Mind the Gap

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“Capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine democratic societies.” — Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century

French professor Thomas Piketty’s new book — ranked #1 on Amazon and the New York Times — is a thick volume with the same title as Karl Marx’s 1867 magnum opus, Capital. Many commentators have noted the Marxist tone — the author cites Marx more than any other economist — but that’s a distraction.

The author discusses capital and economic growth, and recommends a levy on capital, but the primary focus of the book is inequality. In mind-numbing minutiae of data from Europe and the United Staes, Piketty details how inequality of income and wealth have ebbed and flowed over the past 200 years before increasing at an “alarming” rate in the 21st century. Because of his demonstrated expertise, his scholarship and policy recommendations (sharply higher progressive taxes and a universal wealth tax) will be taken seriously by academics and government officials. Critics would be wise to address the issues he raises rather than simply to dismiss him as a French polemicist or the “new Marx.”

According to his research, inequality grows naturally under unfettered capitalism except during times of war and depression. “To a large extent, it was the chaos of war, with its attendant economic and political shocks, that reduced inequality in the twentieth century” (p. 275, cf. 471) Otherwise, he contends, there is a natural tendency for market-friendly economies to experience an increasing concentration of wealth. His research shows that, with the exception of 1914-45, the rate of return on property and investments has consistently been higher than the rate of economic growth. He predicts that, barring another war or depression, wealth will continue to concentrate into the top brackets, and inherited wealth will grow faster with an aging population and inevitable slower growth rates, which he regards as “potentially terrifying” and socially “destabilizing.”

If market-generated inequality is the price we pay to eliminate poverty, I’m all in favor.

His proposal? Investing in education and technical training will help, but won’t be enough to counter growing inequality. The “right solution” is a progressive income tax up to 80% and a wealth tax up to 10%. He is convinced that these confiscatory rates won’t kill the motor of economic growth.

One of the biggest challenges for egalitarians like Piketty is to define what they mean by an “ideal” distribution of income and wealth. Is there a “natural” equilibrium of income distribution? This is an age-old question that has yet to be resolved. I raised it in a chapter in “Economics on Trial” in 1991, where I quoted Paul Samuelson in his famous textbook, “The most efficient economy in the world may produce a distribution of wages and property that would offend even the staunchest defender of free markets.”

But by what measure does one determine whether a nation’s income distribution is “offensive” or “terrifying”? In the past, the Gini ratio or coefficient has been used. It is a single number that varies between 0 and 1. If 0, it means that everyone earns the same amount; if 1, it means that one person earns all the income and the rest earn nothing. Neither one is ideal. Suppose everyone earns the same wage or salary. Perfect equality sounds wonderful until you realize that no economy could function efficiently that way. How you could hire anyone else to work for you if you had to pay them the same amount you earn?

A wealth tax destroys a fundamental sacred right of mankind — the right to be left alone.

Even social democrats William Baumol and Alan Blinder warned in their popular economics textbook, “What would happen if we tried to achieve perfect equality by putting a 100% income tax on all workers and then divide the receipts equally among the population? No one would have any incentive to work, to invest, to take risks, or to do anything else to earn money, because the rewards for all such activities would disappear.”

So if a Gini ratio of 0 is bad, why is a movement toward 0 (via a progressive income tax) good? It makes no sense.

Piketty wisely avoids the use of the Gini ratios in his work. Instead he divides income earners into three general categories, the wealthy (top 10% income earners), the middle class (40%), and the rest (50%), and tracks how they fare over the long term.

But what is the ideal income distribution? It’s a chimera. The best Piketty and his egalitarian levelers can do is complain that inequality is getting worse, that the distribution of income is unfair and often unrelated to productivity or merit (pp. 334–5), and therefore should be taxed away. But they can’t point to any ideal or natural distribution, other than perhaps some vague Belle Époque of equality and opportunity (celebrated in France between 1890 and 1914).

