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The New Bezzle

John Kenneth Galbraith gave us the term “the bezzle” in his 1955 book The Great Crash, 1929. Galbraith saw that there was often a long time between a financial crime and its discovery. In the interim holders of the financial asset involved in the crime experiences “psychic wealth”, because they are unaware of the actual losses. Eventually, something changes, and they find out. The Bernie Madoff case is a good example. Until he was exposed after the Great Crash, his loser investors thought they had $57 billion in their accounts. Turns out they had net recoveries of about $10 billion on the $17 billion they invested. That puts the bezzle at $47 billion.

Here’s another example. In the Antebellum South, there were nearly 4 million slaves with a value estimated at between $3.1 and $3.6 billion. After the war, that value went to zero. What was the net worth of the slavers in the late 1850s? They thought they were rich enough to battle the Union on equal terms, but the value of slaves wasn’t nearly equal to the value of the steel mills and industry of the northern states.

The problem of identifying the value of capital interests is very difficult. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century Piketty acknowledges the problem, and selects a solution appropriate to his purposes: the market valuations of the many forms capital can take. Here’s an excellent essay discussing this choice and its critics. By using this definition, Piketty simply ignores the problem of the bezzle, which makes sense in the terms of his project. Using Galbraith’s definition I suspect it wouldn’t make make a difference.

But I think the term leads us to a broader definition. The Great Crash provides a good example of what that new definition should be. The current estimate is that the Great Crash resulted in the loss of nearly 30% of household net worth between 2007 and 2010. The average household lost nearly $50 thousand in net worth between 2007 and 2010 according to the GAO report. Page 27 in the .pdf. By 2013, when markets were functioning — let’s say normally — the GAO estimated total household paper wealth losses at $9.1 trillion. Report here.

A large part of this paper loss was the decline in financial assets which affected people directly and through their pensions and retirement plans. Another large part was the result of lower house prices, which left many people with mortgage debt higher than the new prices. Here’s a priceless sentence from the report:

Economists we spoke with noted that precrisis asset prices may have reflected unsustainably high (or “bubble”) valuations and it may not be appropriate to consider the full amount of the overall decline in net worth as a loss associated with the crisis.

I bet the millions of people who lost that money don’t really care what economists think now, because none of the economists who could have made this stick before the Great Crash said this when it would have mattered. Far from it: the economics tribe insisted that markets were all-knowing and perfect in their understanding, and spent their days explaining why this time was different.

This superficial description shows that these households are in the same position as Madoff investors and Southern slavers: they thought they had something they didn’t, and they changed their behavior based on it.

I can just hear Paul Krugman explaining that bubbles and bezzles are really hard to model, and that’s why no one studies them. That’s probably true. Also, so what? Here’s my clever idea: look for data and see what it tells us. It worked for Piketty, who found that the historical record showed that inequality increases when r > g. Piketty and Saez, and Gabriel Zucman who did the estimate on tax shelters, didn’t have a model. They did have dusty records and big computer skills, just like all their contemporaries.

I hope that somewhere in academia there are young economists who look at Piketty, Saez and Zucman and their colleagues and say “I could do that”. And it’s just not that hard. Here are some hints.

1. There’s a big pile of student loan debt that isn’t going to be repaid. How much of that is on the books of the US Treasury, and how much is private sector? How much in the latter category is delinquent? Who holds it and in what form? If it’s in trusts, there isn’t going to be any enforcement, and the losses will fall on the owners of the securities. If it’s in the hands of originators, what happens to their balance sheets as this stuff cascades into default?

2. Every month we see another big business crash and burn. Often they fail because they are held by private equity investment firms. The crashes mean that a lot of debt isn’t going to be repaid. How big is that likely to be, and who’s going to eat that loss?

3. For the past 8 years or so, investors have been chasing yield. There’s some Galbraith bezzle in this stuff. How much dreck is sitting in their portfolios?

4. What does the rest of the mortgage overhang and related RMBS look like?

5. How much money is there in organized crime? A big part of the profits filters into the economy in the form of some kind of investment. How much of it is in the stock market? What happens when or if that ever gets traced and seized?

6. In the same way, how much have oligarchs and politicians stolen from other nations and moved into world financial markets? What happens if we got serious about that?

7. Another form of points 5 and 6: Rich people have stashed as much as $32 trillion in overseas tax shelters. If people got serious about this, their governments could seize this money and/or impose huge taxes on it. Say half of it, $16 trillion, got sucked up by taxation and seizure, and was removed from the financial markets and banks where it sits. What would happen then?

So, economists, just how big is the bezzle?

The Slow Death of Neoliberalism: Part 3 The Phillips Curve and Critical Theory

Part 1.
Part 2.

I described attacks on the Phillips Curve in Part 2. This part discusses the history of the Phillips Curve in detail, and concludes with a discussion of the problems revealed by the failure. The Observations are the fun part if this is too long.

