from Why Piketty’s Wealth Data Are Worthless by Alan Reynolds in The WSJ:
Tax reporting. Tax laws were changed from 1981 to 1997 to require that more capital income of high-income taxpayers be reported on individual returns, while excluding most capital income of middle-income savers and homeowners. This skews any purported increase in the inequality of wealth.
For example, interest income from tax-exempt municipal bonds was unreported before 1987—so the subsequent reporting of income created an illusory increase in top incomes and wealth. Since 1997, by contrast, most capital gains on home sales have disappeared from the tax returns of middle-income couples, thanks to a $500,000 tax exemption. And since the mid-1980s, most capital income and capital gains of middle-income savers began to vanish from tax returns by migrating into IRAs, 401(k)s and other retirement and college savings plans.
Balances in private retirement plans rose to $12.4 trillion in 2012 from $875 billion in 1984. Much of that hidden savings will gradually begin to show up on tax returns as baby boomers draw them down to live on, but they will then be reported as ordinary income, not capital income.
Tax law changes, in summary, have increased capital income reported at the top and shifted business income from corporate to individual tax returns, while sheltering most capital income of middle-income savers and homeowners. Using reported capital income to estimate changing wealth patterns is hopeless.
Switching from corporate to individual tax returns. When individual tax rates dropped from 70% in 1980 to 28% in 1988, this provoked a massive shift: from retaining private business income inside C-corporations to letting earnings pass through to the owners’ individual tax returns via partnerships, LLCs and Subchapter S corporations. From 1980 to 2007, reports the Congressional Budget Office, “the share of receipts generated by pass-through entities more than doubled over the period—from 14 percent to 38 percent.” Moving capital income from one tax form to another did not mean the wealth of the top 1% increased. It simply moved.
Tax rates and capital gains. There were huge, sustained increases in reported capital gains among the top 1% after the capital-gains tax was reduced to 20% from 28% in 1997, and when it was further reduced to 15% in 2003. Although more frequent asset sales showed up as an increase in capital income, realized gains are no more valuable than unrealized gains so realization of gains tells us almost nothing about wealth. Similarly, a portfolio shift from municipal bonds, coins or cash into dividend-paying stocks after the tax on dividends fell to 15% in 2003 might look like more capital income when it was merely swapping an untaxed asset for a taxable one.
Much of this has been reported in the blog previously. Piketty’s work is so flawed that it is amazing that such credentialism is tolerated by the profession. I remains disappointed, but not surprised , that the major media has spent no effort to voice any of the criticism the work merits so much.
My Piketty comments in American Thinker, Everything that Counts.