Relevant and even prescient commentary on news, politics and the economy.

Hey Rustbelt and beyond, Losing factories is not new

(There’s a movie at the end!)

For decades we have been hearing about the loss of industrial production through out what is called the “Rust Belt”.  It’s presented, even as recent as the prior presidential election as a relative regional problem that only began post Reagan.  What gets me though is that the reporting and ultimately the politics are as if the rust belt is/was unique in their experience with the west and east coast experiencing nothing of the sort.  The presentation is of the west coast Hollywood economy and now the “tech” economy, the east coast (namely New York/Boston) being the money economy.  The south east is not considered other than Disney and orange production.  The north west?  Microsoft and Starbucks.  Well I think it used to be lumber.

Wiki notes that the rust belt is not geographic but is a term that “pertains to a set of economic and social conditions“.     It includes the northeast which is proper in that industry started there but I have had the feeling for a few decades now that such history is forgotten and thus no longer considered when we look to understand what the hell happened to the middle class.

Let me start with this fun fact.  Rhode Island was the most industrialized state per capita in the nation at one point.  Wiki notes that:

…Aldrich, as US Senator, became known as the “General Manager of the United States,” for his ability to set high tariffs to protect Rhode Island — and American — goods from foreign competition.

We were where the super rich came to escape the heat and play.  And then it started to die.  Not just here though.  Neighboring Massachusetts was hit as was Connecticut.  If you ever get a chance, come visit the New Bedford  Whaling museum and read about the massive industry that was there.  Example, the worlds largest mill of weaving looms.  Some 4000+!  Whaling from that city in the later 1800’s generated some $71 million per year!  Not impressed? Well, using the GDP deflator it’s $1.480 billion per year!

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Eleven richest Americans have all received government subsidies

A new report by Good Jobs First shows how the very wealthy in America have benefited from government subsidies as one element in building their fortunes. According to the study, the 11 richest Americans, and 23 of the 25 richest, all have significant ownership in companies that have received at least $1 million in investment incentives.

The study compares the most recent Forbes 400 ranking of wealthiest Americans with the Good Jobs First Subsidy Tracker database. Not only do Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Larry Ellison, the Koch Brothers, the Waltons, Michael Bloomberg, and Mark Zuckerberg own companies that have received millions or even billions in taxpayer funds, 99 of the 258 companies connected with the Forbes 400 have such subsidies.

As I argued theoretically in Competing for Capital, the new report points out that subsidies for investment increase inequality as average taxpayers subsidize wealthy corporate owners. Location incentives directly put money into their pockets, which then has to be offset by higher taxes on others, reduced government services, or higher levels of government debt. Moreover, as the study notes, despite the huge amount of these subsidies given in the name of economic development, there has not been enough payback to raise real wages even back to their 1970s peak. In other words, if economic development has created so many new jobs, why haven’t wages risen?

Of course, subsidies don’t account for the biggest part of inequality. Read Thomas Piketty for the big picture on the subject. But the new report shows that large numbers of America’s wealthiest (or not so wealthy, like Mitt Romney) have benefited handily from government subsidies.

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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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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Understanding Piketty, part 2

In my last post, I gave an introduction to the massive data work underlying Capital in the Twenty-First Century, as well as two clear results from Piketty’s work. First, he showed that the optimistic Kuznets view after World War II that inequality was well on its way to being conquered was wrong, based on putting too much stock into a short-term trend. Inequality in fact has been increasing in the industrialized world since about 1980. Second, Piketty showed that a slow-growth economy is ripe for an increasing concentration of wealth in society, absent government action to counter that trend. He introduced the relationship r>g, which says the private return on capital is greater than the economic growth rate. When this holds true, as it has for most of history, inequality is likely to increase.

In this post, I address Part Two, “The Dynamics of the Capital/Income Ratio. The next two posts will address parts Three and Four, followed by a summation and critique of certain aspects of the book.

