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How to deal with the growing incentives competition

This article was originally published in the Columbia FDI Perspectives series of the Columbia Center for Sustainable Investment, #131, September 29. I have left it largely unchanged, except for adding a link and a comment, and correcting a grammatical error.

 

As I discussed in an earlier Perspective,[1] the use of investment incentives is pervasive and growing. The most recent example [this was completed prior to the Tesla auction] of a big bidding war was when Boeing threatened to move production of its 777-X aircraft out of Washington state, prompting some 20 states to offer incentive packages to the company (including $1.7 billion from Missouri). In the end, Washington gave Boeing a package of tax incentives worth a record-breaking $8.7 billion over the 2025 – 2040 period to stay, and the unions made substantial concessions regarding pensions.

What can be done to control such auctions, which are often international in scope? The most robust control method, regional in scope, is embodied in the European Union (EU) Guidelines on Regional Aid. These rules guarantee transparency, set variable limits (in terms of “aid intensity,” which equals subsidy/investment) for aid levels based on each region’s per capita income, and reduce the value of aid to large investment projects over €50 million. They require projects to stay at least five years and mandate the use of clawbacks for firms that fail to meet their commitments in investment contracts. Moreover, the guidelines provide demerits for firms in a dominant position in their industry, although they do not mandate a particular reduction in aid.

The other international control measure comes under the World Trade Organization (WTO) Agreement on Subsidies and Countervailing Measures. While these rules are more tailored to production subsidies than to investment incentives, the latter certainly come under the purview of the Agreement as well, as illustrated by the EU’s successful complaint against subsidies for Boeing in the states of Washington, Illinois and Kansas.

However, this case also illustrates the limits of WTO subsidy control. The EU has already filed a compliance complaint,[2] and there is little likelihood the United States (US) will comply anytime soon (the US Trade Representative’s office claims that the US has complied, but as long as the state and local tax credits continue in Washington state, that is not correct). Indeed, as mentioned, Washington state has approved a new round of subsidies for Boeing that is likely to initiate a new WTO dispute.

While the WTO rules require frequent notification of subsidies, there is no penalty for failure to notify, with the result that subsidy notifications are of very uneven quality. Federal states outside the EU frequently make poor quality notifications regarding subnational subsidies. Finally, the TRIMs and GATS agreements regulate performance requirements, but not investment incentives.

What, then, can be done against incentives competition? First, there must be continuing efforts to improve the transparency of location subsidies. This is necessary for jurisdictions to make effective investment promotion policy (especially in a region such as the European Union and the United States, where there are many competing governments) as well as for international policy discussion.

Second, the EU’s example shows that incorporating subsidies rules into regional agreements can be a fruitful way to bring bidding wars under control. For many products, such as automobile assembly and steel, corporate location decisions still focus on a single region, meaning that such rules would be geographically comprehensive enough for a variety of industries. Consequently, major stakeholders—including the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment, the International Institute for Sustainable Development, the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, the World Association of Investment Promotion Agencies, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development—should unite in promoting location subsidy guidelines within regional trade areas. There are no doubt numerous other non-governmental organizations that would endorse such a move.

Third, WTO notifications should be strengthened. Incomplete notifications should be flagged and countries involved should be pressured to give cost estimates for subsidies at all levels of government. Still, it is difficult to envision that sanctions for non-compliance will be introduced.

Fourth, no-raiding zones could be a first step for countries to negotiate controls over investment subsidies. A no-raiding agreement simply commits a state to not give a subsidy to relocate an existing facility from another state; it would not apply to new investments. Their track record is mixed—several agreements among US states failed quickly, but Australia (2003-2011) and Canada (1994-present) have been more successful.[3] Despite these mixed results, it is easier to demonstrate to policymakers the futility of relocation subsidies, since they create no new jobs, than it is to do for incentives for new investment, which could make this a more feasible first step.

Though national and subnational jurisdictions have incentives to offer location subsidies, these proposed measures would help keep their value to more reasonable levels with a lower likelihood of distorting competition and international investment flows.

