Cursor and After Piketty

After Piketty: The Agenda for Economics and Inequality

Themes worth noting from the After Piketty CUNY launch event—that I missed, being on the wrong coast.

But having been on the wrong coast, I can now add, in a l’esprit d’escalier sense, what I would have said if I had been there, had been thinking very quickly, and had the last word:

(1) “Capital” vs. “Wealth” in PIketty’s Capital in the 21st Century

Branko Milanovic: Not a confusion, but the use of “capital” for wealth was criticized because for economists “capital” is productive capital: the input into the production function in the theory of growth, and so on. But “wealth”, for people who work on income distribution like myself, includes all other things, including real estate, and other things which are even not necessarily immediately marketable. Although, obviously, real estate is. So there is a little bit of a difference between the two. In the book… the two are really conflated…

Paul Krugman: The place where I think is closest to him being—wrong is not quite the right word—where there is a really serious critique from the economists’ point of view—I defer the historical social issues to other people–he makes a lot about the rising ratio of capital to income. That we’ve been accumulating capital in a way. That we had a lot of capital destroyed by the by the wars of the 20th century. Then we restore it and we get a much more capital. He talks about this as a story of there’s more and more capital out there and that this given certain parameters whatever it tends to raise the capital share of income even as it reduces the rate of return. The thing that has become clear is that an awful lot of that rise in the value of capital is real estate. A lot of the Piketty book is written as if there’s capital and there’s labor. That is true. But an awful lot of the capital by value turns out to be housing. That does change your picture significantly. It doesn’t mean that the underlying thesis is wrong, but it means that that it’s a little harder to make his case than might otherwise have seemed to be the case…

Brad DeLong: If “capital” in Piketty is taken to mean what neoclassical economists typically mean by “capital”—the argument K in some aggregate production function, produced means of production elastically produced under constant returns to scale and valued at their replacement cost—then Piketty’s argument does appear to have a major problem. We then face what Keynes called the euthanasia of the rentier as the capital stock-annual output ratio rises: the observed technical elasticity of substitution between capital and labor strongly suggests that the rate of profit falls more in relative terms than the capital stock-annual output ratio rises, and so the wealthier superrich receive a smaller share of society’s income over time.

But it was never Piketty’s intention for “capital” in his book to mean only he argument K in some aggregate production function, produced means of production elastically produced under constant returns to scale and valued at their replacement cost. As Thomas writes in his contribution to After Piketty:

Had I believed that the one-dimensional neoclassical model of capital accumulation (based upon the so-called production function Y = F(K,L) and the assumption of perfect competition) provided an adequate description of economic structures and property relations, then my book would have been 30 pages long rather than 800 pages long. The central reason my book is so long is that I try to describe the multidimensional transformations of capital and the complex power patterns and property relations that come with these metamorphoses (as the examples given above illustrate). I should probably have been more explicit about this issue, and I am grateful to Suresh for giving me the opportunity to clarify this important point…

Piketty’s intention was always to, in Suresh Naidu’s terms, be “wild Piketty” rather than “domesticated Piketty”. The book is about all of those assets that are claims on society’s income—monopoly rents, spoils of rent-seeking, real estate, brands, control over value chains, as well as productive physical capital receiving its marginal product.

You can claim that Piketty invited this confusion by titling his book Capital in the 21st Century rather than Wealth in the 21st Century. But you would not have to read far in the book to get a sense that it was, indeed, not 30 pages long but 800. IMHO, many critics of Piketty did not read far. What Ryan Avent said of Clive Crook can, I think, stand as an evaluation of a great deal of Piketty criticism:

Why, for instance, doesn’t Mr Piketty say that r must be significantly above g to generate the expected divergence, Mr Crook complains. This, after literally hundreds of pages in which Mr Piketty has walked through when and how the capital-income ratio has been pushed away from its long-run trend rate. You don’t even have to read hundreds of pages to get the qualification Mr Crook wants; you can start with the page on which r>g is first mentioned: “If, moreover, the rate of return on capital remains significantly above the growth rate for an extended period of time (which is more likely when the growth rate is low, though not automatic), then the risk of divergence in the distribution of wealth is very high.” Emphasis mine. I suppose if you only read the book’s conclusion you could miss these details, but who would do that?…

