Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Piketty’

Trump, Macron tax plans both favor the rich

December 16, 2017

Donald Trump, the populist, nationalist President of the United States, and Emmanuel Macron, the sophisticated, cosmopolitan President of France, may seem like mirror opposites.

And, indeed, Trump in 2017 spoke favorably of Macron’s opponent, Marine Le Pen, while Macron has been highly critical of Trump.

But they both represent the interests of the economic elite, according to Thomas Piketty, the famous economist who wrote Capital in the 21st Century. 

They both support changes in the tax laws that will increase the share of income of the wealthiest Americans and French.

Piketty says the American and French economic elite have taken almost all the benefit of income growth in the past few decades, and don’t need any more.  Both countries’ new tax laws would—

  • Leave working people feeling even more alienated from their governments than before.
  • Leave the public feeling even more unwilling to make sacrifices need to curb global warming.   If rich people can live even more lavishly than before, why should the rest of us accept the burden of a carbon tax?
  • Leave governments even fewer resources to reduce poverty, either on a national or a global scale.

As Piketty wrote, economic policies that benefit the economic elite at the expense of everybody else, in addition to being bad in themselves, are like to lead to a nationalist backlash that benefits nobody.

This is not an issue that is limited to the USA and France.


Trump, Macron: same fight on Le blog de Thomas Piketty.

How much equality do we want?

January 9, 2017



Grant that extreme economic inequality is a bad thing.  Grant that ever-increasing economic inequality is a bad thing.

Grant that complete equality of incomes is not feasible and maybe not desirable.  How much equality is enough?

The economist Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Road to Serfdom (as I recall) that it is impossible that people could reach a consensus on what each and every person deserves.   Once you reject complete equality, he  wrote, the only acceptable distribution of income is what results from the impersonal working of the free market.

A democratic government could never determine a distribution of income that is satisfactory to everyone, or even a majority, Hayek thought; if it tries, the result can only be gridlock and a breakdown of democracy.

But there are ways to reduce inequality that neither set limits on any individual’s aspirations nor give some group of bureaucrats the power to decide who gets what.   Some that come to mind immediately are:

  1. Prosecute those who get rich by lawbreaking.
  2. Set limits on unearned income.
  3. Break up monopolies.
  4. Empower labor unions and cooperatives.
  5. Provide good public services to all, regardless of income.
  6. Provide decent jobs for all who are willing and able to work.

What are your ideas?


Can economic growth overtake rising inequality?

May 5, 2016

The French economist Thomas Piketty has a strong and obvious argument as to why the rich usually get richer and the rest of us not.

He points out that so long as the return on assets—of whatever kind—is at a higher rate than the rate of economic growth, wealth and income will flow to owners of capital, not to wage-earners.

If you see gross inequality as a problem, there are two possible solutions:

  1.  Raise the top tax brackets to reduce the share of the capitalists.
  2.  Increase the rate of economic growth to increase the share of the workers.

An economist named Gerald Friedman concluded that Bernie Sanders’ economic policy would produce 5.3 percent annual economic growth.  Other economists say that is over-optimistic to the point of being crazy.  But even if Friedman is right, it would still be less than the historic rate of return on capital.

If Piketty is right, it means economic growth alone will not stem the growth of economic inequality.  It will be necessary to reduce return on capital, not to zero, but to a rate less than the rate of economic growth.

One way to do this is to raise upper-bracket taxes to 1950s levels.  Regulation of interest rates and subprime lending would help.  Prosecution of financial fraud and enforcement of antitrust laws might have an effect.

Historically, as Piketty noted in Capital in the 21st Century, there have been other ways in which concentrations of wealth have been destroyed.  They have been destroyed by means of wars, revolutions and devastating economic depressions.


‘Why spy? It’s cheaper than playing fair’

March 13, 2015

The French economist Thomas Piketty believes that if the gap between rich people and the majority becomes as wide as it was before the French Revolution, there could be another such revolution.

But Cory Doctorow, writing in The Guardian, says the financial elites are aware of the danger of revolution and their response is to press governments to spend money on the police, the military and government surveillance, rather than on measures that would allow a more broadly shared prosperity.

technology police statePiketty is trying to convince global elites (or at least the policymakers beholden to them) that it’s cheaper to submit to a redistributive 1% annual global wealth tax than it is to buy the guards to sustain our present wealth disparity.

