thomas piketty

A Different Look at After-Tax Income Inequality

Every presidential candidate promises to “reduce income inequality” by raising tax rates on the rich and increasing transfer payments (including tax credits and in-kind benefits) for the middle class.  Yet the widely-used flawed data from Thomas Piketty and Emmanuel Saez exclude both taxes and transfers.  Income measures that exclude taxes and transfers cannot tell us whether taxes or transfers are high or low, and cannot be directly affected by

Tucker Carlson & Peggy Noonan Mimic Piketty & Saez

In a recent Wall Street Journal column defending Obamacare 3.8% surtax on investment income on joint returns above $250,000, Peggy Noonan ends by quoting Tucker Carlson’s Fox News interview with Paul Ryan which questioned the now-suspended health plan’s elimination of that surtax:

“Looking at the last election, was the message of that election really, ‘We need to help investors?’ I mean, the Dow is over 20,000. Are they really the group that needs the help?…“The overview here is that all the wealth, basically, in the last 10 years, has stuck to the top end. That’s one of the reasons we’ve had all the political turmoil, as you know. And so, kind of a hard sell to say ‘Yeah, we’re gonna repeal Obamacare, but we’re gonna send more money to the people who’ve already gotten the richest over the last 10 years.’ I mean, that’s what this does, no? I’m not a leftist, it’s just—that’s true.”

Big Problems with Anthony Atkinson’s “Inequality: What Can Be Done?”

“The godfather of inequality research,”  is how The Economist describes septuagenarian  British economist Anthony Atkinson. A frequent co-author with Thomas Piketty and Joe Stiglitz, Sir Atkinson has written a book about inequality which a  New York Times reviewer described as a “flurry of largely recycled policy proposals.”   Inequality: What can be done? is all about “unapologetic support for aggressive government intervention,” says The Economist, and “a throwback to the 1960s and 1970s.” 

There is no need to buy the book, because the following summary – “15 Proposals from Tony Atkinson’s book ‘Inequality: What can be done?’ – is more than enough.  Each Proposal is in the author’s own words, but followed by my own view of Problems with those plans.  [I skip Proposals 9-11, which are just inflated versions of policies similar to those in the U.S. – the earned income credit, estate & gift tax, and property tax.]

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.

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.

Vote for Me!

Final statements in my tax debate with economist Thomas Piketty were posted today at the Economist.

I think I’m softening Piketty up, as he reiterated that a 60% tax on high earners might be OK, rather than the 80% that he suggested.

The voting from readers has been locked at 50%/50% for days. So it is important that you register your vote by the end of tomorrow before the magazine’s “decision” on the winner Friday.

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