The Mean and the Median Tell Two Different Stories

Averages, if you’re not careful, can as easily mislead as enlighten.  It matters a lot which statistical measure of the “average-ness” that’s used.  A good example comes in the case of the U.S. long-term trend of economic growth.  What we’re interested in is to what degree the amount of GDP the average household has available has increased over time.  It’s the prime way economists measure whether not living standards are improving.  GDP, of course, is the measure we use to count output in the economy.  GDP is the total market value of all goods and services produced for final demand in a year.   Real GDP is the inflation-adjusted version of it so we can compare GDP from different years.   But of course, just because total GDP, or even real GDP, is going up from year to year is no assurance that living standards are generally increasing.  After all, if real GDP grows by 1% per year but the population grows by 2% per year, there’s less per mouth each year.

So we need to adjust the real GDP measure to account for population growth. We want a measure of average GDP per person or average GDP per household.  Those readers who didn’t fall asleep in statistics class might recall that technically “average” isn’t a statistical measure.  Instead there are several different ways of calculating what statisticians prefer to call “central tendency” instead of “average”.  The two most common calculations in economics are the mean and median.  And there’s a huge difference between them.  The mean is  what you probably learned in primary school as the “average”.  To calculate it we take the total and divide by the number of people in the population.  When economists cite GDP per capita, we are, in fact, calculating the mean Real GDP per person.  The mean, the real GDP per capita for the U.S. over the last 34 years has grown at around a 1.9% annual rate.  That might not sound like much, but remember the power of compounding means that at 1.9%, mean real GDP per person will double in less than 40 years – one working lifetime.  Sounds good, right?  Sounds like the American dream in action, right? Wrong.

Real GDP per capita when looking at the U.S. is highly misleading because most of the growth only goes to the top 1% income folks.  The vast majority of Americans, the other 99% of us, haven’t experienced anything like that growth.  To see the difference let’s consider real income of the median household.  Remember Gross Domestic Income is the same as Gross Domestic Product.  It’s just counted differently by counting income available to spend instead of actual spending.  Long run, they are the same.  Now let’s quick review what the median is. The median is the middle observation. It means that there’s as many observations with a lesser value as there are with a greater value.  In this context it means that there are exactly as many households with a smaller income as there are households with a larger income.  It’s another way of looking at the average.  In this case we’re looking for the most typical household.  Statistics note:  mean will equal median if both sides of the distribution are identical, but in income this isn’t true – millionaires, billionaires, and rich households are a lot richer than the $49,700 median income but the poorest households can only $49,700 poorer at most.

In the U.S. over the last 34 years, the median household income has only grown at less than 0.5% per year despite increases in education.  So real GDP per person grows at 1.9% per year, but real median income only grows less than 0.5% per year.  At 0.5%, it will take 150 years for income to double.  End of the American dream of doing a lot better than your parents. What accounts for the difference?  It’s the upper 1% of the income distribution, the rich folks, millionaires and billionaires, that have skimmed off the 65% of all of the GDP gains for 34 years.

Princeton economics professor Uwe Reinhardt explains in the NYTimes Economix blog:

So if an American macroeconomist — a specialist who tends to think of nations as people — or high-level government officials or politicians mimicking a macroeconomist boasted on a television talk show that “average family income grew by 3 percent during 2002-7, more than in most European economies,” about 99 percent of American viewers, reflecting on their own experience, would probably scratch their heads and wonder, “What is this guy talking about?”

The third chart, below, exhibits the growth path of real G.D.P. per capita in the United States over the period 1975-2009 and the corresponding path of real median household income. The data show that over the 34-year period, real G.D.P. per capita rose by an annual compound rate of 1.9 percent. Those data come from the Economic Report of the President to the Congress (Tables B-2 and B-34).

Sources: Economic Report of the President to Congress (G.D.P.); Census Bureau (income)

According to the Census Bureau data (see Table H-6), however, median household income in the United States rose by less than 0.5 percent a year. Other than national pride in league tables, that 1.9 percent average economic growth does not mean much for the experience of the median household in the United States.

Income Distribution Does Matter. It’s Wrong Now and Stopping Growth.