There’s an implied max/min problem here: the intersection of a curve representing the amount of wealth you need to spend on guards to maintain stability in the presence of a widening rich/poor gap and the amount you can save on guards by creating social mobility through education, health, and social welfare is the point at which you should stop paying for cops and start paying for hospitals and schools.

This implies that productivity gains in guard labor will make wider wealth gaps sustainable.

Improvements in military and surveillance technology tilt the balance against economic reform.

Why spy? Because it’s cheaper than playing fair.

I think Doctorow is right.  I think the reason so many known suspicious characters are able to commit acts of terrorism is that the U.S. government and other governments are more concerned about putting down social unrest.


Technology should be used to create social mobility – not to spy on citizens by Cory Doctorow in The Guardian.

Why salaries don’t rise by Harold Meyerson for the Washington Post.


Austerity: the global reach of a bad ideology

January 23, 2015

2014-12-25-racetothebottom-thumbThe Western world is in the grip of a bad idea that its governments can’t seem to shake off—although its peoples are starting to.

The idea is called “austerity.” It is the belief that public goods must be destroyed in order to increase private wealth.

Banks impose this policy on indebted nations such as Greece.  They say the governments must curtail public services, including schools and public health, while raising taxes and adopting economic policies that will result in higher prices and lower wages.

Supposedly the money saved can be used to pay off the nation’s debts.  The problem is that so-called austerity destroys the nation’s ability to generate new wealth, and so, as long as countries accept the “austerity” meme, they stay in debt indefinitely.

Nations that default on their debts, as American states frequently did in the era before the Civil War, are threatened with loss of credit.  But the fact is that the banking system literally has more money than the bankers know what to do with.  In practice, lending always starts up again after a few years.

Members of the European Union that use the Euro as their currency have a special problem.  Historically the exchange rates of currencies fell when the issuing nation had a balance of payments deficit.  This tended to bring the balance of trade into balance, because their exports became cheaper in relation to foreign currencies and their imports became more expensive.

Under austerity, nations attempt to achieve the same thing by increasing prices, lowering wages and cutting government services.  Unlike with change in the exchange rate, the burden does not fall upon the whole nation equally, but only on the less wealthy and politically powerless.

Austerity involves raising taxes, but never taxes on the wealthy.  That is because the wealthy are considered to be the “job creators” who must be catered to in order to bring about economic recovery.

The “job creator” philosophy is popular here in the USA.  The saying is, “No poor man ever gave me a job.”  The conclusion is that the key to jobs is to have more and richer rich people.

Well, we Americans have made that experiment, repeatedly, and it hasn’t worked.

If we want mass prosperity, we need to invest in the things that create wealth—education, public infrastructure and scientific research—and then see that the benefits of the new wealth are widely spread, so as to create markets for private business.

We Americans once made that experiment, too, and it did work.


The new normal: Links & comments 7/29/14

July 29, 2014

Soak the Rich: An exchange on capital, debt and the future by David Graeber and Thomas Piketty, translated and reprinted by The Baffler.

David Graeber is an anthropologist and radical anarchist known for his book, Debt: the First 5,000 Years, which looks at the origins of money, taxes and debt.   Thomas Piketty is a politically moderate economist known for his book, Capital in the 21st Century, which looks at the persistence of gross inequality during the past few centuries.

I admire them for their opposite virtues—Graeber for his bold and original speculation, Piketty for his research and his refusal to assert anything that can’t be backed up by data.

Graeber believes the capitalist system is doomed.  Once it goes away, people will have a chance to create a new system without fear of bosses or police, and Graber does not see any point in trying to describe the specifics of what that new system will be.

Piketty says history indicates that capitalism has proved amazingly resilient in the face of change, and that there is no reason to think this time is different.  Furthermore, he said, any society has a need for capital, the means to invest accumulated wealth into the means of creating new wealth.  (This is a different definition of capital from the one in his book).  His attitude toward capitalism is: Mend it, don’t end it.

One thing they do agree on is the centuries-old tendency for wealth to be concentrated in a few hands, and the danger this poses to a democratic society.

On the Causes of Investment Decline in the U.S. Economy by Dr. Jack Rasmus, the Green Party’s shadow Federal Reserve chair.  Hat tip to Bill Harvey.

