Category Archive for: Income Distribution [Return to Main]

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

'Basic Social Institutions and Democratic Equality'

Daniel Little:

Basic social institutions and democratic equality, Understanding Society: We would like to think that it is possible for a society to embody basic institutions that work to preserve and enhance the wellbeing of all members of society in a fair way. We want social institutions to be beneficent (producing good outcomes for everyone), and we want them to be fair (treating all individuals and groups with equal consideration; creating comparable opportunities for everyone).  There is a particularly fundamental component of liberal optimism that holds that the institutions of a market-based democracy accomplish both goals.  Economic liberals maintain that the economic institutions of the market create efficient allocations of resources across activities, permitting the highest level of average wellbeing. Free public education permits all persons to develop their talents. And the political institutions of electoral democracy permit all groups to express and defend their interests in the arena of government and law.

But social critics cast doubt on all parts of this story, based on the role played by social inequalities within both sets of institutions. The market embodies and reproduces a set of economic inequalities that result in grave inequalities of wellbeing for different groups. Economic and social inequalities influence the quality of education available to young people. And electoral democracy permits the grossly disproportionate influence of wealth holders relative to other groups in society.  So instead of reducing inequalities among citizens, these basic institutions seem to amplify them.

If we look at the fundamentals of social life in the United States we are forced to recognize a number of unpalatable realities: extensive and increasing inequalities of income, wealth, education, health, and quality of life; persistent racial inequalities; a growing indifference among the affluent and powerful to the poverty and deprivation of others; and a political system that is rapidly approaching the asymptote of oligarchy. It is difficult to be optimistic about our political future if we are particularly concerned about equality and opportunity for all; the politics of our time seem to be taking us further and further from these ideals.

So how should progressives think about a better future for our country and our world? What institutional arrangements might do a better job of ensuring greater economic justice and political legitimacy in the next fifty years in this country and other democracies of western Europe and North America?

Martin O’Neill and Thad Williamson’s recent collection, Property-Owning Democracy: Rawls and Beyond contains an excellent range of reflections on this set of problems, centered around the idea of a property-owning democracy that is articulated within John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice. A range of talented contributors provide essays on different aspects and implications of the theory of property-owning democracy. The contributions by O'Neill and Williamson are especially good, and the volume is a major contribution to political theory for the 21st century.

Here is one of Rawls's early statements of the idea of a property-owning democracy in A Theory of Justice:

In property-owning democracy, ... the aim is to realize in the basic institutions the idea of society as a fair system of cooperation between citizens regarded as free and equal.  To do this, those institutions must, from the outset, put in the hands of citizens generally, and not only of a few, sufficient productive means for them to be fully cooperating members of society on a footing of equality. (140)

One thing that is striking about the discussions that recur throughout the essays in this volume is the important relationship they seem to have to Thomas Piketty’s arguments about rising inequalities in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty presents rising inequality as almost unavoidable; whereas the advocates for a property-owning democracy offer a vision of the future in which inequalities of assets are narrowed. The dissonance disappears, however, when we consider the possibility that the institutional arrangements of POD are in fact a powerful antidote to the economic imperatives identified by Piketty. And in fact the editors anticipate this possibility in their paraphrase of Rawls's reasons for preferring POD over welfare state capitalism:

Because capital is concentrated in private hands under welfare state capitalism, it will be difficult if not impossible to provide to call "the fair value of the political liberties"; that is to say, capitalist interests and the rich will have vastly more influence over the political process than other citizens, a condition which violates the requirement of equal political liberties. Second, Rawls suggests at points that welfare state capitalism produces a politics that tends to undermine the possibility of tax transfers sufficiently large to correct for the inequalities generated by market processes.(3)

These comments suggest that Rawls had an astute understanding of the ways that wealth and power and influence are connected; so he believed that a more equal prior distribution of assets is crucial for a just society.

The primary aim of this public activity is not to maximize economic growth (or to maximize utility) but rather to ensure that capital is widely distributed and that no group is allowed to dominate economic life; but Rawls also assumes that the economy needs to be successful in terms of conventional measures (i.e., by providing full employment, and lifting the living standards of the least well off over time). (4)

The editors make a point that is very incisive with respect to rising economic inequalities.

The concentration of capital and the emergence of finance as a driving sector of capitalism has generated not only instability and crisis; it also has led to extraordinary political power for private financial interests, with banking interest taking control in shaping not only policies immediately affecting that sector but economic (and thereby social) policy in general. (6)

In other words, attention to the idea of a property-owning democracy is in fact a very substantive rebuttal to the processes identified in Piketty's analysis of the tendencies of capital in the modern economy. As the editors put the point, the idea of a property-owning democracy provides a rich basis for the political programs of progressive movements in contemporary politics (5).

Two questions arise with respect to any political philosophy: is the end-state that it describes a genuinely desirable outcome; and is there a feasible path by which we can get from here to there? One might argue that POD is an appealing end-state; and yet it is an outcome that is virtually impossible to achieve within modern political and economic institutions. (Here is an earlier discussion of this idea; link.) These contributors give at least a moderate level of reason to believe that a progressive foundation for democratic action is available that may provide an effective counterweight to the conservative rhetoric that has dominated the scene for decades.

Monday, June 02, 2014

Paul Krugman: On Inequality Denial

Inequality denial persists despite clear evidence to the contrary:

On Inequality Denial, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: A while back I published an article titled “The Rich, the Right, and the Facts,” in which I described politically motivated efforts to deny the obvious — the sharp rise in U.S. inequality, especially at the very top of the income scale. ...
Nor will it surprise you to learn that nothing much has changed. ... What may surprise you is the year in which I published that article: 1992.
Which brings me to the latest intellectual scuffle, set off by an article by Chris Giles ... attacking the credibility of Thomas Piketty’s best-selling “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” Mr. Giles claimed that Mr. Piketty’s work made “a series of errors that skew his findings,” and that there is in fact no clear evidence of rising concentration of wealth. And like just about everyone who has followed such controversies over the years, I thought, “Here we go again.”
Sure enough, the subsequent discussion has not gone well for Mr. Giles. ... In short, this latest attempt to debunk the notion that we’ve become a vastly more unequal society has itself been debunked. And you should have expected that. There are ... many independent indicators pointing to sharply rising inequality ...
Yet inequality denial persists, for pretty much the same reasons that climate change denial persists: there are powerful groups with a strong interest in rejecting the facts, or at least creating a fog of doubt. Indeed, you can be sure that the claim “The Piketty numbers are all wrong” will be endlessly repeated even though that claim quickly collapsed under scrutiny. ...
So here’s what you need to know: Yes, the concentration of both income and wealth ... has increased greatly over the past few decades. No, the people receiving that income and owning that wealth aren’t an ever-shifting group..., both rags to riches and riches to rags stories are rare... No, taxes and benefits don’t greatly change the picture — in fact, since the 1970s big tax cuts at the top have caused after-tax inequality to rise faster than inequality before taxes.
This picture makes some people uncomfortable, because it plays into populist demands for higher taxes on the rich. But good ideas don’t need to be sold on false pretenses. If the argument against populism rests on bogus claims about inequality, you should consider the possibility that the populists are right.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

A Review of Debraj Ray's Review of Piketty

Branko Milanovic:

Where I disagree and agree with Debraj Ray’s critique of Piketty’s Capital in the 21s Century, by Branko Milanovic: Two people whose opinion I hold in very high esteem have told me, “Read Debraj Ray’s critique of Piketty; It is the best written yet.” I have read it before, but only in parts, and have focused on a few rather unimportant points in the first part of Debraj’s piece. So I decided now to read it carefully, and in full. It is a short piece, some 9 pages long. It is very well and clearly written. There are many things with which I agree.  But there are also many with which I do not. Let me start, because it is more fun, with the latter. ...

Friday, May 30, 2014

Piketty, Krugman, and Wren-Lewis Respond to the FT

Piketty's full response from Vox EU (see also Paul Krugman: Thomas Doubting Refuted and Simon Wren-Lewis: What the Financial Times got (very) wrong):

