APRIL 14, 2014
What are the grand dynamics that drive the accumulation and distribution of capital? Questions about the long-term evolution of inequality, the concentration of wealth, and the prospects for economic growth lie at the heart of political economy. But satisfactory answers have been hard to find for lack of adequate data and clear guiding theories. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty analyzes a unique collection of data from twenty countries, ranging as far back as the eighteenth century, to uncover key economic and social patterns. His findings will transform debate and set the agenda for the next generation of thought about wealth and inequality.
Piketty shows that modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge have allowed us to avoid inequalities on the apocalyptic scale predicted by Karl Marx. But we have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality as much as we thought in the optimistic decades following World War II. The main driver of inequality–the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth–today threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values. But economic trends are not acts of God. Political action has curbed dangerous inequalities in the past, Piketty says, and may do so again.
A work of extraordinary ambition, originality, and rigor, Capital in the Twenty-First Century reorients our understanding of economic history and confronts us with sobering lessons for today.
The book draws on reams of data from the United States and numerous other countries. Most of the data comes from income tax records and estate tax/inheritance records. The sheer quantity of data that underlies Piketty’s conclusions is unprecedented, and as a result his work deserves a great deal of credibility.
While the book is quite long, the major conclusion can be summarized very briefly: Piketty has found that, over the long run, the return on capital is higher than the growth rate of the overall economy. In other words, accumulated and inherited wealth becomes a larger fraction of the economic pie over time. This happens more or less automatically, and there is no reason to believe this trend will change or reverse course.
Piketty argues that the reduction in inequality in developed countries after World War II was a “one-off” that was driven entirely by political choices and policies. It did not happen automatically. Those policies have now been largely reversed, especially in the United States. As a result the drive toward increased inequality is likely to be relentless.
Piketty’s solution is a global wealth tax. While this seems politically unfeasible, he argues that it is the only thing likely to work.
[From the New Yorker] – At first, Piketty concentrated on getting the facts down, rather than interpreting them. Using tax records and other data, he studied how income inequality in France had evolved during the twentieth century, and published his findings in a 2001 book. A 2003 paper that he wrote with Emmanuel Saez, a French-born economist at Berkeley, examined income inequality in the United States between 1913 and 1998. It detailed how the share of U.S. national income taken by households at the top of the income distribution had risen sharply during the early decades of the twentieth century, then fallen back during and after the Second World War, only to soar again in the nineteen-eighties and nineties.
With the help of other researchers, including Saez and the British economist Anthony Atkinson, Piketty expanded his work on inequality to other countries, including Britain, China, India, and Japan. The researchers established the World Top Incomes Database, which now covers some thirty countries, among them Malaysia, South Africa, and Uruguay. Piketty and Saez also updated their U.S. figures, showing how the income share of the richest households continued to climb during and after the Great Recession, and how, in 2012, the top one per cent of households took 22.5 per cent of total income, the highest figure since 1928.
The question is what’s driving the upward trend. Piketty didn’t think that economists’ standard explanations were convincing, largely because they didn’t pay enough attention to capital accumulation—the process of saving, investing, and building wealth which classical economists, such as David Ricardo, Karl Marx, and John Stuart Mill, had emphasized. Piketty defines capital as any asset that generates a monetary return. It encompasses physical capital, such as real estate and factories; intangible capital, such as brands and patents; and financial assets, such as stocks and bonds. In modern economics, the term “capital” has been purged of its ideological fire and is treated as just another “factor of production,” which, like labor and land, earns a competitive rate of return based upon its productivity. A popular model of economic growth developed by Robert Solow, one of Piketty’s former colleagues at M.I.T., purports to show how the economy progresses along a “balanced growth path,” with the shares of national income received by the owners of capital and labor remaining constant over time. This doesn’t jibe with modern reality. In the United States, for example, the share of income going to wages and other forms of labor compensation dropped from sixty-eight per cent in 1970 to sixty-two per cent in 2010—a decline of close to a trillion dollars.
