Reviewing Capital 21


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A round-up of reviews of Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century

For the Old Mole Variety Hour, April 7, 2014

Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century has been called the book that every economist is taking to the beach this summer, the Harry Potter of economic policy, and, if not one of the best books in economics, at least one of the watershed books in economic thinking.

That last praise comes in a publication from the World Bank, so comrades of the Mole will understand that at least the usual skepticism should be maintained about Capital 21, as it can be abbreviated.

The ill-read red has not read all 700 pages of Piketty's tome, just some of the sections available for preview, and a number of reviews. So this is not a review of Piketty's book so much as a summary of some of the conversation about it, a review of the reviews, of which there are many.

Doug Henwood in Book Forum sums up Piketty's argument like this:

Left to its own devices, wealth inevitably tends to concentrate in capitalist economies. There is no “natural” mechanism inherent in the structure of such economies for inhibiting, much less reversing, that tendency. Only crises like war and depression, or political interventions like taxation (which, to the upper classes, would be a crisis), can do the trick. . . .

Piketty, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, has little taste for conventional (meaning mostly American) economics. Early on, he is critical of his discipline’s “childish passion for mathematics” and its lack of interest in other social sciences or culture. He often refers to novels, particularly those by the likes of Austen and Balzac, that illuminate the world of wealth—something you’d never find in the latest number of the American Economic Review. And he takes passing swipes at prestigious US academic economists, who generally find themselves near the top of the income distribution and who, not coincidentally, believe that that distribution of income is just and efficient.

James K Galbraith in Dissent sums up Piketty's account this way:

The empirical core of Piketty’s book is about the distribution of income as revealed by tax records in a handful of rich countries—mainly France and Britain but also the United States, Canada, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and some others. Its virtues lie in permitting a long view and in giving detailed attention to the income of elite groups, which other approaches to distribution often miss.

Piketty shows that in the mid-twentieth century the income share accruing to the top-most groups in his countries fell, thanks mainly to the effects and after-effects of the Second World War. These included unionization and rising wages, progressive income tax rates, and postwar nationalizations and expropriations in Britain and France. The top shares remained low for three decades. They then rose from the 1980s onward, sharply in the United States and Britain and less so in Europe and Japan.

Wealth concentrations seem to have peaked around 1910, fallen until 1970, and then increased once again. If Piketty’s estimates are correct, top wealth shares in France and the United States remain today below their Belle Époque values, while U.S. top income shares have returned to their values in the Gilded Age. Piketty also believes the United States is an extreme case—that income inequality here today exceeds that in some major developing countries, including India, China, and Indonesia.

But Galbriath has a number of criticisms:

To summarize so far, Thomas Piketty’s book about capital is neither about capital in the sense used by Marx nor about the physical capital that serves as a factor of production in the neoclassical model of economic growth. It is a book mainly about the valuation placed on tangible and financial assets, the distribution of those assets through time, and the inheritance of wealth from one generation to the next.

Galbraith suggests that Piketty's policy recommendations

reveal him to be neither radical nor neoliberal, nor even distinctively European. Despite having made some disparaging remarks early on about the savagery of the United States, it turns out that Thomas Piketty is a garden-variety social welfare democrat in the mold, largely, of the American New Deal.

Indeed, Piketty has a recent short article in the Financial Times, tersely titled "Save capitalism from the capitalists by taxing wealth."

Similarly to Galbraith, Henwood objects that although

Piketty’s book . . . is original and very important, and deserves a wide audience. . . . the major frustration of the book is political. Piketty clearly shows that short of depression and war, the only possible way to tame the beast of endless concentration is concerted political action. The high upper-bracket tax rates of the immediate postwar decades couldn’t have happened without serious fears among elites—fresh memories of the Depression, threats from strong domestic unions, competition on a global scale with the USSR, which, for all its problems, was living proof that an alternative economic system was possible. As those things waned, upper-bracket taxes were lowered, wages and benefits were cut, and capital’s increased mobility led to increased competition among jurisdictions to offer a “favorable investment climate”—meaning weak regulations, low wages, and minimal taxes. All these trends have contributed to the concentration of capital over the last thirty years, as wealth and power have shifted upward on an enormous scale. None of these features will be reversed spontaneously. Nor will they be altered through “democratic deliberation”—several times Piketty notes the hefty political power of the owning class—or improved educational access, as Piketty actually urges at one unfortunate point. . . . .

Rather than the tax on wealth that Piketty proposes, Galbraith suggests that

If the heart of the problem is a rate of return on private assets that is too high, the better solution is to lower that rate of return. How? Raise minimum wages! That lowers the return on capital that relies on low-wage labor. Support unions! Tax corporate profits and personal capital gains, including dividends! Lower the interest rate actually required of businesses! Do this by creating new public and cooperative lenders to replace today’s zombie mega-banks.

Henwood observes that

Starting with the title, the eternally recurrent specter of Marx hangs over this book. Early into the first page of the introduction, Piketty asks, “Do the dynamics of private capital accumulation inevitably lead to the concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands, as Karl Marx believed in the nineteenth century?” Phrasing the question as something grounded in the past is a nice distancing technique, as the psychoanalysts say, but the answer is clearly yes. Several times, Piketty disavows Marx—just a few lines later he credits “economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge” for allowing us to avoid “the Marxist apocalypse”—but he also concedes that those prophylactics have not changed capitalism’s deep structures and the tendency for wealth to concentrate. It seems, in other words, that Piketty’s own research shows that the old nineteenth-century gloomster had a point.

Unlike most modern economists, Piketty at least credits Marx’s ambition and profundity. But for Piketty, the main problem with Marx is his unequivocal call for political confrontation. Having described a process of inexorable material polarization—and with it, increasing plutocratic power over the state—Piketty remains distressingly moderate as he sounds out some of the political implications of his analysis. A major reason for his posture of socialist skepticism, he declares, is that he came of age as Soviet-style Communism was falling apart, which left him “vaccinated for life against the conventional but lazy rhetoric of anticapitalism.”

Anticapitalist rhetoric need not be lazy—and for all the empirical sophistication of Piketty’s work, his political thinking is hardly a model of complexity or effort. He mostly aspires to contribute to rational democratic deliberation about “the best way to organize society.” Still, while such deliberation is clearly necessary, political action cannot be factored out of that process just because we happen to have lived through the Cold War’s unmourned collapse.

Henwood concludes,

It’s energizing to see that a younger generation of political intellectuals, who were in grade school when the Berlin Wall came down, missed the anticapitalist vaccination. They might be able to take Piketty’s data and cause some genuine trouble with it. Because serious trouble—demonstrations, strikes, insurgent political movements—is what it will take to derail capitalism’s inevitable tendency toward concentration. Short of that, it looks like we’ll be continuing our journey along the road to a new serfdom.