Wednesday, June 25, 2014
A Frenchman's Fallacious Folly
Writing for Commentary magazine, Jonah Goldberg provides a lengthy review of Thomas Piketty's Capital In The Twenty-First Century, giving it the thorough thrashing it deserves.
...Piketty’s arrangement of the data paints a false picture of rising inequality in the United States. Harvard’s Martin Feldstein noted in the Wall Street Journal that Piketty fails to take into account important—albeit arcane—changes in the tax code that have caused business income to be counted on personal tax returns. “This transformation occurred gradually over many years as taxpayers changed their behavior and their accounting practices to reflect the new rules,” Feldstein writes. As an example, “the business income of Subchapter S corporations alone rose from $500 billion in 1986 to $1.8 trillion by 1992.” This leads Feldstein to conclude that Piketty “creates the false impression of a sharp rise in the incomes of high-income taxpayers even though there was only a change in the legal form of that income.”
Feldstein and Scott Winship, of the Manhattan Institute, identify another methodological problem. By focusing on tax returns (instead of household surveys and the like), Piketty fails to take into account the already sizable redistributive elements of our tax code. One in three Americans receives some means-tested government aid today. And that percentage will only grow as people live longer in retirement than ever before. In other words, social security, housing assistance, food aid, etc. don’t show up in Piketty’s portrait of inequality.
... And by “excluding non-taxable capital gains,” Winship wrote in National Review,“most wealth accruing to the middle and working class, which comes in the form of home sales or 401(k) and IRA investments, is invisible in Piketty’s data.”
...At times, it seems Piketty takes much of his early-20th-century history from the movie director James Cameron. He puts a good deal of stock in the historical value of Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic. At one point he says one need only note “that the dreadful [Cal] Hockney who sailed in luxury on the Titanic in 1912 existed in real life and not just in the imagination of James Cameron to convince oneself that a society of rentiers existed not only in Paris and London but also in turn-of-the-century Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.”
Well, no. In fact, the Billy Zane character was an entirely fictional creation of James Cameron’s imagination (and the proper spelling of his name is Hockley; Cameron invented Caledon Hockley’s name by joining the names of two towns in Ontario, where he spent some time in his youth). Still, let us concede that there were some rich jerks on the actual Titanic. So what? Many of the richest people on earth were passengers on the Titanic, including Isidor and Ida Strauss (owners of Macy’s), mining heir Benjamin Guggenheim, and John Jacob Astor IV (the wealthiest man on the ship). They, and numerous others, refused to get in lifeboats until all the women and children, including the poor women and children, got on first (Ida Strauss refused to leave her husband, preferring to die in his arms). After helping other passengers escape, Guggenheim and his secretary changed into their evening wear, saying they were “prepared to go down like gentlemen.” Meanwhile the most famous real-life cad on the ship was George Symons, a crewman who refused to let anyone else on his lifeboat even though there were 28 empty seats. Money, it seems, doesn’t tell you everything about a man.
This Titanic business on its own is trivial, but it demonstrates how Piketty sees the super rich as an undifferentiated agglomeration—a single static class bent on protecting its own collective self-interests. But the rich are not a static class, any more than capital can be reduced to a homogenous blob. Fewer than 1 in 10 of the 400 wealthiest Americans on the Forbes list in 1982 were still there in 2012. (Lawrence Summers notes that if Piketty was right about the stable return on capital, they should have all stayed on the list.)
...Piketty is convinced that income inequality “inevitably instigates…violent political conflict.” Is that actually true? And if it is, is such violence justified? Skepticism is warranted on both counts, as history suggests.
For example, the French Revolution was about inequality, but not first and foremost economic inequality. Inherited titles, the power of the Church, the unjust rule of what Edmund Burke called “arbitrary power,” and other tangible examples of legal or formal inequality played enormous and mutually reinforcing roles. The American Revolution, likewise, was about political inequality, as were later fights in this country over abolition and civil rights. Economic inequality was a symptom, not the disease—at least according to countless revolutionaries, abolitionists, and civil-rights leaders.
