Brett Romero

Data Inspired Insights

Tag: politics

The Darker Side of Meritocracy

Meritocracy. An ideal world where everyone is rewarded based on his or her individual qualities. The intelligent and the hardworking become the rock stars, the lazy and ignorant are doomed to a life of mediocrity. But would a true meritocracy be as idyllic as it sounds?

As was covered in Part I, there are a number of problems with defining and identifying merit. In Part II, we are going to overlook these issues and imagine what a real meritocracy might look like, and why, despite what they might say, the vast majority of people actively undermine meritocracy on a regular basis.

What Would a True Meritocracy Look Like?

Assuming we have some agreed upon way to define and identify merit, what would a true meritocracy look like? For a pure meritocracy (i.e. one in which the success of a given person is solely determined by their own actions and intelligence) to exist, each individual’s merit needs to be determined solely by his or her own individual quality.

The problem with this is, in the real world, parents have a huge influence on a child’s chances of success. This influence comes in an infinite number of forms, but includes intangible things like advice, help with homework, introductions to influential people, and being a positive role model, as well as tangible resources such as money and access to the best schools.

If parents have such a large influence on the success (or failure) of their children, how can a true meritocracy exist? Realistically, to achieve a true meritocracy, the government (or some independent body) needs to equalize parents’ influence on their child.

This equalization can take two forms. The first form is providing resources and assistance to less well off parents to try bring them up to level of parents in the upper classes. This typically includes things like welfare payments, subsidized/free health care and housing assistance, but also includes scholarships and other programs offered to help disadvantaged kids.

The second form of equalization is typically more controversial and involves reducing the ability of upper class parents to provide advantages to their children. These types of measures are far more rare, but they do exist – policies such as inheritances taxes and the removal or restriction of private schools[1] are two examples.

The reason this second type of measure is so rare is because it starts to reveal the underlying tradeoff. The tradeoff being that ensuring everyone gets the same quality upbringing means that, for some children, the quality of their upbringing has to decrease.

But even if we were willing to accept more extreme policies, they can only realistically go so far. No government can legislate to ensure every child is read to at night, and nor can they implement a ban on reading to children to make sure no child gets an advantage. No government can legislate away deadbeat Dads or Moms that get drunk in front of the kids. Which means that if you are going to create a true meritocracy, there is only really one option – take the parents out of the picture completely. This is where things start to get a little scary.

To guarantee every child receives the exact same upbringing and education, the government (or some independent body) would need to remove parents from their children’s lives. This could take various forms. A Logan’s Run style scenario where everyone is ‘terminated’ at age 30 – essentially creating a nation of orphans is one potential option. Another would be taking children at birth and raising them in industrial scale nurseries and boarding schools out of reach of parents, somewhat akin to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (without the presence of castes or the extreme social conditioning).

There a numerous ways that one can envisage removing a parents’ influence from their children, but the difficulty is imagining one that does not sound like a good premise for a movie about a dystopian future. In fact, the options are so unappealing that even the most repressive and extreme regimes in history have shied away from this kind of intervention.

If this is what a society would need to do to implement a true meritocracy, are there at least some upsides?

A Fairer System?

One of the key arguments made for meritocracy is that it is a ‘fairer’ system. But is it fairer (whatever that means), or are we simply replacing one lottery with another?

The current system is one in which your future success is dictated by some combination of who your parents and/or role models are (‘nurture’) and your own individual abilities (‘nature’). A true meritocracy, as we have been describing it, is simply a system in which the ‘nurture’ component has been standardized.

Is that actually fairer though? There will still be winners and losers, but now the people born with a dud genetic hand are probably worse off then in our current less meritocratic world. Unlike the current world we live in, there is no chance that a superior work ethic instilled by charmingly humble parents will get someone ahead. There are no inspiring stories of underdogs beating their better-credentialed rivals through pure determination. Rocky Balboa never even gets to fight against Apollo Creed. In a true meritocracy, the favorite always wins – that is the point of system.

A Better System?

By ensuring that the best and brightest are the ones that rise to the most influential positions, are we at least guaranteeing the fastest possible rate of progress for humanity? The answer to that question depends on how you believe progress is made.

