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Sábado, 16 de enero de 2016
Let me back up a bit. There are, broadly speaking, two kinds of income distribution analysis you might want to conduct. One involves the factor distribution of income – capital versus labor, and highly educated versus less educated labor. Economists never lost sight of this issue, which is a classic concern – it’s actually a major theme in David Ricardo’s work, and can be modeled in terms of good old marginal productivity theory. In my original field of study, trade, debates about the effects of trade on the education premium were a major concern all through the 1990s.
The other analysis involves the personal distribution of income and wealth. Why are investment bankers paid so much? Why did the gap between chief executives and the average worker widen so dramatically after 1980?
And here’s the thing: We really don’t know how to model personal income distribution – at best we have some semiplausible ad hoc stories. Part of why the economist Thomas Piketty made such a big splash a few years ago was that he offered a sketch of a model of wealth inequality that tied it to broader macroeconomic numbers, which gave all of us something systematic to talk about. But Mr. Piketty himself concedes that the big rise in inequality so far has come from a surge in the right tail of earnings, which may have had something to do with norms, but in any case isn’t well explained by any model we have right now.
It’s worth noting that we’re not just talking about a problem involving Anglo-Saxon neoclassical economists. Nobody has a good handle on personal distribution. Marx, for example, is all about factor distribution – his book is titled “Capital,” not “The 1%” – and there’s nothing there that helps make sense of the past 30 years.
But, you may say, shouldn’t you study important issues even if you don’t have neat models? Well, yes, but the ability to say something interesting does affect research topics, and that’s only justified up to a point. Remember Raymond Chandler’s 1950 essay “The Simple Art of Murder”: “Other things being equal, which they never are, a more powerful theme will provoke a more powerful performance. Yet some very dull books have been written about God, and some very fine ones about how to make a living and stay fairly honest.”
True, at this point, economists are doing much more work on personal income distribution; mainly it’s empirical, part of the data revolution in the field. And that’s a good thing. But they have a better excuse than you might think for not doing more of this earlier.