Lies, damned lies, and electioneering statistics: wealth is just accumulating at the top


In my last blog, I lamented the rise of questionable facts in the election campaign, as politicians bid for votes. I used the claim that there is a “tide of privatisation in our NHS” as case study. I now examine the claim that “The last four decades have seen wealth accumulate at the top of society while those at the bottom struggle to get by." The rich are getting richer, but so are the poor

The world is getting better. Just look at three of the key UN measures of poverty and living standards.

  • Since 1990 extreme poverty (measured as living on less than $1.25) has more than halved.
  • Since 1990 the proportion of people without drinking water has also more than halved.
  • Since 1990 child mortality (deaths under the age of 5 per 1000 live births) has – you guessed it - more than halved.

For more on our better world, read Matt Ridley’s classic The Rational Optimist.

What about poverty in Britain? It’s getting better too.

Since 1977 disposable income for the poorest fifth of households in Britain has nearly doubled (even after taking account of inflation and changes in household structures). With the recent turnaround in the economy, and greater incentives to work from welfare reform, the employment rate and average income of the bottom fifth should continue to rise.


Even measures of inequality have been relatively stable since the late 80s.


Income stats hide services the poor can consume from the state

Income statistics only tell some of the story though. The poor are better off than is initially claimed. Firstly, these income statistics and most others, focus on disposable income. They don’t take into account the wide range of services that the poor consume from the state, free at the point of use.

Income statistics are a static snapshot, they don’t capture generational gains

Secondly, income statistics don’t capture individual progress across generations. The young are poor, indebted and have no assets. The middle aged at the peak of their careers are richer, have paid debts off, own property and have made some savings towards retirement. The young will all one day become old and with time, have opportunities to better their lot.

Income statistics don’t reflect the benefits of innovation

Finally, income and wealth don’t reflect the great technological advances of the last four decades. People in Britain are vastly better off today thanks to innovation, particularly driven by the private sector. The poor consume more services as the costs of the basics has fallen as a proportion of income, and have access to new services altogether.

Take computing, which has gone from a luxury good restricted to the super rich and big companies, to being accessible to all. A gigabyte of data storage cost around £200,000 in 1980. Today I was able to find storage on amazon at just 3 pence per gigabyte - cloud services will even give you a load for free. In 1980 we didn’t have mobile phones, today there are 1.3 per person in the UK and 86% of people use the internet. The pace of technology adoption is speeding up too.

An honest debate would reflect on our success and focus on creating more opportunities

Economic Nonsense: 44. Big business thrives on poor country sweatshops and child labour


In undeveloped countries people struggle to survive in agricultural economies.  Life is characterized by dawn to dusk heavy labour, even for children, and the rewards are meagre.  Diet is poor and the risk of starvation or at least malnourishment is prevalent.  

In the early years of Britain's industrial revolution, conditions were poor.  Workers toiled for long hours amid safety standards that were often low.  There were sweatshops, and children worked in factories and mines.  This represented an early stage in economic development.  It was a considerable step up from life on farms, where conditions had been worse.  As capital grew, so did the machines that increased productivity and enabled labour conditions to be improved, and for women to leave sweatshops and children to leave the labour force.  It was wealth that made this possible.

Today in developing economies things are made cheaply in crowded working conditions with safety standards considerably below those in the developed world.  Although most countries have rules against it, there are undoubtedly children at work in several of them.  This, too, represents an improvement on the conditions found in the countryside.  The wages paid in sweatshops, well below those in the West, are far above those afforded by the agrarian economy.  Sweatshop workers enjoy higher living standards than their counterparts outside, and put their families' and relatives' names on the waiting list for any vacancies that occur.

This is not "big business" grinding the poor.  It represents a country's labour force reaching up to improve its lot by earning wages not possible elsewhere.  Globalization has made this possible, bringing many of the world's poorest people into the world market.  The goods made cheaply in poorer countries sell to richer ones, providing an inflow of cash to boost the poor country's economy.  This is how China and India have achieved growth rates that have lifted over a billion people out of dire poverty.

As the UK became richer, it was able to improve working conditions and pay, and to eliminate sweatshops and child labour.  The same will be true of today's developing countries.  Many of them are already doing so.  The faster they become wealthy, the sooner this will happen.  The way to speed it up is for rich countries to open their markets and buy as much as they can from poorer ones.