Piketty names Simon Kuznets, the 20th century Russian-American economist who invented national income statistics like GDP, as his primary antagonist. He credits Kuznets with the pro-market stance that capitalist development tends to reduce income inequality over time. But actually it was Adam Smith who advocated this concept two centuries earlier. In the Wealth of Nations, Smith contended that his “system of natural liberty” would result in “universal opulence which extends itself to the lowest ranks of the people.”

Not only would the rich get richer under unfettered enterprise, but so would the poor. In fact, according to Smith and his followers, the poor catch up to the rich, and inequality is sharply reduced under a liberal economic system without a progressive tax or welfare state. The empirical work of Stanley Libergott, and later Michael Cox, demonstrates that through the competitive efforts of entrepreneurs, workers, and capitalists, virtually all American consumers have been able to change an uncertain and often cruel world into a more pleasant and convenient place to live and work. A typical homestead in 1900 had no central heating, electricity, refrigeration, flush toilets, or even running water. But by 1970, before the welfare state really got started, a large majority of poor people benefited from these goods and services. The rich had all these things at first — cars, electricity, indoor plumbing, air conditioning — but now even the poor enjoy these benefits and thus rose out of poverty.

Piketty and other egalitarians make their case that inequality of income is growing since the Great Recession, and they may well be correct. But what if goods and services, what money can buy, becomes a criteria for inequality? The results might be quite different. Today even my poor neighbors in Yonkers have smartphones, just like the rich. While every spring the 1% attend the Milken Institute Conference in LA that costs $7,000 or more to attend; the 99% can watch the entire proceedings on video on the Internet a few days later — for free. The 1% can go to the Super Bowl for entertainment; the 99% gather around with their buddies and watch it on an widescreen HD television. Who is better entertained?

Contrary to Piketty’s claim, it’s good that capital grows faster than income, because that means people are increasing their savings rate.

Piketty & Co. claim that only the elite can go to the top schools in the country, but ignore the incredible revolution in online education, where anyone from anywhere in the world can take a course in engineering, physics, or literature from Stanford, MIT, or Harvard for a few thousand dollars, or in some cases, for absolutely nothing.

How do income statistics measure that kind of equal access? They can’t. Andrew Carnegie said it best, “Capitalism is about turning luxuries into necessities.” If that’s what capital and capitalism does, we need to tax it less, not more.

A certain amount of inequality is a natural outcome of the marketplace. As John Maynard Keynes himself wrote in the Economic Consequences of the Peace (1920), “In fact, it was precisely the inequality of the distribution of wealth which made possible those vast accumulations of fixed wealth of and of capital improvements which distinguished that age [the 19th century] from all others.”

A better measure of wellbeing is the changes in the absolute real level of income for the poor and middle classes. If the average working poor saw their real income (after inflation) double or triple in the United States, that would mean lifting themselves out of poverty. That would mean a lot more to them than the fortunes of the 1%. Even John Kenneth Galbraith recognized that higher real growth for the working class was what really mattered when he said in The Affluent Society (1959), “It is the increase in output in recent decades, not the redistribution of income, which has brought the great material increase, the well-being of the average man.”

Political philosopher James Rawls argued in his Theory of Justice (1971) that the most important measure of social welfare is not the distribution of income but how the lowest 10% perform. James Gwartney and other authors of the annual Economic Freedom Index have shown that the poorest 10% of the world’s population earn more income when they adopt institutions favoring economic freedom. Economic freedom also reduces infant mortality, the incidence of child labor, black markets, and corruption by public officials, while increasing adult literacy, life expectancy, and civil liberties. If market-generated inequality is the price we pay to eliminate poverty, I’m all in favor.

I have reservations about Piketty’s claim that “Once a fortune is established, the capital grows according to a dynamic of its own, and it can continue to grow at a rapid pace for decades simply because of its size.” To prove his point, he selects members of the Forbes billionaires list to show that wealth always grows faster than the average income earner. He repeatedly refers to the growing fortunes of Bill Gates in the United States and Liliane Bettencourt, heiress of L’Oreal, the cosmetics firm.