History of the Phillips Curve

This section is based on parts 1-3 of The History of the Phillips Curve: Consensus and Bifurcation by Robert Gordon, an economist at Northwestern, published in the 2008 in the journal Economica at p. 10 et seq. (behind paywall, but available online through your local library). In 1958, William Phillips published a paper which as Gordon puts it,

… replaced discontinuous and qualitative descriptions by a quantitative hypothesis based on an unusually long history of evidence. Since 1861 there had been a regular negative relationship in Britain between the unemployment rate and the growth rate of the nominal wage rate. P. 12.

Phillips fitted a curve to data from the period 1861-1913, and plotted data for the remaining periods, through 1957 against that curve to find disagreements. Phillips found that his curve was close across the entire time except for a couple of years that he explains away. Here’s the curve Phillips fitted to his data:

1) wt = -.90 + 9.64U-1.39

Gordon says “… the inflation rate would be expected to equal the growth rate of wages minus the long-term growth rate of productivity.” P. 12.

1a) p = w – k

For some reason p is inflation and k is productivity. Upper case letters are levels and lower case letters are rates of change. So equation 1 can be written

2) p = -.90 + 9.64U-1.39 – k.

Paul Samuelson and Robert Solow discussed the Phillips results in the US context in a 1960 article. They found no similar data for the US, but they did some estimates and suggested that the PC doesn’t fit their data for several periods, and that it can shift up and down. Phillips estimated that an unemployment rate of about 2.5% was consistent with zero-inflation, while Samuelson and Solow think it might have been 3% pre-World War II and was about 5-6% in the early 60s.

With this seal of approval, the idea was incorporated into econometric models in two equations. In one, the PC was embodied and other variables were added, including demand, unemployment, the rate of change of unemployment, taxes, expected inflation and others in different combinations. This result was fed into an equation that calculates inflation based on wage levels, price levels and trend productivity. Gordon explains that

The reduced form of this approach implied that the inflation rate depended on the level and rate of change of unemployment, perhaps other measures of demand, and lagged inflation.

This is followed by a long discussion of the views of the Chicago School, which Gordon dismisses as utter failures. Moving along to 1975, Gordon turns to efforts to modify the Phillips Curve by adding supply and demand shocks. The price of oil shot up in 1973 because of OPEC. The demand for oil doesn’t decrease quickly in the short run, so people spend more on oil and less on other things. The Phillips Curve didn’t predict the results. Gordon says

The required condition for continued full employment is the opening of a gap between the growth rate of nominal GDP and the growth rate of the nominal wage to make room for the increased nominal spending on oil. P. 21, cite omitted.

That means wages must fall, Gordon says, or we have to add money to the economy, but the latter would lead to inflation. What we actually did, he says, was wage rigidity, increased unemployment, and some nominal (meaning not adjusted for inflation) GDP growth. Gordon then developed and published this version of the Phillips Curve:

3. pt = Ept + b(Ut – UtN) + zt + et

The second U term is the “natural” rate of unemployment, which I’m not going to take up. The z term represents cost-push pressure from unions and supply monopolies. The e term is apparently a constant but it seems odd that it might vary over time. Gordon explains that this version incorporates inertia, the idea that if there’s inflation in one period, there will be inflation in the next. It also reflects supply and demand issues, like wage and price rigidity.

Gordon then mentions in passing that the wage equation (Equation 1a) is only valid if labor’s share of the GDP is fixed, but it isn’t. Here’s a chart from FRED

That problem, says Gordon, is “fruitfully ignored”. We don’t need to consider wages, we just look at prices. With these changes, we can understand the past by explaining away variations with negative or “beneficial supply shocks” and other variables. Gordon says that Equation 3 is foundation of the mainstream model. There is a related model, the New Keynesian Phillips Curve which is similar except that it incorporates future expectations of inflation, and makes no specific provision for supply and demand shocks. I assume these in some combination are the models used by the Fed, and heavily criticized as discussed in Part 2.

Observations

The concept is replaced by the formula, the cause by rules and
probability. Dialectic of Enlightenment, Horkheimer and Adorno,p. 3.

1. Phillips was working off empirical data when he fitted his curve, data about inflation and the rate of growth of wages. There are some theoretical issues in the preparation of that data. But the only abstract theory he adds to his data is Equation 1a, which Gordon says has a solid base in intuition. At the time he was writing, Phillips would only have seen data supporting that theory. We have new information:

As it happens, and perhaps not surprisingly, Phillips’ Equation 1 doesn’t work on US data. Gordon himself and others start adding things to make the Philips Curve work. They are convinced that there is a link between unemployment and inflation, and that they just need to add the relevant variables from their theoretical arsenal to get it to come out. Some focus on expectations, others on supply and demand shocks, and others add taxes or something else. Once they get those pesky variables set up, it’s just a matter of solving for constants. The point is to fit a curve to the actual data, not to use the actual data to see what’s happening. The concept connected to the real world is gone, replaced by the formula. The cause is replaced by the rules of economics.

