Month: April 2014

The policy proposals Thomas Piketty forgot to mention

Suresh Naidu writes:

…let me suggest that if we’re aiming for politically hopeless ideas, open migration is as least as good as the global wealth tax in the short run, and perhaps complementary.One weakness of the book is its focus on the large core economies (the data obviously is better and the wealth is obviously larger). But liberalizing immigration, while not solving the ultimate problem the book diagnoses, can go some of the way by raising growth of both income and population.

Maybe, that will likely improve welfare but in an Alvin Hansen model it can make Piketty-like phenomena (I won’t call them problems) more extreme.  In any case there are more straightforward remedies.  Social Security privatization is another option, if r > g is truly such a likelihood.  Yet Piketty and his boosters won’t mention this.  By the way, I am opposed to social security privatization — scroll down in that link — but I probably would favor it if it my views were closer to Piketty’s.

Here is a somewhat biting paragraph on Piketty and policy from my Foreign Affairs review (use “open private window” in Firefox, if need be):

Piketty also ignores other problems that would surely stem from so much wealth redistribution and political control of the economy, and the book suffers from Piketty’s disconnection from practical politics — a condition that might not hinder his standing in the left-wing intellectual circles of Paris but that seems naive when confronted with broader global economic and political realities. In perhaps the most revealing line of the book, the 42-year-old Piketty writes that since the age of 25, he has not left Paris, “except for a few brief trips.” Maybe it is that lack of exposure to conditions and politics elsewhere that allows Piketty to write the following words with a straight face: “Before we can learn to efficiently organize public financing equivalent to two-thirds to three-quarters of national income” — which would be the practical effect of his tax plan — “it would be good to improve the organization and operation of the existing public sector.” It would indeed. But Piketty makes such a massive reform project sound like a mere engineering problem, comparable to setting up a public register of vaccinated children or expanding the dog catcher’s office.

Here is another:

Worse, Piketty fails to grapple with the actual history of the kind of wealth tax he supports, a subject that has been studied in great detail by the economist Barry Eichengreen, among others. Historically, such taxes have been implemented slowly, with a high level of political opposition, and with only modestly successful results in terms of generating revenue, since potentially taxable resources are often stashed in offshore havens or disguised in shell companies and trusts. And when governments have imposed significant wealth taxes quickly — as opposed to, say, the slow evolution of local, consent-based property taxes — those policies have been accompanied by crumbling economies and political instability.

The simple fact is that large wealth taxes do not mesh well with the norms and practices required by a successful and prosperous capitalist democracy. It is hard to find well-functioning societies based on anything other than strong legal, political, and institutional respect and support for their most successful citizens. Therein lies the most fundamental problem with Piketty’s policy proposals: the best parts of his book argue that, left unchecked, capital and capitalists inevitably accrue too much power — and yet Piketty seems to believe that governments and politicians are somehow exempt from the same dynamic.

And finally the review closes with this:

A more sensible and practicable policy agenda for reducing inequality would include calls for establishing more sovereign wealth funds, which Piketty discusses but does not embrace; for limiting the tax deductions that noncharitable nonprofits can claim; for deregulating urban development and loosening zoning laws, which would encourage more housing construction and make it easier and cheaper to live in cities such as San Francisco and, yes, Paris; for offering more opportunity grants for young people; and for improving education. Creating more value in an economy would do more than wealth redistribution to combat the harmful effects of inequality.

The original pointer to the first link was from Henry Farrell.  And my previous criticisms of Piketty on the analytics are here.  Barry Eichengreen on wealth taxes is here.

John Cochrane on taxing debt, or toward a run-free financial system

Here is John’s new paper (pdf):

The financial crisis was a systemic run. Hence, the central regulatory response should be to eliminate run-prone securities from the financial system. By contrast, current regulation guarantees run-prone bank liabilities and instead tries to regulate bank assets and their values. I survey how a much simpler, rule-based, liability regulation could eliminate runs and crises, while allowing inevitable booms and busts. I show how modern communications, computation, and financial technology overcomes traditional arguments against narrow banking. I survey just how hopeless our current regulatory structure has become.

