Welcome to “A Civil American Debate”

(This welcoming page was initially posted in March of 2011. It was updated in early 2014 to reflect our recent concentration on the economics of wealth and income distribution.)

The Economics of  Wealth and Income Inequality  

Go here for a chronological list of all posts addressing the economics of America’s most fundamental problem: the continuing and accelerating growth of income and wealth inequality, the decline of the “middle class” and the entire bottom 99%, and inequality’s causes and solutions. These posts describe and develop the essential features of the dynamic causes and effects of income and wealth redistribution in a modern market economy, with a primry focus on the U.S. economy. 

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Our Executive Summary on economics (April, 2011) contains an early look at our views on the American economy. These views have expanded considerably, are now more refined, and are accounting in more detail for changes in the field of economics that have taken place over the last two centuries. The essential features of America’s economic problems has not changed, but our intent has been to expand on the failure of the economics profession to comprehend how market economies really work.

Our discussions of other topics are listed on the Contents Topics page. We have left the following introduction unchanged from when it was first posted in March of 2011.

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Introduction 

When we started this project after the Tucson tragedy, we were determined to chronicle America’s past, identifying and discussing major problems, and hoping to help America find ways to work its way out of the current crisis.  By then, we were already gravely concerned about the results of the mid-term elections and a rapidly deteriorating situation.

Our plans to conduct a relatively leisurely series of fact-based discussions and debates quickly gave way, with the facts we are discovering and the current events that are unfolding, to a sense of urgency.  We now intend to provide a broad, fact-based information and analysis service.  We want to join others who are encouraging all Americans to get involved and stay involved in the political process.  Our primary focus for now will be on detailing the stunning economic and social facts and analysis that explain how we arrived at this crisis situation, and what can be done to turn things around.

Most Americans are probably unaware of how dangerous the current situation is for everyone but the very wealthy.  Large corporations and very wealthy people mostly have it their way in Washington, and through control of the media they are able to shape public opinion in ways that serve their interests.  We will show how they are hurting the American middle class and all Americans in the economic bottom 99% , and explain why major concepts in their self-serving ideology and propaganda are wrong.

Today the middle class is shrinking, unemployment hovers around 10%, housing foreclosures and bankruptcy rates remain extremely high, and adequate health care and education are falling more and more out of the reach of middle class Americans.  The middle class is in decline, and poverty is on the rise.  In September of 2010, CBS News Reported that one in seven Americans (43.6 million people) were living in poverty, up 8 million from August of 2004.  In sharp contrast, the rich have been steadily getting richer, and the top 1% holds the majority of America’s wealth.  This is nearly the same inequality in wealth distribution that existed in 1928, just before the beginning of the Great Depression.   Within the top 1%, a small group of multi-billionaires has achieved astronomical wealth, and they are now working to expand their control of federal, state, and local governments.  Their agenda amounts to an all-out attack on what is left of a dwindling middle class.  This grew out of disastrous policies started 30 years ago in the “Reagan Revolution,” but it is not what Reagan wanted.

The Last Two Years

After the Bush Administration ended with an economic collapse into the Great Recession and a massive Wall Street bailout, we could only share America’s guarded hopefulness that the newly elected President Obama could turn things around.  His administration appeared to stem the tide of economic collapse, stemming job losses and avoiding a deeper recession or depression.  Despite his party’s majorities in both houses of Congress, however, Obama was unable to achieve any real Wall Street reform or even produce much health care reform.

Chillingly, Congressional Republicans had become the party of “no,” openly opposing the President’s recovery efforts with filibuster after filibuster and revealing a political strategy of blaming him for the failure of those efforts. We would have expected everyone in Congress to want and to work for economic recovery, but we were sadly disappointed.

When in January 2010 the Supreme Court decided in Citizens United v FEC that corporations had constitutionally protected speech permitting them to spend as much as they desired in election campaigns, a whole new level of concern set in.  Sure enough, in the November elections corporations and billionaires spent millions of dollars, often anonymously, in support of Republican and tea-party candidates.  Consequently, voters provided the party of “no” and its new tea-party allies with a House majority and gains in the Senate, insuring that Obama would not be able to advance his recovery and jobs creation agenda in the next two years.

Exit polls revealed that voters were mainly concerned about economic recovery and jobs.  Many had been persuaded that Obama’s policies were failing and that the new members of Congress they voted for would do a better job of accomplishing his goals.  The voters had been seriously misled: the radical right has no intention of accomplishing these goals.

Instead, the radical right immediately pursued its agenda of advancing the interests of America’s most wealthy people, in opposition to those of all other Americans.  Currently (March of 2011) the radical right seeks to slash spending for federal programs that benefit ordinary Americans by some $60 billion,  including funding for low-income housing, early childhood, Low Income Home Energy Assistance grants, community health centers, and other services for the poor, asserting a politically false and economically impossible “goal” of thereby eliminating deficit spending and reducing the growing federal debt.

These cuts would be counterproductive, serving only to eliminate 700,000 to a million more jobs, worsening the economy and increasing the deficit.   Closing the deficit, however, is not the radical right’s real concern.  They served notice in December of their indifference to budget deficits and the federal debt when they forced renewal of the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

Our  Mission

Too many people in the middle class and below, we believe, are not yet sufficiently aware of the dramatically increased consolidation of wealth and income within the top 1% of Americans over the past 30 years, and this group’s steadily increasing control of government and the media.   Nor,  we suspect,  do they yet realize how significantly that consolidation of wealth has hurt them economically.  We were not aware when we started studying these issues of how incredibly serious the economic situation had become, but we believe we have identified and explained the major economic consequences of the last thirty years of the “Reagan Revolution,” and they are stunning.  Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman and Robert Reich, among others, have convincingly argued that the radical right is leading America into another depression, destroying the prosperity and freedom of everyone in the economic bottom 99%.  We too believe that a serious depression is imminent,  but can be avoided if America changes course now.  But there is no margin remaining for political error.

Today a minority group of right-wing radicals within the wealthiest top 1%, which as noted has been given the right to buy elections, seeks to advance a very radical political agenda of privatization and corporate control of government.  This threat has emerged suddenly this year in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio, where democracy and democratic self-government are now themselves under direct attack.

This site is dedicated to demonstrating the true gravity of the current situation. Within the various categories on this site you will find analyses and findings presented in bite-sized chunks, and we will be continuously adding more details and facts.

You will find this Welcome note both as a page and as a post.  A  Summary post, also posted on the menu bar as a page, summarizes our major conceptual conclusions.   We have also prepared an Economic Summary which contains our stunning conclusions about the effect of the “Reagan Revolution” on the economy over the past 30 years, cross-linked to the relevant posts.

We provide a Resources category listing recommended reading, action groups, and information sources.  Finally, we will develop a Recommendations category where we intend to post suggestions and discussions (our own and from others) about what the bottom 99% can do to turn things around.

Our most important purpose right now is to encourage everyone to get involved and stay involved until our lives, our democracy, and our American way of life are safe from the corporate attack.  We urge everyone to organize, join political action groups, learn about what is happening in America, learn the truth and broadcast it far and wide, as we are trying to do.  We can’t do this alone.

The Future Is at Stake

We especially encourage young people, the so-called “lost generation” that is finding it progressively harder to get a good education as funding and programs evaporate from elementary school all the way up to graduate school.  You are fully aware of what is happening to you: Most students like you are finding it increasingly difficult to get higher education without incurring huge debts it may take a lifetime to repay, and even to find jobs once they have their degrees.  Increasingly, only the very rich can afford high quality education.

We graduated from high school fifty years ago, and you can take it from us:  It hasn’t always been this way.  What is happening today to education in America is outrageous.  Among the most important freedoms in America are your freedoms to get a quality education, to provide economic security for yourselves and your families, and to find fulfillment in life.  Now you must work hard to preserve those freedoms. You all are the keys to regaining your freedoms and making sure that you will have a real future, so please get started.

Here is a recent tape of a political action by Coffee Party USA  that took place at Wesleyan University, to which all young people can (and should) relate.

The huge push-back in Wisconsin against the overt attack on public-sector workers and their unions shows that once they became aware of the sinister hidden agenda of the tea-bagger plutocrats, Wisconsin citizens reacted immediately and decisively.  Here is a video of a Wisconsin farmer explaining how Scott Walker’s tax-cuts-for-corporations and spending-cuts-for-people agenda will devastate Wisconsin communities.

All Americans in the bottom 99% must continue to support the people of Wisconsin as they struggle for justice and attempt to recall legislators and a governor that won election on false pretenses.  It’s not just about unions, and it’s not just about Wisconsin.  What happens in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Florida – anywhere in America – affects us all.

There is no doubt that the American people can defeat the power of the radical right, their wealthy patrons and their corporations, once they are aware of the truth and are galvanized into action.   Many progressive organizations and unions are fighting these suddenly very extreme attacks, and they are gaining in strength.

To be sure, the right-wing media has the ability to cause many people to act against their own interests.  But these people are in the minority, and we all have the power to ignore the radical media and disregard their propaganda and their distortions.  If we remain calm and confident, through hard work we can win this class struggle.  It is up to us.

As Michael Moore pointed out recently in Madison, Wisconsin, the 400 wealthiest people in America have as much wealth as the entire lowest half of the population, 155 million people!  But we all need to remember and stay focused on this: They don’t have anywhere near as many votes.  It’s the top 1% against the bottom 99%, so make democracy work and take back your country.

Please send our link to everyone you can.  And bookmark it for our updates! Constructive comments, questions, and information are welcome.

(We invite you next to read our Summary page, where we outline our major conceptual conclusions so far, and our Economic Summary.  Mike’s initial post, The American Bad Dream, reflects on the major developments that have affected his views and concerns over the past 50 years.)

ARC, JMH – 3/16/11

(Contents Topics)

Posted in Welcome | 3 Comments

The Fiscal Fiasco: A Real Budget and Debt Crisis

‘What Good Are Economists Anyway?’ asked Business Week’s cover story for 16 April 2009, noting that though the world is ‘simply too complicated’ for ‘exactitude’ in prediction, it is distressing that ‘seven decades after the Depression, economists still haven’t reached consensus on its lessons’. An even harsher rebuke came from within the profession when Paul Krugman asked, in the pages of the New York Times Magazine, ‘How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?’ (here). Despite his title, Krugman did not have all economists in mind, but only those who followed recent neoclassical fashion (he left undiscussed the reasons why Keynesian theory fell into disrepute in the 1970s). * * * Krugman dismissed the approaches dominating academic economics over the last 30 years as fundamentally misguided and called for a return to Keynesian theory as part of a recognition of the fundamental ‘messiness’ of the economy.

Writing in the Financial Times (August 5, 2009), Robert Skidelsky (best known for his authoritative biography of Keynes) similarly noted that the efficient-market hypothesis’s collision with the iceberg of economic reality had ‘led to the discrediting of mainstream macroeconomics’ and given the lie to economists’ claim to practice a predictive science. Such shock at the predictive failure of economics is surprising, given the dismal record of professional forecasting. — Paul Mattick, Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism, Reaktion Books. Kindle Edition, 2011 (pp. 19-20).

In his second-most recent Op-ed (“The Fiscal Fizzle: An Imaginary Budget and Debt Crisis,” The New York Times, July 20, 2014, here), Paul Krugman argued that the “fiscal panic has fizzled,” citing the most recent Congressional Budget Office budget forecast (February, 2014):

I’m not sure whether most readers realize just how thoroughly the great fiscal panic has fizzled — and the deficit scolds are, of course, still scolding. They’re even trying to spin the latest long-term projections from the Congressional Budget Office — which are distinctly non-alarming — as somehow a confirmation of their earlier scare tactics. 

The “deficit scolds” Krugman refers to are right-wing economists and politicians who argue that deficit reductions are needed to avoid the serious crisis that will eventually develop with the continuing federal deficits and exponential growth of the national debt. There are two ways to cut the deficit: reducing federal spending or increasing federal revenues. Krugman has been consistently critical of Alan Simpson, Erskin Bowles and the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (here), a conservative group that includes the premier Congressional budget slasher, Congressman Paul Ryan (here). The Republican Party and the economic right generally want lower taxes, and favor the budget slashing approach to reducing the deficit. Indeed, the Washington Post editorial cited by Krugman (here) simply presumes that raising more government revenues by increased taxation of the rich and corporations is out of the question. 

The economic right has little incentive to actually help relieve the Budget and Debt crisis. Ideologically, they express a broad aversion to government, and many powerful “conservatives” today simply want, as Grover Norquist puts, it to “shrink” the federal government “down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Politically, their agenda is to blame the Obama Administration for our economic woes,  and perfect their control of the national government so they can finish this job. 

Krugman has repeatedly campaigned against “austerity” budgeting, correctly arguing that cutting taxes and government spending has disastrous consequences for recovery and growth, both at home and abroad. In his most recent Op-ed (“Left Coast Rising,” The New York Times,  July 24, 2014,  here), Krugman points to the latest affirmations of Keynesian theory from the states of Kansas (whose tax cuts resulted in fiscal crisis and less growth) and California (which has increased taxes without such negative impacts). The lessons are clear: austerity cannot work, and the “trickle-down” fantasy is a hoax. The key to improving the economy, therefore, will be to remove the budget slashers and tax reducers from their positions of control.

To tackle the deficit problem, increased tax revenues from the wealthy and corporations are a must, but it also appears to be a political impossibility right now. It appears that Krugman, in these circumstances, has opted to argue that there is no need to worry about the deficits right now, in an attempt to disarm the fiscal scolds. Although the “fiscal fizzle” argument is a logical  approach to pursuing that political objective, this post argues that a close analysis of the CBO forecast shows there actually is a serious budget crisis, and we are running out of time to correct the problem. In my view, facing the truth is preferable to continuing to play political games. Billionaires like Nick Hanauer (see my last post) deserve to know the urgency of the danger for them in the current situation: We cannot rely on politics, so Hanauer’s movement remains the best hope for America’s future. So far, however, too few politicians and economists recognize (a) the proven failure of mainstream, neoclassical forecasting, and (b) the brutal consequences of the accelerating inequality of income and wealth.  

The CBO Forecast

Paul Krugman, referring to CBO’s “The Budget and Economic Outlook:2014 to 2024″ (here), makes this argument:

The budget office predicts that this year’s federal deficit will be just 2.8 percent of G.D.P., down from 9.8 percent in 2009. It’s true that the fact that we’re still running a deficit means federal debt in dollar terms continues to grow — but the economy is growing too, so the budget office expects the crucial ratio of debt to G.D.P. to remain more or less flat for the next decade.

Here is the Summary Table of CBO’s baseline projections (p. 2). As Krugman notes, the CBO presents both deficit and debt estimates in actual dollars and as a percent of GDP:

CBO budget outlook 45010-Outlook2014_Feb

Note that the real (inflation-adjusted) deficit is projected to grow from -$514 billion in 2014 to -$1,074 billion in 2024.  The national debt is projected to grow from $12.7 trillion in 2014 to $21,260 trillion in 2024. This enormous growth in the debt, however, results in a projected increase in the debt/GDP ratio from 73.6% to 79.2%. This reflects, of course, a similarly substantial increase in projected GDP.

GDP (income) is projected to grow at a little over 3.1% on average through 2017, and to increase at an average rate of 2.2% in the 2018-2024 period (Summary Table 2, p.6). These assumptions produce, from Table 1, rounded GDP figures of $17,278 trillion in 2014 (12,717/.736), increasing to $26,843 trillion in 2024 (21,260/.792). (CBO’s actual estimates are shown on Table 3-1, p. 50, as shown below.) 

Notably, this amounts to a 55% increase in total income through 2024. It is also noteworthy that the U.S. Census Bureau (here) projects the U.S. population to increase at a much slower rate, from 318.9 million in 2014 to 343.9 million in 2024, an increase of 7.9%. The CBO forecast therefore implicitly reflects substantial projected increases in per capita income and in productivity.

Our first observation must be that the CBO forecast takes no account of future impacts of the ongoing growth of income inequality and concentration of wealth. CBO acknowledges the substantial decline in income growth that has taken place since the late 1970s, reporting (p. 41) the following average annual growth rates: 4.0% (1950-1973); 3.3% (1974-1981) and; 2.2% (2002-2013). The projected average from 2014-2024 is 2.1%. The CBO offers no explanation for this steady decline, and fails to understand the association of that decline with growing income inequality.

Thus, its forecast of growing productivity and per capita income through 2024 simply ignores 10% decline of median income that has taken place since the Crash of 2008 (while top 1% incomes have grown dramatically), and offers a “supply-side” forecast that does not account at all for consumer demand. Although the past impacts of inequality growth are reflected in its low income growth expectations, it makes no adjustment for the continuing massive transfers of wealth to the top 1% or the continuing decline in bottom 99% income. I’ll return to this later.

Kruman emphasized this point: “The budget office predicts that this year’s federal deficit will be just 2.8 percent of G.D.P., down from 9.8 percent in 2009.” CBO presented (p. 4) the following graph of revenues and outlays since 1974, as a percentage of GDP: 

CBO 2014_Feb total revenues and outlays

 

This graph displays the record high (since 1974) ratio of the federal deficit to GDP of 9.8% in 2009, but shows that huge deficit to reflect the Crash of 2008 and the consequent loss of government revenues, and the huge outlays expended to save investment banks and other “too big to fail” financial institutions. That the ratio has fallen again does not indicate that we are out of trouble. What is more noteworthy is that while CBO’s non-Keynesian revenue projections are dubiously projected to rise, there is a considerable increase in real outlays through 2024. In general terms, the explanation (p. 74) is clear from the following table:  

CBO budget outlook 45010- outlays

  • Total mandatory outlays are projected to increase from $2,1 trillion in 2014 to $3.7 trillion in 2014, a 77% increase;
  • Total discretionary outlays are projected to increase from $1.2 trillion in 2014 to $1.4 trillion in 2024, a 16% increase;
  • The defense budget portion of discretionary outlays is projected to increase from $604 billion in 2014 to $719 billion in 2024, a 19% increase;
  • Interest on the national debt is projected to increase from $233 billion in 2014 to $880 billion in 2024, a 378% increase.

The interest on existing debt is increasing exponentially, because no debt is being retired and all debt holders own a “perpetual annuity” on their bonds. While the interest on existing debt is compounding, moreover, the government is continuing to borrow to cover each year’s new deficit, adding to the balance of debt.

Interestingly, under these projections, sometime in 2020 the interest on the debt surpasses the entire defense budget. But these projection do not include any allowance for additional income and wealth concentrations over the next few years: Monopoly profits are producing well over $500 billion per year in additional net worth for the wealthiest Americans and their corporations. As mentioned above, the CBO’s projected increase in income obscures the related decline of the median income of the bottom 99%, and fails to recognize that nearly all new income, as explained by Emmanuel Saez, has gone to the top 1% since 2010. In these circumstances, we are left to imagine how much greater the national debt and the deficits would be in 2024 than projected by CBO, if getting there is a possibility, or how much sooner than 2020 our debt interest will surpass the defense budget.

CBO Forecasting

CBO recognizes the nature of the situation:

Over the next decade, debt held by the public will be significantly greater relative to GDP than at any time since just after World War II. With debt so large, federal spending on interest payments will increase substantially as interest rates rise to more typical levels (see Chapter 2 for a discussion of the economic outlook). Moreover, because federal borrowing generally reduces national saving, the capital stock and wages will be smaller than if debt was lower. (p. 7) 

It’s overall outlook reflects guarded optimism. For example: “The CBO projects that … economic activity will expand at a solid pace in 2014 and the next few years,” and that “federal fiscal policy will restrain the growth of the economy by much less than it has recently.” CBO, nevertheless:

. . . estimates that the economy will continue to have considerable unused labor and capital resources—or “slack”—for the next few years. According to the agency’s projections, the unemployment rate will decline gradually but remain above 6.0 percent until late 2016. The labor force participation rate (the percentage of people in the civilian noninstitutionalized population age 16 or older who are either working or are available for and actively seeking work), which has been pushed down by an unusually large number of people deciding not to look for work because of a lack of job opportunities, will move only slowly back toward the level it would be without the cyclical weakness in the economy. (p. 27)

The typical neoclassical presumption that an economy will always bounce back to full employment is on full display here, reflecting the “full potential” of the capital stock:

By the second half of 2017, CBO projects, real GDP will return to its average historical relationship with potential (or maximum sustainable) GDP, which implies that GDP will be slightly below its potential. (p. 27)

And here is part of the basis for its projection of income growth through 2024:

Over the next decade, potential output is projected to grow by 2.1 percent per year, on average, which is much lower than the average rate since 1950. That difference primarily reflects long-term trends, particularly slower growth of the labor force caused by the aging of the baby-boom generation. (Id.)

This CBO forecast hedges, though, as have all other mainstream forecasts I have reviewed in the last two years:

The economic recovery has had unusual features that have been hard to predict, and the path of the economy in coming years is also likely to be surprising in various ways. (Id.)

And:

Economic forecasts are always uncertain, but the uncertainty surrounding CBO’s forecast for the next several years is probably greater than it was during the years following previous recessions because the current business cycle has been unusual in a variety of ways. (p. 39)

CBO attempts to account to distribution of income, but lack the tools to do more than try to draw inferences from the trend in labor income (wages and salaries), without accounting at all for the concentration of income (p. 43). This is pure guesswork, and reasoning is
led astray by the very high “labor” income accruing to very wealthy people. Thus, CBO produces this graph (p. 43) of “Labor Income”:

CBO budget outlook 45010-Outlook - labor income

Thus CBO predicts growing “labor income” and equates that with overall income growth, without any understanding of how the distribution of such income among wealthy and other people affects demand, consumption, and consequently income growth, taxation, and budget deficits.

I’m not picking on CBO in particular here: All of this reflects the bankrupt state of macroeconomic analysis today. CBO is trying very hard to predict the future, but cannot do it any other way but by projecting supply-side trends, i.e., guesswork. This next graph amplifies the problem CBO faces:

CBO budget outlook 45010-Outlook2014 household net worth

This graph has the familiar contours of the top 1% wealth graph, and that is because it mainly reflects top 1% wealth. After the Crash of 2008, as is now increasingly common knowledge, wealth lost by the top 1% (mainly stock market values rebounded, while housing values did not. The bottom 99% lost $3.7 trillion of net worth.

The lesson from this graph is that aggregate net worth data, as is aggregate “labor income” data, is worthless as a forecasting tool. That is, it is worthless in conditions like these where income and wealth are rapidly redistributing to the top. The reality that economic “science” has yet to grasp is that it is the distribution of income and wealth, in terms of its concentration at the top, which is the primary determinant of growth.

With that in mind, here’s one more graph from the CBO forecast:

CBO budget outlook 45010-Outlook2014 - federal debt

This first graph, from p. 3 of the CBO report, shows the national debt as a percentage of GDP. As we discussed earlier, CBO identifies that percentage as 73.6% for 2014, and 79.2% for 2024. Notice that 2007 out, from the last year or so of the Bush administration, debt was skyrocketing, as was unemployment. After the crash debt has continued to grow rapidly until the last year or so, when signs of what looks like “recovery” have appeared. Economists have no good reason to suppose that the national debt will not continue its sharp upward climb. So long as income and wealth continue to be sequestered at the top, there is no good reason to imagine that growth will be sufficient to counter the acknowledged, rapid increase in debt interest. That, I submit, is nothing but wishful thinking.

Summary and Overview

Since the Reagan Administration, income and wealth inequality have grown steadily and exponentially. Natural inequality growth was heightened by reduced regulation of monopoly profits and increased taking of economic rent at the top, beginning in earnest with the Reagan Administration. Also beginning in earnest with the Reagan Administration was the reduction of federal tax revenues collected from the wealthiest Americans and their corporations. The federal government was not deterred from staying in business, and much of its business turned to the enhancement of wealth. Thus, it incurred massive debt in order to finance these tax reductions.

Today, the interest on that debt is growing exponentially, forcing government to either raise more taxes or cut spending even more drastically than it already has in the last few years. The latter course is actively pursued by the right-wing economists and advocates for the wealthy, who continue to hunger for more wealth with almost no regard for the consequences. They are gradually destroying the U.S. economy and American prosperity, for all but a select few.

Extremists have rationalized this course of action by a pathological hatred of government, and by the objective, as Grover Norquist puts it, of shrinking the government down to a small enough size to “drown it in the bathtub.” Less extreme “Deficit scolds,” like the Washington Post editors who expressly want to socialize banks and too-big-to-fail corporations and financial institutions, insuring their continued profitability with the availability of sufficient government revenues to bail them out again should there be another crisis like the Crash of 2009.

Paul Krugman has been opposing these hideous, antisocial agendas for some time. In current circumstances, however, in which the full extent of the peril posed by the growing debt interest burden and by the continuing growth of income and wealth concentration are not well understood, he has opted to promote the idea that we have nothing to worry about from the national debt and the growing budget deficits. I thinks that strategy is a mistake.

That conclusion is supported only by the mainstream, neoclassical mindset which has continuously produced unreliable forecasts as inequality has grown. The CBO forecast shows reveals the flaws in that mind frame, and demonstrates that the danger from our growing debt and budget deficits is real, and growing exponentially.

In current circumstances, where threats to the sustainability of our planet’s ecosystem, and the frightfully escalating warfare among nations, can make economic matters seem trivial by comparison, we should stop and consider how our country, and the rest of the world for that matter, would fare with a collapse into another great depression. We really need to save the American economy and the federal government.

JMH — 7/25/2014

Posted in - FEATURED POSTS -, - MOST RECENT POSTS -, Economics, Wealth and Income Inequality | Leave a comment

It’s the Wealth Transfers Stupid

In 1980, the top 1 percent controlled about 8 percent of U.S. national income. The bottom 50 percent shared about 18 percent. Today the top 1 percent share about 20 percent; the bottom 50 percent, just 12 percent.

But the problem isn’t that we have inequality. Some inequality is intrinsic to any high-functioning capitalist economy. The problem is that inequality is at historically high levels and getting worse every day. Our country is rapidly becoming less a capitalist society and more a feudal society. Unless our policies change dramatically, the middle class will disappear, and we will be back to late 18th-century France. Before the revolution.

And so I have a message for my fellow filthy rich, for all of us who live in our gated bubble worlds: Wake up, people. It won’t last.

If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when. – Nick Hanauer, “The Pitchforks Are Coming. . . For Us Plutocrats,” Politico Magazine, July/August, 2014 (here)

To begin, a word about my title: It alludes, of course, to James Carville’s famous slogan “It’s the economy stupid,” meant to remind Bill Clinton’s campaign workers that voters’ top concern is always their pocketbooks and the economy.  I’m not fond of that quotation, but I use it because it was recently paraphrased in connection with the principal subject of this post — The Crash of 2008.  The crash and its aftermath were addressed in a recent Op-ed by Paul Krugman entitled “Build We Won’t” (New York Times, July 3, 2014, here). Later, posting that Op-ed in Reader Supported News, editor Marc Ash changed the title to “It Was the Housing Bubble Stupid,” a seemingly innocent endorsement of the argument Krugman made about the Crash of 2008.

When it comes to the economy, I would not call any economist stupid, certainly not a Nobel Prize winner, and especially not Paul Krugman. Every economist has her or his customized framework, or model, of how the economy works, through which facts are filtered and interpreted. There is great variety in these perspectives, and it is not surprising that they have provided a number of  competing explanations for the causes and consequences of the Crash of 2008. It is a complex topic.

The brashness of Ash’s endorsement of Krugman’s Op-ed may have been invited by Krugman’s statement, in his opening paragraph, that:

The basic story of what went wrong is, in fact, almost absurdly simple: We had an immense housing bubble, and, when the bubble burst, it left a huge hole in spending. Everything else is footnotes. 

To accentuate that point, he added in his linked note: “This wasn’t hard or unconventional economics; it was not much beyond Econ 101.”

Ash knows that Krugman must try to explain economics to everyone. But this is not a topic that can properly be reduced to simplistic explanations. The problem is, many of us have never been satisfied with “conventional” explanations of why the bubble existed in the first place, and do not believe that everything else is footnotes. In “The Neoclassical Boondoggle and the ‘Mutilated Economy’,” Part 1 (November 15, 2013, here), Part 2 (November 16, 2013, here), and Part 3 (November 19, 2013here), I provided an in-depth review of Krugman’s conventional analysis of the aftermath of the Crash, which had been set forth, with alarm, in his discussion of the “mutilated economy,” and I find it helpful to review those posts again now. In Part 3, I argued that a far more straightforward explanation of what went wrong was “completely obscured” by “conventional” economics:

It is noteworthy that, nearly six years since the Crash of 2008, mainstream conventional economists meeting at an IMF conference on economic crises agonized over the completely unexpected failure of the U.S. economy to rebound. Even more telling is their growing suspicion that their supply-side perspective is missing an important part of the picture. Most importantly, it does not yet appear to have occurred to them to consider the implications of income and wealth redistribution.

Part 3 discussed Krugman’s analysis, in which he laid out the theory of a “new normal,” a theory which not only presumes the existence of a “normal” state but implies that a huge crisis like the Crash simply ratchets down, permanently, the “old normal.” Krugman pointed out that, up until just now, it has been considered “radical” to believe that the economy does not automatically adjust back to a vigorous full employment, however long it takes:

A number of economists have been flirting with such thoughts (here) for a while. And now they’ve moved into the mainstream. In fact, the case for “secular stagnation” — a persistent state in which a depressed economy is the norm, with episodes of full employment few and far between — was made forcefully recently at the most ultrarespectable of venues, the I.M.F.’s big annual research conference. And the person making that case was none other than Larry Summers (here). Yes, that Larry Summers.

And if Mr. Summers is right, everything respectable people have been saying about economic policy is wrong, and will keep being wrong for a long time. Mr. Summers began with a point that should be obvious but is often missed: The financial crisis that started the Great Recession is now far behind us. Indeed, by most measures it ended more than four years ago. Yet our economy remains depressed.

The elaborate theory of “secular stagnation” does in fact imply, as Krugman now puts it, that “when the bubble burst, it left a huge hole in spending,” and that “everything else is footnotes.” But in that discussion, he did not endorse the simplistic “conventional” theory he presents now; he did not deny that Summers might be right.   

The story of the Crash, however, is not as carved in stone as even Summers makes it seem: My perspective is that the rising concentration of wealth and incomes in the prior 30 years was largely responsible for the huge hole in spending, and that the collapse of housing prices can logically be regarded as a symptom of declining middle class wealth, and thus as a consequence of the ongoing, accelerating decline of bottom 99% wealth and incomes: The problem is inequality, not secular stagnation. 

