New York Times: Wealth Over Work, by Paul Krugman (Princeton):
It seems safe to say that Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the magnum opus of the French economist Thomas Piketty, will be the most important economics book of the year — and maybe of the decade. Mr. Piketty, arguably the world’s leading expert on income and wealth inequality, does more than document the growing concentration of income in the hands of a small economic elite. He also makes a powerful case that we’re on the way back to “patrimonial capitalism,” in which the commanding heights of the economy are dominated not just by wealth, but also by inherited wealth, in which birth matters more than effort and talent. ...
Despite the frantic efforts of some Republicans to pretend otherwise, most people realize that today’s G.O.P. favors the interests of the rich over those of ordinary families. I suspect, however, that fewer people realize the extent to which the party favors returns on wealth over wages and salaries. And the dominance of income from capital, which can be inherited, over wages — the dominance of wealth over work — is what patrimonial capitalism is all about.
To see what I’m talking about, start with actual policies and policy proposals. It’s generally understood that George W. Bush did all he could to cut taxes on the very affluent, that the middle-class cuts he included were essentially political loss leaders. It’s less well understood that the biggest breaks went not to people paid high salaries but to coupon-clippers and heirs to large estates. True, the top tax bracket on earned income fell from 39.6 to 35 percent. But the top rate on dividends fell from 39.6 percent (because they were taxed as ordinary income) to 15 percent — and the estate tax was completely eliminated. ...
This tilt of policy toward the interests of wealth has been mirrored by a tilt in rhetoric; Republicans often seem so intent on exalting “job creators” that they forget to mention American workers. ...
Many conservatives live inside an intellectual bubble of think tanks and captive media that is ultimately financed by a handful of megadonors. Not surprisingly, those inside the bubble tend to assume, instinctively, that what is good for oligarchs is good for America.
Not Class Warfare, Optimal Taxation, by Greg Mankiw (Harvard):
Today's column by Paul Krugman is classic Paul: It takes a policy favored by the right, attributes the most vile motives to those who advance the policy, and ignores all the reasonable arguments in favor of it.
In this case, the issue is the reduction in capital taxes during the George W. Bush administration. Paul says that the goal here was "defending the oligarchy's interests."
Really? As Paul well knows, there is a large literature in economics suggesting that an optimal tax system imposes much lower taxes on capital income than on wage income (or consumption).
New York Times: Too Much Faith In Models, Capital Taxation Edition, by Paul Krugman (Princeton):
Yesterday I offered a rousing defense of the use of simplified models in economics. So maybe it’s appropriate that today I offer a caution: you should use models, but you should always remember that they’re models, and always beware of conclusions that depend too much on the simplifying assumptions. And I have a case in point, which ties into one of my other big concerns: the appropriate taxation of capital income.
Greg Mankiw is upset at my suggestion that the Bush administration was motivated by class interests in its determination to slash taxes on capital income and eliminate estate taxes. He wants us to know that it was all about optimal taxation, as dictated by economic theory.
Well, we could have a political discussion: How many people really, truly believe that George W. Bush chose to slash taxes on dividends and phase out the inheritance tax because Greg Mankiw and Glenn Hubbard told him that this was the conclusion from economic theory? Can we have a show of hands?
But let me instead point out that the case for zero or low taxation of capital income rests on very strong, very unrealistic assumptions — basically perfectly rational intertemporally optimizing agents, with dynasties behaving as if they were infinitely lived individuals. Question those assumptions, and the whole case falls apart. Don’t take my word for it — read Peter Diamond and Emmanuel Saez, who also point out that the intertemporal optimizing model of saving is in fact rejected by lots of evidence. ...
The point here is that the economic case for not taxing capital rests on a stylized model that we know does a bad job of capturing real behavior; the case for taxing capital rests on considerations of equity and concerns about excessive concentration of wealth that are very much grounded in real-world observation. You don’t have to be a know-nothing to argue that the second case trumps the first.
Using models without believing that they represent The Truth is hard; it’s very easy to fall off that tightrope one way or the other. But it’s what you have to do if you want to do useful economics.
Too Little Faith in People, Tax Policy Edition, by Greg Mankiw (Harvard):
Paul Krugman responds to my post about a recent column of his. He is correct that not all economists agree that low capital taxation is desirable; he appropriately cites Diamond and Saez, who are on the high-capital-tax side of this debate. FYI, here is another recent paper, written in part as a response to Diamond and Saez, which finds that optimal rates of capital taxation, while positive, are quite low.
But that is not really the issue. If Paul had said "reasonable economists disagree, here are the arguments, and here is why I tend to favor one side rather than the other" I would not have objected. Instead, in his original column, he wrote as if there were no reasonable arguments for the policy pursued by the Bush administration, and he attributed the most vile motives to those who advanced the policy.
This episode illustrates a fundamental difference between Paul and me. I try not to assume the worst in other people, just because they disagree with me.
New York Times: America’s Taxation Tradition, by Paul Krugman (Princeton):
As inequality has become an increasingly prominent issue in American discourse, there has been furious pushback from the right. Some conservatives argue that focusing on inequality is unwise, that taxing high incomes will cripple economic growth. Some argue that it’s unfair, that people should be allowed to keep what they earn. And some argue that it’s un-American — that we’ve always celebrated those who achieve wealth, and that it violates our national tradition to suggest that some people control too large a share of the wealth. ...
The truth is that, in the early 20th century, many leading Americans warned about the dangers of extreme wealth concentration, and urged that tax policy be used to limit the growth of great fortunes. ...
Nor was the notion of limiting the concentration of wealth, especially inherited wealth, just talk. In his landmark book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the economist Thomas Piketty points out that America, which introduced an income tax in 1913 and an inheritance tax in 1916, led the way in the rise of progressive taxation, that it was “far out in front” of Europe. Mr. Piketty goes so far as to say that “confiscatory taxation of excessive incomes” — that is, taxation whose goal was to reduce income and wealth disparities, rather than to raise money — was an “American invention.” ...
So how did such views not only get pushed out of the mainstream, but come to be considered illegitimate? Consider how inequality and taxes on top incomes were treated in the 2012 election. Republicans pushed the line that President Obama was hostile to the rich. “If one’s priority is to punish highly successful people, then vote for the Democrats,” said Mitt Romney. Democrats vehemently (and truthfully) denied the charge. Yet Mr. Romney was in effect accusing Mr. Obama of thinking like Teddy Roosevelt. How did that become an unforgivable political sin?