Economic Nonsense: 40. Too much wealth is owned by too few people


Underlying the claim is an assumed egalitarianism.  How much is "too much" and how few is "too few?"  Obviously those making the criticism have some concept in their minds of how they would like to see wealth distributed in society, and it seems they would prefer a more equal distribution than is currently the case.  The obvious question is "Why?"  The answer often given is that this would be 'fairer', but since they seem to define 'fairer' as 'more equal', this is not very helpful.

It does not help, either, that many of these measures of inequality only count certain forms of wealth.  Many people in the UK see equity in housing as their main source of wealth.  For some it is pensions.  Many assessments of wealth distribution, on the other hand, only count assets and investments, and thus miss much of the wealth owned by ordinary people.  Few if any seem to count entitlements to such things as health and education as part of measured wealth, even though they undoubtedly improve the living standards of the average citizen.

It could be argued that societies with an unequal distribution of wealth are able to increase wealth faster, and that poorer people in those societies become richer more rapidly than those living in more equal societies.  To poorer people it matters that they are able to command more resources.  It matters less to them that software multi-billionaires have widened the gap between them and made society less equal.  

Part of the reason this criticism persists is envy, the resentment that some have more, yet aspiration is often motivated by the observation that some have it better.  The success of others can inspire the desire to emulate instead of simply envying.

The false zero sum game probably plays a role in this criticism, the notion that because some own so much, the rest must make do with less.  In fact wealth in constantly being created, and creating wealth is a far surer route out of poverty than redistribution.  Instead of envying those richer than themselves, people would be better advised to try to copy them.

Economic Nonsense: 34. Governments have a duty to extend equality in wealth and income


Governments in democratic societies are elected to serve their citizens, not to impose some ideological view of what they would prefer society to look like.  If they do try to pursue equality in wealth and income they will almost certainly reduce both.  While there are some who would prefer a society that was more equal rather than one in which everyone became wealthier, this is unlikely to become a popular view.  Becoming richer is something that matters much more to poor people than to rich people.

People are different and they have different goals in life.  Some are born more talented, and some put in the effort and the time it takes for them to become so.  Some people have more economic value than others, though this is not to say they have more moral worth.  People will pay money to see a talented celebrity or sportsman perform, and those individuals can become richer in consequence.  To equalize incomes is to prevent this happening.  Since higher earnings make possible higher savings and greater wealth, to equalize wealth is to prevent people from accumulating the proceeds of their talents.

Most people would prefer society to make provision for the unfortunate or destitute, but this means ensuring they have a decent standard of living, not making them equal in wealth and income with richer people.  Governments that strive for equality can only do so at the expense of liberty, by preventing the free choices and exchanges that people would otherwise make.

Egalitarians have tried to redefine poverty as a percentage of average income, but this is not what it is.  Poverty does not mean inequality, it means not having enough resources to get by and to live a decent life.  Many would rate opportunity above equality, thinking it more important that people should have the chance to develop their talents and abilities and to raise their standard of living.  Many would prefer governments to help make this possible, rather than attempting to equalize wealth and income.

Economic Nonsense: 6. The rich are growing richer, the poor poorer and the gap is widening


Sometimes this is asserted on a world scale, and sometimes claimed to be true within individual countries.  Not only is this nonsense; it is also false.  The rich have indeed grown richer, and the poor have also grown richer.  It matters more to poor people.  Extra wealth to the rich might mean more luxuries; to the poor it can mean the difference between starvation and survival. The last few decades have witnessed the greatest advance in living standards for the world's poor than ever before in human history.  More than a billion people have been lifted above subsistence.  The poor have not become poorer, they have become richer to a spectacular degree.  India and Chine have made astonishing advances, but it has not been confined to them; other countries have seen their poor become wealthier, and it is still happening.

Within rich countries the poor have become richer.  The yardstick that matters is the one that tells us how much they can buy.  In terms of the hours of work needed to buy goods, they are much better off than they were decades ago.  In some cases what used to take weeks of work to buy now takes less than a day.

Those who make this false claim are concerned with equality rather than wealth.  If the poor gain wealth, but the rich gain more, then under their perverse way of regarding things, they regard the poor as having become poorer.  If achieving twice the spending power is called "becoming poorer," then words have lost their meaning.

On a world scale decades ago there were a handful of rich countries with the rest dirt poor.  Since then many poorer countries have climbed the ladder to wealth, and others are doing so.  Globalization and the spread of market economics have brought an explosion of wealth that has been widespread and beneficial, and promises to continue being so.

