On Translating Earnings From The Past

A few days ago, John Avery Jones published a great piece on the Bank of England blog (“Bank Underground”), investigating how much Jane Austen earned from her novels in the early 1800s. By using the Bank’s own archives and tracking down Austen’s purchases of “Navy Fives” (Bank of England annuities, earning 5%), Avery Jones backed out that Austen’s lifetime earnings as a writer was probably something like £631 – assuming, of course, that the funds for this investment came straight from the profits of her novels.

Being a great fan of using literature to illustrate and investigate financial markets of the past, I obviously jumped on this. I also recently looked at the American novelist Edith Wharton’s financial affairs and got very frustrated with the way commentators, museums, and scholars try to express incomes of the past in “today’s terms”, ostensibly vivifying their meaning.

For the Austen case, both Avery Jones and the Financial Times article that followed it, felt the need to “translate” those earnings via a price index, describing them as “equivalent to just over £45,000 at today’s prices”.

Hang on a minute. Only “£45,000”? For the lifetime earnings of one of the most cherished writers in the English language? That sounds bizarrely small. That figure wouldn’t even pay for the bathroom in most London apartments – and barely get you a town-house in Newcastle. The FT specifically makes a comparison with contemporary fiction writers:

“[Austen’s] finances compare badly even with those of impoverished novelists today: research last year by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society found that writers whose main earnings came from adult fiction earned around £37,000 a year on average”

Running £631 through MeasuringWorth’s calculator yields real-price estimates of £45,910 (using 1815 as a starting year) – pretty close. But what I think Avery Jones did was adjusting £631 with the Bank’s CPI index in Millenium of Macroeconomic Data dataset (A.47:D), which returns a modern-day price of £45,047 – but that series ends in 2016 and so should ideally be another 7% or so from 2016 until May 2019.

 “This may not be the best answer”

Where did Avery Jones go wrong in his translation? After all, updating prices through standard price indices (CPI/RPI/PCE etc) is standard practice in economics. Here’s where:

untitled-1

The third line on MeasuringWorth’s result page literally tells researchers that the pure price number may not reflect the question one is asking. The preface to the main site includes a nuanced discussion about prices in the past:

“There is no single ‘correct’ measure, and economic historians use one or more different indices depending on the context of the question.”

When I first estimated Mr. Darcy’s income, this was precisely the problem I grappled with; simply translating wealth or incomes from the past to the present using a price index severely understates the meaning we’re trying to convey – i.e., how unfathomably rich this guy was. There is no doubt that Mr. Darcy was among the richest people in England at the time (his annual income some 400 times a normal worker’s salary), a well-respected and wealthy man of elevated rank. However, translating his wealth using a price index doesn’t even put him on the Times’ Rich List over the thousand wealthiest Britons today. Clearly, that won’t do.

Because we are much richer today in real terms, price indices alone do not capture the meaning we’re trying to communicate here. Higher real income – by definition – is a growth in incomes above the rise in prices. We therefore ought to use a more tangible comparison, for instance with contemporary prices of food or mansions or trips abroad; or else, using real income adjustments, such as GDP/capita or average earnings.

MeasuringWorth provides us with three other metrics over and above the misleading price-index adjustment:

Labour Earnings = £487,000
using growth in wages for the average worker, it reports how large your wage would have to be today to afford what Austen could afford on £631 in 1815. Obviously, quality adjustments and technological improvements make these comparisons somewhat silly (how many smartphones, air fares and microwaves could Austen buy?), but the figure at least takes real earnings into account.

Relative Income = £591,300
Like ‘Labour Earnings’, this adjustment builds on the insight above, but uses growth in real GDP/capita rather than wages. It more closely captures the “relative ‘prestige value’” that we’re getting at.

Both these attempt are what I tried to do for Mr. Darcy (Attempt #2 and #3) a few years ago.

Relative Output = £2,767,000
This one is more exciting because it captures the relationship to the overall economy. If I understand MeasuringWorth’s explanation correctly, this is the number that equates the share of British GDP today with what Austen’s wealth – £631 – would have represented in 1815.

