How is income inequality correlated with wealth inequality?

From the OECD, Kaja Bonesmo Frederiksen writes on “More income inequality and less growth” and presents this table:


If you were to fit that with a curve, the overall slope would be negative, suggesting a negative empirical correlation between income inequality and wealth inequality.  Now do not leap to a conclusion here, as there are points to be made:

1. This scatter plot is not based on a model with adjustments for confounding factors.

2. These may not be the right or best data on wealth inequality.

3. There are not many data points on this graph in the first place.

4. Lots of other stuff.

The point is that everyone is talking about wealth inequality lately, yet it is not always recognized that the relationship between wealth and income inequality is complex, as illustrated for instance by the case of Sweden.  (There is nothing in this post by the way which should be construed as criticism of Piketty, I’m just trying to lay out some basic expository principles.)

Wealth inequality and income inequality may diverge for at least three reasons.  First, savings rates may differ across societies.  Second, locally available rates of return may differ.  Third, the ups and downs of mobility may mean high income inequality in a given year but overall lower levels of wealth inequality.

By the way, here is a good sentence from the abstract:

Wealth dispersion [inequality] is especially high in the United States and Sweden

The support document is here, I have reproduced Figure 3a.  Hat tip goes to Luis Pedro Coelho.


No comments? I will be first. Professor TC is right. I have said before and I will say again, Sweden is very good with income equality but, as is not well known, they actually are extremely stock heavy, meaning owners of business, even unlisted non-public businesses, have lots of stock (including employee owned businesses). Consequently Sweden has wealth inequality. That said, most people look down on big income not big wealth, that is, ostentatious displays of conspicuous consumption rather than the "pauper millionaire" who lives a humble life. Take my family for example: we are comfortably in the 1% but if you say us strolling at the mall you would think we are lower middle class Americans. That's the way to do it: run silent, run deep. Anything else, along the lines of the wolf of Wall Street, will get you into trouble in puritanical America.

There is something to be said for "culture" as a factor in whether inequality is tolerated. Countries are different, for example look at the graph on unemployment assistance and months out of work: and you note that both Italy, Belgium and Sweden have the same unemployment assistance (2.4 on the index) but Italy (and Belgium close behind) have workers stay out of work for 20 months on average, while Sweden has workers stay on the dole for less than five months. Likewise, in the USA historically inequality issues were not a big deal, since the "American Dream" was believed, but now that growth is slowing you get a more "European" mindset (i.e., socialist).

Maybe in a more socialistically envious America?
Since when is "reward" not understood / tolerated?

"There is something to be said for “culture” as a factor in whether inequality is tolerated."

I think that's a historical difference between Europe and the United States. Before the 1700s, force was the most common method of acquiring wealth (indeed, by the original meaning of the term Bill Gates would be "middle class" because he was neither lord nor serf). And that colors politics in Europe (and really most of the rest of the world) in different than a country born in the Industrial Revolution where suddenly vast new wealth was being created.

And if you look at wealth turnover, at a glance you seem to see a lot less in Europe -- the largest companies in Europe today are mostly the same as 30 years ago, partly because of notions of "national industry."

My situation is similar to yours -- top 1% of HHI now, but we bought furniture and baby stuff on Craigslist, and our house features lots of "Great Value" stuff from WalMart.

If you were a latter day Ancel Keys )he of the anti-fat-in-your-diet crusade) you'd just suppress the USA and Finland and boast about the tight correlation of the rest. Climate Scientists weren't the first, you know.

And most of that wealth inequality in Sweden is inherited wealth.

An often neglected point is that many countries, Sweden included, have completely abolished the purely estate-wealth parts of their inheritance taxes.

Countries include Australia, Austria, Canada, India, Israel, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, Singapore, and Sweden.

What the Laffer curve for expatriation? There are plenty of nice places to go if you want it all to go to your kids.

On Sweden, David Domeij worked on this a while back:
Might have later work, too.

Yep, the existence of public pensions and a strong social safety net make having wealth for the purpose of covering hard times less necessary.

Accrued public pension, social security, medicare and other benefits due ARE wealth. If they are not counted in the data the measure of wealth is WRONG. Oh wait what is that quote from the Fed's SCF that never gets mentioned?

I agree. What if, however, the government reneges on the promises? I suppose you'd just have to count that as confiscation of wealth.

I'm under 35 and have no idea how much SS I'll receive at retirement (I think perhaps the little calculator at isn't a crystal ball that accounts for looming policy change due to lack of tax revenue). Nor does anyone know the value of the Medicare benefits I will receive at 65 (Or is it going to be 68 or 70? Though perhaps the aging of the baby boomers and Congress' refusal to allow cost effectiveness research to guide Medicare coverage decisions will end the program altogether).

So these should all be abolished since they don't really contribute towards a diminution in the inequality in wealth? So be it.