To be serious about inequality for a moment


The Office of National Statistics has just released figures on incomes in the UK. Giving us that interesting little chart above. Do note that that is income of those who are in the tax system. And also that it does not include the impact of the benefits system. So this doesn't include subsidy to housing or anything like that. And then have a look at the global rich list. Where you can plug in an income and the country to which it refers and see where that income in that country puts you on that global rich list. The reason you must add the source country is because they are calculating using PPP adjusted currency rates. That is, they're taking account of how much things cost in each country. So this isn't really a comparison of incomes, it's a comparison of living standards.

And here's the astonishing thing. That bottom 1% lifestyle in the UK is still among the top 20% globally. The UK minimum wage puts you well into the top 10% (almost top 5% in fact). And a little over median wage puts you into the global top 1%.

To repeat, this is not assuming that things are cheaper in other countries. This is after we convert to the prices you're paying at Morrisons.

We've nothing at all against those who would campaign about either poverty or inequality. But we would like to take this little opportunity to remind all that by any historical or global standard we here in the UK, yes even the relatively poor by local standards, are living pretty high on that income scale. And that feeds in to what we think is the important point about what we might want to do about inequality or poverty. Let's concentrate on that global picture, not gaze at our own navels. Encouraging poor country growth wit the aim of abolishing absolute poverty seems to be so much more productive to us than worrying about whatever gap there might be between the top 20%, top 10% and top 1% of the global income distribution.

The amusement of Oxfam's wealth report


Oxfam is one of those groups jetting off to Davos this week to talk about how to set the world to rights. And they're doing so by going to sit among the plutocrats and telling everyone that it's the very plutocrats that are the problem. The top 80 people have more wealth than the bottom 50%, this is appalling and so on. You can see the report here.

Wealth: Having it all and wanting more, a research paper published today by Oxfam, shows that the richest 1 per cent have seen their share of global wealth increase from 44 per cent in 2009 to 48 per cent in 2014 and at this rate will be more than 50 per cent in 2016. Members of this global elite had an average wealth of $2.7m per adult in 2014.

Of the remaining 52 per cent of global wealth, almost all (46 per cent) is owned by the rest of the richest fifth of the world's population. The other 80 per cent share just 5.5 per cent and had an average wealth of $3,851 per adult - that's 1/700th of the average wealth of the 1 per cent.

Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of Oxfam International, said: "Do we really want to live in a world where the one per cent own more than the rest of us combined? The scale of global inequality is quite simply staggering and despite the issues shooting up the global agenda, the gap between the richest and the rest is widening fast.

Winnie needs to get out more. As Saez, Zucman and Piketty have been explaining to us all this is just how wealth distributions work. The bottom 50% always have less than 10%.

Fraser Nelson is very good here. This global capitalism stuff has been reducing poverty like billyo these past few decades. And for a charity like Oxfam, nominally focused upon poverty, we might think that's a good thing. But they seem to have changed their minds a bit.

But for one elegant point about this brouhaha have a look at Figure 1 on page 2 of that very Oxfam report. Their actual complaint is that global wealth inequality is climbing back to, but is still under, the level reached in 2000 and 2001. This isn't unprecedented, it's not staggering and it's not even unusual. Wealth inequality is actually lower than it was 15 years ago.

This On Rock Or Sand book will be a bit of a disappointment


I'll not argue theology with the Archbishop of York, coming originally as I do from the tran- not con-substantiation side of the argument. But when said Archbish strays over into Adam Smith and economics I'm afraid that it really is incumbent upon both I and us to point out to him the errors of his ways. There's to be a new book out, On Rock Or Sand, telling us all what's wrong with our country. And as far as theology goes well, theologians sound like the right sort of people to be telling us all about it. However, it would be helpful if, when those same theologians decide to tell us about economics, they have some clue as to the basics of the subject. This illustrates the problem nicely:

The book characterises the welfare state as the embodiment of the Christian command to “love thy neighbour” and warns that people should not rely on what the founding father of free-market capitalism Adam Smith called the “invisible hand” of the market to create a fair society.

Smith never said anything so drivellingly stupid. The one reference in Wealth of Nations to "invisible hand" is during a discussion of the general propensity to invest capital at home rather than abroad. The modern day usefulness of this being that, even in a world of perfect theoretical capital mobility, some incidence of a corporate profits tax will always fall on shareholders. This is something that is useful to know but it's going to be a very minor footnote in the recipe for a just society.

