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Income Inequality
Posted by: Dale Franks on Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Thomas Sowell has a few choice words about income inequality.
The media and academia are continuously obsessed with “gaps” and “disparities” in income. As one talk-show host put it, “It makes no sense” that a corporate executive makes over $50 million a year.

Ninety-nine percent of all the things that happen in this world “make no sense” to any given individual. Do you understand how your automobile’s transmission works? Could you repair it if something went wrong?

Do you understand how aspirin stops headaches? How to make yogurt?

Years ago, a famous essay pointed out that nobody knows how to make a simple lead pencil. That is, there is no single individual anywhere who knows how to grow the wood, mine the graphite, produce the rubber, and manufacture the paint.

Complex economic processes cause all these things to be done and coordinated by a wide variety of people, just in order to produce something as simple as a lead pencil. Multiply that by a hundred or a thousand when it comes to the complexity of producing a car or a computer.

If you cannot understand something as simple as making a lead pencil, why should you be surprised that you don’t understand why someone is making a lot more money than somebody else?
At the end of the day, one of the main reasons why some people make so much money and others make so little, is because those end states are the results of individual choices, perhaps even millions of them, that determine income outcomes. There's no "central wage board" that determines who gets paid what. There's no calculated rationale that some shadowy cabal uses to determine everyone's wages.

In fact, if we could distribute the nation's wealth with perfect equality, it would take less than a day for inequality to rear its ugly head, if people are free to make choices about what to do with that wealth.

For instance, let's say we have a society of 1000 people, each of whom has $100. One of the people, who is a talented musician, decides to hold a concert, and charge $10 per ticket. All of the other members of our little society decide to attend, and by the time the concert's over, our musician now has $10,090, while the other 999 people have only $90. Our musician now has 112 times the wealth of anyone else in the society.

Well, this hardly seems fair does it?

But wait, those 999 people willing gave the musician $10. The amazing inequality in wealth resulted from individuals making free choices about what to do with their own wealth.

And, yet, we're supposed to get all upset about it, because it's so unfair.
Lofty talk about “social justice” or “fairness” boils down to greatly expanded powers for politicians, since those pretty words have no concrete definition. They are a blank check for creating disparities in power that dwarf disparities in income — and are far more dangerous.
Oh, and another thing, there's inequality, and inequality. One kind of inequality is where a tiny minority of society has huge mansion, yachts, and scantily clad bikini girls pouring champagne into slippers in the back seat of limousines, while the great mass of society lives in cardboard boxes and shuffles around in dank rags while sucking on rocks to assuage their hunger. It is, however, an entirely different kind of inequality where a tiny majority has the mansions, yachts, and bikini girls, and where everyone else has a decent job, a home that comfortably houses their family, cable TV, a couple of cars, and a bass boat or RV. The former is far more conducive to social unrest than the latter.

Politicians, however, act as if both were the same, and therefore require that politicians be given extra power to "fix" the "problem". Funny how that works, isn't it?
 
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I’m sure there are a few politicians who really think it is wrong that some have more than others, and who have dedicated themselves to ’fixing’ this problem. Unfortunately, like any other true believer, they are convinced of the rightness of their position and aren’t going to listen to the likes of Sowell or anyone else (like you) who challenges their theories. In fact, that you challenge them is proof positive that you’re corrupt, stupid or evil. BTW, it’s the same thing one finds in the debate over global warming, whether to pull our troops out of Iraq, and so on... the believers in the cause know they’re right and everybody else is not only wrong, but stupid, unpatriotic, selfish, being paid off by the oil companies and/or defense contractors, etc., etc.

And the rest of the politicians who are playing the ’income inequality’ card are pushing the theme that the only reason some have more than others is because those ’with’ have somehow rigged the system and cheated those ’without’. Unfortunately, this theme resonates with a lot of people as it’s only human nature to think that those with more than you have cheated to their riches. People don’t like to think that it’s their ’fault’ they’re not making as much as their neighbor, they don’t want to admit that other people either work harder or have more talent than they have. Under this theme, the rich have cheated and lied and abused the poor workers and customers... so it’s not only right but imperative that Congress step in and take action to (1) take away these ill-gotten gains (taxes, criminalizing business practices and sending the violators to jail) and (2) make it harder for like-minded crooks to do so in the future (higher taxes, more restrictive rules, etc.). Maybe these do-gooders really believe that the only way the head of Goldman Sachs could have gotten his $40 million bonus is by lying and cheating, but my guess it that they know better but are simply playing demagogue. In either case, they too won’t listen to arguments to the contrary and, like the first group, will take your arguments as proof that you are a selfish idiot who doesn’t have the best interests of the country at heart.

