Greg Mankiw and Richard Epstein – libertarian mumbo jumbo on inequality

29 November, 2011 at 21:11 | Posted in Economics, Politics & Society | 2 Comments

As yours truly has commented on earlier, walked-out Harvard economist and George Bush advisor Greg Mankiw  is having problems with explaining the rising inequality we have seen for the last 30 years in both the US and elsewhere in Western societies, that says it . He writes:

Even if the income gains are in the top 1 percent, why does that imply that the right story is not about education?

I then realized that Paul is making an implicit assumption–that the return to education is deterministic. If indeed a year of schooling guaranteed you precisely a 10 percent increase in earnings, then there is no way increasing education by a few years could move you from the middle class to the top 1 percent.

But it may be better to think of the return to education as stochastic. Education not only increases the average income a person will earn, but it also changes the entire distribution of possible life outcomes. It does not guarantee that a person will end up in the top 1 percent, but it increases the likelihood. I have not seen any data on this, but I am willing to bet that the top 1 percent are more educated than the average American; while their education did not ensure their economic success, it played a role.

This is, of course, nothing but really one big evasive action trying to explain away a very disturbing structural shift that has taken place in our societies. And change that has very little to do with stochastic returns to education. Those were in place also 30 or 40 years ago. At that time they meant that perhaps a CEO earned 10-12 times what “ordinary” people earns. Today it means that they perhaps earn 100-200 times  what “ordinary” people earns. A question of education? No way! It is a question of greed and a lost sense of a common project of building a sustainable society. A result of stochastic returns to education? No, this has to do with income and wealth increasingly being concentrated in the hands of a very small and privileged elite.

Mankiw has stubbornly refused to nudge on his libertarian stance on this issue. So, rather consistently, this week he links – on his blog – to a PBS-interview with libertarian professor of law, Richard Epstein:

RICHARD EPSTEIN: What’s good about inequality is if, in fact, it turns out that inequality creates an incentive for people to produce and to create wealth, it’s a wonderful force for innovation.

PAUL SOLMAN: Aren’t many of the top 1 percent or 0.1 percent in this country rich because they’re in finance?

RICHARD EPSTEIN: Yes. Many of the very richest people in the United States are rich because they are in finance.

 And one of the things you have to ask is, why is anyone prepared to pay them huge sums of money if in fact they perform nothing of social value? And the answer is that when you try to knock out the financiers, what you do is you destroy the liquidity of capital markets. And when you destroy the liquidity of those markets, you make it impossible for businesses to invest, you make it impossible for people to buy home mortgages and so forth, and all sorts of other breakdowns.

 So they should be rich. It doesn’t bother me.

 PAUL SOLMAN: Are you worried that a small number of people controlling a disproportionate share of the wealth can control a democratic system?

 RICHARD EPSTEIN: Oh, my God no.

Mankiw does not in any way comment on Epstein’s amazing stupidities or gives us a hint of why he has chosen to link to the interview. But sometimes silence perhaps says more than a thousand words …



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