Which is why, of course, Wealth of Nations and Theory of Moral Sentiments are such agonisingly long books. For they're largely an exploration of when markets cannot be left safely to handle the creation of a just and or efficient society. Which is something we would hope someone desiring to comment upon them would know.

For example:

Dr Sentamu adds that a post-war vision through which the welfare state and NHS developed has “given way to an individualist and consumerist vision, with public goods such as health … and education … increasingly becoming privatised, where society has become a market society, with everything going to the highest bidder and the poor being left behind in the unceasing drive to increase the nation’s Gross Domestic Product.”

Smith discusses the very point of non-market access to education. And backs it, at least at the basic level. On the grounds (not that the phrase existed then) that being part of a generally literate and numerate society was indeed a public good. And we can go on, using the same logical structure, and argue that much of traditional public health is similarly a public good. Sewage, drains, the control of infectious diseases, the effects of vaccination, yes, these are indeed public goods. But the treatment of your or my cancer might well be good for the public, good public policy, publicly good even, but it's not a public good. As your or my university degrees are not a public good.

What really annoys is that Christian churchmen will be the first to agree that thousands of very bright people have chewed over the intricacies of theological debate for millennia. Even, that as a result some truths have been uncovered. And yet when it comes to economics they're unwilling to similarly agree that some thousands of very bright people have chewed over the subject for some centuries now and have uncovered some truths. Or if they are willing to accept that in theory they've apparently not bothered to find out what those truths are.

I've no idea as to whether tran- or con-substantiation is actually correct. And I'm also not all that interested to be frank about it. But I would make the effort to understand it all before pronouncing upon the matter. We'd all rather wish the Archbishop would make the same effort when he steps outside his own specialist knowledge base, eh?

The UK just isn't as unequal as people seem to think


We've often said around here that the national inequality figures overstate the actual amount of inequality that there is in the UK. Yes, there's very definitely regional inequality in incomes. But there's also significant regional inequality in the cost of living. Not all that surprisingly (with the exception of parts of the SW) the higher living costs (most especially housing) are also where the higher incomes are. The UK is very much more unequal in such regional terms than most other countries simply as a consequence of London's domination of the economy. What that in turn means is that consumption inequality, the only form of inequality that we could possibly really worry about, is a lot smaller than the income inequality that we all normally measure.

And from the Taxpayers' Alliance recent report, this little snippet:

The analysis showed a geographical divide in taxpayers and benefits recipients. Households in the East Midlands and London, as well as the south east, east and south west of England paid more in taxes than they received in benefits. All the other regions received more in benefits than they paid in taxes.

Households in the North East of England received an average of £3,175 more in benefits and benefits in kind than they paid in taxes, whereas in London households paid £4,119 more in taxes than they received.

The tax and benefit system also reduces that regional inequality even further.

We're really not as unequal as everyone likes to say that we are.

On the subject of poverty porn


We here at the ASI thoroughly support the idea of food banks. Who wouldn't support the idea of voluntary cooperation to feed the hungry? Even, of a private sector organisation that was able to fill in for the malevolence and or incompetence of the State? However, that's not to say that we need go overboard and swallow uncritically everything we're being told by the poverty porn campaigners. To take just one example, this piece in The Independent.

 Christmas shoppers are expected spend £1.2bn today, as 13 million consumers hand over £21m every minute. But while those who can afford it stock up in the desperate rush for gifts on “Panic Saturday”, another 13 million people will have more sobering reasons to worry – living in poverty in a festive Britain characterised as “two nations” divided.

That 13 million living in poverty. It's a highly arguable number. Depends on what your definition of poverty is and how you're calculating it. And the way that it is calculated is that it's a measure of inequality, not of poverty. It is less than 60% of median income adjusted for household size either before or after housing costs. To get that 13 million figure it is after housing costs. If before, it is rather lower:

The number of people in the UK living in poverty fell by 100,000 in the past year to 9.7 million, according to official figures.

The data suggests the percentage of those in poverty is at its lowest level since the 1980s.

Poverty is defined in this context as when households have an income before housing costs below 60% of the median.

Note that this is still not a measure of poverty. It is a measure of the income distribution perhaps, of inequality, but not of actual poverty.

