Wednesday, July 30, 2014
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Deserti ingiusti

BERKELEY – La migliore recensione di Il capitale nel XXI secolo di Thomas Piketty che ho letto sinora è quella pubblicata dal mio amico e spesso co-autore Lawrence Summers in Democracy Journal di Michael Tomasky. Mi accingo a leggere il resto ora.

Ancora qui? Non hai voglia di leggere 5.000 parole? Sarebbe tempo ben speso, te lo garantisco. Ma se sei ancora qui, non ti offrirò né una sinopsi né una sintesi, quanto piuttosto un breve approfondimento di un’informazione minore, di un inciso della recensione di Summers sulla filosofia morale.

“Ci sarebbe molto da criticare negli esistenti accordi sulla governance societaria”, scrive Summers. “Penso, tuttavia, che quelli come Piketty che rifiutano l’idea secondo cui la produttività non ha nulla a che fare con i compensi dovrebbero farci riflettere”. Perché? “I dirigenti che guadagnano di più non stanno ...gestendo società pubbliche” e “riempiendo i consigli di amministrazione con gli amici”, afferma Summers. Vengono invece “scelti da aziende private per gestire le società che controllano. Non si intende in alcun modo giustificare moralmente gli enormi compensi, ma solamente sollevare una questione sulle forze economiche che li generano”.

Quest’ultima frase sottolinea la nostra discussione di tipo filosofico morale su chi merita ciò che si è lasciato invischiare nella teoria economica sulla produttività marginale della distribuzione dei redditi in un modo sostanzialmente inutile. Supponendo sia davvero vero così, ossia che ci siano decision maker disposti a pagare un’enorme fortuna per assumerti in una transazione effettuata al valore normale di mercato, non perché gli hai fatto dei favori in passato o perché si aspettano dei favori da te in futuro. Secondo Summers, ciò non significa che puoi “guadagnare” o “meritare” la tua fortuna.

Se vinci alla lotteria – e se il primo premio che ricevi è lì che induce gli altri a sovrastimare le loro chance e acquistare i biglietti per la lotteria, e così arricchiscono l’operatore della lotteria – ti “meriti” le tue vincite? Sei felice di essere pagato, e l’operatore della lotteria è felice di pagare te, ma gli altri che hanno acquistato i biglietti della lotteria non sono felici – o forse non sarebbero felici se la parte migliore di loro stessi avesse capito quali fossero davvero le loro chance e in che modo la tua vincita fosse ben calibrata per fuorviarli.

Sei forse obbligato a passare la tua vita dopo la vittoria dicendo a chiunque che ciò che avrebbero dovuto fare è mettere il denaro che spendono nei biglietti per la lotteria in un conto pensionistico fiscalmente privilegiato, dove, invece di pagare per il privilegio di scommettere, stanno di fatto guadagnando il 5% l’anno? Sei forse come il Vecchio marinaio di Coleridge moralmente obbligato a raccontare la tua storia a chiunque incontri?

Io direi di sì. E direi che lo stesso vale più in generale per ciò che genera disuguaglianza e che noi economisti chiamiamo “concorsi”. I concorsi sembrano rivelarsi dei buoni meccanismi di incentivo: offrono pochi grandi premi e molte persone abboccano per tentare la fortuna. Ma considerata l’avversione ai rischi da parte dell’uomo, l’unico motivo ragionevole per organizzare un concorso è che impone distorsioni cognitive sul tipico partecipante. Tu, l’organizzatore, li stai danneggiando – ovvero, stai pregiudicando la loro parte migliore più razionale – alimentando delle distorsioni; o almeno ti stai rendendo complice delle loro autolesioni (perché loro, in quanto partecipanti alla lotteria, stanno facendo una libera scelta).