Response to FT, by Thomas Piketty, Vox EU: This is a response to the criticisms - which I interpret as requests for additional information – that were published in the Financial Times on May 23 2014 (see FT article here).1 These criticisms only refer to the series reported in chapter 10 of my book Capital in the 21st century, and not to the other figures and tables presented in the other chapters, so in what follows I will only refer to these series.
This response should be read jointly with the technical appendix to my book, and particularly with the appendix to chapter 10 (available here). The page numbers given below refer to the HUP edition of my book that was published in March 2014.
Let me start by saying that the reason why I put all excel files on line, including all the detailed excel formulas about data constructions and adjustments, is precisely because I want to promote an open and transparent debate about these important and sensitive measurement issues.
Let me also say that I certainly agree that available data sources on wealth inequality are much less systematic than what we have for income inequality. In fact, one of the main reasons why I am in favor of wealth taxation, international cooperation and automatic exchange of bank information is that this would be a way to develop more financial transparency and more reliable sources of information on wealth dynamics (even if the tax was charged at very low rates, which everybody could agree with).
For the time being, we have to do with what we have, that is, a very diverse and heterogeneous set of data sources on wealth: historical inheritance declarations and estate tax statistics, scarce property and wealth tax data; household surveys with self-reported data on wealth (with typically a lot of under-reporting at the top); Forbes-type wealth rankings (which certainly give a more realistic picture of very top wealth groups than wealth surveys, but which also raise significant methodological problems, to say the least). As I make clear in the book, in the on-line appendix, and in the many technical papers on which this book relies, I have no doubt that my historical data series can be improved and will be improved in the future (this is why I put everything on line). In fact, the “World Top Incomes Database” (WTID) is set to become a “World Wealth and Income Database” in the coming years, and together with my colleagues we will put on-line updated estimates covering more countries. But I would be very surprised if any of the substantive conclusions about the long run evolution of wealth distributions was much affected by these improvements.
I welcome all criticisms and I am very happy that this book contributes to stimulate a global debate about these important issues. My problem with the FT criticisms is twofold. First, I did not find the FT criticism particularly constructive. The FT suggests that I made mistakes and errors in my computations, which is simply wrong, as I show below. The corrections proposed by the FT to my series (and with which I disagree) are for the most part relatively minor, and do not affect the long run evolutions and my overall analysis, contrarily to what the FT suggests. Next, the FT corrections that are somewhat more important are based upon methodological choices that are quite debatable (to say the least). In particular, the FT simply chooses to ignore the Saez-Zucman 2014 study, which indicates a higher rise in top wealth shares in the United States during recent decades than what I report in my book (if anything, my book underestimates the rise in wealth inequality). Regarding Britain, the FT seems to put a lot of trust in self-reported wealth survey data that notoriously underestimates wealth inequality.
I will start by giving an overview of the series on wealth inequality that I present in chapter 10 of my book. I will then respond to the specific points raised by the FT.
Overview of the series on wealth inequality reported in chapter 10
The long run series on wealth inequality provided in chapter 10 of my book deal with only four countries: France, Britain, Sweden, and the United States.
Figure 10.1. Wealth inequality in France, 1810-2010 (p.340)
Figure 10.2. Wealth inequality in versus France 1810-2010 (p.341)
Figure 10.3. Wealth inequality in Britain, 1810-2010 (p.344)
Figure 10.4. Wealth inequality in Sweden, 1810-2010 (p.345)
Figure 10.5. Wealth inequality in the United States, 1810-2010 (p.348)
Figure 10.6. Wealth inequality in Europe versus the US, 1810-2010 (p.349)
The series used to construct figures 10.1-10.6, replicated in the book on p.340-348 are available in table S10.1, as well as in the corresponding excel file.
These wealth inequality series deal with much fewer countries and are substantially more exploratory than the empirical material provided in other parts of the book: income and population growth in chapters 1-2; wealth-income ratios in chapters 3-6; income inequality series in chapters 7-9. This follows from the fact that available data sources on wealth inequality are much less systematic than data sources on growth, wealth-income ratios and income inequality. In particular, we do have yearly income declarations statistics for dozens of countries, but we do not have yearly wealth declarations statistics for most countries. So we have to do with the diverse set of sources that I described above.
I believe that the data we have on wealth inequality is sufficient to reach a number of conclusions. Namely, wealth inequality was extremely high and rising in European countries during the 19th century and up until World War 1 (with a top 10% wealth share around 90% of total wealth in 1910), then declined until the 1960s-1970s (down to about 50-60% for the top 10% wealth share); and finally increased moderately since the 1980s-1990s. In the United States, wealth inequality was less extreme than in Europe until World War 1, but it was less strongly affected by the 20th century shocks, and in recent decades it rose more strongly than in Europe. Both in Europe and in the United States, wealth inequality is less extreme than what it was in Europe on the eve on World War 1.
I believe that the data that we have is sufficient to reach these conclusions, but that it is insufficient to go much beyond that. In particular, our ability to measure the most recent trends in wealth inequality is limited, partly due to the huge rise in cross border financial assets and offshore wealth. According to Forbes-type wealth rankings, the very top of the world wealth distribution has been rising about three times faster than average wealth at the global level over the 1987-2013 period (see chapter 12 of my book, in particular Table 12.1. The growth rate of top global wealth, 1987-2013). This seems to be clear evidence than wealth inequality is rising, partly because the rate of return to very large portfolios is higher than the growth rate. This interpretation is consistent with what I find with the returns to large university endowments (see Table 12.2. The return on the capital endowments of US universities, 1980-2010). But we do not really know whether this holds only at the very very top or for bigger groups (say, above 10 millions $ and not only above 1 billion $). Let me make very clear that I do not believe that r>g is the only force that determines the dynamics of wealth inequality. There are many other important forces that could in principle drive wealth inequality in other directions. The main message coming from my book is not that there should always be a deterministic trend toward ever rising inequality (I do not believe in this); the main message is that we need more democratic transparency about wealth dynamics, so that we are able to adjust our institutions and policies to whatever we observe.
I now consider each of the four countries one by one and respond to the specific points raised by the FT. I start with Sweden (the first country for which the FT expresses concerns), and then move to France, the United States, and finally to Britain (arguably the country with the biggest data problems) and to the European average.
Sweden (see figure 10.4 here)
The FT does not point out any significant disagreement regarding Sweden. Their corrected figure looks virtually identical to mine (see their figure on Sweden here).
The FT argues however that my choice of years from raw data sources is not entirely clear. For instance, they point out that raw data for year "1908" for year "1910", year "1935" for year "1930", and so on. These issues are already explained in the book and in the technical appendix, but they probably need to be clarified. Generally speaking, when I present series on wealth-income ratios and wealth inequality (and also for some figures on income inequality), I usually choose to present decennial averages rather than yearly series. This is because wealth series often display a lot of short-run volatility (in particular due to sharp movements in asset prices). So in order to focus the attention on long-run evolutions, it is better to abstract from these short-run movements and show decennial averages. See for instance the wealth-income series presented in chapter 5: contrast figure 5.1 and figure 5.5. When full yearly series are available, the way decennial averages are computed in the book is the following: "1900" usually refers to the average "1900-1909", and so on. This is further explained in the technical paper "Capital is back..." (Piketty-Zucman QJE 2014) available here.
In the case of the wealth inequality series reported in chapter 10, the raw series are usually not available on annual basis, so I compute decennial averages on the basis of the closest years available. This is clearly explained in the chapter 10 excel file (see sheet "TS10.1"). For instance, "1870" is computed as the average for years "1873-1877", "1910" as the average "1907-1908", and so on. These choices can be discussed and improved, but they are reasonably transparent (they are explicitly mentioned in the excel table, which apparently the FT did not notice), and as one can check they have negligible impact on long run evolutions.
The FT also suggests that I made a transcription error by using the estimate for 1908 for the top 1% wealth share (namely, 53.8% of total wealth) for year 1920 (instead of the correct raw estimate for that year, namely 51.5% of total wealth). In fact, this adjustment was intended to correct for the fact that there is a break in a data sources in 1908: pre-1908 series use estate tax data, while post-1908 use wealth tax data, resulting into somewhat lower top wealth (as exemplified by year 1908, for which both data sources co-exist; see Waldenstrom 2009, Table 3.A1, p.120-121). This is standard practice, but I agree that this adjustment should have been made more explicit in the technical appendix and excel file.2 In any case, whatever adjustment one chooses to make to deal with this break in series is again going to have a negligible impact on long-run patterns.
France (see figure 10.1 and figure 10.2)
The FT does not point out any significant disagreement regarding France. Their corrected figure looks virtually identical to mine (see their figure on France here).
The FT argues however that no explanation is given for some of the data construction. Namely, the FT claims the following: “The original source reports data relative to the distribution of wealth among the dead. In order to obtain the distribution of wealth across the living, Prof Piketty augments the share of the top 10 per cent of the dead by 1 per cent and the wealth share of the top 1 per cent by 5 per cent. An adjustment of this sort is standard practice in this type of calculations to correct for the fact that those who die are not representative of the living population. Prof. Piketty does not explain why the adjustment is usually constant. But in one year, 1910, it is not constant and the adjustment scale rises to 2 per cent and 8 per cent respectively. There is no explanation.”
This is a surprising statement, because all necessary explanations are actually given in the technical research paper on which these series are based (see Piketty-Postel-Vinay-Rosenthal AER 2006) and in the chapter 10 excel file (see sheet "TS10.1DetailsFR"). Namely, the PPVR AER 2006 paper includes detailed, year-by-year estimates of how differential mortality affects wealth inequality among the living, and finds that the ratio between top wealth shares among the living and top wealth shares among decedents rises at the end of the 19th century and in the early 20th century. Intuitively, this is because differential mortality effects seem to become stronger around that time (namely, life expectancy rises quite fast among top wealth holders, but much less so for the rest of the population). One can see this explicitly in table A4 of the working paper version of the PPVR AER 2006 article; this is explicitly reproduced in chapter 10 excel file (see sheet "TS10.1DetailsFR", table A4 (2), ratios for top 1% shares). More recent research has also confirmed the changing pattern of differential mortality around that time. See in particular the appendix tables to Piketty-Postel-Vinay-Rosenthal EEH 2014. Differential mortality is a complex issue, and we do not have perfect answers; but we do our best to address this issue in the most transparent way. In particular, we put on line on this web site the large micro files that we have collected in French inheritance archives, so that everybody can reproduce our computations and use this data for their own research. We are currently collecting additional micro files in Parisian and provincial archives, and we will put new data files and updated estimates in the future.
What it find somewhat puzzling in this controversy is the following: (i) the FT journalists evidently did not read carefully the technical research papers and excel files that I have put on-line; (ii) whatever adjustment one makes to correct for differential mortality (and I certainly agree that there are uncertainties left regarding this complex and important issue), it should be clear to everyone that this really has a relatively small impact on the long-run trends in wealth inequality. This looks a little bit like criticism for the sake of criticism.
United States (see figure 10.5)
The FT does point out more substantial disagreements regarding the United States. Their corrected figure actually looks very close to mine regarding the long run evolution, but not for the recent decades, where the FT considers that I overestimate somewhat the rise in wealth inequality (see their figure on United States here). The FT also expresses concerns about some of the adjustments that are made for earlier periods, although they have little impact on the overall patterns.
As I explain in the book (chapter 10, p.347) and in the technical appendix to chapter 10 (available here), there are very large uncertainties regarding US historical sources on wealth inequality, and I certainly agree that the series that are provided in the book can be improved. I try to combine in the most consistent manner the information coming from estate tax statistics (which unfortunately only cover the top few percents of the distribution, and not the entire population like in France) and the information coming from household wealth surveys (fortunately the SCF is known to be of higher quality than most other wealth surveys). In particular, the estimate for year 1970 tries to combine the estimates available for top 10% and top 1% wealth shares for years 1960 and 1980 and the evolution of very top wealth shares between 1960, 1970 and 1980. This has little impact on the overall long-run pattern, but I agree that this is relatively uncertain, and that this could have been explained more clearly.
I should stress however that the more recent and more reliable estimates that were recently produced by Emmanuel Saez (Berkeley) and Gabriel Zucman (LSE) confirm the pattern that I find. See Saez-Zucman 2014. For the recent decades, they actually find a larger rise of top 10% wealth shares and especially top 1% and top 0.1% wealth shares than what I report in my book. So, if anything, my book tends to underestimate the recent rise in US wealth inequality (contrarily to what the FT suggests).
This important work was done after my book was written, so unfortunately I could not use it for my book. Saez and Zucman use much more systematic data than I used in my book, especially for the recent period. Also their series are constructed using a completely different data source and methodology (namely, the capitalization method using capital income flows and income statements by asset class). Now that this work is available, the Saez-Zucman series (which unfortunately the FT article seems to ignore) should be used as reference series for wealth inequality in the United States. In a recent survey chapter that will be published in the Handbook of Income Distribution (HID), we choose to use the Saez-Zucman series (rather than the series reported in my book) in order to describe the long-run evolution of US wealth inequality. See Piketty-Zucman 2014 (see in particular supplementary figure S3.5, p.91 for a comparison between the two series; as one can see, they look very similar).3
Britain (see figure 10.3)
The FT does point out substantial disagreements regarding the recent evolution in Britain. Their corrected figure actually looks very close to mine regarding the long run evolution, but not for the recent decades, where the FT considers that there was no rise at all in wealth inequality, and possibly a decline, whereas I report a rise (see their figure on Britain here). The biggest disagreement comes from the latest data point (c.2010): the FT considers that the right estimate for the top 10% wealth share is around 44% of total wealth (this comes from a recent household survey based upon self-reported data, namely the “wealth and assets survey”, which I believe underestimates top wealth groups significantly; see below); whereas I report an estimate with a top 10% wealth share around 71% (this comes from more reliable estate tax statistics). This is a very large difference indeed.
Let me make clear that although I think my estimate is more reliable and rests on better methodological choices, I also believe that this large gap reflects major uncertainties and limitations in our collective ability to measure recent evolution of wealth inequality in developed countries, particularly in Britain. As I explain above, I believe this is a major challenge for our statistical and democratic institutions.
The estimates that I report for wealth inequality in Britain rely primarily on the very careful estimates that were established by Atkinson-Harrison 1978 and Atkinson et al 1989 using estate tax statistics from the 1920s to the 1980s. I updated these series for the 1990-2010 period using official HMRC data that are also based upon estate tax records. I find a rising inequality trend, although a more modest one than for the United States. I think this is the most reasonable estimate one can obtain given available data, but this certainly should be improved in the future.
What is troubling about the FT methodological choices is that they use the estimates based upon estate tax statistics for the older decades (until the 1980s), and then they shift to the survey based estimates for the more recent period. This is problematic because we know that in every country wealth surveys tend to underestimate top wealth shares as compared to estimates based upon administrative fiscal data. Therefore such a methodological choice is bound to bias the results in the direction of declining inequality. For instance, as I note in the technical appendix to chapter 10 (available here), the recent wealth surveys undertaken by INSEE in 2004-2010 in France indicate a top decile share just above 50% of the total wealth, whereas fiscal data (inheritance and wealth tax) suggest a top decile share above 60% of the total wealth. The gap seems particularly large for the case of Britain, which could reflect the fact that the “wealth and assets survey” seems particularly bad at measuring the top part of the wealth distribution of the UK. Indeed, according to the latest report by the Office of national statistics (ONS), the response rate for this survey was only 64% in 2010-2012; this is an improvement as compared to the response rate of 55% that was observed during the 2006-2008 wave of the same survey (see ONS 2014, Table 7.1); but it is pretty clear that with such a low response rate, it is hard to claim that one can adequately measure wealth inequality, particularly at the top of the distribution. Also note that a 44% wealth share for the top 10% (and a 12.5% wealth share for the top 1%, according to the FT) would mean that Britain is currently one the most egalitarian countries in history in terms of wealth distribution; in particular this would mean that Britain is a lot more equal that Sweden, and in fact a lot more equal than what Sweden as ever been (including in the 1980s). This does not look particularly plausible.
Of course the estate records based estimates also raise significant methodological concerns, and I do not claim that the resulting estimates are perfectly reliable. In particular, they might also underestimate top wealth levels (because top wealth holders sometime escape the estate tax through sophisticated trust funds or offshore assets). But they definitely seem more plausible than the estimates based upon self-reported survey data.
Note also that in recent years more and more scholars and statisticians have started to recognize the limitations of household wealth surveys and to upgrade the top segments of survey based wealth distributions using other sources. For instance, a recent study undertaken at the research department of the ECB attempts to upgrade in a systematic manner the top tail of the wealth surveys undertaken in Eurozone countries by using the Pareto coefficients that one can estimate using Forbes rankings and other lists of very high wealth individuals in each country. The results indicate that this can lead to very large increases (more than 10 percentage points) in top wealth shares (see Vermeulen 2014). In the United States, although the SCF wealth survey is generally regarded as a very high quality wealth survey, there has been some important work trying to upgrade the top tail by using Forbes ranking and estate tax data (see Johnson-Shreiber 2006 and Raub-Johnson-Newcomb 2010). This is definitely something that should be done for the British “wealth and assets survey”.
Regarding the 19th century estimates, the FT expresses concerns with the way I compute the top wealth shares for Britain in 1810 and 1870. Namely, I borrow the top 1% wealth shares estimates from Lindert (54.9% and 61.1%, respectively), and I assume that the next 9% shares shifted from 28% to 26%. Lindert does report a lower estimate for the next 9% share (about 16%). However this would indicate a relatively unusual pattern of Pareto coefficients within the top 10% of the distribution (as compared both to the French 19th century inheritance data, which is a lot more comprehensive than the British probate data, and to the British estate tax statistics for 1911-1913). Given that the probate records used by Lindert seem to provide a better coverage of the top 1% than of the next 9%, I use Pareto interpolation techniques to estimate the next 9% share. This is an issue that should have been explained more clearly and that would definitely deserve further research. This has a limited impact for the long run patterns analyzed here (the pre-World War 1 rise in wealth inequality would be even larger without this adjustment).
European average (see figure 10.6)
Finally, the FT also expresses the following concern: the European average series, which I computed by making a simple arithmetic series between France, Britain and Sweden, should have been computed using population weighted averages. I do agree that population (or GDP) weighted averages are generally superior to simple arithmetic averages. However I should stress that it really does not make much of a difference here, because all three European countries that I use follow fairly similar long run patterns. Namely, all three countries display high and rising top wealth shares during the 19th century and up until World War 1 (with about 90% of total wealth for the top 10% around 1910); then a sharp decline until the 1960s-1970s (with top 10% wealth shares down to 50-60%); and finally a modest rise since the 1980s-1990s. So whether one weights the three countries with equal weights or according to population or GDP does not make a big difference. But in case Britain did follow a markedly different pattern than the other countries in recent decades (with a decline in wealth inequality rather than a rise), then putting more weight on Britain than on Sweden becomes a significant issue. So we are back to the previous question: what happened to wealth inequality in Britain in recent decades? The FT seems to believe it has become more equal; however the way they use self-reported wealth survey data is not convincing. This is nevertheless an interesting debate for the future, and we should all agree that we know too little about it.
Footnotes:
1 See also the other two articles published by the FT on May 23 2014: here and there. See also my short reponse published here in the FT. Unfortunately I was given limited time to submit this response, so I could not address specific points; here is a longer response.
2 Also note that the raw series display a decline in top 1% wealth share between 1908 and 1920, but a sharp rise in the share of the next 9% (resulting into a significant increase in the top 10% share). This does not look entirely plausible and might also be due to a break in raw data sources (unless this is due to sharp short-run variations in the relative price of assets held by these different wealth groups).
3 Note that this HID chapter also includes novel series about the evolution of the share of inheritance in total wealth accumulation. These new series use a different methodology and complement those reported in chapter 11 of my book.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

