August 31, 2015

Thomas Piketty

Green Army: Persons of Interest

[Some] animals are more equal than others.

George Orwell, Animal Farm, 1949.

Inequality of labor income and capital ownership across time and space

(Adapted from Tables 7.2 and 7.3, Capital in the Twenty First Century, pp 248-9)

Total Income

(income from labor and capital)


(capital ownership)

Top 10%P90-10050%35%50%90%60%70%
  Dominant 1%  P99-100
  Well-off 9%  P90-9930%25%30%40%35%35%

Middle 40%P50-9030%40%30%5%35%25%

Bottom 50%P0-5020%25%20%5%5%5%

Ratio between the Dominant 1% and the Bottom 50%

Ratio between the Top 10% and the Bottom 50%
Figures are approximate and deliberately rounded off.
The disparity of total income in the US in 2010 is comparable to that in Europe in 1910.
Between 1910 and 1970, 25% of national wealth was transferred from the top 1% to the middle 40% as a result of:
  • wartime destruction,
  • progressive tax policies and
  • exceptional post-war growth (p 356).

Assuming US wealth inequality was comparable to that Europe in 1910, it would appear that in the US since 1970, the top 1% has managed to claw back two fifths (10%) of that 25% from the middle classes.
Wealth inequality lags behind income inequality because it takes time for wealth to accumulate.
The wealth share of the top 10% in the US (%70) has not yet reached the peak in Europe in 1910 (90%); but, given the rising income disparity, it is only a matter of time before it catches up.
In the meantime, the relative shares of income (20%) and wealth (5%) of the bottom 50% have remained the same for over a century.

James McPherson (1936):
In the largest American cities [in] the 1840s, the wealthiest 5% … owned about 70% of the taxable property, while the poorest half owned almost nothing.
[In] the nation as a whole by 1860 the top 5% of free adult males owned 53% of the wealth and the bottom half owned only 1%.
(Battle Cry of Freedom, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 2003, p 21)

The growth rate of top global wealth:
Real rate of return on capital as a function of size of fortune

(Adapted from Table 12.1, Capital in the Twenty First Century, p 435)

Wealth Holders



Average annual growth rate (1987-2013)

Top 1 in 100 million30456.8%
Top 1 in 20 million1502256.4%
Average adult3 billion4.5 billion2.1%

The Great Divergence

Share of the richest 10% of the American population in total income.
(Based on Piketty and Saez, Income Inequality in the United States, 1913–1998, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118(1), 2003, pp 1–39)

Paul Krugman (1953):
[America is] no longer a middle-class society in which the benefits of economic growth are widely shared:
[Between] 1979 and 2005
  • the real income of the median household rose only 13%, [while]
  • the income of the richest 0.1% [rose 296%.]
On the political side, you might have expected rising inequality to produce a populist backlash.
Instead, however, the era of rising inequality has also been the era of “movement conservatism" [during which] taxes on the rich have fallen, and the holes in the safety net have gotten bigger, even as inequality has soared.
(Introducing This Blog, NYT, 18 September 2007)

John Quiggan (1956):
The top 0.01% … doubled their share of [US national] income between 2000 and 2007, from 3% of all income to 6% …
This group of around 15,000 households earned more than the the bottom quarter of the population — around 75 million people.
(p 141)

Since 2000, [US] median household incomes have [fallen over a full business cycle for] the first time in modern history …
(Zombie Economics, Princeton University Press, 2012, p 157)

Thomas Hungerford:
[The] share of income accruing to the top 0.1% of US families increased from 4.2% in 1945 to 12.3% in 2007.
[And, while] changes over the past 65 years in the top marginal tax rate and the top capital gains tax do not appear correlated with economic growth [they have been] associated with the increasing concentration of income.
(Taxes and the Economy: An Analysis of the Top Tax Rates Since 1945, Congressional Research Service R42729, September 14 2012)

Peter Singer (1946):
[Under Ronald Reagan,] 60% of the growth in the average after-tax income of all American families between 1977 and 1989 went to the richest 1% of families [ie those with] average annual income of at least $310,000 a year, for a household of four.
(How Are We to Live?, 1993, p 97)

Robert Wade (1944):
The highest-earning 1% of Americans doubled their share of aggregate income … from 8% in 1980 to over 18% in 2007 [excluding capital gains.]
The top 0.1% (about 150,000 taxpayers) quadrupled their share, from 2% to 8%.
Including capital gains [the income share of the] top 1% [reached 23%] by 2007.
During the seven-year economic expansion of the Clinton administration, the top 1% captured 45% of the total growth in pre-tax income …
[While] during the four-year expansion of the Bush administration the top 1% captured 73% …
During the seven-year economic expansion of the Clinton administration, the top 1% captured 45% of the total growth in pre-tax income; while during the four-year expansion of the Bush administration the top 1% captured 73% …
(John Ravenhill, Global Political Economy, 3rd Edition, Oxford University Press, 2010, p 396)

