g Theory Coming'>Empirical Test of Piketty’s r > g Theory Coming

Bernie Sanders forced the issue of wealth inequality into the presidential campaign, which presented a real problem for neoliberals of the Democratic persuasion. They want us to believe that the market rewards people in accordance with their merit and hard work. It doesn’t. They want us to believe everyone can get ahead if they get a good education and work hard. Not so. So the neoliberal dems fall back on their version of trickle-down: economic growth is the cure. So what is the future of economic growth?

Earlier this year Gerald Friedman did a study of the potential impact of Bernie Sanders’ economic ideas, saying they would create enormous economic growth. That drew fire from many liberal economists, including Paul Krugman who wrote several blog posts saying Friedman’s numbers were ridiculous, and using that as a opportunity to bash Sanders supporters for naiveté and for encouraging impossible expectation. On February 23, he put up a post with his own predictions of growth: a fraction over 2%. And that, he says, is good enough.

And let me say that the great thing about a progressive agenda is that it doesn’t require big growth promises to make it work, because the elements of that agenda are good things in their own right. Conservatives need to promise miracles to justify policies whose direct effect is to comfort the comfortable (cutting taxes on the rich) and afflict the afflicted (slashing social insurance); progressives only need to defend themselves against the charge that doing good will somehow kill economic growth. It won’t, and that should be enough.

But what about inequality in this scenario? Thanks to Thomas Piketty and his book Capital in The Twenty-First Century, we can say with some certainty that it isn’t going to get better with this kind of thinking. Remember Piketty’s basic finding: if r > g, wealth inequality will increase to a very high level. In this formulation, r is the rate of return to capital, and g is the growth rate of the economy. Here’s a chart from the St. Louis Fed showing the rate of return to capital in the US:
real returns on capital
With the exception of the immediate post-Great Crash years, the All capital after tax line doesn’t sink below 5%, and the most recent figures show it near 7%. Here’s the definition, found in Note 5:

“Business” capital includes nonresidential fixed capital (structures, equipment, and intellectual property) and inventories. “All” capital includes business capital and residential capital.”

Piketty’s definition of capital is broader than this definition of “all”, but there isn’t any reason to think that will have a material effect on the overall number. In other words, r is about 5% higher than g, so we can expect a steady increase in wealth inequality.

The Republicans couldn’t care less: they nominated a billionaire. What’s on offer from the Democratic Party? Here’s Hillary Clinton’s webpage on economic issues. It’s mostly neoliberal ideas, from cutting taxes to deregulation to trade (see the part on small businesses), and some liberal ideas: investment in infrastructure and research, equal pay, paid leave and affordable child care. Her new idea? Let’s give tax breaks to companies that share profits with workers. Also, raise the minimum wage to $12 some day, and some tiny steps to increasing taxes on the rich by closing loopholes and making sure rich people pay more taxes than Warren Buffett’s secretary.

We are going to get an empirical test of Piketty’s idea, but we already know how it will turn out. The rich have nothing to fear.

Software Is Not Capital if You’re Not a Software Company

PikettyCapital_coverThe Economist trumpets Thomas Piketty’s Capital and his theory, r > g, has had its first serious rebuttal, glowing like a proud parent over graduate student Matthew Rognlie’s work.

Note this bit:

Mr Rognlie mounts three main criticisms of these arguments. First, he argues that the rate of return from capital probably declines over the long run, rather than remaining high as Mr Piketty suggests, due to the law of diminishing marginal returns. Modern forms of capital, such as software, depreciate faster in value than equipment did in the past: a giant metal press might have a working life of decades while a new piece of database-management software will be obsolete in a few years at most. This means that although gross returns from wealth may well be rising, they may not necessarily be growing in net terms, since a large share of the gains that flow to owners of capital must be reinvested.

Emphasis mine.

Most commercial software used by corporations, including the example of database-management software, is licensed. Users are licensees, not owners.

Software doesn’t necessarily obsolesce, either. I’ve worked for businesses using software that was as much as twenty years old. Small businesses, in particular, can continue to run well on old accounting software, provided they don’t need highly granular reporting.

What does become obsolete is the hardware. If software no longer runs on an older system, or if it is no longer serviced by the licensor (ex: Windows XP), the licensee has simply reached the limit of the license.

This includes upgrades by software manufacturers for reasons of security improvements: if users don’t upgrade for improved security, they’re outside the limits of the license.

The only entities that might be able to claim software is capital are software companies. This might not even be the case if capital is limited to the licenses they’ve granted and claimed as assets — any accountant, tax attorney or IP attorney want to respond to this?

The confusion about software’s nature probably lies in our accounting and tax systems, which may treat software as an amortizable intangible asset. (Feel free to correct me in comments as I am not an accountant, nor a tax preparer, nor a tax attorney.)

But most commercial software remains a licensed product.

Companies are also moving toward “software as a service” (SaaS), provided a license to access software on software providers’ systems. Microsoft’s Office 365, Google Apps, are examples of SaaS. There are even further reductions in companies’ need for investment in hardware when subscribing to “infrastructure as a service” and “platform as a service,” like IBM, Amazon, and other technology companies offer.

These are contracted services — definitely not rapidly depreciating capital assets.

What exactly does Rognlie mean by “modern forms of capital” when his understanding of software is flawed?

I haven’t looked deeply at the rest of the arguments Rognlie offered as a rebuttal to Piketty’s theory. This bit checked me short, giving me concerns about his remaining points addressing returns on wealth, and on distribution of net capital income.

