Reprinted from neweconomicperspectives.org
The New York Times and Dave Leonhardt's Upshot section made a big splash a few days ago by reporting on a study showing that the Canadian middle class had caught the US middle class in median income and likely surpassed it since. The study is based on an effort to measure median income per capita after taxes, and its results are presented as something truly significant.
However, I think the study is biased in that in median income per capita after taxes, it selected the wrong measure. What is needed is a measure of income or affluence that takes account of the value of cross-national variations in Government benefits delivered to the middle classes. Since the United States has lower taxes than most comparable nations, but delivers much less in safety net and entitlement benefits, it's pretty clear that the measure used in the study reported on by The Times overestimates the real median income of the US middle class in comparison with the middle classes of other comparable nations and provides a misleading impression of the relative affluence of the American middle class.
In fact, it is likely that if real median income or median wealth per capita were measured in a more valid way that the study would have found that the US has lost its lead over other nations in Net Median Income Per Capita (median income per capita after taxes minus the cost per capita of benefits the State does NOT provide relative to the nation with the most generous safety net benefits), or per adult long before 2010. This is suggested by an earlier post of mine which I'll now reproduce in full and then briefly discuss to conclude this one.
We're No. 24! We're No. 24! (As of July 2012)
We keep hearing bad news about where the US stands on various social and economic indicators. The US's ranking in math capability is 27th in the world. Our health care system is ranked 37th. Our 2011 life expectancy is 51st in the world. Our estimated 2012 infant mortality rate is 49th in the world. So we're pretty far down in a number of international statistical comparisons of performance. Some here point to better performance on economic indicators. For example, GDP per capita is often cited as an area where the US performs much better. But even here the latest CIA world handbook estimate shows the US ranked 19th on this measure at $48,400.
It gets even worse if you take a look at the recent Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2011. Dylan Matthews, writing on Ezra Klein's Wonkblog, did that on July 18th in a blog entitled "Are Canadians Richer Than Americans?" Matthews says yes, based on the Credit Suisse data on 2011 Median Wealth per Adult, and he goes on to also point out that:
"So not only does Canada beat the United States on median net worth. Just about every developed country save Sweden and Denmark does. The UK, Japan, Italy (!) and Australia more than double the U.S. Median."
This important conclusion of Matthews gets a bit lost in the post's central focus on a US/Canada comparison and his attempt to answer his lede question. A few days later, wigwam posted at MyFDL blogging on the Matthews piece, and presenting a table wigwam developed from the graphic used in the Matthews piece.
Wigwam's numbers are approximate because he developed his table, from Matthews's graphic, but his emphasis on the context of where the US stands relative to other nations is much greater than in Matthews's post, and he also ties it into other issues such as foreign aid to Israel, the 99% vs. the 1%, and rising poverty in the United States. Wigwam's money lines are:
"This is a chart that I'm going to show when Mitt Romney fans talk about "what makes American exceptional." It vividly documents how badly America's 99% are being screwed by its 1%. We're a wealthy nation only when you count the trillions controlled by the 1% but not so wealthy when you look at the net worth of the median household."
So, that's what got me looking at the Credit Suisse Report. When I did, I found that Matthews had truncated the Credit Suisse data, and that in doing so he had missed some important aspects of US economic performance compared to other nations when viewed from the perspective of a "middle" US economic position. Wigwam, as well, in basing his post on Matthews's, also reflects the same problems.
Specifically, Matthews and wigwam both included only 19 nations in their analyses, and ranked the US 17th out of 19th. In addition, in approximating the numbers in his table he departed a good bit from the actual median wealth per adult numbers in a number of cases. Here's a chart that includes the first 36 ranks in the Credit Suisse data.
I've included more than Rank, Nation, and 2011 Median Wealth per Adult in the chart. There's also, Credit Suisse's data on 2011 Mean Wealth per Adult and values I've computed giving the ratio of the mean to the median. I've included the last measure because I think the ratio is revealing as a measure of inequality in each of the nations. The Credit Suisse Databook does give the GINI index which is a better measure of inequality than the ratio I've used here, from a strict social science point of view; but I don't think it's as intuitive as the ratio of the mean to the median.
Looking at the results, you can see that the United States isn't 17th on Median Wealth per Adult, it's 24th. Now Luxembourg, Belgium, Iceland, Singapore, Austria, Qatar, and Kuwait, are all also ahead of the US in median Wealth. The "median person" is more than three times as wealthy in Luxembourg, more than two-and-a-half times as wealthy in Belgium, and more than twice as wealthy in Iceland and Singapore than in the US. Among nations that were included in the original WaPo and MyFDL comparisons, the "median Australian" is nearly 4.5 times as wealthy as the "median American; the "median Italian" is three times as wealthy. Japan and the UK have medians in the neighborhood of 2.5 times the US median, while Switzerland and Ireland have medians in the range of double the US number.