Come again?

I guess he hasn’t heard of the dozens of wealthy people who lost their fortunes, like the Vanderbilts, or to use a recent example, Eike Batista, the Brazilian businessman who just two years ago was the 7th wealthiest man in the world, worth $30 billion, and now is almost bankrupt.

Piketty conveniently ignores the fact that most high-performing mutual funds eventually stop beating the market and even underperform. Take a look at the Forbes “Honor Roll” of outstanding mutual funds. Today’s list is almost entirely different from the list of 15 or 20 years ago. In our business we call it “reversion to the mean,” and it happens all the time.

Prof. Piketty seems to have forgotten a major theme of Marx and later Joseph Schumpeter, that capitalism is a dynamic model of creative destruction. Today’s winners are often tomorrow’s losers.

IBM used to dominate the computer business; now Apple does. Citibank used to be the country’s largest bank. Now it’s Chase. Sears Roebuck used to be the largest retail store. Now it’s Wal-Mart. GM used to be the biggest car manufacturer. Now it’s Toyota. And the Rockefellers used to be the wealthiest family. Now it’s the Waltons, who a generation ago were dirt poor.

Piketty is no communist and is certainly not as radical as Marx in his predictions or policy recommendations. Many call him “Marx Lite.” He doesn’t advocate abolishing money and the traditional family, confiscating all private property, or nationalizing all the industries. But he’s plenty radical in his soak-the-rich schemes: a punitive 80% tax on incomes above $500,000 or so, and a progressive global tax on capital with an annual levy between 0.1% and 10% on the greatest fortunes.

There are three major drawbacks to Piketty’s proposed tax on wealth or capital.

First, it violates the most fundamental principle of taxation, the benefit principle. Also known as the accountability or “user pay” principle, taxation is justified as a payment for benefits or services rendered. The basic idea is that if you buy a good or use a service, you should pay for it. This approach encourages efficiency and accountability. In the case of taxes, if you benefit from a government service (police, infrastructure, utilities, defense, etc.), you should pay for it. The more you benefit, the more you pay. In general, most economists agree that wealthier people and big businesses benefit more from government services (protection of their property) and should therefore pay more. A flat personal or corporate income tax would fit the bill. But a tax on capital (or even a progressive income tax) is not necessarily connected to benefits from government services — it’s just a way to forcibly redistribute funds from rich to poor and in that sense is an example of legal theft and tyranny of the majority.

Second, a wealth tax destroys a fundamental sacred right of mankind — financial privacy and the right to be left alone. An income tax is bad enough. But a wealth tax is worse. It requires every citizen to list all their assets, which means no secret stash of gold and silver coins, diamonds, art work, or bearer bonds. Suddenly financial privacy as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment becomes illegal and an underground black market activity.

Third, a wealth tax is a tax on capital, the key to economic growth. The worst crime of Piketty’s vulgar capitalism is his failure to understand the positive role of capital in advancing the standard of living in all the world.

To create new products and services and raise economic performance, a nation needs capital, lots of it. Contrary to Piketty’s claim, it’s good that capital grows faster than income, because that means people are increasing their savings rate. The only time capital declines is during war and depression, when capital is destroyed.

He blames the increase in inequality to low growth rates, when, says, the economic growth rate falls below the return on capital. The solution isn’t to tax capital, but to increase economic growth via tax cuts, deregulation, better training and education and productivity, and free trade.

Even Keynes understood the value of capital investment, and the need to keep it growing. In his Economic Consequences of the Peace, Keynes compared capital to a cake that should never be eaten. “The virtue of the cake was that it was never to be consumed, neither by you nor by your children after you.”

What country has advanced the most since World War II? Hong Kong, which has no tax on interest, dividends, or capital.