Alas, diminution of wealth inequality itself isn't their primary purpose. They hopefully serve a more important role.

dearieme +1 for the win.

TMC -1 you're confused.

OK, maybe only the rhetorical win, but he does make a nice point.

@dearieme, @TMC, you appear to be expanding the definition of wealth to be "anything that has any form of value". But this isn't what wealth means. If the government promises me medical benefits 30 years from now, that has value to me. But it doesn't mean I have any wealth now, because that promise isn't something I "possess" in any meaningful sense. I can't use that promise to pay for anything, transfer it to anyone else, or convert it into any other good. There is no way to determine the monetary value it has to me now--and the uncertainty about what the government will actually be able to provide is one illustration of that.

@Jay, I understand what you are saying, that these programs have value that should be captured somehow. The problem is, though, that they aren't wealth. People don't actually possess them, they can't be converted into other kinds of goods, the benefits don't actually exist yet and are not guaranteed to exist, etc.

Practical problems abound when you get to the nitty gritty of actually measuring value, too. If a government decided to promise more generous benefits in the future (without having the money to pay for it), the "wealth" of citizens would instantly increase, despite no material change. How would one measure the "wealth" citizens derive from a government program that provides non-monetary benefits, like health care?

I think the answer is not to try to make wealth the perfect measure of all things, but instead to admit the limitations of measuring wealth. Other measures, such as standard of living, attempt to correct for these issues.

"People don’t actually possess them, they can’t be converted into other kinds of goods, the benefits don’t actually exist yet and are not guaranteed to exist, etc."

You obviously have never formally learned the definition of an asset because I'm about to tear apart all your stipulations.

"don't actually possess them" - businesses do not 'possess' prepaid rent. You are telling me that isn't an asset?
"they can't be converted" - the 'restricted' in restricted stock options means they cannot be converted. You are telling me that isn't an asset?
"the benefits don't actually exist yet and are not guaranteed to exist" - the benefit of owning a corporate bond is coupon and principal payments in the future and there is no guarantee that corporate borrowers repays its debts. You are telling me that isn't an asset?

"If a government decided to promise more generous benefits in the future (without having the money to pay for it), the “wealth” of citizens would instantly increase"

FASB allows you to amortize such changes over several years to smooth out the impact, but yes Congress changing the SS benefits formula would be an instanteous change in wealth that is currently distributed rather equitably when conditioned on age.

"How would one measure the “wealth” citizens derive from a government program that provides non-monetary benefits, like health care?"

You calculate how much it would cost the person to purchase the good/serve on their own. Stock options are non-monetary benefits. The IRS damn well makes sure the monetary value of such compensation is taxed at ordinary income rates.

"I think the answer is not to try to make wealth the perfect measure of all things, but instead to admit the limitations of measuring wealth."

Nah, people don't ever bother mentioning assets that are clearly ignored. They call it total wealth...

Is this just an argument over cash v accrual accounting?


Is anyone dumb enough to support cash basis accounting over accrual basis accounting? Anyone in favor of repealing the parts of ERISA that effectively require accrual basis accounting for private sector pensions? Now that I think about it. Dan1111 might be dumb enough to wish to go back to those Dark Ages. Surely he is against the USPS funding the PSRHB. We will wait an see if the USPS has the cash flow in the future to cover the liabilities it has contractually aggreed to enter into with the union. It is not 'wealth' becasue the benefits are deferred and cannot be turned into liquid funds today! They might not even be wealth by Dan1111's definition because the retirees never see the cash. That gets transferred from the PSRHBF to the health insurance companies and health care providers.

We would be much better off if people who know absolutely nothing about accounting - like Dan1111 - keep their ignorant thoughts to themselves.

"Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."

@Jay, you obviously know a lot more about accounting than I do. However, you appear to be arguing from minor exceptions that are nothing like the government benefits you discuss. If I understand it correctly, prepaid rent is something that has contractually owed you, but for which the cash hasn't been transferred yet. Restricted stock cannot be transferred only for a limited period of time; if it did not become transferable at some point, then what value would it have as an asset?

Compare this to, say, social security. The government doesn't contractually owe me anything. There is no contract; the benefits are set by Congress and can be changed unilaterally at any time.

If Congress promised more future SS benefits in the current fiscal environment, it would be meaningless. The money to pay for such an increase will not be there and Congress will not be bound to actually pay such benefits in the future. Thus counting such an increase as an increase in wealth, when nothing "real" changed, is highly suspect. Counting future benefits at current promised rates is also suspect if one doesn't think the current benefit levels are sustainable.

As for measuring non-monetary benefits, your suggestion is all well and good when there is an equivalent private good to compare. But what about something like the NHS in Britain, where there are no equivalent private goods to compare? Seems like a sticky practical problem.

