Inequality-adjusted GDP and median income

Dec 11 JDN 2459925

There are many problems with GDP as a measure of a nation’s prosperity. For one, GDP ignores natural resources and ecological degradation; so a tree is only counted in GDP once it is cut down. For another, it doesn’t value unpaid work, so caring for a child only increases GDP if you are a paid nanny rather than the child’s parents.

But one of the most obvious problems is the use of an average to evaluate overall prosperity, without considering the level of inequality.

Consider two countries. In Alphania, everyone has an income of about $50,000. In Betavia, 99% of people have an income of $1,000 and 1% have an income of $10 million. What is the per-capita GDP of each country? Alphania’s is $50,000 of course; but Betavia’s is $100,990. Does it really make sense to say that Betavia is a more prosperous country? Maybe it has more wealth overall, but its huge inequality means that it is really not at a high level of development. It honestly sounds like an awful place to live.

A much more sensible measure would be something like median income: How much does a typical person have? In Alphania this is still $50,000; but in Betavia it is only $1,000.

Yet even this leaves out most of the actual distribution; by definition a median is only determined by what is the 50th percentile. We could vary all other incomes a great deal without changing the median.

A better measure would be some sort of inequality-adjusted per-capita GDP, which rescales GDP based on the level of inequality in a country. But we would need a good way of making that adjustment.

I contend that the most sensible way would be to adopt some kind of model of marginal utility of income, and then figure out what income would correspond to the overall average level of utility.

In other words, average over the level of happiness that people in a country get from their income, and then figure out what level of income would correspond to that level of happiness. If we magically gave everyone the same amount of money, how much would they need to get in order for the average happiness in the country to remain the same?

This is clearly going to be less than the average level of income, because marginal utility of income is decreasing; a dollar is not worth as much in real terms to a rich person as it is to a poor person. So if we could somehow redistribute all income evenly while keeping the average the same, that would actually increase overall happiness (though, for many reasons, we can’t simply do that).

For example, suppose that utility of income is logarithmic: U = ln(I).

This means that the marginal utility of an additional dollar is inversely proportional to how many dollars you already have: U'(I) = 1/I.

It also means that a 1% gain or loss in your income feels about the same regardless of how much income you have: ln((1+r)Y) = ln(Y) + ln(1+r). This seems like a quite reasonable, maybe even a bit conservative, assumption; I suspect that losing 1% of your income actually hurts more when you are poor than when you are rich.

Then the inequality adjusted GDP Y is a value such that ln(Y) is equal to the overall average level of utility: E[U] = ln(Y), so Y = exp(E[U]).

This sounds like a very difficult thing to calculate. But fortunately, the distribution of actual income seems to quite closely follow a log-normal distribution. This means that when we take the logarithm of income to get utility, we just get back a very nice, convenient normal distribution!

In fact, it turns out that for a log-normal distribution, the following holds: exp(E[ln(Y)]) = median(Y)

The income which corresponds to the average utility turns out to simply be the median income! We went looking for a better measure than median income, and ended up finding out that median income was the right measure all along.

This wouldn’t hold for most other distributions; and since real-world economies don’t perfectly follow a log-normal distribution, a more precise estimate would need to be adjusted accordingly. But the approximation is quite good for most countries we have good data on, so even for the ones we don’t, median income is likely a very good estimate.

The ranking of countries by median income isn’t radically different from the ranking by per-capita GDP; rich countries are still rich and poor countries are still poor. But it is different enough to matter.

Luxembourg is in 1st place on both lists. Scandinavian countries and the US are in the top 10 in both cases. So it’s fair to say that #ScandinaviaIsBetter for real, and the US really is so rich that our higher inequality doesn’t make our median income lower than the rest of the First World.

But some countries are quite different. Ireland looks quite good in per-capita GDP, but quite bad in median income. This is because a lot of the GDP in Ireland is actually profits by corporations that are only nominally headquartered in Ireland and don’t actually employ very many people there.

The comparison between the US, the UK, and Canada seems particularly instructive. If you look at per-capita GDP PPP, the US looks much richer at $75,000 compared to Canada’s $57,800 (a difference of 29% or 26 log points). But if you look at median personal income, they are nearly equal: $19,300 in the US and $18,600 in Canada (3.7% or 3.7 log points).

On the other hand, in per-capita GDP PPP, the UK looks close to Canada at $55,800 (3.6% or 3.6 lp); but in median income it is dramatically worse, at only $14,800 (26% or 23 lp). So Canada and the UK have similar overall levels of wealth, but life for a typical Canadian is much better than life for a typical Briton because of the higher inequality in Britain. And the US has more wealth than Canada, but it doesn’t meaningfully improve the lifestyle of a typical American relative to a typical Canadian.

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