2. If we set inflation at 0 in Equation 1a, the rate of wage growth is equal to the rate of productivity growth. As the above chart shows, this relationship broke about 50 years ago. If all the gains from productivity are not going to labor, they are going to capital. Of course, capital takes several forms, for example, housing, agricultural land and other domestic capital. See, Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Figure 4.6. When you think about it, it seems almost impossible that some of the gains from productivity weren’t going to capital all along. But in the current economy, it’s obvious that companies like Facebook can provide vastly more services with disproportionally fewer additional employees, few of whom are well paid, so that most of the gains from increased sales go to capital. Or, suppose that manufacturing is outsourced, reducing labor costs. Some of the gains might go to cutting prices but surely some go to capital. Let’s rewrite Equation 1a to reflect this, using γ for the growth rate capital.

1b) p = w + γ – k.

Using Equation 1b instead of 1a, we would have this instead of Equation 2:

4) p = -.90 + 9.64U-1.39 + γ – k.

This equation focuses attention on the changes in the return to capital. That issue never seems to trouble most economists, but the rate of return to capital is the central focus of Piketty’s Capital In The Twenty-First Century. This chart from the Center on Budget and Political Priorities shows that top wealth started on its climb at the same time wages diverged from productivity, which supports the idea that gains from productivity are going to capital:

It also calls attention to the fact that nowhere in Gordon’s paper is there a mention of power, market power, political power, or social power, all of which Piketty talks about. Actually, hidden away in Gordon’s article is a backhanded reference to power. Equation 3 (Equation 7 in Gordon’s paper) includes a term “…zt to represent ‘cost-push pressure by unions, oil sheiks, or bauxite barons’”. P. 22. Obviously Gordon understands that the power to control the price of goods and services could create a negative supply shock, and the loss of control could produce a beneficial supply shock. P. 25. However, this is not explicit, and it certainly doesn’t deal with our current economy, in which almost all goods and services are dominated by a small number of gigantic companies exercising a significant degree of price control.

The tweaking Gordon describes might work for a while, but as the degree of price control through monopoly and oligopoly power increases, and γ becomes a bigger factor, the tweaks quit working.

3. Let’s put this in a larger context. For many economists, the Phillips Curve is structural. But why would you think so? It seems more likely that the relationship holds in a certain set of social conditions, including legislation and regulation, power conditions, and people’s attitudes. A logical use of the data is to work out the conditions that must exist to make it so. That’s how Piketty approaches his inequality data.

It’s a mistake to use a coincidence to predict the future. It seems to be a particular problem in economics. Even people who seem to know better continue to believe in the Phillips Curve. Here’s the President of the Boston Fed, Eric Rosengren:

A number of papers at the conference highlighted that some of the economic relationships that are frequently assumed to be stable over time have proven to be not so stable as we have come out of the financial crisis. These structural changes mean that if you tried to have a model that was fairly invariant to these changes, or a process that was invariant to these changes, there would start being big misses in monetary policy.

He goes on to explain that we have to raise interest rates because maybe not the Phillips Curve, but when employment goes up, inflation goes up. Rosengren knows there’s a problem, but he doesn’t have any idea of how to cope, so he keeps doing what he thinks he knows is right. It’s another example of Horkheimer and Adorno’s statement in action.

Updated to define γ more exactly.

The Future of Work Part 1: John Maynard Keynes

As the global depression spiraled towards its depths in 1930, John Maynard Keynes wrote a cheerful article on the future of work: Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren. He argued that it wouldn’t be too long before capital accumulation and technological change would come near to solving the economic problem of material subsistence, of producing enough goods and services to provide everyone with the necessities of life and largely relieving them of the burden of work.

The paper begins with a very brief description of the problems of the time:

We are suffering, not from the rheumatics of old age, but from the growing-pains of over-rapid changes, from the painfulness of readjustment between one economic period and another. The increase of technical efficiency has been taking place faster than we can deal with the problem of labour absorption; the improvement in the standard of life has been a little too quick; the banking and monetary system of the world has been preventing the rate of interest from falling as fast as equilibrium requires.

This statement anticipates the views of Karl Polanyi in The Great Transformation, and of Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism. They argue persuasively that massive technological changes led to changes in social structures which were profoundly upsetting to large numbers of people. Polanyi says that a decent society would take steps to relieve people of these stresses, perhaps by forcing a slower pace of change, or perhaps by legislation to protect the masses. Arendt claims that for a while, imperialism offered a solution by absorbing some of the excess workers. Both believed that the stresses of constant change and displacement of workers played an important role in the rise of fascism.

Keynes then points out the history of growth in world output. From the earliest time of which we have records, he says, to the early 1700s, there was little or no change in the standard of life of the average man. There were periods of increase and decrease, but the average was well under .5%, and never more than 1% in any period. The things available at the end of that period are not much different from those available at the beginning. He argues that growth began to accelerate when capital began to accumulate, around 1700.

It’s interesting to note that this sketch of economic history accords nicely with that provided by Thomas Piketty in Capital In The Twenty-First Century. This is Piketty’s Table 2.5. Compare this with Figure 2.4, The growth rate of world per capita output since Antiquity until 2100.