Some people claim that the takeoff at the very top reflects the emergence of a new class of “superstars”—entrepreneurs, entertainers, sports stars, authors, and the like—who have exploited new technologies, such as the Internet, to enlarge their earnings at the expense of others in their field. If this is true, high rates of inequality may reflect a harsh and unalterable reality: outsized spoils are going to go to Roger Federer, James Patterson, and the WhatsApp guys. Piketty rejects this account. The main factor, he insists, is that major companies are giving their top executives outlandish pay packages. His research shows that “supermanagers,” rather than “superstars,” account for up to seventy per cent of the top 0.1 per cent of the income distribution. (In 2010, you needed to earn at least $1.5 million to qualify for this élite group.) Rising income inequality is largely a corporate phenomenon.
Many C.E.O.s receive a lot of stock and stock options. Over time, they and other rich people earn a lot of money from the capital they have accumulated: it comes in the form of dividends, capital gains, interest payments, profits from private businesses, and rents. Income from capital has always played a key role in capitalism. Piketty claims that its role is growing even larger, and that this helps explain why inequality is rising so fast. Indeed, he argues that modern capitalism has an internal law of motion that leads, not inexorably but generally, toward less equal outcomes. The law is simple. When the rate of return on capital—the annual income it generates divided by its market value—is higher than the economy’s growth rate, capital income will tend to rise faster than wages and salaries, which rarely grow faster than G.D.P.
If ownership of capital were distributed equally, this wouldn’t matter much. We’d all share in the rise in profits and dividends and rents. But in the United States in 2010, for example, the richest ten per cent of households owned seventy per cent of all the country’s wealth (a good surrogate for “capital”), and the top one per cent of households owned thirty-five per cent of the wealth. By contrast, the bottom half of households owned just five per cent. When income generated by capital grows rapidly, the richest families benefit disproportionately.
80% tax on imcome over 1 million dollars a year and net worth tax
Given that inequality is a worldwide phenomenon, Piketty aptly has a worldwide solution for it: a global tax on wealth combined with higher rates of tax on the largest incomes. How much higher? Referring to work that he has done with Saez and Stefanie Stantcheva, of M.I.T., Piketty reports, “According to our estimates, the optimal top tax rate in the developed countries is probably above eighty per cent.” Such a rate applied to incomes greater than five hundred thousand or a million dollars a year “not only would not reduce the growth of the US economy but would in fact distribute the fruits of growth more widely while imposing reasonable limits on economically useless (or even harmful) behavior.”
Piketty is referring here to the occasionally destructive activities of Wall Street traders and investment bankers. His new wealth tax would be like an annual property tax, but it would apply to all forms of wealth. Households would be obliged to declare their net worth to the tax authorities, and they would be taxed upon it. Piketty tentatively suggests a levy of one per cent for households with a net worth of between one million and five million dollars; and two per cent for those worth more than five million. “Or one might prefer a much more steeply progressive tax on large fortunes (for example a rate of 5 to 10 percent on assets above one billion euros),” he adds. A wealth tax would force individuals who often manage to avoid other taxes to pay their fair share; and it would generate information about the distribution of wealth, which is currently opaque. “Some people think that the world’s billionaires have so much money that it would be enough to tax them at a low rate to solve all the world’s problems,” Piketty notes. “Others believe that there are so few billionaires that nothing much would come of taxing them more heavily. . . . In any case, truly democratic debate cannot proceed without reliable statistics.”
Reality of attempts to implement wealth taxes
The nations of the world can’t agree on taxing harmful carbon emissions, let alone taxing the capital of their richest and most powerful citizens. Piketty concedes as much. Still, he says, his proposal provides a standard against which to judge other proposals; it points to the need for other useful reforms, such as improving international banking transparency; and it could be introduced in stages. A good place to begin, he thinks, would be a European wealth tax that would replace the property tax, which “in most countries is tantamount to a wealth tax on the propertied middle class.” But that may be utopian, too. If the European Union moved ahead with Piketty’s proposal, it would produce a rush to tax havens like Switzerland and Luxembourg. Previous efforts to introduce wealth taxes at the national level have run into problems. Spain, for example, adopted a wealth tax in 2012 and abolished it at the start of this year. In Italy, a wealth tax proposed in 2011 never went through. Such difficulties explain why governments still rely on other, admittedly imperfect, tools to tax capital, such as taxes on property, estates, and capital gains.
In the United States, the very idea of a new wealth tax looks like a nonstarter politically, as would the notion of raising the top rate of income tax to eighty per cent.
SOURCES – Amazon, Guardian UK, New Yorker, youtube