 

[1] Kenneth P. Thomas, “Investment incentives and the global competition for capital,” Columbia FDI Perspectives, No. 54, December 30, 2011.

[2] Emelie Rutherford, “EU wants $12 billion in U.S. sanctions over Boeing subsidy spat,” Defense Daily, September 27, 2012.

[3] Kenneth P. Thomas,  “Regulating investment attraction: Canada’s Code of Conduct on Incentives in a comparative context,” 37 Canadian Public Policy, 3 (2011), pp. 343-357; Kenneth P. Thomas, “EU control of state aid to mobile investment in comparative perspective,” 34 Journal of European Integration 6 (2012), pp. 567-584.

From: Kenneth P. Thomas, “How to deal with the growing incentives competition,” Columbia FDI Perspectives, No. 131, September 29, 2014. Reprinted with permission from the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment (ccsi.columbia.edu).

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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U.S. median wealth up from 27th to 25th

Yesterday Credit Suisse released its Global Wealth Databook 2014 to go along with the Global Wealth Report issued Monday. Global wealth hit another new record of $263 trillion as of mid-2014, up 8.3% from mid-2013 (Report, p. 3). Rich people are doing well, but how about the middle class? One measure of this is median wealth per adult, the exact midpoint of the wealth distribution.

In the United States, mean wealth per adult reached $347,845, and median wealth per adult hit $53,352 (Databook, Table 2-4). This represents an increase in median wealth of 18.8% over 2013, enough to move the U.S. up two places to 25th in the world.

Before we congratulate ourselves too much, we need to remember that $53,352 is not all that much money, especially for retirement (don’t forget that figure includes home equity). With 49% of Americans in the private sector having no retirement plan at all, and only 20% having a defined-benefit pension, a retirement crisis is looming for younger baby boomers and all later middle-class retirees. Meanwhile, if Republicans take control of the Senate in this year’s elections, we are likely to hear increasing demands for cuts to Social Security, when what we actually need is to raise Social Security benefits.

The relatively low median wealth also points to persistent inequality in the United States. While only 25th in median wealth per adult, the U.S. ranks 5th in mean wealth per adult. With a ratio between mean and median wealth per adult of 6.5:1, this is higher than any of the other top 25 countries. Number one Australia has a ratio of less than 2:1. Without further ado, here is the list of all countries with median wealth per adult above $50,000.

 

Median wealth per adult, mid-2014

 

1. Australia                  225,337

2. Belgium                   172,947

3. Iceland                    164,193

4. Luxembourg            156,267

5. Italy                         142,296

6. France                     140,638

7. United Kingdom     130,590

8. Japan                       112,998

9. Singapore                109.250

10. Switzerland           106,887

11. Canada                    98,756

12. Netherlands             93,116

13. Finland                    88,130

14. Norway                   86,953

15. New Zealand          82,610

16. Ireland                     79,346

17. Spain                       66,752

18. Taiwan                    65,375

19. Austria                    63,741

20. Sweden                   63,376

21. Malta                       63,271

22. Qatar                       56,969

23. Germany                 54,090

24. Greece                     53,375

25. United States          53,352

26. Israel                       51,346

27. Slovenia                  50,329

Source: Credit Suisse Global Wealth Databook 2014, Table 2-4

 

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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Is Piketty wrong about British and Swedish wealth?

Embarrassingly, I missed this reply by Tim Worstsall to my post “Understanding Piketty, part 1.” My apologies to Mr. Worstall and my readers; despite his writing it August 14, I just discovered it the other day when I was mindlessly looking at site traffic data from Alexa.

In his post Worstall takes issue with Piketty’s claim (which I endorsed) that if Financial Times author Chris Giles was correct about the level of British wealth concentration (the top 10% controlling 44% of UK wealth), then British wealth inequality in 2010 was lower than that of Sweden and, indeed, lower than even the lowest share ever held by the top 10% of wealth owners in Sweden (about 53%) which, he said, “does not look very plausible.”

