Archive for the 'inequality' Category

Further Thoughts on Capital and Inequality

In a recent post, I criticized, perhaps without adequate understanding, some of Thomas Piketty’s arguments about capital in his best-selling book. My main criticism is that Piketty’s argument that. under capitalism, there is an inherent tendency toward increasing inequality, ignores the heterogeneity of capital and the tendency for new capital embodying new knowledge, new techniques, and new technologies to render older capital obsolete. Contrary to the simple model of accumulation on which Piketty relies, the accumulation of capital is not a smooth process; it is a very uneven process, generating very high returns to some owners of capital, but also imposing substantial losses on other owners of capital. The only way to avoid the risk of owning suddenly obsolescent capital is to own the market portfolio. But I conjecture that few, if any, great fortunes have been amassed by investing in the market portfolio, and (I further conjecture) great fortunes, once amassed, are usually not liquidated and reinvested in the market portfolio, but continue to be weighted heavily in fairly narrow portfolios of assets from which those great fortunes grew. Great fortunes, aside from being dissipated by deliberate capital consumption, also tend to be eroded by the loss of value through obsolescence, a process that can only be avoided by extreme diversification of holdings or by the exercise of entrepreneurial skill, a skill rarely bequeathed from generation to generation.

Applying this insight, Larry Summers pointed out in his review of Piketty’s book that the rate of turnover in the Forbes list of the 400 wealthiest individuals between 1982 and 2012 was much higher than the turnover predicted by Piketty’s simple accumulation model. Commenting on my post (in which I referred to Summers’s review), Kevin Donoghue objected that Piketty had criticized the Forbes 400 as a measure of wealth in his book, so that Piketty would not necessarily accept Summers’ criticism based on the Forbes 400. Well, as an alternative, let’s have a look at the S&P 500. I just found this study of the rate of turnover in the 500 firms making up the S&P 500, showing that the rate of turnover in the composition of the S&P 500 has been increased greatly over the past 50 years. See the chart below copied from that study showing that the average length of time for firms on the S&P 500 was over 60 years in 1958, but by 2011 had fallen to less than 20 years. The pace of creative destruction seems to be accelerating

S&P500_turnover

From the same study here’s another chart showing the companies that were deleted from the index between 2001 and 2011 and those that were added.

S&P500_churn

But I would also add a cautionary note that, because the population of individuals and publicly held business firms is growing, comparing the composition of a fixed number (400) of wealthiest individuals or (500) most successful corporations over time may overstate the increase over time in the rate of turnover, any group of fixed numerical size becoming a smaller percentage of the population over time. Even with that caveat, however, what this tells me is that there is a lot of variability in the value of capital assets. Wealth grows, but it grows unevenly. Capital is accumulated, but it is also lost.

Does the process of capital accumulation necessarily lead to increasing inequality of wealth and income? Perhaps, but I don’t think that the answer is necessarily determined by the relationship between the real rate of interest and the rate of growth in GDP.

Many people have suggested that an important cause of rising inequality has been the increasing importance of winner-take-all markets in which a few top performers seem to be compensated at very much higher rates than other, only slightly less gifted, performers. This sort of inequality is reflected in widening gaps between the highest and lowest paid participants in a given occupation. In some cases at least, the differences between the highest and lowest paid don’t seem to correspond to the differences in skill, though admittedly skill is often difficult to measure.

This concentration of rewards is especially characteristic of competitive sports, winners gaining much larger rewards than losers. However, because the winner’s return comes, at least in part, at the expense of the loser, the private gain to winning exceeds the social gain. That’s why all organized professional sports engage in some form of revenue sharing and impose limits on spending on players. Without such measures, competitive sports would not be viable, because the private return to improve quality exceeds the collective return from improved quality. There are, of course, times when a superstar like Babe Ruth or Michael Jordan can actually increase the return to losers, but that seems to be the exception.

To what extent other sorts of winner-take-all markets share this intrinsic inefficiency is not immediately clear to me, but it does not seem implausible to think that there is an incentive to overinvest in skills that increase the expected return to participants in winner-take-all markets. If so, the source of inequality may also be a source of inefficiency.

