Optimist anticipates participatory socialism and social federalism

Capital and Ideology, Thomas Piketty, 2020
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A continuation of Piketty’s earlier 2014 work extending his previous analysis starting from 1500 to the present and adding France, India, China, Germany, Spain. the Nordic countries, Russia and Eastern Europe, the Petro-Monarchies, etc.
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Today, the postcommunist societies of Russia, China, and to a certain extent Eastern Europe…have become hypercapitalism’s staunchest allies. This is a direct consequence of the disaster of Socialism and Marxism and the consequence of all egalitarian internationalist ambitions. So great was the communist disaster that it overshadowed even the damage done by the ideologies of slavery, colonialism, and racialism and obscured the ties between those ideologies and the ideology of ownership and hypercapitalism–no mean feat.

Furthermore, social democrats never really reconsidered the issue of just ownership after the collapse of communism. The postwar social-democratic compromise was built in haste, and issues such as progressive taxation, temporary ownership, circulation of ownership (for example, by means of a universal capital grant financed by a progressive tax on property and inheritances), power sharing in firms (via co-management or self management), democratic budgeting and public ownership were never explored as fully or systematically as they might have been.

It (modern property law) originated…with Christian doctrine, which sought over many centuries to secure the property rights of the Church as both a religious and a property-owning organization.

…the concentration of private property, which was already extremely high in 1800-1810, only slightly lower than on the eve of the (French) Revolution, steadily increased throughout the nineteenth century and up to the eve of World War I…The case of Paris is especially noteworthy; there, the wealthiest 1 percent owned nearly 50 percent of all property in 1800-1810 and more than 65 percent on the eve of World War I.

As for achieving real equality, however, the great promise of the (French) Revolution went unfulfilled…And when a progressive income tax was finally adoption on July 15, 1914, it was not to finance schools or public services but to pay for war with Germany.

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When slavery was abolished in the 19th Century, the discussion in slave owning nations concerned compensation for the owner’s of slaves, never about compensation for the slaves.

It is easy to see that in a society where slaves represented virtually the entire work force, their market value could reach astronomical levels, potentially as high as seven or eight years of annual production…Recall that France saddled Haiti with a debt equivalent to three years of Haitian nation income in 1825 yet remained convinced that it was making sacrifices compared to what slaves in Saint-Dominique actually yielded in profit.

In 1860, the market value of (US) slaves (4 million in number) exceeded 250 percent of the annual income of the southern states and came close to 100 percent of the annual income of all the states. If compensation had been paid, it would have been saddled with interest and principal payments for decades.

The secession of the southern states and the resulting Civil War ended these discussions and US slave owners were never compensated for their loss of property as a result of the war and the emancipation proclamation.

Piketty follows the transformation, starting around 1500, of society from Ternary (Clergy, Nobility, Third estate–the workers) to Ownership societies with a centralized state. This transformation was accompanied by the rapid development of arms, warships, and navigation, needed to support the endless wars among the new nation states. This technological development of war tools enabled the co development of slavery and colonialism. Even the Ottoman and Chinese Empires were no match for the modern war machine. Gunboat diplomacy reigned supreme into the twentieth century. An extreme example are the two opium wars of Britain against China in the mid nineteenth century. Not only did China have to allow the sale of opium in China, but China was saddled with massive reparations for the costs of the wars.

Japanese Depiction of Perry’s black ships
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Japan reacted to the American (Admiral Perry), French and British visit by warship in the mid nineteenth century with the Meiji reformation, whereby Japan acquired and built its own advanced arms and warships and became a colonial power in its own right.

In the period 1880-1914, the United Kingdom and France earned so much from their investments in the rest of the world (roughly 5 percent additional national income for France and more than 8 percent for the United Kingdom) that they could allow themselves to run persistent structural trade deficits (an average of 1-2 percent of national income for both countries) while continuing to accumulate claims on the rest of the world at an accelerated pace. In other words, the rest of the world labored to increase consumption and standard of living of the colonial powers, even as it became increasingly indebted to those powers.

