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Thomas Piketty: Capital in the 21st Century

Just finished reading Thomas Piketty's now-famous book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It's a big book, takes a while, but it's thoroughly worth it. It's admirably data-driven, yet clear and readable.

One thing it gives you is a lot of tips about whether the future will be the same as the past. Will inflation, growth, inequality be similar in the next 50 years as in the past 50 years? There are some perennial factors, and some things that are actually blips (caused e.g. by the World Wars) when considered on a timescale of centuries - and many of these are not quite as I had expected. Plenty of interesting titbits about, for example, how the amount of wealth we inherit is or isn't changing as our average lifespan gets longer, and how much "gift-giving" has grown in recent years as an "alternative" to inheritance.

And the readability is enhanced with details from history and literature, such as the way authors such as Jane Austen reflect the financial certainties of their time in their prose.

(It's worth mentioning that the Financial Times briefly smudged the book's reputation by alleging some of the data was wrong. (See here for example.) However, as The Economist noted, "the analysis does not seem to support many of the allegations made by the FT, or the conclusion that the book's argument is wrong." The FT later awarded Piketty's book their business book of the year, perhaps sensing which way the wind was blowing.)

I agree with the LRB's review of the book that "nothing about the book is more impressive than the range and richness of its statistical information. [The book] both insists on the importance of data and, at least where modern societies are concerned, highlights the uncertainties involved in its collection." (Note: the LRB also takes issue with some of Piketty's interpretations - interesting review.)

The LRB review also points out that Piketty's proposed mechanism for fixing some of the problems of modern markets and global captialism - namely, a global progressive tax on capital - may be a nice theory to consider but it's so unrealistic as to be unhelpful. Piketty claims (p515) that even though it's utopian, it's worth considering, maybe even working towards. But to me it seems obviously to neglect so many extremely powerful problems. Of course the richest people have the most political power, and will fight to prevent such taxes being adopted (or if they are adopted, to build a new tax haven state on an oil-rig somewhere). Maybe this is just a practical problem, to be solved by politics. But the tax would require all forms of wealth, owned by every person on and off the planet, to be enumerated. If not, the rich and their financial engineers would transfer their assets into un-enumerated assets. This reminds me of the "information asymmetry" critique of neo-classical economics: many market theories assume that all market participants have perfect information, and this unrealistic assumption is required to prove those markets' effectiveness. Similarly, the effectiveness of the global capital tax in balancing out inequality rests really quite heavily on the idea of some tax agencies somewhere having essentially perfect knowledge. Unfortunately (and as Piketty notes) modern financial engineering means that many taxes, even progressive taxes, become a bit regressive when everyone is subject to them except for the super-rich.

Piketty also says (p519) that the main benefit of the wealth tax (charged at low annual rates, nothing too scary) is "more in the nature of a compulsory reporting law than a true tax" - in a sense, he's less interested in taxing wealth than encouraging transparency in wealth ownership. This again is a bit utopian, since of course people will be motivated to avoid some things being reported, but not so problematic, since the benefits of transparency don't require 100% transparency. And it chimes well with Piketty's insistence that it's not financial rules that can fix the world, but publicly-available information and democratic debate combined with the rule of law. Piketty points out (p570) that most businesses don't publish enough financial details for us to work out how the wealth is divided between profits and wages. If they were required to, that would empower workers. As well as economists ;)

| economics |

the roulette trick

I've been getting loads of copies of the roulette spam - you know? The one that appears to be a misdirected email going:

please tell me when you will send me your roulette trick? You promised you'll send it few weeks ago :(

yo mate, ok I'll give you my trick but if you give it someone else I'll kill you :) you know in roulette you can bet on blacks or reds. If you bet $1 on black and it goes black you win $1 but if it goes red you loose your $1. but I found a way you can win everytime: ...

It's one of those mathematical illusions: really hard to find any fault in it, so... is it a quick route to easy money?

Kochanski wrote a good explanation of how the language tricks you as well as the maths, so read that. Executive summary of the maths: "Basically, this algorithm is a way of generating lots of small wins and a few huge losses."

Someone else even wrote some software to prove it - they ran the software lots of times and found exactly that effect, that they ended up with loads of small wins and a few huge losses, meaning that on average you're out of pocket.

Apparently there's even a name for this kind of faulty-logic: a martingale.

| economics |

End of Woolworths

So, goodbye to Woolworth's. Went in the Woolies in Burnley last week, and the one in Finchley this week, they have a real end-times feel to them...

I bought a sleeveless Goldfrapp album for 10p. When I was little I used to be in Woolies every Saturday, buying a fizzy drink and maybe a cassette single or some pic-n-mix. I'm not particularly sentimental about it, because ever since then, all it's meant to me is a place full of plastic crap and cheesy chart singles. But it's worth marking its passing, since it's been a fixture on British high streets for a fair old while.

(Plus of course there are people losing their jobs, which is very bad news for them. But in general it's more important to get cross about the closure of Post Offices, which axes jobs at the same time as robbing places of services that they need. Aaaaanyway.)

| economics |

On the credit crunch

"So: a huge unregulated boom in which almost all the upside went directly into private hands, followed by a gigantic bust in which the losses were socialised. That is literally nobody's idea of how the financial system is supposed to work. It is just as much an abomination to the free marketeer as it is to the social democrat or outright leftist. But the models and alternatives don't seem to be forthcoming: there is an ideological and theoretical vacuum where the challenge from the left used to be. Capitalism no longer has a global antagonist, just at the moment when it has never needed one more - if only to clarify thinking and values, and to provide the chorus of jeering and Schadenfreude which at this moment is deeply appropriate. I would be providing it myself if I weren't so frightened."

LRB 2008-10-23
| economics |

People not wanting house prices to rise

For a long time it's seemed weird to me that on the news, they report house-price-rises with a big grin and house-price-falls with a big frowny face. Many people lose out when house prices go up: people wanting to get their first house, and people wanting to trade up to their next house. Now there's a survey which confirms that more people want house prices to fall than rise (though even more want them to stay the same).

| economics |

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