Dale, how could you be so insensitive?
 
Written By: steve sturm
URL: www.thoughtsonline.blogspot.com
I am as smart as that guy! Why don’t I have a million bucks! Why doesn’t society properly value sociology majors!

Though I think you forgot one factor other than talent or hard work: luck. Luck is very important, too.
 
Written By: Harun
URL: http://
Well I’m a contrarian but I don’t understand how a CEO merits hundreds of millions in compensation. Especially as much of the compnsation has been in the form of stock incentives, incentives that the normal employee can not access, e.g., the shares are redeemed at a "special price." I won’t stand for abolishing the pay disparities but please don’t try to explain or justify such salaries. PLEASE much of Sowell wrote was tripe... so no one understands how a lead pencil is made, so that explains CEO salaries, because the economy is COMPLEX? OK, IF you can demonstrate that CEO’s have a greater grasp of this complexity. Michael Milkin made IMMENSE amounts of cash, BUT was it Milken or HIS STAFF, that generated the cash? I’m sorry it is going to take more than Sowell’s sad argument to justify their salaries.
 
Written By: Joe
URL: http://
I will probably get in trouble for this but I think the stock market itself is responsible for alot of this.Yes, it has made it so companies can compete with other nations companies which are state owned but it also makes the end product of secondary importance. The first important thing is making the paper with numbers on it look better.
 
Written By: SkyWatch
URL: http://

"Though I think you forgot one factor other than talent or hard work: luck. Luck is very important, too"

Harun, I’m of the belief that people make their own luck. If I have the skills and talents needed for a certain job, and I’ve worked hard to acquire those skills and talents, am I just lucky when I get the job? I’d say that I made my own luck, because if I didn’t have the skills, I wouldn’t even have been interviewed or considered. I’ve debated with many of my friends over this very issue. They believe that practically all good fortune is luck. Got a good job? You’re just lucky. Got money? You’re just lucky. Their theory is that if you’re successful, then you just got lucky, and if your not successful, your just unlucky. Therefore, the lucky must cough it up because if they weren’t lucky, they wouldn’t have what they have. Trying to convince them otherwise is almost futile. I don’t mean to go overboard with this train of thought, but I have heard Al Franken go on about this with his "nobody makes it on their own" stuff, and it makes my flesh crawl. It’s class warfare at it’s finest. If you don’t want to give back, then you’re just selfish and greedy.
 
Written By: autot
URL: http://
Joe:

There’s a difference between Milken and a corporate CEO. Milken basically took a cut of the profit his group produced. In theory, if Milken didn’t bring in the profits for Drexel, there wouldn’t have been a big paycheck for Milken and those on his team. I have no problem with someone taking a cut of the profits they generate. As for your question of whether it was him or his staff, in his particular case, it was his contacts and savvy (or lawbreaking) that brought in the bucks and his bosses rightly felt that they couldn’t swap someone else in to head the team without it having a negative impact on the profitability (although, ironically, had they done so, they might have preserved the firm).

Corporate CEOs, on the other hand, can draw big paychecks even if/when their companies don’t do well... and it is odd, at least to me, that they can get compensated so nicely without having to produce what they were hired to produce.

To (perhaps?) explain why this happens, let me use the analogy of professional baseball players. They get the big, long-term guaranteed contracts, with relatively little money in the form of incentive compensation (whether individual or team based). Heck, they even get paid if they hurt themselves and sit out the entire year.

