Tag Archives: Wealth inequality

Tax Evasion and Wealth Inequality

The Economist reports about a study by Annette Alstadsæter, Niels Johannesen and Gabriel Zucman who matched leaked information from Swiss banks and Panamanian shell companies with Scandinavian wealth records. Their findings:

  • Tax evasion is progressive. The average / top 1% / top 0.01% Scandinavian household paid 3% / 10% / 30% fewer taxes than it should.
  • Accordingly, estimates of wealth inequality (based on tax data) likely underestimate the degree of inequality.

Owner-Occupied Housing and Wealth Inequality

On VoxEU, Gianni La Cava summarizes his research on the secular rise in the housing share of US income.

In the US national accounts, income accruing to the housing sector is measured as ‘net housing capital income’, or simply, net rental income (i.e. gross rents less housing costs, such as depreciation and property taxes). This measure includes rental income going to both owner-occupiers (imputed rent) and landlords (market rent). The very detailed nature of the Bureau of Economic Analysis’ regional economic accounts allows for similar estimates of housing capital income to be constructed for each US state spanning several decades. …

The owner-occupier share of aggregate income has risen from just under 2% in 1950 to close to 5% in 2014 … . The share of income going to landlords (i.e. market rent) has also doubled in the post-war era. But, in aggregate, the effect of imputed rent is larger … because there are nearly twice as many home owners as renters in the US economy. …

… the long-run rise in the housing capital income share is fully concentrated in states that face housing supply constraints.

Taxing the Rich

In Taxing the Rich: A History of Fiscal Fairness in the United States and Europe, Kenneth Scheme and David Stasavage

explore the intellectual and political debates surrounding the taxation of the wealthy while also providing the most detailed examination to date of when taxes have been levied against the rich and when they haven’t. Fairness in debates about taxing the rich has depended on different views of what it means to treat people as equals and whether taxing the rich advances or undermines this norm. Scheve and Stasavage argue that governments don’t tax the rich just because inequality is high or rising—they do it when people believe that such taxes compensate for the state unfairly privileging the wealthy. Progressive taxation saw its heyday in the twentieth century, when compensatory arguments for taxing the rich focused on unequal sacrifice in mass warfare. Today, as technology gives rise to wars of more limited mobilization, such arguments are no longer persuasive. [Text from the Publisher’s website.]

Summary by Bryan Caplan:

Democracies have no inherent tendency to “soak the rich.”

Instead, democracies adopt high, progressive taxation in the face of compelling “compensatory” arguments for redistribution.

Only major wars of mass mobilization make compensatory arguments compelling.

Modern military technology has made majors wars of mass mobilization obsolete.

Therefore, tax the rich policies are a thing of the past, at least for developed countries.  They won’t be coming back

Inequality and the Welfare State

A new book on inequality by Branko Milanovic adopts an international perspective. The Economist reviews the book:

Like Mr Piketty, he begins with piles of data assembled over years of research. He sets the trends of different individual countries in a global context. Over the past 30 years the incomes of workers in the middle of the global income distribution—factory workers in China, say—have soared, as has pay for the richest 1% (see chart). At the same time, incomes of the working class in advanced economies have stagnated. This dynamic helped create a global middle class. It also caused global economic inequality to plateau, and perhaps even decline, for the first time since industrialisation began. …

Mr Milanovic suggests that both [Kuznets and Piketty] are mistaken. Across history, he reckons, inequality has tended to flow in cycles: Kuznets waves.

In the FT, Martin Wolf argues that a significant part of the (British) welfare state is about insurance rather than redistribution:

Evidence for this comes from another IFS study  … This examined the effects of the tax and benefit systems on people born between 1945 and 1954 …

First, income is far less unequal over lifetimes than in any given year. This is because a big proportion of inequality is temporary … Second, largely as a result, more than half of the redistribution achieved by taxes and benefits is over lifetimes rather than among different people. Third, in the course of adult life, only 7 per cent of individuals receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes, even though 36 per cent of people receive more in benefits than they pay in taxes in any given year. Finally, in-work benefits are just as good as out-of-work benefits at helping people who remain poor throughout their lives but they do less damage to incentives to work. Higher rates of income tax, meanwhile, target the “lifetime rich” relatively well because mobility at the top is relatively modest.

Marcel Fratzscher also wrote a book on the topic, focusing on Germany. He argues that the “Verteilungskampf” (redistributive struggle) intensifies and that equality of opportunity is being lost. In the FAZ, Jan Hauser summarizes a critique of the book by another Berlin based professor, Klaus Schroeder, who argues that the text is very short on substance.

Spending Inequality

In a New Republic blog, Alan Auerbach and Larry Kotlikoff discuss lifetime spending inequality. Due to taxes and income variability over the life cycle, this is much smaller than wealth or income inequality.


Auerbach and Kotlikoff write:

The top 1 percent of 40-49 year-olds face a net tax, on average, of 45 percent. … For the bottom 20 percent, the average net tax rate is negative 34.2 percent. …

Our standard means of judging whether a household is rich or poor is based on current income. But this classification can produce huge mistakes. … For example, only 68.2 percent of 40-49 year-olds who are actually in the third resource quintile using our data would be so classified based on current income.


Wealth Inequality, Theory and Measurement

In an NBER working paper, David Weil argues that Thomas Piketty overestimates wealth inequality. In the abstract of the paper, Weil writes:

In Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty uses the market value of tradeable assets to measure both productive capital and wealth. As a measure of wealth this is problematic because it ignores the value of human capital and transfer wealth, which have grown enormously over the last 300 years. Thus the constancy of the wealth/income ratio as portrayed in his data is an illusion. Further, the types of wealth that he does not measure are more equally distributed than tradeable assets. The approach also incorrectly identifies capital gains due to reduced discount rates as increases in the capital stock.


Pareto and Piketty

In an NBER working paper, Charles Jones discusses Piketty’s famous r-g term in light of several simple and transparent macroeconomic models. Jones emphasises the role of the Pareto distribution and the difference between partial and general equilibrium reasoning. Importantly,

… exponential growth that occurs for an exponentially-distributed amount of time leads to a Pareto distribution.

Chinese Government Report on Options to Reduce Wealth Inequality

Markus Ackeret in the NZZ discusses a long-awaited Chinese government report on policy options to reduce wealth disparities. They include: Less manipulation of interest rates; more manipulation of wages; higher real estate taxes; higher dividend payments of government owned enterprises; changes in the legal status of workers moving from the countryside to the cities (hukou).