Decreasing income inequality?

While Donald Trump rarely uses the word “inequality,” economic justice, and a growing sense that Americans are getting a smaller piece of the pie at the expense of somebody else, is clearly at the center of his campaign. Similarly, Clinton has frequently spoken about income inequality, which was an issue at the core of her contentious primary race with Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders. Even proponents of the conservative pro-growth perspective, who suggests that income inequality is essentially good when paired with economic growth, have been getting attention, with increased attention being paid to pro-capitalist views expressed by characters like Martin Shkreli and Mark Cuban.

In the midst of this debate, and, tellingly, on the Friday before the first presidential debate, comes some very interesting messaging from the Obama administration: https://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/page/files/20160923_record_inequality_cea.pdf

And, for some perspective, a FiveThirtyEight piece analyzing the report: http://fivethirtyeight.com/features/the-income-gap-began-to-narrow-under-obama/

Essentially, the Obama administration is arguing that income inequality is beginning to drop, as a direct result of the economic policies of his presidency. While much of this administration’s policy has undoubtedly been crafted to reduce inequalities generally (such as health care reform that has expanded access to insurance), and even crafted to reduce economic inequality (such as tax increases primarily targeted at the wealthy), a close reading of Piketty demonstrates how decreasing income equality isn’t necessarily a good thing.

Piketty essentially argues that income inequality has traditionally not been the largest issue, but, rather, the issue has been wealth inequality (or, if you prefer, capital inequality). The wealthy have traditionally maintained their wealth not through wage labor, but through the dividends of invested capital, passed through generations by inheritance and marriage. Piketty illustrates this with an allusion to Balzac’s Pere Goriot, in which the shady Vautrin tries to convince his industrious friend Rastignac that hard work is a waste of a lifetime in contrast to marrying rich: “By the age of thirty, you will be a judge making 1,200 francs a year, if you haven’t yet tossed away your robes…But can you name five lawyers in Paris who earn more than 50,000 francs a year [50000 is 5% of the fortune that his perspective wealthy wife possesses] at the age of fifty?” (Piketty, 2013, pp. 239–240)⁠. One of Piketty’s major findings is that economic shocks in capitalism demonstrably reduce the return on capital (and, by extension, the viability of living off of capital), and that the economic shocks caused by the events of World War II resulted in a paradigm shift in both the US and France (but more so in the US) where the wealthy were forced to seek wage labor in order to offset the declining profitability of their wealth. This results in the formation of a “super manager” class, who are paid increasingly absurd salaries that are so high that it dramatically increases the visible income stratification. The differences between the 19th century method of inheriting wealth and the 20th century model of supplementing the declining value of wealth by directly appropriating money from corporations is marginal, but the latter method is more visible to the public and conceptually easier to think and talk about.

Piketty’s model means that we can presume that capital lost a degree of profitability in the wake of the 2008 economic crisis at the beginning of Obama’s presidency, meaning income inequality would presumably expand as executives take larger paychecks to compensate for their reduced capital gains. As the economy recovers, income inequality will presumably contract, since their capital gains will provide sufficient revenue once again. In light of Piketty’s research, it would appear that the economy is structurally configured to act in the exact ways that the Obama administration would like to take credit for.

Furthermore, Piketty’s research reveals a major flaw in the Obama administration’s perception of their struggle with income inequality: nobody really knows how bad it is. Much of the Obama administration’s efforts to fight income inequality have focused on improving the economic situation of the poor. As a strategy for fighting income inequality, this is analogous to trying to balance a see-saw with an elephant and a frog on it by fattening the frog – the difference is just too great. But, distressingly, nobody really knows how fat the elephant is. Even the most basic descriptive statistics on the ultra-wealthy, who polarize both income inequality and wealth inequality so greatly, are essentially missing. This sabotages an enormous amount of research on income inequality – if Obama wants to contribute more to the fight of the income inequality than simply being President during a time period where the “invisible hand” happens to make him look good, enabling the social sciences to perform deeper research into the extent of income and wealth inequality in the US would be a good place to start.

Research questions:

RQ1: Do measures of return on capital vary with amounts of CEO compensation?

RQ2: Does the degree of income inequality in a country vary according to how much a country values investment?

 

© Karl Marx

For academics, copyright can be a tricky issue. Much like non-academic authors, musicians, and artists, control of the copyright of their completed works is their only tangible symbol of possession of the product which they have been laboring to produce. Distressingly, publication typically results in the author losing control over the work, who must cede the publication rights to a publisher. Similarly, a graduate student or doctoral candidate might find themselves actually paying the publisher, simply to allow their work to be accessed without subscriptions to electronic journals.