Another metric I have been experimenting with is reporting the wealth number that would put somebody in the same position in the wealth distribution of our time. For example, it takes about £2,5m to qualify for the top-1% of British wealth (~$10m in the United States) distribution today. What amount of wealth did somebody need to join the top 1% in, say, 1815? If we could find out where Austen’s wealth of £631 (provided her annuities were her only assets) rank in the distribution of 1815, we can back out a modern-day equivalent. This measure avoids many of the technical problems above for how to properly adjust for a growing economy, and how to capture inventions in a price index – and it gets to what we’re really trying to convey: how wealthy was Austen in her time?

Alas, we really don’t have those numbers. We have to dive deep into the wealth inequality rabbit hole to even get estimates (through imputed earnings, capital stocks or probate records) – and even then the assumptions we need to make are as tricky and inexact as the ones we employ for wage series or prices above.

The bottom line is pretty boring: we don’t have a panacea. There is no “single correct measure”, and the right figure depends on the question you’re asking. A reasonable approach is to provide ranges, such as MeasuringWorth does.

But it’s hard to imagine the Financial Times writing “equivalent of between £45,000 and £2,767,000 at today’s prices”…

Bourgeois IV: The Economics of difference

Economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo studied the root causes of flawed decision making in their book Poor Economics. While much of the book is an applied economics redux of Ludwig von Mises’ more cerebral Human Action: A Treatise on Economics, there were several points that are particularly applicable in an examination on the difference between the bourgeois and the middle-class as defined only by income. The most important point is Banerjee and Duflo’s concept of the S-curve. According to this model, social mobility is not a sequence of steps or a diagonal line; it is shaped like the letter S, and each of the curves represents a significant hurdle on the path from the bottom left edge to the right top one. The first curve (obstacle) is a love of pointless material display, and the second is a desire for security and stability.

In Poor Economics, a crucial part is understanding the extent to which family plays in the equation. Banerjee and Duflo discovered that on the S-curve only the very top and the very bottom had more children than was the national average. The parents on both ends were more solicitous of their children’s educations and futures than those in the middle. In fact, having fewer children in the case of the middle which was recently elevated from the lower portion had an adverse effect on parental spending on education and opportunity, with the result that the middle became a place of stagnation. The economists explained that to some extent in cultures where having children is the retirement plan, middle parents felt as though they had less to spend because they had fewer children. But this did not explain similar gaps in cultures where reliance on grown children was not normative. 

Across the board, though, the top and bottom segments expressed the sentiment that they couldn’t afford to not invest in the very best for their children. For the top, the feeling was related to understanding that maintaining their position was contingent upon vast investment in the next generation; for the bottom, the only way having an above average number of children was worth the time and effort was for all of them to become highly successful. In other words, on both ends, the prevailing attitude was “can’t afford to fail.” Conversely, those in the middle of the S-curve aspired to security, rather than success, and the parents were only willing to spend as much as necessary to obtain that – it varied among the different countries studied, but no more than high school and a local college were quite common – even if the parents could afford much more and the children were capable of pursuing more. The correlation between more children and advanced, better quality education regardless of official social class was a shock to the researchers because it defied popular wisdom, which mandates that fewer children equals more opportunity and better education for them. Based on Banerjee and Duflo’s findings, parental indifference is more or less the root cause of modern “stagnation” and “inequality.”   

Given that today there is quite a bit of complaining in the developed world, particularly the US, about the “shrinking middle-class” and the ills, mostly portrayed as economic, associated with it. It is worth considering based on the data from Poor Economics that the middle-class is shrinking in a literal demographic sense, as well as a social one. The researchers found that it is common for families on the bottom half of the S to have, on average, four to five children (with as many as nine or twelve being usual in cultures with strong intergenerational dependency dynamics) and those at the top to have between three and four; middle families never had more than two. The image is that of an hourglass, with the “middle-class” being perceived as squeezed by virtue of the larger groups on the top and bottom. 

In July 2018, Brookings published a study on the subject of the “decline in social mobility,” with the surprise twist being that it was a downward drop from the American professional classes, rather than from an income-based general category:

As Aparna Mathur and Cody Kallen of AEI wrote in “Poor rich kids?”; “[P]erhaps the most puzzling – and least commented upon – finding is the large positive correlation between the parent’s income and the decline in absolute mobility over the years. Put more simply, the richer the parents, the larger has been the decline in mobility for their kids.”