I am happy to admit all kinds of ignorance and idiocy when it comes to accounting. However, my objections were not fundamentally about accounting, and I do not feel they have been answered.

Thanks for the link. Seeing that you called a Princeton economist and a University of Chicago professor of finance "financial illiterates" makes me feel a bit better about the language you have directed toward me.


"minor exceptions that are nothing like the government benefits you discuss"

Actually I am arguing based on the fundamental rules you will find in FASB proclomations. You are trying to come up with exceptions for Social Security and Medicare.

"Restricted stock cannot be transferred only for a limited period of time; if it did not become transferable at some point, then what value would it have as an asset?"

Right. And Social Security cash flows cannot be transferred to a beneficiary for a limited period of time; if it did not become transferable at some point, then what value would it have as an asset?

"The government doesn’t contractually owe me anything"

They do owe you your money back. It is what Liberals call the "social contract".

'Thanks for the link. Seeing that you called a Princeton economist and a University of Chicago professor of finance “financial illiterates” '

A lot of bloggers out there are outright ideologues. They will print things that are clearly wrong on a technocratic level so long as they are too complex for their sheeple to understand why they are wrong. So long as the incorrect data supports the ideologues faith-based beliefs. I would venture to guess the bottom 80% own 60% of the S.S./Medicare/Pension wealth, which means excluding them shows more inequality.

Would we expect such high wealth inequality if Sweden didn't have a 0% inheritance tax?

All you have to do is look at the US. Over the last 30 or so years that US income inequality has been rising US growth -- real GDp or just about any measure you choose -- has been slowing.

Or maybe you want to look at the claim that low taxes boosts growth, it is the same story, as tax rates have declined so has growth.

Are you suggesting income inequality drives GDP growth? Sounds like it.

Are you saying GDP growth should be true the North Star of all public policy? Sacrifice anything for growth? Sounds like it.

I've made no claim. Just an observation of Spencer's comment.
But since you've brought it up, yes, GNP growth is important.
GNP is what pays for all the programs you like. Without it, inequality is not an issue - we all make $0.

I'm amazed at this question. How in blue blazes are you planning on paying for all the public benefits? Have you looked at the growth curves of health and retirement benefits? You better damn well be for extraordinary growth in the economy. Unless you plan on not paying for them.

Only taxes on low & middle earners have fallen. Taxes on the rich have risen.

Given that these conditions have led to slower growth, I'd say that the solution is clear!

If you knock out Sweden the relationship goes away. Therefore it appears the question is "Why is Sweden such an outlier?", not "Why is there a negative relationship between wealth inequality and income inequality?" [there isn't really, apparently]

If you knock out SWE and ITA the correlation conveniently reverses. Call it a Keys Transformation of the Data Set.

Precisely, there is no robust relationship.

Virtually any data set that has reasonable amount of noise can be changed if you can exactly select 25% of the points to remove.

The obvious next conclusion there is that you can't really draw any results from a dataset where two points are 25% of the data.

And now we are right back to where we started, one of the main points made in the post!

Well, it looks like Piketty has won because everyone keeps talking about him.

We had better get used to a century of murder based on Pikettyism.

Uh oh, the histrionic baby is crying again.

Mean Historical? Only work here that fits.

I say let the neo-Maoists have their countries, as long as we people interested in economic growth and higher living standards can have ours too. Hyperlocalism ho!

I'm construing it as criticism of Piketty and you can't stop me.

How is wealth computed?

I believe that wealth calculations should attempt to price entitlements. It is easy to see why this is important for INTL comparisons: suppose country X has a retirement welfare program that guarantees a minimum of $1500 / month, while country Y has a program that guarantees a minimum of $2000 / month. The market value of that $500 / month difference is on order $100k, which is a significant difference in wealth for a large portion of either population.

The same argument applies to computing wealth inequality within a given country. The market value of US Social Security and Medicare benefits are large compared to the other assets of a significant fraction of US citizens. Ignoring this significantly overstates wealth inequality.

I'm a liberal who generally believes wealth inequality is too large, but it really bothers me when this "mistake" is made. The reason is these calculations are usually presented because of their political implications, and yet it is a gross error in logic to make a political argument based on an analysis like this, which completely ignores the political solution. In other words, among the main policy solutions to wealth inequality are public entitlements; it is inconsistent to argue that we need more public entitlements to combat stated extreme wealth inequality when that wealth inequality is computed while ignoring public entitlements.

MPS: Part of the problem is a majority of liberals are as ignorant as Dan1111 (see his comments above). They believe that accrued deferred benefits = $0 in assets, which would imply $0 in liabilities to the guarantor - assuming you believe assets and liabilities should balance which isn't a safe assumption for many of the financially illiterate liberals.

"I’m a liberal who generally believes wealth inequality is too large"

This is the issue between the two sides. Liberals agree with this, but conservatives read this as 'wealth = effort' and effort inequality is too large.