'The Share of Borrowers with High Student Loan Balances is Rising'

We need to provide more support for education if we want it to be a vehicle for enhanced opportunity rather than a means of promoting existing inequities:

The Share of Borrowers with High Student Loan Balances is Rising, On the Economy, St. Louis Fed: It’s not just the total number of student loan borrowers that is going up. The average balance per borrower is going up as well. And, in particular, the fraction of borrowers with more than $10,000 in student debt is rising.

In a recent Economic Synopses essay, Alexander Monge-Naranjo, research officer and economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, examined the recent growth in student loan debt in the U.S. over the period 2005-2012. As of March 2012, student loan debt stood at $870 billion and had surpassed total credit card debt ($693 billion) and total auto loan debt ($730 billion).

In addition, Monge-Naranjo found that the distribution of student loans by debt levels had shifted, with the share of borrowers with loan balances in excess of $10,000 increasing. Increases were greater at higher levels of debt:

  • Only 3 percent of borrowers in 2005 owed more than $100,000. By 2012, that fraction reached 6.2 percent.
  • The share of borrowers who owed between $150,000 and $175,000 rose from 1.7 percent to 3.7 percent.
  • The share who owed between $175,000 and $200,000 went up from 0.6 percent to 1.5 percent.
  • The share of those owing more than $200,000 went up from 0.2 percent to 0.6 percent.

While Monge-Naranjo noted that “high levels of student loan debt pose no problems as long as the investment in education has high returns and the loans are repaid,” he also indicated that some borrowers may suffer adverse effects in the future, such as difficulty obtaining other forms of credit.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

'Why Inequality Lowers Social Mobility'

This was in the daily links, but thought it deserved additional highlighting. It's from Miles Corak:

Joseph Fishkin’s book, “Bottlenecks,” explains why inequality lowers social mobility, by Miles Corak: [The Brookings Institution has been having an online discussion of Bottlenecks: A New Theory of Equal Opportunity, a book by Joseph Fishkin. This post is a re-blog of my contribution, "Money: a Bottleneck with Bite."]
... So far, it has been politically convenient to focus on upward mobility of children from the bottom of the income distribution, measured in some absolute sense, because it puts broader issues of the influence of inequality to one side.
The mobility-only approach puts the onus of the problem on the poor—their incomes, their work ethic, their schooling, their fertility choices, their parenting strategies—and abstracts from the broader context within which they must engage, define themselves, and raise their children. The rich are not part of this story.
But Professor Fishkin is right: “anyone concerned with equal opportunity ought also to be concerned with limiting inequality of income and wealth.” ...
The factors impacting on child development certainly include non-financial ones, including what social scientists clinically label the “unobserved parental characteristics”, which are correlated with income.
But inequality alters the rules of the game. It narrows the goals we pursue as individuals, shapes values, and more importantly it turns our pursuit of the good life into an arms race over positional goods, and changes both incentives and opportunities. That is what makes money a bottleneck that bites.
Bottlenecks outlines a theory of opportunity that gives us good reason to worry about outcomes, because to some important degree unequal outcomes lead to unequal opportunities. ...
Money is a significant bottleneck. Facing that fact can only be healthy, if somewhat more challenging, for the way we think about public policy. ...

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

'The Inequality Puzzle'

Summers on Piketty:

The Inequality Puzzle: Once in a great while, a heavy academic tome dominates for a time the policy debate and, despite bristling with footnotes, shows up on the best-seller list. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is such a volume. As with Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, which came out at the end of the Reagan Administration and hit a nerve by arguing the case against imperial overreach through an extensive examination of European history, Piketty’s treatment of inequality is perfectly matched to its moment.
Like Kennedy a generation ago, Piketty has emerged as a rock star of the policy-intellectual world. His book was for a time Amazon’s bestseller. Every pundit has expressed a view on his argument, almost always wildly favorable if the pundit is progressive and harshly critical if the pundit is conservative. Piketty’s tome seems to be drawn on a dozen times for every time it is read.
This should not be surprising. At a moment when our politics seem to be defined by a surly middle class and the President has made inequality his central economic issue, how could a book documenting the pervasive and increasing concentration of wealth and income among the top 1, .1, and .01 percent of households not attract great attention? Especially when it exudes erudition from each of its nearly 700 pages, drips with literary references, and goes on to propose easily understood laws of capitalism that suggest that the trend toward greater concentration is inherent in the market system and will persist absent the adoption of radical new tax policies. ...[continue]...

Update: Piketty responds to criticism.

Monday, May 12, 2014

'How to Shrink Inequality'

Robert Reich:

How to Shrink Inequality: Some inequality of income and wealth is inevitable, if not necessary. If an economy is to function well, people need incentives to work hard and innovate. The pertinent question is ... at what point do these inequalities become so great as to pose a serious threat to our economy, our ideal of equal opportunity and our democracy. We are near or have already reached that tipping point. ...But a return to the Gilded Age is not inevitable. ... There is no single solution for reversing widening inequality. ... Here are ten initiatives that could reverse the trends..:

1) Make work pay. ... [Min wage, EITC, etc.]
2) Unionize low-wage workers. ...
3) Invest in education. ...
4) Invest in infrastructure. ...
5) Pay for these investments with higher taxes on the wealthy. ...
6) Make the payroll tax progressive. ...
7) Raise the estate tax and eliminate the “stepped-up basis” for determining capital gains at death. ...
8) Constrain Wall Street. ...
9) Give all Americans a share in future economic gains. ... [Diversified index of stocks and bonds given to all at birth]
10) Get big money out of politics. ...

[The essay, which is much, much longer, also talks about how inequality has happened, how it threatens the foundations of our society, and why it has happened.]