While the “poor rich kids” phenomenon might be upsetting from the American mythos perspective, from the data collected by Banerjee and Duflo, it is completely to be expected. The researchers established that middle-S families experience diminishing returns over the course of multiple generations as a direct result of their priorities. For example, in India, one of the main countries studied, government bureaucratic jobs have been the favored, hereditary domain of middle-S families because of their security but over the course of the last-third of the 20thcentury and into the 21st these jobs have experienced wage stagnation, saturated markets, and, with the first two, declining social capital; in other words, they lose social mobility. However, middle-S families continue to persist in their established behavioral routines. Hence, Banerjee and Duflo diagnosed love of security as the second ill, the (almost) insurmountable “hump” in the quest for social mobility. 

According to the Brookings study, the fallen American middle-class has experienced all of these symptoms as well, and certainly the demagogues have happily adopted rhetoric relating to claiming a disappearance of the “middle-class.” Although, as the AEI study cited by Brookings cautioned, income is not a particularly good indicator of mobility, there is no doubt that there is a sharp decrease in perceived well-being among the children of the American “middle-class:”

The reason this is interesting is that it matches Banjeree and Duflo’s findings regarding the middle-S groups of all the countries they studied, which indicates that their research is applicable to developed and underdeveloped countries alike. 

But the loss of manufacturing jobs cannot explain what happened to the near-rich and the top 1%. Naturally, it may be difficult to surpass highly successful parents, but that does not explain why mobility rates have declined so sharply at the top income levels, especially if wealth and incomes are becoming more concentrated. Moreover, average incomes for the top 1% have remained at about 4 times the median income over these years. Yet, for the 95th percentile, absolute mobility fell from 84 percent for those born in 1940 to 20 percent for those born in 1984. And for those born in 1984, coming from a top 1% family essentially guarantees earning less than one’s parents, with a mobility rate of 1.2 percent.  

While there are some cultural differences that serve to obscure similarities, if one looks at American educational expenditure, for example, one sees that the average middle-American family spends more on semi-educational activities than other families in comparable situations in other cultures. However, viewed critically, very little of that expenditure is on efforts that advance career prospects, or even on pursuits that hold genuine cultural and intellectual value. This was the issue with the Abigail Fisher vs. University of Texas case. For those who might not be aware of the case, Fisher sued UT-Austin, claiming that the institution had racially discriminated against her using affirmative action; UT-Austin said that race hadn’t factored into its decision in regard to her because she simply wasn’t candidate material. After two hearings by the Supreme Court, the judges ruled in favor of the university. Ultimately, though, the case had little to do with affirmative action and everything to do with that all the extracurricular activities she cited as proof of extenuating circumstances for mediocre academic performance, e.g. involvement with Habitat for Humanity, were ultimately worthless. Cutting through the legalese, the lawyers for UT-Austin essentially explained that her “achievements” were not remarkable literally because every applicant put down something similar on his/her CV. It was a simple case of supply and demand.

From a Poor Economics perspective, the case fell within the bounds of middle-S behavior, the pursuit of security represented by conforming to “everyone else;” from a historical bourgeois view, it is proof that activities, or busyness, are not a replacement for true achievement and accomplishment. It is a classic example of value not always equaling cost with the twist that the cost of the cited extracurricular activities was not equal to their value. To map this firmly to the S-curve and the “squeezing” of the middle-class, it doesn’t matter if the refusal to invest is direct, as in middle-S parents interviewed by Banerjee and Duflo in developing countries, or insistence that average activities are equivalent to achievement, as in the Fisher case, the effect is the same: the ersatz middle-class with its aspirations to and mimicry of the bourgeois is revealed as simply inadequate, and it is so as a result of its choices.   

If there is one thing economist Tyler Cowen has been warning the country of for the last two decades, it is that many of the declines and discontents we face today stem squarely from a mania for stability that afflicted American post-War society. In the same vein, there was Kevin D. Williamson’s infamous, although completely justified, U-Haul article from right before the 2016 presidential election, which elicited anger because his prescription supposedly required people to “abandon their roots,” to reject something integral to themselves. 