Worstall’s point was that, surprisingly enough, if we measure wealth inequality by the Gini index, Sweden in 2000 had greater inequality than did the U.K, 0.742 to 0.697 (higher is more unequal). His ultimate source (according to the Wikipedia article he cites) was work by the creators of the Credit Suisse Global Wealth Report, a research effort which Piketty praises as “innovative” in capital21c, p. 623 n. 8.

Let’s first note that even if that were true, it does not get Giles off the hook. Giles, whose error was to tack survey-based UK wealth data for 1990-2010 on to earlier tax-based wealth data (thereby biasing it severely downward; see also Howard Reed in The Guardian), does not dispute that the proper measure for inequality is the wealth share of the top 1% and top 10% of wealth owners. Giles makes no appeal to alternate measures to save himself. Thus, on their agreed measure of wealth inequality, Giles fails to make a dent in Piketty’s data.

However, Worstall’s point is an interesting one on its own merits to Piketty’s attempted reductio ad absurdum. While in part 1, I pointed out that income inequality measured by the Gini index is lower in Sweden than in the United Kingdom, the further fact that wealth inequality is always higher than income inequality within each country does not mean, as I blithely assumed, that the country with lower income inequality will necessarily have lower wealth inequality as well.

The question then becomes which is the more meaningful measure of wealth inequality. The U.K. has higher top 1% and top 10% shares but, evidently, a lower Gini coefficient. As I noted in part 3, Piketty deliberately avoids using the Gini index. As Piketty’s sometime-collaborator Facundo Alvaredo writes, “The most commonly used measure of inequality, the Gini coefficient, is more sensitive to transfers at the center of the distribution than at the tails.” This is not a problem for the top shares measures; they have a much more intuitive meaning than the dimensionless Gini index. One might well argue that there is more political significance for the top 1% of wealth owners to increase their share from 20% to 30% than there is for owners at the 85th percentile to gain a corresponding amount of wealth from those below them. But to make that argument doesn’t prove it’s true.

Alvaredo also elaborates on a way to adjust the Gini index for variations at the top of the distribution, which he attributes to Atkinson. As Alvaredo shows in his paper, it is possible for the unadjusted Gini index to be falling even as the adjusted Gini index is rising. I took a stab at adjusting the figures given by Worstall by taking the top 1% share of Sweden in 2000 as 20% and the U.K.’s as 30%. That gives adjusted Gini indices of (.742*(1-0.2)) + 0.2 = 0.7936 for Sweden and (0.697*(1-0.3)) + 0.3 = 0.7879 for the UK. These are much closer, but the U.K. is still slightly more equal if I have gotten this right. In any event, while Swedish income inequality remains robustly lower using either top shares or Gini index, wealth inequality for Sweden is only lower using income shares, but still not Gini.

There remains an obvious question for Worstall: What is the trend of U.K. wealth inequality using the Gini index? If it increased, then Piketty’s finding of an increase using wealth shares will be robustly backed up with this measure Worstall is preferring. Gini may give Worstall a desirable result for a comparison, but still unpleasantly show that Britain is more unequal in wealth than in 1980. That’s the actual question Piketty and Giles were disputing. However, I have yet to find a such a 1980 Gini index for wealth; as Piketty notes in capital21c, the drawback of the Credit Suisse research is that it does not go back in time very far. Perhaps a reader knows where a series of Gini indices for wealth (unlike income, which is easy to find) can be found.

So the answer to the question in the title is that we don’t actually know. Likely, however, it doesn’t matter as far as trends in inequality since 1980 are concerned. It’s definitely worth thinking about what it might mean that the two wealth inequality measures diverge for ranking Britain and Sweden in 2000, even if we eventually conclude that one measure is definitely better than the other.

And it’s not like Piketty is unaware of a potential for greater wealth inequality in Sweden. In June, he lectured in Helsinki, arguing against a recent trend in the Nordic countries to abolish estate (inheritance) taxes. Sweden abolished its inheritance tax in 2005. Not only does this shift the tax burden to those with lesser wealth, as he argued in Helsinki, but it follows from the argument of the book that it takes away the possibility of generating the most reliable form of data on wealth inequality itself.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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New government accounting standards to require subsidy disclosure

In a move with potentially enormous implications, Good Jobs First reports that the Government Accounting Standards Board (GASB) will soon issue new draft rules for Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP) for governments. Don’t fall asleep; this could be awesome!

