30 março 2012

Entrevista com Daron Acemoglu

De acordo com Ideas/Repec, Daron Acemoglu, economista turco e professor do MIT, está entre os 10 economistas mais citados do mundo e, em 2005, foi premiado com o prêmio John Bates Clark Medal. Atua nas áreas de crescimento e desenvolvimento econômico, desigualdade de renda e capital humano. Sua fama está relacionada aos trabalhos que realiza acerca do impacto do ambiente político sobre o crescimento econômico.

Na última semana, juntamente com James Robinson lançou o livro Why Nations Fail:The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. A principal tese do livro é que o sistema político e suas instituições são a chave para o crescimento e desenvolvimento econômico e explicam as diferenças de renda entre as nações. Países que têm o que eles chamam de sistema político "inclusivo" - aqueles que estendem os direitos políticos e de propriedade tão amplamente quanto possível e, ao mesmo tempo, fazem cumprir as leis e fornecem alguma infra-estrutura pública - experimentam maior crescimento no longo prazo. Por outro lado, Acemoglu e Robinson afirmam que os países com sistema político "extrativista" - em que o poder é exercido por uma pequena elite - ou não conseguem crescer de forma ampla ou definham após curtos períodos de expansão econômica.

Segundo Acemoglu, o crescimento econômico depende de inovação tecnológica generalizada. Mas, a inovação somente se sustenta nos países em que promovem os direitos políticos e de propriedade, dando às pessoas mais incentivo para inventar coisas..O NYT publicou uma resenha otimista sobre o trabalho, enquanto a The Economist fez algumas criticas negativas sobre a tese do livro. Porém, a resenha mais interessante é de Francis Fukuyama.

Na entrevista abaixo, Acemoglu fala de desigualdade de renda e comenta sobre cinco livros que tratam do tema. Eis alguns trechos interessantes:

Inequality is in the news a lot right now. How should we be thinking about it and trying to get our heads around it?

Inequality is one of the things that has changed quite a lot in the United States and other economies over the last three decades or so. A lot of things don’t change radically, but inequality has. Understanding why that has happened and what it implies for our society is important. So it’s a good thing that it’s in the news, it’s an important topic and there is no reason for it to be taboo. Having said that, there is no broad consensus among social scientists about how to talk about inequality, and the average economist probably thinks about it very differently than the average layman. I’m not saying one is right and one is wrong, but the conversation needs to be expanded to bring these different viewpoints to the table.

What’s the economist’s view?

The default position of economists is that inequality reflects the unequal human capital or productive capabilities of different workers. If you start with that premise – that what people earn is commensurate with their contribution to their employer, and also perhaps to society – then greater inequality tells you something about how people’s productivities have evolved over time...We’ve seen a big increase in inequality, measured in various ways, and this reflects the fact that the top people, the more educated, high earners have become more skilled. Technology has favoured them, globalisation has favoured them, and inequality has increased for that reason.

Let’s go through your books. Your first choice is The Race between Education and Technology, published by Harvard University Press. You mentioned in an earlier email to me that it is “a must-read for anyone interested in inequality”. Tell me more.

Acemoglu: It highlights in a very clear manner what determines the productivities of different individuals and different groups. It takes its cue from a phrase that the famous Dutch economist, Jan Tinbergen coined. The key idea is that technological changes often increase the demand for more skilled workers, so in order to keep inequality in check you need to have a steady increase in the supply of skilled workers in the economy. He called this “the race between education and technology”. If the race is won by technology, inequality tends to increase, if the race is won by education, inequality tends to decrease.

One is that technology has become even more biased towards more skilled, higher earning workers than before. So, all else being equal, that will tend to increase inequality. Secondly, we’ve been going through a phase of globalisation. Things such as trading with China – where low-skill labour is much cheaper – are putting pressure on low wages. Third, and possibly most important, is that the US education system has been failing terribly at some level. We haven’t been able to increase the share of our youth that completes college or high school. It’s really remarkable, and most people wouldn’t actually guess this, but in the US, the cohorts that had the highest high-school graduation rates were the ones that were graduating in the middle of the 1960s. Our high-school graduation rate has actually been declining since then. If you look at college, it’s the same thing. This is hugely important, and it’s really quite shocking. It has a major effect on inequality, because it is making skills much more scarce then they should be.

One of the things they point out is that top income shares in the US and the UK started to increase during the Reagan and Thatcher administrations. Isn’t rising inequality just the result of Reagan and Thatcher reducing taxes on the rich?

I personally don’t think that’s the main thing, though it certainly played a role. It played a role for capital income. When you look at the top 0.1%, many of them are capital earners. So if you tax capital heavily, then the rich are not going to have as much capital left and capital income is not going to be as unequally distributed. There is a very mechanical effect from taxation there. But there are two other, more subtle, effects from taxation. One is that more progressive taxation – higher taxes at the top – may discourage people from working very hard and putting in effort. That will reduce their earnings and thus inequality. That may be inefficient, but it’s one of the things that happen when you have high taxes. Secondly, it might change the way in which people bargain with their companies and engage in “rent-seeking” activities in order to increase their pay or their bonuses. In the extreme – and I don’t think this contributes a lot, but just to illustrate – if top incomes were taxed at 99%, then no CEO would be tempted to do semi-illegal things in order to increase his pay, because there would be nothing to gain from doing so. If the top tax rate is 30%, on the other hand, and CEOs get pay from options, they may be tempted to do things like the Enron CEO, Kenneth Lay, did, because they get a lot of money in return. So while high tax rates at the top may inefficiently reduce these people’s labour supply, it may also reduce their rent-seeking activities.

OK, so to get more of a sense of your own view, let’s talk about your book, Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty.

In terms of understanding this top inequality, I mentioned the possibility that it might be about politics. How should we think about politics? What are the levers of politics? For that we need a conceptual framework and that’s what this book tries to provide. It’s co-authored with my long-term collaborator and friend Jim Robinson – and it’s not about US or UK or Canadian inequality. It runs through several thousand years of history, and tries to explain how societies work and why, often, they fail to generate prosperity for their citizens. It’s a very political story.

...The absolutist institutions created a very unequal distribution of political power and a very unequal distribution of economic gains in society and the two became synergistic – the very unequal distribution of political power locked in a very unequal distribution of economics gains. This created a vicious circle, but the conflict it engendered sometimes led to a breaking down of the institutions that this unequal distribution depended on, opening the way for more open institutions, which are one of the engines of prosperity.

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