In The Wall Street Journal Phil Gramm and Michael Solon write How to Distort Income Inequality- The Piketty-Saez data ignore changes in tax law and fail to count noncash compensation and Social Security benefits.
The chosen starting point for the most-quoted part of the Piketty-Saez study is 1979. In that year the inflation rate was 13.3%, interest rates were 15.5% and the poverty rate was rising, but economic misery was distributed more equally than in any year since. That misery led to the election of Ronald Reagan, whose economic policies helped usher in 25 years of lower interest rates, lower inflation and high economic growth. But Messrs. Piketty and Saez tell us it was also a period where the rich got richer, the poor got poorer and only a relatively small number of Americans benefited from the economic booms of the Reagan and Clinton years.
If that dark picture doesn’t sound like the country you lived in, that’s because it isn’t. The Piketty-Saez study looked only at pretax cash market income. It did not take into account taxes. It left out noncash compensation such as employer-provided health insurance and pension contributions. It left out Social Security payments, Medicare and Medicaid benefits, and more than 100 other means-tested government programs. Realized capital gains were included, but not the first $500,000 from the sale of one’s home, which is tax-exempt. IRAs and 401(k)s were counted only when the money is taken out in retirement. Finally, the Piketty-Saez data are based on individual tax returns, which ignore, for any given household, the presence of multiple earners.
And now, thanks to a new study in the Southern Economic Journal, we know what the picture looks like when the missing data are filled in. Economists Philip Armour and Richard V. Burkhauser of Cornell University and Jeff Larrimore of Congress’s Joint Committee on Taxation expanded the Piketty-Saez income measure using census data to account for all public and private in-kind benefits, taxes, Social Security payments and household size.
The result is dramatic. The bottom quintile of Americans experienced a 31% increase in income from 1979 to 2007 instead of a 33% decline that is found using a Piketty-Saez market-income measure alone. The income of the second quintile, often referred to as the working class, rose by 32%, not 0.7%. The income of the middle quintile, America’s middle class, increased by 37%, not 2.2%.
By omitting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, the Piketty-Saez study renders most older Americans poor when in reality most have above-average incomes. The exclusion of benefits like employer-provided health insurance, retirement benefits (except when actually paid out in retirement) and capital gains on homes misses much of the income and wealth of middle- and upper-middle income families.
Far too often progressive policies are based on very distorted data; sometimes from ignorance and sometimes from malice. The media does a piss poor job of objectively analyzing such data because it fits the story they want to tell; truth be damned.