As regular readers know, one of the things bedeviling subsidy debates is the lack of transparency in what governments actually give to businesses, and on whether incentive recipients actually deliver on their promised jobs and investment. We have just seen how Boeing is moving 2000 jobs out of Washington state despite receiving huge subsidies  there. And since the stakes nationally are $70 billion a year, by my estimates, better transparency is a must if we are to have any kind of democratic debate and accountability.

As Good Jobs First reports, the GASB proposal would require governments to publish detailed information on “tax abatements” (an oddly narrow term it applies to the wider concept of tax incentives; but what about cash grants or free infrastructure?) in order to comply with Generally Accepted Accounting Principles. State and local governments will have no choice but to comply with whatever is adopted, as it is impossible to issue bonds or carry out other basic financial operations unless they meet GAAP standards. This is why Good Jobs First has long campaigned for a change by GASB. The centrality of GAAP means that we have to pay attention to the draft rules and comment on them in the three-month comment period starting in November.

It turns out that taxpayers aren’t the only people who want to know about tax incentives. Bond analysts want to know about present and committed tax subsidies to help them assess whether bond issuers can really pay them back. Good Jobs First cited the example of Memphis, where tax breaks consume about one-seventh of potential property tax revenue.

What we have now is a complete patchwork where some states (and proportionately fewer cities) have good disclosure and others don’t. This requires the constant monitoring and central aggregating of subsidy costs that Good Jobs First does so well (250,000 subsidies and counting). It also necessitates the construction of estimates, like mine, of the overall costs of investment incentives and other subsidies to business. In a good world (not even a perfect one), these data would already be available in easy-to-analyze forms. Really strong GASB rules would get us a long way to reaching that point.

I’ll let you know when the comment period starts.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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Boeing moving 2000 jobs from Washington state

Via @BlogWood, I learned that Boeing is going to move 2000 skilled jobs away from Washington state, despite just receiving $8.7 billion (with a B) in subsidies for the years 2025-2040. Really, I’m speechless. “Chutzpah” is one of the more printable words I can think of to describe this.

You will recall that the state’s legislators were angry when their $2 billion (present value of $3.2 billion over 20 years) 2003 subsidy for the Dreamliner did not stop Boeing from putting a Dreamliner assembly line in South Carolina. So the 2013 subsidy was supposed to guarantee that Boeing couldn’t do this again.

Boeing’s response no doubt will be that these jobs are in the Defense division, not in civil aircraft. Thus they are not covered by either the 2003 or the 2013 subsidy. This has already been hinted at by a commenter on the Business Week article, wraiths13@yahoo.com.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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Apple set to lose billions in EU state aid case

The Financial Times reported on September 30th that the European Commission has decided to open a formal investigation into whether Apple received illegal subsidies (“state aid,” in EU-speak) from Ireland going as far back as 1991. The FT quotes “people involved in the case” as saying that this can cost Apple billions of euros.

What the decision technically does is establish what is known as an “Article 108(2)” investigation, which means that the Commission has concluded from its preliminary investigation that state aid has been granted in violation of the EU’s competition policy rules. It is therefore opening a more comprehensive investigation. It is worth noting that if the Commission opens an Article 108(2) investigation, it almost always decides that illegal state aid was given. The only recent exception I can think of is state aid from Poland to relocate Dell computer manufacturing from Ireland in 2009, and I actually think the Commission should have ruled against that as well, as I discussed in my book Investment Incentives and the Global Competition for Capital.