One important observation that Piketty makes is that in Europe, capital in the form of agricultural land accounted for 300-400% of gross national income (GNI), and total capital reached about 700% of GNI in the early 1700s. In Britain (Figure 3.1), France (Figure 3.2), and Germany (Figure 4.1), total capital fell below 300% of GNI in the period encompassing World War I and World War II. By 2010, total capital was back up to about 600% of GNI, but its composition had changed, with agricultural land falling to vanishingly low levels, replaced by housing and other domestic capital. In the United States (Figure 4.2), by contrast, farmland in 1770 was plentiful and cheap, making up about just 150% of GNI. Total capital also was much lower than in Europe, only about 300% of GNI. In the twentieth century, however, the U.S. did not suffer the devastation of the World Wars, so it had fewer and smaller dips in the value of total capital, which had risen to about 450% of national income in 2010; like in Europe, however, the value of U.S. agricultural land had also fallen to a tiny fraction of national income. Piketty points out if one includes the value of slaves, total U.S. capital in 1770-1810 rises by another 150% of national income (Figure 4.10), meaning that the capital/income ratio in the United States has been even more stable than it appears at first blush.

For Piketty, the resurgence of the capital/income ratio in the late 20th century is a consequence of slow growth. One important result of this is that capital’s share of national income has increased since 1975, and labor’s share has consequently fallen. According to his data for eight rich countries (the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, France, Canada, Italy [the G-7, as they are usually called] and Australia.), “Capital income absorbs between 15 percent and 25 percent of national income in rich countries in 1970, and between 25 percent and 30 percent in 2000-2010” (Figure 6.5, p. 222). Notably, he raises the important point, central to my own academic work, that the increasing mobility of capital increases capital’s bargaining power vis-a-vis both labor and governments (p. 221). He considers it likely that this factor has been mutually reinforcing with  the ability to substitute capital for labor. I would consider it not merely likely, but close to self-evident. Moreover, he omits (though I am sure he is aware) that one use capital mobility has been put to is to substitute less expensive for more expensive labor.

This increase in capital’s share of national income shatters another comforting standard economic view, that the relative share of capital and labor is fixed. This assumption is built into a workhorse of neoclassical macroeconomic analysis, the Cobb-Davis production function. Piketty shows that, as with Kuznets work, the results of Cobb and Douglas generalize from a data sample that is far too short in term (p. 219).

My next post will analyze Part Three, “The Structure of Inequality.” See you soon.

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Understanding Piketty, part 3

Part 3 of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is the longest section of the book (230 pages out of 577), providing his analysis of inequality at the level of individuals. Notably, Piketty largely avoids the use of the familiar Gini index because, in his view, it obscures the issue by combining the effects of inequality based on income with those of inequality based on wealth. He treats the two sources of inequality separately throughout this analysis.

The first point Piketty emphasizes is one regular readers will be familiar with from my previous discussions of the Crédit Suisse wealth reports: Wealth is always more unequally distributed than income. The disparity is stark (p. 244):

…the upper 10 percent of the labor income distribution generally receives 25-30 percent of total labor income, whereas the top 10 percent of the capital income distribution always owns more than 50 percent of all wealth (and in some societies as much as 90 percent). Even more strikingly, perhaps, the bottom 50 percent of the wage distribution always receives a significant share of total labor income (generally between one-quarter and one-third), or approximately as much as the top 10 percent), whereas the bottom 50 percent of the wealth distribution owns nothing at all, or almost nothing (always less than 10 percent and usually less than 5 percent of total wealth, or one-tenth as much as the wealthiest 10 percent).  One finding from his data which impressed me is that the inequality of wealth is virtually the same in all age cohorts, refuting the view that advanced industrialized societies are riven by inter-generational warfare (pp. 245-6). In other words, Baby Boomers may be less wealthy than their parents, but their incomes are just as unequally distributed, on average, and will continue to be so after they build up a few more assets and retire.

