Economics

Is Piketty’s Data Reliable?

by on October 18, 2017 at 7:25 am in Books, Economics, History | Permalink

When Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century first appeared many economists demurred on the theory but heaped praise on the empirical work. “Even if none of Piketty’s theories stands up,” Larry Summers argued, his “deeply grounded” and “painstaking empirical research” was “a Nobel Prize-worthy contribution”.

Theory is easier to evaluate than empirical work, however, and Phillip Magness and Robert Murphy were among the few authors to actually take a close look at Piketty’s data and they came to a different conclusion:

We find evidence of pervasive errors of historical fact, opaque methodological choices, and the cherry-picking of sources to construct favorable patterns from ambiguous data.

Magness and Murphy, however, could be dismissed as economic history outsiders with an ax to grind. Moreover, their paper was published in an obscure libertarian-oriented journal. (Chris Giles and Ferdinando Giugliano writing in the FT also pointed to errors but they could be dismissed as journalists.) The Magness and Murphy conclusions, however, have now been verified (and then some) by a respected figure in economic history, Richard Sutch.

I have never read an abstract quite like the one to Sutch’s paper, The One-Percent across Two Centuries: A Replication of Thomas Piketty’s Data on the Distribution of Wealth for the United States (earlier wp version):

This exercise reproduces and assesses the historical time series on the top shares of the wealth distribution for the United States presented by Thomas Piketty in Capital in
the Twenty-First Century….Here I examine Piketty’s US data for the period 1810 to 2010 for the top 10 percent and the top 1 percent of the wealth distribution. I conclude that Piketty’s data for the wealth share of the top 10 percent for the period 1870 to 1970 are unreliable.
The values he reported are manufactured from the observations for the top 1 percent inflated by a constant 36 percentage points. Piketty’s data for the top 1 percent of the distribution for the nineteenth century (1810–1910) are also unreliable. They are based
on a single mid-century observation that provides no guidance about the antebellum trend and only tenuous information about the trend in inequality during the Gilded Age. The values Piketty reported for the twentieth century (1910–2010) are based on more
solid ground, but have the disadvantage of muting the marked rise of inequality during the Roaring Twenties and the decline associated with the Great Depression. This article offers an alternative picture of the trend in inequality based on newly available data and a reanalysis of the 1870 Census of Wealth. This article does not question Piketty’s integrity.

You know it’s bad when a disclaimer like that is necessary. In the body, Sutch is even stronger. He concludes:

Very little of value can be salvaged from Piketty’s treatment of data from the nineteenth century. The user is provided with no reliable information on the antebellum trends in the wealth share and is even left uncertain about the trend for the top 10 percent during
the Gilded Age (1870–1916). This is noteworthy because Piketty spends the bulk of his attention devoted to America discussing the nineteenth-century trends (Piketty 2014: 347–50).

The heavily manipulated twentieth-century data for the top 1 percent share, the lack of empirical support for the top 10 percent share, the lack of clarity about the procedures used to harmonize and average the data, the insufficient documentation, and the spreadsheet errors are more than annoying. Together they create a misleading picture of the dynamics of wealth inequality. They obliterate the intradecade movements essential to an understanding of the impact of political and financial-market shocks on inequality. Piketty’s estimates offer no help to those who wish to understand the impact of inequality on “the way economic, social, and political actors view what is just and what is not” (Piketty 2014: 20).

One of the reasons Piketty’s book received such acclaim is that it fed into concerns about rising inequality and it’s important to note that Sutch is not claiming that inequality hasn’t risen. Indeed, in some cases, Sutch argues that it has risen more than Piketty claims. Sutch is rather a journeyman of economic history upset not about Piketty’s conclusions but about the methods Piketty used to reach those conclusions.

If the federal government boosts the Earned Income Tax Credit, or for that matter just lowers tax rates on lower-income workers, firms have an incentive to hire more labor (and also an incentive to expand hours for individual workers).  Those effects are large, for a fixed EITC boost, to the extent the demand for labor is elastic.