I have long thought that increasing the earning power of average Americans would make many things fall into place.  If people had more money to buy stuff, merchants would sell more stuff and manufacturers would make more stuff, and this would be to everybody’s benefit.

Jack Rasmus suggests that maybe this isn’t so.  Maybe getting people into debt and putting the squeeze on them is more profitable that creating useful goods and services.  If that’s so, we can’t look to private enterprise to recreate a high-wage, full-employment economy.

His solution is a massive public works program, which I agree is needed, but doesn’t address the problem he describes.

Defending Trade Unions While the Justices Are Away by David Coates.  Hat tip to Labor News in Rochester, NY.

Labor unions helped maintain American prosperity in the mid-20th century by fighting for good wages and job security.  But the union movement is handicapped by laws and court decisions that increasingly restrict unions while freeing corporations of responsibility.

In Harris v. Quinn, the Supreme Court ruled that home health-care workers in Illinois could not be required to pay dues the Service Employees International Union, but they were still entitled the benefits of the SEIU contract and to SEIU representation.  It is as if the Supreme Court ruled that I could not be required to pay my Rochester Gas and Electric bill, but RG&E is still obligated to supply me with gas and electricity.

Chris Dodd Warns of Coalition Between Populist Democrats and Republicans by Zach Carter for the Huffington Post.

Ex-Senator Chris Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, gave a speech warning against trying to strengthen the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill.   He said in a speech to the Bipartisan Policy Center that opening up the bill to amendments would open a “Pandora’s box” that would be dangerous the financial services industry.

He said warned against right-wing Republicans and left-wing Democrats teaming up against Wall Street.   He probably was thinking of a bill co-sponsored by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and David Vitter (R-Louisiana) to break up the “too big to fail” banks, an unacceptable type of bipartisanship.  Dodd said breaking up big banks is unnecessary.

As Court Fees Rise, The Poor Are Paying the Price by Joseph Shapiro for National Public Radio.

The criminalization of poverty by Radley Balko for the Washington Post.

A majority of U.S. states have recreated the equivalent of debtors’ prisons.  They are trying to make their criminal justice system self-financing by charging fees for public defenders, the cost of a jury trial, room and board for jail and prison time, and parole and probation costs.   Poor people who can’t pay these fees go to jail, even though this has been ruled unconstitutional.


The passing scene: Links & comments 7/16/14

July 16, 2014

The case for shutting down Stuyvesant High School, the best public high school in New York by Reihan Salam for Slate.

Stuyvesant High School in New York City is a highly selective public school which admits fewer than 1 in 100 applicants, based solely on test scores.  The newest class is 71 percent of Asian origin and less than 3 percent black and Latino, even though blacks and Latinos are the overwhelming majority of New York City’s eighth graders.

Reihan Salam, a graduate of Stuyvesant, does not believe that blacks and Latinos will be helped by changing admissions policies.  Even in its glory days, he said, not every Stuyvesant student flourished in its highly competitive, sink-or-swim environment.

Because of differences in background, gifted black and Latino students are likely to need more backup and support from the school system than gifted Asia students did, Salam wrote.  He said the best thing would be to have a diverse range of high schools that serve the differing needs of students.

Piketty is the Anti-Marx by Noah Millman for The American Conservative.

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century deals with the same subject as Karl Marx’s Capital more than a century before, but his approach and conclusions are the opposite.

Marx wrote about how capitalism was revolutionizing everything, and concluded that humanity was on the verge of a new stage of development.  Piketty wrote about how, despite revolutionary changes, the concentration of wealth and income remains the same.

Marx was a revolutionary.  Piketty wants the minimum change necessary.  Marx was a bold and original theorist.  Piketty is a cautious researcher, whose great merits are his compilation of new data and his reluctance to go beyond what the data show.

Israel’s bombing of Gaza is morally justified—and eminently stupid by Damon Linker for The Week.

Gaza War: Tunnels, Targets and Rockets | IJ Strategy and Tactics by Ahmed Hadi for Al Akhbar English.   Hat tip to Informed Comment.

The rocket attacks on Israel by Hamas and Islamic Jihad do not threaten Israeli power.  All they do is provoke retaliation.   The Israeli bombardment of Gaza does not threaten the power of Hamas and Islamic Jihad.  Their leaders are hidden in underground tunnels.  Nothing will change except that many civilians will be dead and peace will be even more unlikely.