Nate Silver (1978):
[US Senators:]
  • who often gain access to inside information about a company while they are lobbied and
  • who also have some ability to influence the fate of companies through legislation,
return a profit on their investments that beats the market average by [nearly one percentage point per month.]
(The Signal and the Noise, 2012, p 342)

Mark Twain | Samuel Clements (1835 - 1910):
It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or and other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859):
We may naturally believe that it is not the singular prosperity of the few, but the greater well-being of all, which is most pleasing in the sight of the Creator and Preserver of men. …
A state of equality is perhaps less elevated, but it is more just; and its justice constitutes its greatness and its beauty.
(Democracy in America, 1835, Bantam, 2011, p 878)

Thomas Piketty (1971)

[In] Europe private wealth is now at levels unknown since the Belle Epoque …
(p 105)

Total wealth (real estate and financial assets net of all debts) held by Europeans is the highest in the world, far above the United States and Japan …
(p 117)

[The] total wealth of EU households is more than €50 trillion (including more than €25 trillion in financial assets) … five times more than Europe's entire sovereign debt (€10 trillion). …
[Indeed,] Europe today is less indebted than the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan, and yet we're the ones with a sovereign debt crisis. …
We absolutely have the means to solve our debt problems on our own — if only Europe would stop behaving like a political dwarf and a tax-revenue sieve.
(p 88)

The Cypriot crisis illustrates the drama of small countries under globalization, which, in order to save their own skins … are often willing to resort to the most ruthless tax competition to attract the most disreputable capital.
(p 111)

[Historically, growth was] never as strong as it was in the years 1950 to 1980, a period when tax progressivity was at a maximum, especially in the United States. …
[A] good part of the the current American deficit could be eliminated by returning to 1980 levels of tax progressivity …
The IMF is right to emphasize that public debts in the rich countries … aren't much compared to the mass of private wealth (financial and real estate) held by those same countries' households, especially in Europe.
The rich world is rich; it's the governments that are poor.
(pp 124-5)

(Chronicles On Our Troubled Times, Viking, 2016)

Plutocratic Oligarchy

[It] seems that US politicians of both parties are much wealthier than their European counterparts and in a totally different category from the average American …
[This] might explain why they tend to confuse their own private interest with the general interest.
Without a radical shock, it seems fairly likely that the current equilibrium will persist for quite some time.
The egalitarian pioneer ideal has faded into oblivion, and the New World may be on the verge of becoming the Old Europe of the twenty-first century’s globalized economy.
(p 514)

The top marginal tax rate of the income tax (applying to the highest incomes) in the United States dropped from 70% in 1980 to 28% in 1988.
(p 499, Figure 14.1)

The top marginal tax rate of the inheritance tax (applying to the highest inheritances) in the United States dropped from 70% in 1980 to 35% in 2013.
(p 593, Figure 14.2)

The idea that unrestricted competition will put an end to inheritance and move toward a more meritocratic world is a dangerous illusion.
(p 424)

Between 1987 and 2013, the number of [dollar billionaires rose 10 fold] from 140 to 1,400, and their total [publically visible wealth rose 18 fold] from 300 to 5,400 billion dollars …
(p 433)

[The] vast majority (at least three-quarters) of [unreported] financial assets held in tax havens [~ €7 trillion or 10% of global GDP] belongs to residents of the rich countries.
(p 467)

No one has the right to set his own tax rates.
It is not right for individuals to grow wealthy from free trade and economic integration only to rake off the profits at the expense of their neighbors.
That is outright theft.

To date, the most thoroughgoing attempt to end these practices is the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) adopted in the United States in 2010 and scheduled to be phased in by stages in 2014 and 2015.
(p 522)

[The tax havens would] undoubtedly suffer significant losses if financial transparency becomes the norm.
(p 524

[Financial enclaves such as Luxembourg, Switzerland and the City of London could lose] as much as 10–20% of [their income.]
In the more exotic tax havens and microstates, the loss might be as high as 50% or more of national income, indeed as high as 80–90% in territories that function solely as domiciles for fictitious corporations.
(p 641, Note 9)

If the fortunes of the top decile … of the global wealth hierarchy grow faster for structural reasons than the fortunes of the lower deciles, then inequality of wealth will … tend to increase without limit.
This inegalitarian process may take on unprecedented proportions in the new global economy [so that, if nothing is done] to counteract it, very large fortunes [could] attain extreme levels within a few decades.
(p 431)