Hanauer’s Perspective

This apparently has become Hanauer’s perspective too. Our current concern about the future of America’s economy arises after “neoclassical” macroeconomics, for more than a century, has failed accurately to perceive how market economies actually work. Hanauer perceives a clear connection between America’s high level of wealth inequality and its rapidly declining prosperity, and he asserts that we’re all in the same boat, so that he and his fellow “plutocrats,” in their own self-interest, need to stop the inequality growth and reverse the decline that is taking place beneath them.

But, you may ask, isn’t that obvious? Many of us believe that it is, and our numbers are growing. But that has not been obvious to neoclassical economics which has, over the last 150 years or so, treated inequality as irrelevant to growth and prosperity.  The review in my last three posts of Thomas Piketty’s new book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” explains how the mainstream “supply-side” theories of growth have blunted our recognition of the true nature of market dynamics. Hanauer’s broad perspective is correct, I submit, but it raises questions Hanauer cannot answer: How serious has the inequality problem become in the United States? And how much time does the American economy have left before it succumbs to the collapse he senses is coming?

When I began working on inequality issues over three years ago, I was convinced that if such a pessimistic assessment is truly valid, it would be politically necessary to convince billionaires like Hanauer that their own interests are indelibly linked to those of everyone else beneath them. The publication of Joseph Stiglitz’s book “The Price of Inequality” in 2012, and the release of Robert Reich’s movie “Inequality for All” in early 2014, have helped raise awareness of the contours of the inequality problem, although these two have not been able to answer the second of these two questions. 

That question is not easy to answer, because income and wealth are interconnected in both directions: Wealth produces incomes (returns and profits) and high-end income produces wealth (savings and hoarding). In the first instance, income concentration is determined by institutional factors (market power, taxation, etc.) as well as by the degree of wealth concentration, but as wealth continues to concentrate, the additional returns it produces become a growing contributor to income inequality, accelerating the growth of both income and wealth inequality. 

Robert Reich has, no doubt, influenced many in the top 0.1% with his recent Aspen Lecture (July 3, 201 4, video here). The last question posed to him in the Q&A at the end of that lecture was a big one: What is more important, income or wealth inequality? Reich responded that, despite Piketty’s overall emphasis on wealth inequality, income inequality seems more important in the U.S. today; This is not surprising, for Piketty’s own discussion of the U.S. problem was based on income inequality in the U.S., and his treatment of wealth as “capital” made wealth accumulation in the U.S. seem to be a relatively innocuous long-run problem, as my previous posts explained. Notably, Hanauer stresses wealth inequality as the main concern: Is Reich correct that, for the U.S. economy, income inequality is the primary concern? 

Wealth concentration in the United States, which has gotten far less attention here than income inequality has, I believe, reached dangerously high levels. The concentration of reported net worth has been rising exponentially. That does not diminish the importance of Reich’s emphasis on the debilitating effects of income inequality, which alone is sufficient cause for concern. Reich points out that the (former) middle class has now exhausted the three “coping mechanisms” for dealing with falling median real household income: (1) increased female workforce participation (1980s-1990s); (2) Increased hours worked (1990s); and (3) “Turning our homes into piggy banks,” i.e., borrowing on our home equity. Consumer demand is 70% of the U.S. economy, he says, and that demand continues to decline with declining median incomes. With the coping mechanisms used up, declining demand must accelerate.

Despite the lack of formal economic theoretical support, many wealthy Americans could see what the bursting real estate “bubble” entailed, and began to share Hanauer’s concerns. In 2010, a group calling themselves “The Patriotic Millionaires” (here) began to press for increased taxes on their incomes, stressing the importance to them of a viable economy. Other billionaires, such as Warren Buffett and Bill Gates, spoke out on social and moral concerns and taxation. The majority of the top 0.1% and the top 0.01%, however, apparently remain unconvinced that inequality poses a serious economic problem for them, or a threat to their fortunes. And neoclassical economics continues to be a major impediment to understanding how serious the problem has become or how rapidly it is undermining our society and our democracy.

The Mainstream Perspective

Neoclassical economics, in fact, could not imagine that any collapse will take place, ever, because of its slavish belief in an overall full employment “equilibrium” toward which market economies are always driving. Unfortunately, the equilibrium was never more than a hypothetical state, but as neoclassical theories have been taught over and over again for decades, hypothetical notions have become presumptive. A few contemporary economists, including James Galbraith and Mason Gaffney, have pointed out that most economists simply believe as a matter of faith in an automatic return to full-employment equilibrium. Paul Mattick explains this problem nicely in his 2012 book Business as Usual: The Economic Crisis and the Failure of Capitalism (Reaktion Books, Kindle Edition, pp. 17-18):

In the later nineteenth century the ‘classical’ political economy of Smith, Ricardo, and their followers was replaced by a new ‘neoclassical’ mode of theorizing that was in many ways quite different. It emphasized not, like classical theory, the division of income among social classes, but the decision-making of individuals. Borrowing the concept of ‘equilibrium’ from physics, along with the mathematics of static mechanics, the new economics continued to insist that capitalism by its nature tended to settle in a stable state in which each individual is maximally satisfied, given the constraints set by his or her relations to the rest of the system. (How this idea was to be reconciled with the equally basic dogma that capitalism tends to grow as a wealth-producing system was left for future thinkers to resolve.) From this point of view too, therefore, breakdowns of the market system, as opposed to imbalances in particular markets, are out of the question; what general difficulties do occur must be the effects of some non-economic factor, such as the weather, human psychology or mistaken government policies.

I opined in my last post that macroeconomics was likely led astray from the beginning by the development of theory, over the centuries, from a “supply-side” perspective. Krugman has consistently condemned its extreme formulation, namely, the so-called “trickle-down” fantasy designed to counter proposed taxation of the wealthy and corporations (“Charlatans, Cranks, and Kansas,” The New York Times, June 30, 2014, here). As Krugman’s report on the “mutilated economy” last November shows, moreover, faith in “supply-side” reasoning may now be loosening its grip on fundamental mainstream economics as well. 

And, as Krugman also discussed (with disgust) in this Friday’s Op-ed (“Who Wants a Depression,” The New York Times, July 11, 2014, here) economics is intensely political:

One unhappy lesson we’ve learned in recent years is that economics is a far more political subject than we liked to imagine. Well, duh, you may say. But, before the financial crisis, many economists — even, to some extent, yours truly — believed that there was a fairly broad professional consensus on some important issues.

This was especially true of monetary policy. It’s not that many years since the administration of George W. Bush declared that one lesson from the 2001 recession and the recovery that followed was that “aggressive monetary policy can make a recession shorter and milder.” Surely, then, we’d have a bipartisan consensus in favor of even more aggressive monetary policy to fight the far worse slump of 2007 to 2009. Right?

Well, no. I’ve written a number of times about the phenomenon of “sadomonetarism,” the constant demand that the Federal Reserve and other central banks stop trying to boost employment and raise interest rates instead, regardless of circumstances. I’ve suggested that the persistence of this phenomenon has a lot to do with ideology, which, in turn, has a lot to do with class interests. And I still think that’s true.

He goes on to explain that while lowering interest rates are supposed to spur investment and growth, wealthy people get higher returns when interest rates are high, so their wealth increases faster. The greater the share of top incomes that consists of returns on wealth, the more this factor can potentially influence monetary policy, and accordingly the greater effect monetary policy can have on inequality and depression. 

Market Optimism, and the Bubble Phenomenon

Meanwhile, the growth of income and wealth concentration naturally promotes rosy and impressionistic financial analyses. Take, for example, the most recent Fisher Investments “Stock Market Outlook, 2014: Part 2″ (April, 2014, here). From the report’s Executive Summary:

The bull market turned five during the quarter, prompting many to question how much longer stocks can keep climbing.  (Appendix I) While bull markets can die for many reasons, age, magnitude and gravity aren’t among them. Unless a bull is truncated early by a sweeping, under-appreciated negative force (we can’t identify any such large, stealthy forces on the horizon currently), it will typically run on until sentiment becomes euphoric to the point reality can’t possibly live up to investors’ expectations.

This isn’t the case today. While sentiment has improved somewhat in recent months, a cloud of skepticism remains. Fear of heights, jitters over geopolitical tensions in Eastern Europe and anxiety over future Fed moves have helped keep expectations low. Investors broadly still don’t appreciate how favorable the current landscape is. (Appendix III) Even as final data showed the U.S. economy grew 2.6% in Q4 2013, with corporate profits and business investment hitting new all-time highs, folks fretted growing cash stockpiles and rising stock buybacks as signs businesses aren’t “investing in the future,” robbing the economy of future growth opportunities. (p. 1)

In his e-mail distributing this report, Forbes columnist Ken Fisher asked: “Could this bull market be a bubble in disguise?”, a question the report promised to address. The report progresses thus:

A bull market is like a vector: It will keep running until it loses steam or hits a wall – fundamental negative big enough to put a dent in the global economy that surprises markets. We don’t see any walls within the next 12-18 months. * * * Nor does the bull appear likely to run out of steam in the foreseeable future. Economic and corporate conditions typically exceed  investors’ expectations through most of a bull market — a powerful force pushing stock prices even higher. This bull market has been no exception. It’s no secret US and global economic growth have been lackluster, but even slow growth has exceeded dour “new normal” growth expectations, and fears of global economic doom have proven unfounded. (pp. 6-7). 

The report adds: “Price-to-earnings ratios have been rising, an expected feature of maturing bull markets.” (p. 21) 

In case investors are worried about record stock prices in the face of “lackluster” growth, the report continues:

Lastly, the notion that this bull market is reserved from “reality” is a perception problem. There is no greater reality in equity markets than corporate profitability. As we detailed in Appendix III, profits are high and rising, underpinned by increasing sales. The global economy seems poised to continue growing — an excellent backdrop for continued profit growth ahead. (p. 22)

But might this long bull market just be “a bubble in disguise”?

Bubble fears aren’t likely to exist when a true bubble does — their existence signals still-prevalent skepticism. Bubbles are events of mass psychology: When inflated, few folks fear a bursting bubble. Headlines tend to proclaim the arrival of a virtuous new economy — “it’s different this time” — as they have throughout history. That sentiment seems far removed from today.

Growing wealth inequality reflects the availability of more money to invest, and that bids up equity market prices, but there is necessarily declining wealth below, and a reduction of earnings support for the rising stock prices. Thus, bubbles today are much more than events of mass psychology. They have monetary antecedents and consequences. Similarly, high price-earnings ratios today in U.S. stock markets are much more than just reflections of bull market optimism, and “lackluster” earning and consumption growth in the U.S., together with record corporate profits and corporate earnings, indicates that corporations are collecting substantial amounts of economic rent.

Fisher Investments simply overlooks the growing concentration of wealth and income in America, the factor that ensures the continuing record-setting pace of American securities markets in the face of bottom 99% stagnation. It is irrelevant for America that “fears of global economic doom have proven unfounded”: The U.S. economy has by far the highest inequality among wealthy nations, and whatever happens to the rest of the world, Hanauer’s fears of a collapsing U.S. economy are not unrealistic. 

Importantly, Ken Fisher is one billionaire who seems unlikely to be swayed by Hanauer’s appeal anytime soon.  His firm may be influential enough to influence other plutocrats as well. So we need to keep reminding them, “It’s the wealth transfers stupid.”

Boom or Bubble?

The only sensible answer to Fisher’s question — “boom or bubble?” — seems to be that so long as wealth continues to concentrate at the top, bubbles and crashes are inevitable. Consider the recent view of Neil Irwin (“Welcome to the Everything Boom, or Maybe the Everything Bubble,” Investor Outlook, The Upshot, The New York Times, July 7, 2014, here):

Welcome to the Everything Boom — and, quite possibly, the Everything Bubble. Around the world, nearly every asset class is expensive by historical standards. Stocks and bonds; emerging markets and advanced economies; urban office towers and Iowa farmland; you name it, and it is trading at prices that are high by historical standards relative to fundamentals. The inverse of that is relatively low returns for investors.

The phenomenon is rooted in two interrelated forces. Worldwide, more money is piling into savings than businesses believe they can use to make productive investments. At the same time, the world’s major central banks have been on a six-year campaign of holding down interest rates and creating more money from thin air to try to stimulate stronger growth in the wake of the financial crisis.

This is more ominous than it might at first blush appear. Rising investment prices likely translate, in fairly short order, into rising consumer prices. This is not the classical image of inflation driving up prices because of an excess of consumer demand, which as Reich has observed has been depressed because of rising inequality. Such inequality-driven inflation can only hasten the development of an “everything bubble.”     

About the Crash

Hanauer’s identification of wealth inequality as the incipient cause of decline and potential depression is confirmed by all of this. There is no reasonable basis for expecting a continuing level of “secular stagnation,” for there is no reason to expect no further bubbles and crashes, as wealth continues to concentrate. My computations show an increase in reported top 1% net worth of between 1980 and 2008 of $18 trillion, in 2010  dollars. (See “Inequality and the National Debt,” April 9, 2014, here.) This figure, which does not include estimates of off-shore wealth owned by Americans, amounts to an average top 1% wealth increase of more than $600 billion/year. Since the economy was growing over this period, in the years just before the Crash the amount was greater than this average. Although this much money could not have come directly from bottom 99% wealth, the amounts coming from money created “from thin air” to which Irwin refers impact the bottom 99% through additional inflation, reducing the real value of the bottom 99%’s remaining wealth and incomes. 

Now the significance of the exhaustion of Reich’s three “coping mechanisms” for the bottom 99% looms large. The last of the three, in which houses were converted into “piggy banks” as people borrowed on their equity to obtain needed cash, was in effect a final act of desperation: for the vast majority of wealth holders beneath the top 1%, their primary marketable asset is their homes. Reich has, in fact, accurately described the process through which declining median income facilitates transfers of wealth to the top. The “housing bubble” was a big one:

The U.S. lost $3.4 trillion in real estate wealth from July 2008 to March 2009 according to the Federal Reserve. This is roughly $30,300 per U.S. household (Pew Charitable Trusts, April 28, 2010, here).

Because it does not consider wealth transfers, “conventional” economics misses the essential nature of decline and depression. The conventional view is that the Crash blasted a hole in the economy that merely created a “new normal” of lower growth, and “secular stagnation.” The numbers prove otherwise, however. The Crash of 2008, the subsequent chronic long-term unemployment, the foreclosure epidemic and the sharp decline in median incomes, together with the record gains in stock prices and, indeed, investment prices generally, all tell a different story. It is the story of the enormous power of income and wealth concentration to bring a market economy to its knees.

Two things are occurring now that suggest the U.S. economy is approaching the brink of Great Depression II: (1) The middle and lower classes are running extremely low on collateral to secure the loans they need to meet everyday living expenses; and (2) The federal government has exhausted its ability to finance, with fiscal expansion, the continuing rapacity of profits at the top.

Conclusion

What the supply-side perspective has missed by ignoring inequality altogether is the major role that income and wealth redistribution plays in decline and depression. In fact, inequality growth has proven to be, by far, the most significant determinant of stagnation and declining growth.  So, yes, above all else: “It’s the wealth transfers stupid.” 

JMH – 7/13/2014  

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Picking Piketty Apart — Part III: Time’s Running Out

The principles which have been set forth in the first part of this treatise, are, in certain respects, strongly distinguished from those on the consideration of which we are now about to enter. The laws and conditions of the Production of wealth partake of the character of physical truths. * * * The opinions, or the wishes, which may exist on these different matters, do not control the things themselves. * * * But howsoever we may succeed in making for ourselves more space within the limits set by the constitution of things, we know that there must be limits. We cannot alter the ultimate properties either of matter or mind, but can only employ those properties more or less successfully, to bring about the events in which we are interested. 

It is not so with the Distribution of Wealth. That is a matter of human institution solely. The things once there, mankind, individually or collectively, can do with them as they like. They can place them at the disposal of whomsoever they please, and on whatever terms. * * * Even what a person has produced by his individual toil, unaided by any one, he cannot keep, unless by the permission of society. Not only can society take it from him, but individuals could and would take it from him, if society only remained passive. * * * The distribution of wealth, therefore, depends on the laws and customs of society.  * * *

We have here to consider, not the causes, but the consequences, of the rules according to which wealth may be distributed. Those, at least, are as little arbitrary, and have as much the character of physical laws, as the laws of production. * * * Society can subject the distribution of wealth to whatever rules it thinks best: but what practical results will flow from the operation of those rules, must be discovered, like any other physical or mental truths, by observation and reasoning. - John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, Part II, first published 1848, Oxford U. Press, 1998, pp. 5-6.

This is an excerpt from Mill’s amazing introduction to his discussion of “distribution” and “poverty”, with which he divided Books I and II of his Principles of Political Economy. Book I related to his concepts of classical economics, and Book II related to the topic of primary concern to most of the classical philosopher/economists (including Adam Smith, T.R. Malthus, and Jean-Baptiste Say), namely, how a society can function in an optimal and reasonably egalitarian way. In 1848, there were only rudimentary and still largely untested theories explaining how the primarily agrarian economies of Europe and North America worked. Mill (1806-1873) is known for having provided a clear restatement of the deterministic principles of a recent predecessor in political economy, David Ricardo (1772-1823); The conceptual framework that Mill advanced consisted of “laws” and “physical truths” seen to control production. Political economics would soon have to face great change in economies, as industry developed and the ownership of land and the means of production consolidated in the hands of fewer and fewer owners. 

The Ricardian perspective, as it continued to develop through Alfred Marshall and into the 20th Century, was popular with “conservative” economists because it suggested that market economies are stable and will always return to full employment equilibrium after a crisis. Mill was the favorite of one such economist, J. Laurence Laughlin (1850-1933), who became the department-head of the new economics department of the University of Chicago from 1892-1916. In 1885, Laughlin published an abridged version of Mill’s “Principles of Political Economy” (see e-book at Project Gutenberg, here) which included notes, and a rare “history of political economy.” Mill’s polished-up Ricardian perspectives still dominate neoclassical thinking today, and their popularity at the University of Chicago paved the way for the “no holds barred” philosophy of Milton Friedman and the “Chicago School” of economics.

The quoted passage contains a rare insight which ranks, in my opinion, among the most important insights in economic history: Mill perceived the existence of “physical truths” controlling the process of the production of wealth that cannot be altered by anyone’s perception or understanding of them. The distribution of wealth, on the other hand, is determined by the laws and customs of society. And, most poignantly, once society has established its rules of distribution, the resulting consequencesare as little arbitrary, and have as much the character of physical laws, as the laws of production. This perspective seems remarkable for 1848, a time when economic science was just getting started, even for a philosopher of Mill’s caliber. It is an insight that has been largely missing from economic reckoning ever since. It boils down to this:

Our policy choices determine how wealth is distributed and, once established, these choices have inexorable consequences.  

This is the first of three important insights which have formed the basis of my own perspectives on economics, and the framework from which I perceive and interpret the nature of economic reality. The second is Simon Kuznets’ remarkable perception in 1955 (as quoted in the first post of this series) that:

[O]ur understanding of the whole process of economic growth is limited; and any insight we may derive from observing changes in countrywide aggregates over time will be defective if these changes are not translated into movements of shares of the various income groups.    

In other words, we cannot hope to understand economic change on the basis of changes in “countrywide aggregates.” We must study the effects of changing distribution.

The third is a fundamental insight underlying John Maynard Keynes’ General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1935), namely, his understanding that classical and neoclassical theory was not dynamic at all, but founded on a description of an economy in “full employment equilibrium” to which deterministic properties were improperly assigned:

For there would obviously be a natural tendency towards the optimum employment of resources in a Society which was functioning after the manner of the classical postulates. It may well be that the classical theory represents the way in which we should like our Economy to behave. But to assume that it actually does so is to assume our difficulties away. (Ch. 3)

There are reasons why economies nearly always function sub-optimally, and Keynes identified some of the most important, primarily the “principle of aggregate demand.” To the extent we feel compelled to regard political economics as a search for what Mill envisioned as “physical laws,” I would start with “The Law of Aggregate Demand.”

I believe that the overall perspective, or model, these insights provide meets the test of “model-dependent realism” developed by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mladinow, as discussed in my previous post in this series; It provides a “lens” through which our observations of economic facts and experience can provide a correct understanding of our shared reality. In broad strokes, the reality I have perceived is that capitalist market economies are unstable and tend naturally to decline (Keynes), that such decline is greatly and increasingly exacerbated by the growing wealth and income inequality that society’s choices have allowed in the U.S. economy (Mill), and that we have no hope of understanding these consequences and their mechanisms except through the study of the trends in distributional data (Kuznets).

It does not matter that none of these three great theorists never ultimately found a “unified field theory” of economics, or even that their own theories about how economies work were, at best, only partially correct. After all, they did not have the data Kuznets understood that we needed. What does matter is that consistently applying a distributional perspective to the analysis of facts and theories opens the door to a much deeper, and considerably different, understanding of reality than had previously been possible.   

The Slow Pace of Learning

Convinced that distributional data was extremely important, the French economists Thomas Piketty and Emanuel Saez devoted years to accumulating the long history of income tax returns of the major developed countries of the world, and in doing so, they changed the course of economic history. It is, however, a very slowly developing change. They first published their database in 2003, and when their findings came out in 2011, a perplexed economics profession did not know what to make of them. Their data demonstrated that income inequality grows in lockstep with a decline in the progressiveness of taxation; indeed, they identified the progressiveness of taxation as the degree to which it inhibits inequality growth. And others have documented the extreme effect of the growth of income inequality on aggregate income growth. But no one, including themselves, grasped the full import of their data.

The economics profession gradually began to address the questions presented by the increasingly unequal distribution of income and wealth, but progress was slow, for these were issues that mainstream economics had ignored ever since John Stuart Mill addressed them philosophically and his contemporary, Karl Marx, began to address them theoretically.

It took a decade for either Piketty or Saez to weigh in substantively with anything more than a very good study of the income elasticity of top income tax rates. Piketty’s publication in 2014 of Capital in the 21st Century, though, has mostly contributed to the existing high level of confusion about inequality issues. The attention his book is getting in the United States is almost entirely limited to his subjective evaluation of the obviously advanced deterioration of the U.S. economy, which among wealthy nations is by far the most inequality-afflicted economy in the world.

The plight of the U.S. economy virtually guaranteed a high level of attention in the United States to any book Piketty published. It is remarkable, then, that Piketty published a book in which substantive discussion of inequality was preceded by a nearly 300-page anecdotal and theoretical presentation supporting a production function-based growth model which, as demonstrated by the comprehensive technical review of his two “fundamental laws” presented in my previous post, is seriously flawed. As quoted in the last post, Piketty conceded that the record of the accumulation of a country’s productive capital is fundamentally unrelated to the distribution of its wealth and income among its citizens; this is a corollary of the point Mill made nearly 170 years ago. Why, then, did Piketty publish this book? That even Thomas Piketty himself has been unable to arrive at a better understanding of inequality speaks volumes about the threadbare inadequacy of the neoclassical framework in which he was trained.

History Repeats Itself

John Stuart Mill, despite the attraction of his deterministic model to “conservative” economists, was an avid socialist, as was Adam Smith before him. (See my extensive review of Smith’s views in “The Cult of the Invisible Hand,” December 22, 2013, here.) The flavor of Mill’s deep concern for the general welfare was revealed in his Chapters on Socialism, first published posthumously in 1879:

Since the human race has no means of enjoyable existence, or of existence at all, but what it derives from its own labour and abstinence, there would be no ground for complaint against society if everyone who was willing to undergo a fair share of this labour and abstinence could attain a fair share of the fruits. But is this the fact? Is it not the reverse of the fact? The reward, instead of being proportioned to the labour and abstinence of the individual, is almost in an inverse ratio to it: those who receive the least, labour and abstain the most. * * * The very idea of distributive justice, or of any proportionality between success and merit, or between success and exertion, is in the present state of society so manifestly chimerical as to be relegated to the regions of romance.  (Oxford University Press, 1998, p. 382.)

Piketty, for obvious reasons, is less forthright about his views on economic justice. In his concluding remarks, he encourages us to loosen up on political perspectives on wages and wealth:

The clash of communism and capitalism sterilized rather than stimulated research on capital and inequality by historians, economists, and even philosophers. It is long since time to move beyond these old controversies and the historical research they engendered, which to my mind still bears their stamp. (Capital in the Twenty-First Century, p. 5 76)

Amen. As a Frenchman, Piketty does not shy away from discussing Karl Marx, whose theories on capital accumulation, he says, paved the way for his own. Amongst the knowledgeable, Marx is routinely acknowledged as one of the best and most prescient theorists in economic history. Marx believed, as Piketty observes, that a top-heavy capitalist system would ultimately collapse of its own over-concentrated weight. That possibility, unfortunately, still exists.

In the last paragraph of his book, however, Piketty merely hints at the lopsided balance of intellectual power attending inequality:

[I]t seems to me that all social scientists, all journalists and commentators, all activists in the unions and in politics of whatever stripe, and especially all citizens should take a serious interest in money, its measurement, the facts surrounding it, and its history. Those who have a lot of it never fail to defend their interests. Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interests of the least well off. (Id. at 577 )

Yes, indeed: But a Wall Street Journal article has successfully downplayed Piketty’s contribution in this respect. (“Thomas Piketty, a Not-So-Radical French Thinker,” by Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, May 22, 2014, here.) The headnote says Piketty “may be causing a stir in the U.S., but his views are ho-hum in his own country.” According to Gobry, Piketty argues that “capitalism creates a vicious cycle of inequality,” whenever “the rate of return on assets is higher, over the long run, than the rate of overall economic growth,” and asserts the need (quoting Paul Krugman) “to restrain the growing power of inherited wealth.” Gobry’s ultimate point, of course, is that inequality is no big deal.

My counterpoint is that inequality is a very big deal, but the evidence for that is in the second part of Piketty’s book, not the first. Despite his strong stance regarding inequality in the United States, Piketty has led with his chin. In that regard, my overall concern is that Piketty himself has not properly framed the inequality issue. By wrongly lumping together the issues of “capital and inequality,” Piketty has perpetuated a much brighter image of our future than we should be expecting. NYU economist Debraj Ray supports this conclusion: 

It is unclear that the story of rising inequality in the US is one of physical (or financial) capital coming to dominate. Rather, inequality in the United States appears to be propelled by incredibly high returns to human capital at the top of the wage spectrum. This points to a very different set of drivers, and also shows that the physical capital story is not pervasive. (“Nit-Piketty: A comment on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty First Century,” by Debraj  Ray, May 23, 2014, here

Others have reportedly begun to raise concerns about Piketty’s theory similar to mine, regarding the concepts of “capital” and “wealth” (See, Ed Conard, Unintended Consequences, May 30, 2014, here). The most important point, in my mind, is the relatively innocuous nature of the trend in capital accumulation, compared with the concentration of wealth itself. Conard provided this chart of 200 years of changes in top 1% wealth and top 10% wealth in the United States. Piketty’s numbers appear fairly similar to Edward Wolff’s for the last decade or so, and this chart reflects the increasing concentration of top 1% wealth since 2000 that Wolff has reported.

US-WEALTH-INEQUALITY-piketty 1810-2010

The significance of this long run series to Piketty was that it was supposed to represent a long-run equilibrium condition of the stock of productive capital. That flawed idea, apparently, is beginning to collapse in the public debate. 

As I have explained, my “heterodox” (non-mainstream) perspective on wealth concentration in the U.S. arises from direct analysis of distributed wealth, and its relationship with distributed income: A smattering of attention has been paid to the concentration of wealth in the United States over the last few years, but not nearly as much as has been paid to income inequality. As soon as I began working on American inequality I began to investigate wealth inequality, presenting my initial findings in two posts: “Growth in Inequality of Wealth: 1979-2007,” 4/11/2011, here), and “Growth of Inequality of Wealth: After 2007,” 4/13/2011, here).

Initially, I found that the top 1% of U.S. wealth holders had improved their reported net worth by about $8.8 trillion between 1979 and 2007. That figure, however, was first reported in nominal dollars and, as I began reporting in 2013, the top 1%’s reported net worth had improved by nearly twice that much, in current (2010) dollars, and with the addition of post-2007 wealth accumulated by the top 1% and estimates of its unreported wealth accumulating in “offshore” (overseas) accounts, the total top 1% increase in net worth through 2012 (1979-2012) can reasonably be estimated at $22-25 trillion. (See, e.g., “Finding a New Macroeconomics: (10) Reinhart, Rogoff, and Redistribution,” 6/30/2013, here, and “Inequality and the National Debt,” 4/9/2014, here.) Here is the graph I prepared a year ago comparing the growth of top 1% wealth in the United States, using Edward Wolff’s wealth concentration data, with the U.S. national debt and the GDP, all in 2010 dollars:

my graph 1952-1982 cThis shows clearly the extent of the inequality problem in the United States. Top 1% wealth has been concentrating rapidly since 1980, as a result of society’s choices which allowed wealthy people to make more money (market deregulation) and which allowed them to keep increasingly greater shares of their improved incomes (via tax reductions), as demonstrated by the Piketty/Saez income distribution data. The result — accumulating wealth at the top funded by federal borrowing needed to replace the revenues lost by the tax cuts — has been breathtaking.

Wealth concentration at the top has exceeded the growing national debt by an amount I have estimated in the $5-8 trillion range. That is money sucked up from the bottom 99%. And as lower 99% incomes decline, their tax contributions to the federal government also decline substantially and the deficit increases accelerate, requiring greater interest payments to the wealthy people who hold federal debt. Currently, interest on the debt is the fastest rising category of federal debt, projected by the CBO to exceed the entire defense budget by the end of this decade.

Lessons Learned

Conservatives will seek to have the invalidaton of Piketty’s growth model serve to persuade us to dismiss outright his concerns about growing wealth concentration. But that would be an incredibly bad mistake. We must learn from his conceptual mistakes. We must remember his acknowledgement that the neoclassical approach to understanding growth does not explain changes in income and wealth distribution:

[A]part from the question of short-term volatility, such balanced growth does not guarantee a harmonious distribution of wealth and in no way implies the disappearance or even reduction of inequality in the ownership of capital. (p. 232)

He has also identified two fundamental realities that we will need to incorporate into a distributional macroeconomics: “The law of cumulative growth” and the related “law of cumulative returns” (Capital in the 21st Century, pp. 74-75). These laws go a long way toward establishing the reasons for astronomically growing wealth inequality in the United States. Interest bearing obligations, such as federal bonds, increase wealth exponentially if held for extended periods. Properly depreciated factories and machines, however, do not. In other words, inequality growth is in large measure a financial problem; and it is a problem related to the ownership, but not the concentration, of capital stock.

We need to acknowledge right now that the inequality problem is much worse than envisioned by Piketty. In the long run, he envisions a U.S. economy with a reasonably stable aggregate production function through 2030. However, the long-run prospects for U.S. economic recovery are extremely bleak, even if the capital-to-labor ratio in the production function falls (perhaps especially if it does.) Top 1% wealth is increasing by about $300-400 billion per year. Saez and Piketty have both confirmed that at least 95% of all income growth now accrues to the top 1%. The question now is whether the U.S. economy can even make it to 2020 without a complete collapse into Great Depression II.