Friday, May 09, 2014

Paul Krugman: Now That’s Rich

"Myths about who the rich really are and how they make their money":

Now That’s Rich, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Institutional Investor’s latest “rich list”..., its survey of the 25 highest-paid hedge fund managers, is out..., let’s think about ... about how their good fortune refutes several popular myths about income inequality...
First, modern inequality isn’t about graduates. It’s about oligarchs. Apologists for soaring inequality almost always ... talk about the rising incomes of college graduates, or maybe the top 5 percent. The goal of this misdirection is to soften the picture, to make it seem as if we’re talking about ordinary white-collar professionals who get ahead through education and hard work.
But many Americans are well-educated and work hard. ... Yet they don’t get the big bucks. ...
Second, ignore the rhetoric about “job creators”... Conservatives want you to believe that the big rewards in modern America go to innovators and entrepreneurs, people who build businesses and push technology forward. But that’s not what those hedge fund managers do for a living; they’re in the business of financial speculation...
Once upon a time, you might have been able to argue ... that all this wheeling and dealing was productive.... But, at this point, the evidence suggests that hedge funds are a bad deal for everyone except their managers... More broadly, we’re still living in the shadow of a crisis brought on by a runaway financial industry. ...
Finally, a close look at the rich list supports the thesis made famous by Thomas Piketty... — namely, that we’re on our way toward a society dominated by wealth, much of it inherited, rather than work. ...
But why does all of this matter? Basically, it’s about taxes.
America has a long tradition of imposing high taxes on big incomes and large fortunes, designed to limit the concentration of economic power as well as raising revenue. These days, however, suggestions that we revive that tradition face angry claims that taxing the rich is destructive and immoral — destructive because it discourages job creators from doing their thing, immoral because people have a right to keep what they earn.
But such claims rest crucially on myths about who the rich really are and how they make their money. Next time you hear someone declaiming about how cruel it is to persecute the rich, think about the hedge fund guys, and ask yourself if it would really be a terrible thing if they paid more in taxes.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Higher Ed Cuts, Tuition Hikes Worsen Low-Income Students’ Struggles

As a follow-up to the previous post on black-white differences in economic mobility:

Higher Ed Cuts, Tuition Hikes Worsen Low-Income Students’ Struggles: State cuts to higher education have led colleges and universities to make deep cuts to educational or other services, hike tuition sharply, or both, as we explain in our recently released paper.  These tuition increases are hitting low-income students particularly hard, lessening their choices of schools, adding to their debt burdens — and likely deterring some from enrolling in school altogether. ...

Black–White Differences in Intergenerational Economic Mobility

Bhashkar Mazumder of the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago

Black–white differences in intergenerational economic mobility in the United States: The large and persistent gap in economic status between blacks and whites in the United States has been a topic of considerable interest among social scientists and policymakers for many decades. The historical legacy of slavery and segregation raises the question of how long black Americans are likely to remain a disadvantaged minority. Despite the enormous literature on black–white inequality and its historical trends, few studies have directly measured black–white differences in rates of intergenerational mobility, that is, the ability of families to improve their position in the income distribution from one generation to the next. Estimates of rates of intergenerational mobility by race can provide insight on whether racial differences in the United States are likely to be eliminated and, if so, how long it might take. Furthermore, they might also help inform policymakers as to whether there are lingering racial differences in equality of opportunity and, if so, what the underlying sources for these differences are.
More generally, the relatively low rate of intergenerational mobility in the United States compared with other industrialized countries has been a growing concern to policymakers across the political spectrum.1 Understanding the sources of racial differences in intergenerational mobility might also shed light on the mechanisms behind the relatively high degree of intergenerational persistence of inequality in the United States. ...
A key finding is that in recent decades, blacks have experienced substantially less upward intergenerational mobility and substantially more downward intergenerational mobility than whites. These results are shown to be highly robust to a variety of measurement issues, such as the concept of income used, the age of the sample members, and the length of the time average used. The results are found in two different data sets that cover different birth cohorts and differ in their gender composition. Moreover, these results utilize relatively large samples of black families, so that racial differences can be shown to be statistically significant. An important implication of the results that has not been shown explicitly before is that if these patterns of mobility were to persist into the future, the implications for racial differences in the “steady-state” distribution of income would be alarming. Instead of eventually “regressing to the mean,” as some traditional measures of intergenerational mobility (when applied to the whole population) would suggest, these results imply that black Americans would make no further relative progress. Of course, it is a strong hypothetical to assume that current rates of mobility will hold in future generations. Indeed, over the past 150 years, there have been clear periods in which the racial gap in economic status has narrowed and it is certainly possible that black–white gaps could converge.4
This study also tries to shed light on which factors are associated with the racial gaps in upward and downward mobility. To be clear, while the analysis is descriptive and not causal, it nonetheless provides some highly suggestive “first-order” clues for the underlying mechanisms leading to black–white differences in intergenerational mobility. It appears that cognitive skills during adolescence, as measured by scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT), are strongly associated with these gaps. ... I do not interpret these scores as measuring innate endowments but rather as reflecting the accumulated differences in family background and other influences that are manifested in test scores.6 If these results are given a causal interpretation, they suggest that actions that reduce the racial gap in test scores could also reduce the racial gap in intergenerational mobility.7
A commonly proposed explanation for racial gaps in achievement has been the relatively high rates of black children growing up with single mothers. I find evidence that for blacks, the lack of two parents in the household throughout childhood does indeed hamper upward mobility. However, patterns in downward mobility are unaffected by family structure for either blacks or whites. Importantly, the negative effects of single motherhood on blacks are only identified in the SIPP, where the entire marital history during the child’s life is available. This highlights the importance of access to data on family structure over long periods rather than a single snapshot at one point in time. I also find that black–white gaps in both upward and downward mobility are significantly smaller for those who have completed 16 years of schooling.8 ...
Finally, I should also note that the focus of this article is on relative mobility across generations and that the measures are relevant for answering questions concerning the progress of blacks relative to whites. It may also be interesting to consider measures of absolute mobility, but that is not the focus of this article. ...[read more]...

Tuesday, May 06, 2014

Why Economists Are Finally Taking Inequality Seriously

New column:

Why Economists Are Finally Taking Inequality Seriously, by Mark Thoma: In economics, the examination of questions surrounding the distribution of income have been ignored or pushed into the background in the academic literature. However, rising inequality over the last several decades coupled with recent work by Thomas Piketty – which has had a surprisingly large and positive reception by the public – have propelled these questions to the forefront of economic analysis. ...

Thursday, May 01, 2014

'Another Perspective on U.S. Economic Mobility'

Busy day ... quick one from Tim Noah:

Another Perspective on U.S. Economic Mobility , by Timothy Noah, Washington Wire: My fellow Think Tank-er Benjamin Domenech, in formulating a conservative response to Thomas Piketty, wrote that “Several recent studies have shown that U.S. economic mobility is very good.”
But these studies aren’t terribly useful. They define “mobility” as what happens to an individual over many years..., a predictable earnings lifecycle. Most everybody enters the workforce making nothing or next to nothing; acquires experience and makes more; tops out at some point; then retires and makes less. ...
A much more useful measure of mobility is intergenerational... How “heritable” is relative income? In the U.S., it’s about 40 percent.... That isn’t very good by international standards. It’s been in that range since ... the 1970s. I write about all this at greater length here.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

'Begging the Inequality Question'

Chris Dillow:

Begging the inequality question, by Chris Dillow: ... many of us dislike inequality not because we envy the mega-rich but because it is (sometimes) a symptom of malfunctioning markets... The fact that so many bosses get paid millions even for failure suggests that they are not paid their marginal product. Instead, some mix of agency failure, efficient wage considerations (bosses must be paid not to steal corporate assets) and arms races force pay above marginal product.
Sure, you can write models in which inequality emerges as if it were the product of free choices in a free market economy. You can also model a man's empty house as if he had called in the removal men - but if he has in fact been burgled, your models miss something.
I fear that some free market advocates - not all by any means, but some - are mistaking the map for the terrain. They forget that the textbook perfect competition model is not a description of reality but rather of a utopia against which to assess actually-existing markets. And sometimes - not always but in some important respects - they fall well short. ...

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Inequality and Mobility in America

If you want a tutorial on how the political right responds to inequality and mobility concerns, this video is for you (Chrystia and Jared do their best to respond, and Jared has a nice summary of all of the potential causes of inequality in his opening remarks):

Income inequality has diminished in many parts of the world--Chile, Turkey, Mexico and Hungary being a few examples. But in America, the gap has widened. Ironically, the same forces may be responsible for both: globalization and technology, which have eased poverty in the developing world but led to the loss of unskilled but well-paying middle-class jobs in the United States and other developed nations. For the first time in nearly a century, the top 10 percent of American earners take home more than half the nation's income. New research suggests that it's harder than ever for the poor to move up into the middle and upper classes, an issue that has potential consequences for our economy, government, institutions and people. What can--or should--be done to narrow this disparity? Is education the key? With many Americans falling behind, these questions are stirring concern among policymakers and the business community as well. This panel will examine the magnitude of this complex challenge and strategies for reversing the trend.

  • Speakers: Jared Bernstein, Economic Policy Fellow, Milken Institute; Senior Fellow, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Former Chief Economist to Vice President Joe Biden
  • Edward Conard, Author, "Unintended Consequences"; Former Senior Managing Director, Bain Capital
  • Robert Doar, Fellow in Poverty Studies, American Enterprise Institute; Former Commissioner, Human Resources Administration, City of New York
  • Chrystia Freeland, Member of Parliament, Canada; Author, "Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else"
  • Moderator: Alan Schwartz, Executive Chairman, Guggenheim Partners

Friday, April 25, 2014

Paul Krugman: The Piketty Panic

Money talks, but sometimes not very coherently:

The Piketty Panic, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the new book by ... Thomas Piketty, is ... serious, discourse-changing scholarship... And conservatives are terrified. ...
The really striking thing about the debate so far is that the right seems unable to mount any kind of substantive counterattack... Instead, the response has been all about name-calling — ...that Mr. Piketty is a Marxist...
For the past couple of decades, the conservative response to attempts to make soaring incomes at the top into a political issue has involved two lines of defense: first, denial that the rich are actually doing as well and the rest as badly as they are, but when denial fails, claims that those soaring incomes at the top are a justified reward for services rendered. Don’t call them the 1 percent, or the wealthy; call them “job creators.”
But how do you make that defense if the rich derive much of their income not from the work they do but from the assets they own? And what if great wealth comes increasingly not from enterprise but from inheritance?
What Mr. Piketty shows is that these are not idle questions. Western societies before World War I were indeed dominated by an oligarchy of inherited wealth — and his book makes a compelling case that we’re well on our way back toward that state.
So what’s a conservative, fearing that this diagnosis might be used to justify higher taxes on the wealthy, to do? He could try to refute Mr. Piketty in a substantive way, but, so far, I’ve seen no sign of that happening. Instead, as I said, it has been all about name-calling..., to ... denounce Mr. Piketty as a Marxist..., which only makes sense if the mere mention of unequal wealth makes you a Marxist. ...
And The Wall Street Journal’s review, predictably, goes the whole distance, somehow segueing from Mr. Piketty’s call for progressive taxation as a way to limit the concentration of wealth ... to the evils of Stalinism. ...
Now, the fact that apologists for America’s oligarchs are evidently at a loss for coherent arguments doesn’t mean that they are on the run politically. Money still talks — indeed, thanks in part to the Roberts court, it talks louder than ever. Still, ideas matter too, shaping both how we talk about society and, eventually, what we do. And the Piketty panic shows that the right has run out of ideas.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Consumption Inequality is Also Growing

Hearing a lot of talk about how Democrats never talk about consumption inequality, and that this is "the holy grail for inequality skeptics". It is talked about, and it's a "myth that growing consumption inequality is a myth." A very quick search of this blog turns up:

The Myth that Growing Consumption Inequality is a Myth 2012
Inequality of Income and Consumption 2012
Inequality Has Increased in Income and Consumption 2012
But They Have TVs and Cell Phones! - 2012
Has Consumption Inequality Mirrored Income Inequality? 2011
Is Consumption the Grail for Inequality Skeptics? 2009

Income Inequality, Spending Inequality, Wealth Inequality 2008

Consumption and Income Inequality 2008

Video: Piketty, Krugman, Stiglitz, and Durlauf on 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century'

"The French economist Thomas Piketty discussed his new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century at the Graduate Center. In this landmark work, Piketty argues that the main driver of inequality—the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth—threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values. He calls for political action and policy intervention. Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, and Steven Durlauf participated in a panel moderated by Branko Milanovic."