Keynes argues that since 1700 there has been a great improvement in the lives of most people, and there is every reason to think that will continue. Certainly there was the then current problem of technological unemployment, with technology displacing people faster than the it was creating new jobs. But he says it is reasonable to think that in 100 years, by 2030, people will be 8 times better off, absent war and other factors. He says there are two kinds of needs, those that are absolute, and those with the sole function of making us feel superior to others. The latter may be insatiable, he says, but the former aren’t, and we are getting closer to satisfying them. In so doing, we are getting close to solving the ancient economic problem: the struggle for subsistence.

That problem is indeed ancient. It shows up in Genesis, 3:17. Adam and Eve have eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Almighty punishes Adam with these words:

To Adam he said, “Because you listened to your wife and ate fruit from the tree about which I commanded you, ‘You must not eat from it,’ “Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life.

To be relieved of this ancient curse should be a wonderful thing. Keynes doesn’t think it will be an easy transition though. The struggle for subsistence is replaced by a new problem: how to use the new freedom, how to use the new-found leisure. He thinks people will have to have some work, at least at first, to give us time as a species to learn to enjoy leisure. He thinks that those driven to make tons of money will be seen once again in moral terms: as committing the sin of Avarice. They will be ignored or controlled in the interests of the rest of us.

As it turns out, this wasn’t one of Keynes’ better predictions. It isn’t clear that there is such a thing as a minimum absolute needs, for example, and technology has not yet removed the need for all work. Still, the goal of solving the economic problem seems sensible, and his discussion of the problems of a possible transition seems accurate.

People want to work, and they want everyone else to work too. There have been a number of reported interviews with Trump voters, many of who claim that this has become a give-away society. People complain that it pays better to be out of work than in work because of all the free stuff you get, health care (Medicare), free phones, food stamps, SSDI, free housing and so on, so they voted for Trump thinking he’d fix it so that only the deserving poor would get that free stuff. They think people don’t want to work, which feels like projection, and if they have to work, everyone should. Work has a number of social benefits, including a sense of purpose, responsibility, and pride. How are these to be handled in Keynes’ Eden?

The pace of technological change has picked up. It not only affects blue-collar workers, it’s starting to hit on doctors, lawyers and even translators. Here’s an article on improvements in translation based on neural network machine learning from the New York Times Magazine; and here’s a report from the White House on the impact of artificial intelligence on jobs. And here’s an article in the NYT’s Upshot column discussing the White House Report, and a rebuttal from Dean Baker.

These problems are crucial to the future of democracy. They concern the nature of our institutions and our social structures, as well as questions about our nature as human beings. I’ll take these up in more detail in future posts in this series.

Update: Here’s a link to the Keynes paper discussed in this post.

N. Gregory Mankiw Tries to Discredit Piketty

In this paper, titled Yes, r > g. So What?. N. Gregory Mankiw tries to show that Thomas Piketty is wrong that if r > g wealth will accumulate in the hands of a tiny number of rich people. It’s short and easy on the math, perhaps because it was part of a symposium rather than a stand-alone paper. For comparison, take a look at this by Piketty and Gabriel Zucman, which requires more than a passing familiarity with math. It seems unlikely that Mankiw had read this paper before he cranked out his, because Piketty addresses the issues Mankiw raises.

Mankiw makes three arguments. First, he says we need to have r > g. Second, he claims that the generational changes and taxation will prevent dynastic wealth. Third, he disagrees with Piketty’s solution which is a wealth tax. Let’s take them in turn.

1. The idea that r, the rate of return to capital, is greater than g, the rate of growth of the economy, is common in mainstream economic theory.

If the rate of return is less than the growth rate, the economy has accumulated an excessive amount of capital. In this dynamically inefficient situation, all generations can be made better off by reducing the economy’s saving rate. From this perspective, we should be reassured that we live in a world in which r > g because it means we have not left any dynamic Pareto improvements unexploited.

Mankiw’s standard is whether the economy can produce Pareto Improvements, meaning an improvement in the wealth of one or more people that doesn’t reduce the wealth anyone else. Mankiw simply ignores the fact that fabulous wealth carries with it the ability to influence the political process to extract more wealth, which is what Piketty says. Surely Mankiw isn’t arguing that won’t happen, because it does. Take, for example, the pharmaceutical industry where the business model is to increase prices with no additional benefit to anyone.

Then look at his cure. How exactly will the bottom 60% benefit by saving less? They won’t, because they are barely saving. They cannot come up with $400 to fix a car. Most of the rest wouldn’t be able to save less; they need to save for retirement, and to pay what their kids can’t make in this rotten economy. What Mankiw means is that the very top, the .1%, would have to spend a lot more, But what are they going to buy? Expensive trips on private jets? Van Gogh paintings? That isn’t going to help the economy or make anyone’s life better. The fact is that this argument points directly to the need to hike taxes on the idle money of the rich.