One of the greatest pieces of wisdom from classical antiquity is that mimesis will ultimately fail; conversely, metamorphoses will ultimately succeed. Rising along the S-curve requires rejection, demolition of perceptions and of, possibly, mental values. It demands metamorphoses, not merely imitation. In The Anti-capitalistic Mentality, von Mises remarked that the resentment directed at multi-generational, hereditary prosperity and privilege overlooked that everyone involved went out and recaptured “every day” the ingredients for their own success. Their nice cars, big houses, fine clothes, etc. were simply the reward for their constant, invisible toil, one which Mises pointed out very specifically embraced the concept of sic transit gloria mundi. It is not an accident that the two hurdles of the S-curve are points of mimesis: the material and the perceived, which does not even exist. The question that people must ask is: Are we content to pretend, to wrap ourselves in the apparel of success and achievement, or do we wish to become?

Libertarianism and Neoliberalism – A difference that matters?

I recently saw a thoroughgoing Twitter conversation between a Caleb Brown, which most of you presumably know from the Cato Daily Podcast, and the Neoliberal Project, an American project founded to promote the ideas of neoliberalism, regarding the differences between libertarianism and neoliberalism. For those who follow the debate, it is nothing new that the core of this contention goes way beyond an etymological dimension – it is concerned with one of the most crucial topics in the liberal scholarship: the relationship between government and free markets.

Arbitrary categories?

I can understand the aim to further structure the liberal movement into subcategories which represent different types of liberalism. Furthermore, I often use these different subcategories myself to distance my political ideology from liberal schools I do not associate with, such as paleo-libertarianism or anarcho-capitalism. However, I do not see such a distinct line between neoliberalism and libertarianism in practice.

As describes by Caleb Brown (and agreed on by the Neoliberal Project), neoliberalism wants to aim the wealth generated by markets at specific social goals using some government mechanism, whilst libertarianism focuses on letting the wealth created by free markets flow where it pleases, so to say. In my opinion, the “difference” between these schools is rather a spectrum of trust in government measures with libertarianism on one side and neoliberalism on the other.

I’ve often reached a certain point in the same discussion with fellow liberals:

Neoliberal: I agree that free markets are the most efficient tool to create wealth. They are just not very good at distributing it. By implementing policy X, we could help to correct market failure Y.

Libertarian: Yeah, I agree with you. Markets do not distribute wealth efficiently. However, the government has also done a poor job trying to alleviate the effects of market failures, especially when we look at case Z… (Of course, libertarians bring forth other arguments than public choice, but it is a suitable example.)

After reaching this point, advocating for governmental measures to fix market failures often becomes a moral and personal objective. My favourite example is emission trading. I am deeply intrigued by the theoretical foundation of the Coase-Theorem and how market participants still can find a Pareto-efficient equilibrium by just negotiating. Based on this theoretical framework, I would love to see a global market for carbon emission trading.

However, various mistakes were made during the implementation of emission allowances. First, there were way too many emission allowances on the market which engendered the price to drop dangerously low. Additionally, important markets such as air and ship transportation were initially left out. All in all, a policy buttressed by a solid theory had a more than rough start due to bad implementation.

At this point, neoliberals and libertarians diverge in their responses. A libertarian sees another failure of the government to implement a well-intended policy, whereas a neoliberal sees a generally good policy which just needs a bit further improvement. In such cases, the line between neoliberals and libertarians becomes very thin. And from my point of view, we make further decisions based on our trust in the government and on our subjective-moral relation to the topic as well.

I saw government too often fail (e.g. engaging in industry politics), which should be left nearly entirely to free markets. However, I also saw the same government struggling to find an adequate response to climate change. Contrary, I believe that officials should carry on with their endeavours to counteract climate change whereas they should stay out of industry politics.

Furthermore, in the recent past, there has been a tremendous amount of libertarian policy proposals put forth which remodeled the role of government in a free society: A libertarian case for mandatory vaccination? Alright. A libertarian case for UBI? Not bad. A libertarian case for a border wall? I am not so sure about that one.

Although these examples may define libertarianism in their own context, the general message remains clear to me: libertarians are prone to support governmental measures if they rank the value of a specific end higher than the risk of a failed policy. Since such an article is not the right framework to gather a robust amount of data to prove my point empirically, I rely on the conjecture, that the core question of where the government must interfere is heavily driven by subjective moral judgements.