For example, if the top thousandth enjoy a 6% rate of return on their wealth, while average global wealth grows at only 2% a year, then after thirty years the top thousandth’s share of global capital will have more than tripled.
The top thousandth would then own 60% of global wealth …
[Such] a large upward redistribution from the middle and upper-middle classes to the very rich … would very likely trigger a violent political reaction.
(p 439)

[Economic] growth — or, more precisely, growth in output per capita, which is to say, productivity growth — has been quite similar [across the rich world within a few tenths of a percentage point (1.8±0.2) irrespective of the degree of tax liberalization.]
(p 321)

Growth rate of per capita national income in rich countries, 1970-2000

(Adapted from Table 5.1)
United Kingdom1.9%
Germany and the United States1.8%
Australia, Canada and France1.7%
Tax liberalisation and deregulation does not increase productivity.
It only enlarges the slice of the wealth and income pie going to the Top 10%.
(p 174)

[The] very large decrease in the top marginal income tax rate in the English-speaking countries after 1980 seems to have totally transformed the way top executive pay is set, since top executives now had much stronger incentives than in the past to seek large raises.
[The resulting] explosion of very high incomes [has amplified] the political influence of the beneficiaries of the change in the tax laws, who [having been incentivized to keep] top tax rates low or [indeed to reduce them even further, have used] their windfall to finance political parties, pressure groups, and think tanks [dedicated to entrenching their position of advantage.]
(p 335)

Piketty, Saez & Stantcheva:
[There] is no correlation between cuts in top tax rates and average annual real GDP-per-capita growth since the 1970s. …
Hence, a substantial fraction of the response of pre-tax top incomes to top tax rates … may be due to increased rent-seeking at the top rather than increased productive effort.
(Taxing the 1%: Why the top tax rate could be over 80%, Vox, 8 December 2011)

Liliane Bettencourt (1922)

Between 1990 and 2010, the fortune of Bill Gates … increased from $4 billion to $50 billion.
At the same time, the fortune of Liliane Bettencourt — the heiress of L’Oréal [and the richest woman in France —] increased from $2 billion to $25 billion …
Both fortunes thus grew at an annual rate of more than 13% from 1990 to 2010, equivalent to a real return on capital of 10 or 11% after correcting for inflation.

In other words, Liliane Bettencourt, who never worked a day in her life, saw her fortune grow exactly as fast as that of Bill Gates, the high-tech pioneer, whose wealth has incidentally continued to grow just as rapidly since he stopped working. …
Note, in particular, that once a fortune passes a certain threshold, size effects due to economies of scale in the management of the portfolio and opportunities for risk are reinforced by the fact that nearly all the income on this capital can be plowed back into investment.
(p 440)

[Bettencourt's] declared income was never more than 5 million a year, or little more than one ten-thousandth of her wealth (which is currently more than €30 billion). …
The crucial point is that no tax evasion or undeclared Swiss bank account is involved (as far as we know).
Even a person of the most refined taste and elegance cannot easily spend [€1,500 million a year (ie 5% return on €30 billion)] on current expenses. …
[If such] people are taxed on the basis of declared incomes that are only [one third of 1%] of their economic incomes … then nothing is accomplished by taxing that income at a rate of 50% or even 98%. …
[In developed countries effective] tax rates (expressed as a percentage of economic income) are extremely low at the top of the wealth hierarchy, which is problematic, since it accentuates the explosive dynamic of wealth inequality, especially when larger fortunes are able to garner larger returns.
(p 525-6)

(Capital in the Twenty-First Century, 2014)

Chronicles On Our Troubled Times (2016)

Does Liliane Bettencourt Pay Taxes?

The solidarity tax on wealth (lmpot de solidarite sur la fortune, or ISF), levied on the net worth of France's richest households, was established during Francois Mitterrand's Socialist presidency. …
One of the signature measures of Sarkozy's 2007 campaign, the tax-shield policy (bouclier fiscal), aimed at limiting taxes to 50% of a household's income, effectively lowering the tax burden for many wealthy households subject to the ISF.

Sarkozy's administration suddenly became entangled in the Liliane Bettencourt affair in June 2010, when secret tapes recorded by the butler of the elderly heiress were published on a French news website.
Not only did the tapes suggest that Bettencourt was using foreign financial accounts to evade French taxes, but they also revealed intimate and possibly illegal dealings between Bettencourt's family and Budget Minister Eric Woerth — who doubled as treasurer for Sarkozy's political party, the Union for a Popular Movement (Union pour un mouvement populaire, or UMP), and whose wife happened to be employed as a financial adviser managing Bettencourt's fortune.

