Inequality By Design: It's Not Just Talent and Hard Work

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Saturday, 15 February 2014 14:54

Greg Mankiw is out there defending the 1 percent again. He put forward the argument that the big bucks are simply their just desserts; the rewards for exceptional skill and hard work.

His opening act is Robert Downey Jr. who apparently got $50 million for his starring role in a single movie. This is a great place to start. There's no doubt that Robert Downey is an extremely talented actor, but of course there have been many actors over the years who have put in great performances for much less money. How is it that Downey could earn so much more than a great actor from the 50s, 60s, or 70s?

We could give a simple answer and say something like globalization and technology, but that would be at best half right. Certainly many more people will be able to see the films that Downey acts in than would have had the opportunity to see the stars from a half century ago, but that doesn't mean that Downey would get money from the broader exposure. In fact, a big part of the reason that Downey can collect huge paychecks is the extension and strengthening of copyrights. The United States has lengthened the period of copyrights from 28 years, with an option for a 28 year renewal, to 75 years in the 1976, and then to 95 years in 1998. 

It also has stepped up copyright enforcement, imposing stiff fines on people who use the Internet to make unauthorized copies of copyrighted material. This is important, since the technology itself would let everyone quickly see Robert Downey Jr.'s new movies at no cost. It is only because of government intervention in the form of copyright monopolies that he is able to collect $50 million.

It is also worth noting that this intervention also has an indirect effect. If there was a large amount of high quality and recent material that everyone could obtain for free on the web (and show in theaters if they like), then no one would be willing to pay big bucks to see Downey's latest feature. So is Downey worth his $50 million, perhaps given the structure we have, but we could easily have a different structure which could quite possibly be a more efficient way to support and distribute creative work. (Here's my scheme.) FWIW, a similar story would apply to the writers and athletes in Mankiw's 1 percent defense.

Then we get to the CEOs who Mankiw tells us get high pay because of what they contribute to their companies and the economy. If this is the case, how do we explain CEO's of companies like Lehman, Bear Stearns, and AIG walking away with hundreds of millions of dollars even though they drove their firms into bankruptcy? When the CEO of Exxon-Mobil gets hundreds of millions because soaring worldwide oil prices sent Exxon's profits through the roof, do we really think the pay is a function of hard work? How do we explain the fact that CEOs of incredibly successful companies in Europe, Japan, and South Korea make on average around a tenth as much as our crew does?

That one doesn't seem to fit the just desserts story. The more likely explanation is the Pay Pals story, where the company's board of directors are paid off by CEOs to look the other way as they pilfer the company.  (See CEPR's new Director Watch, which will feature your favorite directors in the months and years ahead.) Unlike the case in Europe, Japan, and South Korea, there is no force to effectively limit the CEO's pay. Needless to say, the directors never ask if they could get a comparably skilled CEO for less money from Germany, Japan, or China.

And then there is the financial sector where Mankiw tells us that the extraordinary pay is compensation for the volatility of paychecks. That's interesting, except the vast majority of comparably talented and hardworking people would be happy to get the pay the finance folks get in the bad years. Much of the big money on Wall Street stems from highly leveraged bets that beat the market by seconds or even milliseconds. This provides as much value to the economy as insider trading, which it in fact resembles closely.

It would be interesting to see what would happen to the big fortunes in the financial sector if it had to pay a small transaction fee, effectively subjecting it to the same sort of sales tax that is paid in almost every other sector of the economy. It would also be interesting to see what would happen to the private equity folks if they lost the opportunity for the tax gaming that is their bread and butter.

I could go on (read my non-copyright protected book on the topic), but the point should be clear. If the 1 percent are able to extract vast sums from the economy it is because we have structured the economy for this purpose. It could easily be structured differently, but the 1 percent and its defenders aren't interested in changing things. And the 1 percent and its defenders have a great deal of influence on the direction of economic policy.