When people think about “income distribution” there’s a tendency to think of it only in terms of what different people or households have available to spend.  In other words, we focus on the fairness or equity of whether some households should only have a small amount of money to live off of vs. others who get a large amount of money to live off of.  The debates then often deteriorate into whether or not the households put forth effort (“worked”) for their income and therefore “earned” it.

But there’s more to the issue of income distribution.  A household’s income is not just determined by how much “effort” it’s willing to make or how much “investment” it’s made in the past.  So a household’s income isn’t just how much you work and what education/qualifications you have.  The general level of wages matters too.  And that’s determined at the macro level by institutional arrangements in society.

The nature of production is that it requires both capital and labor.  The joint product is then sold.  This is called productivity.  Part of the income distribution question is “how is the value from joint productivity split up between payments to capital and payments to workers”.

In the U.S. during the Golden Era, the period of World War II until the mid-1970’s, the social contract and institutional arrangements were that the benefits of increased productivity were split evenly between both capital and labor.  Both benefitted.  Starting around 1980 that deal was cancelled.  The social contract has increasingly moved to all gains from improved productivity going to capital and none to labor.  As a result, labor’s share of national income has consistently declined.  The Great Recession was a major blow.  It’s this change in the social contract that is the root source of the frustration and pain felt by so many households.

Garth Brazelton at Economics Revival explains why this matters now.  He explains why we are still in a recession, or at least why the 90% or so of us that work for  a living as opposed to living off of interest and profits are still in recession:

Who cares about double-dip. We never left. Why? because you can’t get out of a recession without consumers/labor income growth. While productivity has grown over the last few years, labor’s share of national income continues to plummet. This implies that others (capitalists / profit-makers) are ‘out of their recession’ but consumers and laborers are not.

The BLS has a nice publication here.

Ordinarily a low cyclical labor share isn’t necessarily a problem because firms can use profits to invest in new business ventures a eventually lower the unemployment rate and provide more compensation in a recovery. The problem here of course is that firms are too busy paying off past debts from poor decisions made a decade ago, or two skittish to do anything substantial with their profits at the moment. So that, in combination with the low labor share of income is like a double-whammy for consumers and laborers who see the haves continue to have and the have-nots continuing to have nothing.

It’s the Political Economy That Must Change.

Peter Dorman at Econospeak has an excellent post on the real challenges facing the U.S. today.  It’s the political economy that must change.  It no longer serves the interests of the vast majority of Americans. We need more discussion and action at these levels>

It’s the Political Economy, Stupid!, by Peter Dorman: Sometimes living in the world of ideas makes it harder to understand the real one. If you happen to be an economist, and the time is now, that is true in spades. Take Paul Krugman, for instance. After bemoaning the terrible policy choices of the last two years, he writes, “I’m still trying to make sense of this global intellectual failure.” It’s as if the core problem is that political leaders didn’t learn their macroeconomics well enough.

But Keynes was wrong about the power of “academic scribblers”. Idea-smiths provide language, narratives and tools for those in control, but the broad contours of policy depend on who the controllers happen to be. We are not living through an epoch of intellectual failure, but one in which there is no available mechanism to oust a political-economic elite whose interests have become incompatible with ours.

This is not some sudden development, much less a coup d’etat as is sometimes claimed. No, the accretion of power by the rentiers has been systematic, structural and the outcome of a decades-long process. It is deeply rooted in modern capitalist economies due to the transformation of corporations into tradable, recombinant portfolios of assets, increasing concentration of and returns to ownership, and the failure of regulation to keep pace with technology and transnational scale. Those who sit at the pinnacle of wealth for the most part no longer think about production, nor do they worry very much about who the ultimate consumers will be; they take financial positions and demand policies that will see to it that these positions are profitable.

The rapid and robust global restoration of profits post-2008 was not an accident. Public funds were used to bail out exposed creditors and shore up asset values, while the crisis was used to suppress wages and postpone meaningful regulatory reform. Indeed, I can predict with some confidence that many of the profits, particularly in the financial sector, that have been reported in official filings and blessed by the accounting firms will later be found to be illusory—but not before those who have claims on the revenues have cashed in to their own personal advantage. The institutions will be decimated, but those who owned, lent to or bet on them will be rich. This is not a failure, at least not for them.