Someone who believes that progress is only really made by rare transformative geniuses, like Einstein and Hawking, should be in favor of a more meritorious society. The risk is that a genius will be born to bad parents or in the wrong country, and as a result, that genius is wasted and substantial progress is forgone. To minimize the risk of this happening, a rational person should be willing to sacrifice certain freedoms (through more government intervention) to make sure that fewer geniuses are ‘wasted’.

On the other hand, if a person believes that progress is made by the cumulative effort of many, many intelligent (but not unique people), they should not be so worried about a true meritocracy. In this case, the loss of some geniuses to bad upbringings and poverty is much less consequential as they will be replaced by other equally or slightly less intelligent people. Maximizing the overall level of child welfare should be the priority, which, to most people, would mean allowing parents to raise their own children as far as possible.

Saying versus Doing

Stepping away from the theoretical, there is a lot that can be learned about people’s preferences in regard to meritocracy by simply looking at their actions in our world today. There is an Italian proverb that I enjoy reciting from time to time to make myself sound intelligent:

“Between saying and doing, many a pair of shoe is worn out”

Aside from the aforementioned reason, I bring this up now because people’s actions often reveal their true preferences much more accurately than their words. This is particularly true when it comes to meritocracy. In my experience, there are few people that do not actively attempt to give themselves (or those they care about) some advantage over others, and even fewer that would not take advantage of an opportunity that was presented to them.

A common example is private schools. These schools, by definition, are unmeritorious. Their business model is that parents will pay money (often large amounts of it) to send their children to a certain school exactly because they believe it will provide their child with an advantage over other children that don’t go to that school. If they did not believe it provided their children with an advantage, no rational parent would pay to send their child there.

Inheritances, giving someone a job because you know them, private tutors, moving to a better (i.e. more expensive) school district, helping out the kids with homework or even reading to them at night are just some of the endless ways that everyone, myself included, undermines a true meritocracy.

Summary

Despite the platitudes and mainstream acceptance, a true meritocracy is not what we really want as a society. Any serious thought on the subject quickly reveals a true meritocracy it is all but impossible to implement, and if implemented, the reality would be a dystopian world worthy of a George Orwell novel.

However, once the realization is made that a true meritocracy is impossible and undesirable, the remaining conclusion is that no one is truly arguing for or against meritocracy, everyone is simply arguing for a different shade of grey. The introduction and removal of various policies simply makes that shade slightly darker or lighter.

This is an important conclusion because it changes the perspective of the argument. There is no right vs. left, haves vs. have nots, good vs. evil. There is just people arguing for incremental changes. Each country, with every election, is simply working out what shade of grey they prefer.

 

[1] Many countries in Europe do not have private school systems, including education pinup nation Finland.

The Dark Side of Meritocracy

In recent years, discussion about economic concepts like inequality and income mobility has been everywhere. Thrust into the spotlight by the global financial crisis, they have rarely left the front pages thanks to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century and a series of rolling financial crises in Europe. These days you can’t even enjoy your artisanal quail egg omelet and fair trade coffee without some bearded, tweed wearing, artisanal whiskey distilling, overgrown trust fund baby complaining about how unfair it all is, in between cashing rent checks from his parents.

When it comes to discussions of inequality though, one of the underlying assumptions that few are willing to challenge is that the drivers of inequality largely boil down to nepotism and inherited wealth, while the answer to most inequality based problems comes down to one idea: meritocracy.

What is a Meritocracy?

Meritocracy is a system in which the people who hold power (through democratically elected means or otherwise) are those that are most deserving based on individual merit. In common use, it is usually taken to be slightly broader than that – a world in which money and success are allocated, perfectly, to those who are deemed to deserve it the most.

In an increasingly polarized political system in the US, meritocracy – or ‘the right to rise’ – is often the only thing that politicians on both sides of the aisle seem to agree on. The ideal of meritocracy is so ingrained in the US that Americans are famous for their belief that hard work will be rewarded with untold wealth and success. But this belief is far from unique to the US. In Australia meritocracy has long been considered part of the national identity with politicians of all stripes often talking in jingoistic terms about ‘the fair go’.

