy measure affects you has a lot to do with where you locate on this chart.

For example, for households in the bottom 99%, at least half of their income comes from work in the form of compensation, which includes not just wages but also employer-paid health premiums and retirement benefits.  For middle-income households, the compensation share of income is 70%.

For high-income households, say those in the top 1%, compensation is just 40%, while investment income, including cap gains, accounts for 29%, compared to 4% for the middle class.

Transfer payments, including Social Security benefits, unemployment insurance, and food stamps cover a large share of income—40%–for poorest households, but are only 2% for the top fifth.  (See the paper for definitions of the other income components.)

Think about these differences the next time you hear a politician explaining why we need to cut taxes on corporate income or capital gains.  Or better yet, why, as in the House budget, we have to slash the safety net in order to pay for such upper-end tax cuts.

The framing is invariably “trickle-down”—such cuts will lift everybody’s fortunes—but the real motivation is what you see here.  Once you get up to the very top of the income scale—the top 0.1% in the bar furthest to the right (as it were)—you’ve got two-thirds of their income coming from non-labor sources.

Or think about the current economic context with an under-performing job market generating stagnant middle-class earnings amidst high corporate profitability and solid equity gains in the stock market.  That’s a very different experience for those with a 70% compensation share versus a 34% share.

In this regard, if we were going to make economic policy based on broad averages, we’d devote 64% of our energy to improving the job market.  Just sayin’…


Source: Tax Policy Center

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2 comments in reply to "Whose Economy You Talkin’ About?"

  1. Pablo says:

    A fundamental issue is; do you want to grow the pie or just fight over who gets what size slice?

  2. Dave says:

    I was glad to hear Obama wants the next fed chair to help normal people. Maybe this was summer’s plan. It is sometimes hard to tell if anyone hears the people, but I find these new developments very encouraging. I really like this new data you are producing.

    So I think for the first time, it really seems like there’s reason to believe the right people are looking at the right data. I do hope nobody has been too offended by some other blog comments I’ve made on occasion in other places. It just comes from frustration for the innocent victims.