Posts Tagged ‘Capitalism’

Neoliberalism is about more than free markets

August 22, 2017

The common mistake about neoliberal ideology is to think that it is about nothing more than unrestricted free markets.

In fact, neoliberalism is about unrestricted accumulation of capital.

Concentration of wealth at the top is an intended, not an unintended, consequence.

The idea is that of classical economics’ three sources of wealth – land, labor and capital – it is capital that is the force multiplier.

Capital investment, as Karl Marx recognized in the Communist Manifesto, is what has increased the total amount of wealth available to humanity in the modern capitalist era.   What neoliberals say is that this process can and should continue, with capital remaining in private hands.

That is why neoliberals advocate upper-bracket tax cuts and government austerity, and oppose minimum wage laws and labor unions.   Working people only waste their wages on their personal needs, neoliberals think; capitalists invest and increase the wealth of society.

That is neoliberals they advocate bailing out banks in the USA and Europe, while insisting that home mortgages, student loans and the debt of nations such as Greece by repaid to the last penny.

There is logic to this, once you accept the underlying assumptions.  The wrongness of this idea is shown, not by economic theory, but by the history of the last 40 years.

We have had increasing austerity and increased concentration of wealth in the upper brackets, but the investment needs of the USA and other advanced countries are unmet.


Piketty’s formula: its scope and limits

April 4, 2014

Source: Emmanuel Saez and Garbriel Zucman  [Thomas Piketty’s Power Point presentation]

Click to access SaezZucman2014Slides.pdf

The brilliant French economist Thomas Piketty has an economic formula which shows why, most of the time, the wealthy elite captures a larger and larger share of a nation’s income, and also why, some of the time, the rest of the nation catches up.

pikettybookcover00While my previous post about Piketty and his great book was long, I didn’t really explain his formula and how it works.

His formula, which he calls the fundamental law of capitalism, is as follows:

The capital income ratio (a) equals the rate of return on capital (r) times the national wealth (beta*),

That is, if the national wealth – every form of property that can produce an income for its owner, which is what Piketty calls capital – is six times, or 600 percent, of the nation’s annual output, and the average rate of return on capital is 2 percent, then owners of capital will receive 12 percent of the nation’s income in that year.

If a nation’s annual income is static and the owners of capital reinvest some of their income, then capital will be a larger multiple of the national income the following year, and the owners of capital will receive a larger share of national income.  If a nation’s annual income is growing, but the return on investment is a higher percentage than the growth rate, the owners of capital will get a larger share of national income the following year.

Once this is explained, it seems obviously true – at least to me.   And it seems to be a problem – at to me.   The graph above, prepared by Emmanuel Saez of the University of California (Piketty’s long-term collaborator) and Gabriel Zucman of the London School of Economics, shows how unequally wealth is distributed in the USA.  More than 1/5th of U.S. wealth is owned by 1/1000th of the population.  It is easy to see how the normal working of Piketty’s formula could cause them to suck up more and more of the nation’s income.

Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty

What do you do about it?   Piketty proposed graduated taxes on income, inheritance and wealth itself, sufficient to bring return on investment down to the rate of economic growth. 

I don’t see anything wrong in principle with a wealth tax.   I pay a property tax on my house.  Why shouldn’t a billionaire pay taxes on his investment portfolio?    But this is going to take a long time to bring about, even if everybody agrees.  For one thing, it will require the elimination of all the tax havens where the super-rich hide their money, which will require international agreement.  For another, increasing the government’s revenue does not necessarily benefit the public – if taxes are used to finance aggressive war, for example.

There are other possible solutions, because there are other factors in the equation.  If strong economic growth can be restarted, if the economic growth rate exceeds the return on investment rate, that would solve the problem.   Strong labor unions and minimum wage laws would increase the income share of working people and the middle class.   There are many possible approaches.

In theory, the solution could be wider ownership of capital by the public, such as by ESOPs (employee stock ownership plans) or by pension funds.  Back in the 1970s, the management analyst Peter Drucker noticed that pension funds were acquiring a bigger and bigger share on the U.S. stock market.  Eventually, he predicted, this would accomplish the Marxist dream of worker ownership of the means of production!

This didn’t happen because the corporations that controlled the pension funds didn’t allow it to happen.  But if workers controlled their pension funds, it would be a different story.  This would not be a practical reality any time soon, or perhaps ever.  The point is that tax policy is not the only means to deal with hyper-concentration of wealth.