[UPDATE: Do read Ed Walker’s comment about this piece in The Economist.]

Neoliberalism and Neoclassical Economics



I’m new here as a poster, so I’ll start by describing my interests. As you may know from my work at Firedoglake under the name masaccio, I’m interested in the way the economy actually works. That’s why I like the work done by Thomas Piketty and his colleagues on wealth and income inequality: he has collected, refined and organized huge piles of data and made both that data and his analysis public. Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, tells us that we can and should insist on data as a source of analysis, not the enormous array of cute stories mainstream economists like to tell us from their armchairs. Trickle-down, life-cycle consumption, pay based on marginal productivity, free markets, and most of the neoclassical economics taught in Econ 101 to pretty much the entire college population for decades, all of them are clever, easily explained in sophomore level calculus, and wrong.

The two parties cooperated to implement self-regulating financial markets, both through the gradual abolition of Glass-Steagall, and to gut regulatory agencies. They laid the groundwork for the Great Crash, and the cheats and thugs on Wall Street did the rest. Then the elites and their pet economists insisted that the solution lay in pumping money into the banking system with no thought of criminal investigation, let alone prosecution, and only the weakest forms of re-regulation, insuring that the criminals would not be deterred and would have plenty of ways to bring on the next disaster.

US voters were angry about the bailouts, but their wrath turned onto the victims of the fraudulent lending schemes and the interest rate swaps and the other financial innovations that the Alan Greenspans and Robert Rubins enthusiastically supported. Does your city or your school district have an interest rate swap? I live in Chicago, and our school district has a bunch. The Chicago Tribune estimated they will cost us $100 million that should be going to education but instead is going to the con artists on Wall Street. The cuts to education here are painful and unnecessary. The same is true all over the country

But it was bad luck homeowners who really got cheated. First, there were knowingly fraudulent loans, then knowingly fraudulent foreclosures, and now possibly knowingly fraudulent delinquency claims.

The vast majority of the public thinks this is just fine. Screw the victims, help criminal banks is a strange goal, but the worst part is that victims of this economic system frequently do blame themselves.

This outpouring of hostility towards the losers in the economic struggle should be seen as a natural consequence of neoliberalism. In that worldview, the market is an indifferent referee, doling out rewards to the successful, and pushing the losers off the playing field into the outer darkness. Everyone is required to be the entrepreneur of themselves, investing their money or their parents’ money or borrowed money in their own human capital in the hopes of beating out some other poor bastard for some bad job that pays poorly. If they win, they might get to retire. If they lose, there’s always bankruptcy, except for taxes and student loans, and they are trash. It’s a bleak world.

Neoclassical economic theory is the linchpin of neoliberalism. It provides a theoretical underpinning for the harsh world it envisions. In this world, humans are seen solely as consumers and producers. These calculating creatures are rational optimizers, constantly using the markets to achieve their own personal highest utility. It’s an evil, reductive idea, but notice how well it corresponds to the self images of the people described by Jennifer Silva in her book Coming Up Short, which I discussed here.  The encouraging thing about the people Silva talked to is that they see themselves as having agency, they see themselves as having problems, but they are convinced they can do something about those problems.

The middle class is shrinking. Social class mobility is falling. But no one seems interested in the possibility that the economic system is the problem. The Republicans love it, and the Democrats do too, only not quite as much: they offer timid solutions like Elizabeth Warren’s suggestion that we reduce the interest rate on student loans, or increase the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour. These are not the kinds of changes that will make a significant difference in anyone’s life. They will do nothing to dilute the power of the richest 16,000 US families. And yet these represent the extreme left in politics.

In the 1920s, there was widespread intellectual ferment around alternatives to capitalism, socialism and communism, and that forced questions about capitalism to the surface. As the Great Depression deepened, the rich and politicians were afraid that the working class and the unemployed would find those ideas superior to capitalism. Eventually they were forced to compromise a tiny bit, creating a more or less regulated system of markets. Even the conservative hacks on the Supreme Court (the Court is full of conservative political hacks almost all the time), bent to the will of the people, and allowed a range of FDR’s initiatives to stand. In some cases, for a while, the hacks even enforced those laws, though that ended years ago.

Partially regulated capitalism was a major force for the creation of what Piketty calls the Patrimonial Middle Class. This group, 40% of the population, roughly the 50th to 90th percentiles of wealth, at one time had enough wealth to live comfortably in retirement and leave an inheritance to their children. That group is dwindling. The bottom 50% of the population has little or no net worth. Piketty calls them the Lower Class. The top 10% he calls the Upper Class and the top 1% he calls the Dominant Class. The Upper class is taking all the money produced by the economy. These are the people who can make major donations to politicians and thus acquire influence they can turn to their cash benefit.

The Lower Class is becoming more and more angry as the recovery stomps their faint hopes into the dirt. The Middle Class is shrinking, and I hope is beginning to think that maybe it’s not their fault. Things won’t change until enough people figure out the connection between the economic myths they’ve been taught and the social and political institutions that enforce those myths, and structure their understanding of their place in the world. If Silva’s people are right, if Middle and Lower Class people do have agency, and if they learn to see through the smoke and mirrors of the neoliberals and their academic lapdogs, they can enforce demands that will actually improve their lives.

I like to think of this process as the way you’d peel an octopus off an aquarium wall: one tiny sucker at a time. Eventually it comes off, but it’s a lot of work, and the octopus resists with all its strength.
which is Piketty’s actual term