I suggest that Pigouvian taxes provide a better structure to control debt issue than capital ratios; that banks should be 100% funded by equity, allowing downstream easy-to-fail intermediaries to tranche that equity to debt if needed. Fixed-value debt should be provided by or 100% backed by Treasury or Fed securities.

This idea has promise, but overall I am a little confused.  I don’t think of illiquid financial institutions as the major problem, as traditional lender of last resort functions of central banks can deal with those dilemmas.  The truly gut-wrenching issues in our financial crisis — or that say of Ireland or Iceland — involved insolvent financial institutions.  And if these institutions are insolvent, was a “run” really the nut-crusher?  Ex post you either nationalize or let them fail or somehow bail them out, no matter what the earlier capital structure had been.  The “run” from short-term capital might make some banks insolvent more quickly, but are equity prices really so much slower to react?

One significant effect of an all-equity capital structure would make insolvency more transparent and this in turn might make zombie banks less likely.  This may be a good way of forcing the hand of regulators or shareholders.  But it is a mixed blessing too, especially if your resolution facilities are highly imperfect.  Citicorp arguably has been insolvent a few times since the 1980s, although not transparently so.  What if this insolvency had been more obvious the first time around, namely if Citi had been made all-equity?  It might have prevented some financial structures — most of all Citi — from becoming too large or too difficult to unwind.  That said, in the short run volatility probably would have been higher, if only because a commonly revealed insolvency is indeed messier.  And over the longer haul, to the extent share markets overreact to new information, rather than just reflecting fundamental values, greater transparency for the financial sector could in some ways be dangerous.

An all-equity bank would avoid the problem of equity holders taking too much risk at the expense of debt holders, but it does not seem this was a major problem last time around.  Rather simple overconfidence seems to have been the culprit.  Furthermore this moral hazard problem might be recreated in some form through the evolution of differing forms of equity seniority.

Arnold Kling adds comment.

For the pointer I thank Samir Varma, a loyal MR reader.

Why I am not persuaded by Thomas Piketty’s argument

My Foreign Affairs review is here.  (Open up “New private window” in Firefox, if need be.)  I won’t attempt to cover all of the review, but rather will rephrase a few of my points for MR readers, in slightly different terminology:

1. If the rate of return remains higher than the growth rate of the economy, wages are likely to rise and quite a bit.  You can find a wonky version of that idea here from Matt Rognlie.   But it suffices to apply common sense, namely that capital accumulation bids up wages.  Piketty suggests we are headed back to something resembling the 19th century.  Well, that was a pretty good time for the average working person in Western Europe, especially once we get past the first part of that century, which had lots of war and a still-incomplete industrial revolution.

Since we today have had some wage stagnation, perhaps it does not feel that kind of favorable outcome is what we will get and many commentators are trading off this mood.  But also realize the (risk-adjusted) return on capital hasn’t been that high lately and it has been falling for decades.  This combination of variables — low returns and stagnant wages — does not refute Piketty but it doesn’t exactly fit into his mold either.

2. The crude seven-word version of Piketty’s argument is  “rates of return on capital won’t diminish.”  Is that really such a powerful forecast?  I say over the next fifty or one hundred years we don’t have a very good sense of which factors will show diminishing returns and which will not.  It is hard enough to make predictions of trend over a twenty-year time horizon.  NB: At many points in the Piketty book he seeks to have it both ways: loads of caveats, but then he falls back into the basic model, and he and his defenders cite the caveats when it is convenient.

3. Piketty’s reasons why rates of return on capital won’t diminish are fairly specific and restricted to only a small share of capital.  He cites advanced financial management techniques of the very wealthy and also investing abroad in emerging economies.  Neither of these covers most capital, and thus capital returns as a whole may not be so robust.  Nor is it obvious that either technique will prove especially successful over the next few decades or longer.  Again, is there any particular reason to think either of these factors will outrace the basic logic of diminishing returns, or for that matter EMH, relative to other factor returns that is?  They might, to be sure.  They also might underperform.  In any case this is pure speculation and Piketty’s entire argument depends upon it.

