Tag: emmanuel saez

Misconceptions in Raj Chetty’s “Fading American Dream”

Raj Chetty, the head of Stanford’s “Equality of Opportunity” project, recently released a paper called “The Fading American Dream” co-authored with another economist, a sociologist, and three grad students. It claims that “rates of absolute mobility have fallen from approximately 90% for children born in 1940 to 50% for children born in the 1980s.” [Though the study ends with 2014, when most of those “born in the 1980s” were not yet 30.]

The title alone was sure to attract media excitement, particularly because the new study thanks New York Times columnist David Leonhardt “for posing the question that led to this research.” 

Leonhardt, in turn, gushed that Chetty’s research “is among the most eye-opening economics work in recent years.”  He explained that he asked Chetty to “create an index of the American dream” which “shows the percentage of children who earn more money… than their parent earned at the same age.”  The result, he concludes, is “very alarming. It’s a portrait of an economy that disappoints a huge number of people who have heard that they live in a country where life gets better, only to experience something quite different.”

“Another Chetty-bomb just exploded in the mobility debate,” declared a Brookings Institution memo: “Only half of Americans born in 1980 are economically better off than their parents. This compares to 90 percent of those born in 1940.”

At Vox.com,  Jim Tankersley proclaimed “The  American Dream [is] collapsing for young adults.”

“Sons born in 1984 are only 41 percent likely to earn more than their fathers, compared to 95 percent of sons born in 1940,” wrote USA Today reporter Nathan Bomey.  “If the American dream is defined as earning more money than your parents,” said Bomey, “today’s young adults are just as likely to have a nightmare as they are to achieve the dream.”

The Chetty study proved to be a politically irresistible story, since it appears to confirm a popular nostalgia for the good old days and belief that it has become more and more difficult to get ahead. But that is not what the study really shows.  What it really shows is:

First: Incomes were extremely low in 1940, so it was quite easy to do better 30 years later.

Second: Doing better than your parents is not defined by your income at age 30, but by income and wealth accumulated over a lifetime (including retirement).

Third: A rising percentage of young people remain in grad school at age 30, so their current income is lower than that of their parents at that age but their future income is likely to be much higher.

Bipartisan Baloney About Top 1 Percent Income Gains

In the State of the Union address on January 20, President Obama said, “those at the top have never done better… Inequality has deepened.”  The following day, Fox News anchor Brett Baier said, “According to the work of Emmanuel Saez, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, during the post-recession years of 2009-2012, top earners snagged a greater share of total income growth than during the boom years of 2002-2007. In other words, income inequality has become more pronounced since the Bush administration, not less.” 

Senator Bernie Sanders agrees that “in recent years, over 99 percent of all new income generated in the economy has gone to the top 1 percent.”  And Senator Ted Cruz likewise confirmed that, “The top 1 percent under President Obama, the millionaires and billionaires that he constantly demagogued earned a higher share for our income than any year since 1928.” 

When any statistic is so politically useful and wildly popular among left-wing Democrats and right-wing Republicans you can be pretty sure it’s baloney.  Bipartisan baloney.

In November 2013, I wrote that, “Because reported capital gains and bonuses were…shifted forward from 2013 to 2012 [to avoid higher tax rates], we can expect a sizable drop in the top 1 percent’s reported income when the 2013 estimates come out a year from now. The befuddled media will doubtless figure out some way to depict that drop as an increase.” As predicted, the New York Times took one look at a 14.9% drop in top 1% incomes and concluded that “The Gains from the Recovery are Still Limited to the Top One Percent” That involved slicing the same old baloney very badly.

How Not to Spin a Big Drop in Top 1% Incomes

Pre-1944 method of estimating top 1% shares

When Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez release their annual estimates of top 1 percent incomes, you can count on The New York Times to put it in a front page headline with additional hype on the editorial page.  This time, however, the news was that the top 1 percent had suffered a 14.9 percent decline in real income in 2013 if capital gains are included, as they always had been until now.  