Beyond the obvious issue of the government's conflict of interest, the Bettencourt affair is a perfect illustration of several fundamental challenges confronting contemporary societies:
  • the aging of wealth;
  • the growing weight of inheritance, [and]
  • the iniquities of our tax system.
(p 68)

[The] fact that Liliane, who is in her eighties, and her daughter Francoise, who is in her fifties, control the capital of L'Oreal and sit on its board of directors contributes little to the common good of France's economy and society.
These are not entrepreneurs; they are heiresses, rentiers, who mainly busy themselves by fighting each other over money. …

To be sure, Liliane proudly announced that she'd paid a total of '397 million euros' in taxes on her income and wealth over ten years.
Without realizing it, she was revealing that her tax rate is well below that of L'Oreal's workers, and everyone else who has only their labor to live off of.
According to the press, her fortune is estimated at €15 billion. …
Let's say her fortune, which is managed by the [budget] minister's wife, earned her an average return of [a modest 4% (€600 million) per year.]
That would mean her average tax rate over the last ten years was [less than 7%] of her annual income [ie €40 million per year in taxes on €600 million in total annual income (labor + capital).]
(p 69)

As things turned out, Mme Bettencourt received a tax-shield refund check for just €30 million, probably because her declared taxable wealth wasn't more than €1 billion or €2 billion — the rest of her fortune benefiting from the tax loophole for 'professional' assets, or being declared by her daughter instead (who was herself no doubt a big beneficiary of the tax shield).
(p 70)

(13 July 2010)

The Double Hardship of the Working Class

Over the last few decades the working class has endured a double hardship, first economic and secondly political.
  • Economic changes have been unfavorable to the most disadvantaged social groups in the developed countries:
    • the end of the exceptional growth of the postwar decades,
    • de-industrialization,
    • the rise of emerging countries,
    • the destruction of low- and medium-skilled jobs in the Global North.
    By contrast, those groups that are best equipped with financial and cultural capital have been able to benefit fully from globalization.
  • The second problem is that political shifts have only made these trends worse.
    One might have imagined that public institutions and social welfare systems … would adapt to the new situation by asking more from its main beneficiaries in order to devote more to the most affected groups.
    But the opposite has occurred.

Partly due to intensified competition between countries, national governments have focused more and more on the most mobile taxpayers (highly skilled and globalized workers, owners of capital) at the expense of groups perceived as captive (the working and middle classes).
(p 156)

This pertains to a whole set of social policies and public services:
  • investing in high-speed rail rather than commuter trains,
  • elite educational institutions rather than ordinary public schools and universities, and so on.
And of course it also pertains to how it's all financed.
Since the 1980s, the progressivity of tax systems has been sharply reduced:
  • rates that apply to the highest incomes were massively lowered, while
  • indirect taxes hitting those of the most modest means were gradually increased.

Deregulating finance and liberalizing capital flows without asking anything in return has only worsened these trends.
European institutions as a whole, which have moved toward the principle of ever purer and more perfect competition between territories and countries, without a common tax and social base, have also reinforced these trends.
We see it very clearly for the corporate tax: its rate has been cut in half in Europe since the 1980s.
And it must be remembered that the biggest companies often escape the official tax …
In practice, small- and medium-sized businesses find themselves paying rates far higher than those paid by multinationals headquartered in the big cities.
More taxes, fewer public services: it's not surprising that the groups affected feel abandoned.
This feeling of abandonment fuels the Far Right vote and the growth of Far Right parties, both inside and outside the Eurozone (as in Sweden).
(p 157)

(23 March 2015)

2015: What Shocks Can Get Europe Moving?

In 1945 [Germany and France] had public debts greater than 200% of GDP.
By 1950, debt had fallen to less than 30%.
What happened — did we suddenly run budget surpluses big enough to pay off such a debt?
Obviously not: it was by inflation and repudiation, pure and simple, that Germany and France got rid of their debt in the previous century.
Had they patiently tried to run surpluses of 1 or 2% of GDP a year, the debt would still be with us today, and it would have been much harder for postwar governments to invest in growth.
Yet since 2010-11, those two countries have been explaining to southern Europe that their public debts will have to be paid back to the last euro.
This is a shortsighted selfishness, for the new fiscal treaty adopted in 2012 under German and French pressure, which orchestrates austerity in Europe … has led to a generalized recession in the Eurozone.
(p 149)