The issue is deeper than that. The two sides don't even agree on the nature of reality.

Liberals believe life is fundamentally stochastic. If you work hard, you may or may not succeed. You have to get lucky. The key determinant of success is the alignment of external factors beyond your control (i.e. being in the right place and the right time). Hard work is really just a utility maximizer, a mechanism to make the most of the opportunities you luck into. Therefore, the proper objective of public policy is to align those external factors as much as possible, maximizing opportunity, and to minimize the role of luck.

Conservatives believe life is fundamentally deterministic. If you work hard, you will succeed. If you don't, you won't. And, equally, if you don't succeed, it's simply because you're not working hard enough. Thus, hard work is the essential determinant of success. All the things you need in order to succeed are under your control. External factors, circumstances--those are only relevant at the margins if at all. Therefore, the objective of public policy is to align incentives so as to maximize individual agency (i.e. to get out of the way).

TL;DR: liberals believe life should be fair; conservatives believe life is already fair enough.

If the rich would only hand over half their wealth to their children before they die, how different would the figures look? Also, a technical question: how do they allow for money in trusts? Do they count each trust as if it were a person?

How come no one is pointing out that the wealth Ginis in the OECD plot are totally at odds with... the wealth Ginis from another study TC linked YESTERDAY? Check Table 7 in this study:

Does anyone (including TC) ever actually look at the studies themselves? Are we really making any progress?

Pick and choose.

"Much discussion treats the working definitions of wealth and income as if they were self-evident, but definitional choices can make substantial differences in the overall picture."

The narrative is important, not facts or data.

Besides, you don't want to be called a disloyal reader, someone who only points out flaws, right?

I am a tax lawyer who deals with rich people and assets. With income you have tax data which gives you a good data base, but even that has problems (as I have never seen discussed the changes in the 86 reform act on the tax data as it impacts income inequality).

But with wealth, their is no disclosure required. So I doubt the data is any good. Even if data were disclosed and know, and you could account for things like the value of pensions or government "entitlements", valuation errors alone would make the data meaningless. Simple example, Don Sterlings LA Clippers. Reported by Forbes to be worth around $500 million. Bid was $2 billion. This is know asset that compared to many assets should be easy to value and error is factor of 4. Very hard for me to believe data is better than random numbers I might make up.

That one was really Ballmer's fault, but it's a good point.

Martin Feldstein made the point about US tax changes in this WSJ Op-Ed:

Not only have there been significant tax law changes and data collection changes within the US over the period studied by Piketty, but comparing wealth and income among different countries is even more difficult. Are the reporting conventions the same? Are the definitions of "income" the same for tax purposes (tax returns are usually used to gauge income)?

One should not just throw up one's hands and say forget it, but it is easy to see how one's conclusions on this subject neatly fit one's ideological priors. Piketty admits these problems in his answer to his critics; however, were the "conclusions" drawn in his book equally as equivocal? It strikes me that you can't draw a conclusion and at the same time admit the data is crap.

Alan Reynolds' Income and Wealth is a good antidote to Piketty and Saez. He pointed out the distortion of results due to tax law changes. And for those under 35, the 1986 Tax Act made big changes - much more income was treated as taxable, in exchange for much lower rates. The top rate was 28%. That was down from 50%, and down from 70% in 1981. Of course, the Feds have managed to jack it back up to 39.6%. All rates are for married filing jointly.

Someone made the point the other day that tenure is a form of wealth -- lots of Americans would love to have near-guaranteed lifetime employment.

So, Piketty enthusiasts, how do you plan to tax tenure? :)

100% inheritance tax of course.

It's already taxed in Britain by the subtle scheme of paying academics rather poorly.

By the way, that's a description not a complaint. Anyone who doesn't like the T&Cs of his job should go and get another one.

American academics, by contrast, can be quite well paid - use the appropriate information at this link to determine what the taxpayers of the Commonweatlh of Virgina (a commonwealth with a median income of 61,044 dollars according to wikipedia) paid Prof. Cowen in 2011 -

Obviously, this does not include his income as an author or as general director of the Mercatus Center. Or even the likely low four figure income he receives from being an Amazon affiliate.

It is reasonable to assume that Prof. Cowen is in the top 1% of income earners in the U.S., with his salary from the Commonwealth of Virginia being the single largest component of that income.

After all, there is a reason when talking to the German weekly Die Zeit, he remarked having no concern about his personal future in an age when average is over.

US citizenship could be a form of wealth if people could sell it.

Take out a single an outlier Sweden and there is zero correlation.

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This plot would be much less compelling if:
1. The full 0-1 scale were displayed on each axis, showing all countries in a little lump in the middle, and
2. The points were displayed with margins of error in measurement and calculation rather than as true points.

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