The New York Times heroic spin was “The Gains From the Economic Recovery Are Still Limited to the Top One Percent.”  The author, Justin Wolfers of the Peterson Institute wrote, “Emmanuel Saez … has just released preliminary estimates for 2013. The share of total income (excluding capital gains) going to the top 1 percent remains above one ­sixth, at 17.5 percent. By this measure, the concentration of income among the richest Americans remains at levels last seen nearly a century ago.”

I will have more to say about this in another blog post.  For now, I just want to call attention to the artistic way in which the subject was changed.  Since 2008, Saez has been comparing changes in top incomes (for which he has preliminary IRS data) to incomes of the bottom 90 percent (for which IRS data are singularly inappropriate).   He always included realized capital gains because that makes the top 1 percent share both larger and more cyclical.

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%).”

Piketty Problems: Top 1% Shares of Income and Wealth Are Nothing Like 1917- 28

Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers’ review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in The Twenty-First Century, claims that Mr. Piketty and Emmanuel Saez have documented, “absolutely conclusively, that the share of income and wealth going to those at the very top—the top 1 percent, .1 percent, and .01 percent of the population—has risen sharply over the last generation, marking a return to a pattern that prevailed before World War I.”  That statement is false.

Paul Krugman’s review “Why We’re in a New Gilded Age,”  claims that “since 1980 the one percent has seen its income share surge again—and in the United States it’s back to what it was a century ago.”  That statement is false.  

A Pew Research Center report on the same data was titled, “U.S. income inequality, on rise for decades, is now the highest since 1928.”  That too is false.

First of all, the Piketty and Saez estimates do not show top 1 percent income shares nearly as high as those of 1916 or 1928 once we use the same measure of total income for both prewar and postwar data.

Second, contrary to Summers, there is no data from Piketty, Saez or anyone else showing that the top 1 percent’s share of wealth “has risen sharply [if at all] over the last generation” – much less exhibited a “return to a pattern that prevailed before World War I.”

Dealing first with income, it is interesting that the first graph in Piketty’s book is about the top 10 percent – not the top 1 percent.  Saez likewise writes that “the top decile income share in 2012 is equal to 50.4%, the highest ever since 1917 when the series start.”  That is why President Obama said, “The top 10 percent no longer takes in one-third of our [sic] income – it now takes half.”  A two-earner New York City family of six with a pretax income of only $110,000 would be in this top 10 percent, and they are certainly not taking “our” income.  Regardless whether we examine the Top 10 percent or Top 1 percent, however, it is absolutely dishonest to compare the postwar estimates with prewar estimates. 

The Piketty and Saez prewar estimates express top incomes as a share of Personal Income, after subtracting 20% to account for tax avoidance.  Postwar estimates, by contrast, express top incomes as a share of only that fraction of income that happens to be reported on individual income tax returns – rather than being unreported, in tax-free savings or assets, or sheltered as retained corporate earnings.

 Transfer payments are not counted as income in either series (as though federal cash and benefits were worthless); this distinction is inconsequential for the prewar figures but increasingly important lately.  “Total income” as Piketty and Saez define it accounted for just 61.8 percent of personal income in 2012, down from 67 percent in 2000.

Memo to Robert Reich: Rewrite Your Brief

Robert Reich posted a letter in June 20 Wall Street Journal responding to my article of June 16, “Why 70% Tax Rates Won’t Work.”

He argues that I distort his proposal (though I wasn’t talking about his proposal) and ignore his argument that, “Giving the middle class more purchasing power by lowering its rates while raising the rates at the top will help spur [economic] growth.”

This strikes me as a futile effort to change the subject.  Since I proved that past tax rates of 50-70% on relatively modest incomes raised less revenue than a top tax rate of 28%, how could Reich’s proposal of 50-70% rates at incomes above $500,000 raise more revenue?   And if 50-70% tax rates would not raise more revenue, then how could he possibly promise “substantial rate reductions [actually a refundable tax credit] for people with incomes under $100,000”?  

