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Bernie Sanders and the Fixed Pie Fallacy by Chelsea German

“The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.” Senator Bernie Sanders first said those words in 1974 and has been repeating them ever since.

Senator Sanders is not alone in his belief. Three out of four Americans agree with the statement, “Today it’s really true that the rich just get richer while the poor get poorer.”

Senator Sanders is half right: the rich are getting richer. However, his assertion that the poor are becoming poorer is incorrect. The poor are becoming richer as well.

Economist Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institute showed that between 1979 and 2010, the real (inflation-adjusted) after-tax income of the top 1% of U.S. income-earners grew by an impressive 202%.

He also showed that the real after-tax income of the bottom fifth of income-earners grew by 49%. All groups made real income gains. While the rich are making gains at a faster pace, both the rich and the poor are in fact becoming richer.

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In addition to these measurable real income gains, decreases in prices have given the poor increased purchasing power, helping to raise living standards for the worst off in society. As a result of falling prices such as for groceries and material goods, along with gains in real income, Americans have more income left after basic expenses.

Technology has also become cheaper, improving our lives in unexpected ways. For example, consider the spread of cell phones. There was a time when only the wealthiest Americans could afford one. Today, over 98% of Americans have a cellular subscription, and the rise of smart phones has made these devices more useful than ever.

Unfortunately, progress has been uneven. In those areas of the economy where competition is hobbled, such as education, housing, and healthcare, prices continue to increase.

Still, the percentage of the population classified as living in relative poverty has decreased over time. Why then do three quarters of Americans, including Senator Sanders, believe that the poor are “getting poorer?”

A simple logical error underlies Sanders’ belief. If we assume that wealth is a fixed pie, then the more slices the rich get, the fewer are left over for the poor. In other words, people can only better themselves at the expense of others. In the world of the fixed pie, if we observe the rich becoming richer, then it must be because other people are becoming poorer.

Fortunately, in the real world, the pie is not fixed. US GDP is growing, and it’s growing faster than the population.

Poverty remains a pressing issue, but Senator Sanders is incorrect when he says that the poor are becoming poorer. In the words of HumanProgress.org advisory board member Professor Deirdre McCloskey,

The rich got richer, true. But millions more have gas heating, cars, smallpox vaccinations, indoor plumbing, cheap travelrights for womenlower child mortalityadequate nutrition, taller bodies, doubled life expectancyschooling for their kids, newspapers, a vote, a shot at university, and respect.

This post first appeared at HumanProgress.org.

Chelsea German

Chelsea German

Chelsea German works at the Cato Institute as a Researcher and Managing Editor of HumanProgress.org.

Hillary Clinton: For Richer or Richer

For an answer to this question, we need to check in with four experts. The first is ‘Rich Hillary Clinton.’ Rich Hillary Clinton, who has been paid more for an hour-long speech than the average median ANNUAL earnings of four American families combined, has stated about her massive wealth, “We pay ordinary income tax, unlike a lot of people who are truly well off, not to name names; and we’ve done it through a dint of hard work.”

Clearly, Rich Hillary Clinton understands that hard work can lead to a prosperous future for those willing to put in the sweat equity, despite the fact that the Clintons consider speaking engagements “hard work” (full disclosure, I have been paid to speak at events and do not consider it “hard work”). Rich Hillary Clinton also believes that she pays her “fair share” of taxes “unlike a lot of other people who are truly well off.”

Rich Hillary Clinton says this despite the fact that, according to Bloomberg News:

Bill and Hillary Clinton have long supported an estate tax to prevent the U.S. from being dominated by inherited wealth. That doesn’t mean they want to pay it. To reduce the tax pinch, the Clintons are using financial planning strategies befitting the top 1 percent of U.S. households in wealth. These moves, common among multimillionaires, will help shield some of their estate from the tax that now tops out at 40 percent of assets upon death.

Countering the assertion that Rich Hillary Clinton is in fact rich is another expert on this topic: Poor Hillary Clinton. Poor Hillary Clinton has stated this about her financial status:

We came out of the White House not only dead broke but in debt.” Poor Hillary Clinton also stated, “We had no money when we got there and we struggled to, you know, piece together the resources for mortgages for houses, for Chelsea’s education, you know, it was not easy.

