Opinion

Edward Hadas

The problem with the Piketty problem

Edward Hadas
May 28, 2014 14:06 UTC

If a man is suspected of murder, arson and speeding, any prosecutor who focuses only on the last charge risks ridicule. That imagined situation has some bearing on recent criticism of Thomas Piketty, the best-selling French anti-inequality economist. The accusations are largely restricted to ways in which he has exceeded the limits of his data.

The Financial Times, the most prominent critic, has identified possible compilation mistakes and biased adjustments in Piketty’s statistics on the history of wealth distribution. This is potentially a bit sloppy, but beyond that it’s hard to get too excited. Revising the questionable numbers would not change the basic conclusion that wealth has become more concentrated in most countries over the last three decades.

More importantly, though, all Piketty’s wealth data suffers from a much more fundamental error: It cannot be telling us what he says it does. In his widely praised book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, he concludes that elites are becoming wealthier and more powerful at the expense of the rest of the population. However, wealth information alone, based on the market value of financial holdings and other real assets, can’t validate that claim. Incomes and, importantly, social factors also need to be considered.

Piketty does look at income inequality, and fewer doubts have been expressed about that data. But the meaning is only slightly clearer. Yes, the top 1 percent and 0.1 percent have been pulling away from the masses, as measured in income declared on tax forms. However, that provides little insight into what is surely the central economic topic: the comparison of how well people can actually afford to live.

This yawning gap won’t be filled by wealth or income data, even if it is perfect. Another much-cited case of doubtful data in economics also obscured a larger analytical problem. In 2011, Harvard professors Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff wrote a book about fiscal deficits through history. Like Piketty, their measurements were questioned. Like Piketty, the more serious issue was elsewhere: the failure to explain why the average experience of high-deficit governments – mostly in wartime, under a gold standard or after a commodity price shock – was relevant to the merely recession-struck governments of recent years.

Three Ms for economics re-education

Edward Hadas
May 21, 2014 15:10 UTC

Many economics students are unhappy with what they are being taught. A network of 62 groups from around the world has drawn up a petition calling for more “pluralism” in instruction. The malcontents find the dominant neoclassical model too narrow and want to know why so few experts predicted the 2008 financial crisis. They also want less abstract theory and more study of actual economies. The reproaches are just, but the students’ reform agenda is insufficiently radical.

They underestimate the scale of the intellectual scandal. The profession’s ignoble tradition started in the 19th century, when most political economists, as they were then known, failed to notice that industry was leading to massive improvements in the standard of living. Today’s practitioners know much more, but they still struggle to explain the most basic phenomena – prices, wages, money, credit, unemployment and development.

Pluralism, the study of alternative schools of economic thought, would help, but not much. With the partial exception of the still underdeveloped study of institutional economics, the available alternatives to the neoclassical synthesis largely rely on the same erroneous assumptions that humans are rational and that market forces almost exclusively shape economies.

AstraZeneca is no one’s property

Edward Hadas
May 13, 2014 09:12 UTC

Pfizer’s planned offer for AstraZeneca is a poor test case for almost any big question about big corporate acquisitions. The weaknesses of everyone involved in the potential deal only bring out the futility of the whole idea that big companies have owners.

The would-be American acquirer, the British target, the UK government and whole pharmaceutical industry are all tainted. They are guilty, respectively, of a tax fixation, cutting research, empty words and inadequate drug discovery. So there is really no one with the moral authority to say whether this is a good deal.

But the whole debate is marred by the law, which leaves the final decision to only one group, the equity shareholders. The squealing politicians and whinging scientists can be cast as intruders, interfering with the rights of these owners. That is wrong. Shareholders should not decide, because the law is economically wrong. The typical large company does not have owners.

Shhh – don’t talk about higher taxes

Edward Hadas
May 7, 2014 14:53 UTC

By Edward Hadas

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Many people assume that tax increases are the only realistic response to excessive income inequality. They are wrong. There is a better way.

The International Monetary Fund first came out in favour of greater “redistribution,” a code word for higher taxes, in February. It joins the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which issued a big document decrying the privileged position of the richest residents of rich countries in 2011. The OECD has just called for “policies to restore equal opportunities,” another code for higher taxes.

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