For my American readers, it is worth noting that Piketty claims that the United States today (meaning 2010) has the highest level of wage inequality ever seen in history, with 35% going to the top 10% and only 25% going to the bottom 50%. If current trends continue, though obviously an iffy proposition, the share of the top 10% would rise to 45% vs. just 20% for the bottom 50% (Table 7.1). In terms of wealth inequality the U.S. has as of 2010 almost reached the astronomical levels only seen by Europe circa 1910, with the top 10% owning 72% of all wealth, versus a 90% share in 1910 Europe (p.257). As this is survey-based data, Piketty says that 75% is a more likely figure, since surveys understate the top income and wealth shares. The bottom 50% of Americans own just 2% of the country’s wealth. As I noted before, if r>g, this concentration of wealth is likely to become even more uneven over time.

Piketty then turns to the evolution of inequality over the course of the 20th century. He takes the French case and the U.S. case as representatives of “two worlds,” one where inequality is largely caused by differentials in capital income (France) and one where it is caused more by wage inequality.

In France in 1910, the top 10% received over 45% of total income from both labor and capital, whereas its share of labor income was under 30%. Over the course of World War II, the share of the top decile (10%) dropped by about 15 percentage points, which rose and fell between 1945 and 1982, but since then is on the upswing once again (Figure 8.1). Wage inequality has been much more stable for France from 1910 to 2010. The higher you go in the income hierarchy, particularly within the top 1%, income from capital becomes more and more important, fully 60% of the income of the top .01%  of the French population (Figure 8.4). Piketty points out that while the upswing in capital income since 1982 does not yet appear large (only a few percentage points), it is built on an increase of capital as a percentage of national income, of inherited wealth, that will cause capital income to explode in the near future.

In the United States, we see the same decline in the income share of the top decile after 1940 as in France, but unlike France, since 1980 the United States has seen the share of the top 10% fully restored (Figure 8.5). Moreover, the vast majority of that recovery in the wealthy’s share of income is due solely to the increasing income share going to the top 1% (Figure 8.6). Behind this is an increase in what he calls “supersalaries,” the vast majority (60-70%) of which come from top managers and less than 5% from superstars in sports, acting, and the arts. Of course, though the route is different from that of France, it again causes an increase in capital’s share of national income, making it likely that inherited wealth will rise in importance in the United States as well.

What caused this explosion of labor income inequality in the United States? Piketty cites several factors. First, he highlights the findings of Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz that wage inequality began to grow in the 1980s, “at precisely the moment when for the first time the number of college graduates stops growing, or at any rate grows much more slowly than before” (p. 306). Second, institutions matter in the labor market. The biggest factor holding down the low end of wages in the United States is the low level of the minimum wage, which peaked in 1969 at $10.10 in 2013 dollars (p. 309).

However, these factors do not explain what is going on at the very top of the wage distribution, according to Piketty. One piece of evidence is that the supermanager phenomenon is a characteristic of the Anglo-Saxon countries after 1980, whereas there are only very small increases for the top 1% in Continental European countries or Japan (Figures 9.2-9.4). But another important point is that, among the English-speaking countries, the United States has the largest increase in the income of the top 1%, and the same is true for the income share of the top 0.1% of incomes (Figures 9.5-9.6). So, something is going on specifically in the United States. It is not, however, that there is some fantastically higher level of productivity growth in the U.S. All of the countries considered are at the world’s technological frontier; indeed, the evidence suggests that telecommunications infrastructure and cost are worse in the United States than many other industrialized countries.

Instead, what appears to account for the sharply divergent incomes of supermanagers are the difficulty of determining the marginal productivity of top managers (Piketty cites evidence that firms with the highest-paid executives do not better than those with lower-paid executives); the ability of top managers to “set their own salaries,” for example by appointing the compensation committees that will judge them; and, as Part 4 will show, the decrease in top marginal tax rates and the change in compensation norms related to that (pp. 334-5).