America should cry for Poor Hillary Clinton. After all, how can we be expected to ignore the desperate pleas for help from a family worth a measly hundred million dollars? I’m wondering if conservatives should band together to create a foundation called the Clinton Foundation to donate to the plight of this struggling American family.

For those still confused about who is in fact considered wealthy and who is not after the Rich Hillary Clinton versus Poor Hillary Clinton debate, our second series of experts on American wealth should be consulted. Rich Alcee Hastings from Florida’s 20th Congressional District earns more in one year than the median income of three average American families combined. Rich Alcee Hastings is so confident about his wealth, and his congressional salary which places him near the top 10% of income earners in the United States, that he feels anyone earning this outrageous sum should pay even more than they do now. In an April 2014 press release, Rich Alcee Hastings stated:

We could end special tax breaks and close tax loopholes available only to the wealthiest Americans. This alone could get us $1 trillion over the next ten years. We could also stop the wealthiest among us from using overseas tax havens to avoid paying their fair share. Along these same lines, let us rid our tax code of ridiculous loopholes like deductions for yachts and the loophole for corporate jets.

Rich Alcee Hastings may not be aware that the top 10% of income earners already pay close to 70% of income taxes, but we’ll forgive him for that because rich people such as him rarely know how much money is missing from their bank accounts.
Tax Share Chart

Painting a starkly different picture is Poor Alcee Hastings. Poor Alcee Hastings was recently quoted complaining about how little money he makes as a hard-working U.S. congressman. Poor Alcee Hastings said Congress is not “being paid properly” and that “Members [of Congress] deserve to be paid, staff deserves to be paid, and the cost of living here is causing serious problems for people who are not wealthy to serve in this institution.” Poor Alcee Hastings has a point here, which Rich Alcee Hastings should consider when deciding who is wealthy and who is not: cost of living and business expenses matter to many Americans who appear wealthy on paper.

Conservatives fight for lower tax rates because, although we understand the importance of taxes to fund the constitutional role of government, we don’t want to pay any more than necessary.

Ok, enough with the satire.

I wrote this piece because sometimes humor is the only way to effectively combat the far Left and its stunning hypocrisy. The hard Left debates themselves with contradictory statements about important issues such as the value of work, fair-share tax rates, income inequality, wealth, the cost of living, and more – all while lecturing us like schoolchildren.

There’s no hypocrisy in basic conservative principles, and that’s why in a world occupied by fallible human beings the default position should be the one that doesn’t contradict itself. Conservatives fight for lower tax rates because, although we understand the importance of taxes to fund the constitutional role of government, we don’t want to pay any more than necessary. Conservatives fight for personal control of healthcare choices because that’s what we want for ourselves. And, we fight for educational choices because that’s what we want for our children. This upcoming presidential election is too important to forfeit because we’re afraid of a good fight. Now is the time to boldly defend conservative principles and shed light on the fact that the hard Left’s “principles” are really nothing more than talking points.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the Conservative Review. The featured image is by Elise Amendola | AP Photo. Reprinted with permission.

CLICHÉS OF PROGRESSIVISM #40 — “The Rich Are Getting Richer and the Poor Are Getting Poorer”

Imagine you could go back in time 50 years. Suppose the reason you are doing so is to put policies into place that would ensure that the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. (Why anyone would want to do this is beside the point, but stay with me.) What policies would you set?

  1. You would want to price poor, unskilled people out of the labor market with an ever-increasing minimum wage;
  2. You would provide special favors, artificial competitive advantages, and taxpayer subsidies to the politically well-connected (i.e., those already rich);
  3. You would stifle new, small businesses with stacks of regulations and bureaucratic paperwork;
  4. You would (literally) pay people to stay in poverty, to be dependent on government, so that any work ethic would be suppressed and eroded.
  5. You would implement an erratic and largely inflationary monetary policy that erodes savings and creates destructive booms and busts.

All five of these in combination might do the trick. Throw up barriers to the progress of the poor, or pay people to stay poor, or rig the system so the rich and politically well-connected get artificial economic advantages and chances are, the poor will indeed get poorer and the rich will get richer.

By now you have probably noticed that every one of the policies above has been implemented to varying degrees since the Great Society. And yet the poor have still not gotten poorer in the United States.