For all the talk of meritocracy though, how feasible is it in the real world? What would be some of the major hurdles to implementing a more meritocratic system?

Defining Merit

The first question that should arise whenever meritocracy is discussed is how is merit defined? There are 4 basic criteria that most commonly are thought of as contributing to merit:

  1. Qualifications
  2. Work ethic
  3. Intelligence
  4. Experience

For almost all competitions where there are winners and losers – jobs, university positions or other – some combination of these traits will generally be used to decide a winner. To keep things simpler, let’s focus on the job market for now.

The first thing to consider when defining merit for a given job is that to have an accurate measure of merit, the criteria need to be modified for every position. Jobs requiring manual labor place a higher value on work ethic but little value on qualifications. Jobs in tech often place higher value on intelligence, but less on formal qualifications and, depending on the role, large amounts of experience can be seen as detrimental. Most jobs will require applicants to possess experience in one or more specific areas.

For the most part, this customization of criteria for each job is already being done – a job advertisement is essentially a statement of the criteria that merit will be assessed by. But the question is, are those criteria actually the correct ones to identify the best possible person for a given job? I believe the answer to that question is a resounding “no”. Let me explain why.

Let’s look at a common example that anyone who has tried changing sector, industry or country in his or her career will be able to relate to.

Imagine you have been working for around 10-15 years and have spent all of that time in one industry[1]. During that time you have picked up a lot of useful workplace skills, spreadsheets, experience with various applications, writing skills, general how-not-to-piss-everyone-off skills and so on. Now you want a new challenge that will require a lot of the skills you have, but in a different industry. You approach a recruiter, bright eyed and excited by the possibilities, but despite your best efforts to sell your skills as relevant, the recruiter basically discards your experience as worthless and tries to push you towards a low level role or something in your old industry.

This experience is a simple example that reveals an underlying truth – if we were being truly meritorious, there could be no fixed criteria for merit for any job because there is no way to preemptively identify what combination of skills and experience will ultimately prove to be the most valuable.

The possibilities for what combination of skills and experience lead to the best performance in a role are endless. Many successful business owners do not have MBAs. Many of the best investors on Wall Street do not come from finance backgrounds. Some of the best NFL punters are ex-Australian Rules Football players. What people who excel tend to have in common is a combination of skills and experiences that allows them to bring a different perspective to a problem.

Yet, despite history proving time[2] and time again[3] that different perspectives are often vital to important insights, it is a rare employer or recruiter that will take a bet on a candidate with ‘unusual experience’ rather than a candidate who ticks all the boxes. The reason for that is simple – it is safer. Choosing the candidate that ticks the boxes provides cover (“I gave you what you asked for”) and it gives a better guarantee of an acceptable level of performance. The unusual candidate could be fantastic – but they could also be a complete flop who turns out to be way out of their depth.

Unfortunately, this is only the first hurdle for a true meritocracy – if merit is a difficult thing to define, it is an even more difficult thing to measure.

Measuring Merit

Once we get past the step of deciding what criteria will determine the most deserving applicant, the next step is deciding who best meets those criteria. A quick look at the application process for college admission or a technical job will give you an instant appreciation for the lengths that people will go to try and get an accurate assessment of an applicant’s true merit.

Tests, interviews and essays are probably the most common tools used to assess merit but all can be (and are) gamed by people who understand the system. Material for tests can be rote learned with little to no understanding necessary. Interviews are notorious for being poor predictors of talent, which makes sense when you consider that the most confident people are often delusional. Essays, aside from providing evidence of basic writing skills, are assessed subjectively.

Even if these tools for assessing merit were designed in such a way as to prevent gaming the system, these are still three very narrow tests of ability. As Megan McArdle explains, the experience in China shows that selecting for people who do well on exams gives you… a selection of people who do well on exams.

Assumptions and Prejudice

One interesting side effect of the difficulty in determining merit is it leads to people basing their assessment on completely superficial qualities (at least partially). A good dress sense, physical attractiveness, and being an eloquent speaker are just some examples of relatively superficial qualities people use to assess intelligence and merit. As frustrating as this can be for the unshapely, poorly dressed, mumblers out there, these are all things that can be improved and worked on (at least to some degree). Others are subject to prejudices that cannot be addressed – the impact of race on the ability to get interviews, for example, is well established.

