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Sunday, February 16, 2014

'It's Not Just Talent and Hard Work'

Two responses to Greg Mankiw's assertion that the income of the wealthy is deserved:

Paul Krugman:

Iron Men of Wall Street: Greg Mankiw has written another defense of the 0.1 percent — and this one is kind of amazing. ... Mankiw invokes the strong role of financial fortunes in U.S. inequality to argue that the incomes are deserved...
Has Greg been living in a cave since 2006? We’re now in the seventh year of a slump brought on by Wall Street excess; the wizardly job of “allocating the economy’s investment resources” consisted, we now know, largely of funneling money into a real estate bubble, using fancy financial engineering to create the illusion of sound, safe investment. We also know that there is a real question whether hedge funds, in particular, actually destroy value for their investors.
One more thing: Mankiw argues that our tax system is fair because the top 0.1 percent pays a higher share of income in federal taxes than the middle class. This neglects the partial offset of this progressivity by regressive state and local taxes. But surely the main point is that to the extent that taxes on the 0.1 percent are high (they aren’t really, in historical context) that’s largely because Mitt Romney lost the 2012 election... It’s kind of funny to claim that our system is fair thanks to policies that you and your friends tried desperately to kill. ...

Dean Baker:

Inequality By Design: It's Not Just Talent and Hard Work: Greg Mankiw is out there defending the 1 percent again. He put forward the argument that the big bucks are simply their just desserts; the rewards for exceptional skill and hard work.
His opening act is Robert Downey Jr. who apparently got $50 million for his starring role in a single movie. This is a great place to start. There's no doubt that Robert Downey is an extremely talented actor, but of course there have been many actors over the years who have put in great performances for much less money. How is that Downey could earn so much more than a great actor from the 50s, 60s, or 70s? ...
In fact, a big part of the reason that Downey can collect huge paychecks is the extension and strengthening of copyrights. The United States has lengthened the period of copyrights from 28 years, with an option for a 28 year renewal, to 75 years in the 1976, and then to 95 years in 1998. 
It also has stepped up copyright enforcement, imposing stiff fines on people who use the Internet to make unauthorized copies of copyrighted material. ... It is only because of government intervention in the form of copyright monopolies that he is able to collect $50 million. ...
So is Downey worth his $50 million, perhaps given the structure we have, but we could easily have a different structure which could quite possibly be a more efficient way to support and distribute creative work. (Here's my scheme.) ...
Then we get to the CEOs who Mankiw tells us get high pay because of what they contribute to their companies and the economy. If this is the case, how do we explain CEO's of companies like Lehman, Bear Stearns, and AIG walking away with hundreds of millions of dollars even though they drove their firms into bankruptcy? ... How do we explain the fact that CEOs of incredibly successful companies in Europe, Japan, and South Korea make on average around a tenth as much as our crew does?
That one doesn't seem to fit the just desserts story. The more likely explanation is the Pay Pals story, where the company's board of directors are paid off by CEOs to look the other way as they pilfer the company. ...
And then there is the financial sector where Mankiw tells us that the extraordinary pay is compensation for the volatility of paychecks. That's interesting, except the vast majority of comparably talented and hardworking people would be happy to get the pay the finance folks get in the bad years. Much of the big money on Wall Street stems from highly leveraged bets that beat the market by seconds or even milliseconds. This provides as much value to the economy as insider trading...
It would be interesting to see what would happen to the big fortunes in the financial sector if it had to pay a small transaction fee, effectively subjecting it to the same sort of sales tax that is paid in almost every other sector of the economy. It would also be interesting to see what would happen to the private equity folks if they lost the opportunity for the tax gaming that is their bread and butter....
If the 1 percent are able to extract vast sums from the economy it is because we have structured the economy for this purpose. It could easily be structured differently, but the 1 percent and its defenders aren't interested in changing things. And the 1 percent and its defenders have a great deal of influence on the direction of economic policy.

    Posted by on Sunday, February 16, 2014 at 09:46 AM in Economics, Income Distribution | Permalink  Comments (86)

          


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