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

'Inequality in Well-Being'

From the House of Debt:

Inequality in Well-Being, by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi: As we mentioned in our post yesterday, economists care much more about inequality in well-being rather than inequality in income or wealth. Data on well-being are more difficult to gather, but we discussed some evidence that inequality in consumption also increased from 1980 to 2010. Consumption directly affects the utility of an individual in most economic models. Income does not.
Here is some more evidence, with a particular focus on the last few years ...
Another strategy in measuring well-being is to look beyond spending and toward measures of health. Life expectancy data are available, and they seem to tell a similar story...: the rise in life expectancy from 1980 to 2010 for people already 65 is driven almost entirely by the rich.
There has been a lot of attention on income and wealth inequality, and for good reason. But inequality in outcomes such as consumption and health are far more important. We’ve gathered some evidence here, but more is needed. The evidence so far suggests that inequality in well-being has tracked inequality in wealth and income closely. ...

'Thomas Piketty Is Right'

Solow on Piketty:

Thomas Piketty Is Right: Everything you need to know about 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century', by Robert Solow: Income inequality in the United States and elsewhere has been worsening since the 1970s. The most striking aspect has been the widening gap between the rich and the rest. This ominous anti-democratic trend has finally found its way into public consciousness and political rhetoric. A rational and effective policy for dealing with it—if there is to be one—will have to rest on an understanding of the causes of increasing inequality. The discussion so far has turned up a number of causal factors: the erosion of the real minimum wage; the decay of labor unions and collective bargaining; globalization and intensified competition from low-wage workers in poor countries; technological changes and shifts in demand that eliminate mid-level jobs and leave the labor market polarized between the highly educated and skilled at the top and the mass of poorly educated and unskilled at the bottom.
Each of these candidate causes seems to capture a bit of the truth. But even taken together they do not seem to provide a thoroughly satisfactory picture. They have at least two deficiencies. First, they do not speak to the really dramatic issue: the tendency for the very top incomes—the “1 percent”—to pull away from the rest of society. Second, they seem a little adventitious, accidental; whereas a forty-year trend common to the advanced economies of the United States, Europe, and Japan would be more likely to rest on some deeper forces within modern industrial capitalism. Now along comes Thomas Piketty, a forty-two-year-old French economist, to fill those gaps and then some. I had a friend, a distinguished algebraist, whose preferred adjective of praise was “serious.” “Z is a serious mathematician,” he would say, or “Now that is a serious painting.” Well, this is a serious book. ...

Thursday, April 17, 2014

'Antitrust in the New Gilded Age'

Robert Reich:

Antitrust in the New Gilded Age, by Robert Reich: We’re in a new gilded age of wealth and power similar to the first gilded age when the nation’s antitrust laws were enacted. Those laws should prevent or bust up concentrations of economic power that not only harm consumers but also undermine our democracy — such as the pending Comcast acquisition of Time-Warner. ...
In many respects America is back to the same giant concentrations of wealth and economic power that endangered democracy a century ago. The floodgates of big money have been opened...
Remember, this is occurring in America’s new gilded age — similar to the first one in which a young Teddy Roosevelt castigated the “malefactors of great wealth, who were “equally careless of the working men, whom they oppress, and of the State, whose existence they imperil.”
It’s that same equal carelessness toward average Americans and toward our democracy that ought to be of primary concern to us now. Big money that engulfs government makes government incapable of protecting the rest of us against the further depredations of big money.
After becoming President in 1901, Roosevelt used the Sherman Act against forty-five giant companies, including the giant Northern Securities Company that threatened to dominate transportation in the Northwest. William Howard Taft continued to use it, busting up the Standard Oil Trust in 1911. 
In this new gilded age, we should remind ourselves of a central guiding purpose of America’s original antitrust law, and use it no less boldly. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

'The Social and Moral Philosophy of the Minimum Wage'

More Delong -- Brad makes this point about value neutrality every once in awhile, it's one I sometimes forget in these discussions, so it's a nice reminder:

The Social and Moral Philosophy of the Minimum Wage: Matthew Yglesias is surprised that most economists favor raising the minimum wage: ...
...at the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business found they supported a minimum-wage increase. They weren't sure, however, whether increases would create unemployment. Most said that, on balance, the benefits exceeded the costs...
But why should he be surprised? ...

One possibility is that Matthew has spent too much time listening to bad right-wing economists who are even worse philosophers--people who say things like: "We are economists, We talk only about efficiency, and so we talk about what maximizes real income per capita. If you want to introduce some other consideration and maximize something other than real income per capita, well then you are introducing interpersonal value comparisons into the problem and you should consult the philosopher or theologian. But we should agree at the start that it is maximizing real income per capita that is the efficient outcome."
The problem with this, of course, is that maximizing real income per capita does take a stand, and a very fictional your stand, on interpersonal value comparisons. To maximize real income per capita is to assert that each dollar at the margin--no matter how rich is the person that goes to--has the same effect on marginal utility, has the same effect on the greatest good of the greatest number. If we were, instead of maximizing real income per capita, to go about maximizing the geometric mean of real income we would be taking another stand: that utility was logarithmic in real income, so that each doubling of real income had the same effect on the greatest good of the greatest number no matter who that doubling went to or how rich they already were.
Both maximizing real income per capita and maximizing the geometric mean of real income are wrong, are not what we really want to do. ...
But if one wants a neutral place to start, it is surely less obnoxious to start from maximizing the geometric mean of real income than from maximizing real income per capita. And once one starts from there you need a very large disemployment effect--one that we simply see strong evidence against at the current level of the minimum wage--for an increase in the minimum wage to flunk any sensible benefit-cost calculation.

Notes and Finger Exercises on Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the Twenty-First Century"

Brad DeLong attempts to answer a question many people have been asking. Can the Summers claim of secular stagnation due to the real interest rate being too low be reconciled with Piketty's argument that the real interest rate is too high, high enough to generate rising inequality (larger than the growth rate of the economy)?:

Notes and Finger Exercises on Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the Twenty-First Century": When I look at Thomas Piketty's big book, I see one thing that he failed to do that I think he really should have done. A large part of the book is about the contrast between "r", the rate of return on wealth, and "g" the growth rate of the economy. However, there are four different r's. And in his book he failed to distinguish between them.

The four different r's are:

  1. The real interest rate at which metropolitan governments can borrow: call this r1.
  2. The real interest rate that is the actual average return on wealth in the society and economy: call this r2.
  3. The real interest rate that is the average risky net rate of accumulation--what capital receives, minus the risk of confiscation or destruction or taxation, plus appreciation in valuation multiples, minus what is spent in order to keep the world in the appropriate social position: call this r3.
  4. A measure of the extent to which capital and wealth serve as an effective claim on income independent of how much capital there is--a standardized measure of what the society and economy's return on wealth would be at some standardized ratio of wealth to annual income: say, 4: call this ρ.

These four r's are very different animals.

The first r, r1, is what Larry Summers is talking about when he talks about secular stagnation. When that r1 falls to a level equal to minus the rate of inflation, the economy is in big trouble. At that point, wealthholders would rather become coupon-clipping rentiers holding government bonds then invest in industry of any sort. Full employment can then be attained only via:

  1. A bubble that produces unrealistic and unsustainable expectations of the profits from investing in industry.
  2. The government borrowing money and buying stuff on a large scale.
  3. A higher rate of trend inflation that relaxes the zero lower bound constraint on safe government debt interest rates. .

Larry Summers is worried that this is the dilemma we face: that we are in a world in which r1 is too low...

Thomas Piketty, by contrast, says that he is worried about the world in which r2 is too high.

But it is not r2 but rather r3 that he should be talking about. And r3--the average rate of accumulation--is r2 to which there are a good number of sociopolitical factors plus and minus.

Are Piketty and Summers Reconcilable?

We have a world in which some eminent economists (Larry Summers) say r1 is too low, and other eminent economists (Thomas Piketty) say r2 is too high. Can this compute?

Yes.

The difference between r1 and r2 is the risk premium. In a well-functioning market economy with well-functioning financial markets, there are powerful reasons to believe that this risk premium should be small: less than 1%-point per year. The fact the risk premium appears to me to be 7%-points per year today is a powerful evidence of the profound dysfunctionality of our financial markets, and of their failure to do their proper catallactic job. But that is a separate and largely independent discussion: that is a dysfunction of our modern market economy which is different from either the dysfunction feared by Summers or the dysfunction feared by Piketty. For the moment, simply note that it is perfectly possible for all three of these major dysfunctions to occur together.

What Does This Neoclassical Economist Say? Build a Mathematical Model

When a conventional American post-World War II neoclassical economist--somebody, that is, like me--tries to make analytical sense of Piketty's big book, he says:

Ring-ding-ding-ding-dingeringeding!

No, that's not it... He says something like:

Piketty talks a lot about eras, and about times when r--his r, r2--r2 > g, and wealth concentration and the wealth-to-annual income ratio is rising, and times when r2 < g, and wealth concentration and the wealth-to-annual-income ratio is falling. But how much? And in what periods, exactly? Let's see if we can do some finger exercise to figure it out. ...

Saturday, April 12, 2014

'Better Insurance Against Inequality'

Robert Shiller:

Better Insurance Against Inequality: Paying taxes is rarely pleasant, but as April 15 approaches it’s worth remembering that our tax system is a progressive one and serves a little-noticed but crucial purpose: It mitigates some of the worst consequences of income inequality. ...
But it’s also clear that ... what we have isn’t nearly enough. It’s time — past time, actually — to tweak the system so that it can respond effectively if income inequality becomes more extreme. ...
In testimony before the Senate Finance Committee last month, [Leonard] Burman proposed a version of inequality indexing that might be politically acceptable... His idea was to integrate inequality indexing with inflation indexing: Instead of just linking tax brackets to inflation..., he proposed that ... if inequality worsened, higher tax brackets would bear a bit more of the burden, and people at the bottom would bear less.
A relatively minor change like this should be politically acceptable. It is a reframing of inflation indexing, which is already a sacrosanct principle, and would be revenue-neutral. ... Such a plan would be a nice first step toward making our tax system manage the risk of future increases in inequality.

I'm a bit more doubtful than he is about the political acceptability of this proposal so long as the GOP is in a position to block any movement in this direction.

Friday, April 11, 2014

'What Do Average Americans Think About Inequality?'

