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→  marzo 8, 2015

by Robert Rosenkranz

The economist’s book caused a sensation last year, but now he says the redistributionists drew the wrong conclusions.

‘Capital in the 21st Century,” a dense economic tome written by French economist Thomas Piketty, became a publishing sensation last spring when Harvard University Press released its English translation. The book quickly climbed to the top of best-seller lists, and more than 1.5 million copies are now in circulation in several languages.

The book’s central proposition, that inequality in capitalist societies will inevitably grow, can be summed up with a simple equation: r>g. That is, the return on capital (r) outpaces the growth rate of the economy (g) over time, leading inexorably to the dominance of inherited wealth. Progressives such as Princeton economist Paul Krugman seized on Mr. Piketty’s thesis to justify policies they have long wanted—namely, very high taxes on the wealthy.

Now in an extraordinary about-face, Mr. Piketty has backtracked, undermining the policy prescriptions many have based on his conclusions. In “About Capital in the 21st Century,” slated for May publication in the American Economic Review but already available online, Mr. Piketty writes that far too much has been read into his thesis.

Though his formula helps explain extreme and persistent wealth inequality before World War I, Mr. Piketty maintains, it doesn’t say much about the past 100 years. “I do not view r>g as the only or even the primary tool for considering changes in income and wealth in the 20th century,” he writes, “or for forecasting the path of inequality in the 21st century.”

Instead, Mr. Piketty argues in his new paper that political shocks, institutional changes and economic development played a major role in inequality in the past and will likely do so in the future.

When he narrows his focus to what he calls “labor income inequality”—the difference in compensation between front-line workers and CEOs—Mr. Piketty consigns his famous formula to irrelevance. “In addition, I certainly do not believe that r>g is a useful tool for the discussion of rising inequality of labor income: other mechanisms and policies are much more relevant here, e.g. supply and demand of skills and education.” He correctly distinguishes between income and wealth, and he takes a long historic perspective: “Wealth inequality is currently much less extreme than a century ago.”

All of this takes the wind out of enraptured progressives’ interpretation of Mr. Piketty’s book, which embraced the r>g formulation as relevant to debates playing out in Congress. Writing in the New York Review of Books last May, for example, Mr. Krugman lauded the book as a “magnificent, sweeping meditation on inequality.” He wrote that Mr. Piketty has proven that “we haven’t just gone back to nineteenth-century levels of income inequality, we’re also on a path back to ‘patrimonial capitalism,’ in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties.”

The r>g formulation always struck me as unconvincing. First, Mr. Piketty’s definition of r as including “profits, dividends, interest, rents, and other income from capital” conflates returns on real business activity (profits) with returns on financial assets (dividends and interest).

Second, it ignores the basic rule of economics that when supply of capital increases faster than demand, the yield on capital falls. For instance, since the great recession, the money supply has grown far more rapidly than the real economy, driving down interest rates. Returns on government bonds, the least risky asset, are now close to zero before inflation and negative 1% to 2% after inflation. In today’s low-return environment, with the headwinds of income and estate taxes, it becomes a Herculean task to build and transmit intergenerational wealth.

Many mainstream economists had reservations about Mr. Piketty’s views even before he began walking them back. Consider the working paper issued by the National Bureau of Economic Research in December. Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard, respectively, find Mr. Piketty’s theory too simplistic. “We argue that general economic laws are unhelpful as a guide to understand the past or predict the future,” the paper’s abstract reads, “because they ignore the central role of political and economic institutions, as well as the endogenous evolution of technology, in shaping the distribution of resources in society.”

The Initiative on Global Markets at the University of Chicago asked economists in October whether they agreed or disagreed with the following statement: “The most powerful force pushing towards greater wealth inequality in the U.S. since the 1970s is the gap between the after-tax return on capital and the economic growth rate.” Of 36 economists who responded, only one agreed.

Other critics have questioned the trove of statistical data Mr. Piketty assembled to chart trends in income and wealth in the U.S., U.K., France and Sweden over the past century. Are such diverse data comparable, and have the adjustments that Mr. Piketty introduced to make them comparable distorted the final picture?

After an extensive review, Chris Giles, the economics editor of the Financial Times, concluded in May last year that “Two of Capital in the 21st Century’s central findings—that wealth inequality has begun to rise over the past 30 years and that the U.S. obviously has a more unequal distribution of wealth than Europe—no longer seem to hold.”