Another concerning trend is the increasing use of someone’s current level of success/wealth as an indicator of merit. That is, if someone is wealthy and/or successful, they must be someone who is highly intelligent and works harder than everyone else. This line of thinking is dangerous for two reasons:

  1. Too much value is placed on the opinions of wealthy and successful people – particular on topics outside their domain. Anyone who has listened to Clive Palmer or Donald Trump speak should know that is a mistake.
  2. The implicit assumption made when you believe wealthy and successful people are fully deserving of their place in the world is that anyone who is poor and unsuccessful is also fully deserving of their situation.

Evidence of this thinking is present everywhere to some degree, but seems particularly prevalent in the US[4], where TV shows like Shark Tank are extremely popular and prominent CEOs are regularly asked for their opinions on public policy issues.

This belief system can largely be explained as the flip side of the optimistic view American’s have of their economic prospects. As this paper from the Brookings Institution highlights, American’s are far more likely to believe hard work and intelligence will be rewarded and yet are second only to the UK in terms of how closely correlated a son’s earnings are to his fathers (i.e. hard work has the least chance of improving your situation). If you truly believe that hard work and intelligence is all you need to be successful, you must also believe that people who are currently experiencing success have those attributes.

Best Person for the Job

Going back to our problems with creating a meritocracy, everything discussed so far has overlooked a key factor in this endless quest to find the most deserving – people are not cogs that can be simply transferred in and out of a machine seamlessly. The person who ‘deserves’ the job on merit (provided we can define it and measure it accurately) is often NOT the best person for the job. The best person for the job is often determined by qualities such as:

  • how that person fits in with the team culture,
  • their personality type, and
  • how they respond to authority (or the lack thereof).

These traits are all key factors in how well someone will perform in a given role and yet none would typically be thought of as meritorious qualities.

This realization is not new. Employers and hiring firms have been pushing the idea of the ‘beer test’ (asking yourself which of the candidates would you most like to go for an after-work beer with) for some time now. But it does beg the question – what would happen if a company simply hired the ‘best’ candidates for each position without considering whether these people will work well together? Would that team be more productive than a team that hired less ‘deserving’ candidates but aimed to build a harmonious work place? The entire body of management knowledge (and every buddy cop movie ever made) would tell us otherwise.

Summary

One thing that becomes obvious when you start thinking about how a true meritocracy would actually work is how difficult it would be to implement:

  • Many of the criteria we associate with someone being deserving of a role or position are subjective or exclude applicants who would in fact be far superior.
  • Our methods of assessment are often deeply flawed, subject to gaming and our own prejudices.
  • Selecting the most objectively deserving candidates is not guaranteed to provide the best results anyway.

Yet, despite the reasons above hopefully being enough to give pause the next time someone begins expressing frustration with the current lack of meritocracy, all of these issues are only really logistical problems.

There is a good argument to be made that we can and should try to improve on all of these things – that we should aim to get better at identifying the right people and refine our methods of assessing skills. We should pay more attention to team fit and personalities when selecting the best candidate. It is hard to imagine the world being a worse place if employers were more open minded about what skills might be valuable to their company and sociopaths were less likely to impress during an interview.

However, the next question is how far should we take this. What does a truly meritocratic society look like and is it something we really want? That is the subject of discussion in Part II in this series on meritocracy.

 

[1] You can easily replace ‘industry’ in this story with ‘company’, ‘field’ or ‘country’.

[2] Einstein famously worked at a patent office where his work often exposed him to the transmission of electric signals and electrical-mechanical synchronization of time. Exposure to these topics helped him to arrive at his conclusions about the nature of light and the connection between space and time.

[3] Steve Jobs often talked about the importance of a calligraphy class he took in shaping what fonts were best used in operating systems.

[4] Australia’s proclivity to tall poppy syndrome does have some positive side effects

Does Wealth Inequality Impact Growth?