We know from direct observation what is happening in the United States: Every day we are confronted with news reports of falling prosperity, increasing poverty, record numbers of unemployed and of homeless children, declining wages and stagnant employment, declining food quality and health care, a rapidly growing student debt problem, and the bankruptcy of cities like Detroit, which is exercising widespread foreclosures and shutting down residential water service to a great many homes for nonpayment of bills. It is obviously a problem of insufficient money in the economy of the bottom 99%; a problem of money being steadily sucked up to the top 0.1% and 0.01%. And even the most rudimentary statistical tests, as recently found (to their apparent surprise) by IMF economists, show that growing inequality is the most important factor determining growth. (See my essay, “Two Sides of the Same Coin,” March 28, 2014, here.)

And we know what has to be done: Increase the minimum wage, increase the progressiveness of taxation across the board. Tax wealth, but without waiting for the inheritance cycle to gradually reduce estates. And re-regulate businesses to cut back on the vice-like grip monopolistic market power has established across most consumer and producer markets.

As it happens, Paul Krugman’s Op-ed in today’s New York Times, “Charlatans, Cranks, and Kansas” (June 30, 2014, here ) highlights the crux of our problem.  Krugman reports that two years ago Kansas enacted the largest percentage tax cut in one year that any state has ever enacted:”Look out, Texas,” proclaimed Governor Brownback, predicting that  the cuts would jump-start an economic boom. Instead, Kansas has plunged deep into debt, and its debt has been downgraded. Krugman asks:

Why, after all, should anyone believe at this late date in supply-side economics, which claims that tax cuts boost the economy so much that they largely if not entirely pay for themselves?

The Kansas tax cut, Krugman observes, closely follows the blueprint of the American Legislative Exchange Counsel (ALEC), a right-wing group that supports the interests of the wealthy:

And I do mean for the wealthy. While ALEC supports big income-tax cuts, it calls for increases in the sales tax — which fall most heavily on lower-income households — and reductions in tax-based support for working households. So its agenda involves cutting taxes at the top while actually increasing taxes at the bottom, as well as cutting social services.

But how can you justify enriching the already wealthy while making life harder for those struggling to get by? The answer is, you need an economic theory claiming that such a policy is the key to prosperity for all. So supply-side economics fills a need backed by lots of money, and the fact that it keeps failing doesn’t matter.

The time has come to recognize that all of neoclassical theory, the theory that still dominates academic economics today, is essentially a supply-side construction. It is, moreover, a retrograde version of the original classical economics. Smith and Ricardo, for example, agonized over the definitions of economic rent — money collected without providing anything of value in return — an important concept ignored by mainstream economics today. We need a renewed focus on the long-suppressed doctrines of Henry George (Progress and Poverty, 1879) and on taxing economic rent.

Now that we understand the irrelevance of the production function to aggregate growth, we’ll need to banish production functions from macroeconomics, just as Keynes attempted to banish Say’s Law (the notion that supply creates its own demand) in the 1930s. 

“For my own part, I believe that there is social and psychological justification for significant inequalities of incomes and wealth, but not for such large disparities as exist today,” wrote Keynes in the last chapter of his General Theory:

But it is not necessary . . . that the game should be played for such high stakes as at present. Much lower stakes will serve the purpose equally well, as soon as the players are accustomed to them.

I wonder if that was ever true and, if so, whether it is still true today in the United States: The top billionaires here, and everywhere else, seem to have no endgame in mind. 

We find ourselves in essentially the state of economic theory development that faced John Stuart Mill in 1848. If we are ever going to improve our understanding, we had better get started now, and move a whole lot more quickly.

Time is running out.

JMH – 6/30/2014 (ed. 7/1/2014)

 

 

 

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Picking Piketty Apart — Part II: His “Laws of Capitalism”

Regarding the laws that govern the universe, what we can say is this: There seems to be no single mathematical model or theory that can describe every aspect of the universe. * * * Though this situation does not fulfill the traditional physicists’ dream of a single unified theory, it is acceptable within the framework of model-dependent realism.” – Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mladinow, The Grand Design, Bantam, N.Y. 2010 (p. 58)

According to model-dependent realism, it is pointless to ask whether a model is real, only whether it agrees with observation. * * * We make models in science, but we also make them in life. Model-dependent realism applies not only to scientific models but also to the conscious and subconscious mental models we all create in order to interpret and understand the everyday world. There is no way to remove the observor — us — from our perception of the world, which is created through our sensory processing and through the way we think and reason. Our perception – and hence the observations upon which our theories are based  - is not direct, but rather is shaped by a kind of lens, the interpretive structure of our inner brain. – Hawking and Mladinow, supra (p. 46)

The above quotations are taken from an early chapter entitled “The Nature of Reality,” a chapter dealing mainly with describing how science works. The core concept is “model-dependent realism.” We are reminded that, as in the natural sciences, no theory in the social sciences can be said to describe “reality” except to the extent that it is supported by observation.

Unlike the models and theories describing the physical universe, those pertaining to economic science relate to how we “interpret and understand the everyday world.” Most of the time, we might think, the workings of the everyday world are much easier to interpret and understand than the vast, mysterious cosmos. Thus, it is hard to believe that geniuses like Newton and Einstein developed their theories through the same (or similar) processes of perception and interpretation that we ourselves use to develop our more mundane, everyday theories. Nonetheless, the problem of understanding “reality” is the same in both cases.

Economic theories fail when the assumptions on which they depend do not comport with reality, or when they are incomplete, overlooking facts that must be observed and accounted for before our “everyday world” can properly be understood. A major problem in economics has been that theories are developed under strict sets of assumptions (like “perfect competition” or “full employment”) that are never met, yet we keep on applying the theories anyway, because they are all we’ve got to go on.

This gives rise to a subtle problem highlighted by the above quotation:

Our perception – and hence the observations upon which our theories are based  - is not direct, but rather is shaped by a kind of lens, the interpretive structure of our inner brain.        

Our interpretive structures are framed by what we are taught and, accordingly, what we think we know. Over time, our minds hold on to them, as we live and work with them, and their elaborate constructs become part of the interpretive structure of our brains — the “lens” we use to interpret our observations of the world. Thus, our perceptions persist, even when the world won’t support them, controlling our thought processes. There is only one way out of this conundrum: We must constantly challenge our beliefs, and abandon them when they are not working. Of course, to do that, we need observations and relevant data. But if we don’t do that, when important new information arrives we simply get confused.   

This is a problem, I suggest, that has always plagued economic science. Over the past several years I have been startled by the degree to which the application of mainstream economic theory to the multitude of new information on income and wealth distribution has resulted in a high level of acknowledged confusion. That confusion is best explained, I submit, as a failure of model-dependent realism. Economists are using decades-old models, with insufficient regard for the limiting assumptions under which these models were originally developed. One key assumption, of course, is that these models properly specify all of the factors which actually determine the data we interpret. When we ignore or overlook the constraints reality imposes on our models, our use of them leads to mistaken interpretations of reality, and the perpetuation of wrongful perspectives. 

The Neoclassical Sidetrack

That, I would argue, is the crux of what has happened to economic science over the last 50-100 years, and why mainstream, neoclassical economics, as recently conceded by its leading young superstar, Raj Chetty (“Yes, Economics is a Science,” The New York Times, October 20, 2013, here) still cannot explain the mechanics of growth. This problem plagues Thomas Piketty as well, as he has bravely set forth a growth model, characterized as “the second fundamental law of capitalism,” which traces back to the “Harrod-Domar” growth model and other production function-based models developed more than a half-century ago. In effect, this “neoclassical” framework has created a lens that frames all macroeconomic issues in specific, constrained ways, rendering minds trained to understand the economic world from within that constrained framework nearly incapable of considering, or even perceiving, alternative perspectives.   

Piketty has earnestly and carefully developed two “fundamental laws of capitalism” that emerge from that limited perspective. He then attempts in the last portion of his book to apply those “laws” to understanding the inequality problem but finds, perhaps to his own surprise, that they are of no help in this regard. His application of the model to existing data sources, including those he himself has painstakingly compiled, has also highlighted important concerns about how we use data to understand growth.

Specifically, “capital” is a concept in classical and neoclassical economics that generally means “capital stock,” or investment in the physical plant needed to produce output. The growth models at issue here originally focused on the growth of capital stock, as Piketty well knows. However, to use available data sources, he has resorted to a long-run “equilibrium” model in which “capital” can be thought of as equivalent to the broader concept of “wealth.” That shift from “capital” to “wealth” contains a major key to understanding why mainstream supply-side growth models cannot help understand the inequality problem, and more generally why the attempt to understand growth via aggregate production functions has been a dismal (and still generally unrecognized) failure. 

The extreme redistribution of wealth, and consequently income, in my view, is the real inequality problem, and it is a problem not comprehended by tracing, as Piketty attempts to do, the growth of the productive capital capacity over many decades:

The central thesis of this book is precisely that an apparently small gap between the return on capital and the rate of growth can in the long run have powerful and destabilizing effects on the structure and dynamics of social inequality. (Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Belknap/Harvard, 22014,  p. 77)

His is a hybrid thesis, an ultimately misleading attempt to connect mainstream growth theory with “the dynamics of social inequality.” It is not an entirely straightforward matter to understand what this conclusion means, or how he reached it. 

To make any real progress in reading Piketty’s book, it is essential to understand the nature of his model and his perspective on growth. In this first of two posts on the substance of his book, I endeavor to explain his “laws” and the model they represent. In a second post, I will shift the focus to the issue of wealth and income inequality, discussing the disconnects between production function-based growth models and the models needed to properly explain the growth of distributional inequality, and how the limitations of the neoclassical framework demonstrate the need for a new distribution-based framework for macroeconomics.

Piketty’s presentation is somewhat disorganized and confusing., and his approach to measuring growth has had a complex and controversial history, which he presents only in part. Therefore, I believe, the best way to piece together a coherent picture of his model is to work from (and with) his equations:      

THE FIRST FUNDAMENTAL LAW OF CAPITALISM

Piketty’s “First Fundamental Law of Capitalism” is expressed in the equation α = r x β, where:

α = the share of income from capital in national income

r = the rate of return on capital, and

β = the capital/income ratio, i.e., the “stock” of capital (C) divided by the annual income of the economy (I)  (pp. 50-51).

The underlying proposition is fairly straightforward: The percentage of all income attributable to capital (as opposed to labor) equals the total amount of (productive) capital times its rate of return. However, the “capital/income ratio,” which introduces the total amount of productive capital as a percentage of income (output), presents some conceptual difficulties:

The Capital/Income Ratio

The derivation of the capital/income ratio can be the source of some confusion, so let’s break it down:

If we let “R” represent the annual income from capital, then

R = r x C

Dividing both sides of this equation by I, we get:  

R/I  =  (r x C)/I  =  r x (C/I),  or

α =  r x β

Piketty asserts that this formula is “a pure accounting identity” (p. 52). “Though tautological,” he reasons, “it should nevertheless be regarded as the first fundamental law of capitalism, because it expresses a simple, transparent relationship among the three most important concepts for analyzing the capitalist system: the capital/income ratio, the share of capital in income, and the rate of return on capital.” (Ibid.)

Here are my main concerns about the “First Law”:  

False Meaningfulness

One would think that an “accounting identity” would not give rise to differences in perspective, or fundamentally conflicting perceptions of reality. However, in this instance it can do just that:

A “law,” as Hawking and Mlodinow define it, is a model that is found to agree with observation. That means that it must always be true, or at least true in certain specified circumstances. But a law derives its meaningfulness only from its ability to explain reality. If it represents no more than a mere “identity,” it has no explanatory power; to say anything is “itself” provides no useful information. Unfortunately, calling this equation a “law” implies that it may be thought of as more than just a mere accounting identity. Piketty suggests as much when he says the formula expresses a “relationship” among the three variable, implying that the variables are functionally related. 

Although each of these variables reflects data recorded in accounts, the capital/income ratio is a ratio of accounts that are not functionally related. As Piketty acknowledges, the “capital” (and wealth) accounts are “stock” accounts, meaning that they are records of “net worth” existing at given points in time.  National Income (and GDP) accounts, however, are “flow” accounts, representing amounts of transactions over time. The capital/income ratio therefore does not express a “relationship;” it represents merely a comparison of the order of magnitude of accumulated capital with a distinctly different, and independent, concept used to represent the overall size of the economy.

In Macroeconomic Theory (MacMillan, 1963), Gardner Ackley’s preeminent textbook of the early 1960s, Ackley emphasized almost before discussing anything else the importance of the distinction between stock and flow data: 

We need not here list the variables in which macroeconomics is interested. But it is useful, right at the beginning, to stress some characteristic types of variables, and their differences. The most important such distinction (the neglect of which has been the cause of infinite confusion) is between stock and flow variables. A stock variable has no time dimension. A flow variable does. The weight of an automobile is a stock variable; its speed is a flow variable. The population of cars is a stock variable; traffic is a flow. 

* * * All this may seem very obvious; but almost no other source of confusion is more dangerous in economic theory — not only to beginners but sometimes to advanced students in the field. Money is a stock; expenditures or transactions in money a flow; income is a flow, wealth a stock. Saving is a flow. . .; savings is a stock. . . Investment is a flow. . .; the aggregate of investments is a stock; * * * only the context can show whether the author means the flow or the stock.   

Piketty’s bestselling book is meant for, and has apparently reached, a much broader audience than just fellow economists. He cannot have expected the average reader to understand the importance Ackley attributed to the distinction between stocks and flows. Given Piketty’s own recognition of that distinction, however, his use of the terms “relationship” and “identity” to describe an equation in which a stock/flow ratio is a major variable is especially misleading; these are the very descriptions that, he says, argue for characterizing the equation as a “law” of capitalism. Thus, he has conceptually transformed the equation into something is is not: an actual “law.”

Piketty does not shy away from this confusion. He entitled the entire Part Two of his book “The Dynamics of the Capital/Income Ratio,” raising an obvious question: How could a mere “accounting identity” possess dynamic properties? This careless use of terminology engenders significant confusion about the true “model-dependent realism” represented by this stock/flow ratio.   

In a perceptive recent comment (“Nit-Piketty,” May 25, 2014, here), economist Debraj Ray made the point in a more summary fashion:

Piketty’s Laws 1 and 2 can, alas, be dismissed out of hand. (Not because they are false. On the contrary, because they’re true enough to be largely devoid of explanatory power.) 

This is certainly true of Law 1: This equation merely introduces a yardstick (the capital/income ratio) against which the order of magnitude of accumulated capital can be measured. It has no explanatory value, and no dynamic properties. (I’ll get to Law 2 in a moment.)

The Narrowness of Perspective

Piketty’s opinion that this equation contains “the three most important concepts for analyzing the capitalist system” is conclusory, and it preempts all other, competing perspectives. Notably, it prohibits consideration of the impact of wealth concentration itself on growth, and on the concentration of income from capital. It directly and unjustifiably narrows the neoclassical perspective on the macroeconomic significance of inequality. This demonstrates the major shortcoming of neoclassical perspectives I have been pointing out for more than three years. 

Data Reconciliation

Attending this equation is a host of unresolved conceptual issues regarding data: Wealth data for the United States are taken from U.S. net worth accounts which present household assets net of liabilities. These include ownership of corporations and, hence, all of the means of production traditionally referred to as “capital stock,” but they include much more. Wealth is broken down into financial and other assets, which include homes and real estate.

This problem has broad implications for Piketty’s “laws.” Accounting “identities” that begin with overly broad definitions of wealth and income run into serious difficulties when introduced into production function-based growth models: To make an assessment of a nation’s productive capacity, a stock measure including all marketable wealth, including assets that do not produce tangible income and wealth such as mansions, yachts, valuable art works, etc., is far too broad.  Similarly, National Income account data cannot be assumed to be limited, even over the very long run, to amounts spent on consumption and investment. U.S. income account data include trillions of dollars every year that are received as “income,” but do not compensate for tangible value produced or received.

To assess economic growth using models that purport to trace the growth of “capital,” it is essential to isolate active wealth from inactive wealth, and productive from non-productive income. This brings us to Piketty’s 2nd Law, but it is important to leave our discussion of the Piketty’s “First Fundamental Law of Capitalism” with an understanding that standard aggregate income and wealth accounts are not sufficiently specific for this assigned task.    

THE  SECOND FUNDAMENTAL LAW OF CAPITALISM          

Piketty’s “Second Fundamental Law of Capitalism” is expressed in the equation  β = s/g, where:

β = the capital/income ratio [C/I], i.e., the “stock” of capital divided by the annual income of the economy. (This is identical to the ratio used in the first equation above.)

=  The percentage of saving out of income.

= the rate of growth of productive capital (or alternatively, in the long run, the rate of growth of income).

It is not immediately intuitive why this might be so. “In the long run,” Piketty asserts, this formula expresses a “simple and transparent” relationship among the three variables. It reflects, he says, “an obvious but important point: a country that saves a lot and grows slowly will over the long run accumulate an enormous stock of capital (relative to income), which can in turn have a significant effect on the social structure and distribution of wealth.” (p. 166)

Nor is it transparently clear how the accumulation of the stock of productive capital, over the long run, affects the distribution of wealth. It certainly does not, all by itself, determine the distribution of wealth, as Piketty carefully explains:

To be sure, the law β = s/g describes a growth path in which all macroeconomic quantities – capital stock, income and output flows [note again, what started out as asset net worth has ended up as capital stock] – progress at the same pace over the long run. Still, apart from the question of short-term volatility, such balanced growth does not guarantee a harmonious distribution of wealth and in no way implies the disappearance or even reduction of inequality in the ownership of capital. (p. 232).

Solving for Growth

Note that there are two equations defining the capital/income ratio. As a matter of “accounting identity”:

α = x β,  therefore  β = α/r  

The hypothesis of the Second Law, that β = s/g can therefore be expressed as an accounting identity, thus:   

 s/g = α/r

In words, this equation tells us that the ratio of the percent of income that is saved to the rate of growth of capital stock is equal to an accounting identity: the ratio of the percentage of total income that is attributable to capital (capital’s share) to rate of return on capital. We can also solve for g, multiplying both sides of the equation by the two denominators:

g x α  =  r x s   

       Hence g = s (r/α),  or

g = r (s/α)

Here is what this formulation means in words: An economy’s income (output) will grow at a rate equal to the rate of return on capital times the savings rate divided by the percentage of total income that is attributable to capital. This is certainly hard to visualize: Technically, the model specifies that g equals the rate of growth of capital stock, not the rate of growth of income (output). But this is a model, thanks to Law #1, in which saving is used as a proxy for investment. It is a bit more comprehensible if we substitute investment (i) for saving (s):

(i/α)

In words, this equation says that an economy’s income (output) will grow at a rate equal to the rate of return on capital times the rate of investment divided by the percentage of total income that is attributable to capital. This is a little more understandable (we’re no longer comparing apples and oranges). 

But here’s the rub: Substantively, this specifies an equilibrium condition where capital resources are fully employed, i.e., an economy in full-capital-stock-utilization equilibrium. Moreover, Piketty warns us that Law #2 is only valid in the long run. And that is true because the neoclassical concept of long-run equilibrium presumes that all savings are eventually invested in productive capital, and it is only this long-run equilibrium state that meets the model’s requirement that

the rate of growth of capital stock necessarily equals the rate of growth of income. 

Confused? Notice that what started out as an “accounting identity” (the capital/income ratio) has blossomed into a rigid “law” that is necessarily valid only in the long run. There are two important points:

1. It has become an empirical proposition that must be verified, but because it is merely hypothetical it cannot be verified. Thus, we have not escaped our concerns about model-dependent realism. (More on this in the next post);

2. Because it is only valid in the long run, the formula is necessarily invalid in the short run, unless we assume that all economic variables grow at exactly the same rate over time. (Don’t laugh — some early, rudimentary aggregate production functions were based on exactly this assumption.) This makes the elusive distinction between the long run and the short run critically important: How are we to account for the fact that any point in time necessarily exists in both the short run and the long run? And if growth rates do in fact vary, how would we ever recognize “long-run equilibrium,” were it ever achieved?

At this point in the review, the import of the “Second Fundamental Law of Capitalism” seems anything but “simple and transparent.” Indeed, as in the famous Buddhist parable of “The Tiger and the Strawberry” (here), there is no apparent way out of these dilemmas.

The Model’s Description of Long-Run Equilibrium   

But also as in the parable, the “strawberry” is sweet. The model presents an image of an observable equilibrium state. And the model has arithmetic consequences: moving from one equilibrium position to another (by whatever means, or hypothetically), reveals that the mechanics of the formula have specific implications for distribution and growth.

Consider the numerical example Piketty presents of his two laws, in which he uses a number for β of 600%, which is near the high end of observed capital/income ratios in recent years:

Accumulated capital is equivalent to six times an economy’s annual income. If for a given country  β = 600%, and the rate of return on capital is 5%, then the portion of the country’s income that comes from capital is 5% x 600% = 30% (Law #1, p.  52). Similarly, if β = 600%, and the rate of saving from income is 12%, then average annual growth of income in the long run is 12% /600% = 2% (Law #2, p. 166).

If the hypothetical country is assumed instead to have a greater volume of accumulated capital, such that β = 800%, at a 5% rate of return the portion of income coming from capital is 5% x 800% = 400%. Given a 12% rate of saving, the long-run growth rate is lower, 12%/800% =  1.5%. 

Given the presumed equivalency in long-run equilibrium not only of savings and investment, but also of capital and wealth, a higher capital/income ratio entails a higher equilibrium level of wealth, which in turn entails higher income inequality. Thus, ceteris paribus (all else equal), this model requires that a higher equilibrium concentration of wealth will entail both higher income inequality and lower growth — for any given level of income.  

But we do not need this elaborate, long-run equilibrium model to reach that conclusion: That higher wealth concentration entails lower growth is a fact that can be directly observed. It has been clear for some time that rising wealth and income concentration in the United States necessarily entails lower growth. Piketty’s model merely measures the trending relationship of accounting identities over time, and that is only helpful if, like Piketty, we regard very long trends of the capital/income ratio (over periods of, say, 100 or 150 years or more) as representing some sort of long-run equilibrium β. But such a focus obscures our perception of the short run growth problem, which averages out as growth varies over time. For the shorter run analysis that we need, of course, the model is superfluous.     

The Model’s Oversimplifications

A production function-based growth model is a vast over-simplification of how an economy actually works. Many more variables are at work determining levels of capital, income, and wealth than are reflected in these simple formulas. Piketty candidly acknowledges such shortcomings of his model. First, he says, “The law β = s/g represents a state of equilibrium toward which an economy will tend if the savings rate is and the growth rate g, but that equilibrium state is never perfectly realized in practice.” (p. 169)

Second, he points out that the law is applicable “only if certain crucial assumptions are satisfied”:

1. The law is “asymptotic, meaning that it is valid only in the long run.” Piketty provides no criteria for knowing where in the “long run” we now are, but appears to assume we are at the beginning: “[I]t will take several decades for the law  β = s/g to become true.” (p. 168);

2. The law is invalid if a significant portion of national “capital” consists of pure natural resources, independent of human improvement. Note that the concept of capital (which is the equivalent of wealth only in long-run equilibrium) is now said to include natural resources, contrary to the basic classical concept of wealth (p. 169);

3. And the law is invalid, Piketty says, if asset prices do not evolve on average in the same way as consumer prices. (Id.)

The over-simplification embodied in the long-run equilibrium concept necessarily leads to over-optimistic expectations. For example, the aggregate saving rate (s) increases when income becomes more concentrated, because wealthy people have a much lower “marginal propensity to spend” than people at lower income levels, who spend all or nearly all of their incomes and reduce any savings they may have when their incomes fall. Statistically, the model will pick up the consequent long-run changes in the capital/income ratio, but it provides no way to evaluate short-run effects, which in the United States have been extreme over the last three decades. 

For many readers this is conceptually difficult material. But the untutored mind is an asset here: I urge readers to stay with me, because after reviewing Piketty’s account of the genesis of his model, and Gardner Ackley’s 1963 analysis of the development of production function-based growth models, we reach some surprising conclusions. If you wish, go now to the “Summary and Conclusions” at the end for a broad overview of all of this.  

PRODUCTION FUNCTION-BASED GROWTH MODELS

Piketty’s Discussion of “Harrod-Domar” and Other Growth Models

It was not until p. 230 that Piketty identified the source of the main ideas for his book, which is the theory that has become known as the “Harrod-Domar” growth model:

When the formula β = s/g was explicitly introduced for the first time by the economists Roy Harrod and Evsey Domar in the late 1930s, it was common to invert it as   g = s/β. Harrod, in particular, argued in 1939, that β was fixed by the available technology (as in the case of a production function with fixed coefficients and no possible substitution between labor and capital), so that the growth rate was entirely determined by the saving rate. (p. 230)

It was also at this stage of the book when Piketty mentioned the term “production function” for the first time. It is important to know what that is:

In economics, a production function relates physical output of a production process to physical inputs or factors of production. The production function is one of the key concepts of mainstream neoclassical theories, used to define marginal product and to distinguish allocative efficiency, the defining focus of economics. * * * 

In macroeconomics, aggregate production functions are estimated to create a framework in which to distinguish how much of economic growth to attribute to changes in factor allocation (e.g. the accumulation of capital) and how much to attribute to advancing technology. Some non-mainstream economists, however, reject the very concept of an aggregate production function. (Wikipedia, here)

The aggregate production function is a purely “supply-side” perspective, which assumes that consumer and investor markets will always clear (at least, as discussed above, in the long run).  

Piketty mentions several early “production functions” and stances on the “capital-labor split,” e.g.: 

Marx: “For Marx, the central mechanism by which ‘the bourgeoisie digs its own grave’ corresponded to what I referred to in the Introduction as ‘the principle of infinite accumulation’: capitalists accumulate ever increasing quantities of capital, which ultimately leads to a falling rate of profit (i.e., return on capital) and eventually to their own downfall.” (pp. 227-228)

Cobb-Douglas: This “production function,” first proposed in 1928, “became very popular after World War II (after being popularized by Paul Samuelson)” (p. 218). This function specifies that “no matter what happens, and in particular what quantities of capital and labor are available, the capital share of income is always equal to the fixed coefficient α, which can be taken as a purely technological parameter.” Thus, “if α = 30 percent, then no matter what the capital/income ratio is, income from capital will account for 30 percent of national income (and income from labor for 70 percent).” (p. 218). [In other words, income from capital is unrelated to the value of capital assets in the C/I numerator.] * * * “[H]istorical reality is more complex than the idea of a completely stable capital-labor split suggests. The Cobb-Douglas hypothesis” is a “useful point of departure for further reflection.” (p. 218) 

Bowley-Keynes: The capital-labor split in Britain remained relatively stable in the period 1880-1913 (Bowley); in 1939, “Keynes took the side of the bourgeois economists, calling the stability of the capital-labor split ‘one of the best-established regularities in all of economic science’.” (p. 220)   

Piketty says little about Harrod’s and Domar’s ideas except to suggest:

Harrod: “If the savings rate is 10 percent and technology imposed a capital/income ratio of 5 (so that it takes exactly 5 units of capital, neither more nor less, to produce one unit of output) then the growth rate of the economy’s productive capacity is 2 percent per year. But since the growth rate must also be equal to the growth rate of the population (and of productivity, which at the time was still ill-defined) it follows that growth is an intrinsically unstable process, balanced ‘on a razor’s edge.’ There is always either too much or too little capital.”

* * * Harrod’s intuition was not entirely wrong, and he was writing in the middle of the Great Depression, an obvious sign of great macroeconomic instability. Indeed, the mechanism he described surely helps to explain why the growth process is highly volatile: to bring savings in line with investment at the national level, when savings and investment decisions are generally made by different individuals for different reasons, is a structurally complex and chaotic phenomenon, especially since it is often difficult in the short run to alter the capital intensity and organization of production.  

Domar: “In 1948, Domar developed a more optimistic and flexible version of the law g = s/β than Harrod’s. Domar stressed the fact that the savings rate and capital/income ratio can to a certain extent adjust to each other.” (p. 231)

(Robert) Solow:  “Even more important was Solow’s introduction in 1956 of a production function with substitutable factors, which made it possible to invert the formula and write β = s/g. In the long run, the capital/income ratio adjusts to the savings rate and structural growth rate of the economy rather than the other way around. Controversy continued, however, in the 1950s and 1960s between economists based primarily in Cambridge, Massachusetts (including Solow and Samuelson, who defended the production function with substitutable factors) and economists working in Cambridge, England (including Joan Robinson, Nicholas Kaldor, and Luigi Passinetti), who (not without a certain confusion at times) saw in Solow’s model a claim that growth is always perfectly balanced. thus negating the importance Keynes had attributed to short-term fluctuations. It was not until the 1970s that Solow’s so-called neoclassical growth model definitively carried the day.” (p. 231)

This selective and limited set of ideas and partial theories is inherently confusing. But I urge everyone, especially economists, to step back and take a moment to reflect on the upshot of all this, and ask some basic questions such as these:

1. How can an idea, especially a mere kernel of an idea, that was so extensively debated more than fifty years ago, suddenly emerge now in the 21st Century as “the Second Fundamental Law of Capitalism?”

2. How can such a simple formula have different “versions”? 

3. Why has Piketty presented a simple Harrod-Domar model as the basis for his discussion of production functions, when he apparently favors a different model proposed by Robert Solow?

4. Wasn’t Keynes’ General Theory mainly concerned with short-term fluctuations in aggregate demand, and if so why did his views on short-term fluctuations come up in discussions about the long-run production function?