The postwar history of the West actually makes a hash of Piketty’s sweeping presumption. He argues that the years 1950 to 1970 were a “golden age” of economic equality. If so, why did the greatest period of social unrest in Europe and the United States in the 20th century come at the height of this golden age in the 1960s? That unrest spilled over into the 1970s, but the domestic terrorists who roiled Germany and Italy and the crime wave that devastated the United States had an extremely tangential relationship to income inequality at best. Then, pollsters tell us, in the 1980s—when the West took a wrong turn, according to Piketty, thanks to the policies of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan—social contentment started to rise and continued to rise, with the usual dips, all the way into the 1990s. One small example: In 1979, 84 percent of Americans told Gallup they were dissatisfied with the direction of the country. In 1986, 69 percent were satisfied.
...Piketty places enormous emphasis on the role of the world wars as a great leveler of inequality and the primary driver of the postwar “golden age.” But ask yourself a question: If you were a remotely sane human in 1900 and you were given the choice of
(a) getting richer, though at a slower rate than the very wealthiest, so that in 1950 there was a lot of economic inequality but you and your kids were still much better off; or
(b) facing two horrendous and cataclysmic global wars in which whole societies were razed and a hundred million people died violently and you (along with the rich) were made poorer for it, and would die at a younger age,
What would you have chosen? It appears Piketty finds Option B awfully tempting. And that is madness.
...Piketty’s obsession with tax hikes as a cure-all is almost a perfect mirror of how liberals see the supply-side obsessions with tax cuts. It is this idée fixe that allows him to summarily dismiss other proposals that might get us to his preferred destination without confiscating the ill-gotten gains of the well-to-do. For instance, Tyler Cowen and National Review’s Kevin D. Williamson point out that if Piketty’s assumptions about the long-term returns on capital are correct, then we would be crazy not to transform social security into a system of privately held investment accounts. Boldly expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit—which would necessarily increase the tax burden of the wealthy—might also do more to solve the problem, assuming it is a problem. An aggressive tax on consumption instead of income would, according to many economists, boost growth and have the added benefit of taxing the Gilded Age lifestyles of billionaires instead of merely taxing billionaires for the alleged crime of existing. But none of these has the satisfying bang of that 80 percent marginal tax rate—or, even more thrilling, the 10 percent “global tax” on billionaires’ filthy lucre.
In his review Goldberg makes some of the same points about the rich and the poor in America that Bill Whittle does in his video on the subject.
(Quoting Nicholas Eberstadt) By 2011, ...average per capita housing space for people in poverty was higher than the U.S. average for 1980, and crowding (more than one person per room) was less common for the 2011 poor than for the nonpoor in 1970. More than three-quarters of the 2011 poor had access to one or more motor vehicles, whereas nearly three-fifths were without an auto in 1972–73. Refrigerators, dishwashers, washers and dryers, and many other appliances were more common in officially impoverished homes in 2011 than in the typical American home of 1980 or earlier. Microwaves were virtually universal in poor homes in 2011, and DVD players, personal computers, and home Internet access are now typical in them—amenities not even the richest U.S. households could avail themselves of at the start of the War on Poverty. Further, Americans counted as poor today are manifestly healthier, better nourished (or overnourished), and more schooled than their predecessors half a century ago.
(My emphases. In many ways, the poor today are better off than the average Americans of thirty or forty years ago).
And Goldberg extols the incredible wealth creating machine that is capitalism. (As Whittle does here.)
Piketty is shockingly unconcerned with the fact (which he acknowledges) that one of the driving forces of U.S. income inequality is rising global equality. The world’s poor are getting much richer, in large part because they are doing a lot of the sometimes backbreaking and manual labor that poor and middle-class people in rich countries once did. This clearly creates significant political and economic challenges for wealthy countries eager to maintain high domestic-living standards, but from the vantage point of someone who believes in universal economic rights, that is a small price to pay, no?
Thanks to capitalism, we have seen the single largest alleviation of poverty in human history. In 1981, 52 percent of humanity lived in “extreme poverty.” They could not provide for themselves and for their families such basic needs as housing and food. According to a recent study by Yale and the Brookings Institution, by the end of 2011, that number had fallen to 15 percent. They credit globalization, capitalism, and better economic governance (i.e., the abandonment of Marxism and similar ideologies). Even for economic nationalists, how is that not a staggering triumph for the ethical superiority of capitalism?
Note that the Brookings Institution is a left leaning think tank.