Summary

Neoliberals and Libertarians diverge on the issue of government involvement in the economy. That’s fine.

Governmental policies often do not fully reach their intended goals. That’s also fine.

The distinction between neoliberals and libertarians is merely a threshold of how much trust one puts in the government’s ability to cope with problems. Both schools should not value this distinction too much since it is an incredibly subjective issue.

In Defense of Not Having a Clue

Timely, both in our post-truth world and for my current thinking, Bobby Duffy of the British polling company IPSOS Mori recently released The Perils of Perception, stealing the subtitle I have (humbly enough) planned for years: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything. Duffy and IPSOS’s Perils of Perception surveys are hardly unknown for an informed audience, but the book’s collection and succint summary of the psychological literature behind our astonishingly uninformed opinions, nevertheless provide much food for thought.

Producing reactions of chuckles, indignation, anger, and unseeming self-indulgent pride, Duffy takes me on a journey of the sometimes unbelievably large divergence between the state of the world and our polled beliefs about the world. And we’re not primarily talking about unobservable things like “values” here; we’re almost always talking about objective, uncontroversial measures of things we keep pretty good track of: wealth inequality, share of immigrants in society, medically defined obesity, number of Facebook accounts, murder and unemployment rates. On subject after subject, people guess the most outlandish things: almost 80% of Britons believed that the number of deaths from terrorist attacks between 2002 and 2016 were more or about the same as 1985-2000, when the actual number was a reduction of 81% (p. 131); Argentinians and Brazilians seem to believe that roughly a third and a quarter of their population, respectivelly, are foreign-born, when the actual numbers are low single-digits (p. 97); American and British men believe that American and British women aged 18-29 have had sex as many as 23 times in the last month, when the real (admittedly self-reported) number is something like 5 times (p. 57).

We can keep adding astonishing misperceptions all day: Americans believe that more than every third person aged 25-34 live with their parents (reality: 12%), but Britons are even worse, guessing almost half (43%) of this age bracket, when reality is something like 14%; Australians on average believe that 32% of their population has diabetes (reality more like 5%) and Germans (31% vs 7%), Italians (35% vs 5%), Indians (47% vs 9%) and Britons (27% vs 5%) are similarly mistaken.

The most fascinating cognitive misconception is Britain’s infected relationship with inequality. Admittedly a confusing topic, where even top-economists get their statistical analyses wrong, inequality makes more than just the British public go bananas. When asked how large a share of British household wealth is owned by the top-1% (p. 90), Britons on average answered 59% when the reality is 23% (with French and Australian respondents similarly deluded: 56% against 23% for France and 54% against 21% for Australia). The follow-up question is even more remarkable: asked what the distribution should be, the average response is in the low-20s, which, for most European countries, is where it actually is. In France, ironically enough given its current tax riots, the respondents’ reported ideal household wealth proportion owned by the top-1% is higher than it already is (27% vs 23%). Rather than favoring upward redistribution, Duffy draws the correct conclusion:

“we need to know what people think the current situation is before we ask them what they think it should be […] not knowing how wrong we are about realities can lead us to very wrong conclusions about what we should do.” (p. 93)

Another one of my favorite results is the guesses for how prevalent teen pregnancies are in various countries. All of the 37 listed countries (p. 60) report numbers around less than 3% (except South Africa and noticeable Latin American and South-East Asian outliers at 4-6%), but respondents on average quote absolutely insane numbers: Brazil (48%), South Africa (44%) Japan (27%), US (24%), UK (19%).

Note that there are many ways to trick people in surveys and report statistics unfaithfully and if you don’t believe my or Duffy’s account of the IPSOS data, go figure it out for yourself. Regardless, is the take-away lesson from the imagine presented really that people are monumentally stupid? Ignorant in the literal sense of the world (“uninstructed, untututored, untaught”), or even worse than ignorant, having systematically and unidirectionally mistaken ideas about the world?

Let me confess to one very ironic reaction while reading the book, before arguing that it’s really not the correct conclusion.