 

If the capital “cake” is the source of economic growth and a higher standard of living, we want to do everything we can to encourage capital accumulation. Make the cake bigger and there will be plenty to go around for everyone. This is why increasing corporate profits is good — it means more money to pay workers. Studies show that companies with higher profit margins tend to pay their workers more. Remember the Henry Ford $5 a day story of 1914?

If anything, we should reduce taxes on capital gains, interest, and dividends, and encourage people to save more and thus increase the pool of available capital and entrepreneurial activity. A progressive tax on high-income earners is a tax on capital. An inheritance tax is a tax on capital. A tax on interest, dividends, and capital gains is a tax on capital. By overtaxing capital, estates, and the income of our wealthiest people, including heirs to fortunes, we are selling our country and our nation short. There’s no telling how high our standard of living could be if we adopted a low-tax policy. What country has advanced the most since World War II? Hong Kong, which has no tax on interest, dividends, or capital.

Hopefully Mr. Piketty will see the error of his ways and write a sequel called “The Wealth of Nations for the 21st Century,” and will quote Adam Smith instead of Karl Marx. The great Scottish economist Adam Smith once said, “Little else is required to carry a state from the lowest barbarism to the highest degree of opulence but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.” Or per haps he will quote this passage: “To prohibit a great people….from making all that they can of every part of their own produce, or from employing their stock and industry in the way that they judge most advantageous to themselves, is a manifest violation of the most sacred rights of mankind.”


Editor's Note: Review of "Capital in the Twenty-First Century," by Thomas Piketty, translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Belknap Press, 2014.



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A Sincere Change of Heart?

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The old adage wisely instructs us to “give credit where credit is due.” I am about to give credit to someone to whom I have given extremely scant credit before: our current president. Obama is apparently doing something I want him to do: he is advocating more FTAs — free trade agreements.

This is a surprising — nay, mindboggling — reversal of the course he took during his first four years. In his first term, he started trade wars with Mexico, Canada, and other places. He stalled, until late in that term, any action on the three residual FTAs that President Bush had left him (with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea). And he generally mouthed the labor union line that free trade “steals” “American” jobs.

But shortly before his reelection, he caved. In the face of a clearly stagnant economy he signed the three FTAs. He has now gone farther. In some of his recent speeches, he has advocated two new large FTA deals — one with the EU, and one — initially proposed by Bush — called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). He is in favor of concluding those deals quickly. (The US started participating in the TPP negotiations under Bush in 2008.)

Obama backed the notion of an EU deal in his state of the union address, saying, “Tonight, I’m announcing that we will launch talks on a comprehensive trans-Atlantic trade and investment partnership with the European Union . . . because trade that is fair and free across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.”

Of course, free trade with anywhere supports millions of “good-paying” jobs. This proposition has been urged by mainstream economists ever since the debacle of the Smoot-Hawley tariffs — or for that matter since Adam Smith. It has recently been brilliantly explored by Daniel Griswold in his primer on the subject, Mad about Trade (which I have reviewed for these pages). Obama is, it seems, only just learning this.

The trade deal with the EU would be huge. The economies of the EU and the US together constitute over half of world GDP, and the trade between them already accounts for one-third of all trade flows.Not commonly known in the US, but explored in detail in Griswold’s book, is the fact that as of 2010, US private investment in France and Belgium (combined) exceeded US private investment in China and India (combined). According to some estimates, an EU-USA FTA would likely add as much as 1.5% to GDP growth in both regions.

Of course, free trade with anywhere supports millions of “good-paying” jobs. President Obama is, it seems, only just learning this.

Concluding the TPP would also be huge. It would greatly expand the current, modest FTA called the Trans-Pacific Strategic Economic Partnership (“P4” or “TPSEP”), which includes Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore. The proposed TPP would embrace Australia, Canada, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Vietnam, and us. Japan has just announced that it will join the TPP talks as well. Obama hasn’t commented on the Japanese dimension, but he has indicated that he favors the TPP, viewing it as his “pivot” toward Asia.

