from The Wall Street Journal, The Mumbo-Jumbo of ‘Middle-Class Economics’ by Alan Reynolds
Amazingly, these same statistics also show there has been no increase for the “bottom” 90% since 1968. Measured in 2013 dollars, average income of the bottom 90% was supposedly $32,730 in 1968, $32,887 in 1980, $35,326 in 2007 and $32,341 in 2013.
This is totally inconsistent with the data the Bureau of Economic Analysis uses to calculate GDP. For example, real personal consumption per person has tripled since 1968 and doubled since 1980, according to the BEA. Are all those shopping malls, big box stores, car dealers and restaurants catering to only the top 10%? The question answers itself.
Instead of the White House concoction, consider the Congressional Budget Office estimates of actual median household income. Measured in 2013 dollars, after-tax median income rose briskly from $46,998 in 1983 to $70,393 in 2008 but remained below that 2008 peak in 2011. The sizable increase before 2008 is partly because the average of all federal taxes paid by the middle fifth has almost been cut in half since 1981—from 19.2% that year to 17.7% in 1989, 16.5% in 2000, 13.6% in 2003 and 11.2% in 2011.
Census Bureau estimates of median “money income,” on the other hand, do not account for taxes, so they miss a major source of improved living standards. They also exclude realized capital gains, public and private health insurance, food stamps and other in-kind benefits. Even so, the Census Bureau’s flawed estimate of median income rose 13.7% from 1984 to 2007 before falling 8% from 2007 to 2013.
Both CBO and Census estimates show only six years of middle-class stagnation, not 40.
The Piketty and Saez data are crucially flawed. The total income reported on individual tax returns, which is the basis of their estimates, is substantially less than any official measure of total income, and the difference keeps getting wider. In their original 2003 study, Messrs. Piketty and Saez mentioned one rapidly expanding source of missing income—disappearing dividends in tax-return data. These were “due mostly to the growth of funded pension plans and retirement savings accounts through which individuals receive dividends that are never reported as dividends on income tax returns.”
The same is true of interest and capital gains accumulating inside such tax-free savings accounts. These have grown to nearly $20 trillion, according to a 2014 report by Tax Foundation economist Alan Cole.
Messrs. Piketty and Saez shrink the total income numbers further by subtracting all transfer payments, such as Social Security and unemployment benefits, and excluding all health and retirement benefits provided by private employers or government agencies. The result, as Brookings Institution’s Gary Burtless noted, is that, “The Piketty-Saez measure [of total income] excluded 24% of NIPA [National Income and Product Accounts] ‘personal income’ in 1970, but it excluded 37% of ‘personal income’ in 2008.” It excluded 40% of personal income by 2011.
People often form strong opinions on the basis of weak statistics, but this “bottom 90%” fable may be the worst example yet. The Economic Report of the President’s description of “middle-class economics” rests on a far-fetched claim that middle incomes have stagnated for four decades rather than from 2008-13—most of these years during the Obama presidency.
Income inequality is not so easy to measure, and the media does a very poor job of vetting what is used for political purposes.