I recently read a paper entitled Does wealth inequality matter for growth? The effect of billionaire wealth, income distribution, and poverty[1] that has been getting some coverage in economic circles. One of the reasons for the coverage is that income and wealth inequality has become a major discussion point in economics, since the release of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

The other reason for the attention is that the paper, although implicitly agreeing with Thomas Piketty’s conclusion that inequality is detrimental to economic growth, puts a twist on the conclusion. This paper, through a series of statistical models, provides evidence to suggest wealth inequality in itself does not impact economic growth, but that wealth inequality that arises due to government corruption impacts on economic growth.

Reading between the lines, this conclusion essentially reverses the prescription Piketty has been arguing for (greater intervention from government to redistribute wealth) and instead implies the opposite, that government should be reduced and basically get out of the way.

At a high level, there are two reasons I wanted to review this paper. These reasons are:

  1. To highlight the importance of skepticism when reading headlines based on scientific literature, and
  2. To provide an example of how a lack of domain knowledge[2] can cause problems in the world of statistics.

The Setup

The basic experiment setup is as follows. The authors (Sutirtha Bagchi and Jan Svejnar) took the Forbes List of World Billionaires for four years, 1987, 1992, 1996[3] and 2002. They then split the billionaires in these lists into two groups: those that have seemingly gained their wealth through political connections, and those that apparently gained their wealth independent of political connections.

Once grouped, the researchers aggregated the wealth of the billionaires by country to calculate politically connected billionaire wealth, politically unconnected wealth, and (adding these two pools together) total billionaire wealth – for each country in the dataset.

To normalize this measure of billionaire wealth across countries, they then divided the billionaire wealth for each country in each year by the total GDP for that country in that year. This provided a measure of billionaire wealth (politically connected, politically unconnected and total) as a percentage of GDP[4], which was taken to be a measure of inequality.

In addition to the three variables for each country – politically connected wealth inequality, politically unconnected wealth inequality, and total wealth inequality the authors also added a number of other variables, including measures of poverty, income inequality, income level (as measured by real GDP per capita), levels of schooling and the price level of investment[5].

Using linear regression, these variables were then used to predict GDP growth per capita for the following five years (after the year the variables corresponds to). For example, the variables for the year 1987 were used to predict the GDP growth per capita for the years 1988 to 1992.

Without getting too deep into how linear regression works, this approach was informative because it allowed for an assessment of the impact of each variable on growth, assuming all the other variables were held constant. With a variety of models constructed, the authors were able to assess what impact politically connected inequality had on growth, assuming politically unconnected inequality, income, poverty levels, schooling levels and the price level of investment were held constant.

The other big benefit of using linear regression is that it provides information about which of the variables used in a model are actually useful (“found to be significant”) in making a prediction. Essentially, variables that are found to not be significant can be excluded from the model with little or no decrease in the accuracy of the model.

Before moving on to the results, please be aware, for the sake of brevity, I am greatly simplifying the experimental setup, and completely ignoring a range of robustness and other testing the authors did. For those details, you will need to read the full paper.

The Results

At a high level, the results of the models constructed suggested the following in relation to the impact of inequality on growth:

  1. Politically connected wealth inequality (regardless of how it is normalized) was found to be a statistically significant predictor of growth. In all cases the coefficient was negative, indicating the higher the level of wealth, the lower the predicted growth.
  2. Politically unconnected wealth inequality (regardless of how it is normalized) was not found to be a significant predictor of growth.
  3. Wealth inequality (when political connectedness is ignored) can be a significant predictor of growth depending on how it is normalized[6]. When found to be significant, higher levels of billionaire wealth led to lower levels of predicted growth.
  4. Income inequality was found to be a significant predictor of growth in only one of the 12 models constructed. In the case where it was found to be significant, greater income inequality led to predictions of higher growth.

In addition, the model also provided some other interesting conclusions:

  1. The level of income in a country was found to be a significant predictor of growth in all cases. The models suggested that the higher the level of income in a country, the lower the predicted growth[7].
  2. The level of poverty was not found to be a significant predictor of growth in any of the models constructed.
  3. The level of schooling (for males or females) was not found to be a significant predictor of growth in any of the models constructed.