Sociologist Claude Fischer:

What do average Americans think about inequality?: ... In her 2013 book, The Undeserving Rich: American Beliefs about Inequality, Opportunity, and Redistribution, sociologist Leslie McCall methodically tries to figure out Americans’ thinking about inequality. ... Here is what McCall found (updated a bit with new surveys):
  • First, surveys show that Americans are aware that inequality has grown...
  • Second, Americans do not like high income inequality. ...
  • Third, most Americans find widening inequality objectionable because it seems to undercut opportunities for economic advancement. ...
  • Fourth, a growing percentage of Americans want something done about inequality. ...
  • Fifth, what Americans have not increasingly endorsed is having the government redistribute income. ...
  • Sixth, what Americans do want the government to do – and there is increasing support for this – is to increase opportunity, notably by funding more education. ...
...I am struck that, in her data and analysis, Americans generally do not object to economic inequality on grounds that perhaps other westerners might: not that it is morally, religiously offensive – Pope Francis speaks of “moral destitution”; nor on the grounds that everyone has a human right to a decent standard of living;  nor because inequality might have damaging psychological consequences or social consequences; nor even because inequality slows economic growth. Generally, Americans object to inequality, it seems, because they think that it undermines the chances that  individual ambition and hard work will succeed.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

'Rich people rule!'

In case you missed this in today's links, Larry Bartels:

Rich people rule!, by Larry Bartels, Commentary, Washington Post: Everyone thinks they know that money is important in American politics. But how important? .. For decades, most political scientists have sidestepped that question... But now, political scientists are belatedly turning more systematic attention to the political impact of wealth, and their findings should reshape how we think about American democracy.
forthcoming article ... by ... Martin Gilens and ... Benjamin Page marks a notable step in that process. ... They conclude that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”
Average citizens have “little or no independent influence” on the policy-making process? This must be an overstatement of Gilens’s and Page’s findings, no?
Alas, no. In their primary statistical analysis, the collective preferences of ordinary citizens had only a negligible estimated effect on policy outcomes, while the collective preferences of “economic elites” ... were 15 times as important. ...

Monday, April 07, 2014

Paul Krugman: Oligarchs and Money

Class interests stand in the way of raising the inflation target:

Oligarchs and Money, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Econonerds eagerly await each new edition of the International Monetary Fund’s World Economic Outlook. ... This latest report ... in effect makes a compelling case for raising inflation targets above 2 percent, the current norm in advanced countries. ...
First, let’s talk about the case for higher inflation. ... It’s good for debtors — and therefore good for the economy as a whole when an overhang of debt is holding back growth and job creation. It encourages people to spend rather than sit on cash — again, a good thing in a depressed economy. And it can serve as a kind of economic lubricant, making it easier to adjust wages and prices...
But ... would it be enough to get back to 2 percent, the official inflation target...? Almost certainly not.
You see, monetary experts ... thought that 2 percent was high enough to ... make liquidity traps ... very rare. But America has now been in a liquidity trap for more than five years. Clearly, the experts were wrong.
Furthermore,... there’s strong evidence that changes in the global economy are increasing the tendency of investors to hoard cash..., thereby increasing the risk of liquidity traps unless the inflation target is raised. But the report never dares to say this outright.
So why is the obvious unsayable? One answer is that serious people like to prove their seriousness by calling for tough choices and sacrifice (by other people, of course). They hate being told about answers that don’t involve more suffering.
And behind this attitude, one suspects, lies class bias. Doing what America did after World War II — using low interest rates and inflation to erode the debt burden — is often referred to as “financial repression,” which sounds bad. But who wouldn’t prefer modest inflation and a bit of asset erosion to mass unemployment? Well, you know who: the 0.1 percent... Modestly higher inflation, say 4 percent, would be good for the vast majority of people, but it would be bad for the superelite. And guess who gets to define conventional wisdom.
Now, I don’t think that class interest is all-powerful. Good arguments and good policies sometimes prevail even if they hurt the 0.1 percent — otherwise we would never have gotten health reform. But we do need to make clear what’s going on, and realize that in monetary policy as in so much else, what’s good for oligarchs isn’t good for America.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

'The Wealth Gap in America Is Growing, Too'

This shouldn't be a surprise:

The Wealth Gap in America Is Growing, Too, by Annie Lowrey, NY Times: It is, by now, well known that income inequality has increased in the United States. The top 10 percent of earners took more than half of the country’s overall income in 2012, the highest proportion recorded in a century of government record keeping.
But wealth inequality has been increasing too, as a new study by Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics and Gabriel Zucman of the University of California, Berkeley, shows. In a preliminary report, Mr. Zucman and Emmanuel Saez, also of Berkeley, find that at the very top, wealth is distributed as unevenly as it was in the early 20th century. And the wealthiest 0.1 percent, and especially the 0.01 percent, have left the rest of the 1 percent in the dust. ...

'Inequality is Caused by Ideology, not Technology'

John Quiggin:

Inequality is caused by ideology, not technology, by  John Quiggin: I’ve just had an article published at New Left Project, under the title Don’t Blame the Internet for Rising Inequality. Much of it will be familiar, but I want to stress a particular, and I think novel, critique of the idea that skill-intensive technology is responsible for rising inequality

...The real gains over this period have gone to a subset of the top 1 per cent, dominated by CEOs, other senior managers and finance industry operators. This group has nearly quadrupled its real income over the past 30 years...

This is a major problem for the Race Against the Machine hypothesis. Much of the growth in income share of the top 1 per cent occurred before 2000, when the stereotypical CEO was a technological illiterate who had his (sic) secretary print out his emails. Even today, the technology available to the typical senior manager—a PC with access to the Internet, and a corporate intranet with very limited capabilities—is no different to that of the average knowledge worker, and inferior to that of workers in tech-intensive specialties.

Nor does the ownership of capital explain much here. Even for tech-intensive jobs, the capital and telecomm requirements for an individual worker cost no more than $10,000 for a top-of-the-line computer setup (amortized over 3-5 years), and perhaps $1000 a year for a broadband internet connection. This is well within the capacity of self-employed professional workers to pay for themselves, and in fact many professionals have better equipment at home than at work. Advances in information and communications technology thus can’t explain the vast majority of the growth in inequality over the past three decades.

...

Monday, March 31, 2014

Inequality: Echoes of the Past

This sounds familiar:

Should we care about inequality?, by David Stasavage, Monkey Cage, Washington Post: ...As a firm believer that commercial societies would witness an inexorable increase in inequality, [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau in his “Discourse on Political Economy” wrote of the corrupting influence of inequality and “luxury” and of the need to levy taxes on the rich to curb the problem. ...
Rousseau’s text was originally published in Denis Diderot’s famous Encyclopedia as the entry for “Political Economy.” ... Jean-François de Saint-Lambert was commissioned by Diderot to write the article on “Luxury” for the encyclopedia. The interest of such a text was obvious; at the time the pundits of the day were fiercely debating the virtues and vices of “luxury” and its potentially corrupting effect on nations. Take our 21st century debates, substitute the word “inequality” for “luxury,” and you get a sense of the tone.
Saint-Lambert was among the first to move the debate in a new direction. He suggested that luxury itself was not the problem; what mattered was how luxury was generated. If luxury was earned thanks to institutionalized privilege, or by those who had gamed the system, then it would inevitably have a corrupting influence. The effects for the nation would be disastrous. ...
Now in cases where luxury is instead acquired through industriousness, Saint-Lambert argued that it would not have these nefarious effects. ...

Friday, March 28, 2014

'Save Capitalism from the Capitalists by Taxing Wealth'

Thomas Piketty:

Save capitalism from the capitalists by taxing wealth, by Thomas Piketty, Commentary, FT: The distribution of income and wealth is one of the most controversial issues of the day. ...
America ... was conceived as the antithesis of the patrimonial societies of old Europe. ... Until the first world war, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the rich was far less extreme in the US than Europe. In the 20th century, however, the situation was reversed.  ... US income inequality has sharpened since the 1980s, largely reflecting the huge incomes of people at the top. ...
The ideal solution would be a global progressive tax on individual net worth. ... This would keep inequality under control and make it easier to climb the ladder. And it would put global wealth dynamics under public scrutiny. The lack of financial transparency and reliable wealth statistics is one of the main challenges for modern democracies. ...

There's quite a bit more in the article.

Paul Krugman: America’s Taxation Tradition

"Confiscatory taxation" was an "American invention":

America’s Taxation Tradition, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: ...Some conservatives argue that focusing on inequality is ... un-American — that we’ve always celebrated those who achieve wealth...
And they’re right. No true American would say this: “The absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power,” and follow that statement with a call for “a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes ... increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.” 
Who was this left-winger? Theodore Roosevelt, in ... 1910...
The truth is that, in the early 20th century, many leading Americans warned about the dangers of extreme wealth concentration, and urged that tax policy be used to limit the growth of great fortunes. Here’s another example: In 1919, the great economist Irving Fisher ... devoted his presidential address to the American Economic Association largely to warning against the effects of “an undemocratic distribution of wealth.” And he spoke favorably of proposals to limit inherited wealth through heavy taxation of estates.
Nor was the notion of limiting the concentration of wealth, especially inherited wealth, just talk..., “confiscatory taxation of excessive incomes” — that is, taxation ... to reduce income and wealth disparities, rather than to raise money — was an “American invention.”...
Back when Teddy Roosevelt gave his speech, many thoughtful Americans realized ... that the New World was at risk of turning into Old Europe. And they were forthright in arguing that public policy should seek to limit inequality for political as well as economic reasons, that great wealth posed a danger to democracy. ...
You sometimes hear the argument that concentrated wealth is no longer an important issue... But ...... the share of wealth held at the very top ... has doubled since the 1980s, and is now as high as it was when Teddy Roosevelt and Irving Fisher issued their warnings. ...
We aren’t yet a society with a hereditary aristocracy of wealth, but, if nothing changes, we’ll become that kind of society over the next couple of decades.
In short, the demonization of anyone who talks about the dangers of concentrated wealth is based on a misreading of both the past and the present. Such talk isn’t un-American; it’s very much in the American tradition. And it’s not at all irrelevant to the modern world. So who will be this generation’s Teddy Roosevelt?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

'Nafta Still Bedevils Unions'

I still believe international trade makes us better off on net, but there are winners and losers from these agreements and we don't do anywhere near enough to help those who are hurt by these deals -- no wonder they are opposed:

Nafta Still Bedevils Unions, by Annie Lowrey, NY Times: Two decades after its enactment, the North American Free Trade Agreement — better known as Nafta — remains a source of deep disagreement among economists.
Maybe it has led employers to add tens of thousands of jobs. Or perhaps it has caused the loss of 700,000 jobs. Maybe it has been “a bonanza for U.S. farmers and ranchers,” as the United States Chamber of Commerce has said. But perhaps it has depressed wages for millions of working families. Then again, maybe all sides are wrong: “Nafta brought neither the huge gains its proponents promised nor the dramatic losses its adversaries warned of,” wrote Jorge G. Castañeda in an essay for Foreign Affairs this winter. “Everything else is debatable.”
But for labor groups, there is no debate: Nafta hurt American jobs and household earnings. And the sweeping trade agreement cast a shadow that persists today, spurring deep skepticism of the major trade deals the Obama administration is negotiating with Europe and a dozen Pacific Rim countries. ...
On Thursday, the A.F.L.-C.I.O. released a report excoriating Nafta... Among its conclusions: That Nafta increased corporate profits while depressing wages; that its labor-protection provisions have not improved labor conditions on the ground; that its environmental standards have not protected the environment; and that higher trade flows have not meant shared prosperity. ...

