The Piketty divide: Part 1

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Sunday, 29 June 2014 18:30 by Ken Wolff

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the twenty-first century has taken America by storm. It rose to the top of Amazon’s best-selling list. It brings a scholarly perspective to the issue of rising inequality and of wealth being concentrated in the hands of the few. It has been compared to Marx’s Das Kapital and it has been suggested that it may be as influential. It has also been compared to Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz’s A Monetary History of the United States in 1963 for the reason that, like that work, it is based on extensive financial data that gives credence to its conclusions — although coming from the opposite side of the political spectrum.

Piketty’s work, of course, is not universally acclaimed. There is a very clear divide between the Right and Left, between progressives and the more radical Left, and between the Anglosphere and the non-Anglo-speaking world.

Piketty, now a professor at the Paris School of Economics, went to MIT in America in 1993 when he was 22 and completed a doctorate on the theory behind tax policies. He returned to France after five years and has remained there since. In 2003 with Emmanuel Saez, another Frenchman, but at Berkley in California, he wrote a paper on inequality in the US between 1913 and 1998. Saez also worked with Piketty on the data for Capital in the twenty-first century.

In France, while the book was recognised as significant, it was not the runaway best seller that it became in America — it was 192nd on the French book publishers’ rankings. One reason is that inequality has long been central to political debate in France, with even the right-leaning Gaullists like Chirac supporting the need to mend the fractures in society. France already has an annual wealth tax on assets. So in that sense, the theme of Piketty’s work was not as novel in France as it appeared in America, dominated as it has been since the 1980s by economic thinking that does not believe that inequality is a problem.

The French Left was critical, considering Piketty did not go far enough: that he failed to discuss cultural and social domination, or violence against and exploitation of the lower classes, or alienation at work, or the role of class struggle.

Why all the fuss?

Piketty has a basic equation developed from tax data across a number of countries going back over two hundred years:

r > g

That is, the rate of return on capital (r) is greater than the rate of growth of income (g). Throughout the nineteenth century and up to World War I, that greater rate of return led to high levels of inequality, with wealth concentrated at the top. In periods of high inequality, the rich can hold capital up to seven times the value of total national annual income (the capital/income ratio).

The rate of growth is influenced by population growth and productivity. Piketty’s data suggest that over the long run, income grows at 1‒1.5% while return on investment grows at 4‒5%. A period of declining inequality, between 1919 and the 1970s, occurred when the rate of growth exceeded the rate of return, fed by population growth, technological progress and government intervention.

As population growth slows (as it is already doing), Piketty suggests that the rate of growth will also slow and we will return to a situation similar to that before WWI. Various economists have already pointed to the slow down in economic growth since 1970, despite technical innovations like the spread of computers and the internet. An article in The Economist showed that annualised growth in the US averaged1.9% between 1947 and 1969, but only 0.8% between 1970 and 2012, creating a 35% gap in growth between where it actually is and where it would have been if the higher level of growth had continued.

One reviewer interpreted Piketty’s approach this way:

If you get slow growth alongside better financial returns, then inherited wealth will, on average, “dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime’s labour by a wide margin” says Piketty. Wealth will concentrate to levels incompatible with democracy, let alone social justice. Capitalism, in short, automatically creates levels of inequality that are unsustainable.

For Piketty, the facts derived from his data indicate that this is the nature of capitalism. The period from WWI to the 1970s was an anomaly and Piketty makes the case that capital in its natural state does not tend to spread out or trickle down but to concentrate in the hands of a few.

The problem is that as wealth becomes concentrated in the hands of the rentiers it can lead to ‘patrimonial capitalism’ (where the economic elite mostly obtain their wealth through inheritance). Some have suggested an inconsistency to the extent that Piketty supports entrepreneurs but is concerned that when they are successful they then become rentiers, and their wealth is passed to the next generation who need undertake little productive activity to maintain that wealth. Piketty argues that if this is left unchecked, wealth continues to accumulate in the hands of the few leading to greater levels of inequality.

Piketty acknowledges that the current situation in the US is different. There, the current increase in inequality has come from the rise of what he calls ‘supersalaries’. Unlike other countries, in the US, 60% of the income of the top 1% comes from ‘labour income’ (the salary packages of the CEOs of large corporations); only in the top 0.1% does income from capital predominate. Although, clearly, within a decade or two this wealth may well turn to inherited wealth based on the accumulated capital.

In an interview where it was put to Piketty that Americans have earned their wealth rather than inherited it, he replied:

This is what the winners of the game like to claim. But for the losers this can be the worst of all worlds: they have a diminishing share of income and wealth, and at the same time they are depicted as undeserving.

A key aspect of Piketty’s work, however, is that it presents a challenge to current mainstream economic thinking.