Competing narratives surround the introduction of copyright into society, but it is certainly an invention of modernity, introduced approximately a century before Marx’s lifetime. To the best of my knowledge, Marx didn’t specifically write on intellectual property (though volumes have probably been written on it in the Marxist tradition since his lifetime), but the establishment of copyright laws does offer compelling examples of the essential elements of Marx’s arguments about the nature of capitalism. The introduction of copyright allows for the commodification of an essential element of human life, artistic and scholarly expression, and this commodification services a structural necessity for the propagation of an economic system that can only exist in states of expansion or crisis. After purchasing the publishing rights from the author, the capitalist replicates and sells the product through various, largely worthless mediums, such as bound paper, plastic discs or the transmission of data packets over the Internet, beautifully illustrating the differences between use-value and exchange-value. Consider the example of the modern textbook – why, other than the value of the information in the textbook to a particular individual, would an individual pay $200 for an object that costs less than $5 to produce? Minus the $5 of production costs and a 10% royalty ($20), the publishers (who are increasingly trying to sell to students directly) walks away with $175, or 87.5% of the profit. The value of the book, which is access to the ideas within it, is entirely supplied by the author, but when the capitalist reconstitutes these ideas in combination with near-worthless commodities, the capitalist is able to lay claim to almost nine times more profit than the author, which illustrates the surplus value of labor and exploitation of labor.

Even more shocking than the exploitation inherent in this system is the legitimacy that we provide it, with thoughts such as “publication is an inherently risky business, therefore it makes sense that publishers should assume more of the profits because they assume more of the risks.” Similarly, copyright enforcers such as the RIAA and MPAA produce narratives in which people who are not authorized to receive a commodified artistic/intellectual expression are guilty of theft, as if passing by an individual playing Rihanna on a cell phone in a public space without the express and written consent of Rihanna’s label is enough to make that individual into some type of anti-social deviant. Online, the present refrain goes something like “if we don’t pay content-producers to produce content, content-producers will stop producing content because they won’t be able to support themselves,” as if the very act of installing an ad-blocking plugin in your browser or opting not to drop your personal debit card numbers into a paywall will somehow lead to no new movies, news articles or paintings ever being produced again, and the destruction of a tradition of the free exchange of ideas that stretches back millennia before the capitalist paradigm even emerged. In short, catering to these types of capitalist ideologies, explicitly constructed to suppress free and creative production, is a defining characteristic of living in a state of false consciousness.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/01/arts/claiming-a-copyright-on-marx-how-uncomradely.html

This article, which is admittedly a couple of years old at this point, focuses on a conflict over the publication rights of a translation of Marx’s writings (Marx’s copyright is expired, and his work is in the public domain, but the translation is a distinct work that belongs to the translators). My point in bringing this cultural artifact into the discussion isn’t to mediate a specific conflict between radical publishing houses using Marxist thought (after all, both belligerents in this conflict are probably a lot more experienced in this school of thought than I, and this is presumably old enough that the conflict is probably over), but rather to illustrate the immense difficulty of transitioning from a state of false consciousness to the state that Marx termed as class consciousness. Institutional pressures demand some form of revenue in order for the institution to survive in a capitalist system, even from charities, nonprofits, and radical publishing houses – the very institutions that are devoted to the overthrow of capitalism are structurally required to actively participate in it, if such institutions want to last. Knowledge isn’t enough – one cannot enter into a state of class consciousness by simply reading the Communist Manifesto, by obsessing over it and memorizing the text verbatim, or even devoting one’s life to Marxism. Only when an entire class begins to understand the nature of capitalism does it begin to achieve the power to not participate in it – cooperation and solidarity are prerequisite needs to the dismantlement of this system.

A couple of research questions that emerge from these examples:

RQ1: What are the different ways in which societies have typically viewed the concept of authorship?

RQ2: Do individuals purchasing online access to intellectual property perceive themselves as purchasing a commodity – or, in other words, do individuals view the purchase of social, immaterial objects as analogous to the purchase of physical commodities?

 

Data analysis blog

I’m also certainly deeply misinterpreting the blog topic this week, but our task in this blog assignment is to develop two research questions that can be operationalized using variables in our class SPSS datasets, and to examine them using the data analysis techniques presented in chapters two and three. This is excessively difficult, as none of the techniques that we’ve covered so far focus on bivariate comparison, and a research question must have at least two variables in order to derive a hypothesis from it (a possible exception: some graphs that we covered could allow for meaningful bivariate comparisons if both variables are measured at the interval-ratio level). This would lead to an extraordinarily tedious blog, where I graph and elaborate upon two disconnected dichotomous variables, which are perhaps better expressed in ten words or less.

