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Why Piketty's Wealth Data Are Worthless

July 10, 2014 in Economics

By Alan Reynolds

Alan Reynolds

No book on economics in recent times has received such a glowing initial reception as Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century.” He remains a hero on the left, but the honeymoon may be drawing to a sour close as evidence mounts that his numbers don’t add up.

Mr. Piketty’s headline claim is that capitalism must result in wealth becoming increasingly concentrated in fewer hands to a “potentially terrifying” degree, on the grounds that the rate of return to capital exceeds the rate of economic growth. Is there any empirical evidence to back up this sweeping assertion? The data in his book—purporting to show a growing inequality of wealth in France, the U.K., Sweden and particularly the United States—have been challenged. And that’s where the story gets interesting.

Mr. Piketty’s premonition of soaring U.S. wealth shares for the top 1% finds no credible support in his book or elsewhere.”

In late May, Financial Times economics editor Chris Giles published anessay that found numerous errors in Mr. Piketty’s data. Mr. Piketty’s online “Response to FT” was mostly about Europe, where the errors Mr. Giles caught seem minor. But what about the U.S.?

Mr. Piketty makes a startling statement: The data in his book should now be disregarded in favor of a March 2014 Power Point presentation, available online, by Mr. Piketty’s protégé, Gabriel Zucman (at the London School of Economics) and his frequent co-author Emmanuel Saez (of the University of California, Berkeley). The Zucman-Saez estimates, Mr. Piketty says, are “much more systematic” and “more reliable” than the estimates in his book and therefore “should be used as reference series for wealth inequality in the United States… (rather than the series reported in my book).”

Zucman-Saez concludes that there was a “large increase in the top 0.1% wealth share” since the 1986 Tax Reform, but “no increase below the top 0.1%.” In other words, all of the increase in the wealth share of the top 1% is attributed to the top one-tenth of 1%—those with estimated wealth above $20 million. This is quite different from the graph in Mr. Piketty’s book, which showed the wealth share of the top 1% (which begins at about $8 million, according to the Federal Reserve’s Survey of Consumer Finances) in the U.S. falling from 31.4% in 1960 to 28.2% in 1970, then rising to about 33% since 1990.

In any event, the Zucman-Saez data …read more

Source: OP-EDS

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