Prospects for Democratic Redistribution of Wealth

Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty, 2014

An important new work based on many years of meticulous research and made possible by improvements in research materials and methods. French economist Piketty decries economic thought in the past from Malthus to Marx to Kuznets (and this reader adds Milton Friedman of the Chicago School) who first arrived at their theories and conclusions and then sought evidence to support their pre-conceived conclusions. He equally decries modern mathematical economics for trying to reduce a complex and human subject to a few sterile and usually unhelpful formulas.

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Piketty was able to collect considerable data for the entire period from 1700 to the present. The most complete data are available for England and France for the entire period. The period from 1700-1914 was characterized by relative stability of the economies with national incomes growing at 0 to 1½% and with populations and inflation growing at about the same rate. Piketty’s primary focus in this work is the inequalities in individual incomes and wealth. He uses the novels of Jane Austen in England and Honore’ de Balzac in France to give a very specific sense of what it meant to be wealthy and how much income was necessary to live well. The novels are very specific giving numbers in Pounds and Francs so it was possible for readers up to 1914 to get an exact sense of the meaning of the character’s income and wealth and their consequent place in society.
Piketty’s first conclusion is that the relative stability of the period 1700-1914 is the typical state of the world’s economy barring major upsets such as occurred in the period form 1914-1945 and that we are heading into another period of similar stability in the twenty-first century, barring new major catastrophes. The reason that those living today who grew up after WWII and therefore lived through an unusual period of higher growth as the world economies recovered from the catastrophes of 1914-1945 have an expectation of growth that it has been their personal lifetime experience. The data indicates that long term the outlook is for low income growth, low population growth, and low inflation.

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Piketty’s second conclusion is that individual wealth (capital) and its concentration grows over time because the return on capital exceeds the growth in output except in times of extreme catastrophes such as the period 1914-1945. Furthermore, wealthier individual’s or institution’s (like the Harvard $30+ billion endowment) return is higher than less wealthy individual’s or institution’s returns. This gives a long term trend toward an extreme concentration of wealth.
Piketty believes that messy and human democratic processes are the only viable means for societies to determine the proper role of government in society. For Piketty, public education, public health care, and aging security are minimum required functions of government. Public transportation and other infrastructure are also essential. These minimum public requirements cannot be privatized. Piketty specifically does not mention military defense security. To pay for these public functions, the government must raise money and they have a choice of taxation or debt to do so. Government debt requires repayment and so ultimately taxes must be raised to pay for government functions. Debt increases the cost of government, transfers the cost to a later time, and further enriches those wealthy enough to loan to the government. For all these reasons, Piketty believes that government debt must be limited. Big economies are very wealthy and Piketty finds no reason to worry that excessive government debt will transfer ownership to foreign sovereign funds or to any small number of wealthy individuals but excessive government debt is still undesirable and should be avoided. Talking about the recent Greek experiences with the large scale sale of public assets to private owners to reduce government debt levels, Piketty says that wealthy Greeks simply preferred this solution to paying more taxes which they could easily have done with little long term impact on their personal fortunes.

