Thursday, August 21, 2014
10

Desiertos injustos

BERKELEY – La mejor crítica del libro Capital in the Twenty-First Century de Thomas Piketty que he leído hasta ahora es la que publicó mi amigo y co-autor frecuente Lawrence Summers en Democracy Journal de Michael Tomasky. Vaya y lea ese texto de inmediato.

¿Todavía está ahí? ¿Qué quiere decir, que no está dispuesto a leer 5.000 palabras? Sería un tiempo bien invertido, se lo aseguro. Pero si todavía está ahí, no le voy a ofrecer una sinopsis ni le voy a revelar las partes más destacadas. Más bien, les voy a ampliar brevemente una información aclaratoria muy pequeña y menor, un aparte en la crítica de Summers sobre filosofía moral.

"Hay mucho de criticable en los acuerdos existentes entre las corporaciones y el gobierno", escribe Summers. "Sin embargo, creo que a la gente como Piketty que desestima la idea de que la productividad tenga algo que ver con la compensación habría que darle un tiempo para recapacitar". ¿Por qué? "Los ejecutivos que ganan más dinero no están… dirigiendo compañías públicas" y "llenando los directorios de amigos", dice Summers. Por el contrario, son "elegidos por firmas de capital privado para dirigir las compañías que controlan. Esto no implica de ninguna manera justificar desde un punto de vista ético una compensación exorbitante -sólo se trata de plantear un interrogante sobre las fuerzas económicas que la generan".

Esta última oración indica que nuestra discusión filosófico-moral sobre quién merece qué se ha entremezclado con la economía de la teoría de la productividad marginal de la distribución de ingresos de una manera esencialmente inútil. Supongamos que efectivamente haya ejecutivos dispuestos a pagar toda una fortuna para contratarlo en una transacción verdaderamente fuera de su alcance, no porque usted les haya otorgado favores en el pasado o porque esperen favores de usted en el futuro. Eso, dice Summers, de ninguna manera significa que usted "se gane" o "merezca" esa suerte.

Si usted gana la lotería -y si el objetivo del gran premio que usted recibe es el de inducir a otros a sobreestimar sus posibilidades y comprar billetes de lotería y así enriquecer al operador de la lotería-, ¿usted "merece" acaso el premio? A usted lo pone contento que le paguen y el operador de la lotería está contento de pagarle, pero los demás que compraron los billetes de lotería no están contentos -o, quizá, no estarían contentos si entendieran cuáles eran en verdad sus chances de ganar y que su triunfo estaba destinado a engañarlos.

¿Tiene usted la obligación de pasar su vida post-victoria diciéndole a todo el mundo que lo que deberían hacer es poner el dinero que gastan en billetes de lotería en una cuenta de retiro con una alta inversión en acciones y con beneficios impositivos, por medio de lo cual, en lugar de pagar a la casa por el privilegio de apostar, ellos son la casa y ganan un 5% anual? ¿Está moralmente obligado, como el Antiguo Marinero de Coleridge, a contarle su historia a todo aquel con el que se cruza?

Yo diría que sí está obligado. Y diría que lo mismo se aplica en términos más generales a los generadores de desigualdad a los que nosotros los economistas llamamos "torneos". Parece ser que los torneos son buenos mecanismos de incentivo: si se ofrecen unos pocos premios grandes, mucha gente correrá a probar su suerte. Pero, dada la aversión humana al riesgo, la única razón sensata para organizar un torneo es que impone distorsiones cognitivas al participante típico. Usted, el organizador, los está perjudicando -es decir, a sus mejores exponentes y los más racionales- al alimentar sus distorsiones; como mínimo, usted está favoreciendo e incitando su autolesión (ya que ellos, como los participantes de la lotería, están haciendo una libre elección).

Pero hay más. Supongamos que, de alguna manera, a usted le pagan por su producto marginal genuino a la sociedad. El hecho de que usted sea lo suficientemente afortunado como para extraer su producto marginal es, digamos, una cuestión de suerte. Otros no son tan afortunados. Otros encuentran que su poder de negociación es limitado -tal vez a lo que sería su estándar de vida si se mudaran al Yukón y vivieran de la tierra-. ¿Usted merece su suerte? Por definición, no: nadie merece la suerte. ¿Y qué les debe a quienes estarían en condiciones de obtener lo que merecen si usted no hubiera sido tan afortunado de llegar primero?

Y, por supuesto, ¿en qué sentido usted es el responsable de vivir en el ambiente correcto para que usted y sus habilidades sean altamente productivas en la economía de hoy? ¿De qué manera, exactamente, usted eligió ser el hijo de los padres "correctos"? ¿Por qué, al final de cuentas, sus resultados favorables no son producto de la suerte, pura e inmerecida?

Tendríamos una discusión mucho más clara sobre cuestiones vinculadas a la desigualdad y la distribución si, simplemente, nos atuviéramos a consideraciones respecto del bienestar humano y los incentivos útiles. El resto es ideología meritocrática; y, como sugiere la recepción del libro de Piketty, esa ideología tal vez ya haya seguido su curso.

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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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