You could make a case that, collectively, the interests of the financially endowed ultimately require a rescue of the real, nonfinancial global economy. Surely, when we take our painful plunge into the second dip of the Great Recession, their wealth will be at risk. But the ability to see it at a system level presupposes either a system-level organization of the class or the existence of individual interests that are transparently systemic. Neither appears to be the case today. From what we (you and me) can see from our vantage point, the ruling demands are to make sure my bonds are serviced, my counterparties pony up, the markets I invest in stay liquid, and expenditures for public welfare (i.e. the losers and chiselers) are slashed.

The first principle of political economy is that the scope of democracy depends on the range of views and interests (typically tightly linked) of the owning and controlling class. Genuine public debate and decision-making extends only to those issues on which the elites are divided. In what country today is there a significant division among political-economic elites over core economic questions? How would our situation be different if Obama, Cameron, Merkel, Sarkozy et al. had been on the losing side of their elections?

So, the current mess is not the result of a failure by intellectuals—although clearer, less ideologically-driven thinking by economists would certainly be a good thing and might make a small dent at the margin. As long as there are even a few economists who proclaim the virtues of austerity and deregulation, however, their views will dominate. They haven’t won a battle of ideas; they are simply the ones who have been handed the microphone.

The real problem is political, and it is profound. Unless we can unseat the class that sees the world only through its portfolios, they may well take us all the way down. Unfortunately, no one seems to have a clue how such a revolution can be engineered in a modern, complex, transnational economy.

There were also some excellent comments in the discussion:

PQuincy said…

I’m a historian, and I think the past confirms your assessment of elite behavior and priorities, not only in the last 2 centuries of mass-based polities, but since the rise of large-scale states altogether. Political contention is almost always limited to a narrow range of issues on which those with power disagree, meaning that significant change (and there has been significant change in the political sphere, as well as the economic one) generally results from elite conflicts, not from ‘popular’ pressure. In fairness, elite contention does open gaps for genuinely ‘progressive’ change, and that’s an important lever for intellectuals to remember…but as you say, academics, thinkers, et al. are as a rule never in a position to have more than a marginal effect.

It’s not a promising situation now, structurally: a series of positive feedback loops in the political sphere are actually concentrating the influence of what I am forced to call a “reactionary clique”, at a time when the policies pursued by that clique are, at least on a larger time-frame, seriously destabilizing. But the narcotic effects of power are such that those who drive the dynamics of elite conflict rarely see the larger picture — behave, for all practical purposes. as though they were incapable of seeing the larger picture (call it, if you like, discursive hegemony), and those who believe they see a larger picture are structurally excluded from bringing about changes in response to their perception.

And…

Re-Considering …. said…

Thanks for the very well thought out reasoning in you post.

While you correctly identify the problem and its solution (current “ruling class” and its unseating), you are shy in suggesting how a solution might come about. While I do not advocate violence, history has shown us that fundamentally there are two ways by which subjugated classes improve their position. A traumatic way and less traumatic one.

Revolutions (most egregious examples are the French, Bolshevik, Chinese, and Cuban revolutions), whereby the ruling class, along with its interests, are eliminated by the subjugated classes. A traumatic event indeed, but, in my opinion, not sustainable in the long run unless the entire world adopts those political and economic paradigms.

Less traumatic and, more sustainable in the long term, are the outcomes of strong labor and student movements like the ones that took place in Europe in the 60s and 70s. Those movements made sure to convey to the ruling classes the message that a more equitable wealth distribution and effective social safety net were needed to avoid the extremes and dispossession that a revolution would involve. Reluctantly, the ruling class complied and the social safety nets and income distributions typical of Western Europe emerged.

In the same light, one must interpret the recent unrests in Western European countries (UK, Greece, France) (and most recently in Israel) as a response to the austerity measures taken by conservative governments of these countries to protect rentiers and capitalists. The austerity movement is trying to undo at least some (ideally, all) of the achievements of the 60s and 70s and redistribute wealth away from the “ruled classes”, when it is clearly the “ruling class” that should bear most of the cost of its disastrous, reckless, and self-serving policies. While the current message in Western Europe is still not of the same intensity of the 60s and 70s due to a current better wealth distribution than that of the 60s, the message is similar in content and direction. Its intensity may increase if the rentiers and capitalists will insist with their policies.