(2) “Patrimonial Capitalism”

Paul Krugman: We still have… an 80s frame of mind… visualize… self-made men, whether it’s Steve Jobs or Gordon Gekko depending upon… your take on the goodness or badness…. [But] increasingly now we are looking at patrimonial capitalism—inherited fortunes. Don’t think Steve Jobs. Think Koch brothers. Piketty makes an argument that that’s increasingly going to be the case[:]… Don’t think “Gilded Age”, which is America and which is an era of self-made men. Instead, think more “Belle Epoque”: late 19th century France, which is very much a dynastic inherited wealth thing….

To date most of the explosion of income concentration at the very top has… been… compensation… bonuses and executive pay. There’s a lot of interesting discussion of that in Capital in the 21st Century. But that is not nearly at the level of rigor of explanation, because it’s hard when nobody really fully understands….

I don’t think it’s a problem of us mislabelling what is truly “capital income”. If you look at what a hedge fund manager or a Fortune 500 CEO receives, he—and almost always he—because of the inherited wealth that he brought to the table. It is associated with the job. whether it’s “earned” in a social sense is a whole different question. What is true is that the way that income comes for such people is very different from the way it comes from an ordinary wage or salary worker. It’s not that there’s a job and there’s pay. It’s that you do something. You climb. It comes in the form of stock options—although those are actually a lot less tied in reality to the price of the stock than people think. The basis tends to get adjusted. In the finance industry it comes from however much profit you’ve managed to make.

What’s odd is that argument is used sometimes to defend preferential tax treatment. And we have the “carried interest” loophole, which lets people in the finance industry pay much lower tax rates. The argument is: well, yes, they’re working hard and all this stuff, but the returns to that labor are highly uncertain, so you don’t want to treat it as normal income. To that, some of us say: you know, I’m writing a book in which you put often an awful lot of work, and then you have no idea how much if any money you’re going to make at the end. And somehow or other I’m paying a full rate.

There’s something going on. To a large extent this is a category of income that must have always existed. John D. Rockefeller, the original John D. Rockefeller, did not inherit his wealth. For most of his life he presumably was making most of his money through the profits of his enterprises rather than as return on his accumulated capital. But it seems to be much more prevalent now than it was before. That is a bit of a problem for the Piketty argument. He is saying: inherited wealth will go back to becoming much more central. But I don’t think it’s a fundamental category error.

Salvatore Morelli: The original Piketty and Saez studies on top incomes in the U.S. were showing that, relatively speaking, labor income was much more prevalent at the top—if we exclude the top 0.001%, of course. But it’s also true that that study in particular was based on tax statistics, so on tax returns. The problem is that not all the capital income is reported in the tax returns. Importantly, a growing share of capital income is not reported. This led Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman to do a follow-up study, which is now part of the DINA Project—Distributional Income National Accounts. What they did is to take the national account income and distribute it back to the population so that it does not suffer from the tax-reporting bias. When you do that, it’s actually surprising to see how capital income rises across the distribution. Even at the bottom of the distribution you have a lot of capital income—most of capital income from tax-exempt savings accounts was not reported in tax statistics. When you get to even the top 10% people are earning more income from capital and not from labor. The research question is still open. But I wanted to point that out.

Paul Krugman: Returns and profits—dividends and capital gains—which are popping up in your account in the Bahamas are just not going to be in the original Piketty-Saez data. That means that we actually are more like the 19th century than we think we are, yes.

Branko Milanovic: There is an analysis based on the French data only, because that’s the only country which apparently has the data, which shows what percentage of people would inherit what amount of money which would allow them, given improving life expectancy, to with that money live at a medium level of income for that country. That is, actually, a very impressive statistic. When you think that if I inherit something that would actually allow me to live at the mean income level of my country until I die, it is really a very strong sort of inequality that brings back the role of inheritance very strongly….

