Most of the reviews of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century have already been written. But I thought it might be best to read it all the way through before offering my own thoughts on this book, which startlingly rose to the top of the best seller lists last April. It has taken me five months, but I finished it.
One of the things the book has in common with the Karl Marx’s Das Capital (1867) is that it serves as a rallying point for the many people who are passionately concerned about inequality, regardless whether they understand or agree with the specific arguments contained in the book in question. To be fair, much of what Marx wrote was bizarre and very little was based on careful economic statistics. Much of what Piketty says is based on careful economic statistics, and very little of it is bizarre.
In few policy areas does good economics seem to conflict so dramatically with good politics as in the practice of subsidies to food and energy. Economics textbooks explain that these subsidies are lose-lose policies. In the political world that can sound like an ivory tower abstraction. But the issue of unaffordable subsidies happens to be front and center politically now, in a number of places around the world. Three major new leaders in particular are facing this challenge: Sisi in Egypt, Jokowi in Indonesia, and Modi in India.
Widespread recent reports have trumpeted: “China to overtake US as top economic power this year.” The claim is basically wrong. The US remains the world’s largest economic power by a substantial margin.
The story was based on the April 29 release of a report from the ICP project of the World Bank: “2011 International Comparison Program Summary Results Release Compares the Real Size of the World Economies.” The work of the International Comparison Program is extremely valuable. I await eagerly their latest estimates every six years or so and I use them, including to look at China. (Before 2005, the data collection exercise used to appear in the Penn World Tables.)
Inequality has received a lot of attention lately, particularly in two arenas where it had not previously received as much: American public debate and the International Monetary Fund. A major driver is the observation in the United States that income inequality has now returned to the extreme levels of the Gilded Age. (The share of income held by the top 1% rose from 8% in 1980 to 19% in 2012, a level last seen in 1928, and probably the highest among advanced countries. The share held by the top 0.1% rose from 2% to almost 9% currently, a level least seen in 1916. And mobility remains as low as ever.) Inequality remains high in Latin America and has increased in many other parts of the world as well.
My preceding blog post described how market-oriented mechanisms to address environmentally damaging emissions, particularly the cap-and-trade system for SO2 in the United States, have recently been overtaken by less efficient regulatory approaches such as renewables mandates. One reason is that Republicans — who originally were supporters of cap-and-trade — turned against it, even demonized it.
One can draw an interesting analogy between the evolution of Republican political attitudes toward market mechanisms in the area of federal environmental regulation and hostility to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. The linchpin of the program is the attempt to make sure that all Americans have health insurance, via the individual mandate. But Obamacare is a market mechanism, in that health insurers and health care providers remain private and compete against each other.
My last blog post listed some policies and institutions with which various small countries around the world have had success — innovations that might be worthy of emulation by others. Of course there are plenty of other examples of policies and institutions that have been tried and that are to be avoided. The area of agricultural policy is rife with them. Many start with a confused invoking of the need for “food security.”
The recent run-up in wheat prices is a good example. Robert Paarlberg wrote an excellent column in the Financial Times recently, titled “How grain markets sow the spikes they fear.” Grain producing countries point to the high volatility of prices on world markets and the need for food security when imposing taxes on exports of their own grain supplies, or outright bans, as Russia did in July. The motive, of course, is to keep grain affordable for domestic consumers. But the effect of such export controls is precisely to cause the price rise that is feared, because it removes some net supply from the world market. (The same could be said when grain importing countries react to high prices by enacting price controls, because that adds some net demand to the world market.)
Two decades ago, many thought the lesson of the 1980s had been that Japan’s variant of capitalism was the best model, that other countries around the world should and would follow it. The Japanese model quickly lost its luster in the 1990s.
One decade ago, many thought that the lesson of the 1990s had been that the US variant of capitalism was the best model, that other countries should and would follow. The American model in turn lost its attractiveness in the decade of the 2000s.
Following up on my preceding post, I asked my colleague here at Harvard, Jeff Liebman, about the evidence on the effective marginal tax rate facing low-income workers. (Professor Liebman is an expert in this area, which I am not. Incidentally he is also an economic advisor to Barack Obama.) Here is his response:
“Despite the EITC and child credit, the poverty trap is still very much a reality in the U.S. A woman called me out of the blue last week and told me her self-sufficiency counselor had suggested she get in touch with me. She had moved from a $25,000 a year job to a $35,000 a year job, and suddenly she couldn’t make ends meet any more. I told her I didn’t know what I could do for her, but agreed to meet with her. She showed me all her pay stubs etc. She really did come out behind by several hundred dollars a month. She lost free health insurance and instead had to pay $230 a month for her employer-provided health insurance. Her rent associated with her section 8 voucher went up by 30% of the income gain (which is the rule). She lost the ($280 a month) subsidized child care voucher she had for after-school care for her child. She lost around $1600 a year of the EITC. She paid payroll tax on the additional income. Finally, the new job was in Boston, and she lived in a suburb. So now she has $300 a month of additional gas and parking charges. She asked me if she should go back to earning $25,000. I told her that she should first try to find a $35k job closer to home. Also, she apparently can’t fully reverse her decision to take the higher paying job because she can’t get the child care voucher back (the waiting list is several years long she thinks). She is really stuck. She tried taking an additional weekend job, but the combination of losing 30 percent in increased rent and paying for someone to take care of her child meant it didn’t help much either.