As I speculated in June, one issue raised by the Commission is Apple’s “nowhere” subsidiaries created under Irish law. Both Apple Operations Europe (AOE) and its subsidiary, Apple Sales International (ASI), are incorporated in Ireland, hence not immediately taxable by the United States until they repatriate their profits to the U.S. However, they are managed from the U.S., which by the provisions of Irish tax law makes them not taxable in Ireland. It is these provisions that are at issue in the case. See, in particular, paragraphs 25-29 of the decision, especially paragraph 29: “According to the information provided by the Irish authorities, the territory of tax residency of AOE and ASI is not identified.” Richard Murphy suggests today that these corporate provisions account for the largest proportion of Apple’s tax risk.

What is especially important for this investigation (and the similar ones of Starbucks and Fiat) is that if the Commission finds that state aid was given, it was never notified in advance to the Commission. The state aid laws require that any proposed subsidy be notified in advance and not implemented until approved. Ever since the 1980s, the penalty for giving non-notified, illegal (“not compatible with the common market”) aid is that the aid must be repaid with interest. Since this alleged aid was not notified, and will probably be found to be incompatible with the common market, Apple will be on the hook for aid repayment.

As I reported in June, this would not be the first time the Commission has used the state aid law to force changes to Ireland’s tax system. In 1998, it ruled that Ireland’s 10% corporate income tax for manufacturing was specific enough to be a state aid. Ireland then reduced the corporate income tax to 12.5% for non-manufacturing firms, while raising it to that level for manufacturing (mainly foreign multinational) companies.

If the Commission rules against Ireland and Apple, this will send a signal that the European Union is going to take tax manipulation very seriously with all the tools at its disposal. It would be especially great to see one of the pioneers of arcane tax avoidance strategies taken down a notch. For Ireland, at least there would be a small silver lining from losing this case: Apple’s aid repayment would go to Ireland and help reduce its budget deficit.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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Iceland: Bankers convicted, unemployment down

Remember Iceland? During the high-flying early 2000s, its three main banks went berserk, paying high interest rates to international investors that accumulated deposits equal to more than 100% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) and making loans equal to 980% of GDP. When the collapse came, Iceland took a route not taken by Ireland, Spain, and other EU countries: Rather than bail out the banks, the government simply let them go bankrupt. The value of the krona fell by about half, the country was embroiled in disputes with the Netherlands and the United Kingdom over paying off Dutch and British depositors, and it had to take an International Monetary Fund (IMF) loan just to stay afloat.

When we last checked in, there were indictments and criminal investigations of the officers of all three banks, and Icelandic banks were forced to forgive all mortgage debt in excess of 110% of a home’s value. Iceland’s 2012 unemployment rate was 6.0% compared to Ireland’s 14.7%. But that was two years ago; what’s happening now?

In December 2013, four top officials of the country’s formerly largest bank, Kaupthing, were sentenced to jail terms ranging from five and a half years for its chief executive to three years for one of the majority owners. While their cases are currently under appeal, they were indicted this July for further fraud charges. Various bank and government officials have had final convictions as determined by the Supreme Court of Iceland; Wikipedia has a handy rundown on where numerous cases stand, all based on Icelandic-language sources so I cannot read them myself.

Homeowners are still in difficulty in Iceland, however. This is because mortgages in Iceland are usually indexed to the inflation rate; that is, the amount of principal is increased by the rate of inflation. Iceland’s inflation rate was 5.2% in 2012 and 3.9% in 2013, while Ireland’s inflation was 1.7% in 2012 and a near-deflation 0.5% in 2013. That is a pretty hefty load for Icelandic homeowners. The current conservative government has instituted a new round of mortgage relief, but there are a lot of devils in the details. Almost half of the “relief” comes in the form of people being allowed to use their retirement savings  (which are tax-advantaged like U.S. individual retirement accounts) to pay down their debt. Yeah, it’s great to pay your mortgage with pre-tax dollars, but it’s still your own money you’re paying, which will no longer be available for retirement. The IMF has raised doubts about the plan’s overall effect on government finances, too.

As I mentioned in my last post, unemployment in Iceland stood at 4.4% in July, versus 11.5% in Ireland (navigate to Labour Force Statistics, then Short-term Statistics, Short-term Labour Market Statistics, then Harmonised Unemployment Rates). And, as I also mentioned in the post, Ireland’s unemployment rate has been artificially lowered due to net emigration from the country.