Ackley’s Evaluation of the Harrod-Domar and Other Growth Models

Ackley’s text was divided into four parts: (1) Concepts and Measurements, (2) The Classical Macroeconomics, (3) The Keynesian Macroeconomics, and (4) Some Extensions. In parts 2 and 3, he provided basic, functional models of classical and Keynesian systems, which showed how they accounted for growth and change of major variables, as augmented by Keynes’s introduction of the concept of effective demand and the “consumption function.” Part 4 contained four chapters which, we might say, dealt with gaps in the coverage of the basic theories: XVII, The Theory of Investment; XVIII, Economic Growth, the Problem of Capital Accumulation; XIX, Selected Problems of Nonproportional Growth; and XX Macroeconomics and Microeconomics. Other than to note that the topic of income and wealth distribution was nascent in the U.S. at that time, given low levels of inequality and high and growing middle-class prosperity, Ackley had nothing to say on that score. However, he did provide a systematic overview of the various growth models that had been proposed and debated over the previous few decades. His discussion was limited to economies “already employing productive techniques and highly-developed economic institutions,” employing a “free-enterprise system of organization.”  (p. 505)

Baumol’s “Magnificent Dynamics”: Ackley discussed William Baumol’s summary (Economic Dynamics, 1951) of the “magnificent dynamics” of the early classical school’s growth model in which “per capita income is just sufficient to permit the population to reproduce itself at the physical (or cultural) minimum level of subsistence,” and should per capita income exceed subsistence, there would be “a margin which would be divided between (a) payment of wages in excess of subsistence, thus encouraging population growth, and (b) profits in excess of the capitalists’ living expenses, a difference that can (and will) be invested to equip the growing population with the necessary tools (or at least to provide the enlarged investment . . . associated with a larger working force.” (p. 507) This model “is too simplistic, not very relevant to Western society.” (p. 509)

Keynes and the stagnationists: Because of the highly inelastic marginal productivity of capital in highly developed countries, “the growth of capital through investment must ultimately lead toward capital ‘saturation,’ a deficiency of investment opportunities relative to full-employment saving, and a necessary decline in income and employment necessary to eliminate the excess of saving.” (p. 509) * * * “Keynes’ view recognizes what the simple ‘magnificent dynamics’ model just reviewed had missed. Namely, it recognizes that capital is more than a means of employing labor. It is itself productive, and an increase in capital even with no increase in labor (or… greater than the increase in labor) can yield a positive, although diminishing return. (p. 510)

“[T]he basic error in this Keynesian position” is “a failure to realize that a growth of income — a growth which the very act of investment permits — can prevent capital saturation.” (p. 511) * * * “However, the causal link from population growth to investment, clear enough for public investment and perhaps even for housing and basic utilities, is far from obvious with respect to private investment in facilities to produce ordinary consumer goods. An increase in population increases potential consumption, and thus the potential size of the economy and the capital stock which it can use without reducing rate of return. But perhaps only if the investment first occurs and incomes rise as a result can the potential consumption, be translated into actual demand and thus provide a justification for the investment.” (p. 512)

“To the extent that the stagnationist position rested on Keynes’s failure to see that the size of the capital stock can only be considered ‘large’ or ‘small’ in relation to the size of the national income, and that it is possible for the two to grow together, the position embodied an analytical error.” * * * “If [the stagnationist position] argued merely that stagnation is a possible state for a wealthy economy, it was arguing little more than Keynes had already demonstrated, quite without reference to long run capital accumulation.” (p. 512)

Domar: “An understanding of one fundamental relationship between capital accumulation and growth stems perhaps most clearly from the work of Every Domar. Domar starts from Keynes’ recognition that today’s investment competes, at least initially, not only with yesterday’s but with tomorrow’s investment. It provides new productive capacity, which, if it is not adequately used, will discourage further investment tomorrow. This will increase the surplus of idle capital. But unlike Keynes Domar saw that there was nothing inevitable about this outcome. If total demand tomorrow should be sufficiently greater than today’s demand, the newly added productive capacity could be fully employed, and there would be room for new investment again tomorrow.” * * * Domar asked at what rate demand would have to grow – and how might this growth come about – in order to make full use of the rising productive capacity provided by capital accumulation.” (p. 513)

Domar’s formula was not the same as Piketty’s (American Economic Review, 37, March 1947). As Ackley explained, Domar was concerned with the degree of utilization of new capacity: The amount of investment (i) times the amount of added capacity per $ of investment (µ) =  the amount of added capacity in a period (µi).  The math for his formula is set forth at pp. 513-514. Here is Ackley’s intriguing observation:

 “Thus, if investment grows at a constant percentage rate, αµ, productive capacity, although continually growing, will be fully used.” Should investment grow “at a lesser rate, added productive capacity would not be fully utilized; instead an increasing margin of idle capacity would accumulate. Thus we have the paradox that if only productive capacity grows fast enough, no idle capacity will develop. But too small a growth of capacity will produce a surplus of capacity.”

This bizarre result, which is due to the fact that actual output from additional capacity is growing even more slowly than capacity, is illustrated and confirmed with a numerical example (p. 516). Here is Ackley’s overview of Domar: 

“Domar did not pretend to provide a theory of growth, but only to indicate one significant aspect of the problem of growth, and to compute, on simplified assumptions, what the necessary rate of growth would have to be in order to avoid the accumulation of excess capacity which would inhibit growth. That is, Domar described an equilibrium growth path, but indicated little about what might cause the economy to follow or to depart from that path. This equilibrium growth path is defined by the condition that all of the capital provided by previous investment is utilized, yet neither is there any capital shortage.” (p. 517)

Harrod: “Harrod had a more ambitious aim. Not only did he recognize the problem of growth but also he tried to provide a theory which explained how steady growth occurred in an economy (“An Essay in Dynamic Theory,” Economic Journal XLIX , March 1939); and also how, if this growth were interrupted — if growth once diverged from its equilibrium path — the economy might either ‘explode’ into too rapid growth, producing inflation, or cease to grow altogethre, producing depression. * * * Harrod’s own presentation leaves certain points quite unclear; consequently, in summarizing his argument, we are necessarily going somewhat beyond his own formulation. * * * Whereas Domar had no theory of what investment would be (but only what it must be for growth to be sustainable), Harrod adopts the acceleration principle as a theory of investment.” (p. 518)

(The acceleration principle rests on the idea, “[a]bstracting from all other influences,” that “the necessary stock of capital (in physical terms) depends on the rate (in physical terms) of demand for final output. * * * [I]f income changes, by a positive or negative amount, investment (or disinvestment) will occur” at a rate  depending on the degree of change in income (p. 486).)

“The equilibrium growth rate is a constant. * * * If the rate of growth happens to diverge even once from its equilibrium path, it will thereafter diverge increasingly.” (p. 520) 

“[L]et  us see if we can express in words what this is all about. Harrod’s vision is of a growing, expanding economy, in which businessmen are always, in effect, “betting” on growth, but not always sure how much growth to count on. Since they must produce in advance of sale, they have no choice but to make a ‘bet.’ Having made their production decisions, the carrying out of these decisions (a) generates consumer incomes and, through consumer spending, a market for part of the output they have decided to produce; and (b) requires additions to productive capacity in the form of capital goods and extra inventories, the magnitude of which additions depends  on the growth of output they have decided (collectively) to provide.” 522 

“There is one . . . rate of growth of output, but only one, which is correct, in the sense that it will generate just enough demand to permit them to sell all that they have produced. This is the “equilibrium” or “warranted” rate. If the collective bets of sellers happen to hit this rate, all is well.” (The correct rate will perpetuate itself.) “But if the collective ‘bets’ should involve an output increase which exceeds this warranted rate, demand will be generated which is even greater, so that shortages appear, etc.* * * But if they are insufficiently optimistic, and make production plans involving insufficient growth, their pessimism will be more than confirmed.” 522  

Two “aspects of all of this” are “particularly implausible”:

1. All of this rests on an “empirical generalization that producers behave in the manner described in the equation”;  i.e., they will repeat last period’s growth when they find it just right;

2. “Second, the notion that production plans come first, and that these, then, through the accelerator, determine investment, quite reverses the more usual (and a priori more plausible?) sequence.” (p. 523)

“In summary, Harrod tried to do considerably more than Domar. Domar defined a sustainable growth path in which all of the capital provided by previous investment is utilized, yet without any deficiency of capital. Harrod’s warranted growth rate also embodies this concept of equilibrium. His use of the accelerator … necessarily precludes either deficient or surplus capital. Rather his warranted growth rate is additionally concerned with another kind of equilibrium: that between demand and supply for current output. Harrod assumes, with little apparent foundation, that producers always expect sales to grow by the same percent as they have been growing. * * * An equilibrium between demand and supply of current output is the crucial element of his growth theory.” (525-526)

“[I]t should be stressed that either [formulation of the Harrod] model does extreme violence to reality. Either model, in strict form, implies a greatly oversimplified theory of expectations.” (p. 529)

Solow: “[E]ven without any technological change the accumulation of capital at a faster rate than the growth of labor would tend to raise the K/y [capital/income] ratio, and, of course, the average productivity of labor. That is, the data we observe are the result of a number of simultaneous changes, and we must attempt to sort out that part which is due to technological change. Among others, an interesting contribution to this task has recently been made by Robert Solow, “Technical Change and the Aggregate Production Function,”Review of Economics and Statistics XXXIX (August 1957), 312-320. 

Domar Revisited: Ackley noted in his summary (pp. 534-535 that all of the growth models he discussed (Keynes, Harrod, and Duesneberry) relate to the “demand approach to economic growth.” These models were concerned with the issue of generating sufficient aggregate demand to permit continued growth. He returned to Domar, because he had tried to determine what the necessary rate of growth would have to be in order to avoid the accumulation of excess capacity which would inhibit a sustainable level of growth. Then he proposed a new approach:

“In the first section of the next chapter, we return, in effect, to the simpler problem posed by Domar: what kind of a rate of growth of demand (if it did occur) would fully utilize an economy’s growing productive facilities? We do not worry about demand. Either we assume that it is naturally buoyant, or that government can make it so. The important question, then, is how fast does capacity grow? But now, for the first time, we are prepared to recognize that an economy’s productive capacity depends on something more than just the size of its capital stock.” (p. 535)

This is a curious reformulation of the issue of growth. Although he had concluded that the size of an economy’s productive capacity depends on “something more than just the size of its capital stock,” by inviting brainstorming that simply assumes needed demand will be there (which was, I must note, the original stance of classical theory, one that Keynes worked tirelessly to overcome with his insistence on the introduction of the demand function in his General Theory) Ackley appeared to be opening an inquiry as to whether any sensible “supply-side” model could be developed. After thirty pages of miscellaneous brainstorming, though, he pretty much gave up the effort:

“Now all of this is by way of framework or background for a theory of growth, and, in itself, provides little insight. Only as we develop further empirical hypotheses can we hope to contribute to growth economics. Some hypotheses are possible and plausible. A very simple one relates to the demand for money in a growing economy.”

Some Observations:

Much thanks to anyone still here after wading through this difficult section. Just now, with all of this in front of us, some clarifying observations emerge: Notice that Ackley’s more detailed discussion of these production capacity-based growth models reveals that they were all short-run models, and that they all attempted to reconcile growth of capital stock with aggregate demand, a singularly Keynesian perspective. Ackley saw, in the development of these models, a consistent recognition “that an economy’s productive capacity depends on something more than just the size of its capital stock.” But he also found all of these models wanting, either unable to live up to expectations that the development of capital stock would provide stable growth, or reflecting unwarranted assumptions about human expectations and behavior.

Piketty’s discussion of consumption function-based growth models avoids reference to these issues.  Instead, Piketty mentions model development in passing, while reducing the issue to the simple Domar question Ackley identified:

“We do not worry about demand. Either we assume that it is naturally buoyant, or that government can make it so. The important question, then, is how fast does capacity grow?”

Piketty proceeds carefully, however, realizing that abandoning “the demand approach to economic growth” requires limiting the question of growth to one of identifying a long-run “equilibrium.” This leads to a conclusion that Piketty does not deny, but appears loathe to frankly acknowledge: His model is incapable of predicting growth.

SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS

Here is a brief “executive summary” of the points I find significant with respect to Piketty’s two alleged “fundamental laws of capitalism”:

About What’s Important

1. The point I will be emphasizing in my next post is that, from the standpoint of concerns about inequality, Piketty has raised the wrong issue. Inequality growth is directly related to the concentration of wealth and income, factors that directly destroy prosperity and create poverty, but Piketty’s two laws address a different topic;

2. More precisely, Piketty’s two “fundamental laws of capital” relate to the concentration of capital stock invested in the means of production. “Capital intensity” has almost nothing to do with the distribution of wealth and income (inequality);

3. Although he earnestly seeks to find implications from his “laws” for inequality, Piketty concedes that capital intensity does not determine how wealth is distributed in an economy, and that the two variables move independently;     

4. Because his treatment of the capital accumulation problem relies on dubious neoclassical “equilibrium” assumptions that incorrectly assume productive capacity and wealth are equivalent in the “long run,” Piketty raises the specter of a conclusion he knows is wrong, that there is a long-run equilibrium level of inequality;     

About Production Function Growth Theory

5. On his premier topic, capital accumulation, Piketty has resolved an old theoretical dispute about the growth of productive capital by converting a “short-run” model into its long-run counterpart, thus (a) over-simplifying the question of capital growth, and (b) stripping the model of explanatory power; 

6. From Domar on down, attempts to develop a short-run growth model based on productive capacity did not go well. Theoreticians could not agree on what simplifying assumptions would best represent reality, and data limitations would make it difficult to adequately test these theories;

7. By 1963, although demand-side theories in macroeconomics were making some progress (thanks to Keynes), Ackley’s review of supply-side aggregate growth theories showed that area to still be in a rudimentary stage of development and badly in need of fresh hypotheses;

8. Production function models, however useful they may be in microeconomics, were never developed sufficiently to provide a realistic explanation of  aggregate economic growth;

9. Piketty has presented a system of “tautologies,” or “accounting identities” that by itself has no explanatory power;

10. Although his growth model intends to describe a long-run rate of capital accumulation, it merely describes a long-run trend of capital accumulation, described as a path toward an eventual “equilibrium” state; and as Piketty freely admits, the model tells us nothing about how or when (if ever) such a state might be achieved;

11. Nonetheless, Piketty assumes, without supporting evidence, that an economy is always trending toward the equilibrium level of capital intensity established by its long history of capital accumulation; instead, the trend of capital intensity keeps moving up or down with a host of factors (like technological change);   

About “Model-Dependent Realism”

12. Piketty refers to the two components of his model as “fundamental laws” when they are not functional laws at all. Together, they merely use accounting identities to describe a theoretical equilibrium condition that cannot ever be perceived in “reality;”

13. To the extent Piketty believes his “fundamental laws of capitalism” explain that “reality” consists of persistent growth toward an equilibrium state of capital accumulation, he has reached a faulty conclusion by virtue of a neoclassical perspective that is not supported by experience. Thus, his model fails the test of “model-dependent realism” elucidated by Hawking and Mladinow;

JMH – 6/27/2014 (“Summary” ed., 6/28/2014)

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Picking Piketty Apart – Part I: His Contribution

Without  better knowledge of the trends in secular income structure and of the factors that  determine  them, our understanding of the whole process of economic growth is limited; and any insight we may derive from observing changes in countrywide aggregates over time will be defective if these changes are not translated into movements of shares of the various income groups.  – Simon Kuznets (“Economic Growth and Income Inequality,” The American Economic Review, Vol. 45, No. 1, March, 1955, p. 27).

The distribution of wealth and incomes had been ignored by mainstream economists, not regarded a material factor in the functioning of market economies, for decades before and after Kuznets published this statement.  Now we are learning how prophetic it was. When Kuznets was working on distribution issues in the 1950s, at a time when income inequality was declining in the United States (and Europe), he complained vociferously about the lack of relevant data. Now the needed data is available, thanks in no small measure to the work of French economists Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez, who compiled a comprehensive database of the incomes of many countries taken directly from income tax returns. 

The database was first published in 2003, but public awareness of its significance did not materialize until after the Crash of 2008. Now, at last, Piketty has published a nearly 700-page book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Belknap, Harvard, 2014). The book instantly became a best-seller, and now the reactions are coming in. Having studied the inequality problem in the United States closely for nearly four years, and having now read the Piketty book effectively twice, I am prepared to offer a critical “digest” of it, from the perspective of those like myself primarily interested in the future of the U.S. economy.

It is important to get a sense of what Piketty intended to accomplish with this book, and of the degree of his success. In his introduction, he reveals the broad conceptual framework of his presentation: Data sources like income tax returns and estate tax returns provide information on the degree of inequality among income earners and among wealth holders. This information concerns “flows” of money. Other data sources reveal “the total stock of national wealth (including land, other real estate, and industrial and financial capital) over a very long period of time” (pp18-19); “We can measure this wealth for each country in terms of the number of years of national income required to amass it.” (p. 19) This “capital/income approach,” a ratio of a “stock” (net worth, wealth, or “capital”) to a “flow” (national income) Piketty argues, “can give us an overview of the importance of capital to the society as a whole.” 

Initially, he “takes the inequality of income from labor and capital as given,” in order to focus (in Parts One and Two) on the “global division of national income between capital and labor” (p. 40). Thus, he isolates and defers for later discussion the topics of income and wealth concentration and distribution that have dominated the discussion in the United States. These include the rapid rise of U.S. income inequality since 1980, and the much greater degree to which wealth (and the income derived from wealth) is unequal than is the income from labor.

In a second post, I will present a detailed review of the growth model Piketty employs in connection with the global division of national income between capital and labor, i.e., the capital-labor split. This is a much more difficult topic, and most readers will find this new to the inequality debate; but it is based on decades-old growth models, one of which Piketty now offers as “The Second Fundamental Law of Capitalism.” The reliability of this model is crucial to the impression he conveys of the future stability of the U.S. economy.

In a third post, I will review Piketty’s impressions about the future of U.S. inequality, and suggest how inadequacies of his neoclassical framework support the need for the new “distributional macroeconomics.” I will argue in that regard that the mechanics of distribution and growth are dominated by: (1) The prevalence in U.S. society of unearned income (economic rent); (2) the principle Piketty refers to as “The law of Cumulated Growth” (p. 76); and (3) Keynes’ principle of effective demand, which I have referred to as “The Law of Effective Demand.” These are three complementary, and cumulative, aspects of what Piketty calls “divergence,” that is, progressive decline. As I have argued for several years, the problem is far worse, and far less “long-run,” than Piketty envisages, and now Piketty’s own analysis helps me clarify why.

This post is devoted to some general reflections on the impact Piketty’s work is having. What has been his effective contribution thus far?   

Attention

Just getting attention focused on the inequality issues is a big deal, especially for Americans. A lot of people here haven’t been thinking about it, and because of Piketty’s book, hopefully, many more people will become aware that U.S. inequality is far worse than Europe’s. In these comparisons, he’s mostly talking about the income inequality that has developed since the 1970s, which is what we’ve been talking and thinking about in America for several years. It has been no secret that the U.S. has the highest income inequality among wealthy nations – the Piketty/Saez reports in 2011 showed this. But the comparative data in Piketty’s book shows how much worse the U.S. experience is than that of France, Great Britain, or Germany, and other more egalitarian wealthy nations:

In my view, there is absolutely no doubt that the increase in inequality in the United States contributed to the Nation’s financial instability. [I]t is important to note the considerable transfer of US national income – on the order of 15 points – from the poorest 90 percent to the richest 10 percent since 1980. * * *

[I]n the thirty years prior to the crisis, that is from 1977-2007, we find that the richest 10 percent appropriated three-quarters of the growth. The richest 1 percent alone absorbed nearly 60 percent of the total increase of the US national income in this period. Hence, for the bottom 90 percent, the rate of income growth was less than 0.5% per year. [fn] These figures are incontestable, and they are striking: Whatever one thinks about the fundamental legitimacy of income inequality, the numbers deserve close scrutiny. [fn] It is hard to imagine an economy and society that can continue functioning indefinitely with such extreme divergence between social groups. (p. 297)  

Here, he’s clearly implying that either the United States will no longer politically tolerate this continuing deterioration, or it will continue to slide ever deeper into its depression. That the inequality growth is leading potentially to Great Depression II is an argument I have been making for several years. Piketty still couches the discussion in the context of “social” divergence with which he is most comfortable, but note his recognition of the undeniable fact, firmly established in reports from his colleague Emmanuel Saez, that the growth of income has been increasingly appropriated by wealthy people in income’s top 1% since 1980, to the point where now that group is receiving over 95% of all growth.

Affirmation

It is important that a mainstream, “neoclassical” economist, has at last come out and begun to discuss the truth about what these data mean. Although he overlooks factors that a Joseph Stiglitz or Robert Reich would emphasize, this is, importantly, the first time to my knowledge that a neoclassical economist has acknowledged that income inequality in the U.S. is a dire macroeconomic problem, not just a trivial matter like the difference between the pay of young adults who have college degrees and those who don’t, and not just a “political problem” as asserted by one of Piketty’s main cheerleaders, Paul Krugman. It was only two years ago that Krugman, in his latest book, characterized income inequality as a political problem, an impression he found supported by the views of Piketty and Saez:

Recently, Piketty and Saez have added a further argument: sharp cuts in taxes on high incomes, they suggest, have actually encouraged executives to push the envelope further, to engage in “rent-seeking” at the expense of the rest of the workforce. Why? Because the personal payoff to a higher pre-tax income has risen, making executives more willing to risk condemnation and/or hurt morale by pursuing personal gain. As Piketty and Saez note, there is a fairly close negative correlation between the top tax rates and the top 1 percent’s share of income, both over time and across countries. 

What I take from all of this is that we should probably think of rising incomes at the top as reflecting the same political and social factors that promoted lax financial regulation.” (End this Depression Now! Norton, 2012, p. 82)

Krugman’s position was untenable: It not only implied that rising income inequality had no macroeconomic significance, but it misconceived human nature: Rising incomes at the top reflected declining federal income taxes, as he noted, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups had lobbied hard for the tax rate reductions that made higher after-tax incomes at the top possible. There is no reason to doubt that all or nearly all of the wealthiest Americans had zero qualms about keeping their income gains. Piketty, although he says he is striving for a softer, gentler economics more sensitive to the other social sciences, makes no contrary claim now. He clearly acknowledges that these gains were in fact at the expense of lower income groups; and that the income inequality in America, which has gradually grown since 1980, has now reached an intolerable level.    

Wealth

For many readers, no doubt, Piketty effectively introduces the crucial role of wealth concentration, and the division of income from wealth in the labor-capital split of income, into the inequality discussion. The role of growing wealth concentration has been mostly lacking from inequality discussions. Piketty’s main contribution, in my view, is the comparison he presents of wealth concentration among wealthy countries. He presents three tables at pp. 247-249:

Table 7.1: Inequality of Labor Income across time and space.

Table 7.2: Inequality of capital ownership across time and space.

Table 7.3 Inequality of total income (labor and capital) across time and space

In all three tables, he shows the percentage distribution among the “upper class,” the top 10% (broken down as well into the top 1% and the next 9%); the “middle class,” the next 40%; and the “lower class” (the bottom 50%):  

            1. For labor income, he characterizes as “low inequality” Scandinavia in the 1970s-1980s: The top 10% got 20% (the top 1% getting 5%) and the bottom 90% getting 80% of income. Medium inequality is Europe in 2010. High inequality is the U.S. in 2010, where: The top 10% got 35% (the top 1% getting 12%) and the bottom 90% getting only 65%. Very high inequality, he suggests, might be the U.S. in 2030? This is a speculative projection (his growth models do not permit projections of either growth or inequality): The top 10% gets 45% (the top 1% getting 17%), and the bottom 90% gets only 55%.

But note Piketty’s curious suggestion that it is possible for income inequality to continue to grow for another 15 years to such an extent, after he found it “hard to imagine an economy and society that can continue functioning indefinitely” at the high level of income inequality of the U.S. in 2010. I’ll return to this point in the third post in this series.  

            2. Low inequality in capital ownership, according to Piketty, exists only in an ideal society that has never been observed. The top 10% owns 30% of capital (with the top 1% owning 10%) and the bottom 90% owning 70% (only 25% for the bottom 50%). Medium inequality, again is perceived in Scandinavia in the 1970s and 1980s, High inequality is the U.S. in 2010, where the top 10% owns 70% of wealth (with the top 1% holding 35% of capital) and the bottom 90% owns 30% (with the bottom 50% owning only 5%). Very high inequality of wealth ownership he assigns to Europe in 1910, where the top 10% held 90% of wealth.

It is immediately apparent that wealth everywhere is far more concentrated than income. (The reason is that wealth is a stock, which accumulates from income). I’ll discuss in the third post Piketty’s prevalent perspective that “inheritable” wealth is the main problem, so that our concern evidently should be mainly with estate taxes. This overlooks the major accumulation of “new” wealth in the United States through excess earnings, a factor I had felt Piketty had overlooked altogether, until I got to p. 377:

In order to understand the cumulative logic (of wealth concentration) better, we must now take a closer look at the long-term evolution of the relative roles of inheritance and saving in capital formation. This is a crucial issue.  * * * It may be that the global level of capital has remained the same but that its deep structure has changed dramatically, in the sense that capital was once largely inherited but is now accumulated over the course of a lifetime by savings from earned income.   

To miss that point in connection with U.S. inequality growth, in my view, is to miss the essence of the U.S. inequality experience, and to sorely underestimate the danger the U.S. economy is in. Household wealth accumulates far more rapidly than just “in the course of a lifetime by savings from earned income”: e.g., Bill Gates (not atypically) had become a multi-billionaire while still a young man, and his wealth came from unearned income (corporate distributions), not the product of his own labor. Piketty, who has lived in France for years, appears to be out of touch with the American experience; but as will be discussed later in this series, the problem is more fundamental than that.

3. With respect to Table 7.3, “inequality of total income (labor and capital) across time and space,” Piketty’s categories are the same as for Table 7.1: Low inequality is Scandinavia (1970s-1980s), where the top 10% gets 25% (with 7% going to the top 1%) and the bottom 90% gets 70%. Medium inequality is Europe 2010, and high inequality is represented by the U.S. in 2010, as well as Europe in 1910, where the top 10% got 50% of total income (20% going to the top 1%) and the bottom 90% got 50%. Very high, is again speculatively presented as the U.S. in 2030, where the top 10% obtain 60% of total income, with 25% going to the top 1%.

This identifies the major impact in the U.S. since 1980 of the growth of income from wealth. My concern here is that Piketty has understated the intensity of income inequality growth in the U.S. in his projection for 2030, assuming we could get there at all. The top 1% share, according to the Piketty/Saez data, had already grown to over 22% before the Crash, in 2007, and has been growing again, robustly, since 2010. More on this later.    

Support for Piketty’s Book

Regardless of any shortcomings in the theoretical prism used to focus on the U.S. data, and the consequent underestimation of the scope of the inequality problem here, the Piketty book provides a huge service to Americans by revealing the marked contrast between what is happening here and what is happening in most of the rest of the wealthy countries. Notably, this situation is alarming even from Piketty’s neoclassical perspective, and the main questions facing us are: How much worse can things get before the U.S. economy collapses? And how soon might that happen? 

But the U.S. political situation is intransigent. Public opinion is mired in a “trickle-down” mentality, with the mainstream media persistently suggesting that the verdict is still out on whether “austerity” government, financed by still more tax breaks for the wealthy, can result in investment and income growth. The information in Piketty’s book constitutes a full refutation of the plainly erroneous trickle-down idea, which of course has been repeatedly disproved by all aggregate income data in the U.S. over the years. Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is proposing to alleviate the dangerous $1.3 trillion student debt bubble that is crippling our society with increased taxes on the wealthy, points to Piketty’s book in support, maintaining that American wealth has been relentlessly sucked to the top and has not trickled down. (See her joint appearance with Piketty in a conversation moderated by the Huffington Post’s Ryan Grimm on June 2, 2014 (here).

The noteworthy fact is that American public attention has been diverted from the incredible increase in concentration of wealth at at the top since 1980. The American public’s awareness of this entire issue is in sore need of a jolt, and it perhaps is getting that jolt from the publicity attending Piketty’s book. See, e.g., the A.P. account of April 23, 2014 (here).

            The fact that inequality of income and wealth is growing in the United States at an alarmingly rapid pace has given rise to vapid denials from the political right; for example, the argument presented by Chris Giles (“Data Problems with Capital in the 21st Century,” Money Supply, May 23, 2014, here):

Two of [the book’s] central findings – that wealth has begun to rise over the past 30 years and that the U.S. obviously has a more unequal distribution of wealth than Europe – no longer seem to hold.

Without these results, it would be impossible to claim, as Piketty does in his conclusion, that “the central contradiction of capitalism” is the tendency for wealth to become more concentrated in the hands of the already rich.

Paul Krugman recently took Giles to task (here):

Giles finds a few clear errors, although they don’t seem to matter much; more important, he questions some of the assumptions and imputations Piketty uses to deal with gaps in the data and the way he switches sources. * * * Piketty will have to answer these questions in detail, and we’ll see how well he does it.

But is it possible that Piketty’s whole thesis of rising inequality is wrong? Giles argues that it is:

* * * [U]nlike what Piketty claims, wealth concentration among the richest people has been pretty stable for 50 years in both Europe and the US.

There is no obvious upward trend. The conclusions of Capital in the 21st century do not appear to be backed by the book’s own sources.

OK, that can’t be right — and the fact that Giles reaches that conclusion is a strong indicator that he himself is doing something wrong.

Krugman cites the CBO study on the distribution of income (Congressional Budget Office, Trends in the distribution of household income Between 1979 and 2007. October 26, 2011, here, p. 11) which provides Lorenz curves showing the concentration of business income over the years.

Concentration of Business Income

“It’ just not plausible,” he argues, “that this increase in the concentration of income from capital doesn’t reflect a more or less comparable increase in the concentration of capital itself.” Thus, Piketty’s fact-based presentation has led Krugman himself to emphasize the connection between income and wealth concentration, something to my knowledge he had not previously done. 

Beyond that, there is simply an obvious, undeniable truism that wealth compounding is a natural process: If existing wealth is growing at all, it is growing for those who already possess wealth, and the more they already have, the greater their future natural accumulation will be. Wealth, therefore, is necessarily becoming more concentrated.

Conclusions

Attacks from the right are to be expected, as the self-interest perceived by wealthy people clearly requires opposing increases in their taxes. But this kind of reaction is a form of denialism similar to the attacks made by corporate interests on scientific evidence of climate change: Perceived self-interest easily trumps facts and logic.

Piketty has taken a rare stand, on behalf of mainstream, supply-side theory, for the conclusions that income and wealth inequality have major macroeconomic consequences, and that levels of income and wealth concentration must therefore be controlled. We have already heard Keynesian analysis from Stiglitz and Reich: The major contribution this book makes is to clarify that “mainstream” arguments denying the macroeconomic significance of inequality are unsupportable.

My perception is that there would be no winners in a major collapse into Great Depression II. Multi-billionaires may feel immune today, but their wealth and power will evaporate in a collapsing economy. Hopefully, Piketty’s book will significantly encourage the political right and all extremely wealthy people to realistically reappraise the policies of political denial, and reconsider the weakness of their perceived self-interest. That unfettered inequality growth ultimately entails deep depression, and likely the end of their success along with the end of overall human welfare and prosperity, is a prospect that presumably will concern them. The important question now is how long the current trend can last.

We cannot accept Piketty’s two “fundamental laws of capitalism” at face value. I will in the next two posts (after an approximately one-week delay) thoroughly review the underpinnings of the growth models Piketty has used, and discuss how they lead to unduly optimistic growth expectations.