Reflections on Piketty’s inequality argument

June 14, 2014

The novels of Jane Austen, Honore de Balzac or Henry James, in which civilized life was confined to a small percentage of the population and the only way most people could acquire significant wealth was to inherit it or marry it.

According to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, there is nothing to stop that kind of world from coming back.

1_percent_decomposed_2.png.CROP.promovar-mediumlargePiketty’s basic argument goes as follows:
•    If the rate of return on investment is a higher percentage than the rate of economic growth, which he expresses as r > g,  the owners of investment property will get an ever-larger share of national income.
•    R > g is the normal state of affairs.
•    Ownership of wealth is distributed even more unequally than income.   The higher the share of income that comes from wealth, the more unequal it will be.
•    The larger the amount of wealth you own, the faster it is likely to compound.   So not only do the rich become richer at a faster rate than ordinary people, the super-rich become richer at a faster rate than the ordinary rich.
•    At some point the process levels off, but the leveling-off point may not come until inequality reaches a point that we associate with 18th century Europe or the Third World

The economic prosperity and relative equality during 1945-1975 were made possible by the destruction of capital during the Great Depression and the two World Wars, according to Piketty.   Of course war and depression left everybody worse off, not just rich people, but when economic growth resumed, a lesser share went to the economic elite.

Piketty’s conclusions are backed up by archival research that traces income and wealth distribution in France, Britain and the USA for two centuries and many other countries for shorter periods of time.  That research shows that r > g is the typical state of affairs in most countries and most periods of history for which information is available.

One striking finding is that there is just as much inequality among the elite as there is among the public at large.  In the USA, the top 10 percent have about half the wealth, the top 1 percent have about half the wealth of the top 10 percent, and the top 0.1 percent have about half the wealth of the top 1 percent.

Another finding, based on comparisons of American university endowment funds, is that the larger the amount of wealth you have to invest, the higher your rate of return is likely to be.   This is probably because the richer you are, the better financial managers you can hire, the better able you are to diversify your investments and the better cushion you have when you make high-risk, high-return investments.

chart_2.png.CROP.promovar-mediumlargePiketty proposes to deal with inequality by means of a graduated tax on wealth to go along with graduated taxes on inheritance and income.  But there are other ways.

You could figure out ways to increase the rate of economic growth, for example.  Or you could figure out ways to achieve a wider distribution of wealth, such as through employee stock-ownership plans or worker-owned enterprises.   Or you could strengthen labor unions, increase minimum wage or take other measures to increase the incomes of the middle class, working people and the poor.

It’s important to keep in mind that Piketty only deals with one specific issue, the concentration of income and wealth in a small elite—an important issue, but not the only one.   Piketty does not tell us how to raise people out of dire poverty, nor how to achieve better productivity, or economic growth, or better education, or a cleaner environment, or any other goal.

And taking money away from the economic elite will not in and of itself make anyone any better off.   A lot of financial wealth was destroyed during the Great Depression and and a lot of tangible wealth was destroyed during World War Two, but this did help anybody at the bottom of the economic scale.  Piketty thinks that destruction of wealth cleared the way for the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, but I don’t think anybody who lived through the 1930s and 1940s would have said it was worth it.


Piketty’s inequality argument in six charts

June 14, 2014

Thomas Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has stirred up a lot of controversy.  As well it should.  If he is right, there is nothing to stop a tiny elite from growing richer and richer at the expense of the rest of us.

The important thing to remember of Piketty’s argument is that it is not based on economic theory.   It is based on years of research on sources of wealth and income through history in different countries.   And, as quantitative information, it lends itself to charts.

I think Piketty’s research is important to understand for the future of our country and the world.   I’m reproducing six charts based on Piketty’s data from an article by John Cassidy in The New Yorker, which sum up Piketty’s findings well.

The first chart shows the share of American income taken by the best-paid 10 percent.

chart-01The chart shows that half of the income earned by all Americans went to the top 10 percent just prior to the stock market crash of 1929, that their income share fell to between 30 and 35 percent between 1945 and 1975 and now it is going back up again to 1920s levels.

Piketty explained this with his equation, r > g.   When the rate of return on investment is a higher percentage than the rate of economic growth, the holders of capital will get an ever-increasing share of income.   For the purposes of his book, Piketty has a special definition of capital, which is different from economists’ standard definition.  He defines capital as anything you can own that will give you an income, including agricultural land, government bonds, houses (which you can rent), common stocks or anything else.   In the Old South, prior to the Civil War, slaves were a form of capital.