On Colonial state tax revenues in the eighteenth century:

…both countries (England and France) were taking in 600-900 tons of silver in 1700, 800-1100 tons in the 1750’s, and 1600-1900 tons in the 1780’s, leaving all other European powers far behind. Importantly, Ottoman tax receipts remained virtually unchanged from 1500 to 1780; barely 150-200 tons. After 1750, it was not only France and England that had a far greater tax capacity than the Ottoman Empire; so did Austria, Prussia, Spain, and Holland.

…the development of the modern state involved two great leaps forward. The first unfolded between 1500 and 1800 in the leading states of Europe, which were able to increase their tax revenues from barely 1-2 percent of national income to about 6-8 percent. This process was accompanied by the development of ownership societies at home and colonial empires abroad. The second leap forward came in the period 1930-1980, when the rich countries as a group went from tax revenues of 8-10 percent of national income on the eve of World War I to revenues of 30-50 percent of national income in the 1980s. This transformation was accompanied by a broad process of economic development and historic improvement in living conditions and gave rise to various forms of social-democratic society…It proved difficult to extend the second leap forward to poorer countries in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries…

If we include all military conflicts across the continent in each period, we find that European countries were at war 95 percent in the sixteenth centry, 94 percent in the seventeenth century, and still 78 percent in the eighteenth century (compared to 40 percent in the nineteenth century and 54 percent in the twentieth century). The period 1500-1800 was one of incessant rivalry among Europe’s military powers, and this is what fueled the development of unprecedented fiscal capacity as well as numerous technological innovations, particularly in the areas of artillery and warships.

By the end of the American Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815), British public debt had soared to more than 200 percent of national income, the debt was so high that one-third of the taxes paid by British taxpayers between 1815 and 1914 (mainly by people of middle and low income) was devoted to repayment of the debt and interest (profiting the wealthy who had lent the government money to pay for the wars)…It also might have been preferable to tax the wealthy rather than allow them to become still wealthier by buying government bonds…with political power in the hands of the wealthy, the choice was made to spend money on the military and to finance it with public debt, and this helped to secure European domination over the rest of the world.

…these protectionist and mercantilist measures, imposed on the the rest of the world at gunpoint, played a significant role in achieving British and European industrial domination. According to available estimates, the Chinese and Indian share of global manufacturing output, which was still 53 percent in 1800, had fallen to 5 percent by 1900.

The colonial ideology that seeks to liberate and civilize nations in spite of themselves generally leads to disaster, no matter what the color of the colonizer’s skin (Japan).

The success of Japan’s proprietarian and industrial transition shows that the mechanisms at work have nothing whatsoever to do with Christian culture or Eueopean civilization…the Japanese experiences shows that proactive policies, especially regarding public infrastructure and investments in education, can overcome very strong and longstanding status inequalities in a matter of decades…we will see that the reduction of social inequality in Japan was further assisted by an ambitious program of agrarian reform in the period 1945-1950 as well as by highly progressive taxation of top incomes and large estates.

The fall of ownership society in the period 1914-1945 can be analyzed as a consequence of three challenges; the challenge of inequality with European ownership societies, which led to the emergence first of counterdiscourses and then of communist and social-democratic counter-regimes in the late nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries; the challenge of inequality among countries, which led to critiques of the colonial order and the rise of increasingly powerful independence movements in the same period; and finally a nationalist and identitarian challenge, which heightened competition among the European powers and eventually led to their self-destruction through war and genocide in the period 1914-1945.

The period from 1726-1914 saw low inflation and complete stability in the value of the pound sterling and the French gold franc. World War I put an end to monetary stability and the suspension of convertibility of their currencies into silver or gold.

…from 1914 to 1950 inflation averaged 13 percent a year in France (equivalent to a hundred fold increase in the price level) and 17 percent in Germany (a three hundredfold price increase).

…ownership societies that seemed so prosperous and solid on the eve of World War I collapsed between 1914-and 1945. The collapse was so complete that nominally capitalist countries actually turned into social democracies between 1950 and 1980 through a mixture of policies including nationalizations, public education, health and pension reforms, and progressive taxation of the highest incomes and largest fortunes. Despite undeniable success, however, these social-democratic societies began to run into trouble in the 1980’s. Specifically, they proved unable to cope with rampant inequality that began to develop more of less everywhere around that time.

Why did social democratic societies fail after 1980?

