3rd March 2015
In the “Economic Report of the President” released on Feb. 19, the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers defines “middle class economics” primarily by the average income of the bottom 90%. “Average income for the bottom 90 percent of households,” according to the ERP, “functions as a decent proxy for the median household’s income growth.”
This is absurd: The average income for the bottom 90% is not a decent proxy for the median nor even a decent measure of household income. It is instead a roughly fabricated estimate of pretax “market income” reported on tax returns that falls below some threshold for the top 10% ($114,290 in 2013). But this dodgy number does serve as the basis for CEA Chairman Jason Furman ’s assertion a day later on the Vox blog that the U.S. has suffered a “40-year stagnation in incomes for the middle class and those working to get into the middle class.”
The measure has become popular on the left. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) recently asked an AFL-CIO conference, “Since 1980, guess how much of the growth in income the [bottom] 90% got? Nothing. None. Zero.” NPR displayed the same bottom 90% data and stretched it even further, claiming that “after 1980, only the top 1% saw their incomes rise.”
The source cited in the ERP for the claims about stagnating average incomes is the World Top Incomes Database. The U.S. data come from economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, the same source cited by Sen. Warren and NPR.
Hey, if there isn’t a problem, they won’t get any support for ‘fixing’ it. The technical term for that is ‘tendentious’. Not to mention ‘partisan’.
Amazingly, these same statistics also show there has been no increase for the “bottom” 90% since 1968. Measured in 2013 dollars, average income of the bottom 90% was supposedly $32,730 in 1968, $32,887 in 1980, $35,326 in 2007 and $32,341 in 2013.
This is totally inconsistent with the data the Bureau of Economic Analysis uses to calculate GDP. For example, real personal consumption per person has tripled since 1968 and doubled since 1980, according to the BEA. Are all those shopping malls, big box stores, car dealers and restaurants catering to only the top 10%? The question answers itself.
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