2. Mankiw’s second argument is an effort to show that taxes and generational changes will decrease dynastic wealth. Mankiw doesn’t confront the detailed argument Piketty makes on those very points. I introduce it here, and link to the detailed argument for those interested. Instead, Mankiw offers a simple model that proves his point, and could be understood by anyone who read his introduction to economics textbook; for typographical reasons, subscripts are not used for cw and ck

To oversimplify a bit, let’s just focus on this economy’s steady state. Using mostly conventional notation, it is described by the following equations.

(1) cw = w + τ k

(2) ck = (r − τ − g)nk

(3) r = f ′(k)

(4) w = f(k) − rk

(5) g = σ(r − τ − ρ),

where cw is consumption of each worker, ck is the consumption of each capitalist, w is the wage, r is the (before-tax) rate of return on capital, k is the capital stock per worker, n is the number of workers per capitalist (so nk is the capital stock per capitalist), f(k) is the production function for output (net of depreciation), g is the rate of labor-augmenting technological change and thus the steady-state growth rate, σ is the capitalists’ intertemporal elasticity of substitution, and ρ is the capitalists’ rate of time preference. Equation (1) says that workers consume their wages plus what is transferred by the government. Equation (2) says that capitalists consume the return on their capital after paying taxes and saving enough to maintain the steady-state ratio of capital to effective workers. Equation (3) says that capital earns its marginal product. Equation (4) says that workers are paid what is left after capital is compensated. Equation (5) is derived from the capitalists’ Euler equation; it relates the growth rate of capitalist’s consumption (which is g in steady state) to the after-tax rate of return.

Note that we didn’t get a definition of the symbol τ, which in conventional notation means taxes. As we learn a couple of paragraphs down, Mankiw means not general taxes, but taxes on returns to capital. As he tells us, all the money from taxes is consumed by the workers (equation (1)), that is, the total amount of taxes on capital is transferred directly, in the form of grants or indirectly in the form of services, to wage-earners and none of it is consumed by the capitalists. in the real world, capitalists consume a great deal of the expenditure on taxes, whether the taxes are on capital or income or otherwise. Obviously we need to put a non-trivial number into equation (2) to show that capitalists consume a portion of the taxes, and make an appropriate modification to equation (1) if we want this model to make minimal contact with the real world.

Mankiw says that in this model, there is no steady increase in inequality.

In this economy, even though r > g, there is no “endless inegalitarian spiral.” Instead, there is a steady-state level of inequality. (Optimizing capitalists consume enough to prevent their wealth from growing faster than labor income.)

This outcome was baked into the model with equation (2). If instead, we assume the same equations, but add a non-trivial number to equation (2), then the capitalist accumulates that non-trivial amount each year, and wealth inequality increases naturally even in his steady-state economy.

Also baked into this model is the remarkable idea that “capital earns its marginal product” and the rest of the money is paid out in wages. That’s just so far from reality that it makes the whole exercise pointless. But it enables Mankiw to justify rejecting Piketty’s recommendation of high wealth taxes. Mankiw explains that if the government wants to protect capital, it pushes the tax on capital into negative numbers, and the capitalists will push wages to subsistence level. But,

Taxing capital and transferring the proceeds to workers reduces the steady-state consumption of both workers and capitalists, but it impoverishes the capitalists at a faster rate.

Taxing returns to capital hurts everyone in this model. Of course, if capitalists are taxed at the rate of their actual consumption of tax receipts, the non-trivial amount that should be added to equation (2), then you would get Mankiw’s desired outcome of a non-increasing inequality. Or you could go a bit higher, and start reducing inequality without resort to his suggestion of a consumption tax.

Mankiw’s sterile model doesn’t explain the facts documented by Piketty and his colleagues, but it does demonstrate nicely the state of mainstream economics. Obviously the American Economic Association wanted a paper from Mankiw challenging Piketty, no matter its quality. Mankiw is an established figure, and thus the beneficiary of the social structure of the field described by Marion Fourcade and her colleagues in the section of this paper headed Inequality Within, p. 96,

Second, we document the pronounced hierarchy that exists within the discipline, especially in comparison with other social sciences. The authority exerted by the field’s most powerful players, which fosters both intellectual cohesiveness and the active management of the discipline’s internal affairs, has few equivalents elsewhere.

Testing The Limits on Wealth Inequality

In this post, I pointed out that we are going to see an empirical test of Piketty’s theory of rising wealth inequality. The theory itself is not well understood, and Piketty has revisited it since the publication of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, and published an economist’s dream of a paper in full mathematical glory here. The American Economics Association devoted space in its journal to arguments about the theory, giving Piketty an opportunity to discuss his theory in what I think is a very readable paper, and one worth the time.

He starts by saying that the relation between r, the rate of return to capital, and g, the rate of growth in the overall economy, are not predictive. They cannot be used to forecast the future, and are not even the most important factor in rising wealth inequality. The crucial factors are institutional changes and political shocks. Neither can the relation tell us anything about the decrease in the labor share of national income. He points to supply and demand for skills and education in this paper, as he does in his book, but this is a at best an incomplete explanation, owing more to the neoliberal view that the problems of workers are their fault than to a clear understanding of social processes in the US. A better explanation lies in tax law changes, changes in labor law and enforcement of labor law, rancid decisions from the Supreme Court, failure to update minimum wage and related laws, and government support for outsourcing and globalization.