Greece [for example,] is expected to run an enormous surplus of 4% of GDP for decades, in order to pay back its debts.
This is an absurd strategy that France and Germany … never applied to themselves.
(p 160)

Meanwhile, economies everywhere else have started recovering, both in the United States and in the EU countries outside the Eurozone. …

[A] single currency can't function with eighteen different public debts and eighteen different interest rates on which financial markets can freely speculate.
There needs to be massive investment in training, innovation, and green technologies.
We're doing exactly the opposite: right now, Italy devotes nearly 6% of GDP to paying interest on its debt and invests barely 1% of GDP in all of its universities.
(p 150)

(29 December 2014)

The Irish Disaster

Tax competition — the practice of attracting international business by undercutting other countries' tax rates — has long been an issue of debate in Europe …

… Ireland today is in a catastrophic situation. …
Tax receipts have cratered, spending aimed at saving the banks and helping the unemployed (the unemployment rate will reach 15% by the end of this year) has increased, and as a result the country finds itself with a colossal deficit, forecast to be 13% of GDP in 2009 — equal to the entire cost of public sector wages and pensions.
(p 29)

What's most striking is that in an atmosphere of extreme crisis, the [Irish] government is doing everything it can to keep its ultralow 12.5% tax rate on corporate profits. …
Better to hit the Irish population deeply than to risk losing everything by causing foreign capital to flee. …

The development strategy based on tax dumping, which so many small countries have adopted, is a disaster.
Many others [have] followed Ireland down this path and can't turn back all by themselves.
Almost every country in eastern Europe now has tax rates on corporate profits of barely 10%. …
(p 30)

Besides, piling up foreign-capital investments comes with a high price: right now, a country like Ireland pays out roughly 20% of its domestic production to the foreign owners of its offices and factories, in the form of profits and dividends.
In technical terms, the actual gross national product (GNP) of the Irish is about 20% smaller than their GDP.
(p 31)

(14 April 2009)

The Scandal of the Irish Bank Bailout

In all European countries, taxes represent at least 30-40% of GDP and make possible a high level of:
  • infrastructure,
  • public services (schools, hospitals), and
  • social protection (unemployment, pensions).
If we tax corporate profits at only 12.5%, that's not going to work — unless we massively overtax labor, which is neither fair nor efficient and also contributes to high unemployment in Europe.

[Letting] countries that grew rich thanks to intra-European trade siphon off their neighbors' tax base has absolutely nothing to do with free markets.
It's called theft.
And lending money to people who've stolen from us without asking anything in return so as to ensure it doesn't happen again — that's called stupidity.

What's worse is that dumping harms the small countries that practice it, too.
Of course, individually, each country is caught in a vicious spiral: as in an arms race, the Irish have an interest in maintaining a low tax rate for corporations as long as the Poles, the Estonians, and others are doing the same.
And that's why only the European Union can put an end to this ridiculous zero-sum game.
There could be an entirely European corporate-tax system, or a dual system with a minimum rate of 25% in each country, complemented by a European surtax of 10%.
That would let the EU take over the extra public debt the crisis has created, and give national budgets the ability to move forward on a stronger footing.
(p 76)

Such a reassertion of control is all the more urgent because dumping quite directly contributed to the Irish bubble and the current crisis.
In particular, dumping has given rise to massive artificial accounting games that leave Ireland's bank balance sheets and national statistical accounts totally illegible.
The national accounts are now seriously distorted by enormous transfer-pricing flows … the exact proportions of which no one knows.
The scale of this opaque accounting has grown even larger than Greece's manipulation of defense spending and public deficit data.
(p 77)

(7 December 2010)

The What and Why of Federalism

At the scale of the global economy, France and Germany are hardly bigger than Greece or Ireland.
By remaining divided, we're putting ourselves in the hands of the speculators and tax evaders.
This is not the best way to defend the European social model.

That's why it is urgently necessary to put Eurozone public debts in common, so that markets will stop imposing erratic and destabilizing interest rates on this or that country, along with the corporate tax, which multinational companies are evading on a massive scale.
It's those two tools, and those two tools alone, that must be mutualized and placed under the control of the federal political authority.