Ronald Reagan (R) and Margaret Thatcher wave after their arrival in Camp David, 22 december 1984, before their meeting. (Photo credit should read ARCHIVES UPI/AFP/Getty Images)

In the first place, attempts to institute new forms of power sharing and social ownership of firms remained confined to a small number of countries (especially German and Sweden). This avenue of reform was never explored fully as it might have been, even though it offered one of the most promising responses to the challenge of transcending private property and capitalism. Second, social democracy did not have a good answer to one pressing question; how to provide equal access to education and knowledge, particularly higher education. Finally, we will look at social-democratic thinking about taxation, especially progressive taxation of wealth. Social democracy did not succeed in building new transnational federal forms of shared sovereignty or social and fiscal justice. Today’s globalized economy is one in which regulation in all its forms has been undermined by free trade and free circulation of capital, instituted by agreements to which social democrats consented or even instigated. In any case, they had no alternative to offer. The resulting heightened international competition has gravely endangered the social contract (and consent to taxation) on which the social-democratic states of the twentieth century were built.

The French and British never embraced corporate power sharing and social ownership preferring nationalization of private companies:

Then in 1986-1988 the Gaullist and liberal parties returned to power in a new context of privatization and deregulation under Thatcher and Reagan, while at the the same time the Communist bloc was slowly crumbling. This led to the privatization of most of the companies that had been nationalized between 1945-1982.

…from 1917 to 1991, new thinking about private property was blocked by the bipolar opposition of Soviet Communism and American capitalism. One was either for unlimited state ownership or for full private shareholder ownership….The fall of the Soviet Union inaugurated a new period of unlimited faith in private property from which we have not yet completely emerged but which is beginning to show serious signs of exhaustion.

On the massive inequality that developed in the United States from about 1980:

The bottom 50 percent of the income distribution claimed about 20 percent of national income from 1960 to 1980, but that share has been divided in half, falling to just 12 percent in 2010-2015. The top centile’s share has moved in the opposite direction, from barely 11 percent to more than 20 percent…the share of total income going to the bottom 50 percent in Europe remains significantly larger than the share going to the top centile.

To sum up: in the light of the history of the past two centuries, educational equality played a more important sole in economic development than the sacrilization of inequality, property, and stability. More generally, history demonstrated the recurrent risk of an “inequality trap” which many societies have faced throughout the ages. Elite discourse tends to overvalue stability, and especially the perpetuation of existing property rights, whereas development often requires a redefinition of property relations and opening up of opportunities to new groups.

On the failures of progressive taxation:

First, parties of the left failed to foster the kind of international cooperation needed to protect and extend progressive taxation; indeed at times they contributed to the fiscal competition that has proved devastating to the very idea of fiscal justice. Second, thinking about just taxation too often neglected the idea of a progressive wealth tax, despite its importance for any ambitious attempt to transcend private capitalism, particularly if used to finance a universal capital endowment and promote greater circulation of wealth.

…we now know that the top centile’s share of total wealth can fall from 70 percent to 20 percent without impeding growth (quite the contrary, as Western European experience in the twentieth century shows). We know from experience with Germanic and Nordic versions of co-management that employee and shareholder representatives can each control half the voting rights in a firm and that such power sharing can improve overall economic performance.

On tax havens:

…this minimum estimate implies that the financial assets tucked away in tax havens are roughly equal to the total amount of all financial assets legal owned by Russian households inside Russia (roughly one year of national income). In other words, off shore property has become at least as important in macroeconomic terms as legal financial property…In a sense, illegality has become the norm.

…by exploiting data made public by the Bank for International Settlements (BIS) and the Swiss National Bank (SNB) on countries where assets are held, one can estimate each country’s approximate share of offshore assets held in tax havens relative to the total (lawful and unlawful) assets held by residents of each country. The results are as follows; “only” 4 percent for the United States, 10 percent for Europe, 22 percent for Latin America, 30 percent for Africa, 50 percent for Russia, and 57 percent for the petroleum monarchies.

On China:

China thus appears to have settled on a mixed-economy property structure: the country is no longer communist since nearly 70 percent of all property is now private, but it is not completely capitalist either because public property still accounts for a little more than 30 percent of the total–a minority share but still substantial. Because the Chinese government, led by the CCP, owns a third of all there is to own in the country, its scope for economic intervention is large: it can decide where to invest, create jobs, and launch regional development programs.