JMH – 6/14/1014  (ed. 6/20)

 

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Walmart’s Game Plan and Capitalism’s Endgame

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On tax day, when millions of American taxpayers and small businesses pay their fair
share to support critical public services and the economy, they will also get stuck with a multi-billion dollar tax bill to cover the massive subsidies and tax breaks that benefit the country’s largest employer and richest family.

[T]he American public is providing enormous tax breaks and tax subsidies to Walmart and the Walton family, further boosting corporate profits and the family’s already massive wealth at everyone else’s expense. - Americans for Tax Fairness (ATF), “Walmart on Tax Day,” April 2014, p. 3 (here).

As I have been demonstrating on this blog, capitalism is a self-destructive economic system and the vehicle of self-destruction is excessive wealth concentration occurring when regressive taxation allows rapid inequality growth.  Walmart provides what may be the best available demonstration of the mechanics of this process. Here is ATF’s description of the company and the Walton owners:

Walmart is the largest private employer in the United States, with 1.4 million employees. The company, which is number one on the Fortune 500 in 2013 and number two on the Global 500, had $16 billion in profits last year on revenues of $473 billion. The Walton family, which owns more than 50 percent of Walmart shares, reaps billions in annual dividends from the company. The six Walton heirs are the wealthiest family in America, with a net worth of $148.8 billion. Collectively, these six Waltons have more wealth than 49 million American families combined. (p. 3, footnotes omitted)  

Compare that with Walmart’s similar description of itself on its website’s “Corporate & Financial Facts” page in its “News & Views” section (here):

Walmart serves customers more than 200 million times per week at more than 11,000 retail units in 27 countries. We employ 2.2 million associates globally, including approximately 1.3 million in the United States. Walmart is one of the largest private employers in the U.S. and Canada. For the fiscal year ended January 2013, Walmart increased net sales by 5% to $466.1 billion and returned $13 billion to shareholders through dividends and share repurchases. Walmart ranked second on the 2012  FORTUNE 500 list of the world’s largest companies by revenue.

The Walmart slogan, on its “Our Story” page, is: “Saving people money so they can live better.” It is true that Walmart strives mightily to charge the lowest prices on most of the things it sells. That is the cornerstone of its game plan. But Walmart’s contribution, ironically, is to incrementally worsen the lives others live, not improve them, while the Walton family prospers astronomically at the expense of the markets and societies it dominates. In broad terms, Barry Lynn explains why:

Until we elected Ronald Reagan president, both Democrats and Republicans made sure that no chain store ever came to dominate more than a small fraction of sales in the United States as a whole, or even in any one region of the country. Between 1917 and 1979, for instance, administrations from both parties repeatedly charged the Great Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, the chain store behemoth of the mid-twentieth century that is better know as A&P, with violations of anti-trust law, even threatening to break the firm into pieces.

Then in 1981 we stopped enforcing that law. Thus, today Wal-Mart is at least five times bigger, relative to the overall size of the U.S. economy, than A&T was at the very height of its power. Indeed, Wal-Mart exercises a de facto complete monopoly in many smaller cities, and it sells as much as half of all the groceries in many big metropolitan markets. Wal-Mart delivers at least 30 percent and sometimes more than 50 percent of the entire U.S. consumption of products ranging from soaps and detergents to compact discs and pet food. (Barry Lynn, Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction, Wiley, 2010, p. 6.)

Monopolies impose uncompensated costs on societies, which is why they were illegal for so many years in America. Providing products and services at the lowest prices is only beneficial if those prices are established through effective competition, so consumers can be assured of getting real value and high quality for their dollars. Competition, under any version of conventional economic theory, reduces profits — and perfect competition reduces profits to zero. How, therefore, if Walmart customers were actually getting their money’s worth, has the Walton family managed to accumulate a net worth of $150 billion? 

The Walmart game plan, which ranges from control of suppliers to tax avoidance to the suppression of employee wages, is well documented. From a broad perspective, we know that tax breaks for large corporations, like General Electric, have generally reduced corporate contributions to the common (social) costs of society while enhancing their profits. Consider these recent comments from J. David Cox Sr., National President, American Federation of Government Employees, AFL-CIO:

There are two main reasons why Congress should let the tax extenders package stay dead. The first is, we simply can’t afford to let tens of billions of dollars in otherwise taxable revenue go uncollected each year. Just one year of this tax revenue would fund the creation of three quarters of a million public sector jobs, including teachers, first responders, highway crews and librarians. Creating these jobs would pay dividends for the employees, their families and the communities that tax breaks for big corporations simply don’t.

And that takes me to the second reason for keeping the tax extenders package dead and buried. By far, the main beneficiaries of these tax write-offs are mega corporations and wealthy individuals – folks who do just fine without any financial assistance from the government.

Most everyone has heard of General Electric. They “bring good things to life,” or so their commercials used to say. Nowadays, the only thing GE is interested in bringing to life is the tax loophole that enables the company to avoid paying its fair share in federal income taxes. The so-called active financing tax loophole, one of the 55 tax breaks that expired at the end of 2013, enables GE and other large corporations to make it appear that profits earned in the U.S. were generated in offshore tax havens like the Cayman Islands. 

The GE tax loophole alone costs taxpayers about $63 billion over 10 years. (“Congress Should Keep Lights Off on Tax Package That Nets GE Billions in Tax Breaks,” The Blog, Huff Post, April 2, 2014, here.)

The point is that tax avoidance by big corporations and their wealthy owners either robs society of public benefits (services and infrastructure) enjoyed by everyone or imposes the costs of those things more heavily on everyone else. In popular parlance these days, that amounts to the wealthy and the corporations not paying their “fair share.” Over time, this leads to depression. 

Here, our primary interest is in the narrower claim that Walmart enhances its profits still more by by imposing some of its operating (labor) costs on taxpayers and society when it pays wages that fall below the poverty level.

Walmart and taxation

ATF estimated that Walmart and the Waltons receive taxpayer subsidies and tax breaks estimated at more than $7.8 billion per year, enough to hire 105,000 new public school teachers:

  • $6.2 billion in federal taxpayer subsidies: “Walmart pays its employees so little that many of them rely on food stamps, health care and other taxpayer-funded programs” (p. 3);
  • $1 billion in federal tax avoidance through tax breaks and loopholes, including accelerated depreciation;
  • $607 million in personal FIT avoided by the Waltons through distribution of Walmart dividends.

The second and third elements point to ubiquitous aspects of the inequality problem: The low tax rates on corporate dividends and capital gains are at the heart of the income tax regressivity that is causing inequality and decline throughout the economy. Accelerated depreciation is a more subtle problem: When I was regulating utility rates, I would occasionally get an argument for lower rates through “economic depreciation,” a form of decelerated depreciation. The longer it takes to depreciate large capital items, however, the more interest and equity costs are accrued, adding to total cost reflected in rates, so we depreciated plant as quickly as feasible to keep costs and rates down. Walmart, however, presumably does not reduce its prices to reflect the tax savings from using accelerated depreciation. 

The recently controversial point here is the first one, that Walmart through wage suppression has paid so little that many of its employees are living in poverty and are forced to rely on public assistance to survive. This point has become a national scandal: Yesterday (5/21/14) ED Schultz reported (here) on the City of Portland, Oregon’s decision to divest all its Walmart investments because of the company’s perceived anti-social policies, including especially its refusal to pay its employees a living wage.

Schultz covered several points, including job losses in the U.S. from exportation of Walmart jobs to China, but focused mainly on Walmart’s low wages. According to Schultz, Walmart’s low wages cost taxpayers $5,815 annually per Walmart employee. Using Walmart’s figure for its total U.S. employment, that works out to about $7.6 billion of total subsidies, higher than the ATF estimate of $6.2 billion.  Schultz pointed out, as did Barry Lynn in his book, that this abuse of its monopoly market power enables Walmart to effectively undermine small businesses, destroying their potential competition.

In 2007, a grass roots public interest group “Good Jobs First” published a “Wal-Mart Subsidy Watch” on the internet (here) providing state-by-state estimates of Walmart’s “use of public money”:

This includes more than $1.2 billion in tax breaks, free land, infrastructure assistance, low-cost financing and outright grants from state and local governments around the country. In addition, taxpayers indirectly subsidize the company by paying the healthcare costs of Wal-Mart employees who don’t receive coverage on the job and instead turn to public programs such as Medicaid.         

The issue has blossomed in the last five years, as Walmart employee reliance on public assistance has grown. Good Jobs First promised to continue its efforts, but apparently has not done so. (My call to its Washington, D.C. number accessed an answering machine, but no one was available to take my call.) Thus, it appears, Portland, Oregon’s stand has been the first major development in a few years to attract attention to Walmart’s game plan.

Rebuttal

In a recent Forbes Op-ed (“Fantastical Nonsense About WalMart, The Waltons And $7.8 Billion In Tax Breaks,” April 14, 2014, here), contributor Tim Worstall offered the following responsive arguments:

  • The ATF report is “full of the most fantastical nonsense”;
  • The writers of the report misunderstand “how taxes and benefits work” and came up with a nonsensical ($7.8 billion) total;
  • Americans for Tax Fairness “appear to me to be rebels without a clue”;
  • With respect to the argument that “Walmart pays its employees so little that many of them rely on food stamps, health care and other taxpayer-funded programs,” Worstall argues that “much of that $6.2 billion is actually a cost to WalMart, not a benefit;”  
  • With respect to the other two points about tax-avoidance, Walmart and the Waltons are simply obeying the law.

I’ll give Worstall a pass for his name-calling and posturing; it’s par for the course in political Op-ed writing. When it comes to trying to figure out the truth, however, we need to look past appearances and authoritative posturing. For example, the argument that Walmart is simply obeying the “law” is far too facile:

(1) That claim overlooks the fact that corporations like GE, Mobil/Exxon, and Walmart (created in 1963) were part of the political movement that created tax laws favorable to them after 1980;  

(2) The ATF report does not argue that Walmart has violated the these tax laws. Beyond receiving inherently favorable tax treatment, moreover, Walmart, like most big corporations, has tried to take advantage of any available loophole to minimize its taxes. In some cases, it has arguably ignored the spirit and intent of the law — for example, by deducting rent it pays to itself on state level tax returns (Wall Street Journal, February 1, 2007, here). Unlike ordinary households, big corporations can and do typically litigate unfavorable tax rulings aggressively in the courts, even in support of unsound positions.

Still, I’ll give Worstall a pass on this one too – ATF can properly be characterized as arguing that Walmart and the Waltons are getting unfair, not illegal, tax treatment.

With respect to the $6.2 billion estimate, the core point, Worstell relied on obfuscation: He first explained how ATF estimated the nationwide cost to taxpayers of Walmart employees use of public assistance programs, then pointed out that programs included in this estimate “include the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Section 8 Housing Program, Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, commonly known as food stamps).” Then he argued:

The problem with this is that only one of those programs is a subsidy to WalMart: all of the others are subsidies to the workers and thus are, in fact, costs to WalMart.  * * * Benefits that you get out of work are not benefits to potential employers. They are costs to them, for they raise your reservation wage.

Worstell’s arguments, however, are insensible. The argument is not that Walmart is receiving subsidies, but that its failure to pay a living wage forces taxpayers to provide assistance to Walmart employees, by an estimated $6.2 billion annually. The argument that these programs impose additional costs on Walmart is the actual “fantastical nonsense”: The “reservation wage” — which is the theoretically lowest wage rate at which a worker would be willing to accept a particular type of job (here) — does not go up just because the wage already accepted by Walmart workers is supplemented through public assistance. There isn’t even a hint from Worstell that Walmart might somehow be forced to pay more because its workers are receiving public benefits.

This was quickly followed by two even more ridiculous arguments:

  • First, imagine Walmart didn’t even exist – its employees would still be getting these payments, so they cannot be construed as subsidies to Walmart. (Or, they might not be unemployed – they might be working for employers that are actually paying a living wage);
  • Second, they would actually be receiving more taxpayer money without their Walmart jobs. (So what’s the point? That Walmart is actually saving taxpayer dollars by existing and hiring people who would otherwise be unemployed?)

Worstell presumes, then rationalizes, his own conclusion — that Walmart benefits society. His arguments, however, reveal a cynical contempt for the very idea that American workers should make enough money to live on. He apparently won’t accept that big corporations could have a responsibility to pay American workers a living wage, but he does appear to believe he can disguise that antisocial view behind rhetoric suggesting that Walmart’s policies can somehow be seen in a socially favorable light.       

The Capitalist Endgame

Walmart’s game plan for maximizing its profits shows how heartless capitalism can be in practice. Ed Schultz pointed out that Walmart could pay all of its employees a living wage by raising its prices less than 2%. But that might reduce somewhat Walmart’s stranglehold on retail markets. There seems to be no room in Walmart’s game plan for manufacturing or even for retail staff at American wage scales.  

To me, like the minimum wage issue discussed in my last post, understanding the Walmart game plan is crucial to understanding what kind of a society we have become. But the economic consequences of Walmart’s profiteering go way beyond these details. It was Tim Worstall who made the now-famous observation in December of 2011 that six Waltons had more wealth than the bottom 30% of Americans (here) . In itself, however, that is not a particularly useful piece of information. What we need to know is how much the Walton wealth is increasing each year, together with all of the wealth held by the rest of the top 1%, top 0.1% and top 0.01% of wealth-holding households. With that information we can compute how quickly the wealth of the bottom 99% is being sucked out of the active economy.

Walmart had a profit of $16 billion in 2013, money that is not trickling back down.  For the entire U.S. economy, however, total U.S. corporate profits had continued to rise sharply, reaching a record high of $1.7 trillion in 2013.  At the same time, workers’ share of national income had fallen to the lowest level since WW II (here).  These figures reflect the ever-widening income inequality that directly results in the accelerating concentration of wealth. About 25-30% of that, evidently, results in more wealth for the top 1% — its net worth is increasing, I estimate, by $400-700 billion per year — with devastating consequences for the bottom 99% economy. Much of that is extracted ultimately from new money borrowed by the federal government each year, but much of it still comes from the increasingly impoverished middle class.

Walmart provides a useful object lesson, a useful template for the many levels of corporate malfeasance that in more prosperous times were against the law.  Sadly, “saving people money so they can live better” is not the contribution Walmart is making to America. But to better understand how, and how much, big corporations collectively are hurting the economy we must shift our attention to the big picture. The inequality growth spiral has gone on way too long and, I fear, we have now reached capitalism’s endgame.   

JMH – 5/22/2014 (ed. 5/23/2014)

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Why Economics Failed: The Parable of the Minimum Wage

economist mod econ theory

(Illustration by John Berkerly for The Economist, July 16, 2009)

“Macroeconomics” is, of course, to be distinguished from “microeconomics.” Macro-economics deals with economic affairs “in the large.” It concerns the overall dimensions of economic life. It looks at the total size and shape and functioning of the “elephant” of economic experience, rather than the working or articulation or dimensions of the individual parts. To alter the metaphor, it studies the character of the forest, independently of the trees that compose it.  – Gardner Ackley, Macroeconomic Theory,  Macmillon, 1961, 1963,  (p. 4)

An eminent member of the University of Michigan faculty, Gardner Ackley was an important and influential economist. He was appointed by President Kennedy to the Council of Economic Advisors, and promoted to Chairman of the CEA by Lyndon Johnson. Fifty years ago, however, he may have been even better known in academic circles for his legendary and groundbreaking textbook on macroeconomics. 

It was my intense interest in macroeconomics that propelled me into the PhD program at the University of Michigan following graduation, with honors in economics, from Oberlin College in 1966. At Oberlin, I had learned about macroeconomics from Ackley’s text, and his approach to economics — his incisive logic and unpretentious objectivity — had intensified my interest in the field. Ackley had convinced me that, although there may never have been a “bright line” between microeconomic and macroeconomic theory, there are crucial differences that must be understood and respected between the way an aggregate economy behaves and the behavior of individuals and firms. 

When I was in graduate school at Michigan, Gardner Ackley was away, but I did have one memorable encounter with him, and it was the highlight of my academic experience. In 1970, my senior year of law school, I wrote a paper for a labor seminar discussing the incompatibility of full employment and price stability — stagflation. The paper is gone now, and I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I do remember emphasizing structural unemployment and the impacts of the Vietnam War; and I remember that it earned an “A” from Gardner Ackley, the guest reviewer my professor had asked to read it.

Recently returned from his assignment as Ambassador to Italy, Ackley had completed his years of public service. It did not come to light until many years later that in 1966 he had recommended to President Johnson that he raise taxes to pay for the Vietnam War (here). For the delay until 1968 in passing the recommended tax increase, Paul Samuelson later said, “we paid dearly in the inflation of the 1970s” (here).

Rereading his textbook today reveals that Ackley’s influence on me and the way I understand economics is incalculable. I am forced to wonder whether my own frequent use of the forest metaphor for macroeconomics, a full half-century later, might be traceable to an embedded memory of the quoted passage. In truth, his use of the metaphor was not entirely apt: He not only showed that the line between macroeconomic and microeconomic theory was hazy and occasionally non-existent, but he also adeptly traversed the ground between the “trees” — the mathematical and graphical representations of complex macroeconomic models and theories — and the “forest” — the broad high-altitude perspectives and implications of ground-level analyses. Ackley clarified what economic theory tells us will happen under specific assumptions, and he carefully described the limitations imposed on the use of a model by its underlying assumptions and by the limitations of data. 

The Descent into Confusion

Today, mainstream macroeconomics is in a meltdown. It has no satisfactory explanation for the steady rise of income and wealth inequality over the last 30-35 years in the United States or the consequences of that long trend, and in the last few years it has been struggling even to make reliable “short-run” forecasts. Long-run growth forecasts remain inherently unreliable, little more than extensions of recent trends in unemployment or GDP. I have for several years been reviewing the history of economic theories to help pinpoint what has gone wrong with economics, and it turns out that Ackley’s insights, fifty years after he published them, can make a huge difference in explaining and justifying a new framework for a “distributional macroeconomics” and reconciling it with Keynesian macroeconomics. 

That progress in “scientific” macroeconomics had already stalled somewhere along the way from Adam Smith to John Maynard Keynes, and never recovered, is now becoming indisputable. Consider the recent frank concessions of Raj Chetty, a Harvard economist who in 2013 was awarded the biennial John Bates Clark medal, an honor bestowed on the the American economist under the age of 40 who has made the most significant contribution to scholarship in the field. In defending the “science” of economics (“Yes, Economics is a Science,” The New York Times, October 20, 2013, here), Chetty conceded that mainstream economics is still struggling to answer the basic questions of macroeconomics, namely, the causes of growth and decline, and that the profession does not yet adequately understand the mechanics of how market economies work:

It is true that the answers to many “big picture” macroeconomic questions – like the causes of recessions or the determinants of growth – remain elusive.

I have been emphasizing this concession ever since (e.g., see my December 2013 post “Economics: The Lost Science,” here), in light of the persistent decline of mainstream, popular economics into ideology:

That this should still be so is amazing, when the basic features of a market economy’s functional mechanisms had occurred, untested, to Adam Smith 237 years ago (Wealth of Nations, Book II, Ch 3). Yet we see today a discipline almost entirely dominated by ideological fantasies like “trickle-down,” an upside-down notion which unabashedly proclaims “less is more” and, somehow, enlists support from the victims of the extreme inequality it engineers.

The continuing confusion surrounding “big picture” issues that I so superciliously dismissed as “amazing” is actually understandable (though not excusable) for several subtle reasons that are revealed in Ackley’s analysis. After rereading his book, I immediately began writing a post for this blog to explain how Ackley’s legacy can help us find the “elusive” answers to Chetty’s “big picture” questions, a post that quickly turned into a two-part series. Two days ago, however, a strange parable on the minimum wage began to develop in my daily routine, suggesting that this post on the minimum wage would serve as an ideal introduction to the other two posts, which will follow soon.

Credit Chetty for distinguishing between “the causes of recession,” which have routinely been addressed since John Maynard Keynes as short-run, cyclical phenomena, and the determinants of long-term growth. Economic phenomena are complex and messy, and any economic model is necessarily an oversimplification. Economic models employ simplifying assumptions to focus on the most important variables, but these assumptions often conflict so much with what actually happens in real life experience as to call into question the validity of the models themselves. That is exactly what was going on when Keynes developed his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Keynes put it this way: 

The celebrated optimism of traditional economic theory, which has led to economists . . . . [teaching] that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds provided we will let well alone, is also to be traced, I think, to their having neglected to take account of the drag on prosperity which can be exercised by an insufficiency of effective demand. For there would obviously be a natural tendency towards the optimum employment of resources in a Society which was functioning after the manner of the classical postulates. It may well be that the classical theory represents the way in which we should like our Economy to behave. But to assume that it actually does so is to assume our difficulties away. (Ch. 3, “The Principle of Effective Demand”)

Gardner Ackley’s analysis showed how both the classical and Keynesian models depended on demand (spending) to achieve short-run full employment “equilibrium.” His book covered the field as he found it in the early 1960s, and it revealed that the profession’s understanding of long-term growth was still immature and unsettled, and that little was as yet understood about the determinants of overall prosperity and growth. That this was still true in 2013 has been confirmed by Raj Chetty. Indeed, mainstream economics is even incapable today of properly assessing the effects of the minimum wage on employment and growth.

Growth, and the Minimum Wage

My parable begins early Thursday morning, just after 7:00 a.m. I had been up well past midnight working on my discussion of the Ackley legacy, and diminishing returns had set in. I arose at 6:00 however, because I had a 7:00 a.m. appointment for a tooth extraction. When I arrived, my dentist went right to work, giving me a series of shots. He then left me alone for a while to let the numbing process take effect. His assistant handed me the TV controller, and I switched through the channels until landing on C-Span, which was broadcasting “The Washington Journal.”  

Greta Brawner was hosting this broadcast of the The Washington Journal (Thursday, May 1, 2014, here).  Reviewing her program later, I noted that she had headlined the broadcast with a story of declining growth in the first quarter of 2014, in which growth had slowed to an annualized 0.1 %, attributable according to her source to an especially cold winter. While waiting for the anesthetics to kick in, I had switched to C-Span somewhere around 7:15, finding Ms. Brawner’s call-in show in progress, and she was asking viewers for their opinions on how to stimulate economic growth. 

This ought to be good, I thought. I did not yet know her name, but it seemed remarkable to me for the host of a major news program to be asking for views on the causes of growth from the general public, which on average has virtually no knowledge of economics, and no notion whatsoever of the mechanics of growth. It seemed especially ironic to be soliciting such uninformed views at a time when the mainstream economics itself had admitted to finding an understanding of the mechanics of growth “elusive.”  

Ms. Brawner had a stack of news story enlargements in front of her, and when someone called in with a point she wanted to pursue she read quotes from these articles, and people who wanted to emphasize private sector freedom over government intervention, it appeared, were getting more of her time and attention. Before long a caller identifying himself as a political independent offered an unusually comprehensive response. He said he would raise the minimum wage, close tax loopholes for billionaires and corporations, hold corporations responsible for environmental damage, and invest in infrastructure and education.

Well prepared for such a call, Ms. Brawner turned immediately to the issue of the minimum wage, citing a recent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report concluding that increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 would actually reduce employment by somewhere between zero to one million jobs. Shortly thereafter, the dentist returned and began to extract my tooth.  Later that morning, I retrieved the February, 2014 CBO report “The Effects of a Minimum-Wage Increase on Employment and Family Income” (here), scanned it, and saved it for further review. I replayed the Brawner show, discovering that she had also run a lengthy clip of Mitch McConnell, in an address at the Senate, firmly berating Democrats for hurting the people they claim to be trying to help: We all know, McConnell insisted, that the proposed increase in the minimum wage would cause the loss of one million jobs. 

Why Economics Fails

Fortuitously, the next morning’s New York Times arrived with Paul Krugman’s Op-ed entitled “Why Economics Failed” (here). Krugman had been teaching a class on “The Great Depression: Causes and Consequences.” It was fun, he reported, but:

I found myself turning at the end to an agonizing question: Why, at the moment it was most needed and could have done the most good, did economics fail?

He focused on topics he frequently addresses, including budget deficits, interest rates, and inflation, but his core message was about decline, the opposite of growth:

The financial crisis and the housing bust created an environment in which everyone was trying to spend less, but my spending is your income and your spending is my income, so when everyone tried to cut spending at the same time the result is an overall decline in incomes and a depressed economy. And we know (or should know) that depressed economies behave quite differently from economies that are at or near full employment.  

Coincidentally, Krugman’s explanation of the core problem of insufficient demand was given in terms of the failure of “Say’s Law,” as (I have recently discovered) it had been reframed by Garner Ackley 50 years ago. Supply does not automatically create its own demand, and therefore the failure of economics to which Krugman refers is its failure to recognize Keynes’s “principle of effective demand”: Just as reduced demand causes decline, increasing demand is needed to stimulate growth, as the caller on whom Brawner had unleashed McConnell’s tirade the previous morning appeared to understand. Krugman continued:

And the diagnosis of our troubles as stemming from inadequate demand had clear policy implications: as long as lack of demand was the problem, we would be living in a world in which the usual rules didn’t apply. In particular, this was no time to worry about budget deficits and cut spending, which would only deepen the depression. When John Boehner, then the House minority leader, declared in early 2009 that since American families were having to tighten their belts, the government should tighten its belt, too, people like me cringed; his remarks betrayed his economic ignorance. We needed more government spending, not less, to fill the hole left by inadequate private demand.

Given that government programs consistently redistributing money to people who will quickly spend most or all of it (like unemployment insurance and food stamps) stimulates growth, it would seem to follow that similar private sector wage increases, and a higher minimum wage, would do the same.     

Reflections on the “Law of Effective Demand”

I call Keynes’s principle of effective demand the law of effective demand because it is as close to an inviolable “law” as economics has got. People must have money in order to buy things.

I finished my coffee, put down the New York Times, and headed off to a an appointment I had with my podiatrist that morning. He asked me about my work in economics, which we had discussed on an earlier visit, and I told him that I had learned about the February 2014 CBO conclusion that increasing the minimum wage would substantially reduce employment, and that I needed to study that report closely:

“When you think about it,” he replied, “that makes sense.”

“Why?” I asked.

“If their wage costs are going up, employers will have to cut back on production and jobs in order to stay profitable.”

“Perhaps,” I responded, “but it’s not that simple: Employer responses to short-run cost increases are only a part of the issue. There is also an economy-wide stimulation from all of the additional money circulating in the economy as a result of paying the minimum wage, creating more jobs .”    

His eyebrows rose. He smiled and rubbed his chin, and told me he wanted to see what I was writing about economics.   

The CBO Report

Pages from CBO effect of Minimum Wage on employment feb 2014

In its first figure (p. 5) CBO calls our attention to the scale of the two proposals it reviewed, increasing the minimum wage to  $10.10 and to $9.00. The latter would raise the minimum wage to the level of bottom 10th percentile of “workers wages” (in $2013 dollars) and the former to the a level midway between the bottom 1oth percentile and the bottom 25th percentile wage levels. 

The chart also reveals that real wages at and near the bottom have remained stagnant since the 1970s, and have fallen significantly since the start of the Great Recession in 2009. And it shows that the minimum wage has remained below the 10th percentile median wage, barely staying at roughly the same inflation-adjusted level for about 25 years.  

This says nothing, however, about overall growth, to which aggregate employment is closely tied. On that score, CBO forecasting is inherently problematic. Note that CBO projects that real hourly wages at the bottom will grow from here on out. But we know that cannot happen with inequality continuing to rise, without (a) a significant increase in unemployment and/or a significant reduction in per capita hours worked, or (b) a major increase in aggregate growth. Aggregate growth is not increasing, which is ostensibly why Greta Brawner devoted here show to discussing growth: Indeed, she reported a significant decline of first quarter growth to an annual rate of 0.1%, which was shrugged off as the result of a cold winter.

These are broad implications of CBO forecasting that are unrelated to any changes in the minimum wage. CBO has never, so far as I know, considered the impacts of income and wealth redistribution on growth, and failure to consider those impacts seriously compromises CBO forecasting. We now know that income growth after WW II, a period of declining inequality, was far more robust than since since 1979. This graph, for example, compares growth rates for per capita national income, average bottom 90% household income, and top 1% income, between two consecutive 30-year periods, 1946-1976 and 1976-2006.  

3-27-08tax2-f2b

It is important to note that overall national income growth (the yellow bar) was about one-third lower when income inequality was growing. Income inequality has continued to grow, and its growth has accelerated, since the Crash of 2008. These facts make the CBO projection of rising wage rates at the very bottom of the bottom 90% (the blue bar) wildly unrealistic. Realistically expected aggregate growth cannot sustain such averages at the bottom without, as I indicated, a major reduction in hours worked by the bottom 10% and bottom 25%, and that implies greatly increasing unemployment.

Since there is unrecognized unemployment growth built into CBO modeling, it is difficult to see how much credibility we can give to the CBO claim that increasing the minimum wage all by itself will cause a major reduction in employment. The best we can do is to try to understand CBO’s reasoning process.

The CBO Reasoning 

The report opened with a discussion of the isolated effects the CBO expects the minimum wage to have on the incomes of low-wage workers:

Increasing the minimum wage would have two principal effects on low-wage workers. Most of them would receive higher pay that would increase their family’s income, and some of those families would see their income rise above the federal poverty threshold. But some jobs for low-wage workers would probably be eliminated, the income of most workers who became jobless would fall substantially, and the share of low-wage workers who were employed would probably fall slightly (p. 1).

CBO then estimated that the proposed $10.10 minimum wage would increase the earnings of low-wage workers by $31 billion. (p. 2)

Beyond that, however, CBO merely listed a series of apparently subjectively evaluated factors, then jumped directly to its findings, without revealing its approach to forecasting or explaining how it reached its conclusions. CBO began its lengthy discussion (pp. 6-8) of how increases in the minimum wage affect employment and family income with this:

According to conventional economic analysis, increasing the minimum wage reduces employment in two ways. First, higher wages increase the cost to employers of producing goods and services. The employers pass some of those increased costs on to consumers in the form of higher prices, and those higher prices, in turn, lead the consumers to purchase fewer of the goods and services. The employers consequently produce fewer goods and services, so they hire fewer workers. That is known as a scale effect, and it reduces employment among both low-wage workers and higher-wage workers.

Second, a minimum-wage increase raises the cost of low wage workers relative to other inputs that employers use to produce goods and services, such as machines, technology, and more productive higher-wage workers. Some employers respond by reducing their use of low-wage workers and shifting toward those other inputs. That is
known as a substitution effect, and it reduces employment among low-wage workers but increases it among higher-wage workers. (p. 6)

Beyond the potential for scale and substitution effects to reduce output and employment, CBO mentioned that employers’ costs could be aggravated, following a minimum wage increase, by attempts to preserve wage differentials above the minimum wage, and that higher wage rates can be implicated by collective bargaining agreements that tie wage increases to the federal minimum wage.