In concrete terms, a new Eurozone fiscal chamber, made up of deputies from the national parliaments' finance and social affairs committees, would decide by majority vote on the amount of public debt that the European treasury could issue annually, after a public and democratic debate and on the basis of proposals from a European finance minister responsible to that chamber.
But each national parliament would remain entirely free with regard to its overall level of taxes and spending, and of course, with how they're distributed.
(p 99)

(4 July 2012)

Europe Against the Markets

The countries of Europe are piling up austerity plans.
We're witnessing a proliferation of drastic measures, like cuts in public sector wages, that haven't been seen since the Great Depression.
We were taught at school that such measures always end in disaster.
Since they only worsen recessions, we'll most likely find ourselves facing even higher deficits than before.
(p 62)

(18 May 2010)

Rethinking Central Banks

There have always been two ways for governments to get money:
  • impose taxes, or
  • create currency.
Generally speaking, it's infinitely preferable to impose taxes.
The price for printing money is inflation, which
  • creates distributive consequences that are hard to control (those with slower income growth pay dearly) and
  • unsettles trade and production.
Moreover, once it's underway, the inflationary process is hard to stop and brings no further benefit. …

Between September and December 2008, following the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the two biggest central banks in the world doubled in size.
The total assets of the [US Federal Reserve] and the [European Central Bank] went from roughly 10% to 20% of American and European GDP.
In a few months, to avoid cascading bankruptcies, nearly €2 trillion worth of new liquidity was lent at 0% to private banks, at longer and longer maturities.
Why didn't this massive money-printing operation lead to higher inflation?
Surely because the world economy was at the edge of a deflationary depression.
Central banks helped prevent a complete shutdown of credit and a collapse in prices and economic activity. …

In the end, no one paid a price for their intervention … except that in the meantime states accumulated deficits that will now have to be paid back.
These deficits are not due to the loans made by governments to private banks … but rather to the fall in tax receipts brought on by the recession.
To lighten the burden, the Fed, and now the ECB, have begun buying up public bonds, thus lending directly to governments.

But these developments, which have been less than fully acknowledged, are happening much too slowly.
Clearly, after several decades of denigrating the state, it feels more natural to us to print money to save banks than to save governments.
Yet the inflationary risk is just as low in both cases, and it can be managed.
(p 66, emphasis added)

The ECB could take onto its own balance sheet a good part of the 20% of GDP worth of public debt created by the recession, at low interest rates, while announcing that it will raise interest rates if inflation exceeds 5%.
That won't excuse European governments from the need to get their finances under control and, above all, finally unite to issue a common European debt, to benefit from low interest rates together.
But if they go all in on drastic austerity policies, there is a high risk that it will lead to disaster.
Financial crises are part and parcel of capitalism.
And when faced with major crises, central banks are irreplaceable.
Of course, their infinite power to create money must be kept within bounds.
But not to fully use this tool in today's context would be a suicidal and irrational strategy.
(p 67)

(15 June 2010)

Should We Fear the Fed?

The new action plan announced last week by the Federal Reserve has prompted a good deal of delusional thinking and intellectual confusion.
Primarily, of course, among ultraconservative Republicans, those eternal enemies of the federal government.
Supporters of the Tea Party have gone so far as to demand the abolition of the Fed and a return to the gold standard.
(p 72)

(9 November 2010)


Plutocratic Oligarchy

The Myth of Meritocracy and the Resurrection of the Rentier

The Anatomy of the One Percent

Jeffersonian Democracy

Thomas Piketty (1971)

Professor, Paris School of Economics.

  • New thoughts on capital in the twenty-first century, TED, June 2014.

  • Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Arthur Goldhammer, Translator, Harvard University Press, 2014.

    [The] history of income and wealth is … deeply political, chaotic, and unpredictable.
    (p 35)

    [It] does not appear that capital mobility has been the primary factor promoting convergence of rich and poor nations. …
    [The extent to which the poor can] catch up with the rich [depends on their achieving] the same level of technological know-how, skill, and education, not by becoming the property of the wealthy.
    (pp 70-1)

    [Typically,] the upper 10% of the labor income distribution … receives 25–30% of total labor income, whereas the top 10% of the capital income distribution always owns more than 50% of all wealth (and in some societies as much as 90%).
    [Conversely, while] the bottom 50% 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%), [in terms of capital they own] almost nothing (always less than 10% and generally less than 5% of total wealth, or one-tenth as much as the wealthiest 10%).
    [That is to say, at any given level of labor income inequality, inequalities with respect to [wealth ie ownership of capital, are always disproportionately large].
    (p 244)

    Since 1980 … income inequality has exploded in the United States.
    The [upper 10 percent’s share of national income] increased from 30–35% of national income in the 1970s to 45–50% in the 2000s — an increase of 15 points …
    [In 2010, of this 15 additional points of national income:
    • around 4 percentage points went to those earning between $108,000 and $352,000 a year (P90-99)
    • 5-6 points to those making between $352,000 and $1.5 million a year (P99-99.9) and
    • 5-6 points to those making more than $1.5 million a year (P99.9-100).]