Piketty then turns to inequality in capital ownership, beginning with the treasure trove of data compiled in France since 1790. One of his most amazing findings is that in France, despite the 1789 Revolution, the inequality of wealth increased throughout the 19th century, to the point where the top 1% owned 60% of all wealth on the eve of World War I (Figure 10.1). As noted before, the World Wars, the Great Depression, and higher taxation brought about a dramatic fall by 1970 in the share of of both the top 10% (to 60%) and the top 1% (20%). Here, too, the data yield a striking finding: essentially none of this went to the bottom 50% of the wealth distribution, but was redistributed downward only to those below the top 10% but in the top 50% (p. 342). This “patrimonial middle class,” as Piketty calls it, has largely maintained its wealth share, with the top 10% and top 1% gaining a few percentage points from their 1970 low point.

Contrasting with France and other European countries for which there is reasonable wealth inequality data, the United States has seen a stronger recovery of the top shares of wealth holders, and in fact U.S. wealth inequality passed European wealth inequality in the mid-1950s, and has been higher ever since. In none of these countries, however, has wealth inequality returned to its highest levels. Piketty has three main explanations for why we have not (yet) seen a return to 1910 levels of wealth inequality. First, there simply hasn’t been enough time to rebuild from the 1945 low point; indeed, wealth inequality did not even start increasing again until the 1970s in most industrialized countries. Second, the decline in wealth inequality was accompanied and intensified by a sharp increase in taxation on capital. Third, there was a high rate of economic growth for thirty years after 1945. However, all these factors may reverse in this century. 1945, obviously, is steadily receding from view. Tax competition may well spell the end of capital taxation. Finally the slowdown of demographic growth will reduce economic growth as well, exacerbating the key r>g relationship.

Piketty then turns to inheritance, again with data going back to 1790. Here his foil is economist Franco Modigliani, who posited that people save in order to finance their retirement, but bequeath essentially 0 wealth. Piketty finds that “the desire to perpetuate a family fortune has always played a central role” in savings decisions (p. 392). As evidence, he points out that “annuitized wealth” (non-heritable, such as Social Security but not a 401-k account) makes up a tiny fraction of private wealth (under 5% in France, and 15-20% in “English-speaking countries, where pension funds are more developed”). In other words, the desire to leave a bequest to one’s heirs is the predominant fact behind large-scale savings behavior.

Piketty contends that a society dominated by inherited wealth becomes less democratic over time. Not only do the wealthy have increased mechanisms to influence political outcomes, but unearned income is an “affront” to the meritocratic story we tell ourselves. If high incomes are not based on merit, an important justification for this inequality disappears. He goes on to note that “rent” is not originally a pejorative term (as in, for example, “monopoly rent”). If capital is used in production, it yields income, and this is not due to monopoly and cannot be “solved” by greater competition. As Piketty says, universal suffrage [which in the 19th century had often been posed as fatal to the economy – KT] “ended the legal domination of politics by the wealthy. But it did not abolish the economic forces capable of producing a society of rentiers” (p. 424).

I have left out some of the technical detail of Piketty’s argument, but one more point here needs emphasizing. As he shows (Figure 11.12), inheritance flows are increasing in Europe, and have been since 1980. The situation is not quite as bad in the United States, because the U.S. population is still growing, while Europe’s is stagnating. However, long-term forecasts point to an eventual slowdown in population growth in the United States as well, in which case inherited wealth would emerge just as strongly as it already has in Europe.

