”Open a newspaper—or, more likely, click on a Facebook article on your phone—and there will be a story telling you that income inequality is at the root of America’s problems: 0.1% of the US population is worth almost as much as the bottom 90%; CEO-to-worker pay ratios have increased thousand-fold since 1950; and wages have been stagnating for 35 years.
But while the wages we are paid are vital to the success and comfort of our lives, economic returns have been going increasingly to investors rather than wage earners. The real affliction America is suffering from isn’t income inequality: It’s asset inequality.
Since the Occupy protests of September of 2011, the subject of America’s large and growing income inequalities has become fodder for media stories, policy discussions, and a growing body of academic studies. Hardly a day goes by without some new research pointing out how dire the situation has become. The Institute for Policy Studies most recently stated that “America’s 20 wealthiest people—a group that could fit comfortably in one single Gulfstream G650 luxury jet—now own more wealth than the bottom half of the American population combined, a total of 152 million people in 57 million households.”
Makes you want to storm that Gulfstream.
To counter gaping economic inequality, many organizations and thought leaders are offering solutions that tackle this issue. These include everything from Universal Basic Income (UBI), whereby money would be given unconditionally to every individual regardless of their income levels or employment status, to investing in employee training that upskills workers (thereby saving them from the robots) or lowering tax rates.
But these solutions treat income inequality as a symptom rather than a disease. Income inequality is born out of something deeper and more fundamental: asset inequality.
Assets aren’t just cars and money: They’re the primary resources that people can leverage to generate income. Ownership or access to assets—such as equity shares, certain types of land, education, and social connections—is what gives people the foundation to generate an income and therefore create more wealth. For example, if you inherit financial capital, you can invest the money in the stock market, buy a home, and pay for good education, thus leveraging your inherited asset to generate more wealth and a higher income. If you have access to health insurance, you are able to take care of your physical and mental self, which makes it easier for you to work and earn money. If you own a house or an apartment, you can put it on Airbnb and earn extra income, or sell it. The more assets you have, the more you can leverage them to generate even more assets, and the more income you can eventually bring in.
Money in particular is a kind of asset that gives people access to other assets, such as a good education, better health care, and crime-free neighborhoods to live in. But ownership of financial assets has become highly polarized: A recent study by the International Monetary Fund concluded that the share of national income paid to workers has been falling since the 1980s. Wages simply haven’t kept pace with gains in productivity, and a greater amount of income is being earned through equity ownership and financial investments. In today’s world, returns are going to investors and shareholders, not to workers.
Economists are starting to take notice. “Policy discussions about rising global inequality should focus on how to equalize the distribution of primary assets, including human capital, financial capital, and bargaining power, rather than merely discussing the ex-post redistribution through taxes and transfers,” says French economist Thomas Pikkety and colleagues.
In other words, we need to start thinking about wealth in terms of assets, not income.
We used to think of wealth in this way—and in many respects, we still do. Throughout most of our economic history, asset ownership was at the heart of wealth. Feudal lords who inherited land and serfs put their plots—and indentured laborers—to work to grow crops and provide services. In this way, they leveraged land and free labor to ensure economic prosperity; without them, they could not generate their wealth.
At the founding of the United States of America, land was a core asset needed for economic security, but with the dawn of the industrial revolution, agricultural land was no longer key to economic viability for many. In Citizen’s Share: Putting Ownership Back into the Democracy, the authors describe how a different kind of asset—jobs with guaranteed wages and all the ensuing benefits, such as pensions, equity participation, guaranteed vacations, and health insurance—became a primary way to ensure economic wellbeing. In the 1950s, a factory job at General Motors virtually assured you a middle-class lifestyle, including good wages that made it possible to buy a decent house, retirement benefits, access to health insurance, and opportunities for career advancement.
In 2017, the assets we value have changed once more, but the mentality has not. Today, we are in the midst of an economic transition reminiscent of the country’s shift from an agrarian to industrial economy: It’s now on-demand. Instead of 9-to-5 jobs, people earn a wage through performing individual tasks, often assigned to them by algorithms instead of human managers, just like Uber’s algorithms seamlessly matches those who need rides with available drivers.
As a result, fewer people are engaged in formal, full-time employment at companies that offer good wages and benefits like those enjoyed by General Motors workers decades ago. Instead, we see a growing number of people working as freelancers or in seasonal, temporary, and other types of nontraditional jobs. While exact estimates of this new economy’s size vary, a recent study by Intuit projects that close to 9 million Americans will be regularly working in the on-demand economy by 2020, nearly tripling the 3.2 million workers in 2015. Meanwhile, a McKinsey survey found that up to 162 million people in Europe and the US engage in some form of independent work, which is 20 to 30% of the working-age population. And this number is likely to grow in the next 10 years.
