Thomas Piketty ignores government capital

Thomas Piketty’s core argument in Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that the return on capital is (likely to be) greater than GDP growth and therefore those with capital will gain an ever greater share of wealth increasing inequality. This is not true in an individual sense or societally. Gilts returning 4% over an 80 year lifetime, paying 45% income tax, assuming RPI of ~3% and inheritance tax on two transfers would reduce a £100m fortune by 92% in real terms.

There are almost no historic fortunes. Crassus was supposedly the wealthiest man to ever live. The de Medici fortune, assuming a zero real return, would be worth about $23bn today. But in practice individual great fortunes have struggled to earn even a zero real return, even without destruction, let alone Piketty’s assumed 5% real return, which would have seen them dwarf Bill Gates’ paltry billions.

Piketty argues income is increasingly taken by the productive: As he shows on page 200 of his book capital’s share of national income has fallen about 40% from 1850 to 2010 despite a substantial real savings ratio. Piketty argues the productive avoid taxes making inequality greater. According to the ONS the top 10% of income earners pay 39 times more income tax than the average of the other 90%.

Redistribution is materially greater than increased taxes and capital’s falling share of income would suggest. Capital and the entrepreneur have created almost all of the growth in income. The hairdresser has not changed his productivity but has seen his real income grow. The farm workers who produce vastly more than 200 years ago, only do so because of the inventions and innovations of capitalists and entrepreneurs. While he drives a combine harvester he has not improved his skills, capitalists and entrepreneurs taught him how to use their inventions and better processes. Workers work ever fewer less strenuous hours, retiring earlier and nevertheless receive an ever increasing real income.

Piketty argues that the private capital to income ratio has grown materially to about 6, that its distribution is very skewed and government’s capital is zero, all as evidence of the inexorability of ever greater inequality. However, government has vast wealth in the form of the net present value of the tax flows they receive (and expect to receive in the future) to which he ascribes no value. But these flows are worth about 40x national income.

Even if he is correct about private wealth, the overall wealth of society is quite evenly distributed—the government’s 40 is increasingly devoted to welfare (and might usefully be imagined as de facto belonging to those who expect to receive it in the form of welfare and state provision of goods), redistributing from those who earned it to the rest of society. The capital value of transfers to a hypothetical individual who chooses to never work and relies entirely on the state is likely to be in the region of £1.5m.

Is the UK too equal or too unequal?

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Whether the UK is too unequal or too equal is not something that actually has a certain answer. Sure, we can posit that some of the things we do to reduce inequality might make us all poorer (and some of the things we do do) but what is the “right” amount of inequality is something that’s up to the moral precepts of each observer.

However, what we can do is make sure that we understand how much inequality there actually is. That figure above comes from here. My thanks to Christie Malry for pointing it out. And yes, of course the ONS is telling us the truth here. It might well be that you think that the original inequality in the UK is unfair, something that should be changed. That the top 20% have 15 times the income of the bottom 20%. But do note that things are indeed done to change this. So much so that the final inequality, after all taxes and benefits are accounted for, is only 4 to 1. It’s even possible to think that this is still too high but everyone should be able to agree that it’s very different from 15:1.

Malry has named my repeated insistence that this difference matters “Worstall’s Fallacy”. We can’t make decisions on whether we should be doing more about something unless we look at the effects upon whatever it is of what we’re already doing. We need to know how much we’re already changing income inequality before we can demand that more (or less) be done. The same is true of wealth inequality, people living under the poverty line, even the concept of the Living Wage (where the only difference between that Living Wage and the current minimum wage is the amount that we shamefully tax off those earning low wages). We muct look at the current end result before deciding upon any future action. BTW, the TUC did a very similar exercise a couple of years back but looking at the top and bottom 10%s rather than quntiles. Inequality of market income dropped from 30:1 to 6:1 in their results.

We already do a great deal to reduce income inequality in the UK. And the only way we can possibly decide upon what to do next is by acknowledging that fact and discussing whether, after all of the taxes and benefits, we have too much or too little income inequality.

Equality: as cheap as 50p?

Peter Oborne argues that Ed Balls’ pledge to raise the 45p top tax rate back up to 50p is a good idea. While the extremely high marginal rates (top main rate 83%, plus a 15% surcharge for “unearned income”) of the 1960s and ’70s might have been driven by “socialist envy”, George Osborne’s dropping the rate from 50p to 45p in was “profoundly shaming and offensive”, Oborne contends. This is because, echoing Stanley Baldwin and his brand of Toryism, the conservatives should represent the whole country, not the rich or any other factional interest.