'Why the Income Distribution Matters for Macroeconomics'

Atif Mian and Amir Sufi:

Why the Income Distribution Matters for Macroeconomics, by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi: A central argument we have made on this blog and in our book is that the distribution of income/wealth matters a great deal for thinking about the macro-economy. Convincing some of this fact is not easy...
Perhaps the easiest way to see the importance of the income distribution is to examine how households respond to a windfall of cash or wealth. Do they spend the money, or do they save it? And does the spending response to a windfall of cash depend on the income of the household?
The answer is a resounding yes: low income households spend a much higher fraction of cash windfalls than high income households. In the parlance of economics, low income households have a much higher marginal propensity to consume, or MPC, than high income households.
This is one of the most well-established facts in empirical research in macroeconomics. Here is a summary: ...[reviews evidence]...
The implications of the differences in spending propensities across the population are enormous, especially if we believe that inadequate demand explains economic weakness during severe recessions. For example, facilitating debt forgiveness or progressive fiscal stimulus rebates will likely boost spending during the most severe part of a recession.
But perhaps even more interesting are the implications for the secular stagnation hypothesis, which holds that we are in a long-run stagnating economy because of inadequate demand. Is it a coincidence that the secular stagnation hypothesis is being revived exactly when income inequality is accelerating? If a higher share of income goes to the wealthiest households who spend very little of it, then perhaps these two trends are closely related.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

'Secular Stagnation and Wealth Inequality'

Atif Mian and Amir Sufi:

Secular Stagnation and Wealth Inequality, by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi: Alvin Hansen introduced the notion of “secular stagnation” in the 1930s. Hansen’s hypothesis has been brought back to life by Larry Summers...
A brief summary of the hypothesis goes something like this: A normally functioning economy would lower interest rates in the face of low current demand for goods and services... A lower interest rate helps boost demand.
But what if ... real interest rates need to be very negative to boost demand, but prevailing interest rates are around zero, then we will have too much savings in risk-free assets — what Paul Krugman has called the liquidity trap. In such a situation, the economy becomes demand-constrained.
The liquidity trap helps explain why recessions can be so severe. But the Summers argument goes further. He is arguing that we may be stuck in a long-run equilibrium where real interest rates need to be negative to generate adequate demand. Without negative real interest rates, we are doomed to economic stagnation. ...
In our view, what is missing from the secular stagnation story is the crucial role of the highly unequal wealth distribution. Who exactly is saving too much? It certainly isn’t the bottom 80% of the wealth distribution! We have already shown that the bottom 80% of the wealth distribution holds almost no financial assets.
Further, when the wealthy save in the financial system, some of that saving ends up in the hands of lower wealth households when they get a mortgage or auto loan. But when lower wealth households get financing, it is almost always done through debt contracts. This introduces some potential problems. Debt fuels asset booms when the economy is expanding, and debt contracts force the borrower to bear the losses of a decline in economic activity.
Both of these features of debt have important implications for the secular stagnation hypothesis. We will continue on this theme in future posts.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

'Capital Ownership and Inequality'

Atif Mian and Amir Sufi follow up on something noted here a few days ago:

Capital Ownership and Inequality, by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi: Lots of interesting and thought-provoking reactions to our post yesterday on how the gains in U.S. productivity are shared.
One aspect of the debate that is often over-looked is the concentration of financial asset holdings in the U.S. economy. Who owns financial assets such as stocks and bonds in corporations tells us who has a direct claim to the income generated by capital. Here is the distribution of financial asset holdings across the wealth distribution. This is from the 2010 Survey of Consumer Finances:

Houseofdebt_20140319_12

The top 20% of the wealth distribution holds over 85% of the financial assets in the economy. So it is clear that the direct income from capital goes to the wealthiest American households. ...
There is ... the question of incorporating housing wealth in the graph above. How should we think about housing which is more broadly held? But it’s important to have the basic facts established to begin the debate. If you think the above chart is misleading or incorrect in some way, we are happy to hear why. ...

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

'The Most Important Economic Chart'

Atif Mian and Amir Sufi at House of Debt on a subject that has come up here many, many times:

The Most Important Economic Chart, by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi: If you must know only one fact about the U.S. economy, it should be this chart:

ch1_20140317_1

The chart shows that productivity, or output per hour of work, has quadrupled since 1947... This is a spectacular achievement...
The gains in productivity were quite widely shared from 1947 to 1980. ... However, what we want to focus on today is the remarkable separation in productivity and median real income since 1980. While the United States is producing twice as much per hour of work today compared to 1980, a small part of the gain in real income has gone to the bottom half of the income distribution. The gap between productivity and median real income is at an historic all-time high today.
So where are all of the gains in productivity going? Two places: First,... the share of profits has risen faster than wages. Second, the highest paid workers are getting a bigger share of the wages that go to labor. ...
It is not just about inequality... The widening gap between productivity and median income has serious implications for macroeconomic stability and financial crises. Our forthcoming book takes up these issues in more detail.
We will also discuss some of these issues in coming posts.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Relentless Rise in Unequal Wealth

Eduardo Porter:

A Relentless Rise in Unequal Wealth, by Eduardo Porter, NY Times:  What if inequality were to continue growing years or decades into the future? Say the richest 1 percent of the population amassed a quarter of the nation’s income, up from about a fifth today. What about half? To believe Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics, this future is not just possible. It is likely. In his bracing “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” which hit bookstores on Monday, Professor Piketty provides a fresh and sweeping analysis of the world’s economic history that puts into question many of our core beliefs about the organization of market economies.

A Response to Another Attack on the Great Gatsby Curve

WCEG:

A response to another attack on the Great Gatsby curve—and can we call it the “line to serfdom” instead? By Carter Price:  Let me apologize up front for this wonky post. In a piece of analysis posted last month, Scott Winship and Donald Schneider attack the Great Gatsby curve, which illustrates the relationship between economic inequality and mobility across countries. Let me first say that I dislike the moniker “Great Gatsby Curve” (apologies to Alan Krueger) because I don’t find it to be a very enlightening description of the effect. Therefore, I propose that we call this relationship the “line to serfdom,” which is not only a more accurate description of the high inequality/low mobility relationship but also an allusion to Friedrich Hayek’s classic tome of Austrian economics, “The Road to Serfdom.” Winship and Schneider make three arguments against a consistent correlation between economic inequality and mobility across countries. Specifically: The Luxembourg Income Study’s Gini Coefficient is a better measure of inequality than the World Bank’s Gini coefficient (Gini coefficient is a measure of the income inequality, with higher numbers indicating a higher concentration of a country’s income among the top earners). Rank correlation coefficients are a better measure of mobility than intergenerational elasticity. Recently released data indicates that the mobility trend has been relatively flat over time in the United States. I’ll address each of these points below ...

Q&A: Thomas Piketty on the Wealth Divide

On inequality:

Q&A: Thomas Piketty on the Wealth Divide: Income inequality moved with astonishing speed from the boring backwaters of economic studies to “the defining challenge of our time.” It found Thomas Piketty waiting for it.
A young professor at the Paris School of Economics, he is one of a handful of economists who have devoted their careers to understanding the dynamics driving the concentration of income and wealth into the hands of the few. He has distilled his findings into a new book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” which is being published this week. In the book, Mr. Piketty provides a sort of unified theory of capitalism that explains its lopsided distribution of rewards.
Eduardo Porter’s Economic Scene column this week discusses Mr. Piketty’s work. Following is the transcript of an email interview he conducted with Mr. Piketty last week, lightly edited for length and clarity. ...

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Inequality in Capitalist Systems

New column:

Inequality in Capitalist Systems Is Not Inevitable, by Mark Thoma: Capitalism is the best economic system yet discovered for giving people the goods and services they desire at the lowest possible price, and for producing innovative economic growth. But there is a cost associated with these benefits, the boom and bust cycles inherent in capitalist systems, and those costs hit working class households – who have done nothing to deserve such a fate – very hard. Protecting innocent households from the costs of recessions is an important basis for our social insurance programs.
It is becoming more and more evident that there is another cost of capitalist systems, the inevitable rising inequality documented by Thomas Piketty in “Capital in the Twenty-First Century, that our social insurance system will need to confront. ...

Monday, March 10, 2014

Paul Krugman: Liberty, Equality, Efficiency

Reducing inequality "would probably increase, not reduce, economic growth":

Liberty, Equality, Efficiency, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Most people, if pressed on the subject, would probably agree that extreme income inequality is a bad thing... But what can be done about it?
The standard answer in American politics is, “Not much.” Almost 40 years ago Arthur Okun ... published a classic book titled “Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff,” arguing that redistributing income from the rich to the poor takes a toll on economic growth. Okun’s book set the terms for almost all the debate that followed: liberals might argue that the efficiency costs of redistribution were small, while conservatives argued that they were large, but everybody knew that doing anything to reduce inequality would have at least some negative impact on G.D.P.
But it appears that what everyone knew isn’t true. Taking action to reduce the extreme inequality of 21st-century America would probably increase, not reduce, economic growth.
Let’s start with the evidence..., does reducing inequality through redistribution hurt economic growth? Not according to two landmark studies by economists at the International Monetary Fund...
In short, Okun’s big trade-off doesn’t seem to be a trade-off at all. ...
At this point someone is sure to say ... that we should seek equality of opportunity, not equality of outcomes. That may sound good...; but for those with any reality sense, it’s a cruel joke. Almost 40 percent of American children live in poverty or near-poverty. Do you really think they have the same access to education and jobs as the children of the affluent?
In fact, low-income children are much less likely to complete college than their affluent counterparts, with the gap widening rapidly. And this isn’t just bad for those unlucky enough to be born to the wrong parents; it represents a huge and growing waste of human potential — a waste that surely acts as a powerful if invisible drag on economic growth.
Now, I don’t want to claim that addressing income inequality would help everyone. The very affluent would lose more from higher taxes than they gained from better economic growth. But it’s pretty clear that taking on inequality would be good, not just for the poor, but for the middle class...
In short, what’s good for the 1 percent isn’t good for America. And we don’t have to keep living in a new Gilded Age if we don’t want to.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

'The Federal Reserve and Wealth Inequality'

From the new blog by Atif Mian and Amir Sufi:

The Federal Reserve and Wealth Inequality: The Federal Reserve has a well-defined dual-mandate: stabilize prices and maximize employment. However, in trying to achieve these objectives, the Fed can inadvertently favor some segments of the population more than others. This was indeed the case from the perspective of households’ net worth position during the Great Recession. ...
When the economy slows down and there is a sharp decline in house prices, it is ... debtors’ net worth that is most heavily impacted, and from a recovery standpoint it is the debtors’ net worth that is in most need of repair...
The Federal Reserve may help in boosting the net worth position of households. But does it boost household net worth where it is needed the most? Unfortunately, quite the opposite is true. The Fed directly controls short term interest rates, and hence has the strongest and quickest influence on bond prices. Bond prices are inversely related to interest rates... Those holding long term bonds profited handsomely from the decline in interest rates.
Unfortunately for the macro-economy, the gains in long-term bonds were a unique benefit to creditors. Debtors with a levered claim on house prices remained stuck. This was one of the great limitations of how effective the Federal Reserve could be in the midst of the Great Recession.
Many have placed much blame on the Federal Reserve for increasing wealth inequality. That is unfair — it is not the Fed’s fault that only the very rich hold bonds and other financial assets. But it is true that a by-product of looser monetary policy is a rise in wealth inequality–the Fed was unable during the Great Recession to boost the net worth of debtors.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

A Top-Heavy Focus on Income Inequality?