People working as contractors for Uber, Upwork, and Taskrabbit may like the flexibility of such arrangements, but they are no longer stakeholders in the enterprises for which they work. They may like to have control over their time and being their own bosses, but they lack the stability, social protections, and benefits workers in other eras previously enjoyed: the assets that gave them security over the long run.
While assets such as homes, land, capital, and health care are still important for economic wellbeing, we are now creating new asset classes. Data, artificial-intelligence tools, and online reputations are quickly becoming our doors to wealth generation. Many of the most successful and rapidly growing companies are already capitalizing on such assets to grow their profits and increase returns to investors and shareholders; Facebook, Google, Amazon, and many other tech companies’ business models are based on taking our data, aggregating it, and selling it to advertisers for billions of dollars. These companies are leveraging an asset—our data—to make money. (And as they say, data is the new oil.)
As these digital assets begin to play an increasingly important role as engines of wealth generation, we have to deal with the thorny questions: how do we distribute these new resources; who has the right to capitalize on them; and how can we leverage them to create economic growth while maintaining a necessary level of social equity?
We’ve found appropriate solutions in the past. In the 1800s, when land farming was a key driver of wealth, we achieved a workable equilibrium by distributing land. The 1862 Homestead Act granted any US citizen or intended citizen the right to claim up to 160 acres of frontier land. This gave the settlers a valuable asset to build their livelihoods on, but it also encouraged cultivation of new land, which in turn enabled new markets and new growth opportunities for the country. It created thousands of small-land holders, thus spreading economic prosperity widely rather than concentrating it in the hands of a few large landowners.
A century later in the manufacturing and large-scale factory production era, equilibrium in wealth accumulation and distribution was reached through pacts with organized labor. Not only did they deliver good wages for millions of workers, but they also won benefits, a five-day work week, paid vacations, health coverage, and safe working conditions.
We now need to find a new workable equilibrium.
We need a new solution that is suited to the realities of our digital economy; one that balances the concentration of wealth needed for investments and economic growth with the distribution of wealth in order to maintain a functioning democracy. Calls for UBI and investments in education and training are steps in the right direction, as they give people additional assets: UBI in the form of actual money that can be invested in education, health, and simply relieve some of the stress and insecurity of the 99%, and education and training in the form of assets that enable people to make more informed decisions throughout their lives. However, these proposals do not address the root causes of inequality.
For the past few years, the Institute for the Future has been researching new patterns of work in the on-demand economy. We believe that the combination of a proliferation of on-demand platforms and advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence will render many traditional 9-to-5 jobs in formal organizations obsolete. Economic returns will increasingly go to the investors and owners of such platforms rather than those who are making their livelihoods fulfilling them. In other words, any new assets generated will be redistributed to the original asset holders rather than to workers.
Because of this, we believe that in order to achieve greater economic equity, our policies should focus on giving people more access to various types of assets. We call this solution Universal Basic Assets.
UBA identifies a fundamental set of resources (pdf) every person needs access to—such as financial security, housing, health care, and education—in order to achieve economic security and prosperity. We focus on three broad classes of assets: private assets, like money, land, and housing; public assets, in the form of infrastructure and services such as education, health, and public utilities; and open assets, which are a growing category of mostly digital assets that are communally created and open to everyone, like Wikipedia and other open-source resources.
Access to public resources—public education, healthcare, nature, and transportation infrastructure—are important assets that serve as a great economic equalizer. This is why Nordic countries consistently come out on top of global rankings of social mobility. Just think: In Denmark, the chances of reaching the top fifth of income levels (pdf) during your lifetime are virtually the same for children born to poor families compared to those born into wealthy ones. The chance for the same children living in Charlotte, Columbus, or Atlanta is 5%, and for those from Memphis only 2.8%. This is largely because of the differences in access to public assets.
In order to solve this problem, we can design policies and funding mechanisms that encourage capital flows to more distributive initiatives, such as cooperatives and employee-stock-owned companies. We can also give people ownership of their data so it can be used as an asset which they—not platforms such as Google and Facebook— can leverage and capture economic value.
But the point of UBA is not to collectivize or seize and distribute resources: It’s to ensure that people are given opportunities to thrive in a rapidly shifting economy. It can serve as a guide for designing actions and policies aimed at widening access to such resources.
Without correcting for the root causes of economic inequality, we will all be paying the price, both rich and poor. High levels of economic inequality don’t only impact the poor, but also society at large: Extreme inequality requires investments in costly security institutions and leads to social divisions and strife.
We don’t have to become that society. Just like our forefathers saw land distribution as a necessity for the new democracy, we can bring more equity into our society by equalizing access to the assets that are key to economic prosperity.