Income distribution in the 20th century USA became more equal for a time partly because the Great Depression destroyed the value of so many financial assets, but mostly because of the high rate of economic growth following the Second World War.

Of late the pay of financiers and corporate executives has gone up much faster than the pay of middle-class and poor people, but, as the following chart shows, inequality in ownership of financial assets is a bigger factor in the income share of the top 1 percent than inequality in wages and salaries.


The next chart shows that same trend exists among the top 1 percent in all the major English-speaking countries.


The next Cassidy chart shows the income shares of the top 1 percent in some of the developing countries.


Thomas Piketty on democracy and capitalism

May 16, 2014


Tom Ferguson on Piketty and the Democrats

May 15, 2014

Does Earth have a trade deficit with Mars?

May 1, 2014
National trade deficits and surpluses.  Source: Wikipedia

Cumulative trade surpluses or deficits, 1980-2008, in billions of dollars. Source: Wikipedia. Double click to enlarge.

Among the world’s rich countries, the United States has a continuing trade deficit, Germany and Japan have continuing trade deficits and the other rich countries move up and down, slightly above and slightly below the break-even point.  But the French economist Thomas Piketty, in his new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, pointed out that, if you add them all up, the rich countries as a group have a trade deficit.

Are the rich countries in debt to the poor countries?  No, said Piketty.   If you lump all the poor countries together, they, too, have a combined trade deficit.

Mars-3In other words, the whole Earth has a trade deficit.  But according to basic economic theory, any nation’s deficit is a surplus for some other nation or group of nations.   Could this mean that Earth has an unfavorable trade balance with Mars?

No, Piketty said.  The problem is that not all the world’s trade is accounted for — in particular, the trade that winds up in hidden accounts in the world’s tax havens.  If it was known how much it is, and who owns it, we probably would realize that the world’s super-rich hold an even higher percentage of the world’s wealth than we think.

One of the benefits of a global tax on capital would be to bring this hidden wealth to light, he said.  Even if you don’t accept the idea of a tax on capital, there is a need for international cooperation on financial reporting and prevention of tax evasion.  World trade treaties, instead of protecting international corporations from national governments, should provide for sharing information on wealth, and for boycotting jurisdictions that don’t meet international standards for reporting.


Piketty on the power of inherited wealth

May 1, 2014



In Balzac’s story Pere Goriot, set in the early 1800s, the struggling law student Rastignac lives in the same boarding house as the master criminal Vautrin and the impoverished former millionaire Goriot.   Vautrin explains to Rastignac the odds against his ever achieving success sufficient to earn a life with dignity, and advises him to woo and wed a rich heiress instead.

In the charts above and below, Thomas Piketty, in his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, showed the gap in those days between inherited wealth and wealth achieved through one’s own efforts.   He didn’t have comparable data for the United States, and doesn’t think the flow of inherited wealth was as great in the USA.

That gap has narrowed, Piketty warned that there is nothing to prevent those days from returning.  A Sam Walton may build a retail empire through his own efforts, but all his children and grand-children have to do in order to be rich is simply to mess up.  His research indicates that great wealth compounds faster than moderate wealth, because the ultra-rich can diversify their investments and call upon the best expert advice.


Protecting wealth vs. promoting growth

April 30, 2014


There’s no single principle that explains everything, but there is great explanatory power inn the French economist Thomas Piketty’s idea that inequality always increases whenever the rate of return on investment exceeds the rate of growth of the economy, that is, when r > g.

piketty-saez-top10aThis is not something that results from impersonal economic forces.  During the past 30 years, the policy of the U.S. government, and of governments that follow the U.S. lead, has been to prioritize return on investment over economic growth.

The U.S. Congress and many state governments are in the process of cutting back scientific research, education, maintenance of public works and other things that are needed for our nation’s economic future, in order to keep tax rates low for corporations and upper bracket taxpayers.

These are the same “austerity” policies being enforced by the World Trade Organization, International Monetary Fund and European Central Government on vulnerable governments, which are forced to sacrifice the well-being of their citizens in order to satisfy powerful financial institutions.   In both cases, there is a tradeoff to sacrifice economic growth in order to maintain returns on investment.

top1%sharechart-02One part of austerity is to sell off government property at bargain rates and delegate public services to corporations.  Most of the time this amounts to a transfer of wealth from taxpayers to well-connected business owners, who have no financial incentive to maximize service.