Caveats and Problems

Already from some of the findings above, you probably have some questions about the results. Poverty and schooling and income inequality have no impact on economic growth? The conclusions can change based on how billionaire wealth is normalized? You are right to be skeptical, but lets break down why.

Determining Wealth is Difficult

The first problem, and it is one explicitly acknowledged by the authors, is that measuring wealth (and therefore wealth inequality) is very difficult. Most of the difficulty arises from determining the wealth of the rich. In some cases, it is relatively straightforward to determine wealth – for example if the billionaire’s wealth is tied up in one company (e.g. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg). But in other cases, particularly with inherited wealth, the assets are diversified, held in a large number of holdings, trusts and companies across the world. In some further cases, it is extremely difficult to value the assets of a billionaire due to the unique nature of the assets (this is why Donald Trump’s worth is always the subject of debate).

To get around this, problem, the authors have relied on the Forbes list of billionaires. In terms of billionaire wealth, this is probably the best researched list of billionaires available, but by Forbes own admission “It’s less about the [net worth] number, per se… this is a scorecard of who the most important people are.”

Is Billionaire Wealth a Good Predictor of Wealth Inequality?

The authors built their measure of wealth inequality using the wealth of billionaires. But does this make sense even if we assume the Forbes list is accurate? There are two main problems I see with this approach.

The first is that ‘billionaire’ is an arbitrary cutoff point. Extremely wealthy people with wealth over the billion-dollar cut off one year regularly fall out of the three comma club the following year. For smaller countries with very few billionaires, this can have an outsized impact on their measure of wealth inequality from year to year.

The second issue is that looking at billionaire wealth tells you nothing about the distribution of wealth below the $1 billion mark. An example is provided in Chart 1 below.

Chart 1 – Wealth Distribution Across Two Hypothetical Countries

What Chart 1 shows is two hypothetical countries with 10 people each and the same amount of total wealth. Country 1 has two people who are extremely wealthy (but not billionaires), while the rest are far less wealthy. In Country 2, we have one billionaire but a much more even distribution of wealth amongst the rest of the population. Looking at the chart we would conclude that Country 1 has a higher level of inequality, but if we calculate inequality based on methodology used in the paper, Country 2 will be determined to be more unequal than Country 1. In fact, Country 1 would be assigned an inequality value of 0.

Obviously this is an exaggerated example, but it illustrates the point that there is a lot that could be happening below the $1 billion mark that is completely ignored by the measure used. I would also argue that the distribution of wealth amongst the population who are not billionaires is going to be much more important for growth than the ratio of billionaires to everyone else.

What is Politically Connected?

This is the part of the experiment setup that will probably end up being the most contentious, and relates back to the lack of domain knowledge. The problem is the authors could not possibly know of every billionaire on the list, the circumstances of how they accrued their wealth, and make a judgment call on whether political connections were a necessary precondition. As a result, they had to rely on various news sources to draw their conclusions and this led to some interesting outcomes.

For those that read the Wonkblog piece I linked to earlier, you may have noticed a chart in which Australia was adjudged to have 65% of billionaire wealth over the four years looked at being politically connected, putting it the same range as India and Indonesia. To most Australians this would be a hugely surprising result given Australia’s strong democratic tradition, strong separation of powers and prominence of tall poppy syndrome[8].

Generously, the authors of the paper provided me with the classifications that led to this number and it boils down to the fact that they have classified Kerry Packer as a politically connected billionaire. For those that know of Packer (pretty much every Australian) it would seem ridiculous to class him in the same bracket as Russian oligarchs or Indonesian billionaires who benefitted from the corrupt Suharto regime. But for someone who is not from Australia, they had to make this judgment based on newspaper clippings talking about Packer’s lobbying efforts.

In the case of Australia, having a high percentage of politically connected billionaire wealth has little impact. Once politically connected billionaire wealth (i.e. Kerry Packer’s wealth) is taken as a ratio of GDP, the number becomes very small because Packer’s wealth is dwarfed by the relatively large Australian economy. But what about other countries? How have various judgment calls impacted their inequality measures and therefore the model?