What the theory does say is the subject of Part II.

I now clarify the role played by r > g in my analysis of the long-run level of wealth inequality. Specifically, a higher r − g gap will tend to greatly amplify the steady-state inequality of a wealth distribution that arises out of a given mixture of shocks (including labor income shocks).

In other words, as the raw number r – g increases, wealth inequality reaches a limit at a higher level, and income and wealth mobility become lower.

The important point is that in this class of models, relatively small changes in r − g can generate large changes in steady-state wealth inequality. For example, simple simulations of the model with binomial taste shocks show that going from r − g = 2% to r − g = 3% is sufficient to move the inverted Pareto coefficient from b = 2.28 to b = 3.25. Taken literally, this corresponds to a shift from an economy with moderate wealth inequality — say, with a top 1 percent wealth share around 20–30 percent, such as present-day Europe or the United States — to an economy with very high wealth inequality with a top 1 percent wealth share around 50–60 percent, such as pre-World War I Europe.

The inverted Pareto coefficient β is a measure of inequality used by Piketty and his colleagues. Here’s how he explains it in this paper:

That is, if β = 2, the average income of individuals with income above $100,000 is $200,000 and the average income of individuals with income above $1 million is $2 million. Intuitively, a higher β means a fatter upper tail of the distribution. From now on, we refer to β as the inverted Pareto coefficient.

The theoretical basis for this result can be found here, where Piketty and his colleague Gabriel Zucman provide a typical economists mathematical explanation. I’ve read some of this paper, but it is tough going.

The returns to capital, especially business capital, are quite a lot higher than the levels given in Piketty’s example. Here’s the chart:

real returns on capital
The returns to all capital after tax are about 7%. Paul Krugman put up a blog post saying that a realistic growth rate is about 2.2% at best for the next few years. This gives a difference r – g = 4.8%. Then using the equations on page 1356, we get an estimate that the inverted Pareto coefficient would be in the range of 11, which is a lot higher than the levels Piketty uses in the quoted material. By way of comparison, with that number, the average wealth of people with more than $10 million net worth would be $110 million. In the example Piketty gives for the top .1% with β =3.25, the figure would be $32.5 million.

Piketty notes that these coefficients are a rapidly rising function of r – g, which is apparently the case. In a recent paper, Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman estimate that the top .1% has a wealth share of 22% as of 2012, and there is every reason to think that has risen.

With Piketty’s general rule standing alone, there is no obvious limit to the level of wealth inequality, but in practice there are many practical reasons that it will level off. Some people will have more children, so the fortunes are divided into smaller shares. Some are lucky in investments and others aren’t. There are external shocks, wars and depressions. There are divorces, which split fortunes. Some people are able to earn high levels of labor income on top of capital income, increasing their wealth. Some die early, so their offspring are forced to spend more of their capital income to preserve their existing level of consumption. Others have expensive tastes and spend too much. These external forces eventually bring about a more or less static level of wealth inequality. Overall, this static level is higher when the fraction g/r is lower.

The time periods in the theoretical models used by Piketty and his colleagues are generational, they run 30 years. The big changes in wealth inequality began in the 70s, I’d guess, but became prominent enough that they were noticed in the late 80s and early 90s as the Reagan/Bush era tax cuts took hold, and regulatory structures were dismantled. By 2000, the final touches of formal deregulation were complete, and the Bush administration stopped enforcing most remaining laws leaving capital accumulation without restraint from legal pressure. It’s been about 15 years with little change, about half a cycle. The results follow the line Piketty and his colleagues predicted, and every year the new data supports their theories.

From this we can see that the coming empirical test is the maximum level of wealth inequality, or to put it another way, it’s a test of the downward pressures on the limits of wealth accumulation.

As a nation we have only taken the smallest possible steps to stem that tide, such as slow increases in the minimum wage, and tiny increases in taxes on the wealthiest to the extent they choose not to evade taxation in all sorts of allegedly legal ways. Neither of the presumptive candidates has any intention of making the kinds of changes necessary to change the outcome.

That brings us to the second empirical test: the level of wealth inequality that a civilized nation will accept before demanding change.

Or maybe the test is whether we are so cowed we won’t ever make any demands on our new lords and masters.

Update: for more on the uselessness of tweaks to the current system, see this interview by the excellent Lynn Parramore with Lance Taylor.

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.

Thomas Piketty On the Democratic Primary

In an article in The Guardian, Thomas Piketty says that Bernie Sanders represents a real hope for the adoption of the tax policies Piketty lays out in Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Piketty calls for higher and steeply progressive income taxes and a high estate tax, which he thinks will lead to a reduction in income and wealth inequality, and to a better democracy, one less favorable to the interests of the rich and more open to the needs of society as a whole. He calls for a return to the ideals of the Democratic Party, ideals forged in response to an earlier awful financial debacle, and says that even if Sanders doesn’t win the nomination, he has opened the door for someone else to bring these ideas to fruition.