CBO did not entirely dismiss the increased demand generated by $31 billion of additional income, but its conclusions were guarded:  

An increase in the minimum wage also affects the employment of low-wage workers in the short term through changes in the economy-wide demand for goods and services. A higher minimum wage shifts income from higher-wage consumers and business owners to low-wage workers. Because those low-wage workers tend to spend a larger fraction of their earnings, some firms see increased demand for their goods and services, boosting the employment of low-wage workers and higher-wage workers alike. That effect is larger when the economy is weaker, and it is larger in regions of the country where the economy is weaker. (p. 7)

Discussion

All of the factors CBO mentioned are relevant, but there is no coherent evaluation of their importance, and CBO left the impression that it was rationalizing subjective conclusions that lack firm support. The report conceded that its conclusions were controversial: “There is a wide range of views among economists about the merits of the conventional analysis.” (p. 6) Here are some problems I see with CBO’s reasoning:

1. One would expect some economy-wide reduction purchases of goods and services whose prices have been raised in response to a minimum wage increase. However, there are reasons to doubt the significance of any “scale” effect on employment:

a. The demand for many goods and services is price-inelastic, and increasing prices in these instances do not cause much or any decline in output and employment;

b. Many firms enjoying profitable sales of goods and services the demand for which is more price-elastic, may elect not to increase their prices at all, in the interest of maintaining or expanding their successful share or control of markets. Such firms would absorb a reduction in profits, expecting profit margins to fall anyway following a decline in sales if they did raise their prices.

2. That substitution effects in the “production function” might cause significant unemployment is a more speculative proposition. There are many factors involved in the feasibility of substitutions, and it does not seem likely that in many instances an increase in the cost of a firm’s cheapest labor would suddenly make substitution profitable or feasible:

a. The marginal cost and productivity of all factors of production are relevant, and it seems unlikely that the functions performed by the lowest-paid employees can often be more cheaply performed by making them more capital-intensive and less labor-intensive;

b. Any such cost-saving innovations would likely have already been introduced, and would not need to await the provocation of a minimum wage increase;

3. There is insufficient discussion of the demand-increasing effect of the wage increases:

a. The $30 billion of increased demand produced by a higher minimum wage would be immediate and significant;

b. The assumption that a minimum wage increase is offset by reductions in higher-level wages is speculative and unjustified. As already discussed, a minimum wage increase is more likely in most instances to simply reduce profits, preserving its stimulating effect;

c. This is a static assessment, giving no consideration to multiplier effects and the potential for additional investment and lasting improvement of long-term growth;

d. Admittedly, prospects for long-term growth are more likely from direct spending through government programs and investment (financed by progressive taxation), but there is no reason subjectively to conclude that raising the minimum wage will necessarily cause employment to decline at all, much less materially.

Conclusions

These are my main concerns in connection with CBO’s analysis and conclusions, and I’m sure that experts on the minimum wage would likely provide a deeper analysis of its implications. It is fair to say, though, that the CBO’s unexplained analysis is too speculative to be legitimately termed a “forecast,” and CBO’s forecasts are seriously compromised in any case by its use of supply-side models and its failure to account for the depressing effects of rising income inequality.

Reducing inequality will promote growth, and increasing the minimum wage seems likely to have a relatively small but potentially long-term effect of reducing inequality, or slowing its growth. The CBO report fails to demonstrate that a higher minimum wage of $10.10 will cause the loss of up to one million jobs, and it is not clear that it will reduce employment at all. People who are looking for an increase in the minimum wage to substantially reduce inequality, however, are overly optimistic.

Although about $30 billion of additional income would be added at the bottom via an increase in the minimum wage, according to CBO, some $400-700 billion of wealth is moving to the top annually through the normal channels of income and wealth redistribution, a process that affects everyone beneath the top 1% income classification, and has already wiped out most of the former middle class. Clearly, benefits from an increase in the minimum wage are dwarfed by the impact of increasing income and wealth inequality. There can be no long-term correction of inequality or its stunted growth until the problem is rooted out at its source, by reinstating progressive taxation.

I have seen no indication that CBO understands the importance of demand to economic growth. The basis for such an understanding will be more fully addressed in my future posts dealing with the legacy of Gardner Ackley.

JMH — 5/4/2014 (ed. 5/5/2014)

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The Time-Warp and the Three Milliseconds

navajo couple

(“Navajo Family Receives Electricity in Their Home for the First Time,” by Candice Naranjo, AP, April 13, 2014, here, and Sara Morrison, The Wirehere.)

Spread’s tunnel was not intended to carry passengers, or even freight; it was for a fiber-optic cable that would shave three milliseconds — three-thousandths of a second — off communication time between the futures markets of Chicago and the stock markets of New York.  * * *  Who cares about three milliseconds? The answer is, high-frequency traders, who make money by buying or selling stock a tiny fraction of a second faster than other players. * * *

[S]pending hundreds of millions of dollars to save three milliseconds looks like a huge waste. And that’s part of a much broader picture, in which society is devoting an ever-growing share of its resources to financial wheeling and dealing, while getting little or nothing in return. * * * What are we getting in return for all that money? Not much, as far as anyone can tell. Defenders of modern finance like to argue that it does the economy a great service by allocating capital to its most productive uses — but that’s a hard argument to sustain after a decade in which Wall Street’s crowning achievement involved directing hundreds of billions of dollars into subprime mortgages.

In short, we’re giving huge sums to the financial industry while receiving little or nothing — maybe less than nothing — in return. [T]there is a clear correlation between the rise of modern finance and America’s return to Gilded Age levels of inequality. So never mind the debate about exactly how much damage high-frequency trading does. It’s the whole financial industry, not just that piece, that’s undermining our economy and our society. – Paul Krugman, “Three Expensive Milliseconds,” New York Times, April 14, 2014 (here).

“I always said that if I wasn’t studying psychopaths in prison, I’d do it at the stock exchange.” – Robert Hare, creator of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist and its variants, the most widely used diagnostic tools for psychopathic personalities.– Paul Rosenberg, “The Sociopathic 1 Percent: The Driving Force at the Heart of the Tea Party,” Alternet,  March 8, 2014.

The contrast is too glaring, and the stakes are too high. So as occasionally happens on a Monday morning, I must return to my blogging post. Having just completed a series of posts showing how the wealthiest Americans have used the borrowing power of the U.S. government, and a huge national debt, to amass unimaginable wealth at the expense of everyone else and of our nation’s future, I thought my work might be done for a while. But there was another issue lurking in the background, one not as straightforward as the national debt, that continued to concern me: That was the problem of private debt. Sure enough, this morning’s news provided a seemingly compelling need for an immediate comment on the conceptually more difficult private debt problem.  

Although Wall Street investment banking is just one of the vehicles seriously undermining our economy and contributing to inequality and decline, it is clearly one of the most significant, and certainly the most unscrupulous. I have been prompted to take a closer look at how Wall Street investment banking is seriously undermining our economy by today’s Op-ed from Paul Krugman.  In this article, he has reported on a Spread Networks fiber-optic cable, constructed and installed through tunnels in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars, in order to shave three-thousandths of a second off the time required to send information from the futures markets in Chicago to the stock markets in New York.        

The Time-Warp

I found today’s news filled with irony: On the same day we are told how fiber-optic cable providing such an amazingly tiny time gap will afford the crucial difference in making billions of dollars in arbitrage trading, we are also informed of a Native American community that is only now being wired, for the first time ever, for basic electricity.  Ironic it is, for sure, that pockets of American society have never received basic electric service, and it feels very much like an anachronism in the land of opportunity. But it is also truly ironic, with poverty on the rise and many Americans around the country unable to afford housing or utility services, that our society’s higher priority is to invest so heavily in the marginal ability of very wealthy people to get even wealthier.

This says a great deal about the state of American society: Surely, before pouring hundreds of millions into its project, Spread Networks concluded that the investment was worth the risk, that once in place, the expected profitability of the project would not likely be countered by legal regulation or by prohibitive taxation, either of transactions or incomes. Such is the state of Wall Street’s perception of its political power, and the power of the wealthiest among us. The only question for them, I feel certain, was whether they could do it, could procure all the necessary easements and other required permissions. When they found they could, the decision to go forward was a foregone conclusion.

Wall Street and its representatives in Congress have relentlessly shown indifference to the lives and well being of the American people, as we have seen in their positions on financial reform, health care, and all other social programs. The sociopathy of the political right gains more attention all the time. Incredibly, some Republican state governors, we are told, are intentionally hurting their own states’ citizens by declining medicaid expansion, throwing away money and jobs simply to stand in political opposition to Barack Obama.

The Three Milliseconds

This is, in my view, Paul Krugman’s most significant Op-ed in recent memory. The Krugman point emphasized in the Wall Street Journal (livemint.com, here) is this: “It’s the whole financial industry, not just high-frequency trading, that’s undermining our economy and our society.” Krugman might have argued that high-frequency trading is itself evil and harmful, that it could add to the ongoing concentration of financial wealth, or harm Wall Street trading by squeezing out marginally successful investors who lack the three millisecond advantage, but he did not. Nor did he comment on the potential addition of risk for the markets or investment firms themselves. Instead, he made a more important point, and quite strongly: Nothing the financial industry does to make money for themselves contributes anything to our real economy. All of its income consists, although he did not use the term, of what is commonly referred to as “economic rent.” 

Krugman has now taken an all-out stand against the excesses of investment banking in principle, pointedly recognizing that it is hurting our economy and creating inequality. I believe this is as far as he’s ever gone in attributing the inequality problem and economic decline to investment banking. What is more, even though he dismisses the economic significance of the three millisecond gimmick, he chose to discuss his condemnation of Wall Street in the context of relating this one quirky, hell-bent-for-glory, idea. In doing so, he has exposed the inherent, shameless evil of the Wall Street mentality. If Occupy Wall Street accomplished little else, it certainly started the conversation about Wall Street’s inherent sociopathy, and made it respectable.  I expect (and hope) that this latest Krugman post will get a great deal of attention. 

My position on the economics of inequality is slightly different, of course. I maintain that: “It’s the whole economic process, not just the financial industry, that’s undermining our economy and our society.” But a strong case can be made, and Barry Lynn does a heck of a good job of making it in his 2010 book Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction, that Wall Street strategies lie behind all or nearly all of the elements of the inequality machine that is bringing us down. 

At this point it’s hard to know which of those factors are the most crucial, but financial industry excesses are clearly in the running, and we need to continue to take them very seriously. They were, after all, the cause of the Crash of 2008, and they seem likely to provide the vehicle of our eventual downfall.

The Private Debt Concern

Money is debt, and the ability to increase or decrease the money supply lies in the system of private banks controlled by the Federal Reserve Bank. Banks create money when they extend loans, for example mortgage loans, up to multiples of their own assets, and they profit by charging interest on those loans.

In my last post, I discussed how the $17 trillion of national debt is contributing to inequality, among other things, by creating a “perpetual annuity” for the government’s creditors. It has been argued that, as much of a bind as we are in with the national debt, an even bigger problem is an out-of-control level of private debt.  That would include all business loans and home mortgage loans, all of the student debt, and the like. Consider this chart (from “It’s private debt, not public debt, that got us into this mess,” Michael Clark’s Instablog, May 7, 2012, here):

private debt 428250-13363801587809994-Michael-Clark

This chart uses the traditional approach of showing balance sheet items as a percentage of GDP. Thus, the national debt is shown as approaching 100% of GDP in 2012, the prime observation behind the Reinhart/Rogoff controversy discussed elsewhere in this blog. I disagree, however, that this chart shows a correct level of “private debt,” so I can see no basis in this chart for concluding that a high level of private debt relative to public debt is necessarily a major cause of concern. 

It is now clear that our public debt is undermining our government and society, through rapidly increasing income and wealth redistribution, and there may be a similar problem with private debt, but it’s not clear how big of a problem that might be. This graph does reflect the collapse of private debt and a simultaneous increase in public debt following the Crash of 2008: We know that the 2008 crisis was brought on by repackaging toxic debt and reselling it as subprime mortgages, resulting in defaults by unwary home owners who had refinanced their homes. The amount of private debt fell substantially with the defaults and foreclosures, and public debt rose when the Federal Government bailed out failing investment firms. The collapse of the housing bubble was a criminal “double-whammy” that drove the bottom 99% into a mild depression from which we have yet to emerge. 

Here is a graph of the finance industry’s share of GDP. This one is from the 2009 abstract, cited by Krugman, by Thomas Philippon, NYU, “Finance vs. Wal-Mart: Why are Financial Services so Expensive?” (p.3, here). Note that the shape of this graph is identical, from 1930 to 2012, to the Clark graph. If this is the same data in both cases, the Clark graph misrepresents that data showing the financial industry’s share of GDP as growing to several times total GDP:

Pages from Philippon_v3 (1)

What this graph shows is the “income share of finance,” and the designation “WN fin. NIPA” represents the data series from the Bureau of Economic Analysis that compares financial sector employee compensation to aggregate compensation, where the financial sector includes finance and insurance, but excludes real estate (here).

There is no way to directly know from this kind of information whether the entire economy is over-leveraged, but Krugman appears to be growing more concerned on that score, because of the rapid growth in financial sector income. In his post, he states: 

Specifically, the share of G.D.P. accruing to bankers, traders, and so on has nearly doubled since 1980, when we started dismantling the system of financial regulation created as a response to the Great Depression.

Krugman’s point is confirmed by the Philippon graph, which shows about a 4 percentage point increase in the financial market’s share of income since 1980, a considerable portion of the over 2o% increase in the top 1% share of income over that period identified by Piketty and Saez. This is clearly a major share of the problem.

I have noted in other posts a rising concern about the developing student loan bubble, with the balance of outstanding student loans now totaling well over $1 trillion. There may be others as well. We do not know where and when the next crisis point may arise, but Wall Street’s continuing drain on the economy is clearly a major factor driving the inequality growth cycle. Another bursting bubble would have catastrophic consequences, and an overall collapse at the top, of course, would ruin everything. 

Conclusion

The main point of connection between the bottom 99% economy and the top 1% economy is in demand and jobs. I have concluded that the top 1% has increased its net worth since 1980 by a reasonably estimated  $22-25 trillion. Our federal government is shutting down as a result, the bottom 99% is in an inexorable inequality spiral and a slowly deepening depression, and the level of the federal debt is almost beyond redemption. The United States needs a far more progressive tax structure in order to save its economy.

One of the main vehicles for top 1% wealth concentration has been the gaming of the financial markets. Remember, market economies are inherently unstable. If a small handful of traders were to increase its gains by getting a significant jump on the rest of the market in trading, that could seriously hurt the market, with unforeseen consequences. Such a trend would not bode well for growth, or for the reduction of unemployment. If stocks are trading at speculative prices now, and they may well be, the stock market would likely be a candy store for these rapid traders, who might remove a great deal more money from the active money supply as more people became mega-rich.

Importantly, Paul Krugman has reminded us that this strangely sociopathic development (my characterization, not his) is not our primary concern. The entire history of investment banking since the repeal of Glass-Steagall has had terrible consequences for our economy. Clearly, there is no upside for the bottom 99% — or, for that matter, for anyone — in an economy that could tumble out of control in a matter of milliseconds.

JMH – 4/14/2014 (ed. 4/15/2015)

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Inequality and the National Debt

national-debt-elmo-2012

(Mark McHugh, “Understanding the National Debt – Sesame St. Addition,” September 24, 2010 here) , updated April 17, 2012 (here)

Public credit affords such facilities to public prodigality, that many political writers have regarded it as fatal to national prosperity. For, say they, when governments feel themselves strong in the ability to borrow, they are too apt to inter-meddle in every political arrangement, and to conceive gigantic projects, that lead sometimes to disgrace, sometimes to glory, but always to a state of financial exhaustion; to make war themselves, and stir up others to do the like; to subsidize every mercenary agent, and deal in the blood and the consciences of mankind; making capital, which should be the fruit of industry and virtue, the prize of ambition, pride, and wickedness.

A nation, which has the power to borrow, and yet is in a state of political feebleness, will be exposed to the requisitions of neighbors. It . . . perhaps must lend, with the certain prospect of never being repaid. These are by no means hypothetical cases: but the reader is left to make the application himself. * * * 

The command of a large sum is a dangerous temptation to a national adminis-tration. Though accumulated at their expense, the people rarely, if ever profit by it: yet in point of fact, all value, and consequently, all wealth, originates with the people. – Jean-Baptiste Say, A Treatise on Political Economy, Chapter IX, Of National Debt, 1803 (here).

Two French economists, Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty, have in recent years awakened us to the significance of growing income and wealth inequality, and in his much-hailed 2014 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Piketty has called our attention to an important aspect of the problem, the need to control the concentration of wealth. Two centuries ago, when rudimentary ideas about how economies work were just beginning to be formulated in the minds of political philosophers, another Frenchman, Jean-Baptiste Say, was among the first and the best of the new “classical” economists.   

Say, and several decades later the Englishman John Stuart Mill, each devoted a chapter in their books on economic principles to the important issues raised by the raising of national debt. Say opined, listing detriments that sound all too familiar today, that national debt in effect reallocates “value” and wealth originating with people in efforts that rarely benefit them. He regarded the activities of the state thus financed as frequently unvirtuous and, from society’s viewpoint, mostly wasteful. Mill (The Principles of Political Economy, Chapter V, “Of a National Debt ,” 1848, here) was at least equally critical of national debt:

The question must now be considered, how far it is right or expedient to raise money for the purposes of government, not by laying on taxes to the amount required, but by taking a portion  of the capital of the country in the form of a loan, and charging the public revenue with only the interest. * * *

[I]f the capital taken in loans is abstracted from funds either engaged in production, or destined to be employed in it, their diversion from that purpose is equivalent to taking the amount from the wages of the laboring-classes. Borrowing, in this case, is not a substitute for raising the supplies within the year. A government which borrows does actually take the amount within the year, and that too by a tax exclusively on the laboring-classes, than which it could have done nothing worse, if it had supplied its wants by avowed taxation; and in that case the transaction, and its evils, would have ended with the emergency; while, by the circuitous mode adopted, the value exacted from the laborers is gained, not by the state, but by the employers of labor, the state remaining charged with the debt besides, and with its interest in perpetuity. The system of public loans, in such circumstances, may be pronounced the very worst which, in the present state of civilization, is still included in the catalogue of financial expedients. 

Thus, Mill observed that in its practical effect national debt is a vehicle for redistribution of wealth to employers — a point ignored today. Beyond that, on the general question of whether to tax or borrow, he offered the common-sense test with which we are all familiar:

[T]he question really is, what it is commonly supposed to be in all cases—namely, a choice between a great sacrifice at once, and a small one indefinitely prolonged. On this matter it seems rational to think that the prudence of a nation will dictate the same conduct as the prudence of an individual; to submit to as much of the privation immediately as can easily be borne, and, only when any further burden would distress or cripple them too much, to provide for the remainder by mortgaging their future income. It is an excellent maxim to make present resources suffice for present wants; the future will have its own wants to provide for.

Among the classical economists, so far as I have discovered, there was no dissent from this “excellent maxim.” It was expected, in any event, that debts incurred were to be repaid as soon as possible after the financial emergency had passed. Say’s views also reflected Mill’s later understanding that national borrowing has the general effect of retarding private investment and employment:

There is this grand distinction between an individual borrower and a borrowing government, that, in general, the former borrows capital for the purpose of beneficial employment, the latter for the purpose of barren consumption and expenditure. A nation borrows, either to satisfy an unlooked-for demand, or to meet an extraordinary emergency; to which ends, the loan may prove effectual or ineffectual: but, in either case, the whole sum borrowed is so much value consumed and lost, and the public revenue remains burthened with the interest upon it.

That would not be entirely true, of course, if a government endeavored to invest in domestic growth; but why, other than to escape from a depression, would government borrow extensively to try to do that? And has the U.S. budget, over the last three decades, generally been a pro-growth budget?  

Say also discussed what would happen if a government ignored the maxim to borrow only when absolutely necessary, and engaged in perpetual borrowing:

When a government borrows, it either does or does not engage to repay the principal. In the latter case, it grants what is called a perpetual annuity.  * * * The governments best acquainted with the business of borrowing and lending have not, of late years at least, given any engagement to repay the principal of the loan. Thus, public creditors have no other way of altering the investment of their capital, except by selling their transferable security, which they can do with more or less advantage to themselves, according to the buyer’s opinion of the solidity of the debtor government, that has granted the perpetual annuity.

The U.S. Debt Problem

The United States has not run up more than $17 trillion of national debt to respond to any financial exigency, but rather to finance tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and, consequently, to provide them with a vast increase in wealth (net worth). To help come to grips with this horrendous reality, let’s keep McHugh’s chart in front of us for closer inspection.

national-debt-elmo-2012The meaning of the information provided here bears closer attention:

          Per Capita Income

McHugh has, appropriately, shown the change in aggregate per capita income in the black columns in nominal dollars; adjusted for inflation, the black columns would show the median “real” per capita income declining over the past few years. Notably, these aggregate income numbers include both top 1% and bottom 99% income. The trend line for the top 1% per capita income would slope up (erratically, reflecting the Crash 0f 2008) indicating the generally increasing per capita income of the top 1%; the bottom 99% line, however, would be declining after 2007, reflecting the declining nominal median per capita income of the bottom 99%. 

There was some income growth after 1990, but as shown for example on the Piketty/Saez chart in the last post, this was an already severely reduced growth rate, as the growth of bottom 99% income had already declined sharply after 1980 when income inequality began to grow.

          Per Capita National Debt 

The exponential growth of per capita debt reflects debt interest compounding faster than the U.S. population. The U.S. debt has been a “perpetual annuity” for many years, meaning that all of the money needed to pay the interest is borrowed each year, and the principal balance keeps growing. In fact, the principal balance is growing rapidly, and as the interest burden grows relative to other government functions, the debt gets increasingly unmanageable.  The Obama Administration has been stressing that the deficit has recently been reduced. To reverse the growth of the debt, however, the government must run surpluses, and as long as lower 99% incomes continue to decline, given the regressive state of taxation, there is no prospect of surpluses ahead.  

Indeed, the Congressional Budget projects increases in budget deficits. In its latest report, “The Budget and Economic Outlook: 2014 to 2024,” February 2014 (here), and summary dated February 4, 2014 (here), the CBO projects increasing interest rates and inflation through 2014, and declining unemployment (from an estimated 7.0% in 2013 to 5.8% in 2017 and 5.5% in 2024 (p. 6). With this forecast in the background, here is the projection for the budget deficits looming ahead:

Year          Deficit ($billions)              Year          Deficit ($billions)

                        2013                -680                             2019                -752 

                        2014                -514                             2020                -836 

                        2015                -478                             2021                 -912 

                        2016                -539                             2022              -1,032

                        2017                -581                             2023               -1,047  

                        2018                -655                             2024               -1,074

This is not movement in the right direction. GDP is not predicted to double between 2014 and 2024, nor is population, so the perpetual annuity is projected to increase its stranglehold on federal government finance. The problem is not spending (see Outlays, Table 3-1). Government non-discretionary spending is, of course, projected to rise, but Social Security and Medicare expenditures are funded separately, and Social Security funding is not yet in trouble.  The expenditure that is rising the fastest, by far, is net interest expense, rising from the 2013 actual of $211 billion to $880 billion in 2024. Compare that steep rise, for example, with the expected growth in the discretionary defense budget from $625 billion in 2013 to $719 billion 2024. 

The fact that interest expense will soon exceed the entire defense budget underscores the awfully high price we pay for setting up this perpetual annuity for government creditors: Interest expense is projected to rise from 1.3% of total outlays in 2013 to 14.7% in 2024. Because interest compounds exponentially, the problem going forward is obvious.  

And every discussion of CBO projections of government tax revenues must be qualified by recognition that mainstream forecasting begins with the wildly inaccurate “supply-side” assumptions inherent in neoclassical thinking. We are not told how the CBO takes reduced consumption and incomes into effect, though we know that Fed forecasters have recently stumbled over this problem. We can, however, be reasonably certain that the bases for their growth assumptions, and for decline in unemployment to 5.5% by 2024, are no more than wishful thinking.

Here’s why: The increases in per capita national debt reflected in HcHugh’s chart, and the future debt increases reflected in the CBO projections, mirror and closely match the continuing increases in top 1% wealth. It bears repeating that the $17 trillion of national debt is the direct result of tax cuts for the rich; the national debt has done nothing but finance an increase in top 1% net worth. The rich have been allowed to retain more income as wealth, and that has caused and accentuated an inequality cycle driven by government spending. 

So far as I know, I am the only one so far to publish the estimated increase in top 1% net worth since 1980, and here is my graph:

my graph 1952-1982 c

The crucial point is that the increase in top 1% net worth has risen at about the same pace as the national debt (compare 1980 with 2012), only slightly faster. These numbers, derived from government net worth data, show top 1% net worth increasing by $17 trillion between 1980 and 2012 (in constant 2005 dollars). However, when account is taken of U.S. top 1% wealth increases from the “shadow economy” discussed in the last post, and stored in “off-shore” accounts, a reasonable estimate of the actual gain is $22-25 trillion.

Two points: First, in addition to money the federal government has borrowed ($17 trillion) to finance their growing wealth, the top 1% has gathered in an estimated $5-8 trillion from the bottom 99% over these years. The lower incomes and wealth of the bottom 99% have substantially reduced bottom 99% tax revenues. Second, and this is a critical point, this is going on right now: Between 2008 and 2012, $3 trillion transferred up. This should have been revenue provided to the federal government: instead of reversing this confiscatory trend, however, our representatives in Congress are letting it continue, and plotting to increase it.

          The budget death spiral

It cannot be over-emphasized that this destruction of our federal budget is the natural consequence of the reduced tax obligations of the rich and their corporations that have led to unimaginable inequality and depression for the bottom 99%.  Not only does a huge portion of the interest on the debt increase top 1% wealth, the proceeds of all of the government debt, including money borrowed from China or other countries, ends up profiting the top 1% as well: We are in an advanced stage of the income and wealth concentration process reflecting a systemic change in the economy; now virtually all income growth is at the top, and more inequality growth is a nearly automatic result of all government spending.  

Nor can it be over-emphasized that there was never any purpose for these tax cuts other than to make the very rich still richer. That these moguls did not anticipate the devastating consequences of their actions, looming just a few decades ahead, is no excuse. They are still denying those consequences, perpetuating a neoclassical “trickle-down” fantasy that requires total ignorance of economic reality to believe. The Paul Ryan budget calls for still more tax reductions for the wealthy (here). And the political right disingenuously and improperly argues for still more slashing of government programs in the name of “responsibility.” (E.g., “Analysis of CBO’s 2014 Budget and Economic Outlook,” Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, here). 

Note that while CRFB correctly points out that our budget problems are not going away, on behalf of the wealthy it merely offers, like the Ryan budget plan, to make things worse, calling for a vague package of tax “reforms” which it surely must know, or at least suspect, is based solely on the no longer even marginally credible “trickle-down” myth. The economic right is either ignorant of economic realty or content to preside over the demise of the U.S. economy and society. 

Think about it  

The scope of this problem is beyond the abilities of our imaginations to comprehend, but let’s try. Mark McHugh, in “Understanding the National Debt (Sesame Street edition)” said this:

I’m tired of convoluted explanations of simple problems.  It distracts people from the truth, which is usually the intent of those doing the explaining.  The end result is large numbers of people pretending to understand things they don’t. Bernie Madoff’s “success”, ETFs, Treasury auctions, the housing market. 

The easiest way to confuse people is with numbers so mind-numbingly  big they mean nothing to the average person.  What’s 13 and a half Trillion dollars supposed to mean to Joe Sixpack?  

Thank you Mark, for that, and for translating the debt numbers into per capita figures for us. But now, let’s really think about it: McHugh’s figures show that the share of the national debt of every man, woman, and child in the U.S. grew from $32 thousand ($128 k for a family of four) in 2007 to $40,000 ($160 k for a family of four) in 2011. What could possibly have happened to our country, and in our lives, to have put each of us so deeply in (collective) debt? And perhaps more poignantly, how could each of the more than 300 million of us have picked up an additional $8,000 of national debt (federal spending for which our considerable tax dollars were somehow insufficient to pay) in just four years?

We can begin to see, I think, that such numbers are so mind-numbingly big that the answers to these questions actually become obvious. There really is no mystery here: The vast bulk of this money simply could not have been spent on us or on our country. And it does not take a lot of research to learn where the money actually went. 

Epilogue

These are the evils of which classical economics warned, but which have been rationalized and denied by neoclassical economics. Our country borrowed many trillions of dollars not because we needed to, but because the richest among us wanted to get richer, and didn’t want to pay taxes. Perhaps Martin Feldstein, the Harvard professor who helped Ronald Reagan get this debacle underway, merely didn’t understand how economies work. But then again, very few who professed to be economists back then actually did — and most still don’t. But a growing handful are learning. We are deeply indebted to Robert Reich and Joseph Stiglitz for all they are doing. Hats off as well to Mark McHugh, and to Société Générale strategist Albert Edwards who, I have recently learned, is sticking tenaciously to what appears to most analysts to be excessively bearish views about our economic future. 

The inequality problem has gotten so huge that it is sensible to worry about a backlash of denial or avoidance among reasonable people. But avoiding economic collapse is not our only serious problem. The world faces serious human population and environmental problems as well. This evening, Showtime debuts its climate change series “Years of Living Dangerously.” I watched the first episode on the internet yesterday, and one thing stands out in my mind today: A climate scientist whose work was followed by Don Cheadle showed how a devout Christian like herself could still be a scientist, and believe in the lessons of real world evidence. And she showed how other Christians could change their perspective and avoid denial: God has given us the ability to think for ourselves and make our own decisions, she explained, and in the end it is our own responsibility to help ourselves.

It does not appear that human civilization as we know it will last another century. My immediate concern is whether the U.S. economy can survive another decade. That could scare me into denial or inaction. What I fear more, however, is failing to do my best to help preserve our way of life for our children and our grandchildren.      

JMH – 4/13/2014 (ed. 4/14/2014)

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Inequality and Taxation

It’s not just Occupy Wall Street protesters that are worried about wealth and income inequality. Now people like Bill Gross, manager of the world’s largest bond fund at Pimco, are warning that the problem is making the U.S. less productive.

As noted by Société Générale strategist Albert Edwards, “you don’t have to be a communist to conclude that high levels of inequality not only adversely affects long-term growth, but also increases the economy’s vulnerability to recession.” * * * Wealth and income inequality in America is still getting worse by many measures. – Gus Lubin, Business Insider, November 12, 2013 (here).