If we compare China to the other Asian giant, India, it is clear that since the early 1980s China has been both more efficient in terms of growth and more egualitarian in terms of income distribution (or, rather, less inegalitarian, in the sense that concentration of income has increased less dramatically than in India)…one reason for this difference is that China has been able to invest more in public infrastructure, education, and health care. China achieved a much higher level of tax revenue than India, where basic health-care and educational services remain notoriously underfinanced. China has nearly matched Western levels of taxation, taking in roughly 30 percent of national income in taxes (and roughly 40 percent if one includes profits from public firms and sale of public lands).

On the dangers posed by the central banks:

After the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in September 2008 and the ensuing financial panic, things changed completely…The world’s major central banks devised increasingly complex money-creation schemes collectively described by the enigmatic term “quantitative easing” (QE). In concrete terms, QE involves lending to the banking sectors for longer and longer periods (three months, six months, or even a year rather than a few days or weeks) and buying bonds issued by private firms and governments with even longer duration (of several years) and in much greater quantities than before. The Federal Reserve was the first to react In September 2008 its balance sheet increased from the equivalent of 5 percent of GDP to 15 percent; in other words the Fed created money equivalent to 10 percent of US GDP in a few weeks time. This proactive stance would continue in subsequent years; the Fed’s balance sheet had risen to 25 percent of GDP by the end of 2014…In Europe the reaction was slower. The ECB and other European authorities took longer to understand that massive intervention by the central bank was the only way to stabilize financial markets and reduce the “spread” between the interest rates of the various European countries. Since then, the ECB purchases of public and private bonds have accelerated, however, and the ECB’s balance sheet stood at 40 percent of Eurozone GDP at the end of 2018…By avoiding cascading bank failures and acting as “lender of last resort”, the Fed and ECB did not repeat the errors that the central banks committed in the interwar years, when orthodox “liquidationist” thinking (based on the idea that bad banks must be allowed to fail so that the economy can restart) helped push the world over the edge of the the abyss…What makes central banks so powerful is their ability to act extremely rapidly.

Piketty does not discuss the New Deal US Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation FDIC program which allows the federal government to instantly take over failing banks, reorganize them with new management, and reopen them after a single weekend, assuring depositors that their savings are insured and immediately available. Obama and his treasury secretary Tim Geithner refused to allow the Shiela Bair led FDIC to break up and reorganize the failing banks during the 2008 crisis. This would have been the available and desired solution to the failures.

…the danger is that these monetary policies, by avoiding the worst gave the impression that no broader structural change in social, fiscal, or economic policy was necessary. Nevertheless, the fact is that central banks are not equipped to solve all the world’s problems or to serve as the ultimate regulator of the capitalist system…To combat excessive financial deregulation, rising inequality, and climate change, other public institutions are necessary; laws, taxes, and treaties drafted by parliaments relying on collective deliberation and democratic procedures.

In the abstract, there is nothing to stop central banks from enlarging their balance sheets by a factor of ten or even more…From a strickly technical standpoint, the Fed or ECB could create dollars or euros worth 600 percent of GDP and attempt to buy all the private wealth of the United States or Western Europe…central banks and their boards of governors are no better equipped to administer all of a country’s property than were the Soviet Union’s central planners.

…the Bank of Japan and Swiss National Bank both have balance sheets in excess of 100 percent of GDP…It is nevertheless impossible to rule out that similar things will someday happen to the Eurozone or the United States. Financial globalization has assumed such proportions that it may lead those responsible for setting monetary policy step by step toward decisions that would have been unthinkable only a few years before.

Many citizens have quite understandably begun to ask why such sums were created to bail out financial institutions, with little apparent effect in jump-starting the European economy, and why it shouldn’t be possible to mobilize similar resource to help struggling workers, develop public infrastructure, or finance large investments in renewable sources of energy. Indeed it would be by no means absurd for European governments to borrow at current low interest rates to finance useful investments, on two conditions; first, such investments should be decided democratically, in parliament with open debate, and not by a Governing Council meeting behind closed doors; and second, it would be dangerous to lend credence to the notion that every problem can be resolved by printing money and taking on debt. The principal instrument for mobilizing resources to undertake common political projects was and remains taxation, democratically decided and levied on the base of each taxpayer’s economic resources and ability to pay, in total transparency.