Some other ways that government policy fosters investor income at the expense of economic growth are (1) bailing out banks that have failed due to reckless financial speculation, (2) refusal to prosecute financial fraud by the “too big to fail” banks or claw back profits due to fraud, (3) expansion of patent and copyright monopolies, (4) failure to regulate cable and telecommunications laws, (5) failure to enforce antitrust laws, (6) the ban on student loan refinancing or bankruptcy …. The list goes on.

Increasingly corporate management seeks profit not by increasing the size of the economic pie, but by giving investors and executives a larger part of the pie — through financial manipulation and excess fees in the case of banks, through driving down wages and increasing executive compensation in the case of corporations in general.  I don’t say all corporate managers behave in this way.  I say that this has become common and acceptable.

the-top-01-of-americans-get-a-near-record-amount-of-income-at-around-10The result has been a concentration of wealth and income in a tiny minority of the population, and economic stagnation for everybody else.   So the first step in reducing inequality is to stop promoting it.

Piketty’s preferred solution to undue concentration of wealth is a progressive tax on capital, sufficient to prevent the wealth of the economic elite from expanding at a faster rate than the economy as a whole, along with progressive taxes on income and inheritance.  I don’t object to any of these, but higher taxes on the rich do not, in and of themselves, benefit the middle class, wage-earners or the poor.   I think it is more important to  strengthen labor unions, raise the minimum wage, maintain essential public services and invest in the future.


Defenders of wealth push back against Piketty

April 29, 2014

Source: Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century

If things go on as they are now, there’s nothing to prevent wealth from becoming more and more concentrated and economic inequality returning to the levels of England and France 200 years ago, according to French economist Thomas Piketty in his new book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

But many economists say this is not a problem.  They say concentration of wealth is a good thing, not a bad thing, and benefits us all in the long run, not just a tiny elite.   In this post, I will consider this argument, and state it as fairly as I can, then explain what I think the argument leaves out.

Concentrations of wealth are necessary to a capitalist free-enterprise economy.  They provide the means to invest in machinery, technology, education and the other things that increase society’s total wealth.   Capitalism has generated more economic growth than any alternative system and, without capital, there is no capitalism.

The chart above is illlustrates Piketty’s conclusion, based on his research,  that, most of the time, r > g – that is, the rate of return on investment exceeds the rate of growth of the economy, which, as a matter of logic, means that the income of investors grows faster than the income of wage-earners.

Now the chart should be read with discretion.  The parts prior to 1820 are no more than an educated guess; the parts from 1820 to the present are blends of different national economies; the future projection is possibility, not a prediction.  That’s no criticism of Piketty.  He did the best he could with the data available, and what he shows is reasonable.

According to the chart, r > g by a great deal on average prior to 1913.   Nevertheless there was an increasing rate of economic growth.  Inequality was just as extreme in 1913 in France and Britain and more extreme in the USA compared to 1820 or 1700, but that doesn’t mean the average person got no benefit from that growth.  It just meant there was just as much of a gap between rich people and the rest of us.

Not all rich people did things that promote economic growth, but the famous economist Friedrich Hayek argued that an idle rich class is of benefit to society.  They are pioneers in consumption, he said.   Once automobiles were a luxury for the upper class, for example, but now almost every family in North America owns one.  If rich people hadn’t provided an initial market, automobiles would never have developed.   Medical treatments which once were affordable only to rich people are now available to the general public.

Rich philanthropists finance good works, including, as economist Tyler Cowen pointed out, Belknap Press of Harvard University, publisher of the English translation of Piketty’s book.

A final argument is that the problem of excessive returns on capital is self-correcting.  When you have too much capital, the rate of return on capital falls.  If too many houses are built, rent falls.  If capitalists invest too much in building railroads or making personal computers, railroad tickets or computers become a glut on the market, and profits fall.  The economist Joseph Schumpeter called this “creative destruction,” and he said this is how the capitalist system renews itself.

I don’t think these arguments are completely wrong, but they leave a lot out.   Let me explain.


Piketty’s Capital21: why is inequality rising?

April 28, 2014

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a great book.  It consists of the working out of the implications of a simple principle, namely, that if the return on investment is a higher percentage rate than economic growth, wealth and income will become more and more concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority.