 

However, while chapter two doesn’t touch upon how to construct a table with more than one variable in it, it does devote a rather lengthy section on interpreting these tables. Therefore, I’m going to risk my grade, and suggest that crosstabs are valid in this blog. Also, if bivariate analysis is disallowed, I couldn’t possibly “examine” either research question, so it’s arguably a risk either way.

 

My preference is to develop a broad research question that can be asked in two ways. Using a structuralist perspective, one might think that political beliefs and values pattern other political beliefs. Therefore, I’m curious in:
RQ1: Does tolerance of premarital sex predict support of abortion?

RQ2: Does confidence in medicine predict support of abortion?

 

Three relevant variables are found in our 2010 GSS subset: conmedic, abany and premarsx.

 

Abany:

Question text: Please tell me whether or not you think it should be possible for a pregnant woman to obtain a legal abortion . . .If the woman wants it for any reason?

Possible responses: Inapplicable, Yes, No, Don’t know, No answer

 

Conmedic:

Question text: I am going to name some institutions in this country. As far as the people running these institutions are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them? Medicine

Possible responses: Inapplicable, A great deal, Only some, Hardly any, Don’t know, No answer.

 

Premarsx:

Question text: There’s been a lot of discussion about the way morals and attitudes about sex are changing in this country. If a man and woman have sex relations before marriage, do you think it is always wrong, almost always wrong, wrong only sometimes, or not wrong at all?

Possible responses: Inapplicable, Always wrong, Almost always wrong, Sometimes wrong, Not wrong at all, Don’t know, No answer.

 

Below are the results of the crosstab analysis:

 

 

 

ABORTION IF WOMAN WANTS FOR ANY REASON * SEX BEFORE MARRIAGE Crosstabulation
Count
  SEX BEFORE MARRIAGE Total
ALWAYS WRONG ALMST ALWAYS WRG SOMETIMES WRONG NOT WRONG AT ALL
ABORTION IF WOMAN WANTS FOR ANY REASON YES 16 6 23 124 169
NO 107 30 48 115 300
Total 123 36 71 239 469

 

 

ABORTION IF WOMAN WANTS FOR ANY REASON * CONFIDENCE IN MEDICINE Crosstabulation
Count
  CONFIDENCE IN MEDICINE Total
A GREAT DEAL ONLY SOME HARDLY ANY
ABORTION IF WOMAN WANTS FOR ANY REASON YES 75 95 11 181
NO 107 138 33 278
Total 182 233 44 459

 

The results are mixed. Strong convictions against sex before marriage definitely have some degree of correlation with strong convictions against abortion, but the relationship kind of falls apart after that. Beyond this curious relationship, I’m not sure I see many opportunities for further research based off of these results. However, that relationship does suggest that there might be a superior variable, or combination of variables, to predict support of abortion.

 

Introduction (SOCY 502)

Hi all! My name’s Peter Jameson, and I’m in my second semester of the sociology program at VCU. I also finished my undergraduate degree here, which was a BA in political science. I’m typically interested in issues surrounding economic inequality, but I’d also like to learn more about gender and sexuality. So far, I’ve been working on topics surrounding consumer debt, but I’m trying to refine and maybe rethink this before the spring. I’m super excited for this course, as I’ve had an entire semester of graduate school without theory, which really gives you time to reflect on how important it is to know what your classmates are talking about. I also really enjoyed this course as an undergraduate, but I definitely need a refresher.

I truly despise writing these sorts of introductions, so I’m just going to close with a not very professional picture of my cat, Mister Fluffy Pants. It’ll probably necessitate me scrubbing this post off my page before the end of the semester, but hopefully somebody will appreciate it. I swear he has a tail, I must have just cropped it off..

 

SOCY 508 Introduction

Hi everyone! I’m Peter Jameson, and this is my second semester in the sociology program at VCU. I also did my undergraduate work in political science here. My experience with statistics is limited, since my undergraduate program didn’t require me to actually take a statistics course. I have taken an undergraduate research methods course, as well as SOCY 601, so I think I’m somewhat familiar with a few of the concepts that we’ll be discussing, but I can see that there’s still a lot more to learn just by flipping through the textbook. I’m definitely not the most mathematically oriented person, but I’m really looking forward to working on the SPSS exercises. I took an online introductory course in R last year, and I have a lot of experience in bash and Python, so I’m hoping that I’ll click with SPSS.

In any case, this is largely just a test post to make sure it gets picked up by the class page, but I think there are two or three other introductory posts for other classes on this page, and if you’d like to chat about anything in particular, feel free to comment!

 
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