And yet the Democratic presidents who followed Reagan, Bill Clinton (1992-2000) and Barack Obama (2008-2016) never made any real attempt to revise the narrative or reverse the policies of the 1980s. In particular, in regard to the reduction of the progressive income tax (whose top marginal rate fell to an average of 39 percent from 1980 to 2018, half its level in the period 1932-1980) and the de-indexing of the federal minimum wage (which led to a clear loss of purchasing power since 1980), the Clinton and Obama administrations basically validated and perpetuated the basic thrust of policy under Reagan…But it may also be that acceptance of the new fiscal and social agenda was partly due to the transformation of the Democratic electorate and to a political and strategic choice to rely more heavily on the party’s new and highly educated supporters, who may have found the turn toward less redistributive policies personally advantageous.

In particular, higher-income voters voted more heavily for Tony Blair’s New Labour in the period 1997-2005 than they had voted for Labour previously. That may seem logical given that New Labour also attracted more and more votes among college-educated people and its fiscal policies were relatively favorable to high earners. Just as the Clinton (1992-2000) and Obama (2008-2016) administrations had validated and perpetuated the Reagan reforms of the 1980s, New Labour governments in the period 1997-2010 largely validated and perpetuated the fiscal reforms of the Thatcher era.

I have tried to highlight the significant dangers posed by the rise of socioeconomic inequality since 1980. In a period marked by internationalization of trade and rapid expansion of higher education, social-democratic parties failed to adapt quickly enough, and the left-right cleavage that had made possible the mid-twentieth-century reduction of inequality gradually fell apart. The conservative revolution of the 1980s, the collapse of Soviet communism, and the development of neo-proprietarian ideology vastly increased the concentration of income and wealth in the first two decades of the twenty first century. For want of a constructive egalitarian and universal political outlet, these tensions have fostered the kinds of nationalist identity cleavages that we see today in practically every part of the world…When people are told that there is no credible alternative to the socioeconomic organization and class inequality that exists today, it is not surprising that they invest their hopes in defending their borders and identities instead.

In the broadest terms, the tax system of the just society would rest on three principal progressive taxes: a progressive annual tax on property, a progressive tax on inheritances, and a progressive tax on income. As indicated here, the annual property tax and the inheritance tax would together yield about 5 percent of national income, all of which would be used to finance capital endowments. The progressive income tax, would yield about 45 percent of national income, which would be used to finance all other public expenditures, including the basic income and, above all, the welfare state (which would cover health, education, pensions, and so on).

The model of participatory socialism proposed here rests on two key pillars; first, social ownership and shared voting rights in firms, and second, temporary ownership and circulation of capital. These are the essential tools for transcending the current system of private ownership. By combining them, we can achieve a system of ownership that has little in common with today’s private capitalism; indeed it amounts to a a genuine transcendence of capitalism.

If every individual is to have a chance of finding decently remunerated employment, we must put an end to the hypocritical practice of investing more in elitist educational programs and institutions than in institutions that cater to the disadvantaged. The labor code and, more generally the entire legal system need to be overhauled. New systems of wage bargaining, a higher minimum wage, a fairer wage scale, and sharing of voting rights within firms between workers and shareholders can all contribute to the establishment of a just wage, a more equal distribution of economic power, and a deeper involvement of workers in shaping the strategy of their employers.

The central goal of democratic equality vouchers is to promote participatory and egalitarian democracy. Currently, the prevalence of private (political) financing significantly biases the political process. This is particularly true of the United States where campaign finance laws (always inadequate) have been set aside by recent decisions of the Supreme Court. But it is also true in emerging democracies such as India and Brazil as well as in Europe, where current laws are equally inadequate and in some cases totally scandalous.

The redefinition of the global legal framework will require abandonment of some existing treaties, most notably those concerning the free circulation of capital that came into effect in the 1980s-1990s because these stand in the way of meeting the above mentioned goals. These treaties will need to be replaced by new rules based on the principles of financial transparency, fiscal cooperation, and transnational democracy.

Finally it should be noted that this book was written before the start of the global covid19 pandemic and the global recession/depression. Undoubtedly much is about to change socially and politically in response.

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