Brad DeLong: In the old days you would not get stock options—you would simply be handed the stock in a corporate organization or reorganization. Rather than showing up in the income statistics at its option value when your stock options were granted you and then at the difference between market value and strike price when you exercised your options, they would not show up in the income statistics at all. Thus even leaving to one side all of the tax-avoidance, tax-evasion, and data-quality issues, it is somewhat misleading to say that the superrich get much much more of their income from “labor” now than they used to.

And, of course, calling it “labor” and invoking marginal product theory is totally misleading. The most that the ideologues of the right seeking to justify the superrich will say is that “tournaments” are effective effort-elicitation mechanisms: that because of the cognitive biases and deficits of the CEO-financier-entrepreneurial class, you elicit an enormous amount of effort from many people relatively cheaply by offering a few really big prizes.

But the societal benefits of all of this enormous effort are missing. Corporate control is no better than it was in the 1950s. CEOs are no better than in the 1950s. Economic growth is certainly worse than in the 1950s. And as for risk management—ha!

(3) Politics: Belle Époque France and Progressive Era America

Paul Krugman: One piece that really impressed me in Piketty was the discussion of the Third French Republic, which is “liberte, egalite, fraternite”, and yet politics is dominated by vast inherited wealth dynasties. A point he makes is that the intellectual domination—that the fact that inherited wealth in effect managed to set the terms of discussion and to define what was responsible, what you could do. You
can easily see that looking at a lot of things are going on in America now. How that happens we can talk about. We can talk about foundations. We can talk about influence. We can talk about all of those things…. A countervailing thing… [is] the United States in the Progressive Era… a vastly unequal society… in which it was quite common for people—often people who were themselves very much on the top—to express ideas that would be regarded as radically left-wing today… to talk about the dangers of vast wealth… the importance of high inheritance taxes to prevent concentration… people—I believe including Theodore Roosevelt—saying things like: we would want to tax this wealth even aside from the revenue we raise, for we want to make sure that these great fortunes do not accumulate. For anyone to try to say that now you would be accused of being a radical Marxist. Maybe the dominance of patrimonial wealth is not—the intellectual dominance is not necessarily as large as we might imagine…

Brad DeLong Andrew Carnegie’s “he who dies rich dies disgraced”… The transformation to what we have today is very interesting… I remember a panel I did at Rice University with R. Glenn Hubbard. The two-step was something like: financial inheritance really does not matter because the truly valuable things our children inherit from us is the good values we inculcate in them—therefore, because they have good values, they deserve to inherit our money too. It did not seem to me to make much sense.

(4) Stakeholders

Paul Krugman: The last thing I want to say is: countervailing institutions…. Maybe my imagination is limited, but it’s hard for me to think of anything that I know in my history that is comparable to the historical but now largely vanished role, at least in this country, of unions. Organized labor has always been the huge counterweight to organized wealth. That diminution—if you ask me what would be the one thing that I would want to see happen to get us back, it would be somehow rather to restore the role of a substantial effective labor movement….

I almost hate to use the language of responsibility, not out of any personal moral aversion but because I don’t think they care. The point was that they did in fact. In the America I grew up in, there were large corporations viewed themselves as representing a variety of stakeholders—not simply not simply the stock investors. That included labor. That was partly either because they were unionized or because they knew there were unions out there, and knew that they knew would become unionized if they did not represent all stakeholders. Thus there is certainly a way in which the private sector can play a role in being an institution for equality. That is in fact the way America was for about 40 years after WWII. So it can happen here. Whether and how we get to make that happen now—I don’t know. Think about a corporate executive who has various interests. He wants to be rich. He wants to not have this employees hate him. If there’s a ninety-one percent marginal tax rate, as there was in the in the 50s, he’s probably going to pay more attention to the to the personal non-pecuniary aspects of the job. Part of the explosion of top incomes probably does reflect the fact that we’ve made it possible for people to keep whatever they get by making life harder for other people…

Brad DeLong: How much soft compensation did CEOs receive in the era of social democracy anyway?