And yet team owners and GMs keep shelling out the contracts, notwithstanding the evidence that laying out big buck free agent contracts doesn’t come close to guaranteeing the playoffs. They do so because (1) their competition is doing the same, making it impossible to sign a big-name player with no money down, and (2) their constituents (the ticket buying public and sportswriters who help shape public opinion) demand that they compete for what is seen as a limited supply of talent. Fans don’t buy season tickets for a team comprised of nobodies purchased on the cheap. Furthermore, A GM who doesn’t shell out the contracts has no one to blame if the team doesn’t win, while a GM who does sign big contracts can, if he cultivates the media properly, lay the blame for a bad year on the players who failed to live up to expectations.

The same holds true for ’big-time’ movie stars. While some of them get cuts of the ticket take (performance compensation), they get rather nice checks regardless of how the movie does. And producers keep signing those contracts, even though there’s plenty of evidence that paying Tom Cruise or Jim Carrey $20+ million doesn’t guarantee a profit. They do so because, as with baseball, (1)their competition is signing those contracts, making it rather difficult to land a big name star without paying the big upfront money, and (2) their backers (financier) aren’t willing to bankroll superstar-type films without a superstar.

Likewise a corporate board which doesn’t go and sign the big-time CEO can expect to have shareholders rise up in revolt, while a board that does sign such a CEO has has the fallback of blaming and firing the CEO if he doesn’t perform. Look at HP: the board first hired a rock star, then when she didn’t perform, they fired her and brought in another rock star. Shareholders are happy, they didn’t rise up in revolt against the board, and the board gets to stay on and collect their not-insignificant stipends.

So on one hand, it does make sense at the same time it doesn’t. But since nobody is holding a gun to the GM, the movie producer or the corporate board, I figure they’re doing so of their own free will and thus it’s not up to me to b**** and moan about what they’re doing.
 
Written By: steve sturm
URL: www.thoughtsonline.blogspot.com
Dale: Excellent post. Thank you. And excellent comments from pretty much everybody.

Just niggling on a very unimportant point: Did the musician in your example also pay $10 to listen to his own performance? If not, he would have had $10,100 and not the stated $10,090.
 
Written By: PhoenixPat
URL: http://
999 (1000 people - 1 musician) people pay $10
999 x 10 = 9,990

1 musician has—and keeps—$100
1 x 100 = 100

9,990 + 100 = 10,090

For your math to be correct, we must assume that 999 people purchasing $10 tickets yields $10,000 in revenue to add to the musicians $100.

I’m keen to learn where the extra $10 came from.

Please, niggle away. I’m fascinated.
 
Written By: Dale Franks
URL: http://www.qando.net
Autot,

Here in Taiwan land prices have skyrocketed over the past 2-3 decades. If you happened to have a plot of farmland in the right area 50 years ago, you would now be a very, very, very rich man, despite being talentless and not working at all.

If my land in Texas happens to have oil, is it my hardwork or talent that made me rich?

If I happen to enjoy, say, computers, and thus enter an industry that is currently taking off (thus offering better salaries) then say an interest in croquet which would not lead to any big money. I consider that "lucky" that your teenage hobby is worthwhile.
 
Written By: Harun
URL: http://
Harun,

Those are good points, but they are a excellent example of how we differ in our approach to this topic.
I would say the landowners in both Texas and Taiwan both made their own luck. If they had not bought the land in the first place, they would not have reaped the benefits. Same with the computer vs. the croquet idea. If a person develops skills in an area that is in demand, did they not make their own luck? You take a chance with all choices you make, but if you’re successful based on a choice you made (real estate, skills, stocks ect.), is that really luck, or just smart planning based on what one expects the future to hold, or what people may value in the future? Would someone buy land thinking it would have no value 30 years from now? If someone learns a skill, regardless of whether it’s a hobby, did they not initiate their own luck? Had they not learned the skill, they most likely would not have reaped the benefits. All of the situations you mention are examples of people who did something at the beginning (bought land, learned a skill), and reaped the benefits at the end. If they didn’t buy the land or learn the skill, would they have had the luck?

My biggest problem with the whole idea of luck being one of the main forces behind success is that if someone can say you made it to where you are because of luck, then they can say you didn’t really deserve it, or earn it, and therefore, we can take it and give it to someone who just didn’t have the same luck as you did.

I realize we could go around and around about this, so I’ll make this my final post on the subject, and I enjoyed the exchange of views!
 
