Tag Archives: Piketty

The new Capital — a review

24 Jun

Thomas Piketty’s, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is a sensation—an economics textbook, translated from the French, that has been on the New York Times best-seller list. It is an important work. If you ignore more than one hundred pages of notes, it is still a long but easy read.

Piketty, a prominent French economist and social scientist, uses rigorous logic and reputable statistics to dismiss the mainstream claim that capitalist markets are based on individual equality, and that great wealth is a fair reward for individual contributions to general wellbeing. He shows that capitalism in its logic and observable practice actually widens disparities between the super rich and everyone else.

The title of the book conjures images of Karl Marx’s Capital. But Piketty says he is not a Marxist; he does not call for the abolition of capitalism. He is a social democrat who explicitly rejects the top-down centralized state ownership of the twentieth century USSR. He looks to a more democratic alternative, arguing that economics, which he prefers to call political economy, should refocus on how best to meet human needs. He looks to cooperatives, community ownership, and more democratic control of workplaces.

The two Capitals have distinct starting points. Marx began with the commodity. He makes the case that exchange value is determined by labor time embodied in commodities, and that the wealth and power of capital come at the expense of labor. Although Marx grumpily dismissed campaigns to abolish market exchange as utopian, his focus on the commodity convinced many of his readers that opposing capitalism meant opposing commodity exchange.

Piketty’s analysis is focused on the distribution of income and wealth. He begins with a logically indisputable proposition: when the rate of return on capital is greater than the rate of economic growth, capital increases its share of total income. He then tests this hypothesis with historical statistics. These show that national growth rates usually range from one to two percent; the return on capital is usually around five percent. Without deliberate public intervention the share of income going to capital must grow.

Piketty’s focus on income distribution is a more direct and convincing critique of capitalism. To be fair, Marx was writing in the 1860s. Credible income statistics did not become available until governments adopted income taxes to pay for World War I. Marx’s critique was necessarily more abstract, more a criticism of capitalist market theory than of capitalist practice.

Piketty, born in 1971, knows that twentieth-century attempts to replace market exchange with top-down state direction required unacceptably heavy and intrusive repression. The USSR’s disadvantages have been well documented, but capitalism is hardly the utopia of equal opportunity its supporters claim. In France, the U.K., and the U.S., the share of total income currently appropriated by capital is thirty percent. The top 0.1 percent of income earners own twenty percent of wealth. The top one percent own 40 percent. The top ten percent own 80 to 90 percent. The bottom 50 percent own a mere five percent of wealth.

Mainstream economics justifies great fortunes in a few hands by claiming these are just rewards for successful work, innovation, and merit. In fact sixty percent of great fortunes are inherited. Piketty shows that capitalism continues to be a system of patrimonial wealth. Even for those few wealthy individuals who are or were innovators, it does not take long before the income earned from their past capital exceeds the income from their work. For countries with reliable statistics, annual income from capital now accounts for thirty percent of total income. Privately-held wealth equals 600 per cent of annual national income.

Nonetheless, governments, electoral parties, and the corporate media insist that the main problem facing economies is public debt. Actually public debt in most countries ranges between thirty and seventy percent of GDP. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the governments of major capitalist countries had debts that reached 200 percent of their GDP. Past governments reduced debt by cutting public spending, by allowing inflation to rise, and by increasing taxes.

Austerity is the most damaging way to reduce public debt. Government cutbacks increase unemployment, reduce working-class income and consumer purchasing power, aggravating market stagnation. Inflation does reduce the real value of debt, but largely at the expense of the investments of middle income pensioners. The most benign way to reduce public debt is to increase taxes on great wealth and on the highest top incomes.

Piketty argues that marginal tax rates on income over $500,000 could reasonably be raised to 80 percent and that progressive inheritance taxes should be instituted or raised. In addition, he calls for an annual tax on all private wealth including real property, stocks, bonds, bank balances, and assets held abroad. This annual wealth tax could be one percent on wealth from $1 to $5million; two percent on wealth over $5 million; and 5 to 10 percent on wealth over $1 billion.