Mr. Piketty is willing to stand up and say that the material in his book does not support all the uses to which it has been put, that “Capital in the 21st Century” is primarily a work of history. That is certainly admirable. Now it is time for those who cry that we are heading into a new gilded age to follow his lead.

→  novembre 16, 2014

Recensione di
The end of normal
James Galbraith
Simon & Schuster, pagg. 304

Siamo vissuti nella cultura della crescita: desiderabile, dovuta e perpetua, normale, appunto. Ruolo dei governi è promuoverla, moderando i cicli economici: le recessioni saranno seguite da riprese, l’economia ritornerà al trend di lungo periodo, l’output potenziale. Non era così per gli economisti dell’epoca vittoriana: per loro, scrive James Galbraith, «il fine ultimo non era la crescita economica ma l’investimento o l’accumulazione di capitale».

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→  settembre 17, 2014

Corruzione a norma di legge. La lobby delle grandi opere che affonda l’Italia.
di Francesco Giavazzi e Giorgio Barbieri
Rizzoli, 2014
pp. 235

MoSE, Expo e Tav. Tre casi di scuola sulle “poche parole che valgono milioni” analizzate da Giavazzi e Barbieri

Di corruzione si può scrivere con la lente del magistrato, con i modelli dell’economista, con la gioia perversa del moralista. Se ne può scrivere anche con amore e dolore, amore per una delle più straordinarie città del mondo, dolore per gli scempi, morali e fisici, che in suo nome si sono compiuti: Venezia. E’ quello che fanno Francesco Giavazzi e Giorgio Barbieri in “Corruzione a norma di legge”.

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→  settembre 14, 2014

House of Debt
How They (and You) Caused the Great Recession, and How We Can Prevent It From Happening again

by Atif Mian e Amir Sufi
The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London,
pagg. 220

La Grande Recessione come crisi bancaria: è la spiegazione standard. Che variamente combina eccesso di mutui garantiti dal Governo, cartolarizzazione che riduce il premio al rischio, tassi di interesse troppo bassi, mancato salvataggio della Lehman; e, per i moralisti, avidità dei banchieri e conflitto di interesse delle agenzie di rating.

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→  agosto 17, 2014

By Stefan Wagstyl
Most Europeans think their societies are far less equal than they are, while Americans are unusual in believing that their country is somewhat more equal than it really is.
A German report sheds new light on the political challenges involved in tax, income distribution and social fairness and raises fresh questions in the equality debate recently revived by French economist Thomas Piketty.
“The results of the study suggest that, in the political debate on income distribution, it is often not the facts that count but [perceptions],” says Professor Michael Hüther, director of the Cologne-based IW economic institute, which carried out the research.
Judith Niehues is due to present her findings this week at Germany’s Lindau economic conference, attended by Nobel laureates. She compared actual and perceived income levels in the US and 23 EU countries, using economic data and an international social attitudes study based on polling about 1,000 people in each country.
She found that people in Europe underestimate the proportion of middle-income earners and overestimate the proportion of the poor, commonly defined as people on incomes of 60 per cent or less of the median.
Only the US has a more unequal income distribution than its citizens imagined, with many more poor people.

In Europe, people on middle incomes are far more numerous than those at the bottom or the top of the pay ladder. So a European income distribution chart resembles a barrel, with a bulge in the middle. But many people see it as a tower standing on a broad plinth, with a small elite, a modest middle-class and a big base of low earners.

This is particularly true in Germany and France, where people see income distribution as far more unequal than it really is. By contrast in Britain and Spain, where income distribution is somewhat less equal than in France and Germany, people’s perceptions are more accurate.
In the US, more than 30 per cent of Americans have incomes of 60 per cent or less of the median. But most people think that only 24 per cent of their fellow citizens are at this level. “The middle class is truly smaller in the USA and the lower income group considerably more numerous than its citizens suppose,” says a summary of the study.
The report suggests this might be partly linked to social mobility in the US – people may be less focused on inequality if they think they are climbing the income ladder. The relative lack of concern about inequality could explain why pressure for redistributive taxation is lower in the US than on the other side of the Atlantic.
In Europe, the gap between perception and reality is particularly wide in the former Communist states, with citizens convinced their countries are far less equal than they are.
In addition to perceptions of income distribution, the report also looks at levels of concern about inequality. This tends to be greater in countries with higher levels of perceived inequality – such as France and Germany – than in countries with higher levels of actual inequality – such as the UK and Spain. More than 50 per cent of Germans and 79 per cent of French think income differentials are too great, compared with around 30 per cent of Britons and Spaniards.
The report suggests that all this should matter to policymakers designing tax and social transfer systems because actual levels of inequality seem less important to voters than perceived levels of inequality.
But it does not address the core argument in Mr Piketty’s book, which focused on inequalities of wealth rather than income, and argued that wealth inequalities are more significant in driving overall social inequality.