Written By: autot
URL: http://
Dale,

This is a fine example, but in a way it plays into the Democrats worldview by presenting the economy as something that it isn’t: A zero sum game.

Consider instead that rather than attending the rock concert, person A takes ten dollars, buys some tools and lumber from person b who owns a lumber store. The musician now has $10,080, the lumber store owner is at $100, everyone else is at $90, and the homeowner is at $100 ($100-$90 cash+$10 wood and tools).

Now, though, the homeowner, who knows something about carpentry, builds an addition to his house, raising the value of it by $20. Thus, our economy looks like this:

Rock star: $10,080.
Homeowner: $110 ($100-$10 for lumber+$20 added value of house with lumber worked in).
Lumber store owner: $100.
Everyone else who sat on their a$$e$ as a rock concert instead of building a house:$90.

What the homeowner has done is grow the overall economy — and GDP really isn’t any more than a collection of people doing what the homeowner did. As you point out, inequality in a zero-sum economy isn’t inherently fair. But modern capitalism offers something even better: An opportunity for everyone to win if they get off their hindquarters, develop their skills, and build value where none previously existed.
 
Written By: Sean
URL: http://www.myelectionanalysis.com
Your analogy is flawed.

1. There must be an assumption that the musician possess unique skills the others do not possess. A CEO does not possess special skills as his sole reason for superior compensation. For every $50 mil CEO, there are 500 that get fired every year. A CEO is a title. A musician is a skilled and talented technician. It is a lifestyle. Other than they are both human, there is no parallel here.

2. The audience had a CHOICE whether to attend the concert,or not. That choice is not reflected in the board’s decision to pay obscene amounts of income. That is the current paradigm - to lure CEOs from one job to another with bigger compensation packages. A board of directors has no choice but to play the out-of-control compensation game, or risk losing their board position.

3. If a small population (granted, done for the math) possesses such a small amount of ’money’ then the reality is that the musician would give a concert and expect compensation based on a barter system, rather than a cash payment basis. Your analogy is unrealistic, given how humans would exist in such a cash-devalued society. Therefore your bizarre wealth-distribution example is moot.

So, that didn’t quite work to prove your point.

You got any other justification examples to demonstrate how it is perfectly OK to reward CEOs with more money annually than the GNP of Jamaica?













dwith annual packages that rival the who cut jobs in order to create an illusion of improvement of the bottom line?
 
Written By: Rick Day
URL: http://goplobby.org
Wow. Who knew that Bill Gates had fewer skills than Dave Mathews. Truly I am ignorant.
 
Written By: Sean
URL: http://www.myelectionanalysis.com
1. There must be an assumption that the musician possess unique skills the others do not possess. A CEO does not possess special skills as his sole reason for superior compensation.
There is a vast range of talent among CEOs, just as there is a vast range of talent among musicians. That fact doesn’t invalidate Dale’s analogy.
2. The audience had a CHOICE whether to attend the concert,or not. That choice is not reflected in the board’s decision to pay obscene amounts of income. That is the current paradigm - to lure CEOs from one job to another with bigger compensation packages. A board of directors has no choice but to play the out-of-control compensation game, or risk losing their board position.
Shareholders have a choice whether to continue to own their shares, consumers have a choice whether to buy the product of the CEOs, etc. If the CEO fails to add value to the company (by increased profits, ultimately by increased sales), then he gets fired. As you pointed out, 500 of his ilk are fired every year.

As for boards being forced to play the compensation game, they are no different from GMs of baseball teams, or producers of movies: there’s a limited talent pool out there, and they must pay what the talent requires.

Imagine what would happen to a MLB team that decided to forego paying for high-priced pitching talent, and instead recruited from your neighborhood slow-pitch softball league. Or, say a movie producer pays $80 million to make a spectacular action movie and, rather than paying Tom Cruise $20 million, decides to pay your local community theater actor Chuck Podunk $50,000.