4. The actual increases in income inequality we observe are mostly about labor income, not capital income.  They don’t fit easily into Piketty’s story and arguably they don’t fit into the story at all.

5. Piketty converts the entrepreneur into the rentier.  To the extent capital reaps high returns, it is by assuming risk (over the broad sweep of history real rates on T-Bills are hardly impressive).  Yet the concept of risk hardly plays a role in the major arguments of this book.  Once you introduce risk, the long-run fate of capital returns again becomes far from certain.  In fact the entire book ought to be about risk but instead we get the rentier.

Overall, the main argument is based on two (false) claims.  First, that capital returns will be high and non-diminishing, relative to other factors, and sufficiently certain to support the r > g story as a dominant account of economic history looking forward.  Second, that this can happen without significant increases in real wages.

Addendum: Still, it is a very important book and you should read and study it!  But I’m not convinced by the main arguments, and the positive reviews I  have read worsen rather than alleviate my anxieties.  I’ll cover the policy and politics of this book in a separate post.  Do read my review itself, which has much more than what is in this blog post.

Copyright is Out of Control

I have written about patent and copyright law primarily from the perspective of an economist interested in the institutions and incentives that maximize innovation. As a textbook author, however, I must deal with copyright law in practice. Dealing with copyright law on the ground hasn’t caused me to change my views but it has made me more frustrated. I have also come to appreciate some of the subtler costs of the system. Two cases in point.

A lot of textbooks hire a photo editor to pick generic stock photos, this simplifies things because the bundlers pre-authorize permissions and prices. But we hand picked every photo in our book to illustrate a point which means that our permissions and legal staff often have to find owners and clear permissions on an individual basis. We are grateful that our publisher is willing to do this to produce a quality product but it sometimes leads to absurdities. For example, the publisher doesn’t like to use public domain images. Why not? What could be better than free? The problem is that the bundlers insulate a publisher from lawsuits but when we use a public domain image the publisher is open to lawsuit if a mistake has been made and that makes them fearful.

The general lesson is that strong IP shrinks the public domain not just because it keeps things out of the public domain but also because it makes the public domain appear to be uncertain and dangerous. It’s as if clean, mountain spring water were freely available but people bought from the bottlers instead out of fear of contamination.

Copyright law is one of the forces behind the rise of the mega-bundlers. Mega-bundlers benefit from economies of scale in cataloging IP but there are also economies of scale in dealing with the legal system and insuring against/for lawsuit. It’s probably no accident that two of the largest bundlers, Corbis and Getty, are owned by Bill Gates and (Getty heir), Mark Getty respectively. (FYI, Piketty should have said more about this kind of 21st century rentier in Capital).

Here is another example. To illustrate the point that, contrary to what is often argued, a rich person might get more from another dollar than a poor person we have in Modern Principles a movie still of Scrooge McDuck swimming in money. We think the image speaks for itself but apparently that is a problem. The rights to the photo are–we are told–not the same as the rights to the characters shown within the photo. Thus, even though we have bought and paid for the right to print the photo, to ensure that the use of the characters within the photo falls under fair use we must discuss, comment on and critique the content of the photo in the text. 

The distinction between the photo IP and the what’s in the photo IP is one only a lawyer could appreciate, as is the solution. And I mean that without irony. I am not critiquing our publisher or their lawyers. Bear in mind that this is coming to us from the very highest legal counsel of a multi-billion dollar firm. Thus, I do not doubt that the dangers are real and the legal analysis acute. The problem is copyright law itself.

The episode illustrates more generally how the complexity of copyright law has greatly elevated the power of lawyers. It’s no accident that the permissions director is one of the few people at our publisher whose signature is absolutely necessary before our book, or any book, can be published. 