The original draft of my article was not focused on Reich, but included others − including two of his Berkeley colleagues (Brad DeLong and Emmanuel Saez) who recently suggested a tax rate of 70% would be “revenue-maximizing.”  The details of Reich’s proposal were not in the blog I quoted, but such details have no relevance to any points I made.

Only after top tax rates came down, I noted, were we able to afford very substantial reductions in taxes for people with incomes under $100,000.  Since President Reagan took office the average income tax rates have become negative for the bottom 40% and were cut in half for the “middle class.”   In 1980, when top tax rates were 70% and nearly 40% on capital gains, such rates brought in so little revenue that the Feds were compelled to tax low and middle-income families quite heavily to bring revenues up to the normal 8% of GDP.

At his blog, Reich argues that, “Reynolds bends the facts to make his case. The most important variable explaining the rise and fall of tax revenues as a percent of GDP has been the business cycle, not the effective tax rate. In periods when the economy is growing briskly, tax revenues have risen as a percent of GDP, regardless of effective rates; in downturns, revenues have fallen.”

For that to work as an explanation of why individual tax revenues were higher when the top tax rate was 28% than when it was 70-91%, Reich is logically obligated to argue that the economy was growing more briskly when the top tax rate was 28% than when the top tax rate was 70-91%.  Contradicting his own logic, however, Reich instead claims that “Giving the middle class more purchasing power by lowering its rates while raising the rates at the top will help spur growth.”

Reich is not proposing to add new tax rates to 50-70% on salaries, dividends and capital gains because he believes it will raise more revenue (my data show otherwise), but because he believes it will raise the growth of real GDP.   This is breathtaking. Reich should be glad that I ignored his “central argument” about super-high tax rates boosting economic growth by taking income from those who earned and giving it to those more likely to squander it.   I was just being too polite.

Within his hyper-Keynesian lawyer’s brief, Reich is logically required to argue that top tax rates of 70-91% (1) raised revenue, and that (2) this imaginary added revenue allowed imaginary tax reductions on poorer people with a lower propensity to save.  He must then arrive at the logical conclusion, which is that (3) the average savings rate must have been much lower when top tax rates were 70-91% than since 1988 when to tax rates have frequently been 28-35% and as low as 15% on capital gains and dividends. A low savings rate, in Reichian theory, is what makes the economy grow.

My article proved the first two premises are false.  High statutory tax rates on the rich generated less revenue, and the poor and middle classes paid much higher taxes as a result.

The third premise of Reich’s brief is key to the Keynesian fable about growth depending to incentives to consume rather than incentives to produce.  Once again, the facts are the exact opposite of what Reich imagines. The personal savings rate was 9% from 1959 to 1981 when top tax rates were 70-91%, and 4.5% from 1988 to 2007 when top tax rates were 28-39.6%.

Reich’s comment that “the richest 1% of Americans got 10% of total [pretax, pretransfer] income in 1980, and get more than 20% now” refers to income reported on individual tax returns, assembled by Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez.   When top tax rates went way down, particularly in 1988, 1997 and 2003, the amount of reported income and capital gains went way up.  As Saez explained in the 2004 issue of Tax Policy and The Economy (MIT Press, p.120): “Top income shares … show striking evidence of large and immediate responses to the tax cuts of 1980s, and the size of those responses is largest for the topmost income groups.”   That is why revenues from high-income households went way up rather than down, and why it then became feasible to hand out refundable credits to the bottom 40% and cut tax bills in half for those earning less than $100,000.

Reich would apply his 50-70 % tax rates to reported capital gains and dividends, which is a surefire way to make taxable capital gains and dividends vanish from tax returns.  No high-income taxpayer can be compelled to sell property or financial assets for the sheer joy of paying 50-70 % of the gain to the IRS.  No investor can be compelled to hold dividend-paying stock rather than tax-free bonds.  

With the enormous amount of revenues lost under the Reich tax proposal, we would have no choice but to revert to the pre-1986 stingy personal exemptions and standard deductions while also repealing the Bush child credit and the vastly expanded earned income tax credit.