Topic: Political Philosophy

Why Piketty Was Mistaken for Endorsing the Zucman & Saez Slide Show

I will have more to say about this fairly soon, but this might serve as a preview.

Thomas Piketty is now advising innocent readers of his book to (1) not demand a refund or dump the book used on Amazon, and (2) ignore his own flawed estimates of top 1% U.S. wealth shares and instead utilize a PowerPoint by Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez.  Zucman and Saez use capital income reported on individual tax returns (dividends, interest, rent and capital gains) to infer ownership of capital assets, and not just greater realization of gains or portfolio shifts from tax-exempt bonds to dividend-paying stock.

That might be semi-plausible if businesses and professionals were not free to report income on either corporate or individual tax forms, and if tax rates never changed. But this methodology can’t possibly work after the huge tax rate reductions of 1986 (for partnerships & SubS corps), 1997 (capital gains) and 2003 (dividends and capital gains).  The reason it can’t work was fairly well explained by Piketty, Saez and Stantcheva in the original unsanitized version of a paper they published this February (which I have cited beforebut also critiqued):

There is a clear negative overall correlation between the [reported] top 1% income share and the top marginal tax rate: …  [T]he top 1% income share has increased significantly since 1980 after the top tax rate  has been greatly lowered… . [T]he top 1% income share more than doubled from around 8% in the late 1970s to around 18% in last five years, while the net-of-tax (retention) rate increased from 30% (when the top marginal tax rate was 70%) to 65% (when the top tax rate is 35%).”

Polarization and Freedom

A new Pew poll finds that three out of four “consistent liberals” would rather live in a community “where the houses are smaller and closer to each other” but within walking distance of schools, stores, and restaurants. Conversely, three out of four “consistent conservatives” would rather live in a larger home on a large lot even if it means driving to schools, stores, and restaurants.


Source: Pew Research Center. Click chart to download Pew’s 121-page (3.5-MB) report on polarization in America.

Pew says this shows that “differences between right and left go beyond politics,” which Pew claims is one of the seven most important things to know about polarization in America. Yet the left has turned the choice between a traditional suburb and a so-called walkable community into a political issue, so it is no wonder that people’s views on this choice are polarized.

Disappointingly, Pew’s report on polarization defines everything in terms of liberal vs. conservative. Pew’s big news is that the share of Americans who are consistently conservative or consistently liberal has more than doubled since 1994–yet you have to read deep into the report to learn that these groups make up just 21 percent of the country. The report says little about the other 79 percent of Americans, yet you’d think they would be important since they outnumber the consistent ones by almost four to one.

Chilling Speech Is No Laughing Matter

If a state’s truth ministry has threatened to prosecute you for something you said during an election campaign, can you sue? Of course, said the unanimous Supreme Court, with what would undoubtedly have been a guffaw if one could be conveyed in a legal opinion. While the Court left it to its lesser brethren to deal further with a law that criminalizes making “false statements” – whatever that means: too many Pinocchios? – about political candidates, the satirical graffiti is clearly on the wall for that Buckeye bunkum.

As Cato’s brief alongside P.J. O’Rourke made clear, allegations, insinuations, “truthiness,” smears, and all that other rigmarole have been part and parcel of American political discourse since time immemorial. Indeed political speech – including lies, so long as they’re not defamatory (for which there are clear legal standards) – resides firmly in the throbbing heart of the First Amendment. It’s farcical to think that a legislature could charge a panel of bureaucrats (like the state election commission here) with enforcing some sort of Marquess of Queensberry debate rules.

While standing is often hard to come by, even the most curmudgeonly jurisprudential sticklers can see that political advocates have to be able to challenge a law that restricts political advocacy – one that’s already been used against them, no less! At the end of the day and in the fullness of time, today was a banner morning for free speech and judicial engagement.

Eric Cantor’s Website

My Daily Caller op-ed today looks at the website of a typical modern politician, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY). His site is designed to impress voters and the media in his district with all the federal benefits he has brought home. Maloney is taking a pork and constituent service approach to gaining reelection.