Apparently the Coalition has “devoted a great deal of effort to lowering the living standards of the poor”, and this move to “make the rich richer” is inappropriate when the poor are getting poorer. I contend this by arguing that inequality is down to 90s levels under chancellor Osborne, while the worst-off in society are the only group to actually see their living standards improve the since the recession hit. And the (ugly, unpleasant, and regrettable) attitudes that have emerged towards benefits claimants are probably driving government rhetoric in that area, rather than vice versa.

In general, it annoys me when a columnist writes something apparently trading on what everyone just knows. Sometimes the common view is incorrect. Funnily enough, politics is the area where people err most profoundly and with the most regularity. And I would argue that Oborne is trading on falsehoods in his piece; would it still be a coherent argument if it started with the factual premise that inequality in the UK fell back below its 1997-8 low in 2011-12, 0.34 measured by the GINI coefficient? That the top 10% of earners endured the biggest blow to their incomes since the onset of the recession? And that the bottom 10% by income were the only one to see a rise in living standards taking inflation into account? I don’t think so.

The IFS reports I link above predict that by 2015-16 inequality will rise back to roughly its pre-recession level, so perhaps Oborne could refocus his attack on the future inequality Osborne possibly has a hand in. But in all likelihood there is probably little the government can do about inequality over the long-term, caused as it is by very fundamental trends and robust as it is to institutions even such as the USSR’s. Most of the extra inequality since the 60s and 70s has come from couples engaging in much more assortative mating. And very long-term trends are mainly dominated by heritability of social class—those with Norman surnames are 28% more likely than a random sample of similar others to get an Oxford place.

Old Economy Steven would have been better off now

An interesting essay from Chris Maisano over at Jacobin Magazine drifts over many topics—full employment, growth since the 1970s and neoliberalism, worker activism and the 40-hour week. Its essential case is that full employment is important, because it makes workers better off in lots of ways, including giving them more leisure time. There are some interesting points in the piece, and I agree that full-ish employment is an important goal, but overall I think it rests on a huge number of misconceptions—indeed data is used in very weird ways, with what I see as obvious questions left entirely uninterrogated.

Maisano points to the “Old Economy Steven” meme, which looks back to an idealised post-war era:

Steven pays his yearly tuition at a state college—with his savings from his summer job! He graduates with a liberal arts degree—and actually finds suitable entry-level employment! … But Steven doesn’t just enjoy the material comforts of Old Economy abundance. He possesses a degree of everyday power scarcely imaginable by working people today. Steven can tell his boss to shove it, walk out and get hired at the factory across the street.

The contrast with popular views about today’s economy, at least since the recession, is obvious. But full employment policies have been demoted—indeed since the late 1970s and especially since central bank independence most developed countries have centred their macroeconomic policies around stable inflation, not high employment. In fact, central banks now see a Non-Accelerating-Inflation Rate of Unemployment (NAIRU) as the optimal situation. But is this an “ideological response” as Maisano suggests?

There will always be some unemployment, from the numerous supply side restrictions on labour, and from job switching, especially with sectoral shifts. Inducing unexpected inflation can temporarily take unemployment below this “natural” level, for example through money illusion—where workers think nominal pay is actually real pay—but it is unsustainable. Once unions and individual workers compute this level of demand growth into their calculations the natural rate will return and the monetary authorities will need to push inflation yet higher to subvert this equilibrium.

Many economists, including Milton Friedman, argue that something like this caused the rampant, out of control inflation of the 1970s, something that was only reigned in by harsh recessions in both the UK and USA (attempting to control wages and prices was an abject failure everywhere). Acknowledging this means acknowledging that aiming for unemployment as close as possible to zero is a bad idea; it is better to aim for the lowest level of unemployment achievable without acceleration inflation. It’s certainly possible to argue that monetary policymakers have failed to do this—but it hardly seems like a specifically ideological development, more like progress in economics.

A second sticking point is how growth has declined since neo-liberalism replaced the post-war consensus as the dominant political framework in at least the US and UK. This is true. But it’s also true that every developed country saw a growth slowdown in the 80s and 90s relative to the post-war era. Economic historians are divided on the causes but since the most neo-liberal countries grew much faster than the more left-leaning states, one’d be hard placed to see that as a key cause. But even though growth has slowed down it has not stopped—and despite a few bumps we are much much richer today than in the 1970s. Just think, if had the opportunity to be whizzed to the 1970s to have the same standard of living as someone in your income percentile did then, would you?

