Piketty on EconTalk (podcast) -- a lively discussion between Russ Roberts and guest Thomas Piketty. See earlier post here.
Piketty: ... to summarize very quickly our conclusion, we feel that the theory of marginal productivity is a bit naive, I think for this top part of the labor market. That is to say when a manager manages to get a pay increase from $1 million a year to $10 million a year, according to the textbook based on marginal productivity, this should be due to the fact that his marginal contribution to the output of his company has risen from 1 to 10. Now it seems a bit naive. It could be that in practice individual marginal productivities are very hard to observe and monitor, especially in a large corporation. And there is clearly strong incentives for top managers to try to get as much as they can.
... Now, when the top tax rate is 82%, now of course you always want to be paid $1 million more, but on the margin when you get a pay increase of $1 million, 82% is going to go straight to the Treasury, so your incentive to bargain very aggressively and put the right people in the right compensation committee are going to be not so strong. And also your shareholders, your subordinates, maybe will tend to tell you, look, this is very costly. Whereas when the top tax rate goes down to 20, 30% or even 40%, so you keep 2/3rds or 60% of the extra $1 million for you, then the incentives are very, very different. Now, this model seems to explain part of what we observe in the data. In particular, it's very difficult to see any improvement in the performance of managers who are getting $10 million instead of $1 million. When we put together a data base with all the publicly traded companies in North America, Europe, Japan, trying to compare in the companies that are paying their managers $10 million instead of $1 million, it's very difficult to see in the data any extra performance.
... But let me make clear that I love capital accumulation and I certainly don't want to reduce capital accumulation. The problem is the concentration. So let me make very clear that inequality in itself is of course not a problem. Inequality can actually be useful for growth. Up to a point. The problem is when inequality of wealth and concentration of wealth gets too extreme, it is not useful any more for growth. And it can even become bad, because it leads to high perpetuation of inequality over time, so it can reduce social mobility. And it can also be bad for the working or for the democratic institutions. So where is the tipping point--when is it that inequality becomes excessive? Well, I'm sorry to tell you that I don't have a formula for that.
... In the United States right now, the bottom 50% of the population own about 2% of national wealth. And the next 40% own about 20, 22% of national wealth. And this group, the middle 40%, the people who are not in the bottom 50% and who are not in the top 10%, they used to own 25-30% of national wealth. And this has been going down in recent decades, as shown by a recent study by Saez and Zucman and now is closer to 20, 22%. Now, how much should it be? I don't know. I don't know. But the view that we need the middle class share to go down and down and down and that this is not a problem as long as you have positive growth, I think is excessive. You know, I think, of course we need entrepreneurs. I'm not saying, look, if it was perfect equality the bottom 50% should own 50% and the next 40% should own 40. I am not saying that we should have this at all. I'm just saying that when you have 2% for the bottom 50 and 22 for the next 40, you know, the view that we cannot do better than that [[ because ]] you won't have entrepreneurs any more, you won't have growth any more, is very ideological.
... I am actually a lot more optimistic than what some people seem to believe. I'm very sorry some people feel depressed after they read my book because after all this is not the way I wrote it. In fact, I think there are lots of reasons to be optimistic. For instance, one good news coming from the book is that we've never been as rich in terms of net wealth than we are today in developed countries. And we talk all the time about our public debt, but in fact our private wealth as a fraction of GDP has increased a lot more than our public debt as a fraction of GDP, so our national wealth, the sum of private and public wealth, is actually higher than it has ever been. So our countries are rich. It is our governments that are poor, which is a problem; but it raises issues of organization and institution but that can be addressed.