Posts Tagged ‘inequality’

Martin Rowson 14.04.14

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Is there any academic economics book that has elicited as much interest in the past decade (and perhaps longer) than Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century?

All kinds of friends and colleagues have been asking me about it and sending me links. And, everywhere I turn, there seems to be a new review of the book.

To be honest, I just received my copy of the book. I haven’t read it yet and probably won’t be able to find the time to do so until the semester is over. (But, as I indicated, I will be teaching it in the fall.) So, while I’ll hold off on commenting on the content of the book itself until I’ve had a chance to carefully work my way through it, I do want to mention a couple of things.

First, my sense is the book is generating so much attention precisely because of a certain nervousness out there, the fact that capitalism is facing a legitimacy crisis right now. The capitalists’ project of becoming a universal class seems to have become derailed in the midst of the Second Great Depression, and Piketty’s discussion of the return of inherited wealth in the second Gilded Age speaks directly to that concern.

Second, many of the reviews I’ve read imply—and often explicitly state—that “our” views about capitalism are being challenged by the general rise in inequality and, in particular, by Piketty’s focus on the returns to capital. Paul Krugman’s essay in the New York Review of Books is a good example: “The result has been a revolution in our understanding of long-term trends in inequality.” “This is a book that will change both the way we think about society and the way we do economics.” “We’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to.” (Emphasis added in all cases.) And so on.

Excuse me but who is this “we” and “our”? I expect I’ll learn a lot from reading Piketty’s book (especially since it includes such evocative phrases as “the past tends to devour the future”) but, please, there are a lot of us who have been writing and teaching about capital and inequality for a very long time. They are central to how we’ve long understood and analyzed the changing dynamics of capitalist economies. I doubt, therefore, that Piketty’s book will contribute to a revolution in our understanding of long-term trends in inequality or in how we think about society and the way we do economics.

But clearly Piketty’s book may have that effect on how other people make sense of capital and inequality—economists who have spent their careers ignoring what their less-orthodox colleagues have been writing and teaching for many, many years.

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I often explain to students that Gini coefficients should be used with more than a few grains of salt.

One reason, as Timothy Taylor explains, is that changes in the Gini coefficient don’t tell us where the changes come from.

because the Gini boils down the overall distribution of income to a single number, it also loses some detail. For example, if the Gini coefficient has risen, is this because the share going to the top 20% went up, or the top 10%, top 1%, or top 0.1%? You can see these kinds of differences on a Lorenz curve, if you know what you’re looking for, but the Gini alone doesn’t tell you which is true.

The other reason, with Taylor does not discuss, is that Gini coefficients should not be compared across countries. That’s because it’s blind to different economic and social structures. Thus, a coefficient of .52 in one country, where all goods and services are private commodities, means something different from the same number in a country in which many of those commodities (such as education, healthcare, and so on) are provided as public goods.

So, what is the Gini coefficient good for? There are two acceptable uses for that simple, convenient number.

One is to look at the degree of inequality before and after fiscal policy, as in the chart above (from the World Bank [pdf]. There, we can see that fiscal policy in Latin American countries does very little to alter the before-fiscal-policy, or market, distribution of income.

The other acceptable use is to look at the changes over time for the same country, as in the chart below from the same report.

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What we can see, once we resist the temptation to compare numbers across countries, is that there is a wide range of experiences across Latin America: while Honduras’s distribution of income became slightly more unequal (increasing by 2.1 percent between 2007 and 2011), Mexico’s became a bit more equal (falling 2.3 percent from 2008 to 2012) and Bolivia’s fell quite dramatically (by 15.9 percent from 2007 to 2012).

So, yes, go ahead and look at changes in Gini coefficients for individual countries—before and after fiscal policy, and over time—but, by all means, resist the temptation to compare the coefficients across countries. Such comparisons are, at best, meaningless and can be quite misleading.

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This chart, from the work of Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman [pdf], illustrates the large increase in top 0.1% wealth share since the 1980s (top 0.1% = wealth above $20 million today. In other words, the inequality in the distribution of wealth in the United States is back to what it was just prior to the first Great Depression.