The big countervailing institution is supposed to be the government: we are supposed to vote for progressive taxes, on the grounds that most of what produces the superrich is good luck, and good luck is a very good thing to tax—we would all agree to very high taxes on good luck if we were to make decisions back behind the veil of ignorance.

The Trump minority coalition—and the right-wing coalition generally—have been running, ever since the late-nineteenth century breaking of real American Populism on the anvil of racism, on the claim that the superrich are worthy because they are people like us while progressive taxes are illegitimate because the benefits flow to them, and they are not people like us. Obamaphones!

Alexis de Tocqueville had something very interesting to say about this, back at the end of the 1840s, in the very brief interregnum between Orleanist Monarchy and Second French Bonapartist Empire that was the Second French Republic:

I was at once struck by a spectacle that both astonished and charmed me. A certain demagogic agitation reigned, it is true, among the workmen in the towns ; but in the country all the landed proprietors, whatever their origin, antecedents, education or means, had come together, and seemed to form but one class: all former political hatred and rivalry of caste or fortune had disappeared from view. There was no more jealousy or pride displayed between the peasant and the squire, the nobleman and the commoner ; instead, I found mutual confidence, reciprocal friendliness, and regard. Property had become, with all those who owned it, a sort of badge of fraternity. The wealthy were the elder, the less endowed the younger brothers ; but all considered themselves members of one family, having the same interest in defending the common inheritance. As the French Revolution had infinitely increased the number of land-owners, the whole population seemed to belong to that vast family. I had never seen anything like it, nor had anyone in France within the memory of man….

[During the June insurrection,] I returned from my round convinced that we should come out victorious ; and what I saw on nearing the Assembly confirmed my opinion. Thousands of men were hastening to our aid from every part of France, and entering the city by all the roads not commanded by the insurgents. Thanks to the railroads, some had already come from fifty leagues’ distance, although the fighting had only begun the night before. On the next and the subsequent days, they came from distances of a hundred and two hundred leagues. These men belonged indiscriminately to every class of society ; among them were many peasants, many shopkeepers, many landlords and nobles, all mingled together in the same ranks. They were armed in an irregular and insufficient manner, but they rushed into Paris with unequalled ardour : a spectacle as strange and unprecedented in our revolutionary annals as that offered by the insurrection itself. It was evident from that moment that we should end by gaining the day, for the insurgents received no reinforcements, whereas we had all France for reserves.

On the Place Louis XV, I met, surrounded by the armed inhabitants of his canton, my kinsman Lepelletier d’Aunay, who was Vice-President of the Chamber of Deputies during the last days of the Monarchy. He wore neither uniform nor musket, but only a little silver-hiked sword which he had slung at his side over his coat by a narrow white linen bandolier. I was touched to tears on seeing this venerable white-haired man thus accoutred. “Won’t you come and dine with us this evening?”

“No, no,” he replied ; ” what would these good folk who are with me, and who know that I have more to lose than they by the victory of the insurrection — what would they say if they saw me leaving them to take it easy ? No, I will share their repast and sleep here at their bivouac. The only thing I would beg you is, if possible, to hurry the despatch of the provision of bread promised us, for we have had no food since morning”…

(5) Politics

Paul Krugman: The issue polling is interesting because for the most part as I read it it says that likely voters basically have center-left views—that the center-left movement that we say is dying is in fact, on by the issues, almost all of them, what people support. People believe in guaranteed health care. People believe in most of the strong social safety net. They want all of these things.

The most recent polling obviously has the United States has been on two things. Health care, where people just absolutely hate what’s being proposed. They suddenly discover that they love Obamacare now that it’s maybe its way out.

What was interesting—and this is maybe the last word—is the poll that came out I think this morning—Quinnipiac—showed people with very center-left views on almost everything. The one piece of the current administration’s tax agenda that people do approve of is abolition of the estate tax.

So it turns out that people want a strong welfare state, a strong middle class, and patrimonial capitalism…

Brad DeLong: As Heather Boushey said: go figure.