Piketty’s final points refer to global dimensions of inequality of wealth. His argument here is that while most people’s instinct is to object less to entrepreneurial fortunes than to inherited ones, in fact there is less difference between the two that meets the eye. This is because, he argues, the largest fortunes are able to command the highest rates of return. He gives the example of the fortunes of Bill Gates, who obviously worked to build Microsoft, and that of Lillian Bettencourt, the heir of the L’Oréal fortune, “who never worked a day in her life” (p. 440). As it turns out, from 1990 to 2010, both saw their wealth increase at by a factor of 12.5 times in that period. Large fortunes command the highest rate of return. However, the data Piketty presents do not fully support this. Gates’ fortune was twice that of Bettencourt in 1990 and 2010, yet his rate of return was no more than hers. Furthermore, when Piketty reports on the returns made by sovereign wealth funds, we can see that Abu Dhabi’s, the world’s largest, worth more than all U.S. university endowments combined, nonetheless had lower earnings than did Harvard, Princeton, and Yale on their endowments. I think there is much merit to his overall claim, but it would appear to be a little more complicated than he lets on.

Last but not least, a couple of international wealth quick hits. First, will sovereign wealth funds own the world? No, but they could wind up amassing 10-20% of global capital by 2030 or 2040, which would be a much greater percentage of liquid global assets. Second, will China own the world? The short answer is no. Third, why do rich countries so frequently have negative asset positions? Are these counterbalanced by positive asset positions in poorer countries overall? The answer to this last question is no, so the answer to the previous question is that so much wealth has been diverted to tax havens, it makes the rich countries look poor, even though they aren’t. Indeed, even the relatively low estimate of tax haven assets by Piketty’s colleague Gabriel Zucman comes to more than twice the negative asset position of the rich countries.

This long section of the book is the necessary set-up for Part Four, where Piketty takes on still more received theories, and proposes his own recommendations for what can be done about inequality. I will turn to those questions in my next post.

Cross-posted at Middle Class Political Economist.

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Understanding Piketty, part 1

Thomas Piketty’s (CV) Capital in the Twenty-First Century is the most important book on economics published in this century. The book has made a huge splash, and drawn the ire of conservatives, for its straightforward argument that recent increases in inequality in numerous countries are likely to rise to unprecedented heights unless governments can reach democratically based solutions to this problem.

As I mentioned previously, the book’s success is built on a mountain of data that a multinational team of researchers has been compiling for 10 years, the World Top Incomes Database, as well as long-term wealth records dating back to 1790 in the case of France. Piketty, in fact, has been working on inequality issues for 20 years. As he remarks in the book, until the creation of these datasets, debate on inequality was a “dialogue of the deaf” with precious few facts to back up anyone’s arguments. A lot of this work has been taking place out of sight of most pundits, as Piketty’s early books and papers are published in French, with the exception of the reasonably well-known papers he co-authored with Emmanuel Saez on U.S. inequality.

Most notably, there has been only one significant challenge to Piketty’s data, and it was easily swatted down. Chris Giles of the Financial Times claimed that wealth inequality in the United Kingdom had declined since 1980, not risen as given in Piketty’s book. But Giles made the error of taking survey-based wealth data (which sharply underestimates the wealth of the rich) and splicing it on to much more accurate estate tax-based data, to get a declining share of wealth for the top 10% and the top 1%. As Piketty says in his response:

Also note that a 44% wealth share for the top 10% (and a 12.5% wealth share for the top 1%, according to the FT) would mean that Britain is currently one the most egalitarian countries in history in terms of wealth distribution; in particular this would mean that Britain is a lot more equal that Sweden, and in fact a lot more equal than what Sweden has ever been (including in the 1980s). This does not look particularly plausible.

Obviously I agree with Piketty, but don’t take my word for it. According to Eurostat, the Gini index for income inequality (which runs from 0 to 1, but is often multiplied by 100, as here; higher is more unequal) in 2012 was 32.8 for the United Kingdom versus 24.8 for Sweden. (For comparison, the United States was at 45.0 in 2007, according to the CIA World Factbook.) Combine that with the fact that wealth is more unevenly distributed than income in every country, and it is impossible for U.K. wealth to be more equally distributed than Sweden’s is today, let alone at its most equal point in the 1980s. Moreover, according to Piketty’s data on Sweden, which Giles does not dispute, the top 10% there owned just a tad under 60% of wealth, and the top 1% fully 20% of wealth, in 2010 (Figure 10.4, p. 345).