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Even before 1914 the Europeans were experimenting with progressive taxes on individual incomes and with estate taxes on the inheritance of wealth. In the ensuing period 1914-1945 extreme tax rates up to 90 percent were levied on incomes and estates. These taxes along with extreme inflation (1913-1950 France averaged 13% and Germany averaged 17%) along with direct confiscation of assets caused a great decrease in wealth and income and a great decrease in income and wealth inequality. Piketty says that the French Revolution did not decrease income and wealth inequality in France as much as is commonly believed and wealth quickly consolidated again immediately following the first violence of the revolution. While revolutions, wars, and economic depression all reduce income and wealth inequality optimistic Piketty believes these goals should be achievable by less catastrophic means. The solution to reduced inequality is progressive income and inheritance wealth taxation and Piketty argues that far less extreme rates of progressive taxation can achieve the desired end of reducing inequality if moderate progressive taxation is maintained consistently over the long term. In 2010 taxes as a percentage of national income were 55% in Sweden, 50% in France, 40% in Britain, and 30% in the US. Up til 1910 wealthy countries taxes seldom exceeded 10%.
In comparing Europe and the US today, Piketty finds the US by far the least economically (and socially) mobile society. Most great US Universities are private and their students almost all have wealthy parents. Education in the US is no longer a path to upward mobility. Even the public Universities in the US have skyrocketing costs putting them out of reach of all but the wealthiest families. Oddly, Piketty does not discuss students accumulating massive er-reputable debt to finance their own educations going into indentured servitude to banks or the US government. Most of the top jobs and highest incomes are then given to graduates of the elite universities. He talks about the philanthropic uses of great wealth such as that of the Gates Foundation, but he clearly would prefer the society as a whole make these philanthropic decisions rather than a single wealthy individual. These decisions are the proper role of democratic decision making.

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In 2010 the top 10% of the US working population got 58% of total income while in Europe the top 10% got 30%. In 2010 total wealth for the US top 10% was about 70% and for the top 1% was 35%. The top 10% of Europeans owned 90% of wealth in 1900 and that level dropped by 2010 to 60%. Piketty suspects that wealthy individuals and institutions hide one third or more of their actual income and capital. Judging by US Presidential candidate Romney, Piketty is probably underestimating the problem of hiding wealth from taxation.
Historically, Piketty notes that foreign ownership of capital was highest in France and Britain during the colonial period and dropped to negligible levels after WWII. He also notes that the capitalization of labor in the US slave south was a significant feature in US wealth up to the civil war. Capitalizing 40% of the total population of the US south meant that US slave owners were far wealthier than their European counterparts of the period. He notes, wryly, that Thomas Jefferson owned 600 slaves about which he held conflicting emotions.
Piketty is particularly sensitive to the lack of adequate data and record keeping which is essential to a fair and equitable tax system. Information on income and capital holdings must be made available automatically to the governments by banks and institutions and governments must freely share this information among themselves. Today there is a race to the bottom as countries compete with one another to offer lower tax rates on income and inheritance and some aggressively hide wealth held in their territories. Without a court order with proof of fraud or other illegality, Swiss banks will not release information on individual accounts held in Switzerland. Without the account information governments are hard pressed to bring evidence of illegality. There are many such places in the world. Too much of the world’s individual and institutional wealth is hidden in secret shelters which creates problems for researchers and governments alike. Piketty thinks it makes more sense to base taxes on the location of the wealth and income rather than the residence of the individual. Piketty notes with envy that larger economies like the US and China have an easier time setting and enforcing tax policy than the smaller European countries. He talks at some length about the Euro-zone. A central bank for the Euro was created but with little thought to its actual role and function. Piketty holds little hope for the Euro-zone unless a corresponding legislative body with real authority can be established.

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Piketty finishes with a discussion of economists’ treatment of the climate change crisis which is widely viewed as the next huge and looming economic catastrophe. Economists are arguing about the proper discount rate to apply to this catastrophe while the world’s governments seem unable to come up with any meaningful plans of action.
One of Piketty’s big contributions to the discussion of wealth and income inequality is his insistence that you cannot just look at the top 10% or even the top 1% but you must continue down to the .1% the .01% etc because of the extreme concentrations of wealth. He notes that inherited wealth is still dominant but that with the recent extreme inequalities in income and high savings rates of top earners it is now possible to build sizable fortunes within one’s lifetime. Piketty can find no rational economic justification for the extreme new top salaries but governments, unlike the war years when there were salary boards, does nothing to control runaway salary levels.
Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Piketty is optimistic that an international democratic consensus can be achieved with increased wealth and income transparency and reporting and with sensible tax policies that can slowly control and correct for income and wealth inequality.

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