My third disagreement is on hours worked. Maisano heavily implies that the consistently looser labour markets since the 1960s and 1970s have resulted in workers forced to work longer hours. He’s clearly looked at the numbers, since he compares the US’s average 1,778 in 2010 (1,742 on the FRED numbers I’ve seen) worked unfavourably to “continental European and the Scandinavian social democracies”. But is that a germane comparison? To me it seems like the best way to compare the wellbeing of workers now, following decades of neo-liberalism and below-full-employment, and workers then, is to directly compare them. On average, during the 1970s, an employed person worked 1,859 hours (in 1970 it was 1,912 hours), in the ten years up to and including 2011 the average was 1,772.9. Maybe Maisano believes that with a greater focus on full employment incomes would have grown even more and hours would have fallen even faster—but if he thought that maybe he should say it.

The ideal welfare system is a basic income

The British government spends more on welfare than it does on anything else apart from healthcare. The benefits system is arcane and unwieldy, a mish-mash of disparate attempts to address different social problems in a piecemeal fashion. It creates perverse incentives for those on it, such as people stuck in a ‘benefits trap’ where they lose almost as much money in benefits by working as they are earning, and distorts entire markets by inflating prices, as housing benefit does to the housing market.

Most people agree that the system is broken, though solutions differ. The Universal Credit is a fundamentally good idea that is failing because of the difficulty of implementing successful piecemeal reforms to a system as complicated as benefits in the UK, and will ultimately probably not succeed in the way its architects intend because it doesn’t go far enough. Other aspects of the government’s welfare policies, like the work programme, are completely wrong-headed – telling other people how to live their lives is a bad idea because the government is extremely ignorant. That ignorance doesn’t change just because the person being told what to do is on benefits.

The ideal welfare system is a basic income, replacing the existing anti-poverty programmes the government carries out (tax credits and most of what the Department for Work and Pensions does besides pensions and child benefit). This would guarantee a certain income to people who have no earnings from work at all, and would gradually be tapered out according to earnings for people who do have an income until the tax-free allowance point, at which point they would begin to be taxed.

For example, we could set a basic income of £10,000/year by using a cut-off point of £20,000/year, and withdrawal rate of 50%. The basic income supplement would be equal to 50% of the difference between someone’s earnings from work and the £20,000 cut-off point. A person with no earnings would get a basic income of £10,000/year; a person who earned £10,000/year would get a supplementary income of £5,000; a person on £15,000/year would get a supplementary income of £2,500; and a person on £20,000 would get nothing (and begin paying tax on the next pound they earned).

These numbers are representative: no need to tell me that £10,000 is too low or too high. What matters is the mechanism.

This has also been called a Negative Income Tax, usually by advocates on the right like Milton Friedman, but language aside the concepts are basically the same. As a side-note, I think basic incomes that are not tapered out are a complete waste of money, redistributing lots of money to people on high and middle incomes unnecessarily. It amazes me that this anti-progressive approach seems to be popular among some on the left. The exception would be if this flat-rate payment replaced the entire welfare state, as Tim Harford mentions in his column today and Charles Murray proposed some time ago.

Like the current benefits system, this would provide a safety net. But ‘benefits traps’, where people lose as much in benefits as they earn from work, would be eliminated. A basic income system like this would be at least as clear as the PAYE income tax system is, and substantially clearer than the current benefits system. The dog’s breakfast of welfare schemes that currently exist – all to address the symptoms of poverty, rather than the root – would be abolished, and with it the jumble of unanticipated and often undiscernable interactions between schemes that lead to perverse outcomes.

Best of all, a basic income is the least paternalistic welfare scheme possible. Instead of pushing would-be computer programmers into work as Poundland assistants, a scheme like this would leave decisions entirely up to the individuals involved. The discovery process that each of us is engaged in would continue, and now without mass decision-making by a central state authority.

I don’t know what amount a basic income like this should actually be set at. That would be an interesting and useful debate — what do we need for a basic standard of living? What appeals to me is the principle. Ditching most of the DWP, creating a welfare system that never discourages work, and letting people live their lives as they choose? Now that’s a welfare programme I could get behind.