Inequality in income and consumption

My hypothesis is that while inequality in terms of income or wealth (measured in rupees/dollars) has been growing, consumption inequality is actually coming down. I hope to do a more detailed analysis using data, but I’ll stick to an anecdote for this this introductory blogpost.

The trigger for this thought came about a year back, at a meeting in one of the organisations I’m associated with. The meeting wasn’t terribly interesting, so I spent time checking out the guy sitting next to me, whose Net Worth I knew is at least a couple of orders of magnitude more than mine.

He was wearing a Louis Philippe shirt, and I have several shirts of that brand. He had a Parker pen, and I use a Parker too. He had a rather fancy watch whose brand I do not recall now, but my Seiko isn’t that bad in comparison. And he had an iPhone, which cost four times as much as the phone I used then (a Moto G), but not out of reach for me.

I can go on but the gist is that while our income and wealth levels were different by an order of magnitude, our consumption wasn’t all that far off. I must admit that I’m also a so-called “1-percenter” in terms of income (recall a study which said that 99th percentile of income in India is Rs. 12 lakh per annum), so I was also part of the power law tail, yet the marginal difference in consumption to income levels was strikingly low.

Since this is an introductory blog post on this topic, I posit that this is a more general trend and applies at many other levels. The thing with inequality is that income (and wealth) is usually distributed according to a Power Law (unless the state is extremely coercive and extractive), so as the economy grows, inequality as measured by measures such as the Gini coefficient is bound to increase (here’s a nice but hard-to-read paper by Nassim Nicholas Taleb on why the Gini coefficient is flawed for fat-tailed distributions such as the power law).

Yet, as the economy grows, more people are pushed beyond a “basic level” of income where they are able to afford “necessities” (and certain kinds of luxuries), so inequality as measured by consumption will actually be lower. The challenge is in measuring such inequality appropriately.

I’ll mention a couple of more anecdotes in support of this. One sector where inequality has fallen is in commute. Some rich old-time Bangaloreans look back in nostalgia at a time when there was no congestion on the streets of Bangalore, and how the city has since deteriorated. Yet, that congestion-free travel was then available only to the extremely wealthy (who could afford private vehicles) or lucky (my father waited for four years to get his first scooter because of limited supply). Public transport infrastructure was abysmal and buses infrequent.

Now, a larger proportion of the population can afford private vehicles and public transport has also improved (though not by much), making life better at the lower end of income/wealth levels. And the rich (who had exclusive access to roads in private cars earlier) are faced with higher congestion.

Another obvious example is the telephone. Very few people had them even twenty years back (we applied for ours in 1989, only to get “allotted” a phone in 1995), and now pretty much everyone has a basic mobile phone now (and with cheaper smart phones, even some relatively poor people own smart phones).

This is a theory worth pursuing. Need to analyse how to collect data and measure inequality, but I think there’s something to this hypothesis. Any thoughts will be welcome!