The New York Times, the super-rich, income inequality and taxes

August 21, 2009

Some thoughts on today’s NY Times story about the falling fortunes of the once super-rich:

1) Yay! It actually made the point that tax rates affect economic behavior:

In the three decades after World War II, when the incomes of the rich grew more slowly than those of the middle class, the top marginal rate ranged from 70 to 91 percent. Mr. Piketty, one of the economists who analyzed the I.R.S. data, argues that these high rates did not affect merely post-tax income. They also helped hold down the pretax incomes of the wealthy, he says, by giving them less incentive to make many millions of dollars.

2) Boo! It also seems to accept this explanation, by Piketty co-author Emmanuel Saez, as to why income inequality has risen in recent decades (via a Saez paper):

A number of factors may help explain this increase in inequality, not only underlying technological changes but also the retreat of institutions developed during the New Deal and World War II – such as progressive tax policies, powerful unions, corporate provision of health and retirement benefits, and changing social norms regarding pay inequality.

3) Boo! It underplays the role of globalization and technology in creating greater income inequality in favor of blaming asset bubbles and tax rates. Here is bit from a story I wrote about income inequality, quoting Saez:

At the top, what you primarily have is executives at large companies who are paid very large salaries with bonuses and stock options,” Saez says. “It has really become a truly global market for the talent of executives.” So it’s not so much that globalization has driven down wages because the average U.S. worker has to compete with a low-paid competitor in China or India. (About a quarter-million jobs are lost annually to offshoring, which works out to only 0.18 percent of the workforce.) Rather, globalization has increased the demand for top corporate managers, and it has made companies more valuable as it has spurred economic growth and higher stock market values. That has boosted executives’ income-from salaries, stock options, and capital gains.

Then there’s technology:

Rapid technological change, which itself is driving globalization, is also pushing wage inequality. “Inequality is related to technology, and … you really require more skills to operate in a challenging economy driven by technology,” says Daron Acemoglu, an economics professor at MIT. According to the liberal Economic Policy Institute, inflation-adjusted wages for male high school graduates have slipped 6 percent since 1980, while rising 20 percent for college graduates and 35 percent for those with an advanced degree. Technology places a premium not only on computer skills but on the managerial and organizational abilities needed to run a modern, networked company.

4) Boo. It failed to mention how globalization had made real-world income inquality virtually non-existent. Again, from me:

More and more research is revealing that the supposed rise in income inequality is a bit of a crock. One reason is the “China Effect.” A recent University of Chicago study found official income inequality statistics fail to take into account that lower-income Americans tend to consume more inexpensive Asian goods. As the study’s authors conclude, “This price effect offsets almost all the rise in inequality measured by official statistics.” And whatever slight rise in inequality that’s left over can easily be explained by technology and the expanded global market for CEO talent.

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