Note that if EITC boosts only labor demand, without the scale of business expanding as well, the marginal product of labor will fall somewhat, undoing some of the beneficial net wage effects.  On the other hand, if the scale of business expands, some of the benefit is reaped by capital and natural resource owners as well.

OK, now say we cut corporate tax rates.  Companies do more of…something, maybe we’re not quite sure what.  Labor is targeted less directly, though in “simple stupid” theory we treat labor as the main marginal cost.  So if corporate rates don’t have a large impact on activity overall, they might have a disproportionate impact on labor demand within the changes that do happen.  For instance, if plant size stays the same, you hire more labor to distribute more product.

As with EITC, to the extent the elasticity of demand for labor is small, the quantity of labor hired won’t go up much, nor will wages.

Maybe a corporate rate cut will induce an increase in overall scale and activity, and thus the hiring of more capital and resources, in addition to labor.  That may mean a smaller immediate boost to labor returns, but in the longer run labor is combined with more capital and resources and thus may maintain a higher marginal product.

EITC does have the advantage of being more directly targeted to labor.  But in the world-states where that targeting matters, labor ends up surrounded by not enough capital.  Cutting the corporate tax rate is more likely to favor scenarios where the demand for labor goes up, capital thickens around labor, and labor remains relatively non-commoditized.  This may go especially well for workers when there are increasing returns to scale.

The economics of these cases are fairly similar, albeit with the afore-mentioned difference in terms of targeting.  That difference may or may not favor EITC.  In any case, for me it is strange if people favor an EITC boost but are skeptical about cuts in the corporate rate.  Both require an elastic demand for labor, if they are to be effective in raising wages.

Egalitarians tend to think the more “naked,” targeted subsidy to labor will be more effective than removing disincentives to production, but that doesn’t really follow.

Note also that cutting corporate probably lowers avoidance/fraud, whereas boosting the EITC would increase tax fraud.

Already, there are 14,000 one-story cinder block Dollar Generals in the U.S.—outnumbering by a few hundred the coffee chain’s domestic footprint. Fold in the second-biggest dollar chain, Dollar Tree, and the number of stores, 27,465, exceeds the 22,375 outlets of CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens combined.

Here is the full Bloomberg piece, by Mya Frazier.  One point here is that “retail concentration,” which we do observe in the data, is unlikely to lead to very high prices.  A subtler point is that the dollar store sector itself is somewhat concentrated.  But that is yet another way of seeing why concentration indices can be misleading: “They’ve taken over a big chunk of the nation’s dollar stores!” isn’t exactly a recipe for sustained high prices, if anything the contrary.  Yet another point is that we may be rather deliberately moving to an uglier but cheaper world.

Another plausible thing to believe…is that someone who holds a stock for a minute, or a quarter anyway, might pay more attention to this sort of stuff [longer-term company prospects] than someone who holds it for 10 years. It is hard to pay attention to anything for 10 years, plus a buy-and-hold investor might well be an index fund, or a casual retail investor, who doesn’t care at all about the underlying fundamentals of the company. The short-term shareholders have a clear incentive to demand long-term improvements: They’re going to sell their shares, so they want the price of the shares to go up, and the way to get a share price up is to discount in future growth.

If you combine those — debatable! — ideas then you might conclude that medium-term active shareholders are more likely to hold managers to account and demand long-term productivity improvements than are long-term shareholders who never sell. On the other hand, the managers might prefer the long-term shareholders, since managers — according to another fairly standard piece of financial-economics theory — love not being held accountable by shareholders.

That is from Matt Levine at Bloomberg, much more at the link.