There would be great advantage to including Japan in a large free trade zone with the US. The other nations with whom we are negotiating either have FTAs already (Australia, Canada, Chile, and Mexico), or are very small potatoes economically (Brunei, New Zealand, Malaysia, Peru, and so on). Japan, by contrast, is a country with which we have no FTA, and is the third largest economy on earth.

But as happy as I am that Obama seems to be seeing the light, I find myself filled with doubts.

Start with the fact that the president is a notorious liar and dissembler. As a senator, he feigned support for immigration reform but covertly helped kill Bush’s bill, and in the two years in which his party controlled both houses of Congress he refused to introduce a bill of his own. Yet he campaigned for reelection promising — comprehensive immigration reform!

Similarly, as a senator and during his first term (to which he was elected with enormous contributions from union funds) he fought off or stalled all free trade measures. Now he favors free trade? One can be forgiven for wondering whether his conversion is sincere.

Doubt also arises from the question of how persuasive Obama can be on the issue. The opponents of the new FTAs will use his own past arguments against him — the canards about free trade costing jobs, about its resulting in the famous “race to the bottom,” and so on.

Most importantly, the new FTAs are fraught with special difficulties. Let’s begin with the EU. The problem lies with countries such as France, which is highly unlikely to open its domestic manufacturing sector to true competition. The French are notorious for protecting their film and other “cultural” industries by import quotas and direct subsidies. They are famed for their inventiveness in erecting “non-tariff barriers” to trade. And they just elected a Socialist government that loathes free-market economics (which leftist Europeans disparagingly call “neoliberal economic theory”).

The opponents of the new free trade agreements will use Obama's own past arguments against him — the canards about free trade costing jobs, about its resulting in the famous “race to the bottom,” and so on.

Especially contentious is the issue of agricultural imports. America has always been an agricultural hyperpower, thanks to the vast expanse of its arable land and the incredible productivity of its farmers. American farmers have been at the forefront of agronomic invention, from the use of tractors to the use of GPS (global positioning satellite location finding) to the genetic manipulation of grains. France, in particular, and Europe, in general, oppose the sale of genetically modified foods, and are lavish in their subsidization of their farmers.

With unemployment running high in many EU countries — especially Greece and Spain, where it approaches 25%, or about what the US suffered during the Great Depression — an FTA with America will be a tough sell. The average European is as much a believer in populist economic fallacies as the average American, and especially in the myth that free trade costs domestic jobs. (It’s always funny how opponents on both sides of an FTA can argue that it will send jobs over to the other side).

You can catch a glimmer of the difficulty in clenching this deal when you hear Karel De Gucht, no less than the EU trade commissioner, who is pitching an FTA with the US to lower the automobile tariffs that make cars so expensive in Europe, hasten to assure France that it would never be required to dismantle its subsidies and quotas on cultural industries.

Even more problematic will be an FTA that involves Japan. The Japanese certainly want the benefits an FTA with America would bring, such as an end to the tariff we impose on their automobiles — a tariff that runs as high as 25%. If these tariffs were eliminated, Japan’s auto imports alone would jump by perhaps 6%. (No doubt this is why the UAW, the AFL-CIO, and the domestic automakers are alarmed at the very idea of ending those tariffs). But Japan is erecting large obstacles to an early deal for true free trade. They are aggressively “pulling a Bernanke,” that is, weakening the value of the yen, so that Japanese manufactured goods will drop in price compared to American goods. This would rather quickly reduce the impact of our tariff barriers.

An even more significant problem is the fact that a real FTA that included Japan would immediately open Japanese farmers to massive competition by America’s vastly more efficient agriculture. To cite one example: Japan imposes a stunning 778% tariff on imported rice. In other words, Japan’s rice farmers are so comparatively inefficient that they need to be protected by a tariff of nearly eight-fold the American price — a whole new meaning for the Eightfold Way!