Previous posts have established that market economies are unstable, meaning that income and wealth concentrates naturally at the top, and that growth rates decline with growing inequality. Thus, inequality growth and reduced overall growth are “two sides of the same coin.” The neoclassical notion that economies bounce along from one financial crisis to another, recovering toward optimal productivity and “full” employment between crises, is wrong. Rather, there is a gradual, inexorable decline — and the U.S. economy’s decline has been the least gradual in the world. This post and the next will explain how taxation is involved and show how it has been used to engineer the U.S. decline.

The remedy for stabilizing a market, as has long been known, is a system of “progressive” taxation, graduated taxation with the effective rates charged the highest levels of income and wealth sufficiently high to prevent increasing inequality. Progressive taxation both retards concentration and enables government to establish well-being and higher growth throughout an entire economy. This post explores the implications in the United States for growth and inequality of the abandonment of progressive taxation, and the following post explores its implications for the Federal government and the national debt.

The deterioration of the U.S. economy is the worst in the world among developed economies, by far. It isn’t just that the rich here have tended to get rich faster than the rich elsewhere: There has been a huge boost for them established by the reduction of their taxes over a 35-year period. Here is what has happened in the United States:

By 1980, wealth concentration in the U.S. was already substantial, due to the natural operation of the economy. Under the influence of wealthy interests and Milton Friedman’s “free market” philosophy, the Reagan administration began to lower the top rate of income taxation, among other things, making the tax system increasingly regressive. Inequality grew and the rate of growth slowed, both significantly. To maintain a high level of spending, the federal government began to run up the national debt as it continued to reduce taxes at the top, in several precipitous steps.

Instead of taxing rich people and corporations for its revenues, our government borrowed from them, adding still more inequality. After the crash of 2008, although an imminent depression provoked by the Bush tax cuts was narrowly avoided, declining revenues and increasing federal debt continued to hamper the federal budget. Since then, pressure from the political right developed to act “responsibly” and balance the budget, but not by raising the taxes the lowering of which had caused the problem, but by further eviscerating government programs. Such a plan is the height of irresponsibility, for it would further accelerate the already rapid decline and, in the process, eviscerate government. 

Personal Income Taxes

A series of charts will provides the clearest way to focus on the problem. This first chart, published by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) in April of 2012 (here), shows a long decline in federal income tax revenue from a median-income family of four. The effective tax rate for the median family had declined from 12% in the early 1980s to 6% just before the Crash of 2008:    

Income tax rate US

We would expect federal income tax revenues to decline with a declining economy, but this trend also reflected growing income inequality within the economy, increasing the drag on federal revenues. Wages as a percent of the U.S. economy had also fallen over this same period from 49% to 44%, according to the St. Louis Fed chart presented by Gus Lubin (here):

wages-as-a-percent-of-the-economy

Thus, both wages as a percent of GDP and the average effective taxation of wages declined. Both of these trends can be traced to the growth of income inequality over this period, caused by the reduction of amount of taxation at the top, which of course meant lower revenue contributions from the wealthiest households as well. This next chart from CBPP (here) shows the trend between 1992 and the start in 2008 of the Great Recession in the average tax rate for the highest 400 households by income and the average level of their adjusted gross income:

Income tax rate plus top incomesOver a ten-year period, from 1996-2006, Average AGI of the top 400 taxpayers grew five-fold, yet their average tax rate declined from about 28% to about 18%. This shows the massive tax avoidance at the very top; this is the worst case of a much broader problem: The major decline in the progressiveness of income taxes, the principal control factor for income and wealth distribution, started much earlier (just after 1980) and it redounded to the benefit of far more than the top 400 American taxpaying households. The total impact is enormous: While inequality grew and federal revenues declined, our national debt increased from under $1 trillion in 1980 to over $17 trillion currently, replacing revenue that would have been collected from top incomes and corporations, had the effective federal taxation (of top incomes, capital gains, and corporate earnings) not been substantially reduced.

Income Inequality 

This chart, prepared by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez (here), shows the changing growth of top 1% income and bottom 99% income together with the trend in the top federal income tax rate:

DP8675b

(Note that the real income per adult of both the top 1% and the bottom 99% are indexed to 1913 = 100; the top 1% level was of course much higher than the bottom 99% level back then. Consequently, the actual difference between income levels is not shown.)

This graph shows that the reductions in the top (marginal) income tax rate immediately resulted in growing inequality, as reflected in the top 1% and bottom 99% income growth rates. This shows a remarkably close correlation between the change in the top marginal rate and change in the top 1% effective rate over the entire 1979-2008 period. Following each tax reduction, income at the top grew at a continuously faster rate thereafter because of the resulting higher concentration of wealth.

The reverse effect on the bottom 99% — the reduced rate of income growth — means that the aggregate rate of growth is somewhere in the middle; the aggregate income growth rate actually declined considerably over this period, as reported frequently on this blog.

The fact that this happened despite steadily increasing productivity explains the high degree of bottom 99% stagnation over the entire period, as shown in the previous post and in this chart (Mother Jones, July/August 2011 issue, here):

change-since-1979-300

It has been frequently observed, recently, that although productivity has steadily grown since WWII, since the start of the Reagan Revolution with the tax reductions for the very rich the top 1% has received an out-sized share of the rewards of increased productivity. We also know from other sources that only the top 10% has seen any income growth at all since 1979, and that since the Bush decline began (with the tax cuts for top incomes) in 2003, there has been no growth except within the top 5%. Since 2010, moreover, there has been no income growth outside of the top 1%. Both the increased rate of income growth at the top and the reduced rate of income growth at the bottom, accordingly, have resulted from the reduction of taxation of income and wealth at the top.

These developments were enabled by the growth of corporate power; individuals on their own could not command such a high level of income growth outside of the capitalist economic structure. Within the corporate structure, the growing spread between CEO pay and average worker compensation in the U.S. is startling. This report from August of 2011 (here) is one of several reporting a huge leap in the spread during the Clinton dot.com era, followed by a decline in the Bush years:

corp disparity-300x251 (1)The chart shows a multiple at 50x at the start of the inequality growth period in 1980, growing to 500x during the Clinton.com boom years before falling off in the Bush recession years. With the record success of the stock market in 2013-2014, these multiples are no doubt rising considerably again. This same source reported this comparison of the U.S. CEO/worker pay multiple in 2011 with that of other countries: 

corp tableThe information on CEO pay, however comprehensive it may or may not be, shows the U.S. to be in a category of its own. This is a graphic illustration of the high level of growing income inequality over the last 3-4 decades.

Corporate Taxes

Corporate CEOs and other heavily invested owners and officers have a great deal of flexibility today in deciding where to locate their operations and where to pay corporate and individual income taxes, if at all. Gone, for the most part, are the days when a company like GE was in integral part of a community (like Schenectady, NY or Pittsfield, MA) by virtue of the location of huge investments in relatively immobile industrial plant. Changes in the nature of work, the installation of massive fiber-optic communications networks, and a well-developed culture of mergers and acquisitions in investment banking, have made it easier for big companies to move around and “forum shop” taxing jurisdictions.   

Currently there is a “race to the bottom” today as states compete in attracting wealth and businesses to locate within their borders. For example, New York State continues to emphasize a program of  reducing the cost of government with strategies for attracting industry and jobs (Governor Cuomo’s “FY 2015 Executive Budget Plan,” here). The General Fund Financial Plan (p. 29), among other things: (a) combines the corporate franchise and bank taxes for “simplification and relief;” (b) reduces the tax rate on net income from 7.5% to 6.5%, “the lowest since 1968;” (c) reduces the net income tax rate on upstate manufacturers from 5.9% to zero, for 2014 and thereafter; (d) announces the elimination over three years of the temporary extension of the “18-a temporary assessment” (funding for utility company regulation) applicable to industrial customers, and acceleration of its eventual complete phaseout, and; (e) increases the exclusion threshold for the estate tax from $1 million to $5.25 million over five years.

Federal taxation of corporations has been declining since WW II, and the effective corporate tax rate has declined more sharply since 1987 (here):

corp tax corporate_profit_1950_2010

It has declined as a percent of GDP (here),

corp tax percent gdp

and very similarly as a percent of all U.S. tax revenue (here):

corp tax percent of total revs

Notably, although the effective corporate tax rate (the percent of profits) has steadily declined since the mid-1980s, corporate taxes bottomed out then as a percentage of all federal revenues, and of GDP, and have remained low.  The implication is that corporate profits have increased substantially as a percentage of GDP, while corporate tax revenues have remained at or near historic lows.

The tax loopholes built into federal laws for major oil companies, and the zero-tax returns of companies like G.E., in 2011, have become infamous. More recently, so have the tax avoidance approaches of major corporations as they “locate” their activities and profits in other countries. Consider these excerpts from a recent report by Flooyd Norris, “Switching Names to Save on Taxes,” New York Times, April 4, 2014 (here):

What was most impressive about this week’s Senate hearing into the way Caterpillar ducked billions of dollars in United States income taxes was the simple strategy involved. There was no subsidiary that somehow qualified to be taxed nowhere, as at Apple. There was no “Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich,” a strategy made famous by Google in its quest to avoid taxes.

Instead, back in 1999, Caterpillar, helped by its audit firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers, decided that to sharply reduce the American tax on profits from the sale of parts sent from the United States to customers around the world, it had to do little more than take the name of the American parent off the invoices and put in the name of a Swiss subsidiary.

So even though the parts might have never come within a thousand miles of Switzerland, the profits accrued to the Swiss subsidiary. And Caterpillar negotiated a deal to tax those profits well below Switzerland’s norm. Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, put the rate at 4 to 6 percent. That cut the Caterpillar tax bill by $300 million a year. Was that legal? Opinions differ. * * *

What was most notable about the Caterpillar strategy was its sheer lack of creativeness. “This is boring as an intellectual matter,” said Edward D. Kleinbard, a tax law professor at the University of Southern California and a former chief of staff at the congressional Joint Tax Committee. If this strategy is vulnerable to legal challenge, he said, it would largely be because Caterpillar changed its corporate structure to save taxes. Had it had the foresight to adopt the structure decades earlier, the company would be on much safer ground.

Apple, he told me, set up an Irish subsidiary “as soon as it moved out of the garage.” He conceded that was an exaggeration, but not, he said, a large one. Under current corporate tax law, it is easy for multinational companies to park profits in subsidiaries based in low-tax countries. Companies that operate only in the United States find it much harder, although not always impossible, to avoid taxes.

It was interesting that Senator Levin was the only senator who appeared to be exercised over what Caterpillar and PricewaterhouseCoopers had done. “The revenue lost to those strategies increases the tax burden on working families, and it reduces our ability to make investments in education and training, research and development, trade promotion, intellectual property protection, infrastructure, national security and more — investments on which Caterpillar and other U.S. companies depend for their success,” he said. “It is long past time to stop offshore profit shifting and start ensuring that profitable U.S. multinationals meet their U.S. tax obligations.”

Not all the Republicans joined Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, in offering an apology to Caterpillar for the existence of the hearing, but they generally agreed that it was proper for a company to do everything it could to avoid paying taxes. None of them seemed interested in the question of who should pay taxes if the companies do not. Nor was there the slightest indication of agreement with Senator Levin that corporate citizens, like individual ones, had an obligation to help pay for their government.

Instead, the preferred cure was to cut the corporate tax rate — now 35 percent, though virtually no multinational company pays anything near that amount. The country must become more competitive in attracting these companies, the senators said.

The current law of the land in America, as I understand it, is that corporations are “people” with constitutionally protected speech. “Money,” moreover, constitutes “speech,” so in spending their money corporations are exercising protected speech, and therefore they can spend their money virtually any way they want without government restraint. Resident “people” do have a legal obligation to pay taxes, but American culture appears to regard tax avoidance as a perfectly understandable, appropriate aspect of legitimate business practice; thus, corporations, whenever they can avoid or circumvent the normal rules of “residence,” legitimately have no obligation to support the operations or infrastructures of nations they inhabit, and whose people they profit from.    

The Shadow Economy

Not everyone sees it that way. The Tax Justice Network (TJN), for example, studies “tax evasion” in “shadow economies” around the world. In its 2011 report (“The Cost of Tax Abuse: a briefing paper on the cost of tax evasion worldwide” (here),  TJN argues that “tax evasion is the illegal non-payment of tax to the government of a jurisdiction to which it is owed by a person, company, trust or other organisation who should be a taxpayer in that place.” TJN estimated the absolute size of a country’s shadow economy, which is the portion of economic activity associated with tax evasion, based upon the country’s own published measure of GDP and recently reported data on the size of shadow economies published by the World Bank:

By the definition used here, economic activity in the shadow economy of a country will be tax-evading. So we next calculate an estimate of the amount of tax lost as a result of the existence of that shadow economy. We do this by looking at how much taxes are on average in the state as a share of GDP, and then apply that same tax share to the shadow economy, to reveal our estimates of lost taxes by state. (p. 2)

On this basis, TJN reported on 145 countries with a total of $61.7 trillion of reported GDP, 98.2% of the world’s total GDP, covering 61.7% of the world’s population. It estimated a world-wide shadow economy of $11.1 trillion which, at an average tax rate as a percent of GDP of 28.1%, resulted in a total tax evasion loss of $3.1 trillion. 

In its table of the ten biggest losers (p. 3) the U.S. ranks first, both in GDP and the size of the shadow economy. Total GDP is reported as $14.6 trillion, the size of the shadow economy is estimated at $1.3 trillion, a the tax revenue lost as a result of the shadow economy is estimated at $337 billion.

Inequality Growth

Corporations are the vehicles of huge incomes. Corporate executives minimize their own tax obligations by arranging corporate payments to them in ways that minimize their effective personal income tax rates. They lobby to create and take full advantage of tax shelters in federal law for the earnings of their corporations and lobby for grants, support payments, and lucrative government contracts. To the extent they can, they “locate” their domestic income in shadow economies overseas to avoid domestic taxation. They negotiate with state governments around the country in a “race to the bottom” to get the most favorable tax treatment they can for themselves and their companies in states in which it is viable for them to locate.

The end result of all of this collective activity is to greatly increase income and wealth inequality, reducing aggregate growth and causing a major decline in the economy of the bottom 99%. Because the collective tax system is regressive — that is it permits substantial transfers of wealth to a small handful of taxpayers at the very top, increasing their net worth by many billions of dollars each year — this is a continuing problem, and it is an accelerating problem with their compounding wealth.

The next post will take a close look at the implications of this trend for the federal budget and the operation of the federal government.

JMH — 4/10/2014 (ed. 4/11/2014)

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Inequality and Growth – Two Sides of the Same Coin

Two-sides-of-the-Same-Coin

In a cogent and extremely relevant article posted on January 16, 2014 (here), Neil Buchanan asked: Where Have the Academic Experts Been Hiding? Here’s the part I want to talk about:

The Role of Scholars in Economics in Downplaying Inequality

What is surprising is that, especially among economists (even nominally liberal economists), there has long been a tendency to treat inequality as an unworthy subject of discussion. This is not a matter of the conversation simply being hijacked by academic conservatives.  There are plenty of conservative economists in top-tier economics departments.  (Harvard’s Economics Department alone is the home to four of the most high-profile conservative economists in the world.)  The interesting dynamic has been the complicity of mainstream economists in taking inequality off of the agenda of “respectable” research.

Why would they do this?  The innocent (and, I think, mostly accurate) explanation is that economists, after the 1970’s, wanted to focus on how to get the economy as a whole to grow.  At that point, distribution of wealth and income was not much of an issue, as described above, because it seemed that the fruits of growth would automatically be spread widely. The analytical move by academic economists was to say that growth and equality were simply different issues, and that the issue driving the conversation should be how to maximize growth.  That did not require that the conversation would never return to the question of inequality, but that is the way it turned out.

I certainly observed many situations, among both economists and legal scholars whose research is modeled on mainstream economic reasoning, in which anyone who even raised the question of equality was all but laughed out of the room.  The mockery was not always (or even most of the time) an attack on someone for caring about inequality; rather, it was instead a condescending statement that the offending party “just doesn’t get it.” In other words, the ideologically neutral form of the conversation was, “Let’s talk about growth, and set inequality aside to discuss later, in a different conversation.”  Unfortunately, that quickly became “You’re talking about the wrong thing if you try to talk about inequality,” and then, “Talking about inequality is not allowed.”

In short, even the non-conservative parts of academia have helped to feed the “centrist” obsession with repressing any discussion about inequality and redistribution.  Happily, that has started to change over the last few years, with more and more economists and legal scholars noting that the growth/distribution divide never made all that much sense, and that the social problems that are associated with gross inequality have reached crisis proportions.  (Emphasis added)

The ideological problems are far deeper than Buchanan’s discussion reveals. The issue of whether and how inequality is related to growth is itself deeply steeped in ideology (let’s call it “level 1″ or “L1″ mythology), and our difficulty understanding the full extent of the problem, or even with understanding how the economy works, is almost entirely due to our failure to understand that fundamental point. If you are conservative, as opposed to “non-conservative,” you extend your ideology to a more extreme, and more obviously faulty level (which I’ll call “level 2″ or “L2″ mythology). This post will explain the difference between these two levels of ideology.   

Level 1 Mythology

I have been saying ever since I began to focus extensively on inequality, about three years ago, that growth and inequality are “two sides of the same coin.” For most of the that time, it seemed like only Robert Reich, among the few economists who were speaking up about inequality, shared that perspective. Then, in July of 2012, Joseph Stiglitz published his book The Price of Inequality, and I had another ally. Highly unequal societies are highly unstable, he has been saying, and that is exactly what “unstable” means: Inequality depresses growth. 

Most economists, among them notably Paul Krugman, didn’t agree. This disparity of views is explained by a difference in perspective: Today’s mainstream economists are raised in the “neoclassical” school of economics, and those in the mainstream like Krugman who consider themselves Keynesians are actually to a large extent “neo-Keynesians,” which is considerably different from the true Keynesian perspective. The neo-Keynesian perspective emphasizes Keynesian theory in connection with policy matters, but is locked into the neoclassical perspective of how the economy works, a very awkward position to be in. Together, the neoclassical and neo-Keynesian schools of economics constitute the vast bulk of what Buchanan refers to as “mainstream economics” today, and that includes nearly all of the economics taught since I learned economic theory in the early 1960s.

Both of these schools are based on solely on an ideology — the L1 mythology — which is fundamentally wrong (by 180 degrees) about how market economies work. Put simply, it is bottomed on a “supply-side” vantage point in its conception of growth: Make it, this point of view insists, and people will buy it. But this perspective turns out to depend on a whole host of assumptions (e.g., perfect competition, perfect knowledge, perfect efficiency, full employment equilibrium) that are not, and have never been, true. Thus, the argument that growth results from expanding investment is like the argument that you can push a piece of string in a straight line across a table. It confuses cause and effect.

Consequently, forecasts or retrospective analyses of growth designed to reflect supply-side assumptions, as frequently discussed on this blog, are fraught with confusion and contradiction. I have reviewed reports on studies involving growth or inequality as I learn about them, and I have routinely found timidity and candid admissions of confusion from the analysts that the studies did not produce the results they expected.   

John Maynard Keynes taught us that investment responds to demand. Keynes’ “demand-side” perspective, put simply, reminds us that people need money (from income, wealth, or debt) before they can buy anything. A piece of string must be pulled across the table. Conceptually, this understanding was the basis of his General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1935). It was all but abandoned by mainstream economics after the 1960s, however, because it implied that instability and decline were natural developments in market economies, and therefore that central governments would have to step in and stimulate demand throughout the economy. The L1 myth developed around a rejection of Keynes’s General Theory.

The Keynesian Logic

The General Theory focused on how much demand would be generated by a given (initial) level of “income” (GDP), defined essentially as the total of all transactions, including all payments for labor, capital or consumption. Keynes specified three independent variables in his model: The interest rate, the propensity to consume, and the marginal efficiency of capital. These three factors, acting independently, Keynes argued, determine income and growth. The cyclical level of economic activity revolves initially around the propensity to consume; i.e., as people decide to reduce current spending and increase deferred spending (saving) current economic activity declines, resulting in an initial decline of GDP, compounded (as money circulates) by a bounded multiplier effect.    

This was Keynes’s major contribution to theory. Classical (hence neoclassical) theory ignored the demand function, and therefore had no way to explain growth or decline. The neoclassical model (as developed via Ricardo, Walrus, Marshall and eventually Paul Samuelson, among others) erred by assuming that “supply creates its own demand,” essentially treating the economy as a static aggregation of transactions. Because the interest rate is independent of the other two variables and is not an equilibrium of the supply and demand for money, and because a decline in current consumption does not automatically imply an increase in future consumption, Keynes famously reasoned, an increase in saving, instead of resulting in more investment, results in increased unemployment. No, this was not intuitively obvious to many, though Keynes said it was, which is why it was such a major theoretical development. The upshot, however, is that a market economy is inherently unstable, and that because investment depends on expectations of future demand, an economy’s current level of demand must be stabilized as it rumbles along by infusions of government spending.

The point is that the entire basis for neoclassical economics is itself a myth: As James Galbraith has pointed out, most economists take it as a matter of faith that economies will return on their own to full employment after brief down periods, that is without the stimulation Keynes demonstrated was necessary; but when an economy is always declining, that cannot happen, and eventual collapse into deep depression is inevitable. That is the ultimate reality revealed by Keynesian demand-side economics.

Mainstream academic economics was destined to be controlled, however, not by science but by philosophy; in particular, the philosophy of Milton Friedman, who wanted to keep government from interfering with the “free” economy. So he argued that economies will grow and prosper even while wealthy people are making and keeping as much money as a “free” market will allow. Ignoring considerations of social utility, Friedman made it clear that he opposed interference with the natural distribution of wealth and income established by the free market, which he analogized to the operation of a lottery:

Consider a group of individuals who initially have equal endowments and who all agree voluntarily to enter a lottery with very unequal prizes. The resultant inequality of income is surely required to permit the individuals in question to make the most of their initial equality. Redistribution of the income after the event is equivalent to denying them the opportunity to enter the lottery. (Capitalism and Freedom, U. Chicago Press, 1962, 2002 ed. p. 162)

Note that, from the outset, the underlying issue was distribution, and a separate elaborate line of argument was subsequently constructed by the “conservative” economic community to the effect that income and wealth distribution has no macroeconomic significance, and should be ignored. That line of argument forms the basis of L2 mythology.

Level 2 Mythology

The best example of that argument, “Reducing poverty, not inequality” (here) was offered in 1999 (here) by the former chairman of Ronald Reagan’s Counsel of Economic advisers, Harvard professor Martin Feldstein, who asked us to imagine that a “magic bird” made a small award that would not affect anyone else’s “material well-being.” The truth, however, is that many trillions of dollars of wealth have transferred to the top 1% over the last 30-40 years, both from the bottom 99% and the proceeds of America’s escalating national debt. So the “material well-being” of the bottom 99% has been drastically reduced by redistribution:

productivity veresus inflation-adjusted-wagesThis chart, published by Gus Lubin (November 12, 2013, here), shows that since the advent of the Reagan Revolution presided over by Martin Feldstein and other ideologues, America’s productivity continued to grow, but the gains have remained with the producers while median wages have fallen.   

By now, nearly all informed Americans should be clear on the bankruptcy of the “magic bird” myth. Paul Krugman is getting more serious recently in attacking this issue (“That Old-time Whistle,” New York Times, March 17, 2014, here):

But over the past 40 years good jobs for ordinary workers have disappeared, not just from inner cities but everywhere: adjusted for inflation, wages have fallen for 60 percent of working American men. And as economic opportunity has shriveled for half the population, many behaviors that used to be held up as demonstrations of black cultural breakdown — the breakdown of marriage, drug abuse, and so on — have spread among working-class whites too.  

Meanwhile, media reports continue to amaze us. Detroit is in bankruptcy, its residents wallowing in third-world poverty. Syracuse, NY and many other cities face intractable fiscal problems. Just yesterday, I heard a PBS radio news report that a hospital in northern Massachusetts actually shut its doors because it cannot afford to stay open; sufficient funding could not even be found to keep the ER open. It is becoming increasingly evident that America’s economic woes are attributable to a fundamental shortage of money in the active money supply available to the bottom 99%. This is the stuff of stagnation, of depression.

The “Invisible Hand”

The sum and substance of the L1 mythology, finding no support in scientific economics, was eventually propped up by “the doctrine of the invisible hand,” a mythical and wholly false attribution of Friedman’s alleged “free market” philosophy to Adam Smith. (See my post “The Cult of the Invisible Hand,” December 22, 2013, here.)

Hang on to your hats: The fallacies behind the L2 myth (that distribution is macroeconomically insignificant) and the L1 myth (that an economy will always return to full employment “equilibrium” on its own) are virtually identical. L1 is like believing in the tooth fairy: the money needed for growth will magically appear under our pillow, as needed. L2 is the converse: growing income and wealth concentration does not have a negative impact on the active money supply, or put another way, the lottery winners can gather in money without restraint without hurting anyone else, without violating the so-called “Pareto Principle.” The latter idea has been stretched into the “trickle-down” argument, an idea that may have even pre-dated Adam Smith: This is the claim that the more money concentrates at the top, the better off those below will be; growth at the top causes growth at the bottom. 

In all these instances, when money is needed, it’s simply assumed to be there. That’s a fraud – the money supply is finite, so people really are hurt by inequality growth. Joseph Stiglitz recently weighed in on this point in his excellent discussion of the globalization of inequality (“On the Wrong Side of Globalization,” Opinionator, March 15, 2014, here):

In this series, I have repeatedly made two points: The first is that the high level of inequality in the United States today, and its enormous increase during the past 30 years, is the cumulative result of an array of policies, programs and laws. Given that the president himself has emphasized that inequality should be the country’s top priority, every new policy, program or law should be examined from the perspective of its impact on inequality. * * * And this brings me to the second point that I have repeatedly emphasized: Trickle-down economics is a myth. 

Here’s the real kicker: The impacts of redistribution on growth are vastly more significant than changes in Keynes’s propensity to save, the relatively minor trade-off between current and future consumption. Distribution of wealth and income  encompasses the entire money supply. We now know that since the Reagan Revolution began, the rate of growth was depressed in all five income quintiles, so growing inequality, while it was demolishing the bottom 80%, on a net basis even reduced the rate of growth of the top 20%. Worse, there has been no income growth, Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez have demonstrated, outside of the top 5%. The problem has been consistently getting worse for decades, and now 95% of all income growth is going to the top 1%. The middle class and small businesses are evaporating. 

Needless to say, the “invisible hand” has been called into service to justify, and lend an appearance of inevitability to, the perpetuation of inequality. In fact, it was so used almost from the start, I have been surprised to learn, dooming Adam Smith to eternal misinterpretation just because he chose to use a religious metaphor once in Wealth of Nations, and once in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. 

Okun’s “Efficiency” Argument 

Here’s an important case in point: Back when Friedman and Feldstein were in their heyday forty years ago, another highly respected economist, Arthur Okun, who was Chairman of Lyndon Johnson’s CEA, floated the proposition that trying to correct inequality would likely reduce growth, not increase it, because it would decrease economic “efficiency,” or the ability of the economy to produce (Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff, The Brookings Institution, 1975). That could be rephrased: Trying to increase incomes of working people is likely to reduce total work. If that sounds absurd, don’t be alarmed: it is a real beauty. (In fact, the idea is apparently inconsistent, in a demand-side universe anyway, with his own more sensible “Okun’s Law,” the assertion he reportedly made of “a clear relationship between unemployment and national output, in which lowered unemployment results in higher national output.”)

According to Paul Krugman (“Liberty, Equality, Efficiency,” The New York Times, March 9, 2014, here) most economists have believed in “the big tradeoff” ever since:

Almost 40 years ago Arthur Okun, chief economic adviser to President Lyndon Johnson, published a classic book titled “Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff,” arguing that redistributing income from the rich to the poor takes a toll on economic growth. Okun’s book set the terms for almost all the debate that followed: liberals might argue that the efficiency costs of redistribution were small, while conservatives argued that they were large, but everybody knew that doing anything to reduce inequality would have at least some negative impact on G.D.P.

But it appears that what everyone knew isn’t true. Taking action to reduce the extreme inequality of 21st-century America would probably increase, not reduce, economic growth.

There’s no “probably” about it. We’re in a bottom 99% depression, not just a post-recession depression-like period as described by Krugman in his last book. 

Two Sides of the Same Coin

The relationship between inequality and growth is gradually sinking in with the economics profession, but understanding it requires jettisoning the supply-side world view that dominates the discipline. Both growth and inequality are statistics representing measures of income. The annual rate of growth is reflected in the amount of reported income accumulating over a year. Inequality is a measure of the distribution of that income. The factors that increase income and wealth concentration also reduce growth. So growth and distribution are literally two sides of the same coin.

It’s a bit more complicated than this, but here are the two main factors:

1. The demand-side factor: This one is easy for Keynesians, and both Reich and Stiglitz have emphasized it.  People with top incomes have a lower propensity to consume (percentage of income spent on consumption) than middle class people, or poorer people, who can save little or nothing and, at or near the bottom, are running up debt. So, as wages and jobs decline and income shifts to the top, the aggregate consumption (spending, GDP) is by definition declining. Two sides of the same coin by definition;

2. The supply-side factor: All profit is a form of economic rent, payment above and beyond the cost of production. As a career regulator of utility rates, I am intimately familiar with this one. The task of rate-setting is to prohibit the taking of monopoly rents by big corporations providing essential services. Most prices in the economy, even for essential products and services like health care, vehicle fuel, food, shelter, and clothing, are set under conditions of monopolistic control by huge corporations. Thus, these prices not only gradually reduce real incomes through inflation, they also attempt to maximize profit, which entails limiting supply below the point where the price would clear market demand. This too simultaneously compresses growth and increases inequality, compared to the result under competition.   

These two factors alone, together with the clear history of substantially reduced growth since the Reagan Revolution began, really should be dispositive of this issue.  Still, supply-siders don’t get it. Krugman’s article reported two recent studies by IMF economists trying by statistical correlation to test the relationship between growth and income inequality, both as against other social factors and across countries. (“Inequality and Unsustainable Growth: Two Sides of the Same Coin?,” by Andrew G. Berg and Jonathan D. Ostry, International Monetary Fund, IMF Staff Discussion Note, April 8, 2011 (here), and “Redistribution, Inequality, and Growth,” by Jonathan D. Ostry, Andrew Berg, and Charalambos G. Tsangarides, IMF Staff Discussion Note, February, 2014 (here).) 

