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does piketty replicate?

Ever since the publication of Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, there’s been a lot of debate about the theory and empirical work. One strand of the discussion focuses on how Piketty handles the data. A number of critics have argued that the main results are sensitive to choices made in the data analysis (e.g., see this working paper). The trends in inequality reported by Piketty are amplified by how he handles the data.

Perhaps the strongest criticism in this vein is made by UC Riverside’s Richard Sutch, who has a working paper claiming that some of Piketty’s major empirical points are simply unreliable. The abstract:

Here I examine only Piketty’s U.S. data for the period 1810 to 2010 for the top ten percent and the top one percent of the wealth distribution. I conclude that Piketty’s data for the wealth share of the top ten percent for the period 1870-1970 are unreliable. The values he reported are manufactured from the observations for the top one percent inflated by a constant 36 percentage points. Piketty’s data for the top one percent of the distribution for the nineteenth century (1810-1910) are also unreliable. They are based on a single mid-century observation that provides no guidance about the antebellum trend and only very tenuous information about trends in inequality during the Gilded Age. The values Piketty reported for the twentieth-century (1910-2010) are based on more solid ground, but have the disadvantage of muting the marked rise of inequality during the Roaring Twenties and the decline associated with the Great Depression. The reversal of the decline in inequality during the 1960s and 1970s and subsequent sharp rise in the 1980s is hidden by a fifteen-year straight-line interpolation. This neglect of the shorter-run changes is unfortunate because it makes it difficult to discern the impact of policy changes (income and estate tax rates) and shifts in the structure and performance of the economy (depression, inflation, executive compensation) on changes in wealth inequality.

From inside the working paper, an attempt to replicate Piketty’s estimate of intergenerational wealth transfer among the wealthy:

The first available data point based on an SCF survey is for 1962. As reported by Wolff the top one percent of the wealth distribution held 33.4 percent of total wealth that year [Wolff 1994: Table 4, 153; and Wolff 2014: Table 2, 50]. Without explanation Piketty adjusted this downward to 31.4 by subtracting 2 percentage points. Piketty’s adjusted number is represented by the cross plotted for 1962 in Figure 1. Chris Giles, a reporter for the Financial Times, described this procedure as “seemingly arbitrary” [Giles 2014].9 In a follow-up response to Giles, Piketty failed to explain this adjustment [Piketty 2014c “Addendum”].

There is a bit of a mystery as to where the 1.2 and 1.25 multipliers used to adjust the Kopczuk-Saez estimates upward came from. The spreadsheet that generated the data (TS10.1DetailsUS) suggests that Piketty was influenced in this choice by the inflation factor that would be required to bring the solid line up to reach his adjusted SCF estimate for 1962. Piketty did not explain why the adjustment multiplier jumps from 1.2 to 1.25 in 1930.

This comes up quite a bit, according to Sutch. There is reasonable data and then Piketty makes adjustments that are odd or simply unexplained. It is also important to note that Sutch is not trying to make inequality in the data go away. He notes that Piketty is likely under-reporting early 20th century inequality while over-reporting the more recent increase in inequality.

A lot of Piketty’s argument comes from international comparisons and longitudinal studies with historical data. I have a lot of sympathy for Piketty. Data is imperfect, collected irregularly, and prone to error. So I am slow to  criticize. Still, given that Piketty’s theory is now one of the major contenders in the study of global inequality, we want the answer to be robust.

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Written by fabiorojas

February 10, 2016 at 12:01 am

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  1. […] sérieuse de Piketty et de “ses” “data”, comme disait l’autre, je vous renvoie à ce billet de blog, qui cite un papier tout aussi critique mais autrement mieux informé que le “lecteur” […]

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