As I mentioned at the start of this section, it is unreasonable to expect the authors to be able to know how every billionaire worldwide accrued their wealth and the role of the government in that process. Additionally, the fact that there may be issues with some classifications does not mean we should throw away the results. However, it does mean any conclusions we draw from the results should be caveated with this problem in mind.

Unknown Unknowns

The final problem comes down to the high level question of what drives economic growth.

When you consider all the different things that can impact on the economic growth of a country over the course of five years, you quickly realize there are an almost unlimited number of factors. Commodity prices, what is happening in the economies of major trading partners, weather patterns, population growth, war, immigration, fiscal policy, monetary policy, the level of corruption and the regulatory environment are just some of the factors that can have a major impact on growth.

When economists build models to predict growth, they make choices about what factors they believe are the major drivers of growth. In this case, the authors have used factors like income levels, schooling and poverty levels. But what about some of the other factors mentioned above? Could these factors have better explained growth than politically connected wealth inequality?

This choice of variables is further complicated by the interrelatedness of the factors impacting growth. Is population growth driving economic growth, or is it because population growth indicates higher levels of immigration? Is government corruption holding back growth, or is it that corruption is siphoning off money from schooling and other public services?

When it comes to the models in the paper, the key question is if politically connected billionaire wealth is really impacting growth, or if it is simply acting as a proxy for some other measure (or measures). For example, are high levels of politically connected billionaire wealth dragging on growth, or is this measure acting as a proxy for the level of corruption in an economy and/or the prevalence of inefficient government created monopolies – which are the real drags on growth? Unfortunately, there is no definitive way to know the answer to these questions.

Conclusions

As mentioned at the outset, inequality and its impact on growth and the economy in general has been a popular topic of discussion in economic circles for the last 1-2 years. In many ways, it is the defining economic discussion of our time and has the potential to shape economic policy for a generation.

In an effort to provide more information in that debate, the authors of this particular paper deserve plenty of credit for taking an innovative approach to a difficult problem. However, at least in my mind, the results raise more questions then they answer.

That, it should be noted, is not a criticism, but is often the outcome of research and experiments. Results can often be confusing or misleading, and can only later be explained properly through further research. This is all part of the scientific method. Hypotheses are created, challenged, and either proved incorrect or strengthened. They are always subject to be proven wrong.

Unfortunately this nuanced process is not one that lends itself to catchy headlines and this is where we find one of the key problems with reporting of scientific results. Most authors, including the authors of this paper, are fully aware of the limitations of their findings. That is why you will find the conclusions section filled with words like ‘suggests’, ‘possibly’ and ‘could’. But those words do not make for good stories and so the qualifiers tend to get left out.

It is for this reason, if you are interested in the results of a particular paper or study, it always worth looking at the detail. With that, I’ll leave the final word to Sutirtha and Jan (emphasis mine):

“These and other examples, together with our econometric results, suggest that the policy debate about sources of economic growth ought to focus on the distribution of wealth rather than on the distribution of income. Moreover, particular attention ought to be paid to politically connected concentration of wealth as a possible cause of slower economic growth. Further research in this area is obviously needed, especially with respect to the effects of wealth inequality at different parts of the wealth distribution, the possibly declining effect of unequal distribution of income on growth, and the role of poverty.”

 

[1] S. Bagchi, J. Svejnar, Does wealth inequality matter for growth? The effect of billionaire wealth, income distribution, and poverty, Journal of Comparative Economics(2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jce.2015.04.002

[2] Domain knowledge is knowledge of the field that the data relates to.

[3] A change in the methodology used by Forbes to compile the list between 1997 and 2000 led them to instead choose 1996.

[4] The authors also try normalizing by other factors, such as population and physical capital stock, but this doesn’t substantially change the results of the model.

[5] A measure of how expensive it is to invest in capital within a country.

[6] When normalized by population, billionaire wealth is found to be a better predictor of growth than politically connected wealth.

[7] This may seem strange, but actually nicely captures a phenomenon in economics where lower income countries experience higher growth as they ‘catch-up’ to higher income countries.

[8] A perceived tendency to discredit or disparage those who have achieved notable wealth or prominence in public life.

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