While Iceland suffered a great deal from the crisis and is by no means out of the woods, it looks like the country made the right call by not bailing out the banks. The economy is growing and unemployment is down to less than half of its peak crisis level. As Paul Krugman has emphasized, having your own currency to devalue helps as well, although it substantially raised inflation and mortgage balances. Iceland was dealt a bad hand by its bankers, but it’s making at least some of them pay for that, which is more than we can say in the United States.

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Irish austerity exodus lingers on

August brings us the annual Irish immigration data, so it’s time to look at what has happened in their statistical reporting “year” that ended in April 2014. While better than last year, it’s still not pretty.

According to the Central Statistics Office, net emigration continued in 2013-14, with net emigration of 21,400. a decline of just over 1/3 compared to net emigration of 33,100 in 2012-13. Of the new total, once again, the Irish themselves accounted for over 100% of the net departures, with 29,200 more Irish nationals leaving the country than returning.

This continued out-migration continues to diminish any published improvements in Irish employment numbers and unemployment rate. In the year to the second quarter of 2014 (the closest quarter to April 2014 immigration figures), employment  increased to 1,901,600, a rise of 31,600 over a year previous. Unemployment fell by even more, 46,200, in the year to Q2 2014. So, while there is definite improvement even accounting for emigration, Ireland is nowhere near back to its peak 2007 employment figure of about 2.15 million. So employment is still 11.6% below its peak.

In Iceland (create a custom table here), by contrast, despite (but also in part because of of) the almost 50% decline in the value of the kronor, the sharp dip in unemployment has been almost completely erased, with July 2014’s value of 179,000 employed being a mere 1.7% below May 2008’s maximum of 182,100. Indeed, Iceland’s unemployment rate has fallen to a mere 4.4% in July 2014, compared with 6.2% in the United States — and 11.5% in Ireland.

So the lesson, if I have haven’t pounded it into your head enough already, is that Ireland’s austerity measures are not paying off, as it has failed to regain its pre-crisis employment level  and has seen its unemployment rate fall only by reverting to its historical solution of exporting people, as in the 1980s.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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Tesla deal even worse than first thought

Via an email from Greg LeRoy of Good Jobs First, we learn that the Tesla deal, as enacted by the Nevada Legislature, is even worse than announced. Aside from the widely touted 6500 jobs only being 6000 jobs for which the state is paying for, it turns out that Tesla doesn’t even have to create the jobs itself!

You read that right. Tesla gets to receive tax credits for investment and job creation not only for itself, but for any of its suppliers (“participants,” in the law’s language) that locate on the project’s huge location. Theoretically, Telsa does not even have to create half the jobs for which it will receive subsidies.

Why does this matter? Isn’t Tesla still responsible for bringing all those jobs (assuming they all come, which Richard Florida doubts) to Nevada? Yes, but it tells us that all the figures bandied about for indirect and induced jobs are just malarkey. The state claims that there will be a total of 22,000 jobs ultimately due to the project, but that depends on Tesla itself creating 6500 jobs. If the state is instead paying for some of the indirect jobs it claims would be due to the project, it is admitting that the Tesla base of direct jobs is smaller than 6000; therefore, 22,000 jobs would no longer be supported (assuming you buy into that methodology in the first place, which you shouldn’t). These multipliers are easily manipulated, and we have just gotten an object lesson in how to do that.

Amazingly, the media is not paying much attention. As far as I can tell from searching the Web and the premium Nexis news service, the only place that has picked up LeRoy’s statement is the Las Vegas Sun‘s blog. Really, this is no time for the media to be letting us down!

I encourage you to check the link to the legislation above. It is a sight to behold, and proof once again that bad economic deals are a dime a dozen, leaving the average taxpayer to pick up the slack.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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Understanding Piketty, part 5 (conclusion)

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is the first book to make a data-driven examination of economic inequality. Based on hundreds of years worth of data, it attempts to determine the long-term trends in inequality and the social and political consequences that follow from them.