So what does all this new data show? First of all, the data show that the optimistic post-war notion that inequality had been solved for good was an illusion. As Piketty points out, economist Simon Kuznets had posited that as countries developed from very poor to very rich, as their GDP per capita increased, countries became more unequal at low levels of income (think China today). However, after a certain tipping point was reached, as countries raised their per capita GDP, their income distribution would become more equal. This was based on what Kuznets saw in the 1950s, a situation where income inequality was indeed declining in the industrialized countries. Many people expected that as more countries developed, they would pass the tipping point, and income inequality would decline in more and more countries. Alas, since 1980, we have seen a resurgence of inequality in the wealthy countries, turning the second half of Kuznets’ story into a “fairy tale.”

According to Piketty, the reasons we saw a sharp decline in wealth inequality in the wealthy countries from 1910 to 1980 are that there were substantial destructions of capital in the two World Wars, plus high taxes levied on the wealthy to finance the wars, which could not be paid for otherwise. Then, after World War II, there were very rapid growth rates possible as the various countries played catch-up to get back to their pre-war growth trends.

This brings us to a second major point of Piketty’s book. He argues that the relationship between the rate of return on investments (r) and the country’s growth rate (g) is a critical determinant of how concentrated wealth becomes in a society. If r exceeds g, over time capital ownership becomes more concentrated and society less equal. In all probability, developed countries can only expect to see growth, after inflation, of 1% to 1.5% per year. Of course, China and some other developing countries are growing more rapidly, but as they reach the technological frontier, their growth will slow. Meanwhile, the return on investment is more on the order of 4-5% annually. Thus, for industrialized countries, there is considerable danger that the wealth will become significantly more concentrated, and Piketty considers it obvious that high inequality is dangerous to democracy.

Alas, it’s late; I have to stop for the night (but not at Hotel California). I’ll have more to say very soon.

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

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Trans Pacific Partnership Bad for the Middle Class, but How Bad? UPDATED

What you don’t know can hurt you. I think that’s a clear lesson of some so-called trade agreements the United States has signed over the last 20 years, and illustrated further by the few that have been defeated, most notably the Multilateral Agreement on Investment, negotiated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development from1995 to 1998, but then abandoned in the face of ever growing protests.

Haven’t heard of the Trans Pacific Partnership? That’s no surprise: while the negotiations are not really being conducted in secret (the Office of the US Trade Representative provides periodic updates here), the level of disclosure from the USTR office rarely ventures beyond bland statements like this:

On November 12, 2011, the Leaders of the nine Trans-Pacific Partnership Countries – Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, and the United States – announced the achievement of the broad outlines of an ambitious, 21st-century Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement that will enhance trade and investment among the TPP partner countries, promote innovation, economic growth, and development, and support the creation and retention of jobs.

The USTR website continues by claiming that the agreement will be “increasing American exports, supporting American jobs.” This is all too similar to the Clinton administration’s reporting on NAFTA, which would point out all the gains from increased exports while omitting any mention of increased imports (Journal of Commerce, Nov. 18, 1994, via Nexis, subscription required) which quickly turned a small trade surplus with Mexico into a huge trade deficit. Recent evidence suggests this may already be happening with Korea (thanks to Daniel Becker in private correspondence).

How do we evaluate the TPP? We have to see it as having at least three major elements: a trade agreement, an investment agreement, and an intellectual property agreement.

From the trade agreement alone, we can conclude that it is a bad deal for the middle class. As I explained last year, the Stolper-Samuelson Theorem in economics tells us that more trade is actually bad for labor in this country, because by global standards, the U.S. is labor-scarce (low population density), meaning that we expect trade to lead to more intense competition in labor-intensive goods, putting downward pressure on wages. Alas, that isn’t the end of it.