According to professional skeptic Michael Shermer:

The top-fifth income earners in the U.S. increased their share of the national income from 43 percent in 1979 to 48 percent in 2010, and the top 1 percent increased their share of the pie from 8 percent in 1979 to 13 percent in 2010. But note what has not happened: the rest have not gotten poorer. They’ve gotten richer: the income of the other quintiles increased by 49, 37, 36 and 45 percent, respectively.

Detractors will try to argue that the poorest quintiles have a smaller percentage of the overall pie. And that might be true, but the pie is much, much bigger. Would you rather have 50 percent of a million or 20 percent of a billion? Another way of putting this is: Would you rather be better off, even if that meant certain people were super well off? Or would you rather everyone were worse off, as long as everyone were relatively equal?

That the poorest among us are still, on balance, doing better today than they were 50 years ago is a remarkable testimony to what relatively free people and markets can do, even as governments put up roadblocks. So if the poor aren’t getting poorer, why do people say they are?

If one starts with the assumption that an equal distribution of wealth is the ultimate goal, then he or she is not terribly concerned with how much of that wealth is created to begin with. But some people, at least, understand that wealth has to be created and that when there is more wealth created the poorest among us will tend to be better off. The choice of starting points boils down then to whether one cares about distributing wealth evenly or growing overall wealth through productive activity.

One reason this particular cliché manages to hang around is that people generally take a static view of the economy. The idea is that wealth is like a giant pie, which neither grows nor shrinks, but gets carved up and distributed certain ways. So, some people end up with the false idea that the only way the rich can be richer is if part of the wealth pie is taken from the poor. From this they conclude justice demands a different distribution of the pie. Advocates of “meritocracy” believe the static pie should be divided according to talent and hard work. Advocates of “social justice” think the pie should be divided according to some concept of equality. Both are wrong, but the fundamental error is in thinking that wealth is a static pie to start with. It is not.

Wealth can better be imagined as a growing pie, or better, a growing ecosystem. Of course, wealth doesn’t always grow, but it tends to—as long as people have the incentives to be productive. Merit and hard work tend to be rewarded in this growing pie, but rewards more generally accrue to those who create value for others.

In other words, someone who works really hard might not be rewarded if no one finds his work valuable—say, a man who digs ditches and fills them up again. Likewise, work that might be considered meritorious in an obscure academic journal might not confer any earthly good on humanity outside of the journals’ four-person review committee.

Advocates of so-called social justice want the wealth pie to be divided according to an arbitrary and subjective abstraction like “fairness” or equal outcomes. But carving up wealth according to some nebulous concept of justice ignores the actual ecosystem in which people operate. In other words, such a concept ignores the behaviors, incentives and exchanges that encourage people to be productive—i.e. to generate wealth. By distributing from rich to poor, you end up paying poorer people to be less productive, while punishing more productive people. The distribution that would flow from people making more goods and services available to all is lost by degree, making everyone worse off. If taxation and redistribution for the sake of equal outcomes makes us all worse off than we would otherwise have been, how is this social justice?

Egalitarian concepts of social justice also ignore any moral considerations that might attach to how an unequal distribution might have come about. If growing overall wealth is about people creating different degrees of value for each other, and taking different risks, then the rewards of value creation will never flow equally. Some people will make more money than others, for example, whether it’s because they were smarter investors, cleverer innovators, or better organizers. The rest of us enjoy the fruits of those efforts, so we might want successful people to keep investing, innovating and organizing — even if that means they get richer. And we might want to acknowledge that they deserve what they have.

(Editor’s Note: Economist Thomas Sowell has said, “Since this is an era when many people are concerned about ‘fairness’ and ‘social justice,’ what is your ‘fair share’ of what someone else has worked for?” I often ask this question of a redistributionist in the presence of another person and ask the former to specifically tell me how much is his ‘fair share’ of what the other person in our presence has earned. I’m still waiting for a satisfactory answer.)

Those of us who are not as productive (or, politically well-connected, as the case may be) still enjoy remarkable abundance in relatively free societies. In the United States, for example, all quintiles have become wealthier overall, over the last 30 years.