So, why the US labor and student movements do not materialize or are active to the same extent of the ones in Europe? The answer is very simple… while in Europe the “ruled classes” realized a long time ago that there will never be cooperation between them and the “ruling class”, in the US people still believe and pursue the American dream, which is fueled by the once in a while admission of few “mortals” on Mount Olympus. Let’s also not forget that constant sense of guilt passed on by the Pilgrims that, somewhat, it is exclusively the individual’s fault if his/her life is not better… and, maybe, the Pilgrims they were right given that US citizens keep electing the same (type of) people over and over to lead them. After all, wouldn’t you rather have a beer with a nice guy from Texas or Hawaii than protesting in some square?

And…

TheTrucker said…

I stand fittingly chastised for my indictment of the economists.

The Tea Party may well have hit upon a method to overcome the current problems. A constitutional convention to propose particular modifications to federal government structure might seem to be the way out. But that is a holdover from the time when people rode a horse to the nation’s capital in order to be seated in the discussion chamber. The problem is best resolved buy an incorruptible on line polling system of direct democracy in which various policies are proposed and tested for consensus. I do not trust the pollsters and I do not feel that they ask the right questions. At present we have the “super committee” approach which goes in the wrong direction totally. This election of Dems or Pugs who then decide what is the best way to maintain their own power has got to go.

I know that the public is easy to fool. The Republicans prove it every day. Yet there is no acceptable substitute for self governance. When we look at the polls we find that taxing the rich is the majority opinion and that social welfare is a high priority. Yet there is no way to act upon this consensus because the rich own the government. That must change, and it cannot change from the top. Surely there must be a peaceful means of revolution.

If a policy and polling system can be created that is impervious to tampering and corruption then it is entirely possible to supplant the current system or to dramatically improve the current system’s performance. I see no other way.

Interesting Tool: Wage and Worker Distribution by Compensation, 1997-2009

Remapping Debate has put together an interesting interactive tool you can use.  I’m showing a static image of the tool below because security precautions at wordpress.com (this blog’s host) prevent including the full scripted interactive tool.  But if you click on the image you will be taken to the Remapping Debate site and the interactive tool itself.

There you can change the year as you wish using the slider in the lower left.  The orange bars indicate the percentage of the workforce that earns that bracket of compensation.  The first bar, for example, tells us the approximately 16% of the workforce earned less than $4,999.99 in 2009.   The blue bars tell us the percentage of the total U.S. compensation earned by the workers in that bracket.

Remapping Debate Distribution Of Workers And Income Tool

Learning From Austerity In the Past. A Warning?

A poor economy is never popular with the populace.  But when the economy is slow and people are suffering as a result of government policies that impose austerity on them, people get downright upset.  They even get violent.  It’s something we should think about as virtually all major developed nations have embraced policies of cutting spending in the face of high unemployment.  History shows government budget  cuts do not restore growth.  That is a myth.

But history also shows that budget cuts go hand-in-hand with social violence, unrest, rioting, social instability and even revolutions. A new major historical study by budget cuts do have real effects.  Jacopo Ponticelli and Hans-Joachim Voth have just published their study in Voxeu.org.  Here is the abstract  (bold emphasis mine):

Austerity and Anarchy: Budget Cuts and Social Unrest in Europe,
1919-2009*

Does fiscal consolidation lead to social unrest? From the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany in the 1930s to anti-government demonstrations in Greece in 2010-11, austerity has tended to go hand in hand with politically motivated violence and social instability. In this paper, we assemble cross-country evidence for the period 1919 to the present, and examine the extent to which societies become unstable after budget cuts. The results show a clear positive correlation between fiscal retrenchment and instability. We test if the relationship simply reflects economic downturns, and conclude that this is not the key factor. We also analyse interactions with various economic and political variables. While autocracies and democracies show a broadly similar responses to budget cuts, countries with more constraints on the executive are less likely to see unrest as a result of austerity measures. Growing media penetration does not lead to a stronger effect of cut-backs on the level of unrest.

Here’s another interesting passage:

Expenditure cuts carry a significant risk of increasing the frequency of riots, anti-government demonstrations, general strikes, political assassinations, and attempts at revolutionary overthrow of the established order. While these are low- probability events in normal years, they become much more common as austerity measures are implemented. … We demonstrate that the general pattern of association between unrest and budget cuts holds in Europe for the period 1919-2009. It can be found in almost all sub-periods, and for all types of unrest. Strikingly, where we can trace the cause of each incident (during the period 1980-95), we can show that only austerity-inspired demonstrations respond to budget cuts in the time- series. Also, when we use recently-developed data that allows clean identification of policy-driven changes in the budget balance, our results hold.