Piketty reminds us of the history of the Democratic Party starting with Franklin Roosevelt. He points out that FDR did not want to follow in the path of European nations, but instead forged a uniquely US path forward, including heavy regulation of the financial sector, a reasonably strong safety net, and a highly progressive system of taxation, including both a high marginal tax rate on outlandish income and a steep and a heavy estate tax that broke up fortunes quickly. After the financial problems of the 1970s, the disastrous loss of the War in Viet Nam, and due in part to the desires of the very rich, the nation turned its back on those ideals, and Ronald Reagan and his band of wreckers led the nation backwards towards a “mythical capitalism said to have existed in the past.” The Democrats did not resist these changes, but made peace with them.

Piketty says that the important thing Sanders wants to do is to restore the taxation system to previous levels, and to return to the uniquely US version of social democracy.

Sanders makes clear he wants to restore progressive taxation and a higher minimum wage ($15 an hour). To this he adds free healthcare and higher education in a country where inequality in access to education has reached unprecedented heights, highlighting a gulf standing between the lives of most Americans, and the soothing meritocratic speeches pronounced by the winners of the system.

Savor that last part, the part about the “gulf standing between the lives of most Americans and the soothing meritocratic speeches pronounced by the winners of the system.” The Clintons stand on the far side of that gulf with their huge fortune, their enormous foundation, and the hedge fund set up for their son-in-law whose meritocratic standing is open to serious question.

The last few weeks have sharpened our understanding of the differences between Sanders supporters and supporters of Hillary Clinton. Clinton is part of the neoliberal consensus described in Piketty’s article, which has governed the elite hive mind for decades. Sanders represents a break with that ideology. He is in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal President, who established the US welfare state that was torn down by the neoliberals. Piketty too represents a break with the neoliberal consensus.

It is instructive to see where this divide lies. Take, for example, Paul Krugman. He is 62 years old, compared with Piketty, who is 44. Krugman is certainly liberal, but he has made it clear that he favors the incremental approach of Hillary Clinton. Krugman was trained in the mathematical school of economics, and even today insists that the use of mathematical models based on past history should be the central method of the discipline. Piketty was trained in the US, and is really good with those math techniques. However, he doesn’t accept the standard approach to the area, which he claims is closer to an ideology than a science. Instead, he adopts the methods of the social sciences. His book is a triumph of dogged efforts to read and understand 200 years of wealth and income inequality in Europe and the US.

Over the past several weeks Krugman has praised Clinton’s stand on Obamacare and financial regulation, and has derided Sander’s policies on both issues. He claims that Sanders cannot implement his plans and that they are somehow flawed. His comment sections are full of shocked people. Some call names, but many have more substantive issues: Krugman supported single payer in the past, and called for stronger financial regulation. Now he claims neither is possible.

What Krugman means is that the Republicans will never allow any tax increases. It’s that simple. He asserts that the ideas of Piketty and Sanders are never going to be possible because taxes cannot be raised. He accepts as a fact that there is no practical way to undo wealth and income inequality, that these are the immutable facts of our new normal. That is the dividing line between the neoliberal and the progressive wings of the Democratic party. One side says we need higher taxes and a larger social commons, areas of life not dominated by the rich people sucking up as much profit as possible. The other says we have to settle for whatever the rich will give us.

Krugman and most of the Democratic establishment is on one side of that line. And it isn’t an age thing. There are plenty of young wonks on the move who work inside the neoliberal consensus. Piketty and Sanders are on the other. And this isn’t an age thing either. There are plenty of people in all age groups, from Millenials to white-haired Boomers, who agree with Sanders.

This is the fight in the Democratic Party. Either you believe that we can change our government and our economy to work for all the people and not just the few, or you believe that we are doomed to remain under the thumb those who rule us from the far side of the money gulf with their laughable claim that they are the meritocracy and not a plutocracy.

Euros, Dollars and Morals

The Greek people overwhelmingly rejected the austerity demanded by the European Elites on Sunday, and the media filled up with opinions about what should happen, and predictions for what will happen, none of which is worth a bucket of spit. What we do know is that whatever happens next will mean more misery for the people of Greece. There are two lines of thinking that seem sensible to me.

First, there is the historical line. Steve Randy Waldman at Interfluidity writes about the history of and rationale for European Unification, including currency unification. In the wake of the last war, the leaders of Europe wanted to avoid more wars. Unification was a long-term project. All such projects face tremendous hurdles and should expect huge problems. The projects succeed or fail based on the skill with which the problems are managed.

Everyone has always known that Greece has weak governmental institutions, but once the Euro was rolling, private lenders poured money into the country. That was stupid. These lenders would be punished if they were operating in a capitalist economy. They would have taken huge haircuts, their managements would have been fired, their shareholders would have lost money. But in neoliberal land, the debtor is required to pay. If the nation has to sell its assets, its ports, water supplies, gas companies, whatever, so be it. If the people are condemned to misery for years, with unemployment among the young at 50%, so be it. If the government has to be replaced with one acceptable to the lenders, so be it. Democracy and the individual lives must be sacrificed to the demands of the creditors.