There is a lot of controversy about the investment side of the agreement. As discussed here by Daniel Becker, the investment chapter was leaked and published by the Citizens Trade Campaign. Before I discuss the TPP investment provisions, a little context on investment agreements first.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD),at the end of 2011 there were 3190 international investment agreements, of which 2860 were between two countries, usually known as bilateral investment treaties or BITs. Investment agreements can also be part of larger agreements, such as the investment chapter of NAFTA, the WTO’s Agreement on Trade-Related Investment Measures (TRIMS), and various regional trade agreements. Since the TRIMS agreement, in force since 1995, applies to all WTO members, it is a global benchmark; thus, people will refer to agreements with stronger provisions as “TRIMS+.”

The purpose of investment agreements is to protect foreign investors, which are by definition multinational corporations (MNCs). At the same time, they place no corresponding duties on investors, only on the host government. Most significantly, these agreements remove dispute settlement from the host country’s court system to binding arbitration in an outside body, most commonly the World Bank’s International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID). As with domestic arbitration clauses, this removal from the courts favors the business interests involved. So the investment agreement element of the TPP will tend to be bad for host governments (the U.S. is host to more foreign investment than any other potential TPP country) and by extension the middle class.

But “how bad” is the question. This depends on what restrictions the agreement puts on governments. Originally, MNCs wanted to be protected against having their property nationalized (“expropriated”) by the host, but more recent agreements such as NAFTA’s investment chapter (Chapter 11; text here) have opened the way to defining “expropriation” in ways that include regulatory actions that may reduce the value of the investment, even if they are non-discriminatory among firms and taken in the public interest. This is why I say above that investment agreements are bad for the middle class, because it normally benefits from public interest regulation.

For these reasons, there is in fact significant pushback regarding the content of investment agreements. Three good sources for this are UNCTAD, the Vale Columbia Center on Sustainable International Investment, and the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

So what’s in the TPP investment chapter? As far as I can tell, nothing that isn’t already in NAFTA, other U.S. free trade agreements, or a U.S. bilateral investment treaty. The problem is, that’s bad enough. Under NAFTA, for example, Metalclad won a dispute against Mexico over a local government’s refusal to grant it a permit to open a hazardous waste facility, and was awarded $16.7 million. Ethyl Corporation successfully challenged a Canadian ban on the import of gasoline additive MMT, leading Canada to withdraw the ban and pay the company $13 million in compensation. To have unelected bodies that (in the words of Citizens Trade Campaign) “would not meet standards of transparency, consistency or due process common to TPP countries’ domestic legal systems” overturning democratically adopted laws or regulations is profoundly undemocratic.

At the same time, I think Becker reads a little too much into some of the language. He quotes section 12-6bis (Becker’s emphasis):

Notwithstanding Article 12.9.5(b) (Non-Conforming Measures, subsidies and grants carveout), each Party shall accord to investors of another Party, and to covered investments, non-discriminatory treatment with respect to measures it adopts or maintains relating to losses suffered by investments in its territory owing to armed conflict or civil strife.

 He goes on to speculate that this could give rise to compensation claims due to interpreting protests against the Keystone pipeline, or even strikes, as “civil strife.” However, the exact same language is in NAFTA’s investment chapter, and there have been no such claims in its entire history. Moreover, this is what we would expect since the language only pertains to government behavior (“it adopts”), not private behavior.

So, that’s two strikes against the agreement. The third strike is intellectual property, something Matt Yglesias caught over a year ago. As I analyzed then, the TPP “would ban government health services from negotiating prices with pharmaceutical companies.” Given that many countries already do this and the U.S. ought to do it to help rein in health costs, if these provisions stay in the final agreement it will be a very bad development.

Hooray for baseball season, but that’s three strikes against the TPP. This is a bad deal that will put further downward pressure on real wages which have gone 40 years since reaching their peak, that will undermine governments’ ability to regulate, and will strengthen a small group of pharmaceutical, software, entertainment, and publishing companies at the expense of the rest of us.