    [Should this trend continue, the upper 10 percent] will be raking in 60% of national income by 2030.
    (pp 294-6)

    [They could then] use a small portion of their incomes to hire many of the bottom 50% as domestic servants.
    (p 257)

    Among the members of these upper income groups are US academic economists, many of whom believe that the economy of the United States is working fairly well and [that, in particular,] it rewards talent and merit accurately and precisely. …
    Some economists have an unfortunate tendency to defend their private interest while implausibly claiming to champion the general interest.
    (p 296)

    [For the period 1977 to 2007, the richest 1% captured] nearly 60% of the total increase of US national income …
    [Meanwhile,] for the bottom 90%, the rate of income growth was less than 0.5% per year. …
    It is hard to imagine an economy and society that can continue functioning indefinitely with such extreme divergence between social groups.
    (p 297)

    [The] increase in very high incomes and very high salaries primarily reflects the advent of “supermanagers,” that is, top executives of large firms who have managed to obtain … historically unprecedented compensation packages for their labor. …
    [Between] 60 to 70% … of the top 0.1% of the income hierarchy in 2000–2010 consists of top managers.
    (p 302)

    [Since 1970, the income share of the] “0.1%”
    • in France and Japan [has] increased from 15 to 25 times the national average income (that is, from 450,000 to 750,000 euros a year if the average is 30,000), while …
    • in the United States [it has risen by] 20 to 100 times the national average (that is, from $600,000 a year to $3 million).
    (p 609)

    Broadly speaking, the rise of the supermanager is largely an Anglo-Saxon phenomenon.
    Since 1980 the share of the upper centile in national income has risen significantly in the United States, Great Britain, Canada, and Australia.
    (p 315)

    Figure 9.8
    The top [10%'s] income share was higher in Europe than in the United States in 1900–1910; it is a lot higher in the United States in 2000–2010.
    (p 324)

    [In spite of] the considerable increase in the average level of education over the course of the twentieth century, earned income inequality did not decrease.
    Qualification levels shifted upward: a high school diploma now represents what a grade school certificate used to mean, a college degree what a high school diploma used to stand for, and so on. …

    What about mobility?
    Did mass education lead to more rapid turnover of winners and losers for a given skill hierarchy?
    According to the available data, the answer seems to be no …
    [In particular,] intergenerational reproduction is lowest in the Nordic countries and highest in the United States (with a correlation coefficient [0.5-0.6] two-thirds higher than in Sweden [0.2-0.3]).
    (p 484)

    [The] proportion of college degrees earned by children whose parents belong to the bottom [50% by income] stagnated at 10–20% in 1970–2010, while it rose from 40 to 80% for children with parents in the top quartile.
    In other words, parents’ income has become an almost perfect predictor of university access. …
    [One study showed] that gifts by graduates to their former universities are strangely concentrated in the period when the children are of college age.
    [It has been estimated] that the average income of the parents of Harvard students is currently about $450,000, which corresponds to the average income of the top 2% of the US income hierarchy. …

    [In Europe, unlike in the United States, Britain, and Australia,] most people believe that access to higher education should be free or nearly free, just as primary and secondary education are.
    (p 485)

    Australia and Britain offer “income-contingent loans” to students of modest background. …
    This is tantamount to a supplementary income tax on students of modest background, while students from wealthier backgrounds received (usually untaxed) gifts from their parents.
    (p 633, Note 41)

    Taxation is perhaps the most important of all political issues.
    Without taxes, society has no common destiny, and collective action is impossible.
    (p 453)

    The world to come may well combine the worst of two past worlds: both
    • very large inequality of inherited wealth and
    • very high wage inequalities [spuriously] justified in terms of merit and productivity …
    Meritocratic extremism can thus lead to a race between supermanagers [— those earning at least 50-100 times average income —] and rentiers, to the detriment of those who are neither.
    (p 417)

    Figure 11.11
    (p 421)

    [A] progressive annual tax on the largest fortunes worldwide … is the only way of democratically controlling this potentially explosive process while preserving entrepreneurial dynamism and international economic openness.
    (p 444)

    [Such a tax] would promote the general interest over private interests while preserving economic openness and the forces of competition.
    (p 471)

    Broadly speaking … the return on capital often inextricably combines elements of
    • true entrepreneurial labor …
    • pure luck … and
    • outright theft.
    (p 446)

    [The] main effect of inflation is not to reduce the average return on capital but to redistribute it.
    [Furthermore,] the preponderance of the evidence suggests that [this redistribution is mainly at the expense] of the least wealthy and to the benefit of the wealthiest …
    (p 455)