To understand why the mainstream finds this proposition so annoying, you have to understand that “distribution” — the polite name for inequality — was thought to be a closed subject. Simon Kuznets, the Belarussian émigré who became a major figure in American economics, used the [then] available data to show that, while societies become more unequal in the first stages of industrialisation, inequality subsides as they achieve maturity. This “Kuznets Curve” had been accepted by most parts of the economics profession until Piketty and his collaborators produced the evidence that it is false.

Piketty himself said regarding his approach:

I am trying to put the distributional question and the study of long-run trends back at the heart of economic analysis. In that sense, I am pursuing a tradition which was pioneered by the economists of the 19th century, including David Ricardo and Karl Marx.

So he is also attempting to return economics to the political economics of the best nineteenth century economic thinkers and also return to data as the basis of findings, rather than abstract theories and mathematical formulae.

The Left is not entirely happy with Piketty’s analysis, for example:

… Piketty’s almost exclusive metrics are inequality of income and wealth. They are important to be sure. Let us remember, though, that despite less inequality, most of the period 1913-1950 was hellish for the masses in the capitalist world. They died by the millions in the first world war, made little economic progress in the 1920s, suffered the hunger of the Great Depression in the 1930s, and died by millions more in the second world war. On the other hand, while inequality was high in the late nineteenth century and up to 1913, the working class did make advances, by militant struggle largely under the socialist banner, in obtaining fruits of industrial progress.

John Kenneth Galbraith, a progressive economist, while accepting the value of Piketty’s work has some criticisms.

Firstly, he rejects that the tax records on which Piketty relies are the only way to gather long term records — Piketty’s most complete records are French estate tax records dating back to shortly after the French revolution in 1789. Galbraith has used US payroll records back to 1920 to come to similar conclusions about growing inequality in America.

Galbraith also has difficulties with Piketty’s use of the term ‘capital’. He suggests that Piketty conflates physical capital equipment with all forms of money-valued wealth, including land and housing, whether that wealth is in productive use or not. Piketty’s measure of capital, therefore, is not physical but financial: ‘The problem is that while physical and price changes are obviously different, Piketty treats them as if they were aspects of the same thing.’ Galbraith suggests that (apart from World War II when the UK and Europe did suffer significant physical destruction) it was changes in the market value of wealth that reduced inequality between 1914 and 1950. He writes: ‘A simple mind might say that it’s market value rather than physical quantity that is changing and that market value is driven by financialization and exaggerated by bubbles, rising where they are permitted and falling when they pop.’

Galbraith also wrote:

The evolution of inequality is not a natural process. The massive equalization in the United States between 1941 and 1945 was due to mobilization conducted under strict price controls alongside confiscatory top tax rates. The purpose was to double output without creating wartime millionaires. Conversely the purpose of supply-side economics after 1980 was (mainly) to enrich the rich. In both cases, policy largely achieved the effect intended.

That gives rise to another issue embedded in Piketty’s work: the role of policy and politics.

As John Cassidy wrote in The New Yorker in reviewing Piketty’s work:

The Great Depression wiped out a lot of dynastic wealth, and it also led to a policy revolution. During the nineteen-thirties and forties, Piketty reminds us, Roosevelt raised the top rate of income tax to more than ninety per cent and the tax on large estates to more than seventy per cent. The federal government set minimum wages in many industries, and it encouraged the growth of trade unions. In the decades after the war, it spent heavily on infrastructure, such as interstate highways, which boosted GDP growth. … Inequality started to rise again only when Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan led a conservative counter-revolution that slashed tax rates on the rich, decimated unions, and sought to restrain the growth of government expenditures. Politics and income distribution are two sides of the same coin. [emphasis added]

Piketty himself acknowledges this:

A quick glance at the curves describing income and wealth inequality or the capital/income ratio is enough to show that politics is ubiquitous and that economic and political changes are inextricably intertwined and must be studied together.

US inequality is now close to the levels of income concentration that prevailed in Europe around 1900-10. History suggests that this kind of inequality is not only useless for growth, it can also lead to a capture of the political process by a tiny high-income and high-wealth elite. This directly threatens our democratic institutions and values. [emphasis added]

The point that the progressives and Piketty make is that government policy plays a major role in economics generally, and in controlling inequality in particular. If government does not fulfil that role, then, as Piketty suggests, it leaves the way open for the economic elite to also capture the political process.

The major criticism of Piketty is for his policy conclusions: he recommends higher marginal tax rates for high incomes and a global wealth tax, although conceding that his recommendations may be utopian. His more vocal critics have picked this up and derided his policy proposals. Even supporters have suggested alternative approaches: Galbraith suggests that a large rise in the minimum wage in America would have the effect of reducing the amount available for the accumulation of wealth at the top levels; others have suggested more government regulation can have the same effect.

What do you think, so far?