It is also true that there are fewer desperately poor people around the world. In only 20 years, extreme global poverty has been cut in half.  That is a remarkable achievement—one that is attributable to policies of liberalization (freer markets) around the world, which progressive activists and egalitarians decry. In other words, those who say the poor are getting poorer are simply wrong. And there are hundreds of millions of people thriving today who can talk about how much better things have gotten.

Summary

  • Progressives should be honest and admit that the anti-free market policies they’ve promoted and achieved in the last half-century have disadvantaged the poor and conferred favors upon the rich and politically well-connected.
  • Amazingly, in spite of those policies, the poor overall are still better off than they were 50 years ago. Imagine the progress that might have happened had these policies not been in place!
  • Redistributing wealth is just slicing the pie differently, at the risk of shrinking the pie. It’s a static view of wealth, one that’s greatly inferior to a view of baking a bigger pie for everybody.

For further information, see:

How the World is Getting Better” by Phil Harvey

The World is Getting Better” by Sam Harris

The Free Market: Lifting All Boats” by Don Mathews

Dear Ultra-Rich Man” by Max Borders

Free the Poor” by Julian Adorney

The Quackery of Equality” by Lawrence W. Reed

If you wish to republish this article, please write editor@fee.org.

ABOUT MAX BORDERS

Max Borders is the editor of The Freeman and director of content for FEE. He is also cofounder of the event experience Voice & Exit and author of Superwealth: Why we should stop worrying about the gap between rich and poor.

(Editor’s Note: The author is director of content at the Foundation for Economic Education and editor of its journal, The Freeman.)

Cliches of Progressivism: Rich People Have an Obligation to Give Back by Lawrence W. Reed

For a society that has fed, clothed, housed, cared for, informed, entertained, and otherwise enriched more people at higher levels than any in the history of the planet, there sure is a lot of groundless guilt in America.

Manifestations of that guilt abound. The example that peeves me the most is the one we often hear from well-meaning philanthropists who adorn their charitable giving with this little chestnut: “I want to give something back.” It always sounds as though they’re apologizing for having been successful.

Translated, that statement means something like this: “I’ve accumulated some wealth over the years. Never mind how I did it, I just feel guilty for having done it. There’s something wrong with my having more than somebody else, but don’t ask me to explain how or why because it’s just a fuzzy, uneasy feeling on my part. Because I have something, I feel obligated to have less of it. It makes me feel good to give it away because doing so expunges me of the sin of having it in the first place. Now I’m a good guy, am I not?”

It was apparent to me how deeply ingrained this mindset has become when I visited the gravesite of John D. Rockefeller at Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland a couple years ago. The wording on a nearby plaque commemorating the life of this remarkable entrepreneur implied that giving much of his fortune away was as worthy an achievement as building the great international enterprise, Standard Oil, that produced it in the first place. The history books most kids learn from these days go a step further. They routinely criticize people like Rockefeller for the wealth they created and for the profit motive, or self-interest, that played a part in their creating it, while lauding them for relieving themselves of the money.

More than once, philanthropists have bestowed contributions on my organization and explained they were “giving something back.” They meant that by giving to us, they were paying some debt to society at large. It turns out that, with few exceptions, these philanthropists really had not done anything wrong.

They made money in their lives, to be sure, but they didn’t steal it. They took risks they didn’t have to. They invested their own funds, or what they first borrowed and later paid back with interest. They created jobs, paid market wages to willing workers, and thereby generated livelihoods for thousands of families. They invented things that didn’t exist before, some of which saved lives and made us healthier. They manufactured products and provided services, for which they asked and received market prices.

They had willing and eager customers who came back for more again and again. They had stockholders to whom they had to offer favorable returns. They also had competitors and had to stay on top of things or lose out to them. They didn’t use force to get where they got; they relied on free exchange and voluntary contract. They paid their bills and debts in full. And every year they donated some of their profits to lots of community charities that no law required them to support. Not a one of them that I know ever did any jail time for anything.

So how is it that anybody can add all that up and still feel guilty? I suspect that if they are genuinely guilty of anything, it’s allowing themselves to be intimidated by the losers and the envious of the world, the people who are in the redistribution business either because they don’t know how to create anything or because they simply choose the easy way out. They just take what they want or hire politicians to take it for them.