Ma c’è di più. Supponiamo che, in qualche modo, sei pagato per il tuo prodotto marginale genuino fornito alla società. Il fatto di essere abbastanza fortunato da essere nella posizione di estrarre il tuo prodotto marginale è una questione di fortuna. Altri non sono così fortunati. Altri pensano che la loro capacità contrattuale sia limitata – forse a ciò che potrebbe essere il loro standard di vita se si trasferissero nello Yukon e vivessero la terra. Ti meriti la tua fortuna? Per definizione, no: nessuno si merita la fortuna. E cosa devi a chi sarebbe nella posizione di ottenere ciò si merita se non fossi stato abbastanza fortunato per arrivare lì per primo?

E, ovviamente, in che senso il fatto che vivi nel giusto ambiente rende te e le tue competenze altamente produttive nell’economia di oggi? In che modo, esattamente, hai scelto di nascere da genitori “giusti”? Perché, alla fine, i tuoi risultati favorevoli non sono il prodotto di una pura fortuna immeritata?

Ci sarebbe una discussione molto più chiara sui temi della disuguaglianza e distribuzione se solo considerassimo il benessere dell’uomo e alcuni incentivi utili. Il resto è ideologia meritocratica; e come suggerisce il libro di Piketty, questa ideologia potrebbe ora aver fatto il suo corso.

Traduzione di Simona Polverino

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  1. CommentedG. A. Pakela

    If meritocracy is an ideology, how then do you explain your apparent success in your chosen field, success that most academic and government economists would die for? Our whole society is built upon voluntary exchange and what people are willing to pay for goods and services. While it may not be easy or even possible to measure the marginal productivity of say, and administrator, we certainly know how much it costs to procure that individual. Somehow I can't imagine leaving that decision up to Harry Reid.

  2. CommentedPaul Daley

    The problem here is that DeLong attributes inequality to the "tournament" structure of the economy, while Piketty attributes it to returns on capital that have consistently exceeded growth, producing a "patrimonial capitalism," The returns are delinked from merit in either case but Piketty presents far more evidence for his view. Moreover, Summers and DeLong imply that if you're dissatisfied with the results of one tournament all you need do is wait for the next role of the dice. Piketty presents a more "actionable" alternative that flows naturally from his research.

  3. CommentedDavid Beard

    I would echo the William Pu: Who deserves what? I do not see Mr. J. Bradford Delong questioning does he deserve an economics job at UC, nor does he question the financial gains of Mr. Piketty's book sales nor the substantial royalty stream enjoyed by Ms. Jessica Simpson from her apparel sales...who does truly deserve what?

  4. CommentedYoshimichi Moriyama

    I cannot judge Piketty's book as I do not have knowledge enough. but whether Piketty's book is perfect or has any flaws in it will be to a large extent irrelevant. Suppose our market is perfectly flat; everyone is equal in it, starting from the same place at the same time; the result at the finish line is that one per cent is wealthy and ninety-nine poor. Such a society will not be a good society and able to sustain itself in the long run.

    "All types of societies are limited by economic factors. Nineteenth century civilization alone was economic in a different and distinctive sense, for it chose to base itself on a motive only rarely acknowledged as valid in the history of human societies, and certainly never before raised to the level of a justification of action and behavior in every day life, namely gain. The self-regulating market system was uniquely derived from this principle (Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation.)" Every society except our own has had rules and regulations which impinged on and hampered unlimited and unfettered
    economic activities. Focusing on greed is endangering our civilized way of life.

    Economics tells us what would be the least costly or most productive way of flying from Tokyo to New York. It tells us not to make stopovers at Honolulu and Mexico City. This part of economics is science. But it does not tell us why we should go to New York and not to Washington D.C. It does not tell us why we should not make stopovers if we wanted to.

  5. CommentedWilliam Pu

    "Who deserves what?"
    What your gunpoint will bear or what the "market" will bear is THE answer. Everything else is just talk.

    Global trade did not start after nations signed agreements. Global trade started with gunboat diplomacy. The "backlash"? W/o gunboat trades have been more fair. Well, pick your poison. Fair trade or isolation. But, gunboat has been replaced by drones. Effective or not? We'll see.