Piketty concedes that such taxes in the present political climate appear utopian and could lead to capital flight, if not coordinated among numerous countries. Still people should begin discussing such taxes. Once widely implemented by the international community, public debt could be quickly eliminated. Public spending to meet human needs and to sustain consumer markets could be increased. The tendency of capitalists to appropriate more and more income would be reversed. Democracy would be strengthened as information on private wealth become more transparent. Such taxes could also provide the public with the means to respond to climate change. Massive investments are required to move away from dependence on fossil fuels: if private capital does not take the initiative, taxes on wealth could provide the public with the revenues needed.

Al Engler

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty, The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2014, 685 pages

Piketty’s book important, but should go one step further

2 Jun

Is Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century a left-wing book?

Yes and no. It depends on how you define left wing.

If you believe the litmus test of being “left” is opposition to capitalism then the book may be interesting and important, but it is not left wing. If, on the other hand, you believe capitalism is a dynamic economic system worth preserving, but in need of a tune-up, you would likely have a different answer. In the range of political/economic opinion allowed in the corporate North American media the book is certainly at the left end of the spectrum.

But perhaps there is another more important question to consider. Is the book useful, including to those who think an alternative to capitalism is both desirable and necessary? And the answer is an unequivocal yes.

Strangely, it’s not primarily for the reason you may think, if all you know about the work is what you have read or heard in the mainstream media.

While most of the commentary has been about the book’s take on inequality and the author’s prescription (a tax on capital) for controlling the problem, the really unique and useful aspects of Piketty’s work are his insistence on what might be called “reality-based” economics and his straightforward, easy-to-read language.

Unlike the obscurant writing and “fairy-tale” premises that typify most works of economics, Piketty bases his arguments in actual data and sets out to explain them in a style that is accessible to a broad range of readers.

Imagine that! Economics for everyone, including those of us who insist that theories should be tested in the real world! Refreshing, almost scientific.

If Piketty can do it we should hold all economists to these standards. Imagine no more theories of perfect competition where all buyers know everything about all sellers, but instead explanations of what really happens when individuals suffering from a lifetime of brainwashing come up against the might of multinational corporations. Imagine economics that explained the world as lived by ordinary people in a fashion that most of us can understand.

This threat of a good example explains much of the “emperor does so have clothes” reaction of orthodox academic economists and their fellow travellers in the business press to Piketty’s book. Then you add in the overwhelming evidence presented in Capital that inequality does exist, has grown over the past three decades of neoliberal reform, and is likely to grow much greater  — and yes sir those apostles of greed sure are angry.

So, the book is important and you should read it, but … let’s just say one should be aware of its limitations.

Contrary to what you might assume based on the attacks from certain quarters, the author does not advocate socialism — unless you believe socialism can be defined as simply trying to be nice to everyone and sometimes using the government to override the power that capitalism gives rich people.

Piketty is firmly in the camp of those who would save capitalism from itself. While he does argue too much inequality is bad because it threatens democracy and leads to revolution, or at least economic nationalism, there is no question he supports the system. He frequently and explicitly praises capitalism as the best economic system because it produces the most growth. There is no mention of an environmental crisis and its link to inequality and an economic system that values greed above all else until the very end, almost as an afterthought. He does not deal with environmental limits to growth.

Still, the book provides all sorts of useful information about the last 200 years of actually existing capitalism. Its offers a glimpse of what the study of economics should be. Piketty seems to be on the side of ordinary people and even makes mention of economic democracy.

Go and buy Capital in the 21st Century from your local bookstore, but read it with this thought in mind: Rather than tinkering with capitalism, can’t we come up with a better system? One that democratizes economic decision making while rescuing our environment from the ravages of unchecked greed, also known as the fallacy of unlimited growth?

Gary Engler

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