Consumption inequality is rising

In the last thirty years, consumption inequality has risen as fast as income inequality.

It has been a common belief that, while income inequality has risen rapidly in the west generally, and the United States specifically, inequality of consumption has travelled a much milder trajectory. Many reasons have been given for this effect, which was seen in a number of studies and generally assumed to be true.

Some argued that the divergence between the two was due to the unsustainable bubble of consumer credit; while the rich were getting richer faster than the poor were getting less poor, both ended up with mobile phones and flatscreen TVs, but the latter bought them with borrowed money. This, of course, leads those like Edwina Currie to argue that poor people aren't really poor because they have nice things.

Another interesting point raised off the back of the figures was the claim that it was entirely understandable, since the marginal utility of money declines pretty quickly. Thus, the explanation goes, income growth at the top end doesn't increase consumption all that much, since there isn't much to spend that money on. If this is true, then consumption inequality would indeed rise slower than income inequality in countries where absolute poverty is rare.

Now, though, it seems that both these arguments may come from faulty premises. A new paper from the American National Bureau of Economic Research argues that actually, consumption inequality has been rising at much the same rate as income inequality.

The authors write (£):

There is now mounting evidence that the [consumer expenditure survey, the source of many of the claims of divergence] is plagued by serious non-classical measurement error, which hinders the extent to which definitive conclusions can be made about the extent to which consumption inequality has evolved over the last three decades. . . 

Consumption inequality within the U.S. between 1980 and 2010 has increased by nearly the same amount as income inequality

And conclude:

Across every other measure of consumption we analyzed, consumption inequality increased substantially.

Of course, the same questions apply to consumption inequality as do to income inequality: why does it actually matter? So long as everyone can consume the essentials, does the difference between them and the rich have any effect?

The answer is one that Adam Smith hit upon over two centuries ago (although you are unlikely to find the libertarian Adam Smith Institute quoting it): what the rich can afford has a material effect on what is essential.

In The Wealth of Nations, published 1776, Smith wrote:

A linen shirt, for example, is, strictly speaking, not a necessary of life. The Greeks and Romans lived, I suppose, very comfortably, though they had no linen. But in the present times, through the greater part of Europe, a creditable day-labourer would be ashamed to appear in public without a linen shirt, the want of which would be supposed to denote that disgraceful degree of poverty, which, it is presumed, nobody can well fall into without extreme bad conduct.

Custom, in the same manner, has rendered leather shoes a necessary of life in England. The poorest creditable person, of either sex, would be ashamed to appear in public without them. In Scotland, custom has rendered them a necessary of life to the lowest order of men; but not to the same order of women, who may, without any discredit, walk about barefooted.

In France, they are necessaries neither to men nor to women; the lowest rank of both sexes appearing there publicly, without any discredit, sometimes in wooden shoes, and sometimes barefooted. Under necessaries, therefore, I comprehend, not only those things which nature, but those things which the established rules of decency have rendered necessary to the lowest rank of people.

Cartoonist Ruben Bolling sums the argument up in eight panels.

To Smith's list we can reasonably add mobile phones (required for much shift work), computers (essential for jobseeking) and, in much of the country, cars. Consumption inequality adds to this list from the top end even as the bottom end remains unable to afford it.

Hat tip to Matt Yglesias for the paper.

A Tajik migrant texts in Moscow. Mobiles are an essential tool worldwide (Getty)

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.