  6. CommentedMounik Lahiri

    Found it to be a very sketchy critique, ridden with logical fallacies on the construction of an absolutist definition of luck. The argument should just be very simple. Inequality that gives hope is an incentive for progress and inequality that kills hope is an incentive to remain in status quo and a barrier for upward social mobility. Institutions and individuals who govern and design them, by and large, need to understand therefore the limits of the ability of inequality to incentivise performance and how it does the reverse, in many a situation. Also philosophers and economists need to improve the understanding of inequality in clearly actionable terms rather than making complex arguments, with a dash of ethics and morality thrown in, for their own cognitive kicks.

  7. CommentedProcyon Mukherjee

    Sometimes the obvious is shrouded in the mysterious argument that the obscure would find wanting in rationality; that inequality of wealth has been brewing under our nose facilitated by all means by the systems and structures of the market forces is now being questioned by the same wisdom that made all the allowances that led to its thriving growth prospects.

    Should not the wisdom be diverted towards the bottom 90% and how their income could be raised? It need not be that the solutions prescribed by Piketty is the only consideration, he himself has been modest to say that his way of looking at the problem and the solution is just one of the many ways that existed, he wrote in response to FT, “The main message coming from my book is not that there should always be a deterministic trend toward ever rising inequality (I do not believe in this); the main message is that we need more democratic transparency about wealth dynamics, so that we are able to adjust our institutions and policies to whatever we observe.”

  8. CommentedJohn Stevens

    Dear Prof. DeLong,
    I fully agree with your insights about Mr. Picketty's book contributing to raising the debate on moral philosophy and meritocracy. "Capital in the 21st Century" is indeed triggering global debates on a number of conveniently forgotten issues. Of all the reviews I have read so far about Picketty's master piece, Lawrence Summers is a indeed must. I would include here Robert Shiller's (which is available in this site) and a brilliant post written by Manuel Gomes Samuel linking high labor income concentration to office and factory automation (available at:
    http://www.prospectivemanagement.net/?p=206).

  9. CommentedGerry Hofman

    Delong is obviously keen that no limits will be imposed to the levels of wealth that one can achieve, ever. His argument that the wealthy are simply'lucky' but should not be judged on that, because nobody deserves to be 'lucky', sounds rather hollow. The fact that wealth is worshipped like a god in this society does not mean that it's right for the system to be set up to compel everybody to gamble to get somewhere in life. In a just system there would be limits to wealth and limits to poverty, but this social order can and will not impose such limits. The idea that the ideology of wealth has run its course is just pathetic. This story is certain not to end here, and you may yet have your 'just dessert' served up to you.

  10. CommentedCris Perdue

    To put it in another way, how about emphasizing values and vision for our world and human relationships in discussions about economics and inequality?

      CommentedZsolt Hermann

      Thank you for your refreshing comment, I fully agree with you.

      Most of the times it seems we are completely lost in the jungle of markets, GPDs, yearly growth figures, completely forgetting we are human beings after all not primarily producers and consumers.

      This whole discussion about economics, inequality, growth, financial institutions is useless in itself.
      We have completely lost sight of the purpose of our lives and the intention we should be acting with.

      A human being is not born in order to continuously gain possession, to gain profit, to measure one's worth in material wealth or in one's dominion above others. Production and consumption should be simply providing our necessities for a comfortable and natural human life.

      Human beings are social creatures and our contentment, health has to be measures in the quantity and quality of human interconnections we build with each other, and in with what intention we create those connections.

      Europe is one of the best examples of the misunderstanding, they on paper created a Union, an interconnection but only in order to facilitate markets and financial flows, in order to gather even more profit. And as a result it fails since the intention was wrong.

      And the ruthlessly competitive business mentality, the success at the expense of others brings wars, social inequality and global crisis, not to mention the depletion of human and natural resources.

      Without the right connections, without the right intention behind those connections, without mutually cooperating with each other humanity has simply no right to evolve further, we have no future.

      Our crisis is much deeper than a "simple economical or financial crisis".
      We are in a "human crisis", and the only solution is to return to the values that make us human.

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