Jonah Goldberg writes Mr. Piketty’s Big Book of Marxiness in the July issue of Commentary.
The most common and strongest complaint is that Piketty’s arrangement of the data paints a false picture of rising inequality in the United States. Harvard’s Martin Feldstein noted in the Wall Street Journal that Piketty fails to take into account important—albeit arcane—changes in the tax code that have caused business income to be counted on personal tax returns. “This transformation occurred gradually over many years as taxpayers changed their behavior and their accounting practices to reflect the new rules,” Feldstein writes. As an example, “the business income of Subchapter S corporations alone rose from $500 billion in 1986 to $1.8 trillion by 1992.” This leads Feldstein to conclude that Piketty “creates the false impression of a sharp rise in the incomes of high-income taxpayers even though there was only a change in the legal form of that income.”
Feldstein and Scott Winship, of the Manhattan Institute, identify another methodological problem. By focusing on tax returns (instead of household surveys and the like), Piketty fails to take into account the already sizable redistributive elements of our tax code. One in three Americans receives some means-tested government aid today. And that percentage will only grow as people live longer in retirement than ever before. In other words, social security, housing assistance, food aid, etc. don’t show up in Piketty’s portrait of inequality. Winship also notes that his method lumps together many young workers who might live at home and spouses who work only part time. Perhaps more significant, in Piketty’s data, capital gains are registered as a one-time windfall. In other words, if you buy shares in a mutual fund and you hold onto that asset for 25 years, the gains you realize when you sell are counted as income in a single year. But in fact, they’ve been earned over a quarter century. And by “excluding non-taxable capital gains,” Winship wrote in National Review,“most wealth accruing to the middle and working class, which comes in the form of home sales or 401(k) and IRA investments, is invisible in Piketty’s data.”
As it turns out wealth is not so objective to measure, but Piketty and others who wish to make a political play by overemphasizing inequality can easily distort the picture to suit their agenda by ignoring changes in the tax law, the capital gains on home sales, transfer payments and taxes. Perhaps this is why inequality is not seen as such a critical issue by most voters.