There are other approaches to electoral success. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) has a strategy of championing principles and specific issues that broadly resonate. The detail on Paul’s website is much better than most. Under “Issues,” he describes his general approach to each policy topic and discusses his stands on particular bills. Under “Budget” he provides a 106-page plan to cut spending.  

Looking at Rep. Eric Cantor’s (R-VA) website, you can see that he followed neither the pork nor the principled approach. If Cantor brought pork home to his district, he does not do a very good job telling people about it.

Regarding big ideas or describing his positions on issues, Cantor’s congressional website is nearly empty. Unlike most members, he does not even have an “Issues” section to explain his approach to tax reform, the budget, economic growth, civil liberties, energy, or other policies. His website is fluff.

Cantor’s primary defeat seems partly due to a lack of trust, meaning that voters in his district did not really know where he stood on issues or how he would vote. His website seems to have reflected his strategy of not taking hard stands and having few guiding principles. In his district, that ended up being a losing strategy.

(As majority leader, Cantor also runs this website. But for all the resources that office must have, this site is also very fluffy).

 

How Walmart Improves the Lives of Everybody, Especially the Poor

I recently had the pleasure of visiting northwest Arkansas. If you have the chance, go—not only to experience the beauty of the Ozarks, but to see the world’s only Walmart convenience store. This store offers groceries, a gas station, and a counter for a local business, Bentonville Butcher & Deli. The difference between Walmart convenience stores and other convenience stores: Walmart prices (read: excitingly low). Those low prices mean that the more these stores spread, the more lives will improve.

I realize that there are ongoing arguments about whether Walmart improves or reduces people’s welfare. For instance, some argue that Walmart reduces the number of jobs in locations where they open, while others find that Walmart creates more jobs overall. Some believe that when Walmart enters a town, competitors are forced to lower worker income or close. Others claim that the benefits of lower prices may result in higher real wages, even in the retail sector. Some write that Walmart costs taxpayers huge sums as their employees receive federal support. Others insist that these programs are operating as intended: boosting employment among low income families who would otherwise be jobless.

While those issues are still debated, one thing is clear: When we have access to cheaper goods, our quality of life improves because we can buy more with the same amount of money. This is especially true for the poor who spend a higher percentage of income on household goods and food. For them, daily savings on these items are necessary for survival. Shopping at Walmart leaves them with more money, which they can use to feed their families, pay for additional tutoring for their children, or work less as they can afford more leisure time. In that way, few forces have improved the lives of Americans, particularly poor Americans, as much as Walmart.

Top Catholics Take Aim at Libertarianism

The Washington Post reports that the leaders of the world’s most hierarchical, centralized faith don’t much care for the philosophy most closely aligned with individual liberty. Huh. What gives the Post that idea? Well, the cardinal sometimes referred to as the “vice-pope” just headlined a conference in DC titled “Erroneous Autonomy: The Catholic Case against Libertarianism.” In heaping scorn on those who celebrate free minds and free markets, the conference attendees accused libertarianism of being responsible for “selfies” and of being anti-poor.

And can you blame them? Think of all those notorious selfies by prominent libertarians.

Some prominent libertarians

And, really, you have to admit they have a point on that second accusation as well. Consider that when innovation, commerce, and entrepreneurship were unleashed on a mass scale during the Industrial Revolution, poverty went into a sustained decline for the first time in the 200,000 year history of humanity. In just the last fifteen or twenty years, the poverty rate worldwide has been cut in half. And the absolute number of people living in extreme poverty has been falling since 1980. The economics preferred by libertarians–the economics of freedom–has been quite hard on poverty. I mean, if this keeps up, in another few generations, there will hardly be any poor left.

Pareto on Piketty

“The man in whose power it might be to find out the means of alleviating the sufferings of the poor would have done a far greater deed than the one who contents himself solely with knowing the exact numbers of poor and wealthy people in society.”

—Vilfredo Pareto, “The New Theories of Economics,” Journal of Political Economy 5: 485–502 (1896–97).