Bottom line: you get what you pay for, in general. There are always exceptions to this, but their rarity makes them notable.
3. If a small population (granted, done for the math) possesses such a small amount of ’money’ then the reality is that the musician would give a concert and expect compensation based on a barter system, rather than a cash payment basis. Your analogy is unrealistic, given how humans would exist in such a cash-devalued society. Therefore your bizarre wealth-distribution example is moot.
An absolutely nonsensical assertion, and a failed attempt to discredit Dale’s analogy.
 
Written By: steverino
URL: http://steverino.journalspace.com/
Steveerino:

1. if you are trying to tell me that CEOs deserve their compensation only because of ’talents’, then demonstrate how their talents are proportionately better than low paid struggling workers running the machines that drive the profits the CEO is credited for. What talent do they possess above someone say, in R&D, that justifies the pay difference?

2. You are defending a bad policy by demonstrating how prevalent the bad policy is (Ball team owners, et al). Those examples are, in and of themselves, good examples of bad policy. It does NOT make a bad policy "OK". What else you got here besides the"everyone is doing it"apology?

3. You did not put any rational thought behind this dismissal. Anything substantive to offer? Can you, solidify your assertion by demonstrating how a group of 100 are more likely to use currency, rather than godless commie barter for compensation of goods and services?
 
Written By: Rick Day
URL: http://goplobby.org
1. if you are trying to tell me that CEOs deserve their compensation only because of ’talents’, then demonstrate how their talents are proportionately better than low paid struggling workers running the machines that drive the profits the CEO is credited for. What talent do they possess above someone say, in R&D, that justifies the pay difference?
CEOs are responsible for many things, and most people don’t know just how much work and brain power it takes to be an effective CEO. They need to make sure the company is headed in the right direction, both to meet current demands and grow into future markets. They need to work with other companies in other industries, and keep aware of what potential threats to their market share exist. They need to hire effective managers to keep the company performing properly. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There just aren’t that many people in the country who would make good CEOs, while there are plenty of people who can run machinery.
2. You are defending a bad policy by demonstrating how prevalent the bad policy is (Ball team owners, et al). Those examples are, in and of themselves, good examples of bad policy. It does NOT make a bad policy "OK". What else you got here besides the"everyone is doing it"apology?
I’m not defending bad policy, I’m recognizing a reality of the world: scarcity of the needed skills. You can call it what you want, but until you can show me there is a surfeit of skilled CEOs, then compensation will always be a function of scarcity. How many Jack Welches are out there? Not bloody many, and that’s why Welch was worth what GE paid him.
3. You did not put any rational thought behind this dismissal. Anything substantive to offer? Can you, solidify your assertion by demonstrating how a group of 100 are more likely to use currency, rather than godless commie barter for compensation of goods and services?
I don’t need to explain why 100 people are more likely to use currency, it was just one of the parameters Dale set up for his example. To say that 100 people would be more likely to use barter completely misses the point of his analogy: that one person offering a commodity that all of the others are willing to pay for will create a disparity of wealth proportional to the perceived value of that commodity. It doesn’t matter whether you measure weath in gold coins or beaver pelts.
 
Written By: steverino
URL: http://steverino.journalspace.com/
Dale asks: "I’m keen to learn where the extra $10 came from."

Popcorn sales! Entertainment tax! That extra ticket bought by an illegal alien who just sneaked in from Nigglingland (they’re everywhere, you know)!

You are right. I was wrong.
 
Written By: PhoenixPat
URL: http://
if you are trying to tell me that CEOs deserve their compensation only because of ’talents’, then demonstrate how their talents are proportionately better than low paid struggling workers running the machines that drive the profits the CEO is credited for. What talent do they possess above someone say, in R&D, that justifies the pay difference?
Personally, I know I couldn’t and I doubt most people could identify the difference Wynton Marsalis or Yo-Yo Ma and Julliard’s fifth best trumpeter or cellist, respectively. Yet Wynton and Yo-Yo Ma are world-famous while the Julliard students are either nondescript members of nondescript symphonies, or waiting tables at a diner trying to make it big. Simply because you personally are not equipped to identify or recognize a CEO’s marginal talent, doesn’t mean that marginal talent doesn’t exist.
The audience had a CHOICE whether to attend the concert,or not. That choice is not reflected in the board’s decision to pay obscene amounts of income. That is the current paradigm - to lure CEOs from one job to another with bigger compensation packages.
As Steverino correctly points out, all shareholders have a CHOICE as to whether or not to purchase the shares of a particular company and all customers have a CHOICE as to whether or not to purchase the product or service of a particular company. The Board has a CHOICE in the structure the contract of an incoming CEO.

