30 June 2017

Reducing Income Inequality when Productivity Exceeds Consumption

Prototype apple harvester by Abundant Robotics.Among the last bastions of labor demand is Agricultural Harvesting. Every fall, groups of migrant workers follow the maturation of fruit and vegetables across the different climates. But even those jobs are going away. In one case, Abundant Robotics is developing robots that use image recognition to locate ripe apples and delicate manipulators to harvest fruit without bruising it.

In my last post I described how creatively destructive innovations like these have increased productivity in the United States until it exceeds basic needs by nearly four times. If it weren't for distribution problems, we could eliminate poverty altogether.

The problem is that when production exceeds consumption, prices fall and the economy goes into recession. As I wrote previously the U.S. and most of the word economy have relied on a combination of advertising, increased standards of living, and fiscal policy to stimulate demand sufficiently to keep up with productivity. But these stimulus methods have a side effect of increasing wage disparity.

The impact is mostly on the unskilled labor force as these jobs are the easiest to automate or export. Even though the income pie keeps growing, the slice owned by the lowest quintile shrinks. Free trade exacerbates the spread between skilled and unskilled labor as do attempts to stimulate consumption through government spending, low interest rates, and tax cuts. (Please see that previous post for details on all of this.)

Conventional Solutions and Their Limits

This is a gnarly problem. Potential remedies tend to have side effects that can make the situation worse, or at least limit the positive impact. In this post I'll name some of the conventional solutions and then attempt to frame up the kind of innovation that will be required to properly solve the problem.

Infrastructure Investment

Investments in infrastructure are a good short-term stimulus. Constructing or upgrading roads, bridges, energy, and communications infrastructure employs a lot of people of all skill levels. As most infrastructure is government-funded, it's a convenient fiscal stimulus. Trouble is that in the long run these infrastructure improvements result in greater overall productivity thereby reducing the labor demand.

Progressive Taxes

A common method of wealth redistribution is a progressive tax. Presumably the wealthy can afford to pay a larger fraction of their income than those with lower incomes. Progressive taxes are effective tools but, in the U.S., we have pretty much reached the limit of how much a progressive system can help low income households. Those earning less than the income tax threshold already pay no taxes. For a single parent with one child, the marginal tax threshold for 2016 was approximately $21,000 before accounting for federal and state health care benefits which amount to approximately $9,400 more.

Since the lowest tax bracket is already zero we can consider increasing the tax rate in upper tax brackets. While that may increase the amount paid by the wealthy it doesn't directly benefit the poor. Indeed, the resulting economic slowdown may worsen the situation.

Refundable Tax Credits

Through tax credits you can reduce the lowest effective income tax rate to negative values — paying money rather than collecting it. In the U.S. the Earned Income Tax Credit (ETC) serves this role with progressive benefits for the number of children in the household. Because the ETC is designed as a percentage of income, the benefit increases as the individual earns more money before being phased out at higher income levels. This is intended to incentivize workers to find and improve their employment even while drawing government benefits.

The downside of tax credits is that they are tied in with the very complicated process of filing income tax returns. The Government Accounting Office and IRS indicate that between 15% and 25% of eligible households don't collect credits to which they are entitled. Nevertheless, this is a promising approach because tax credits are unrelated to productivity and they have a direct impact on income inequality.

Increased Minimum Wage

Recently there have been increased calls for a $15 minimum wage. Many cities and some states have already passed laws to increase wages to that level. Critics of the minimum wage point out that increased wages can lead to increased prices — thereby reducing the benefit to low-income workers. And indexing minimum wage to the cost of living, as certain states and municipalities have done, may eliminate entry level jobs and accelerate inflation.

Many are watching to see how experiments in Seattle, New York City, and San Francisco will work out. Two recent studies of Seattle's minimum wage offer early indicators. One, from the University of Washington indicates an increase of 3% in total wages in low-paying jobs (the desired outcome) but a reduction, by 9%, of total hours worked (not so desirable). A study by UC Berkeley confirms the increase in total wages and indicates no reduction in overall employment though it does show a decline in employment of workers by limited-service restaurants (fast food). Hours worked was not among the data in the Berkeley study.

These are preliminary results but they tend to confirm the expected pattern. An increased minimum wage incentivizes greater automation and, thereby reduces the total labor demand. For example, fast food restaurants are deploying self-serve kiosks in place of human cashiers. So, while the employed benefit from higher wages, many jobs may be eliminated.

Idling Portions of the Workforce

A recession naturally reduces the number of workers until production is a closer match to demand. Unfortunately, those who lose their jobs are predominantly low-income workers, people who are least able to tolerate job loss. Better options preserve household income while reducing hours worked. These include mandatory vacation time, a shortened work week, and more holidays. When couples elect to have only one spouse be employed that also reduces the workforce.


Bar graph showing decline in jobs requiring high school or less and increas in jobs requiring a postsecondary degree Increasing educational achievement is the intervention most dear to my heart. Not only does a better education enable better wages, but it also results in better health, greater happiness, more active citizenship, and reduced violence. Those with higher educational attainment make better financial decisions. All of this results in a better quality of life.

As more and more routine jobs are automated, the opportunities for those without a postsecondary degree or certificate will continue to diminish. A recent study at Georgetown University indicates that, by 2020, 65% of jobs in the U.S. will require postsecondary education. That's up from only 28% in 1973.

Certainly greater educational achievement is a part of the solution as it moves more people into higher-wage jobs. But those jobs pay higher wages precisely because they are more productive. So, as more people achieve higher levels of education, productivity will continue to increase.

Working With Market Forces

Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman observed that the communication function of markets is as important as the commerce function. When demand rises then prices rise. Rising prices signal suppliers to produce more goods. On the other hand, excess goods result in falling prices signaling manufacturers to reduce production. No command economy has achieved the signaling efficiency of the market.

The same signaling occurs in labor markets. Higher wages for more-skilled jobs will encourage people to seek the necessary education and training to qualify for those jobs. But the counter-point is our contemporary concern, when there is excess labor available, especially for low-skill jobs, then wages may fall below the point where workers can earn an adequate living. Some workers will retrain, and many programs will help pay for that. But retraining takes time, interest, and an affinity for the new field.

With worker productivity in the U.S. soon to crest 4 times basic needs the natural market signal is for less production – but that would mean unemployment. To date, we have interfered with that signal by artificially propping up demand. Massive advertising, high consumer debt, low interest rates, the housing bubble, planned obsolescence; all are symptoms of the interference. Besides, the overconsumption caused by this stimulus is also damaging to the environment.

As productivity continues to increase we will have to allow the signal to get through – it will inevitably anyway. The challenge is finding ways to match production to demand while sustaining employment and wages especially for the most vulnerable.

Framing the Problem

The innovation we need is this:

A way to distribute abundant resources more equitably; while preserving incentives to learn, work, and make a difference; and allowing market signals to balance production and consumption.

We can't look to the past because the challenge of abundance is different from any faced by previous generations. It's going to require a generous sharing of ideas, some experimentation, and development of greater trust between parties.

I'm optimistic that there is a solution because never before in history has society had such plentiful resources as today.