Note that these researchers had an inkling of the true nature of their variables, as they revealed in the subtitle for their initial 2011 study. Nonetheless, their supply-side perspective cautioned timidity and restraint. In their first study, although they found inequality to be “one of the most robust and important factors associated with growth duration,” (pp. 13-14)  they timidly concluded: “The main contribution of this note may be to push slightly the balance of considerations towards the view that attention to inequality may serve both equity and growth at the same time.” (p. 18) The report on the second study led them to acknowledge a significant connection between inequality and growth. Still, they showed continued supply-side influence in a report that revealed more surprise than timidity:

First, inequality continues to be a robust and powerful determinant both of the pace of medium-term growth and of the duration of growth spells, even controlling for the size of redistributive transfers. Thus, the conclusions from Berg and Ostry (2011) would seem to be robust, even strengthened. It would still be a mistake to focus on growth and let inequality take care of itself, not only because inequality may be ethically undesirable but also because the resulting growth may be low and unsustainable.

And second, there is surprisingly little evidence for the growth-destroying effects of fiscal redistribution at a macroeconomic level. (pp. 25-26)

These two studies turned out to provide substantial corroboration of the fact that income inequality and growth are two sides of the same coin, despite a relatively poor potential correlation among the variables actually tested, yet the surprise these analysts professed was only that their results did not validate Okun’s big tradeoff.  

I checked to see what Okun himself had said: After extolling the virtues of capitalism as compared to state socialism (communism), he presented the source of his efficiency argument:

The case for the efficiency of capitalism rests on the theory of the “invisible hand,” which Adam Smith first set forth two centuries ago. Through the market, greed is harnessed to serve social purposes in an impersonal and seemingly automatic way. (p. 50)  

That was it: His “authority” was the falsely alleged viewpont of Adam Smith. Of course now we know for sure that trickle-down is a myth: Greed is not harnessed to serve social purposes; greed avoids social responsibility. In fact, greed has successfully avoided progressive taxation, which by definition is taxation that stops the further concentration of income and wealth.  The basic point of trickle-down, of course, is to avoid paying taxes. I’ll include again the Piketty/Saez graph charting the top 1% income share, along with capital gains, together with the top income tax and capital gains rates.

DP8675a

The wealthy classes today steadfastly avoid discussing the issue of increasing their taxes, occasionally advancing the Laffer curve argument that even attempting to increase taxes on top incomes would be counter-productive (disproved by Piketty/Saez/Stantcheva’s 2010 study of the income elasticity of the top income tax rate), while their spear-carriers in Congress continue to propose further reducing their already wholly inadequate tax contributions.  

We must now add Arthur Okun to the list of those who, like Milton Friedman and Martin Feldstein, wanted an economy that served only the rich. He was opposed to progressive taxation, but in 1975 he freely admitted, having no reason to try to deny it, that “[t]he progressive income tax is the center ring in the redistributive arena, as it has been for generations.” (p. 101) 

Coincidentally, in his latest Op-ed (“America’s Taxation Tradition,” New York Times, March, March 27, 2014, here), Paul Krugman has begun to develop this point, quoting Teddy Roosevelt’s famous 1910 “New Nationalism” speech, where Roosevelt argued that “[t]he absence of effective State, and, especially, national, restraint upon unfair money-getting has tended to create a small class of enormously wealthy and economically powerful men, whose chief object is to hold and increase their power” and called for “a graduated inheritance tax on big fortunes … increasing rapidly in amount with the size of the estate.” Krugman added:

The truth is that, in the early 20th century, many leading Americans warned about the dangers of extreme wealth concentration, and urged that tax policy be used to limit the growth of great fortunes.

Of course, estate taxation and income taxation are both crucially involved, because great wealth accumulates from excessive incomes. However, the larger point is that there is really no mystery here anymore: We’re facing the same old class warfare, and the entire “science” of “neoclassical” economics has sunk ever more deeply into an age-old mythology tailored only to serve the interests of wealth. 

The American economy will require much reform to survive, but first and foremost progressive taxation of incomes and wealth must be reinstated. Will that happen? I worry that corporations, because they are not really people, probably lack a survival instinct. Mankind has painted itself into a seriously dangerous corner.

JMH – 3/29/2014 (ed. 3/30/2014)   

  

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Amygdalas Economicus: Perspectives on Taxation

acivilamericandebate:

Paul Krugman is right that we are in the “dark ages” of economics. The wisdom of the ancients has been lost, but while mainstream economics operates under a presumed “law of supply and demand”, Krugman has acknowledged only that the wealthiest Americans do not live in a supply and demand world. Actually, Barry Lynn’s book, “Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction” (2010), demonstrates persuasively that no one does. How market economies work has been based on a fundamentally false perspective almost from the beginning. Today, monopoly profits rise rapidly to the top at everyone’s expense.

Inequality has risen rapidly because taxation of corporate profits and top incomes was severely reduced since our economy last prospered. This essay, originally posted over a year ago, explores the wildly divergent perspectives on taxation that result from the faulty mainstream, neoclassical perspective.

Originally posted on :

(Return to the Contents Topics page.)

economist mod econ theory

(Illustration by John Berkerly for The Economist, July 16, 2009)

To understand how the rich and powerful managed to replace the “invisible hand” of the open market with the invisible fist of their autocratic institutions, we have to look beyond their co-optation of the word “market.” We must also look at the word they appended to it: “free.”  It was the act of combining these two words into the term “free market” that transformed the market from a political tool that exists within  human society into something that exists over and around human society, something that acts upon human society like a sort of mechanical god. – Barry C. Lynn

Apologies for the title, but I chose it to remind me of the emotional, and often fearful, component of intellectual thought.

Barry C. Lynn’s fabulous book (Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of…

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Finding a New Macroeconomics: (10) Reinhart, Rogoff, and Redistribution

acivilamericandebate:

IMF studies (2011, 2014) of the relationship between growth and inequality, reported by Paul Krugman (“Liberty, Equality, Efficiency, New York Times, 3/10/14, here) surprised the researchers by showing that inequality is directly tied to growth. The corrected Reinhart/Rogoff Study (GITD) remarkably, albeit indirectly, confirmed the relationship, as this post shows: (1) Because the R/R correlation was between income (GDP) and the ratio of public debt (PD) to GDP, and (2) because of the interrelationships among income concentration, tax regressivity and public debt (PD effectively financed wealth concentration at the top), the R/R data surpisingly confirmed the enormity of the decrease in annual growth caused by the concentration of income and wealth in the U.S. The full effect of rising income and wealth inequality on growth, when compounded by an enormous national debt, is stunning.

Originally posted on :

An insistent question of our time is, how much government debt is too much. Is there some debt level that becomes crushing as opposed to merely costly? The controversy over research by economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff shows how explosive the issue is. * * * 

One group of economists and policymakers argues that annual deficits must be cut because they’re creating — or have already created — dangerous debt levels. Another group contends that large deficits are needed to propel stronger recoveries and reduce huge unemployment. It’s “austerity” versus “stimulus.” If debt exceeding 90 percent of GDP is hazardous, then the case for austerity seems stronger. (Already many countries exceed or are approaching the 90 percent mark.) If not, deficit spending remains a possible temporary spur. Which is it? Although the newly discovered errors in Reinhart and Rogoff’s 2010 paper (“Growth in a Time of Debt”) are embarrassing…

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Pixie Dust

[Note - This is a re-posted article, originally posted here on 2/13/13.]

A_little_bit_of_pixie_dust_by_DawnyDawn

(Pixie by Dawny Dawn)

The “science” of economics today is not merely and institutionalized form of neo-feudal philosophy, nor is it merely an ideology of darkness that erects institutions to promote more darkness. It has become a form of madness, a dream of human imagination we mistake for a pattern of the world.  It is a path not merely to serfdom but to death.

We do have an alternative, though.  We can believe what we see with our own eyes.

(Barry C. Lynn, Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction, John Wiley & Sons, 2010, p.252)  

In recent months I have occasionally reflected on why, as a grad student at the University of Michigan, I decided to leave the PhD program in economics and to enroll in the law school. Mostly, I think, I was shying away from an academic career. But I had concerns about economics as well. Milton Friedman had just published Capitalism and Freedom the year before I entered college, and debates about the role of government in the economy were heating up in the late 1960s.  My professors at Oberlin had taken the Keynesian side, arguing that “supply-side” theory was unsupported and based on ideological opposition to government participation in economic affairs. I didn’t like wondering how a field like economics could be so political and still function objectively as a social “science.”

What I mostly recall today, however, are the troubling questions I had about the “microeconomic” supply and demand principles underlying most of the economics I was taught.  I remember feeling something like an Atlantic sockeye salmon, swimming upstream: The theories told me what “equilibrium” would look like, if I assumed “perfect knowledge” and “perfect competition” and a host of other assumptions, none of which were ever realized in the real world.  But I didn’t want to know what might happen in a hypothetical world; I wanted to know what actually happens in the real world.

A few years out of law school, as fate would have it, I was appointed to the position of Administrative Law Judge at New York’s Public Service Commission, a position I held for nearly thirty years. That job required me to decide cases involving a lot of – you guessed it – economic issues.  Instead of becoming a professional economist, ironically, I had become a practicing economics professional. My job required finding answers to sometimes difficult factual and policy issues, both legal and economic, from the bottom up. It was my job not to prejudge or speculate, but to try to find the truth, and I took that responsibility seriously, refusing to respond to political pressure. For a number of years, most of the big cases involving economic and antitrust issues, like the AT&T divestiture and the Bell Atlantic-NYNEX merger, came my way.  It was not clear to me that the Bell Atlantic-NYNEX merger was entirely in the public interest as proposed.  It was approved in New York and Washington, however, and the result was Verizon.

None of us can claim to be right about everything.  All of us may, from time to time, take comfort from some “pixie-dust” ideas, notions that are created through the application of top-down psychological preferences instead of through verifiable, bottom-up factual analyses.  This is mostly harmless when the ideas are reasonably inconsequential, and we do not firmly believe them to be true, like the wonderfully entertaining superstitions in “Silver Linings Playbook” about what it takes for the Philadelphia Eagles to win football games.

There is danger, however, when we form unfounded beliefs about important things.  Ironically, it is those ideas we hold by faith, without real-world factual support, that we are least willing to challenge or change in the face of contradictory evidence.  Alas, the “science” of economics is riddled with such ideas.

I have long believed that market economies are unstable, and have long suspected that unfettered market economies will eventually disintegrate, succumbing to the influence of growing stagnation. One recent morning I awoke, with a strong feeling of conviction, thinking this:

Unrestrained capitalist economies are virtual inequality machines, relentlessly creating and compounding dysfunctional distributions of wealth and incomes; and the rest is pretty much inconsequential window dressing.

It dawned on me, as I thought about it, exactly how I had arrived at that conclusion.  This “revelation” comes to me as I organize my materials and thoughts for a PowerPoint presentation on inequality, and consider theories on the mechanisms of economic decay.  I would have no basis, of course, to offer such a remarkable claim as a scientific one, without reference to the reports and studies on detailed income and wealth distribution data which have become available over the past two or three years.  Otherwise, how could I claim any more credibility for this idea than has been claimed for the economics Barry Lynn condemns as “neo-feudal philosophy”?

I told my sister about my epiphany.  “Do you think this is a new idea?” she asked, a bit impatiently.  “Read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror.”

Okay, but what about modern economic theory?  You may react as my wife did when I told her about my revelation: “Have you been watching MSNBC?” she asked. “That’s what everybody’s been saying.” Well, no, not exactly: Certainly there has been much discussion recently, thanks to inputs from experts like Joseph Stiglitz and Robert Reich, about how dangerous inequality is and is how it is hurting our economy, but that’s about it.

This is not an issue upon which the economics profession has taken the lead. Eighteen months ago Americans in great numbers took to the streets to Occupy Wall Street and communities all over America, seeming implicitly to understand that the dividing line in the growing income inequality gap is almost exactly the line between the top 1% and the bottom 99%.  It was only six months ago, however, in July of 2012, that Stiglitz published The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future, and the likely implications of his observations are only now starting to emerge in media and professional discussions.  And just a few months earlier, in May of 2012, another distinguished American Keynesian, Paul Krugman, published End This Depression Now (May, 2012), in which he tentatively argued that income inequality may be essentially a “political” problem, presumably lacking material macroeconomic consequences.

Stiglitz’s book, to the best of my knowledge, is the first significant economic text since Henry George’s Progress and Poverty (1879) to describe what I now feel is capitalism’s basic flaw.  No, not even Keynes did that.  Almost no one, so far as I know, has looked at instability in modern economies quite that way – not even Joseph Stiglitz, even now.

I am inspired by the reasoning of Georgist economists Mason Gaffney and, recently, Mary Manning Cleveland, an environmental and inequality economist who is a supporter of the work of Barry C. Lynn (here).  This short list must also include Clifford Cobb and James Galbraith, who in a recent speech (here) skewered the notion of “normality,” and the associated belief that after each crisis “the economy will recover,” adding: “It was never made quite clear why.”

As someone whose interest and expertise comes not from academia, but from real-world experience, it is exciting to get a glimpse, in James Galbraith, of someone I might have been very much like had I gone down the academic road in life. Referring to the gap between Keynesians and supply-siders, Galbraith colorfully alludes to a “saltwater-freshwater pseudo-divide, maintaining an illusion of discourse, of conversation, yet always centered on the perfect competitive, perfect information, rational actor type,” which he calls “a form of scientific regress” and “a useless abstraction.”

What I have learned over the last two years, to my dismay, is that far too many Americans subscribe to beliefs about economics that are flat-out wrong, some of them absurdly so. Most people, including those with no economics background at all, would upon reflection likely reject ideas that are so ridiculous as to violate fundamental common sense.  But when perceived truth is inconsistent with their underlying interests, those in control of the media have been able to convince people of false ideas that are not so obviously wrong.

Here is my effort to summarize the major difficulties in one blog post.  This is essentially a view from a mile up, specifically designed to avoid the details over which so much debate and distraction leads to trouble.  Let’s try to see, in broad strokes, where economics has gone wrong.

The flawed “classical” paradigm of “equilibrium”:

The “neo-feudal philosophy” Barry Lynn speaks of so colorfully seems to me to be a regressive outgrowth of “classical” economic theory.   Galbraith reports in his wonderful lecture that ideas we think of as “classical” have been repackaged and recycled so much in different contexts that one loses sight of the original ideas.  So let’s go back to the beginning.

Influenced by Adam Smith (1723-1790), the French philosopher Jean-Baptist Say (1767-1832) popularized what has become known as “Say’s law,” the idea that “supply creates its own demand.”  Every sale is also a purchase, but that tautology in itself provides no useful information. The more useful idea was, and is, that aggregate supply creates aggregate  demand. Here, however, is where  the trouble begins: The idea that, through markets and the use of a viable medium of exchange,  aggregate demand will clear aggregate supply is not a tautology.  Here is a basic supply and demand curve:

image002

All it does is describe the idea that at higher prices lower quantities are demanded and greater quantities are provided.  The slopes and locations of these curves vary among circumstances.  The point of intersection of these curves is known as a point of “equilibrium.”  Inherent in any supply-demand analysis is the need to meet certain assumptions, like perfect knowledge and perfect competition, to actually “find” the hypothetical equilibrium point for a given product or a given market.  But supply-demand analysis offers, at best, a fleeting description of a market, as these curves change location and shape over time.

The basic problem is that “equilibrium” has never been more than just a hypothetical point, especially for an entire economy.  In what I conclude was Keynes’s main contribution to economic theory, his General Theory of Employment,  he showed that the achievement of a market-clearing aggregate supply and aggregate demand of goods and services for an entire economy cannot even theoretically be achieved by a continuous, linear, aggregation of individual supply-and-demand equilibria, pursuant to Say’s Law.

Keynes developed a simple model with three independent variables: (1) the interest rate; (2) the propensity to consume; and (3) the marginal efficiency of capital (cost of capital). He observed that output is divided between goods and services for current consumption, and investment in the means to provide for future consumption.  On the demand side, total income consists of total current consumption and total saving.  On the supply side, production consists of total current consumption and total investment.

These two amounts are equivalent (Say’s Law), but as Keynes explained this equivalence led to the erroneous “classical” assumption that savings always equals investment.  No law of economics, said Keynes,  requires monetary savings to be immediately applied to the provision of physical investment.  Savings can be hoarded.  So, if the aggregate propensity to consume declines for some reason (say, increased regressivity of the taxation system), and demand falls, investors would likely perceive from the decline in demand reasons to expect lower demand in the future.  Thus, Keynes famously reasoned, a decline in demand, instead of leading to more investment, would lead to higher unemployment!

In this observation, Keynes recognized the tendency of market economies to decay.  No reason has since been advanced to expect demand to grow again on its own, when an economy is left to its own devices. Not ever — not unless demand is revived extrinsically and abnormally, say, by warfare.  Household consumption requirements, which are spiraling down in response to declining investment and jobs, simply won’t recover on their own.  In a depression, moreover, the interest rate can fall all the way to zero without providing for a schedule of the marginal efficiency of capital sufficient to promote investment and growth.  And if demand is falling because of rising income inequality, as Mary Cleveland has suggested, the resulting “liquidity trap” becomes something even more debilitating, something we might call an “inequality trap” (here).

The presumption of normality:

The late James Tobin wrote in 1997 (“An Overview of the General Theory,” (here), Cowles Foundation Paper 947 ( here))  that the central economic questions of our generation are whether a market capitalist economy, left to itself, will fully employ its labor and other productive resources without government intervention, and whether it will return to full employment reasonably swiftly once displaced from it.  “The answer of the General Theory,” he said, “is ‘no,’” adding: “I argue that Keynes still has the better of the big debate.”

James Galbraith, as noted, discusses how mainstream economics is enthralled by the presumption of normality, which postulates that an economy will always recover from a slump; it may take a little longer, but economies will eventually bootstrap themselves back to “equilibrium.”  As Galbraith points out, no one has ever specified how that is supposed to happen.  It is a matter of faith, maintained with a liberal application of pixie dust.

Inequality in the spectrum of economic thought:

Here is a brief listing of four categories of economic thought I have identified, ranging  in my assessment from the craziest to the most accurate.  I assign each a “pixie dust rating” (PDR) on a scale from zero to ten:

1. Supply-side ideology: (PDR = 10)  

This is a collection of ideas that range from the preposterous to the simply wrong. These are ideological notions that dominate the tea party, the Republican Party, our national and many state governments.  No amount of pixie dust could make any of these ideas work:

- Tax reductions for the rich pay for themselves. (Even if lowering taxes on top incomes stimulated investment and growth, it couldn’t possibly stimulate enough growth to provide for the revenues lost.  And if it could, why would more tax reduction still be needed with taxes on top incomes and corporations already at their lowest point in about three generations?);

- Tax reductions for the rich stimulate growth. (No, they don’t.  From 1979 to 2007, these tax cuts made enough additional revenue available to the rich to accumulate about $14-15 trillion in net worth while the federal government ran up more than $12 trillion in debt.  Top 1% net worth increased nearly $12 trillion above the per capita allocation of wealth growth.  Meanwhile, the overall rate of GDP growth dropped by one-third, and income inequality skyrocketed.);

- Income inequality is the difference between what someone can make with a college education and what they can make without it. (This is according to the CATO Institute, Ben Bernanke, and even the 2012 Economic Report of the President. What can I say? “We can believe what we see with our own eyes.”)

2. Monetarism: I’ll use this broad term for want of a better one for this category. (PDR = 7)

- Milton Friedman, Frederick Hayek, and others argued that Keynesian fiscal policy would be self-defeating because, to the extent it  would increase the money supply, it would led to inflation.  (I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this logic, assuming there is a steady level of demand.  However,  over thirty years of federal borrowing from 1979-2007, during which some $14 trillion of national debt was incurred, there was no runaway inflation, no inflationary spiral; instead we got steadily declining demand, ending in a depression.);

- The interest rate can be lowered enough to induce jobs and investment in a downturn.  (Evidently not in a depression. – One virtue of this line of reasoning, though, is that it acknowledges the Keynesian point that the level of aggregate demand is important, flatly contradicting the supply-side ideology that asserts growth stems from rich people saving, not from everyone else earning and spending.);

- After a downturn, the economy will always return to full employment on its own, with no need for government help.  (Really?);

-  Inequality is not a problem; there’s plenty of opportunity, if people are willing to work.  (No – unemployment rose to extreme levels (10%) after the Crash, is still at about 8%, and is expected to stay there for several years, under mainstream assumptions.  Many working people in the lower middle class, often with college degrees, are living at or near the poverty level.  The decline in demand from inequality growth, in effect, ruled out any chance of runaway inflation.)

3. Mainstream Keynesianism: (PDR = 4)

- Government is a part of the economy, so its level of activity and spending affects the level of jobs and growth. (Yes) ;

- Austerity, that is reducing government spending, reduces demand, jobs, and growth. (Yes);

- Government deficit spending stimulates growth (It can, in some circumstances, but not if the countervailing force of inequality growth is depressing growth to a greater degree);

- There is no inequality or poverty problem at full employment. (Wrong – Keynes believed this, but the data show that reduced growth is accompanied by higher levels of income and wealth inequality; In a depression, high levels of inequality probably prevent a return to full employment.);

- The U.S. can stimulate the economy now through deficit spending, and pay off its huge debt once the economy is rolling again at full employment. (No – There has been constant deficit spending for more than 30 years, running up $16 trillion of debt by 2013; all of that “stimulus” merely landed the U.S. in a depression, and added commensurate levels of wealth transfers. The degree of continuous growth of inequality is now greater than any stimulus that might be gained by even well-placed federal spending and investment.);

- Inequality is a symptom of unemployment. (No. Inequality is the underlying problem, and regulating the distribution of wealth and income is government’s most important function.)  

4, Georgist-Keynesianism: (PDR= 0)

- Income and wealth distribution, not employment, is the fundamental driver of prosperity and decay;

- As Stiglitz argues, inequality growth has already gone way to far in America. The U.S. is the worst among industrial countries, and suffers the worst consequences. 93% of all new income goes to the top 1%, which holds nearly half of all financial wealth.  An estimated $300-500 billion of wealth (my estimate) is transferred up to the top 1% annually;

- Incomes of the top 0.01% tripled from 1979-2007, and the top 1% average income doubled, while the per capita real income of all categories in the bottom 80% declined;

- The middle class is drifting into poverty as poverty levels rise drastically; Almost all small business income left in the U.S. economy is now going to the top 1%, and wealth concentration has apparently nearly reached its practical limit;

 - The majority of income and wealth going to the top 1% is economic rent, that is, income received for no productive output.  Much of that, Galbraith asserts, is taken through financial transactions that are basically fraudulent;

- The economy is structured today in ways that keeps money flowing to the top (Lynn), and substantial economic regulation and re-regulation is essential to stop that process (Stiglitz, Galbraith). The economy is also threatened with potential collapse from the institutional failure of monopolistic structures (Lynn);

- Taxation must be revised to produce government revenues (as a percent of GDP) equivalent to those taking place in the 1970s. Land and resource rents, and income from non-productive activities, must be taxed more heavily and work and consumption less heavily. Government spending must be redirected into the kinds of investments for America’s future proposed by the President in the recent State of the Union Address;

There are billionaires like Warren Buffet and Howard Schultz, and the “Patriotic Millionaires,” who argue for progressive taxation and for federal budgets that preserve the middle class and promote growth, based on their understanding that their business success depends on the success of the entire economy. Such views, however, are poorly represented in Congress.  America is doomed to Great Depression II unless and until Republicans, and others not fully committed to preventing such an outcome, are excluded from the halls of Congress.

JMH – 2/13/13 (ed. 2/14/13)

(Republished – 3/7/14)

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Inequality and Taxation: The Krugman Conundrum

I’ll make this short: In today’s New York Times Paul Krugman once again revealed how his Keynesian thinking has been corrupted by opposing neoclassical, supply-side ideas. If you are losing patience with my continually “picking on” Paul Krugman, I am only focusing on his perceptions because our future, in many ways, depends upon our leading spokesman for populist economics getting the inequality issue right. After this short post, my plan is  to concentrate on writing up and refining my own analysis.

Krugman’s latest Op-ed (“Talking Troubled Turkey,” New York Times, 1/31/14, here) seems to clarify the dividing line between the Keynesian and neoclassical schools, that is between the demand-side and supply-side points of view, and helps explain why income and wealth redistribution has economic significance.

The macroeconomic problem with inequality boils down to this: The wealthy, who now own or control the large corporations, the capital stock (means of production), the associated real property, and most of the inputs of production, are making too much money. They charge too much for what they sell, and because they pay excessively low taxes, they are allowed to keep too much of that. They “save” their excess earnings, taking trillions of dollars out of circulation, shrinking the active economy.   

You will of course ask: How do we know that? And how much is too much?  My answers to those questions are enabled by an entire career spent determining how much income is enough for large corporations engaged in providing vital products and services, including electricity, natural gas, telecommunications, and water. The rates charged for these services have been determined by government because: (1) They are essential services; (2) they have been provided under conditions of monopolistic or near-monopolistic supply. Excess “profits” are windfalls to such companies, and excess retained earnings only create opportunities for cost escalation, or for excessive distributions to management and wealth concentration.

Much else in the marketplace, including, for example, food, transportation, fuel, clothing, and insurance, is essential to society as well. Only vibrant competition can provide efficiency, and prices based on efficient marginal costs; but that kind of competition is non-existent. In short, market power produces an endless accumulation of excess profits and wealth, and that drives inflation, and income and wealth concentration. Concentration continues until people who are not among those at the very top of the income ladder (the top 0.01%, roughly) are denied the fruits of growth and prosperity. Currently there is no growth below the top 1%. Growing unemployment and growing poverty, reduced education and reduced public health and safety, are all symptoms of this growing inequality. It is not the other way around.

Paul Krugman has seemed on the verge of articulating this reality, but he as yet has not. In today’s Op-ed, he said this:

Before I get to Turkey, a brief history of global financial crises. For a generation after World War II, the world financial system was, by modern standards, remarkably crisis-free — probably because most countries placed restrictions on cross-border capital flows, so that international borrowing and lending were limited. In the late 1970s, however, deregulation and rising banker aggressiveness led to a surge of funds into Latin America, followed by what’s known in the trade as a “sudden stop” in 1982 — and a crisis that led to a decade of economic stagnation.

The “world financial system” was “remarkably crisis free” for a generation after WW II, I submit, because the underlying economic conditions were crisis free. I’ve been over all of the details in previous posts: The basic point, seen most clearly in the case of the United States, is that up until 1980 there was broad prosperity and relatively robust growth. The active economy shrunk thereafter, however, with rising income and wealth concentration. Recessions (in terms of unemployment) were progressively deeper and longer-lasting. Now we’re in a depression.

Paul Krugman focuses on what he calls a “sudden stop,” which is in effect a bursting bubble: 

Most recently, yet another version of the story has played out within Europe, with a rush of money into Greece, Spain and Portugal, followed by a sudden stop and immense economic pain.

As I said, although the outline of the story remains the same, the effects keep getting worse. Real output fell 4 percent during Mexico’s crisis of 1981-83; it fell 14 percent in Indonesia from 1997 to 1998; it has fallen more than 23 percent in Greece.

Money keeps flowing in, he notes, and yet output and employment falls. We need to ask: How can that be? How can that possibly happen unless inequality is growing and the demand  for output is declining? Here we see Krugman slipping into a supply-side frame of reference, and now we have reached the crux of the matter:

You may or may not have heard that there’s a big debate among economists about whether we face “secular stagnation.” What’s that? Well, one way to describe it is as a situation in which the amount people want to save exceeds the volume of investments worth making.

When that’s true, you have one of two outcomes. If investors are being cautious and prudent, we are collectively, in effect, trying to spend less than our income, and since my spending is your income and your spending is my income, the result is a persistent slump. 

Alternatively, flailing investors — frustrated by low returns and desperate for yield — can delude themselves, pouring money into ill-conceived projects, be they subprime lending or capital flows to emerging markets. This can boost the economy for a while, but eventually investors face reality, the money dries up and pain follows.

If this is a good description of our situation, and I believe it is, we now have a world economy destined to seesaw between bubbles and depression. And that’s not an encouraging thought as we watch what looks like an emerging-markets bubble burst.

The statement “we are collectively, in effect, trying to spend less than our income” is conceptually wrong: Investors are spending less than their income. Consumers, especially, in the last decade, students and home purchasers, want to spend more  than their income, so they run up enormous debt. This is the direct consequence of growing inequality. [1] 

“Secular” stagnation is an inherently supply-side concept typically used to describe stagnation caused by natural (catastrophic or demographic) phenomena, not Keynesian economic phenomena, as discussed in an earlier post addressing Krugman’s “mutilated economy” (here).  To regard stagnation as “secular” allows economists to ignore Keynesian stagnation and imagine that economies can and will rebound to full strength on their own, over time. When redistribution is taking place, as in the United States over the past 30-40 years, to characterize stagnation as secular — as Krugman and Summers did at the IMF conference in the fall — requires denying that redistribution has Keynesian economic effects. This leads to the notion that the world might “seesaw between bubbles and depression,” and ignores the existence of continuous, growing stagnation. 

What Krugman describes here, however, is the situation he has typically called the “liquidity trap,” where there is much excess savings piling up and little or no investment. Krugman is clear on the outcomes: When saving exceeds investment, we have a “persistent slump;” and if investors pour money into projects that will not produce returns, “this can boost the economy for a while,” but eventually “the money dries up and pain follows.” There can be only one explanation for such a depressed situation, and demand-side Keynesian economics provides that explanation — effective demand has shrunk.   

We need to stop and ask: What gave rise to the excess of saving over investment? I submit that can only be the result of excessive profits, that is, corporations making “too much” money, and making more money than you need to cover current costs is the definition of “too much.” Because that money has been taken from consumers, and redistributed to the top, their ability to purchase other things — output for which more investment would be needed — has been reduced. This impairs the ability (and expectation) of investors to earn enough return on investing in the production of such output, and investment and growth “dries up.”

This, as clearly as I am currently able to explain it, is the basic mechanism of how inequality growth through redistribution causes stagnation. This is why distribution is the underlying factor controlling whether prosperity or stagnation prevails in an economy. Because the process of excess profits accumulation is continuous, the cyclical, non-distributive influences on demand envisioned by Keynes only tell part of the story, a part of the story that pales by comparison.

Decline and decay will always be much more substantial than expected until the macroeconomic impacts of wealth and income concentration are acknowledged and factored into economic analysis. And the problem can never be resolved until the cause of income and wealth concentration — excessive profits — is corrected through price regulation or taxation. Of course, for a market economy, except in the case of a few crucial monopolistic industries where price regulation is feasible, the answer has to be taxation.    

JMH – 1/31/14 

[1] Added 2/18: It’s important to remember that no economic understanding of inequality, and its implications for taxation, is possible without differentiating between the “propensity to consume” of those whose income share is growing and that of those whose income share is declining.  To say that demand is declining is not the same as saying that everyone is “collectively” trying to increase saving; that ignores the decline in real income at the bottom.   

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