If the debtor still cannot pay, then the money has to come from taxpayers in other countries, or so the neoliberals tell them. There are no circumstances in which the creditors can lose money in a neoliberal society.

The leader of this tribe is Germany, with strong assistance from Finland and the Netherlands. None of these countries are explicitly neoliberal. Foucault calls the German system of governance Ordoliberalism in The Birth of Biopolitics. Ordoliberalism is a market system where the government has a powerful role in assuring functioning competitive markets through regulation, and through steps to insure that the interests of workers are considered in the operation of businesses, among other things. This system can work in a state with strong institutions, a strong central bank, and a general acceptance by the citizenry. That’s the opposite of Greece as Waldman describes it.

If things had worked according to plan, the failure of Greece would just be one of the obstacles in the progression to a unified state of some kind. Lenders to Greece would take their losses and would be recapitalized or bailed out, and life would go on. That would impose losses on the rich. As Waldman puts it:

And explicit bank bailouts are humiliations of elites, moments when the mask comes off and the usually tacit means by which states preserve and enhance the comfort of the comfortable must give way to very visible, very unpopular, direct cash flows.

The choice Europe’s leaders faced was to preserve the union or preserve the wealth, prestige, and status of the community of people who were their acquaintances and friends and selves but who are entirely unrepresentative of the European public. They chose themselves. The formal institutions of the EU endure, but European community is now failing fast.

In a similar historical vein, we find Thomas Piketty, in an interview with Die Zeit. There was a nice translation up, but apparently it ran afoul of German copyright law and was taken down. Here’s a link to the article in German, and google translate is your friend. Piketty is famous for his long-term historical approach to economic matters. The interviewer is blunt; his questions come from the overt position that German intransigence with Greece is just. Piketty is his usual calm self, secure in his knowledge of history. Here’s the money quote, with some of my feeble German in the last sentence:

Piketty: When I hear the Germans now say that they maintain a very moral dealing with debt and firmly believe that debts must be repaid, then I think: That’s a big joke! Germany is the country that has never paid his debts. It has no lessons to teach other countries.

He is referring to the reparations demanded of Germany after the two world wars. Germany did not pay either time. In both cases, the reparations were substantially reduced and forgiven because they were deemed to be unpayable and unreasonable. In the second case, the elites thought that the reparations in the Treaty of Versailles contributed to the rise of Hitler and to WWII, and they didn’t want that.

Piketty compares that to the British Government’s payment of bonds incurred to fight the Napoleonic Wars. As he explains it in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Britain ran a primary budget surplus to pay those bonds which were all held by the rich. In other words, the British could have taxed the rich to pay for those wars, which, after all, were fought solely for their benefit. Instead, they borrowed from their richest citizens, and repaid those bonds with enormous interest, mainly with taxes on the poor. The French and the British incurred enormous war debts themselves in both world wars, and paid those with a judicious combination of inflation, taxes on wealth and something unrecognizable, maybe haircuts.

The German interviewer agrees that the debts of Germany were slashed in 1953, saying it was the desire of the creditors to forgive the Germans for their sins. Piketty says it’s nonsense to talk of morals. It was a practical decision. It’s not right to punish the children of Germany for the sins of their parents, and it’s not right to punish the children of Greece for their parent’s (lesser) sins. The interviewer claims that the German people think the Greeks are bad and just want to continue high government spending. Piketty points out that it would have been easy for Europe to make a similar argument against Germany in 1953, and as a side note, a bit of research shows that many historians think Germany could have made the payments at that time.

More importantly, like Waldman, Piketty points out that the German stance threatens the European Union. People must have a future. Piketty suggests a debt conference like the one that ended German reparations, and thinks it should include all of the nations still facing financial problems.

The worst part of this is that this punitive attitude towards debtors is everywhere. The comment sections and the twitter are full of people fulminating about how they pay their debts, so why doesn’t Greece? Here’s one from ‏@JustinWolfers who ought to know better.

Hey @WellsFargo, what gives? This morning my family voted 60-40 to stop making mortgage payments but you still haven’t restructured our debt

This is one of the milder forms of the morality about money that we see in every context of debtors who can’t pay, whether it’s homeowners with underwater mortgages, students with heavy debt, or citizens of Ferguson going to jail because they can’t pay ridiculous traffic fines. The notion that not paying debts is a Sin pervades the public discourse.

I’m used to it: I practiced bankruptcy law for 25 years. When I counseled people, I always told them that their duties, their responsibilities, ran first to themselves, because if you can’t take care of yourself, you can’t take care of anyone else. Then their duties run to their families. Only then should they consider the interests of their creditors, and only to the extent that it would not interfere with their primary duties.

That’s how I understand this situation. First take care of yourself. Then take care of your family. Tsipras and Syriza understand that. They are taking care of themselves by keeping their electoral promises. Then they are working to take care of their Greek families.

The Troika practices the morality of a leg breaker for a loan shark.

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 Patriarchal 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.