Piketty on “the illusion of marginal productivity”


in Economics, Politics

Let me now return to the explosion of wage inequality in the United States (and to a lesser extent Britain and Canada) after 1970. As noted, the theory of marginal productivity and of the race between technology and education is not very convincing: the explosion of compensation has been highly concentrated in the top centile (or even the top thousandth) of the wage distribution and has affected some countries while sparing others (Japan and continental Europe are thus far much less affected than the United States), even though one would expect technological change to have altered the whole top end of the skill distribution in a more continuous way and to have worked its effects in all countries at a similar level of development. The fact that income inequality in the United States in 2000–2010 attained a level higher than that observed in the poor and emerging countries at various times in the past — for example, higher than in India or South Africa in 1920–1930, 1960–1970, and 2000–2010 — also casts doubt on any explanation based solely on objective inequalities of productivity. Is it really the case that inequality of individual skills and productivities is greater in the United States today than in the half-illiterate India of the recent past (or even today) or in apartheid (or postapartheid) South Africa? If that were the case, it would be bad news for US educational institutions, which surely need to be improved and made more accessible but probably do not deserve such extravagant blame.

Piketty, Thomas (Translated by Arthur Goldhammer). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. 2014. p. 330 (hardcover)

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

. May 30, 2015 at 7:21 pm

“To my mind, the most convincing explanation for the explosion of the very top US incomes is the following. As noted, the vast majority of top earners are senior managers of large firms. It is rather naïve to seek an objective basis for their high salaries in individual “productivity.” When a job is replicable, as in the case of an assembly-line worker or fast-food server, we can give an approximate estimate of the “marginal product” that would be realized by adding one additional worker or waiter (albeit with a considerable margin of error in our estimate). But when an individual’s job functions are unique, or nearly so, then the margin of error is much greater. Indeed, once we introduce the hypothesis of imperfect information into standard economic models (eminently justifiable in this context), the very notion of “individual marginal productivity” becomes hard to define. In fact, it becomes something close to a pure ideological construct on the basis of which a justification for higher status can be elaborated.”

p. 330-1

. July 27, 2016 at 2:00 pm

In Are CEOs paid for performance? Evaluating the Effectiveness of Equity Incentives, a new study from MSCI, researchers compared the salaries of 800 US CEOs of large and medium-sized companies to the returns to their shareholders during their tenure.

They found that high CEO pay did not correlate with higher returns, and that the lowest-paid CEOs “more consistently displayed higher long-term investment returns” and that “The highest paid had the worst performance by a significant margin.”


. July 27, 2016 at 2:00 pm
. December 15, 2018 at 7:33 pm

Chief executives win the pay lottery
A buoyant stockmarket, more than skill, has enriched bosses

In other words, it is not obvious that ceos in America and Britain are raking it in because they are uniquely skilled. Moreover, their stock-option paydays have been driven in part by declines in interest rates, designed to boost the whole economy. Bosses have won the monetary lottery.

In a new book*, Deborah Hargreaves, a former journalist (and ex-colleague of Bartleby), describes the experience in Britain. Pay has outstripped improvements in corporate performance. Between 2000 and 2013, the pay of chief executives at ftse 350 companies in Britain rose by 350%, while pre-tax profits rose by 195% and revenues by 140%.

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