This excellent book is titled Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times.  Here is one good bit:

Knowing that he could not manage what he could not measure, Hooover made Commerce botha producer and a clearinghouse of relevant information on the U.S. economy.  Once again, he turned to like-minded experts, this time primarily in the academic community.  Hoover announced the Advisory Committee on Statistics and recruited to it such luminaries as Edwin Gay, the first dean of the new Harvard Business School; Edwin Seligman, the Columbia economist and a founder and past president of the American Economic Association; and Cornell’s Walter Willco, a past president of the American Statistical Association and a former co-director of the U.S. Census.  Another eminence, Julius Klein, the Harvard economist and historian, was recruited to head Hoover’s Bureau of Foreign and Domestic Commerce and allowed to increase its budget by a factor and six and its personnel by a factor of five.  In short time, these and other initiatives turned Commerce into a vast reservoir of information on every aspect of economic life from steel to motion pictures…

The scope of Hoover’s activities in Commerce was stupendous.  Singlehandedly doing enough work for an entire cabinet, he was said to be “Secretary of Commerce and Undersecretary of Everything Else.”

Recommended, note that Hoover was in fact one of the most qualified men ever to have become president.

The Trump administration is demanding the World Bank allocate less capital toward Chinese projects:

“The bottom line here is right now we’ve got too high a percentage of the World Bank’s balance sheet that’s going to countries and to projects that already have ample borrowing capacity,” a senior Treasury official told Reuters, which noted that China is the IBRD’s biggest recipient of development loans, totaling $2.4 billion.

As I understand it, the World Bank makes money on these loans and there is a cross-subsidy of other Bank activities, most of all aid.  A World Bank that stopped such loans would be poorer and less skilled, and over time could devolve into one of the poorer, less effective poverty-fighting parts of the United Nations, without much of a political power base at that.

Yet China has several trillion dollars worth of reserves.  They seem to like, and be willing to pay for, World Bank infrastructure expertise when bundled with the loans.  Given the overall Chinese record in this area, it is hard to argue they don’t know how to build up an infrastructure.  So why do they borrow then?  I think of the Chinese leadership as like a university president who doesn’t want to spend down the endowment to boost immediate consumption.

It is bad if/when the current equilibrium goes away.  Yet it also is unlikely that the United States will continue to underwrite the building up of its major geopolitical rival.  We (in essence) guarantee some loans to them so they in turn can make loans to us, also guaranteed by us.  That’s a lot of guaranteeing.  In return we receive an out-sized role running and staffing the World Bank, which you can think of as a “soft power” endowment of sorts.  In return the Chinese can hold onto a larger foreign currency endowment and receive some expertise.

That American lead WB role is worth less over time as multilateral capital flows continue to decline relative to private sector flows, and as more emerging economies require less aid.  Furthermore China has set up its own development bank for Asia, namely the AIIB.  More generally, we seem less interested in helping the Chinese maintain the size of their endowment, and perhaps they are not so favorably inclined toward our soft power endowment either.  On top of that, receiving the infrastructure expertise continues to decline in value for the Chinese, as they develop more and more of their own expertise.  At this point, they should be telling us how to build infrastructure.

And so the arrangement is likely to unravel.  I don’t approve of Trump pulling the plug on this one, but more realistically that was the underlying trend in any case.

The biggest losers probably are the aid-receiving poorest African countries who currently free-ride upon the Bank’s indirectly American-guaranteed, China-funded staffing, higher expertise, and higher prestige.

China and America probably lose too, as each country will find it harder to maintain its chosen kind of endowment.  And the pretense of cooperation will fade, which has good and bad effects but mostly bad.

The subtitle is A History of U.S. Federal Entitlement Programs, and the author of this new and excellent book is John F. Cogan of Stanford University and the Hoover Institution.  It is the single best history of what it covers, and thus one of the best books to read on the history of U.S. government or for that matter American economic history more generally.

How did the American entitlement state get built?  In multiple, discrete pieces:

The House and Senate overwhelmingly approved a modified version of President Truman’s Social Security proposals in June 1950.  The Social Security Amendments provided a mammoth across-the-board increase in monthly benefits.  The law’s sliding scale of benefits…averaged 77 percent per recipient…The 1950 Act also rewrote Social Security’s eligibility rules to enable hundreds of thousands of workers with little history of contributing payroll taxes to begin collecting benefits.