He said there is nothing to prevent wealth from becoming as concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite as it was in France and England in the 18th and 19th centuries — which is not the same thing as saying this is certain to occur.   I’m now re-reading Piketty’s book, from which I’m learning a lot, but l think it is important to be clear on what he’s saying and not saying,

He says that historically return on investment has exceeded the rate of economic growth, or, as he puts it, r > g,ut, like most economists, he writes of this as if it were the impersonal workings of the economy.  He lumps all income-producing forms of property together, which is legitimate for his purposes, but I make a distinction between (1) innovators who create value, (2) inheritors and passive investors and (3) usurers and manipulators.  The first deserve rich rewards, the second deserve average rewards, the third deserve to be unemployed or maybe in prison.   I think the rise of people in the third category is a big reason for the upward distribution of income in the USA.

Extreme inequality of income is a bad thing because it gives a small group of people too much power over the rest of us.  But curbing the excessive power of the top 0.1 percent or top 0.01 percent of income earners will not, in and of itself, create economic growth or end poverty.   These are not Piketty’s topics.

His preferred solution to excessive concentration of wealth is a progressive tax on capital along with progressive taxes on incomes and inheritances.  I’m not opposed to this, but I think there are other, better ways to change the r > g equation.  Promoting economic growth is one way.  Empowering wage-earners, such as by stronger labor unions or higher minimum wage laws, is another.

Below are links for those who want to know more, but don’t have time to read the 585 pages of his book and 78 pages of end notes.


Piketty’s formula: its scope and limits

April 4, 2014

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

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.


Why the rich will probably get richer

April 2, 2014


CAPITAL IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY by Thomas Piketty (2013) translated by Arthur Goldhammer (2014)

Thomas Piketty of the University of Paris is the world’s foremost authority on income distribution and the super-rich. All the charts you see how income is being redistributed upward to the top 1 percent of income owners are based on work by him and his collaborators. In this new book, based on 20 years’ work, he concluded that it is not an aberration that ever-greater shares of income go to a tiny elite. Piketty said this is the natural working of a market system.

According to Piketty, the higher you go on the income scale, the larger the amount of income comes from investments rather than work. When the economic grows at a higher percentage rate than the average rate of return on investment, income becomes more widely distributed. When the average rate of return on investment is greater than the rate of economic growth, the owners of economic assets gain at the expense of everybody else.

His research is based on 200 years of data on income and wealth distribution in France, the UK, the USA and other countries, which now can be analyzed and processed with computer technology. His book would be a good supplement to David Graeber’s Debt: the First 5,000 Years, whichi is sketchy on precisely the past two centuries.

Piketty concluded that the average rate of economic growth since 1800 is about 1 percent a year for the countries he studied, and the average rate of return on investment is about 4 to 5 percent a year. Unless something happens to change one or the other figures, a wealthy elite will grow richer and richer at the expense of everyone else, until there is nothing left to invest in.

pikettybookcover00Piketty defines “capital” as anything you can own that will generate income. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, capital (by his definition) consisted mainly of agricultural land and government bonds. Now it consists mainly of housing, industrial machinery and stocks and bonds of private corporations. Few economists would define “capital” in so broad a way, but if all you’re interested in is income distribution, it doesn’t matter what form “capital” takes.

If you read English and French novels set in the early 19th century, the characters consist mainly of members of what Piketty calls the “dominant” class, which are the 1 percent of the population who receive 30 to 60 times the average income, and the “well-to-do”, who consist of the next 9 percent. Characters in Balzac and Jane Austen seek wealth through inheritance, marriage and patronage of wealthier and more powerful people. Nobody in those novels thinks that wealth is acquired through hard work and superior talents. Piketty said there is nothing to prevent a reversion to this kind of world, although the difference between wealth and poverty wouldn’t be quite so extreme.

The reason the history of the 20th century was different, he wrote, is the great destruction of capital during the two world wars and the Great Depression. This cleared the deck for the great surge in prosperity of 1945-1975, which benefited all segments of the population. Since then, according to Piketty, the growth in income has been sucked up by the dominant and well-to-do classes.