Or like a few in the clergy who think that wealth is not made but simply “collected,” the redistributionists lay a guilt trip on people until they disgorge their lucre—notwithstanding the Tenth Commandment against coveting. Certainly, people of faith have an obligation to support their church, mosque, or synagogue, but that’s another matter and not at issue here.

A person who breaches a contract owes something, but it’s to the specific party on the other side of the deal. Steal someone else’s property and you owe it to the person you stole it from, not society, to give it back. Those obligations are real and they stem from a voluntary agreement in the first instance or from an immoral act of theft in the second. This business of “giving something back” simply because you earned it amounts to manufacturing mystical obligations where none exist. It turns the whole concept of “debt” on its head. To give it “back” means it wasn’t yours in the first place, but the creation of wealth through private initiative and voluntary exchange does not involve the expropriation of anyone’s rightful property.

How can it possibly be otherwise? By what rational measure does a successful person in a free market, who has made good on all his debts and obligations in the traditional sense, owe something further to a nebulous entity called “society”? If Entrepreneur X earns $1 billion and Entrepreneur Y earns $2 billion, would it make sense to say that Y should “give back” twice as much as X? And if so, who should decide to whom he owes it? Clearly, the whole notion of “giving something back” just because you have it is built on intellectual quicksand.

Successful people who earn their wealth through free and peaceful exchange may choose to give some of it away, but they’d be no less moral and no less debt-free if they gave away nothing. It cheapens the powerful charitable impulse that all but a few people possess to suggest that charity is equivalent to debt service or that it should be motivated by any degree of guilt or self-flagellation.

A partial list of those who honestly do have an obligation to give something back would include bank robbers, shoplifters, scam artists, deadbeats, and politicians who “bring home the bacon.” They have good reason to feel guilt, because they’re guilty.

But if you are an exemplar of the free and entrepreneurial society, one who has truly earned and husbanded what you have and one who has done nothing to injure the lives, property, or rights of others, you are a different breed altogether. When you give, you should do so because of the personal satisfaction you derive from supporting worthy causes, not because you need to salve a guilty conscience.

Lawrence W. Reed
President
Foundation for Economic Education

Summary

  • The innocent-sounding phrase, “I want to give back,” far too often implies guilt for having been productive or successful.
  • If you earned your wealth through free and voluntary exchange, don’t let others get away with making you feel guilty just because you have it.
  • The people who really should “give it back” are those to whom it doesn’t belong or who took it from others in the first place.
  • For further information, see:

“On Giving Back” by George C. Leef: http://tinyurl.com/lqd3lo6

“Give Up on Giving Back?” by Sandy Ikeda: http://tinyurl.com/or7jhh3

“Giving Back” by Steven Horwitz: http://tinyurl.com/pwqjqzw

20130918_larryreedauthorABOUT LAWRENCE W. REED

Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s. Prior to becoming FEE’s president, he served for 20 years as president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Michigan. He also taught economics full-time from 1977 to 1984 at Northwood University in Michigan and chaired its department of economics from 1982 to 1984.

EDITORS NOTE: Versions of this essay have previously appeared in FEE’s journal, The Freeman, under the title, “Who Owes What to Whom?”

The Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) is proud to partner with Young America’s Foundation (YAF) to produce “Clichés of Progressivism,” a series of insightful commentaries covering topics of free enterprise, income inequality, and limited government.

Our society is inundated with half-truths and misconceptions about the economy in general and free enterprise in particular. The “Clichés of Progressivism” series is meant to equip students with the arguments necessary to inform debate and correct the record where bias and errors abound.

The antecedents to this collection are two classic FEE publications that YAF helped distribute in the past: Clichés of Politics, published in 1994, and the more influential Clichés of Socialism, which made its first appearance in 1962. Indeed, this new collection will contain a number of essays from those two earlier works, updated for the present day where necessary. Other entries first appeared in some version in FEE’s journal, The Freeman. Still others are brand new, never having appeared in print anywhere. They will be published weekly on the websites of both YAF and FEE: www.yaf.org and www.FEE.org until the series runs its course. A book will then be released in 2015 featuring the best of the essays, and will be widely distributed in schools and on college campuses.

See the index of the published chapters here.