Jonah Goldberg writes Mr. Piketty’s Big Book of Marxiness in the July issue of Commentary.
Homburg, the American Enterprise Institute’s Kevin Hassett, and a team at the Sciences Po in Paris, moreover, argue that the recent widening of the wealth-to-income gap in the United States that Piketty reports is largely a function of a housing boom in the past 30 years. This fact complicates the story. The housing boom has benefited rich people, to be sure, but it has also been fueled by a massive expansion of home ownership among not only the wealthy but also the middle and lower classes (though not in proportion to gains by the wealthy). “The largest single component of capital in the United States is owner-occupied housing,” notes the liberal economist Lawrence Summers in his review of the book for Democracy. “Its return comes in the form of the services enjoyed by the owners—what economists call ‘imputed rent’—which are all consumed rather than reinvested since they do not take a financial form.”
Also, housing booms cannot go on forever. If you exclude housing from other forms of wealth or capital (Piketty explicitly uses the terms interchangeably), these economists argue, the return on capital is less robust. “In the U.S.,” the Sciences Po economists write, “the net capital income ratio of housing capital was the same in 1770 as it was in 2010 and there is neither a long run trend nor a recent increase of this ratio.” They add: “This type of situation, where a small share of the population owns most of the housing capital, appears to be far from the current situation of developed countries, where the homeownership rate varies between 40 percent and 70 percent. The diffusion of homeownership is likely to slow or even reverse the rise of inequality regardless of trends in housing prices.” Ultimately, the Sciences Po economists found that their conclusions about inequality in recent years “are exactly opposite to those found by Thomas Piketty.”
The exclusion of housing, a major source of wealth for middle income America distorts the data. It is further distorted by the exclusion of tax exempt capital gains on the sale of housing.