Now I don’t think that someone born in 1900 would have thought the prosperity of 1945-1975 justified the catastrophes of 1915-1945. This points to an important limitation of Piketty’s book. It is full of fascinating information, drawn from a wide variety of sources, ranging from centuries of income and property tax records to social history, economic theory, literature and financial

Thomas Piketty

Thomas Piketty

journalism. But when it comes right down to it, he deals with only one subject, the income share of the super-rich. He doesn’t have theories on how to eliminate poverty, promote economic growth, set priorities for public investment or any other important objective. This is not a criticism. It is just a description of what the book is and isn’t about.

His one subject – which is important – is the economic elite and how, short of violent revolution, to prevent from sucking up an undue share of society’s wealth and income. But as the experience of 1915-1945 shows, destroying the power of capital does not, in and of itself, make things better for everyone.

Piketty focuses on data from France and the UK because the United States is, in good and bad ways, exceptional compared to the rest of the world. During the past 200 years, the boundaries of France remained roughly the same and population grew from 30 million to 60 million. During the same period, the United States expanded from a narrow strip along the Atlantic to the Pacific coast, and its population grew from 5 million to 300 million.

Income distribution in the United States historically has been more equal than in Europe, he noted, at least for white men in the Northern states. The chief form of capital in the early United States was agricultural land, and this was very cheap compared to Europe. Early settlers and immigrants brought little wealth with them. What they created was the fruit of their labor. A great deal of the capital for building U.S. factories and railroads came from European investors. The great American hereditary fortunes did not emerge until the dawn of the 20th century.

The South was different from the North because the economic elite possessed enormous capital in the form of enslaved human beings. Piketty estimated that in the 1770-1810 period, the economic value of slaves in the South exceeded the value of all land, housing and other forms of wealth, and also exceeded the total wealth of the North. The result was a high concentration of wealth, and a large gap between rich and poor white people, which persists to this day.

Differences in earned income, while great in all countries, have seldom been as important as differences in income from wealth. The exception is the surge in corporate compensation in the United States and other English-speaking countries in the last generation. Piketty showed, by means of international comparisons, that the current size of executive compensation cannot be justified on the basis of merit or results. It is the result of executives being able to influence their own pay, and the lack of standards as to how much is enough.

The disturbing fact about investment income is that the more you have of it, the higher your rate of return. Piketty compared the returns on endowment funds of American universities, which are a public record, by size categories. The larger the fund category, the higher the percentage return, with Harvard by far outpacing all the rest.

This is because the larger the fund, the more the owner can afford to get expert investment advice, and the better able the owner is to invest small amounts in high risk, high return investments. Also, unlike an individual who has saved for retirement, the super-wealthy person or institution does not have to take out a significant percentage to live on.

The implication is that once you reach a certain level of wealth, your wealth becomes self-sustaining. A Bill Gates or a Steve Jobs can simply coast. He not longer needs the entrepreneurial drive that brought him success in the first place. Piketty’s analysis of the Forbes 400 list indicates that inherited wealth is at least as important as entrepreneurial wealth, and he thinks Forbes vastly underestimates income from passive investments because of lack of access to tax havens.

Piketty’s solution is a tax on capital – which, remember, is by his definition any form of income-producing property – sufficient to bring the average return on investments down to the expected rate of economic growth. He pointed out that some forms of wealth, such as real estate and buildings, already are taxed. In principle, taxing stock portfolios is no different.

Since the average rate of return is greater for greater wealth, his proposed tax would be graduated, with a zero or 0.1 percent rate for fortunes below 1 million euros and perhaps rising as high as 2 percent above 5 million. These don’t seem high, but they are high compared to expected rates of return. He also favors continuation of the graduated income tax and inheritance taxes. His purpose is not to prevent people from getting rich. It is to prevent the rich as a group from getting richer at a faster rate than the economy is growing.

The revenue from the wealth tax should be spent in reducing government debt, which Piketty sees as a transfer of income from taxpayers to wealthy holders of government bonds. It is better to tax the rich than borrow from them, he said.

Piketty’s proposals require much better information about wealth and income than we have now. The first step would be for the international community to require reporting of financial information from places such as Switzerland and the Cayman Islands that act as tax havens.

The 577-page book and the 76 pages of notes are crammed with information of interest even to those who don’t accept his basic argument. It is not written in technical language, which is part of the reason it is so long; Piketty, like the late Isaac Asimov, explains everything from the groun up.  If you don’t have time to read the whole book, his core argument can be found in the Introduction or Conclusion.  Or click on some of the links below.