Throughout reading Duffy’s entertaining work, learning about one extraordinarily silly response after another, the purring of my self-indulgent pride and anger at others’ stupidity gradually increased. Glad that, if nothing else, that I’m not as stupid as these people (and I’m not: I consistently do fairly well on most questions – at least for the countries I have some insight into: Sweden, UK, USA, Australia) all I wanna do is slap them in the face with the truth, in a reaction not unlike the fact-checking initiatives and fact-providing journalists, editorial pages, magazines, and pundits after the Trump and Brexit votes. As intuitively seems the case when people neither grasp nor have access to basic information – objective, undeniable facts, if you wish – a solution might be to bash them in the head or shower them with avalanches of data. Mixed metaphors aside, couldn’t we simply provide what seems to be rather statistically challenged and uninformed people with some extra data, force them to read, watch, and learn – hoping that in the process they will update their beliefs?

Frustratingly enough, the very same research that indicate’s peoples inability to understand reality also suggests that attempts of presenting them with contrary evidence run into what psychologists have aptly named ‘The Backfire Effect’. Like all force-feeding, forcing facts down the throats of factually resistent ignoramuses makes them double down on their convictions. My desire to cure them of their systematic ignorance is more likely to see them enshrine their erroneous beliefs further.

Then I realize my mistake: this is my field. Or at least a core interest of the field that is my professional career. It would be strange if I didn’t have a fairly informed idea about what I spend most waking hours studying. But the people polled by IPSOS are not economists, statisticians or data-savvy political scientists – a tenth of them can’t even do elementary percent (p. 74) – they’re regular blokes and gals whose interest, knowledge and brainpower is focused on quite different things. If IPSOS had polled me on Premier League results, NBA records, chords or tunes in well-known music, chemical components of a regular pen or even how to effectively iron my shirt, my responses would be equally dumbfunded.

Now, here’s the difference and why it matters: the respondents of the above data are routinely required to have an opinion on things they evidently know less-than-nothing about. I’m not. They’re asked to vote for a government, assess its policies, form a political opinion based on what they (mis)perceive the world to be, make decisions on their pension plans or daily purchases. And, quite a lot of them are poorly equipped to do that.

Conversely, I’m poorly equipped to repair literally anything, work a machine, run a home or apply my clumsy hands to any kind of creative or artful endeavour. Luckily for me, the world rarely requires me to. Division of Labor works.

What’s so hard with accepting absence of knowledge? I literally know nothing about God’s plans, how my screen is lit up, my car propels me forward or where to get food at 2 a.m. in Shanghai. What’s so wrong with extending the respectable position of “I don’t have a clue” to areas where you’re habitually expected to have a clue (politics, philosophy, virtues of immigration, economics)?

Note that this is not a value judgment that the knowledge and understanding of some fields are more important than others, but a charge against the societal institutions that (unnaturally) forces us to. Why do I need a position on immigration? Why am I required (or “entitled”, if you believe it’s a useful duty) to select a government, passing laws and dealing with questions I’m thoroughly unequipped to answer? Why ought I have a halfway reasonable idea about what team is likely to win next year’s Superbowl, Eurovision, or Miss USA?

Books like Duffy’s (Or Rosling’s, or Norberg‘s or Pinkers) are important, educational and entertaining to-a-t for someone like me. But we should remember that the implicit premium they place on certain kinds of knowledge (statistics and numerical memory, economics, history) are useful in very selected areas of life – and rightly so. I have no knowledge of art, literature, construction, sports, chemistry or aptness to repair or make a single thing. Why should I have?

Similarly, there ought to be no reason for the Average Joe to know the extent of diabetes, immigration or wealth inequality in his country.

Nightcap

  1. Things I hate about the US constitution Ilya Somin, Volokh Conspiracy
  2. At the Khmer Rogue tribunal MG Zimeta, London Review of Books
  3. Reductionism and anti-reductionism about painting Irfan Khawaja, Policy of Truth
  4. A foreign policy for the Left Samuel Moyn, Modern Age

Nightcap

  1. What do we mean by “meaning”? Scott Sumner, Money Illusion
  2. The Sōseki of Prague Duncan Stuart, 3:AM Magazine
  3. The Civic Sacred Cow Wayland Hunter, Liberty Unbound
  4. The (American) Civil War’s Most Infamous Atrocity Rick Brownell, Historiat