Inequality, moral and immoral

One point about inequality protects the right to get rich by creating social wealth. If Walmart perfects its operations until the customer pays the lowest retail price ever, then Sam Walton becomes ethically unequal. Simply because he destroyed a real waste and pocketed a fraction of the resources saved.

Attitudes to redistribution are based on the same idea of honestly earned fortunes, in contrast to expropriation via taxes. The opposite is the story about exploitation by the elites. Again, assuming that wage earners have their “fair” contribution mismatching actual wages.

The relationship between “real contribution” and “reward,” whether wages or profits, is the central point in the debates about inequality. But at the same time, it’s the weakest one. A “real contribution” is impossible to calculate in a modern economy.

It’s customary to take the market value of a company as a proxy for this company’s contribution to the economy. Owners and managers running the company can make the company more expensive or less, and that would be their contribution.

Take Facebook, which did a decent job in improving personal communications. Its $200 bn. market value may be its gift to society. However, this value is not the net contribution. People contacted each other before Facebook. The means were different. They paid more to AT&T for phone calls and texting. AT&T had a higher market price, which was considered its contribution to society.

Facebook offered something better and took over AT&T’s clients, meanwhile capturing some of AT&T’s market value. The Facebook market cap contains both newly created value and the value that existed before its inception.

But maybe Facebook created more value than its current market cap. The market cap reflects a company’s expected private cash flow. And the private cash flow is what remains after customers got their services. It’s possible that users got much more from Facebook, while Facebook itself charged them a little amount. (Yeah, technically, the network is free, but users pay for it with higher retail prices of products advertised on FB.)

The story about individual wealth gets even more complex. Earnings by owners and top management rise and fall after the stock market. The stock market consists of thousands of entangled stories like that of Facebook, and the traces of “individual contributions” are lost in deals between individuals, financial institutions, and governments. The sames goes for the averages.

You can’t make a plausible case about “fair” or “unfair” inequality out of the get-what-you-earned theory. There’s just no fairness to measure.

Macroeconomics Models and Force of Habit

The public rightly questioned macroeconomics and academic finance after the 2008 burst. Record housing prices and debt, both relative to income, look a plausible cause for concern and they are. Why, then no one prevented it?
The design of the markets discourages companies from being overly cautious. Banks didn’t quit inflated housing markets because these markets were still inflating. Profits reinforce participation.
The designers of the markets had got obvious signals too late to avoid consequences. And very few wanted to be the person who bursts balloons with a needle at a birthday party anyway. Governments and central banks waited for problems to come first.
Many more versions exist. But none of them can explain the bubble with lack of knowledge alone. People in finance see housing prices every day, and high ratios are quite telling, apart from answering the question, “When will this trend end?”
Designers and players played by the rules, and they certainly had selfish incentives. Academia was relatively free of these rules and incentives. Did macroeconomists have selfish incentives to find a bubble, instead?
Yes and no. You will barely find a major university economist who likes forecasting. Because sometimes the predictions come true. Thus, sometimes they don’t. Economists prefer discussing things that have happened already. And they do it unhurriedly. Operative policy interventions are unlikely in the environment where even publishing an academic paper takes up to several years.
More so, it’s difficult to find a serious academic paper that includes policy recommendations. Scholars explain things that have occurred. Policymakers can use these insights to forecast. By 2008, policymakers had models. Were these models good? They happened to have specific limitations. But even bankers had incentives to use the best models they might get to quit the housing market in time.
There’re no obstacles to adopting models with better predicting power. Then, maybe policymakers did use the best models they had? Rather, they used the most reliable equations: the ones that they understand and used for years. And DSGE models won over various alternatives, including those by heterodox economists, who offered equations that predicted the crisis.
A theory that predicts one-in-fifty-years events is not trusted because it can hardly earn a reputation of a reliable one. No, the theory itself may be predictive and great, but it lacks an empirical base to show its fitness. That makes this theory and underlying models an unlikely candidate for widespread use.
Macroeconomics is responsible for not knowing enough in the sense of biologists who don’t know how to cure cancer. There’re wrong turns and no malicious incentives. Right turns require outstanding efforts and time. Including time for gathering unique data, like the data that came from the terrible Great Recession. Bad theories still can be the best, until we have more evidences. Economics works when we recognize limitations of previous theories and try to build better ones.