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who decided to join the TPP talks, already faces opposition to his move, and has promised, “I will protect Japan’s agriculture and its food at all costs.” That doesn’t make it sound as if there were much chance of a major deal to open trade on both sides.

Over the long term, of course, competition would be good, very good, for Japan. Its citizens would get cheaper food, enabling them to buy more of other things or save more capital to create or expand competitive industries. Free trade would free up people from the farms, enabling them to work more creatively and productively in knowledge-based industries. This would be a major advantage, given that Japan’s population is aging rapidly.

But economics is not the same as culture. In a nation as socially cohesive and static as if Japan, it will be very difficult to convince people to allow their farm industry to shrink. Yet you don’t need to be Japanese to succumb to the myths of protectionism. Populist economics is popular all over the world because, well, the populace is basically the same all over the world. As Hayek noted, our evolution from hunter-gatherers has left us with instincts that are often counterproductive.

If Obama really has seen the light — about which, again, I am skeptical — he would do better to emulate Bush. Go for bilateral FTAs with countries with whom we have a better chance of success. I would urge him to focus on just two countries: Brazil and India. I will be brief here, having discussed the possibility of an FTA with Brazil elsewhere.

Start with the fact that bilateral FTAs are inherently easier to negotiate, since the special interest groups, those omnipresent rentseekers, are easier to hold in check, being fewer than those aroused by action on a broader front.

In a nation as socially cohesive and static as if Japan, it will be very difficult to convince people to allow their farm industry to shrink.

Second, note that while countries such as Japan and France are very culturally homogeneous, Brazil and India are, like the US, ethnically and culturally diverse. Such diversity tends to lessen (though not to eliminate) the tribalist-populist impulse to fear trade with the Other.

Third, Brazil and India are big countries. Brazil, with 200 million citizens, is the fifth largest country in population, and India is the second largest. Unlike Japan and most of Europe, Brazil and India are still growing in population, so they will have a young labor force for decades to come. They are likelier than other countries to allow the importation of food, and more eager to gain access to our manufactured goods markets.

Finally, both countries are growing economically at a fast clip. Brazil already has the world’s sixth largest economy. Both are nations whose greatest economic growth lies in their future, not their past.

They seem altogether better bets than those the administration is pursuing. Maybe — my recurring skepticism whispers — that is why the administration isn’t pursuing them.

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ldquo;race to the bottom,




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On Our Way Down

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While our nation remains mired in economic uncertainty, sluggish growth, high unemployment, and even higher underemployment — in short, Obamalaise — other nations continue to move ahead. A recent report brings this point home.

Citigroup projects that the pattern of world trade is going to shift dramatically over the next 40years, and not in our favor. Citi’s research indicates that Developing Asia’s share of total world trade, which in 2010 was 24%, will grow to 42% in 2030 and 46% by 2050. Conversely, Western Europe, which had the largest share of total world trade in1990 (48%) dropped to 34% in 2010. That's still the largest share. But by 2030, that will dwindle to only 19%, and by 2050 it will be a meager 15%. North America will see similar declines.

Citi projects that China will become the biggest-trading country by 2015, surpassing the U.S. — the current leader — within only four years, and will stay on top for the foreseeable future. But even more remarkable is the forecast that the US will also be overtaken by — India. Even though India was not even in the top 10 largest trading countries in 2010, by 2050 it will become the second largest.

Now, research projections can be wrong — for one thing, they cannot for see exogenous events (e.g., what if China and India get into a major war?). But the trends are pretty clear.

And the causes of these trends are also clear. One cause of trade growth (among others) is the willingness to trade freely with other nations. Asia has embraced free trade with a vengeance, while Obama has done his best to block all progress on the issue, even going so far as to reverse the free trade agreements we have, simply to please his union bosses. For Obama, it is as if Adam Smith never existed. This is taking its toll.

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