And:

…from 1969 to 1975, inflation-adjusted federal entitlements pending grew annually at a remarkable 10 percent, registering an 86 percent increase in six years…Total annual inflation-adjusted entitlement expenditures grew 20 percent faster under President Nixon than they had under President Johnson.

And:

The eligibility liberalizations from 1997 to 2008 produced sharp increases in the food stamp and Medicaid rolls.  From 1998 to 2008, the food stamp rolls increased to 28 million people from 20 million and the Medicaid rolls increased to 59 million from 40 million people.  The liberalizations enacted during the Great Recession have lasted well beyond the recession’s end in 2010.  In 2016, the number of food stamp recipients ballooned to 44 million, and the number of Medicaid recipients rose to 73 million in 2016.

Here is a good sentence:

In 2015, 41 percent of the nation’s nonelderly-headed households received entitlement benefits.

This book is well-written and has useful and important information on virtually every page.

  • The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) declined to ask for help from mainland electric utilities in the days after Hurricane Maria, instead turning to a small Montana-based contractor to carry out grid restoration practices.
  • Earlier this week, PREPA CEO Ricardo Ramos told E&E News that his bankrupt utility did not reach out to munis on the continental U.S. because he was unsure it could pay them back for assistance. About 90% of the island remains without power weeks after the storm hit.
  • The American Public Power Association (APPA), the trade group for U.S. munis, confirmed that mutual assistance programs were not activated, but said PREPA had already contracted with Whitefish Energy by the time the trade group convened a conference call to coordinate aid. PREPA did not respond to requests for comment.

Here is the full story, and here is a related piece, via Brian S.

Vaping Saves Lives

by on October 13, 2017 at 7:25 am in Economics, Law, Medicine | Permalink

E-cigarettes are less dangerous than cigarettes but are equally effective at delivering nicotine. Levy et al. estimate that if smokers switched to e-cigarettes millions of life-years would be saved, even taking into account plausible rates of non-smokers who start to vape. (It’s worth noting that the authors are all cancer researchers, statisticians and epidemiologists concerned with reducing cancer deaths.)

A Status Quo Scenario, developed to project smoking rates and health outcomes in the absence of vaping, is compared with Substitution models, whereby cigarette use is largely replaced by vaping over a 10-year period. We test an Optimistic and a Pessimistic Scenario, differing in terms of the relative harms of e-cigarettes compared with cigarettes and the impact on overall initiation, cessation and switching. Projected mortality outcomes by age and sex under the Status Quo and E-Cigarette Substitution Scenarios are compared from 2016 to 2100 to determine public health impacts.

Compared with the Status Quo, replacement of cigarette by e-cigarette use over a 10-year period yields 6.6 million fewer premature deaths with 86.7 million fewer life years lost in the Optimistic Scenario. Under the Pessimistic Scenario, 1.6 million premature deaths are averted with 20.8 million fewer life years lost. The largest gains are among younger cohorts, with a 0.5 gain in average life expectancy projected for the age 15 years cohort in 2016.

Vaping saves lives but the FDA has in the past tried to impose severe regulations on the industry and to make vaping less pleasurable. (Aside: It’s interesting that liberals tend to favor other risk-reducing devices such as condoms in the classroom but disfavor vaping while conservatives often take the opposite sides. I don’t think either group is basing their choices on the elasticities.)

The FDA, for example, has tried to ban flavored e-cigarettes. In a new NBER paper, Buckell, Marti and Sindelar calculate that:

…a ban on flavored e-cigarettes would drive smokers to combustible cigarettes, which have been
found to be the more harmful way of getting nicotine (Goniewicz et al., 2017; Shahab et al., 2017).
In addition, such a ban reduces the appeal of e-cigarettes to those who are seeking to quit; ecigarettes
have proven useful as a cessation device for these individuals (Hartmann-Boyce et al.,
2016; Zhu et al., 2017), and we find that quitters have a preference for flavored e-cigarettes.

Fortunately, the new FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb has signaled a more liberal attitude towards vaping. It could be the most consequential decision of his tenure.