    [It is clear that, to a large extent,] it was the wars of the twentieth century that … wiped away the past and transformed the structure of inequality.
    Today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, inequalities of wealth that had supposedly disappeared are close to regaining or even surpassing [the historical highs of the nineteenth century.]
    The new global economy has brought with it both
    • immense hopes (such as the eradication of poverty) and …
    • immense inequities (some individuals are now as wealthy as entire countries).
    (p 471)

    Between 1980 and 2010 … the tax share stabilized [at:]
    • just over 30% of national income in the United States [and Japan,]
    • [between 35-40%] in Britain, [Canada, Australia, and New Zealand] and
    • between 45 and 55% on the European continent (45% in Germany, 50% in France, and nearly 55% in Sweden).
    (p 476)

    [Within Europe:]
    • the wealthiest and most productive countries have the highest taxes (50–60% of the national income in Sweden and Denmark), and
    • the poorest, least developed countries have the lowest taxes (barely 30% of national income in Bulgaria and Romania).
    (p 631, Note 24)

    The progressive tax is … a relatively liberal method for reducing inequality, in the sense that free competition and private property are respected while private incentives are modified in potentially radical ways, but always according to rules thrashed out in democratic debate.
    [It thus] represents an ideal compromise between social justice and individual freedom.
    It is no accident that the United States and Britain, which throughout their histories have shown themselves to value individual liberty highly, adopted more progressive tax systems than many other countries.
    (p 505)

    [Over] the period 1932–1980, nearly half a century, the top federal income tax rate in the United States averaged 81%.
    [No] continental European country has ever imposed such high rates [over comparable periods of time.]
    (p 507)

    [In] all the developed countries, we find that the size of the decrease in the top marginal income tax rate between 1980 and the present is [perfectly correlated with] the size of the increase in the top [one percent's] share of national income over the same period.
    (p 509)

    In the 1950s and 1960s, executives in British and US firms had little reason to fight for [million dollar raises] because 80–90% of the increase would [go] to the government.
    After 1980, [however,] the game was utterly transformed [and] executives went to considerable lengths to persuade other [stakeholders] to grant them substantial raises.
    [And, since it is difficult to objectively] measure individual contributions to a firm’s output, top managers found it relatively easy to persuade boards and stockholders that they were worth the money, especially since the members of compensation committees were often chosen in a rather incestuous manner.

    [This] “bargaining power” explanation is consistent with the fact that there is no statistically significant relationship between the decrease in top marginal tax rates and the rate of productivity growth in the developed countries since 1980.
    [The] crucial fact is that the rate of per capita GDP growth has been almost exactly the same in all the rich countries since 1980.
    In contrast to what many people [believe, per capita national income in neither Thatcher's Britain (1.9%) nor Reagan's America (1.8%) have] grown any more rapidly since 1980 than [in] Germany [1.8%], France [1.7%], Japan [2.0%], Denmark, or Sweden.
    (p 510)

    Figure 2.3
    The growth rate of per capita output surpassed 4% per year in Europe between 1950 and 1970, before returning to American levels.
    (p 97)

    The evidence suggests that a [top marginal tax] rate on the order of 80% on incomes over $500,000 or $1 million a year not only would not reduce the growth of the US economy but would in fact distribute the fruits of growth more widely while imposing reasonable limits on economically useless (or even harmful) behavior. …
    [This] would not bring the government much in the way of revenue, because it would quickly fulfill its objective: to drastically reduce remuneration at this level but without reducing the productivity of the [US economy; consequently,] pay would rise at lower levels.
    In order for the government to obtain the revenues it sorely needs to develop the meager US social state and invest more in health and education (while reducing the federal deficit), taxes would also have to be raised on incomes lower in the distribution (for example, by imposing rates of 50 or 60% on incomes above $200,000).
    (p 513, emphasis added)

    The primary purpose of [a tax on capital stock] is not to finance the social state but to regulate capitalism.
    The goal is
    • first to stop the indefinite increase of inequality of wealth, and
    • second to impose effective regulation on the financial and banking system in order to avoid crises.
    (p 518)

    [Because of the] unpredictability of the return on capital … it is more efficient to tax heirs not once and for all [at a high rate,] at the moment of inheritance (by way of the estate tax), but [at moderate rates] throughout their lives, via taxes based on both capital income and the value of the capital stock.
    In other words, all three types of [progressive taxation (inheritance, income, and capital)] play useful and complementary roles …
    (p 527)

    It would make sense to tax net wealth
    • below 200,000 euros at 0.1%
    • between 200,000 and 1 million euros at 0.5% …
    • 1% between 1 and 5 million euros, and
    • 2% above 5 million euros.
    (pp 528-9)

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