Fortunately we do also have a measurement of poverty, of actual material deprivation:

Trends in combined low income and material deprivation and severe poverty: New material deprivation items were introduced in 2010/11. The proportion of children living in low income (below 70 per cent of equivalised median household income, BHC) and material deprivation and severe poverty (below 50 per cent of median household income and in material deprivation) for 2011/12 has fallen to 12 per cent and 3 per cent respectively in 2011/12, representing a 1 percentage point fall for both measures compared to 2010/1122. As the proportion of households with children falling below the 70 per cent and 50 per cent low-income thresholds remained the same in 2011/12 compared to 2010/11, this fall was primarily driven by a decrease in the proportion of families experiencing material deprivation.

That is, whatever it is that is being done about poverty is reducing it by the measure that most of us would use in a colloquial sense. Material deprivation is falling. This might even be at the cost of more inequality in the use of those relative numbers. Possible causes there are reductions in general benefits and the targeting of that benefit and or tax system at the truly poor rather than simply at those just under 60% of median. Which, if reducing poverty is your goal seems like a pretty reasonable idea to us really.

What has really happened here is that in the past few decades the institutional definition of poverty has changed. Beveridge was not worrying about whether families had 50% or 60% of what everyone else had. He was worrying about whether there was dripping on the bread for tea. As that problem largely became solved the definition was shifted so that we are all urged now, in the official figures, to worry about inequality, not that actual poverty that so effectively tugs at our heartstrings.

Essentially, as the problem was solved the definition was changed so that there would still be something to berate us all with.

There are, of course, other inconsistencies in the numbers being thrown about:

The Trussell Trust warned it is expecting its busiest Christmas ever in providing emergency rations – with one million people now relying on food banks run by the charity and other organisations.

That's not so either. The general meaning, the colloquial takeaway from that, is that 1 million people are dependent all of the time on those food banks. Not so at all. The actual number is that over the past year 1 million people or so have been served by a food bank once or more times (and generally the limit is three days food in one visit and only three visits allowed). That gives us 8,200 people actually relying upon a food bank on any one day.

Yes, we can still say that that's too many people, we can still say that we're delighted that people give up their own time and money to fill in for the inefficiencies of the State. But it is a rather different picture of the scale of the problem being solved, isn't it?

As 2014 draws to a close there are 13 million people in poverty – including 27 per cent of the 2.5 million children in the UK, according to the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG).

Again this is inequality of income, this is the below 60% of median equivalised household income. This is not poverty nor is it material deprivation.

Inequality in the UK is now so extreme that the five richest families are wealthier than the bottom 20 per cent of the entire population, according to Oxfam.

Of course. This happens with absolutely every conceivable wealth distribution. For it is entirely possible to have negative wealth (in a manner that we do not record negative incomes). That newly minted Oxbridge graduate about to start earning £100k a year in the City is recorded as having negative wealth as a result of student loans. The truth is that if you've got a £10 note and no debts then you are richer than all of the bottom 20% households in the wealth distribution. No, not just richer than each one of them, richer than all of them in aggregate.

Meanwhile, the housing charity Shelter predicts that 93,000 children will be homeless this Christmas, as the number of homeless families trapped in temporary or emergency accommodation exceeds 60,000.

Interesting how that number is made up don't you think? As a society we provide temporary and emergency housing for those that need it. When we do so they are still classed as being homeless. This does have an inevitable effect: the crisis never goes away, does it?

The general numbers we get thrown at us about poverty in the UK are not actually about poverty in the general meaning of that word. They are about inequality in the distribution of income. Of course, you can worry about that inequality if you want to do so. But the reason those measurements have been changed, the reason that the "relative" so often gets dropped from "relative poverty", is because those who wish to spread this poverty porn know very well that most of us are concerned about, would happily do something about, actual poverty and as to inequality, well, there's a general reaction of "Meh".

As such we must be fed the figures about relative poverty so as to tug at our heartstrings as if it were absolute poverty, that material deprivation.

Or, the TL:DR version: they're fiddling the figures.

Finally, one further calculation. There's some 8,000 people a day receiving those food parcels. Let's say each parcel is worth perhaps £30 (we've got to use some sort of estimate after all). That's around and about a £90 million a year problem. One of the solutions proposed is that the minimum wage should be raised up to the Living Wage. That's a pay rise of £2,000 a year for 1.3 million people or so (taking only the number paid the current minimum wage, not including any effects on those between it and the Living Wage).

It's a £2.6 billion partial answer to a £90 million problem.

It might well be better to continue with the food bank solution.