Sunday, February 10, 2008

How Unequal Are We?

. Sunday, February 10, 2008

"The bottom fifth [of Americans} earned just $9,974 [in 2006], but spent nearly twice that — an average of $18,153 a year." How is that possible? " So begins a fascinating Op-Ed in today's New York Times written by two Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas economists. The editorial's broader purpose is to offer an alternative measure of economic inequality in contemporary America.

The punch line is simple: measuring household income yields a 15:1 ratio between the highest and lowest fifths of the income distribution. This gap income lies at the base of most hand-wringing over globalization. Yet, if one measures household consumption expenditures instead of income, the ratio between the richest and poorest fifths falls to 4 to 1. Measured at the individual (rather than the household) level, the ratio falls further to only 2.1 to 1 (wealthier households have more people than poorer households). Thus, the extent of inequality we observe is sensitive to how we measure it.

I don't know if they are right when they assert that consumption expenditures provide a better measure of inequality than income. What I do know, however, is that different measures of the same concept can generate very different conclusions. As we often base policy on what we believe is happening, it might prove useful to examine multiple measures before deciding on a change in policy.

Update: Krugman posts on this article. He thinks it's inaccurate: "So my basic reaction to the piece was, there they go again. There’s some truth in what they say, but no news."


How Unequal Are We?
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