The timing of this release is extraordinary.  We saw riots in 2008 and 2009 in Iceland, Latvia, and Bulgaria driven by austerity and “tax the people to pay the bankers”.  Of course the “Arab spring” was partly driven by bad economics in Tunisia, Egypt, and other mid-east countries.  We’ve seen Greece this year turn violent and lawless in areas due to the hopelessness of the austerity policies being forced on it by the EU.  Spain has been having extensive, largely peaceful protests until police decided they had enough. Now Britain has experienced riots, too.

This paper and the riots we are seeing illustrate an important concept of political economy.  Redistribution of income by government to the less fortunate and the unable is not just a question of altruism, or charity, or “caring” for them.  Redistribution also serves the interests of the rich, elite, and powerful.  When income inequality becomes too great and the government persists in policies that benefit only the existing holders of financial capital (like today’s austerity policies), social unrest soon follows.  Sooner or later the wealth and safety of the elites becomes endangered.

Robert Reich Connects The Dots to Tell What’s Happened To Our Economy In 2 Minutes

Berkeley Professor and former U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Robert Reich has put together a good, short 2 minute 15 second video that explains a large part of what’s happened to the economy over the last 30 years.

In summary, Reich connects five “dots”:

  1. The economy has doubled since 1980 but wages have been flat.  So where did the money go?
  2. All the gains have gone to the super rich.   And…
  3. With money goes political power.  Taxes on the super rich have been slashed, government revenues have fallen, leading to…
  4. Huge budget deficits. The middle class gets agitated.  To balance budgets, governments slash spending and set middle class to fighting amongst itself…
  5. Middle class is divided.  It fights for scraps.  When borrowing ability dries up, spending slows and can’t return…
  6. We get an anemic recover.

He explains it better (and draws neat pictures, too), but that’s the jist of it.  I would add more such as how the financial industry gained such power in Washington and pushed an ideological but economically flawed agenda of deregulation that led to the monumental but avoidable financial crises in 2007-2009.  But Reich gets the basics right.

We’ve Had Class Warfare Since 1980 – The Workers Lost

Whenever some politician, typically a progressive, begins to talk about redistribution of income,  the more conservative politicians, backed by “serious political pundits” counterattack by claiming “class warfare”.  It’s apparently one of the givens in Washington that any form of redistribution of income, be it by progressive taxes, measures to protect unions, help to the unemployed, or limits on the power of bank executives to pay themselves bonuses from bailout monies, is off-limits.  The problem with this self-censorship of the political debate is that it ignores reality. Class warfare was already launched 30 years ago in the early 1980’s.  The catch is that capital, that is the owners and managers of capital, declared the war and they’ve been winning.


As the graph shows, the share of non-farm income that goes to labor was relatively constant for the 30-some year “golden age” after World War II and until around 1980. It fluctuated significantly with the business cycle, but maintained a long-run relatively constant share. This was consistent with the institutional, cultural, and political economy arrangements of the period. There was essentially a social contract that said labor cooperated with capital to achieve productivity improvements with the understanding that gains would be shared: both workers and owners of capital would benefit. This is basis of the rising real median incomes that I’ve noted elsewhere for the period.

But starting in the 1980’s there was  a shift in American politics.  Initially it was with conservatives and Republicans, but it soon included Democrats. Capital came to be favored. Unions were disfavored. Income taxes were lowered on high incomes while payroll taxes (social security and Medicare) were raised on workers.  The result was a trend where workers found it difficult to keep pace.  In fact, their real incomes didn’t.  If workers were in the lower quintiles, their real incomes actually declined.  Starting in 2000 the trend accelerated.  Workers get less and less of the value of what’s produced.  Corporate profits and financiers get more and more.

Instead of false debates about debt ceilings based on provably false doctrines, I think this is the type of thing we should be debating in politics.  Is this good? I don’t think so. It feeds income inequality.  It’s part of what’s destroying the “American Dream” for hundreds of millions of Americans.