I am reminded of Mancur Olson’s 9th implication in The Rise and Decline of Nations:

The accumulation of distributional coalitions increases the complexity of regulation, the role of government, and the complexity of understandings, and changes the direction of social evolution.

Rules for students and teachers, popularized by John Cage

RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for a while.

RULE TWO: General duties of a student: Pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher: Pull everything out of your students.

RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE FIVE: Be self-disciplined: this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.

RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

RULE TEN: We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything. It might come in handy later.

The source is here, via the excellent Ted Gioia.

Mobility in and out of the top one percent

From Mark R. Rank:

…Thomas A. Hirschl of Cornell and I looked at 44 years of longitudinal data regarding individuals from ages 25 to 60 to see what percentage of the American population would experience these different levels of affluence during their lives. The results were striking.

It turns out that 12 percent of the population will find themselves in the top 1 percent of the income distribution for at least one year. What’s more, 39 percent of Americans will spend a year in the top 5 percent of the income distribution, 56 percent will find themselves in the top 10 percent, and a whopping 73 percent will spend a year in the top 20 percent of the income distribution.

Yet while many Americans will experience some level of affluence during their lives, a much smaller percentage of them will do so for an extended period of time. Although 12 percent of the population will experience a year in which they find themselves in the top 1 percent of the income distribution, a mere 0.6 percent will do so in 10 consecutive years.

It is clear that the image of a static 1 and 99 percent is largely incorrect. The majority of Americans will experience at least one year of affluence at some point during their working careers. (This is just as true at the bottom of the income distribution scale, where 54 percent of Americans will experience poverty or near poverty at least once between the ages of 25 and 60).

A further example of such fluidity can be found in an analysis by the tax-policy expert Robert Carroll. Using data from the Internal Revenue Service, Mr. Carroll showed that between 1999 and 2007, half of those who earned over $1 million a year did so just once during this period, while only 6 percent reported millionaire status across all nine years.

There is more here, via Greg Mankiw.

Clive Crook reviews Piketty

Here is his bottom line and it is correct:

Over the course of history, capital accumulation has yielded growth in living standards that people in earlier centuries could not have imagined, let alone predicted — and it wasn’t just the owners of capital who benefited. Future capital accumulation may or may not increase the capital share of output; it may or may not widen inequality. If it does, that’s a bad thing, and governments should act. But even if it does, it won’t matter as much as whether and how quickly wages and living standards rise.

That is, or ought to be, the defining issue of our era, and it’s one on which “Capital in the 21st Century” has almost nothing to say.

The full review is here.

Assorted links

1. Do you beam with pride or get upset at this article about young, rich philanthropists being courted by the White House?

2. Profile of Thomas Piketty.

3. As a kid I enjoyed Dodgeball.  I still remember me and Jimmy Wainwright being the last two guys on the floor.  (Sadly, Jimmy caught my rather unconvincing fifth grade toss.)   This article calls it “America’s most demonized sport,” but they don’t seem to have heard of the game we used to call “Kill the guy with the ball.”

4. CDs vs. vinyl, I say CDs have higher average quality but vinyl has higher peaks for the very best classical music.

5. Why do economics majors earn so much?  And economics humor.

6. Are babies a performance-enhancing drug?

China estimate of the day (speculative)

Officially, the People’s Republic of China is an atheist country, but that is changing fast as many of its 1.3 billion citizens seek meaning and spiritual comfort that neither communism nor capitalism seem to have supplied.

Christian congregations, in particular, have rocketed since churches began reopening when Communist leader Mao Zedong’s death in 1976 signalled the end of the Cultural Revolution. Less than four decades later, some believe China is now poised to become not just the world’s No. 1 economy but also its most numerous Christian nation.

“By my calculations China is destined to become the largest Christian country in the world very soon,” said Fenggang Yang, a professor of sociology at Purdue University in Indiana and author of Religion in China: Survival and Revival under Communist Rule. “It is going to be less than a generation. Not many people are prepared for this dramatic change.”