Subjective Perceptions of Inequality and Redistributive Preferences: An International Comparison, by Judith Niehues, Cologne Institute for Economic Research

→  agosto 11, 2014

By Deirdre McCloskey

Making men and women all equal. That I take to be the gist of our political theory.”
This rejoinder to rightwingers who delight in rank and privilege is spoken by Lady Glencora Palliser, the free-spirited Liberal heroine of Anthony Trollope’s Phineas Finn. It encapsulates the cardinal error of much of the left.
Joshua Monk, one of the novel’s Radicals, sees through it. “Equality is an ugly word . . . and frightens,” he says. The aim of the true Liberal should not be equality but “lifting up those below him”. It is to be achieved not by redistribution but by free trade, compulsory education and women’s rights.
And so it came to pass. In the UK since 1800, or Italy since 1900, or Hong Kong since 1950, real income per head has increased by a factor of anywhere from 15 to 100, depending on how one allows for the improved quality of steel girders and plate glass, medicine and economics.
In relative terms, the poorest people have been the biggest beneficiaries. The rich became richer, true. But millions more have gas heating, cars, smallpox vaccinations, indoor plumbing, cheap travel, rights for women, lower child mortality, adequate nutrition, taller bodies, doubled life expectancy, schooling for their kids, newspapers, a vote, a shot at university and respect.
Never had anything similar happened, not in the glory of Greece or the grandeur of Rome, not in ancient Egypt or medieval China. What I call The Great Enrichment is the main fact and finding of economic history.
Yet you will have heard that our biggest problem is inequality, and that we must make men and women equal. No, we should not – at least, not if we want to lift up the poor.
Ethically speaking, the true liberal should care only about whether the poorest among us are moving closer to having enough to live with dignity and to participate in a democracy. They are. Even in already rich countries, such as the UK and the US, the real income of the poor has recently risen, not stagnated – if, that is, income is correctly measured to include better healthcare, better working conditions, more years of education, longer retirements and, above all, the rising quality of goods. Admittedly, it is rising at a slower pace than in the 1950s; but that era of rising prosperity followed the wretched setbacks of the Great Depression and the second world war.
It matters ethically, of course, how the rich obtained their wealth – whether from stealing or from choosing the right womb (as the billionaire investor Warren Buffett puts it); or from voluntary exchanges for the cheap cement or the cheap air travel the now-rich had the good sense to provide the once-poor. We should prosecute theft and reintroduce heavy inheritance taxes. But we should not kill the goose that laid the golden eggs.
What does not matter ethically are the routine historical ups and downs of the Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality, or the excesses of the 1 per cent of the 1 per cent, of a sort one could have seen three centuries ago in Versailles. There are not enough really rich people. If we seized the assets of the 85 wealthiest people in the world to make a fund to give annually to the poorest half, it would raise their spending power by less than 4p a day.
All the foreign aid to Africa or South and Central America, for example, is dwarfed by the amount that nations in these areas would gain if the rich world abandoned tariffs and other protections for their agriculture industries. There are ways to help the poor – let the Great Enrichment proceed, as it has in China and India – but charity or expropriation are not the ways.
The Great Enrichment came from innovation, not from accumulating capital or exploiting the working classes or lording it over the colonies. Capital had little to do with it, despite the unhappy fact that we call the system “capitalism”. Capital is necessary. But so are water, labour, oxygen and pencils. The path to prosperity involves betterment, not piling brick on brick.
Taxing the rich, or capital, does not help the poor. It can throw a spanner into the mightiest engine for lifting up those below us, arising from a new equality, not of material worth but of liberty and dignity. Gini coefficients are not what matter; the Great Enrichment is.