In this final post, I want to highlight the most important points of the book, including a few I have not yet discussed. Beyond that, I want to consider parts of the book that are perhaps a bit less persuasive.

First of all, the data has been almost unchallenged. The one person who claimed substantial flaws in it, Chris Giles of the Financial Times, is road kill.

Second, three major results emerge from the data bringing dearly-held economists’ views into question. A) There is no Kuznets Curve: Developed countries do not keep getting more equal; rather, the data show that they have become less equal since about 1980. B) There is no fixed share for capital and labor income, as assumed by the Cobb-Douglas production function: Capital’s share of national income has risen since 1975. C) Franco Modigliani’s view that most savings was for retirement, not inheritance, is wrong. Depending on the country, no more than 20% of private wealth is in the form of annuitized wealth that ends at death.

Third, the big theoretical payoff is that some economists’ happy stories about how everyone earns their marginal productivity are simply incorrect. These bedtime stories may make the rich feel like their high incomes and wealth are deserved. The fact of the matter, though, is that high incomes are not the result of merit but of bargaining power. The increase of capital mobility since the 1970s is one element in disciplining labor, while the reduction in the top income tax rate gave top corporate executives more incentive to push for large wage increases and exploit the large uncertainty regarding their individual contribution to corporate success.

Fourth and most obviously, r>g* is no historical necessity, but it has held true virtually everywhere for all of human history. As long as it is true, there is a tendency for inequality to worsen.

Moving on to aspects of the book I have not previously covered, one discussion that stood out was Piketty’s discussion of the weakness of measures of gross domestic product (p. 92). In particular, he notes that there are no good quality measures for adjusting GDP:

For example, if a private health insurance system costs more than a public system but does not yield truly superior quality (as a comparison of the United States and Europe suggests), then GDP will be artificially overvalued in countries that rely mainly on private insurance.

Parenthetically, it seems to me that any high-cost low-quality system would overstate GDP, whether it’s private or public. But the point to remember is that we are talking big bucks here: if the United States were spending merely what the #2 country (Netherlands, in terms of percent of GDP) does, we would be spending almost $1 trillion less, so presumably this means U.S. GDP is overstated by $1 trillion. That’s still a lot of money!

As I discussed before, Piketty advocates a global annual tax on wealth as the solution to the problem of inequality. However, he relegates an alternative global tax, on financial transactions, to a single paragraph plus a single footnote. He claims that an FTT would “dry up” “high frequency transactions,” and for that reason would not raise much revenue. Of course, this would depend on which transactions are taxed (James Tobin had originally proposed taxing foreign exchange transactions) and what the tax rate is. A balance can be struck between “throwing sand in the wheels,” as Tobin described it, and raising revenue. Contra Piketty, I don’t think it is something that can be rejected out of hand, and I plan to discuss an FTT more fully in the future.

So what’s wrong with the book? Honestly, not much. I mentioned before that I wasn’t fully persuaded by Piketty’s evidence that bigger fortunes necessarily earn higher rates of return. However, this is not a big issue, especially as the claim does seem fairly plausible.

At times, however, Piketty’s political arguments seem almost ad hoc. He attributes (p. 509) the rise of Reaganism and Thatcherism in part to a feeling people had that other countries were catching up to them. He presents no evidence for this claim, which does not strike me as particularly plausible. Similarly, he lectures the leaders of large EU countries (p. 523) for their failure to align taxation among the Member States, rejecting their leaders’ point that EU institutions (unanimity is required for changes affecting direct taxation) and other Member States (read: Ireland) can block fiscal coordination indefinitely. But it’s true! It’s right there in the Treaty! So he’s a little too glib about politics for my tastes; but then, I’m a political scientist, so perhaps I’m not the most neutral of sources.

Bottom line: You’ve already bought the book, so take it off the coffee table and read it! It may take you a few weeks, or a few months, but you’ll be glad you did.

* r>g means that the rate of return on investment, r, is greater than an economy’s growth rate, g.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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