China’s Protestant community, which had just one million members in 1949, has already overtaken those of countries more commonly associated with an evangelical boom. In 2010 there were more than 58 million Protestants in China compared with 40 million in Brazil and 36 million in South Africa, according to the Pew Research Centre’s Forum on Religion and Public Life.

Yang, a leading expert on religion in China, believes that number will swell to around 160 million by 2025. That would be likely to put China ahead even of the United States, which had around 159 million Protestants in 2010 but whose congregations are in decline.

By 2030, China’s total Christian population, including Catholics, would exceed 247 million, placing it above Mexico, Brazil and the U.S. as the largest Christian congregation in the world, Yang predicted.

The article is here, via Noah Smith.

How to read (any book like) Capital in the Twenty-First Century?

Mike, a loyal MR reader, asks me:

How do you recommend approaching a book like Capital in the Twenty-First Century?  I’m a reasonably smart guy, undergrad econ, ee, mba from good schools, somewhat well read, etc., but the density, length and relative subjectivity(?) of Piketty’s topic has me hesitant.

Do I start with the reviews or another book(s), dive right in or find a discussion group (usually lucky if anyone actually reads even part it).  Maybe I approach it like the bible, one paragraph at a time over several years 🙂

For truly serious books, I recommend the following.  Read it once, straight through, with a minimum of fuss.  If you get truly, totally stuck on some point, which the rest of the book depends upon, find somebody to ask.  Otherwise just keep on plowing straight through.

Then write a review of the book.  Or jot down your notes, but in any case force yourself to take definite stances by putting words down on paper (or screen).

Then reread the book carefully, because now you know what you are looking for.  Revise what you wrote.

Of course only a few books a year (if that many) need to be read this way.

Starting by reading reviews of the book is fine for most people, but usually I prefer not to.  I read just enough of reviews to discern whether I wish to read the book (or watch the movie) at all.  Then I stop reading the review, as I do not wish to be contaminated by the reviewer’s perspective and I feel I usually have enough background to make sense of the book without the assistance.  I intend no slight toward reviewers, but the whole point of the reading/review process is to get some independent draws from the urn rather than a cascade of overly mutually influenced opinion.  That said, I recommend this “skip reviews” approach only to people who read a great deal very seriously.

Reading groups can be useful to either a) force you to read a book you won’t otherwise pick up, b) force you to defend your point of view on a book, or c) induct you into knowing a book really really well when currently you only know the book well.  Or, most of all, d) bond a group of people together.  All that is fine.  But I don’t see readings groups as very useful for simply “reading books.”  As Robin Hanson might say, readings groups aren’t about reading, or for that matter books.

Few people can stay interested reading one paragraph a day from a book.  One underrated virtue of fast reading is that you make enough progress to keep yourself interested and this also can improve comprehension.

Don’t put your money where your mouth is

Not a surprise to me but yikes nonetheless:

In the first comprehensive study of the DNA on dollar bills, researchers at New York University’s Dirty Money Project found that currency is a medium of exchange for hundreds of different kinds of bacteria as bank notes pass from hand to hand.

By analyzing genetic material on $1 bills, the NYU researchers identified 3,000 types of bacteria in all—many times more than in previous studies that examined samples under a microscope. Even so, they could identify only about 20% of the non-human DNA they found because so many microorganisms haven’t yet been cataloged in genetic data banks.

Easily the most abundant species they found is one that causes acne. Others were linked to gastric ulcers, pneumonia, food poisoning and staph infections, the scientists said. Some carried genes responsible for antibiotic resistance.

“It was quite amazing to us,” said Jane Carlton, director of genome sequencing at NYU’s Center for Genomics and Systems Biology where the university-funded work was performed. “We actually found that microbes grow on money.”

This was, by the way, a relatively frequent complaint in 19th century monetary writings, with the advent of banknotes.