If Thomas Piketty’s thesis is that rich countries are moving inevitably and imminently to Victorian levels of inequality, it is not supported by the evidence he adduces for the UK.
I haven’t read much of the book yet, but I am suspicious of it, because it seems to be telling wide-eyed anti-capitalists what they want to hear.
I agree with them and with him that too much inequality is a bad thing. But you cannot begin to do something about it unless you understand it, and that includes knowing whether inequality today is remotely comparable to that of the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries.
My complaint about many of the readings of Piketty’s book is that they are liable to induce fatalism (if rising inequality is as “inevitable” as Pikettists seem to think it is) or extremism (such as Piketty’s support for an 80 per cent rate of income tax).
Fortunately, the backlash against Piketty is beginning. David Smith has made his article in The Sunday Times free to read:
capitalism, equality, inequality, thomas piketty
The criticisms are starting to mount, even from some who might be expected to be sympathetic to Piketty. Tyler Cowen, the well-regarded professor of economics at George Mason University and co-author of the hugely popular Marginal Revolution website, finds serious flaws.
“Overall, the main argument is based on two false claims,” he wrote recently. “Firstly, that capital returns will be high and non-diminishing … Second, that this can happen without significant increases in real wages … I’m not convinced by the main arguments and the positive reviews I have read worsen rather than alleviate my anxieties.”
James K Galbraith, son of the legendary Keynesian economist J.K. Galbraith, and like Cowen an economist who has done a lot of work on wages and income distribution, has been even more critical. Writing in Dissent, a quarterly journal, Galbraith accuses Piketty of a “terrible confusion” between physical capital – the plant, machinery and buildings needed to make things – and financial wealth.
In straightforward terms, leaving aside academic niceties, Galbraith accuses Piketty of getting his understanding, and his facts, wrong. “In global comparison, there is a good deal of evidence, and (so far as I know) none of it supports Piketty’s claim that US income today is more unequal than in the major developing countries,” he writes. Branko Milanović identifies South Africa and Brazil as having the highest inequalities. New work from the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) places Indian income inequality well above that in the United States.”
Piketty does not, he concludes, “provide a very sound guide to policy” and the book “is not the accomplished work of high theory that its title, length and reception (so far) suggest.”
Economists are meant to disagree and, though nobody would accuse Cowen and Galbraith of it, Piketty’s success is provoking more than a little professional jealousy. That said, there are three important flaws in the book. The first is that the idea that the rate of return will always exceed the economy’s growth rate is assertion, and most likely incorrect assertion, rather than fact. The period leading up the financial crisis of 2007-9, indeed the prime cause of the crisis, was the quest for a higher rate of return – the search for yield – in a world of low returns. That led to the taking of big and in the end highly destructive risks.
The second flaw is that Piketty is guessing. He is assuming, because it happened in the 18th and 19th centuries, and has been happening in the past three decades, that rising inequality is the new norm. Nobody knows whether that is the case or not. Inequality is diminishing between countries, thanks to the rise of economies like China and India, which is raising living standards in those countries. Inequality is rising in those countries, as happened in Britain, France and America after their industrial revolutions. But you would expect inequality to diminish in these countries, as Kuznets recorded in America, not least because mass production requires a mass of consumers.
The third flaw, as even Krugman concedes, is that Piketty’s model might explain why plutocrats are getting ever wealthier but does not explain the phenomenon of the past three decades, the rise of top salaries. Chief executives, in banks elsewhere, are paid sums relative to the average worker that their predecessors could only dream of. That reflects their bargaining power and persuading enough people – maybe in some cases wrongly – that their talent is in short supply and has to command premium international rates. You do not need three centuries of data, Austen and Balzac to explain it. And already there are signs of a self-generated backlash against some of these boardroom excesses.
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