Thomas Piketty and Joseph Schumpeter (and Gerard Debreu)

Everybody else seems to have an opinion about Thomas PIketty, so why not me? As if the last two months of Piketty-mania (reminiscent, to those of a certain age, of an earlier invasion of American shores, exactly 50 years ago, by four European rock-stars) were not enough, there has been a renewed flurry of interest this week about Piketty’s blockbuster book triggered by Chris Giles’s recent criticism in the Financial Times of Piketty’s use of income data, which mainly goes to show that, love him or hate him, people cannot get enough of Professor Piketty. Now I will admit upfront that I have not read Piketty’s book, and from my superficial perusal of the recent criticisms, they seem less problematic than the missteps of Reinhart and Rogoff in claiming that, beyond a critical 90% ratio of national debt to national income, the burden of national debt begins to significantly depress economic growth. But in any event, my comments in this post are directed at Piketty’s conceptual approach, not on his use of the data in his empirical work. In fact, I think that Larry Summers in his superficially laudatory, but substantively critical, review has already made most of the essential points about Piketty’s book. But I think that Summers left out a couple of important issues — issues touched upon usefully by George Cooper in a recent blog post about Piketty — which bear further emphasis, .

Just to set the stage for my comments, here is my understanding of the main conceptual point of Piketty’s book. Piketty believes that the essence of capitalism is that capital generates a return to the owners of capital that, on average over time, is equal to the rate of interest. Capital grows; it accumulates. And the rate of accumulation is equal to the rate of interest. However, the rate of interest is generally somewhat higher than the rate of growth of the economy. So if capital is accumulating at a rate of growth equal to, say, 5%, and the economy is growing at a rate of growth equal to only 3%, the share of income accruing to the owners of capital will grow over time. It is in this simple theoretical framework — the relationship between the rate of economic growth to the rate of interest — that Piketty believes he has found the explanation not only for the increase in inequality over the past few centuries of capitalist development, but for the especially rapid increase in inequality over the past 30 years.

While praising Piketty’s scholarship, empirical research and rhetorical prowess, Summers does not handle Piketty’s main thesis gently. Summers points out that, as accumulation proceeds, the incentive to engage in further accumulation tends to weaken, so the iron law of increasing inequality posited by Piketty is not nearly as inflexible as Piketty suggests. Now one could respond that, once accumulation reaches a certain threshold, the capacity to consume weakens as well, if only, as Gary Becker liked to remind us, because of the constraint that time imposes on consumption.

Perhaps so, but the return to capital is not the only, or even the most important, source of inequality. I would interpret Summers’ point to be the following: pure accumulation is unlikely to generate enough growth in wealth to outstrip the capacity to increase consumption. To generate an increase in wealth so large that consumption can’t keep up, there must be not just a return to the ownership of capital, there must be profit in the Knightian or Schumpeterian sense of a profit over and above the return on capital. Alternatively, there must be some extraordinary rent on a unique, irreproducible factor of production. Accumulation by itself, without the stimulus of entrepreneurial profit, reflecting the the application of new knowledge in the broadest sense of the term, cannot go on for very long. It is entrepreneurial profits and rents to unique factors of production (or awards of government monopolies or other privileges) not plain vanilla accumulation that account for the accumulation of extraordinary amounts of wealth. Moreover, it seems that philanthropy (especially conspicuous philanthropy) provides an excellent outlet for the dissipation of accumulated wealth and can easily be combined with quasi-consumption activities, like art patronage or political activism, as more conventional consumption outlets become exhausted.

Summers backs up his conceptual criticism with a powerful factual argument. Comparing the Forbes list of the 400 richest individuals in 1982 with the Forbes list for 2012 Summers observes:

When Forbes compared its list of the wealthiest Americans in 1982 and 2012, it found that less than one tenth of the 1982 list was still on the list in 2012, despite the fact that a significant majority of members of the 1982 list would have qualified for the 2012 list if they had accumulated wealth at a real rate of even 4 percent a year. They did not, given pressures to spend, donate, or misinvest their wealth. In a similar vein, the data also indicate, contra Piketty, that the share of the Forbes 400 who inherited their wealth is in sharp decline.

But something else is also going on here, a misunderstanding, derived from a fundamental ambiguity, about what capital actually means. Capital can refer either to a durable physical asset or to a sum of money. When economists refer to capital as a factor of production, they are thinking of capital as a physical asset. But in most models, economists try to simplify the analysis by collapsing the diversity of the entire stock of heterogeneous capital assets into single homogeneous substance called “capital” and then measure it not in terms of its physical units (which, given heterogeneity, is strictly impossible) but in terms of its value. This creates all kinds of problems, leading to some mighty arguments among economists ever since the latter part of the nineteenth century when Carl Menger (the first Austrian economist) turned on his prize pupil Eugen von Bohm-Bawerk who wrote three dense volumes discussing the theory of capital and interest, and pronounced Bohm-Bawerk’s theory of capital “the greatest blunder in the history of economics.” I remember wanting to ask F. A. Hayek, who, trying to restate Bohm-Bawerk’s theory in a coherent form, wrote a volume about 75 years ago called The Pure Theory of Capital, which probably has been read from cover to cover by fewer than 100 living souls, and probably understood by fewer than 20 of those, what he made of Menger’s remark, but, to my eternal sorrow, I forgot to ask him that question the last time that I saw him.