Update: Citizens Trade Campaign reports that  the U.S. has listed numerous target policies among its TPP negotiating partners, including everything from health care policies in New Zealand to Malaysia’s ban on imports of pork and alcohol, both of which are forbidden to the Muslims who make up the majority of the population.

Original article cross-posted at Middle Class Political Economist.

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Speaking of inequality

Travis Waldron at Think Progress pointed out this excellent article by David Cay Johnston. It dovetails well with my last post, which showed the fall of individual real wages and their failure to regain their peak fully 40 years after it was reached.

Johnston writes:

Incomes and tax revenues have grown from 2009 to 2011 as the economy recovered, but an astonishing 149 percent of the increased income went to the top 10 percent of earners.
If you wonder how that can happen, the answer is simple: Incomes fell for the bottom 90 percent.

While this data is at the level of tax filing households, it is consistent with what we see at the level of the individual. More nuggets from Johnston:

From 1966 to 2011, adjusted gross income in the bottom 90% grew a total $59 (2011 dollars, not the 1982-84 dollars I used in my last post) in 45 years, from $30,378 to $30,437.

“Candidate Bush said his tax cuts would make everyone prosper. But the real average pretax income of the bottom 90 percent in 2011 was $5,340 less than in 2000, a decline of more than $100 per week, or 15 percent, in pretax income.”

The income share of the bottom 90% fell from 66.3% to 51.8% over the 1966-2011 period.

So we have seen inequality increase in pretax income plus changes in tax policy that have reduced the effective tax rates on corporations and capital gains, income which goes overwhelmingly to the rich. Thus, post-tax inequality is even worse than pretax inequality.

Johnston’s report builds on the work of economists Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty. Together with Facundo Alvaredo and Tony Atkinson, they have created the World Top Incomes Databases, very much worth checking out for a comparative look at U.S. inequality.

Cross-posted at Middle Class Political Economist.

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Real wages decline; literally no one notices

Cross-posted from Middle Class Political Economist.

Your read it here first: Real wages fell 0.2% in 2012, down from $295.49 (1982-84 dollars) to $294.83 per week, according to the 2013 Economic Report of the President. Thus, a 1.9% increase in nominal wages was  more than wiped out by inflation, marking the 40th consecutive year that real wages have remained below their 1972 peak.

Yet no one in the media noticed, or at least none thought it newsworthy. I searched the web and the subscription-only Nexis news database, and there are literally 0 stories on this. So I meant it when I said you read it here first. In fact, there was little press coverage of the report at all, in sharp contrast to last year.

Below are the gory details. The data source is Appendix Table B-47, “Hours and Earnings in Private Non-Agricultural Industries, 1966-2012.” The table has been completely revised since last year’s edition of the report. The data is for production and non-supervisory workers in the private sector, about 80% of the private workforce, so we are able to focus on what’s happening to average workers rather than those with high incomes.. I use weekly wages rather than hourly because there has been substantial variation (with a long-term decline) in the number of hours worked per week, from 38.5 in 1966 to 33.7 in 2012. The table below takes selected years to reduce its size.

Year     Weekly Earnings (1982-84 dollars)

1972     $341.73 (peak)
1975     $314.77
1980     $290.80
1985     $284.96
1990     $271.10
1992     $266.46 (lowest point; 22% below peak)
1995     $267.17
2000     $285.00
2005     $285.05
2010     $297.79
2011     $295.49
2012     $294.83 (still 14% below peak)

This decline is especially amazing when we consider that private non-farm productivity has doubled in this period:

But, if you’ve been paying attention, you know the drill: higher productivity plus lower wages = greater inequality. The question is, why aren’t our media paying attention when real wages fall, yet again?

Update: Jon Talton at the Seattle Times has now taken note of this.

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