This was *not* my favorite article of the day:

A Top-Heavy Focus on Income Inequality, by Sendhil Mullainathan, Commentary, NY Times: I worry about growing income inequality. But I worry even more that the discussion is too narrowly focused. I worry that our outrage at the top 1 percent is distracting us from the problem that we should really care about: how to create opportunities and ensure a reasonable standard of living for the bottom 20 percent.
Our passion about the widening disparity in wealth and income is easy to understand. After all, studies often find that unequal incomes reduce happiness. Of course they do: Jealousy and envy are strong emotions. ...

Friday, March 07, 2014

Paul Krugman: The Hammock Fallacy

We don't do enough to help people escape poverty:

The Hammock Fallacy, by Paul Krugman, Commentary, NY Times: Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue. So when you see something like the current scramble by Republicans to declare their deep concern for America’s poor, it’s a good sign, indicating a positive change in social norms. Goodbye, sneering at the 47 percent; hello, fake compassion.
And the big new poverty report from the House Budget Committee, led by Representative Paul Ryan, offers additional reasons for optimism. Mr. Ryan used to rely on “scholarship” from places like the Heritage Foundation. ... This time, however, Mr. Ryan is citing a lot of actual social science research.
Unfortunately, the research he cites doesn’t actually support his assertions. Even more important, his whole premise about why poverty persists is demonstrably wrong.
To understand where the new report is coming from,... recall something Mr. Ryan said two years ago: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.” ...
What does scholarly research on antipoverty programs actually say? ... Mr. Ryan would have us believe that the “hammock” created by the social safety net is the reason so many Americans remain trapped in poverty. But the evidence says nothing of the kind.
After all, if generous aid ... perpetuates poverty, the United States — which treats its poor far more harshly than other rich countries, and induces them to work much longer hours — should lead the West in social mobility... In fact,... America has less social mobility...
And there’s no puzzle why: it’s hard for young people to get ahead when they suffer from poor nutrition, inadequate medical care, and lack of access to good education. The antipoverty programs that we have actually do a lot to help people rise. For example, Americans who received early access to food stamps were healthier and more productive... But we don’t do enough... The reason so many Americans remain trapped in poverty isn’t that the government helps them too much; it’s that it helps them too little.
Which brings us back to the hypocrisy issue. It is, in a way, nice to see the likes of Mr. Ryan at least talking about the need to help the poor. But somehow their notion of aiding the poor involves slashing benefits while cutting taxes on the rich. Funny how that works.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

'Redistribution, Inequality, and Sustainable Growth: Reconsidering the Evidence'

A nice summary of some research that I've highlighted before:

Redistribution, inequality, and sustainable growth: Reconsidering the evidence, by Jonathan D Ostry, Andrew Berg, and Charalambos Tsangarides, Vox EU: Rising income inequality looms high on the global policy agenda, reflecting not only fears of its pernicious social and political effects (including questions about the consistency of extreme inequality with democratic governance), but also its economic implications. While positive incentives are surely needed to reward work and innovation, excessive inequality is likely to undercut growth – for example by undermining access to health and education, causing investment-reducing political and economic instability, and thwarting the social consensus required to adjust in the face of major shocks.

Understandably, economists have been trying to understand better the links between rising inequality and the fragility of economic growth. Recent narratives include how inequality intensified the leverage and financial cycle, sowing the seeds of crisis (Rajan 2010), or how political-economy factors – especially the influence of the rich – allowed financial excess to balloon ahead of the crisis (Stiglitz 2012).

But what is the role of policy – and in particular fiscal redistribution – in bringing about greater equality? Conventional wisdom suggests that redistribution would in itself be bad for growth, but by reducing inequality, it might conceivably help growth. Looking at past experience, we find scant evidence that typical efforts to redistribute have on average had an adverse effect on growth. Moreover, faster and more durable growth seems to have followed the associated reduction in inequality.

Disentangling the effects of inequality and redistribution on growth

In earlier work (Berg and Ostry 2011), we documented a robust medium-run relationship between equality and the sustainability of growth. We did not, however, have much to say on whether this relationship justifies efforts to redistribute.

Indeed, many argue that redistribution undermines growth, and even that efforts to redistribute to address high inequality are the source of the correlation between inequality and low growth. If this is right, then taxes and transfers may be precisely the wrong remedy – a cure that may be worse than the disease itself.

The literature on this score remains controversial. A number of papers (e.g. Benabou 2000) point out that some policies that are redistributive – e.g. public investments in infrastructure, spending on health and education, and social insurance provision – may be both pro-growth and pro-equality. Others are more supportive of a fundamental tradeoff between redistribution and growth, as argued by Okun (1975) when he referred to the efficiency ‘leaks’ that come with efforts to reduce inequality.

In a new paper (Ostry et al. 2014), we ask what the historical data say about the relationship between inequality, redistribution, and growth. In particular, what is the evidence about the macroeconomic effects of redistributive policies – both directly on growth, and indirectly as they reduce inequality, which in turn affects growth?

To disentangle the channels, we make use of a new cross-country dataset that carefully distinguishes net (post-tax and transfers) inequality from market (pre-tax and transfers) inequality, and allows us to calculate redistributive transfers for a large number of countries over time – covering both advanced and developing countries. We analyse the behaviour of average growth during five-year periods, as well as the sustainability and duration of growth.

Our key questions are empirical. How big is the ‘big tradeoff’? How does the direct (in Okun’s view negative) effect of redistribution compare to its indirect and apparently positive effect through reduced inequality?

Some striking results on the links between redistribution, inequality, and growth

First, we continue to find that inequality is a robust and powerful determinant both of the pace of medium-term growth and of the duration of growth spells, even controlling for the size of redistributive transfers.

Thus, it would still be a mistake to focus on growth and let inequality take care of itself, if only because the resulting growth may be low and unsustainable. Inequality and unsustainable growth may be two sides of the same coin.

Second, there is remarkably little evidence in the historical data used in our paper of adverse effects of fiscal redistribution on growth.

The average redistribution, and the associated reduction in inequality, seem to be robustly associated with higher and more durable growth. We find some mixed signs that very large redistributions may have direct negative effects on growth duration, such that the overall effect – including the positive effect on growth through lower inequality – is roughly growth-neutral.

Caveats

These findings may suggest that countries that have carried out redistributive policies have actually designed those policies in a reasonably efficient way. However, it does not mean of course that countries wishing to enhance the redistributive role of fiscal policy should not pay attention to efficiency considerations. This is especially important for countries with weak governance and administrative capacity, where developing tax and spending instruments that can allow governments to undertake redistribution efficiently are of the essence. A forthcoming paper by the IMF will delve into these fiscal issues.

Of course, we should also be cautious about drawing definitive policy implications from cross-country regression analysis alone. We know from history and first principles that after some point redistribution will be destructive to growth, and that beyond some point extreme equality also cannot be conducive to growth. Causality is difficult to establish with full confidence, and we also know that different sorts of policies are likely to have different effects in different countries at different times.

Bottom line

The conclusion that emerges from the historical macroeconomic data used in this paper is that, on average across countries and over time, the things that governments have typically done to redistribute do not seem to have led to bad growth outcomes. Quite apart from ethical, political, or broader social considerations, the resulting equality seems to have helped support faster and more durable growth.

To put it simply, we find little evidence of a ‘big tradeoff’ between redistribution and growth. Inaction in the face of high inequality thus seems unlikely to be warranted in many cases.

References

Benabou, R (2000), “Unequal Societies: Income Distribution and the Social Contract”, The American Economic Review, 90(1): 96–129.

Berg, A, J D Ostry, and J Zettelmeyer (2012), “What Makes Growth Sustained?”, Journal of Development Economics, 98(2): 149–166.

Berg, A and J D Ostry (2011), “Inequality and Unsustainable Growth: Two Sides of the Same Coin?”, IMF Staff Discussion Note 11/08.

Okun, A M (1975), Equality and Efficiency: the Big Trade-Off, Washington: Brookings Institution Press.

Ostry, J D, A Berg, and C G Tsangarides (2014), “Redistribution, Inequality, and Growth”, IMF Staff Discussion Note 14/02.

Rajan, R (2010), Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Stiglitz, J (2012), The Price of Inequality: How Today's Divided Society Endangers Our Future, W W Norton & Company.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

'The Real Poverty Trap'

Paul Krugman:

The Real Poverty Trap: Earlier I noted that the new Ryan poverty report makes some big claims about the poverty trap, and cites a lot of research — but the research doesn’t actually support the claims. It occurs to me, however, that the whole Ryan approach is false in a deeper sense as well.
How so? Well, Ryan et al — conservatives in general — claim to care deeply about opportunity, about giving those not born into affluence the ability to rise. And they claim that their hostility to welfare-state programs reflects their assessment that these programs actually reduce opportunity, creating a poverty trap. ...
In fact, the evidence suggests that welfare-state programs enhance social mobility, thanks to little things like children of the poor having adequate nutrition and medical care. And conversely, of course, when such programs are absent or inadequate, the poor find themselves in a trap they often can’t escape, not because they lack the incentive, but because they lack the resources. ...
So the whole poverty trap line is a falsehood wrapped in a fallacy...

Thursday, February 27, 2014

'Little Evidence of a 'Big Tradeoff' Between Redistribution and Growth'

Redistribution does not appear to hinder economic growth:

Treating Inequality with Redistribution: Is the Cure Worse than the Disease?, by Jonathan D. Ostry and Andrew Berg: Rising income inequality looms high on the global policy agenda, reflecting not only fears of its pernicious social and political effects, (including questions about the consistency of extreme inequality with democratic governance), but also the economic implications. While positive incentives are surely needed to reward work and innovation, excessive inequality is likely to undercut growth, for example by undermining access to health and education, causing investment-reducing political and economic instability, and thwarting the social consensus required to adjust in the face of major shocks.
Understandably, economists have been trying to understand better the links between rising inequality and the fragility of economic growth. Recent narratives include how inequality intensified the leverage and financial cycle, sowing the seeds of crisis; or how political-economy factors, especially the influence of the rich, allowed financial excess to balloon ahead of the crisis.
But what is the role of policy, and in particular fiscal redistribution to bring about greater equality? Conventional wisdom would seem to suggest that redistribution would in itself be bad for growth but, conceivably, by engendering greater equality, might help growth. Looking at past experience, we find scant evidence that typical efforts to redistribute have on average had an adverse effect on growth. And faster and more durable growth seems to have followed the associated reduction in inequality. ...
To put it simply, we find little evidence of a “big tradeoff” between redistribution and growth. Inaction in the face of high inequality thus seems unlikely to be warranted in many cases.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

'Winners Take All, but Can’t We Still Dream?'

Robert Frank:

Winners Take All, but Can’t We Still Dream?, by Robert Frank: It’s clear that the lives of many creative artists are being transformed by digital technology. But competing schools of thought cite the very same technology in support of strikingly different conclusions.
One group, for example, says the ability to widely distribute the best performers’ products at low cost portends a world where even small differences in talent command huge differences in reward. That view is known as the “winner take all” theory.
In contrast, the “long tail” theory holds that the information revolution is letting sellers prosper even when their offerings appeal to only a small fraction of the market. This view foresees a golden age in which small-scale creative talent flourishes as never before.
These dueling theories strike close to home. My personal intellectual bets have given me a strong rooting interest in the winner-take-all view. But even the most flint-eyed economist has a romantic side. That part of me wants the long-tail outlook to prevail, and not just because of its hopeful message for underdogs. ...

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.