And as far as the current paradigm is concerned - of course it is, so what? It’s also the historical paradigm and it’s do different than your example of a person in R&D. In order to attract a candidate from his or her current position, the employer, or in the case of a CEO, the Board, has to offer them something better than that person’s current opportunity set. And in order to keep that person from leaving, they need to keep that person compensated at or above other opportunity sets.

And unless you participate (and even if you do, executive compensation is disclosed) what about the IPO process makes you or any person entitled to say what a CEO is entitled to earn? 10 years ago Google didn’t exist. Two smart guys at Stanford started the company and now they’re billionaires. If the company was still private they’d still be billionaires. You didn’t have a say in what they were paid when the company was private 5 years ago or 3 years ago, and now that the company is publicly-traded, unless you’re a shareholder, you still should have no say in what they get paid.
Can you, solidify your assertion by demonstrating how a group of 100 are more likely to use currency, rather than godless commie barter for compensation of goods and services?
First, you haven’t solidified your assertion that barter would be the preferred method of exchange. But more poignantly, you should read, "The Economic Organisation of a P.O.W. Camp", R. A. Radford, Economica, vol. 12, 1945.

Everyone receives a roughly equal share of essentials; it is by trade that individual preferences are given expression and comfort increased. All at some time, and most people regularly, make exchanges of one sort or another. . .[The camps] consisted normally of between 1,000 and 2,500 people. . .Between individuals there was active trading in all consumer goods and in some services. Most trading was for food against cigarettes or other foodstuffs, but cigarettes rose from the status of a normal commodity to that of currency. . .By the end of a month, when we reached our permanent camp, there was a lively trade in all commodities and their relative values were well known, and expressed not in terms of one another – one didn’t quote bully in terms of sugar – but in terms of cigarettes. The cigarette became the standard of value. . .With this development everyone, including non-smokers, was willing to sell for cigarettes, using them to buy at another time and place. Cigarettes became the normal currency, though, of course, barter was never extinguished. . .Although cigarettes as currency exhibited certain peculiarities, they performed all the functions of a metallic currency as a unit of account, as a measure of value and as a store of value, and shared most of its characteristics. They were homogeneous, reasonably durable, and of convenient size for the smallest or, in packets, for the largest transactions.

 
Written By: m.jed
URL: http://
One part-explanation of high CEO compensation is the old "who watches the watchers" problem. At the very end of any accounting system is the CEO, and nobody is watching him. Paying $100K to someone in charge of the investment, expenditure, and transfer of millions of dollars per day in today’s mega-corporations is to invite the purchase of a one way ticket to Rio. Risk/reward ratio and all that.

OTOH, Dale, there is a significant "unfairness" factor here. What would you say if the availabilty of the instrument and concert hall for your example musician was determined by a committee made up of friends, friends of friends, business acquintences and spousal units that share a charity committee with his spousal unit? This is exactly the situation in the large majority of the "overpaid CEO" compensation committees.
 
Written By: bud
URL: http://
"If I have the skills and talents needed for a certain job, and I’ve worked hard to acquire those skills and talents, am I just lucky when I get the job?"

I think he said luck was A factor, not THE factor. What, for example, did your hard work have to do with the creation of a job opening?

"...but I have heard Al Franken go on about this..."

If Al Franken says that his success is due to luck, and not talent, I am not going to argue with him.
******************************
"There just aren’t that many people in the country who would make good CEOs,"

That is indisputably true, yet all those slots are somehow filled anyway. You are over-glamorizing those folks. Most corporations, like any other organization, will run on inertia for a considerable length of time, without any leadership at all.
As you say, there aren’t many Jack Welches out there, but there are a lot of CEOs getting paid like him. There are, after all, instances of highly paid CEOs guiding their organizations into bankruptcy or worse.
Good CEOs may be paid well, but that does not mean that those who are paid well are good CEOs.
 
Written By: timactual
URL: http://

 
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