My column showed that their estimated 44 percent is much higher than any official source. The authors exclude Social Security and other transfer payments from the denominator (total income), then pump up top incomes with such indefensible items as accelerated business deprecation and nontaxable IRA rollovers.
When I described the much smaller estimates of the top 10 percent's income from Census and the Congressional Budget Office, DeLong discovered: "Reynolds is wrong. CBO estimated that for all households the income of the top tenth in 2003 was 37.2 percent. ... Reynolds' 38.3 percent came not from Table 1: All Households, but instead from Table 3: Elderly Households." That is true. I missed that fine print when the spreadsheet popped up on my monitor.
How does the fact that the correct figure is even smaller than I said (37.2 percent, not 38.3 percent) debunk my skepticism about that bloated 44 percent figure? It is true that the corrected CBO figure did rise significantly at the time of the 1986-88 tax reform. Top incomes and capital gains also boomed with the stock market in 1998-2000. Yet the CBO's estimate of the top 10 percent's share of after-tax income ended up unchanged from 1988 (33.1 percent) to 2003 (33 percent). How does that contradict what I wrote in The Wall Street Journal?
The other reason Krugman and DeLong advise people to ignore what I wrote last month is because of something I wrote in 1992. At that time, Krugman objected to what he called my "main" argument. I argued that short-term changes in the estimated wealth of the top 1 percent could be distorted by a small handful of people ("outliers") with huge windfalls. Think of the two founders of Google getting $12 billion apiece when the firm went public. If they show up in a sample, how meaningful is the average going to be?
Krugman replied that the working paper -- by Arthur Kennickell of the Fed and Louise Woodburn of Ernst & Young -- had oversampled high incomes from tax return data. He said 400 people had been picked to represent the wealthiest 1 percent. A larger sample certainly helps, but it does not solve the "outlier" problem, because a few huge windfalls can still make the statistical average in a single year appear much higher than typical (median) wealth of any small group with no ceiling on wealth.
Krugman feigned indignation in 1992 that I had not read the relevant footnote in that unpublished working paper. He could be entirely confident about that, because 1992 was long before you could find such obscure papers online. The only way I could possibly have read an unpublished draft would be if the authors had sent me a copy when they sent one to Krugman. I did eventually obtain the paper by snail mail, too late to meet the deadline. I had no choice but to comment on what Krugman had written about the report -- in the supposedly disreputable Wall Street Journal.
Fortunately, a much-improved August 1997 revision of the "preliminary" Kennickell-Woodburn paper is now online. The authors revised their weighting scheme and reversed their previous conclusion. Their original 1992 study found no change in overall wealth inequality between 1983 and 1989, or in the wealth share of the top 10 percent. For the top one-half of one percent, however, the first draft seemed to show "a dramatic increase from 1983 to 1989 under the original weights." In the revised version, "the point estimate of the (wealth) share of the top 0.5 percent in 1989 is lower than that in 1983." The share of wealth held by the very top group (SET ITAL) declined, (END ITAL) from 1983 to 1989. My skepticism in 1992 proved entirely warranted.
We all make mistakes. My book, "Income and Wealth," repairs some innocent mistakes made by Brad DeLong and Paul Krugman. If anyone can demonstrate that I have misquoted such scholars, or am mistaken about any facts in last month's Wall Street Journal piece, I will gladly correct the record just as readily as I have now corrected the record about my 1992 piece.