At any rate, treating capital as a homogeneous substance that can be measured in terms of its value rather than in terms of physical units involves serious, perhaps intractable, problems. For certain purposes, it may be worthwhile to ignore those problems and work with a simplified model (a single output which can be consumed or used as a factor of production), but the magnitude of the simplification is rarely acknowledged. In his discussion, Piketty seems, as best as I could determine using obvious search terms on Amazon, unaware of the conceptual problems involved in speaking about capital as a homogeneous substance measured in terms of its value.

In the real world, capital is anything but homogeneous. It consists of an array of very specialized, often unique, physical embodiments. Once installed, physical capital is usually sunk, and its value is highly uncertain. In contrast to the imaginary model of a homogenous substance that just seems to grow at fixed natural rate, the real physical capital that is deployed in the process of producing goods and services is complex and ever-changing in its physical and economic characteristics, and the economic valuations associated with its various individual components are in perpetual flux. While the total value of all capital may be growing at a fairly steady rate over time, the values of the individual assets that constitute the total stock of capital fluctuate wildly, and few owners of physical capital have any guarantee that the value of their assets will appreciate at a steady rate over time.

Now one would have thought that an eminent scholar like Professor Piketty would, in the course of a 700-page book about capital, have had occasion to comment on enormous diversity and ever-changing composition of the stock of physical capital. These changes are driven by a competitive process in which entrepreneurs constantly introduce new products and new methods of producing products, a competitive process that enriches some owners of new capital, and, it turns out, impoverishes others — owners of old, suddenly obsolete, capital. It is a process that Joseph Schumpeter in his first great book, The Theory of Economic Development, memorably called “creative destruction.” But the term “creative destruction” or the title of Schumpeter’s book does not appear at all in Piketty’s book, and Schumpeter’s name appears only once, in connection not with the notion of creative destruction, but with his, possibly ironic, prediction in a later book Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy that socialism would eventually replace capitalism.

Thus, Piketty’s version of capitalist accumulation seems much too abstract and too far removed from the way in which great fortunes are amassed to provide real insight into the sources of increasing inequality. Insofar as such fortunes are associated with accumulation of capital, they are likely to be the result of the creation of new forms of capital associated with new products, or new production processes. The creation of new capital simultaneously destroys old forms of capital. New fortunes are amassed, and old ones dissipated. The model of steady accumulation that is at the heart of Piketty’s account of inexorably increasing inequality misses this essential feature of capitalism.

I don’t say that Schumpeter’s account of creative destruction means that increasing inequality is a trend that should be welcomed. There may well be arguments that capitalist development and creative destruction are socially inefficient. I have explained in previous posts (e.g., here, here, and here) why I think that a lot of financial-market activity is likely to be socially wasteful. Similar arguments might be made about other kinds of activities in non-financial markets where the private gain exceeds the social gain. Winner-take-all markets seem to be characterized by this divergence between private and social benefits and costs, apparently accounting for a growing share of economic activity, are an obvious source of inequality. But what I find most disturbing about the growth in inequality over the past 30 years is that great wealth has gained increased social status. That seems to me to be a very unfortunate change in public attitudes. I have no problem with people getting rich, even filthy rich. But don’t expect me to admire them because they are rich.

Finally, you may be wondering what all of this has to do with Gerard Debreu. Well, nothing really, but I couldn’t help noticing that Piketty refers in an endnote (p. 654) to “the work of Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek, and Kenneth Arrow and  Claude Debreu” apparently forgetting that the name of his famous countryman, winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize for Economics in 1983, is not Claude, but Gerard, Debreu. Perhaps Piketty confused Debreu with another eminent Frenchman Claude Debussy, but I hope that in the next printing of his book, Piketty will correct this unfortunate error.

UPDATE (5/29 at 9:46 EDST): Thanks to Kevin Donoghue for checking with Arthur Goldhammer, who translated Piketty’s book from the original French. Goldhammer took responsibility for getting Debreu’s first name wrong in the English edition. In the French edition, only Debreu’s last name was mentioned.


About Me

David Glasner
Washington, DC

I am an economist in the Washington DC area. My research and writing has been mostly on monetary economics and policy and the history of economics. In my book Free Banking and Monetary Reform, I argued for a non-Monetarist non-Keynesian approach to monetary policy, based on a theory of a competitive supply of money. Over the years, I have become increasingly impressed by the similarities between my approach and that of R. G. Hawtrey and hope to bring Hawtrey's unduly neglected contributions to the attention of a wider audience.

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