Hat tip: The excellent Robert Wilbin from 80,000 Hours.

I am not sure I trust any TFP measures (what if innovation is simply embodied in investment?), but this paper by Gerben Bakker, Nicholas Crafts, and Pieter Woltjer is worth a ponder:

We develop new aggregate and sectoral Total Factor Productivity (TFP) estimates for the United States between 1899 and 1941 through better coverage of sectors and better-measured labor quality, and find TFP-growth was lower than previously thought, broadly based across sectors, and strongly variant intertemporally. We then test and reject three prominent claims. First, the 1930s did not have the highest TFP-growth of the twentieth century. Second, TFP-growth was not predominantly caused by four ‘great inventions’. Third, TFP-growth was not driven indirectly by spillovers from great inventions such as electricity. Instead, the creative-destruction -friendly American innovation system was the main productivity driver.

For the pointer I thank David Levey.

From Lisa Abramowicz on Twitter:

“We seem to be living in the riskiest moment of our lives, and yet the stock market seems to be napping:” Thaler [link]

Alex on Twitter:

It’s funny that the behavioral critique of the market is now that it is not volatile enough!

USA fact of the day

by on October 12, 2017 at 7:24 am in Current Affairs, Economics, Law | Permalink

The top 0.1 percent of earners projected to pay more to the IRS than the bottom 80 percent combined. This year, official government data show, the top 20 percent will pay 95 percent of all income taxes.

And:

Not just that: It’s hard to cut tax rates on moderate-income people without simultaneously benefiting the rich. That’s because everyone pays the same marginal tax rates on, say, their first $50,000 in income, regardless of how much they make in total. So cutting, for example, the 15 percent tax bracket helps the poor and rich alike.

That is all from Brian Faler at Politico.

You too can now relax

by on October 12, 2017 at 1:21 am in Economics | Permalink

People have stopped worrying about covered interest parity.

This worry has expired along with the cross-currency basis. Here’s Matt Klein at Alphaville explaining that for much of 2016, it was much cheaper to borrow dollars in the U.S. and hedge them into yen than it was to borrow yen in Japan, creating an obvious arbitrage that nonetheless didn’t go away. But then it did, due to declining dollar strength or the full phasing-in of money-market-fund reform or changes in Federal Reserve balance-sheet policy. I look forward to other recurring Money Stuff worries being so fully and satisfactorily resolved.

That is from the “no one else could do what he does” Matt Levine at Bloomberg.  And Matt points out that Stephen Curry is reading Ray Dalio’s Principles.

Those who fail to repay a bank loan will be blacklisted, and they will have their name, ID number, photograph, home address and the amount they owe published or announced through various channels – including in newspapers, online, on radio and television, and on screens in buses and public lifts.

…In the southern city of Guangzhou, the personal details of some 141 debt defaulters have so far been displayed on screens in buses, commercial buildings and on media platforms at the request of local courts.

Meanwhile in Jiangsu, Henan and Sichuan provinces, the courts have teamed up with telecoms operators to create a recorded message – played every time someone calls – for those who fail to repay their loans. The message tells the caller: “The person you are calling has been put on a blacklist by the courts for failing to repay their debts. Please urge this person to honour their legal obligations.”

That is from SCMP, via Viking.

Elsewhere in the Middle Kingdom, Shanghai adopts a facial recognition system to name and shame jaywalkers.

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

The internet has been another equalizer. You can enjoy texting and social media from just about anywhere, and our near obsession with these activities is equalizing urban and suburban experiences, possibly for the worse.

Arguably, sex and alcohol were once more prominent in some American cities than in American suburbs. But the new generation of American youth seems less interested in these activities anyway.

As American travel infrastructure decays, and traffic congestion worsens, what we used to call cities and suburbs won’t be able to rely on each other so much, as trips become too exhausting and time-consuming. That too will encourage cities and suburbs each have their own mix of jobs, retail and cultural opportunities.

There is much more at the link.