Edit 7/7/14: Quite accessible summary via interview with Piketty in The Guardian.
‘”we will all be poorer in the future in every way and that creates crisis. I have proved that under the present circumstances capitalism simply cannot work.”
‘”There is a fundamentalist belief by capitalists that capital will save the world, and it just isn’t so. Not because of what Marx said about the contradictions of capitalism, because, as I discovered, capital is an end in itself and no more
‘income generated from capital normally grows faster than the economy or income from wages. This means that the private owners of capital benefit disproportionately from growth, which makes it easier for them to increase their asset holdings and by extension future income. And, since wealth and income translate into political power, we face a self-reinforcing dynamic leading to ever growing inequality.’
‘His most startling news is that the belief that inequality will eventually stabilize and subside on its own, a long-held tenet of free market capitalism, is wrong. Rather, the economic forces concentrating more and more wealth into the hands of the fortunate few are almost sure to prevail for a very long time.
‘It is possible to slow, or even reverse, the trend, if political leaders like President Obama, who proposed that income inequality was the “defining challenge of our time,” really push.
‘“Political action can make this go in the other direction,” Professor Piketty told me. But he also adds that history does not offer much hope that political action will, in fact, turn the tide: “Universal suffrage and democratic institutions have not been enough to make the system react.”’
‘the income from wealth usually grows faster than wages. As returns from capital are reinvested, inherited wealth will grow faster than the economy, concentrating more and more into the hands of few. This will go on until capital owners decide to consume most of their income and stop reinvesting as much.’
‘Anybody who reads the newspaper will be aware that, in the United States, the “one per cent” is taking an ever-larger slice of the economic pie. But did you know that the share of the top income percentile is bigger than it was in South Africa in the nineteen-sixties and about the same as it is in Colombia, another deeply divided society, today? In terms of income generated by work, the level of inequality in the United States is “probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world,” Piketty writes.’
‘At a time when the concentration of wealth and income in the hands of a few has resurfaced as a central political issue, Piketty doesn’t just offer invaluable documentation of what is happening, with unmatched historical depth. He also offers what amounts to a unified field theory of inequality, one that integrates economic growth, the distribution of income between capital and labor, and the distribution of wealth and income among individuals into a single frame.’
‘Piketty and his colleagues showed that incomes of the now famous “one percent,” and of even narrower groups, are actually the big story in rising inequality. And this discovery came with a second revelation: talk of a second Gilded Age, which might have seemed like hyperbole, was nothing of the kind. In America in particular the share of national income going to the top one percent has followed a great U-shaped arc. Before World War I the one percent received around a fifth of total income in both Britain and the United States. By 1950 that share had been cut by more than half. But since 1980 the one percent has seen its income share surge again—and in the United States it’s back to what it was a century ago.
‘The big idea of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that we haven’t just gone back to nineteenth-century levels of income inequality, we’re also on a path back to “patrimonial capitalism,” in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties.
‘we now know both that the United States has a much more unequal distribution of income than other advanced countries and that much of this difference in outcomes can be attributed directly to government action. European nations in general have highly unequal incomes from market activity, just like the United States, although possibly not to the same extent. But they do far more redistribution through taxes and transfers than America does, leading to much less inequality in disposable incomes.
‘The general presumption of most inequality researchers has been that earned income, usually salaries, is where all the action is, and that income from capital is neither important nor interesting. Piketty shows, however, that even today income from capital, not earnings, predominates at the top of the income distribution. He also shows that in the past—during Europe’s Belle Époque and, to a lesser extent, America’s Gilded Age—unequal ownership of assets, not unequal pay, was the prime driver of income disparities. And he argues that we’re on our way back to that kind of society.
‘this accumulation of capital, says Piketty, will eventually recreate Belle Époque–style inequality unless opposed by progressive taxation.
‘Why? It’s all about r versus g—the rate of return on capital versus the rate of economic growth.
‘If he’s right, one immediate consequence will be a redistribution of income away from labor and toward holders of capital. The conventional wisdom has long been that we needn’t worry about that happening, that the shares of capital and labor respectively in total income are highly stable over time. Over the very long run, however, this hasn’t been true. In Britain, for example, capital’s share of income—whether in the form of corporate profits, dividends, rents, or sales of property, for example—fell from around 40 percent before World War I to barely 20 percent circa 1970, and has since bounced roughly halfway back. The historical arc is less clear-cut in the United States, but here, too, there is a redistribution in favor of capital underway. Notably, corporate profits have soared since the financial crisis began, while wages—including the wages of the highly educated—have stagnated.
‘A rising share of capital, in turn, directly increases inequality, because ownership of capital is always much more unequally distributed than labor income. But the effects don’t stop there, because when the rate of return on capital greatly exceeds the rate of economic growth, “the past tends to devour the future”: society inexorably tends toward dominance by inherited wealth.
‘Consider how this worked in Belle Époque Europe. At the time, owners of capital could expect to earn 4–5 percent on their investments, with minimal taxation; meanwhile economic growth was only around one percent. So wealthy individuals could easily reinvest enough of their income to ensure that their wealth and hence their incomes were growing faster than the economy, reinforcing their economic dominance, even while skimming enough off to live lives of great luxury.
‘And what happened when these wealthy individuals died? They passed their wealth on—again, with minimal taxation—to their heirs. Money passed on to the next generation accounted for 20 to 25 percent of annual income; the great bulk of wealth, around 90 percent, was inherited rather than saved out of earned income. And this inherited wealth was concentrated in the hands of a very small minority: in 1910 the richest one percent controlled 60 percent of the wealth in France; in Britain, 70 percent.
‘Given this picture, why does inherited wealth play as small a part in today’s public discourse as it does? Piketty suggests that the very size of inherited fortunes in a way makes them invisible: “Wealth is so concentrated that a large segment of society is virtually unaware of its existence, so that some people imagine that it belongs to surreal or mysterious entities.” This is a very good point. But it’s surely not the whole explanation. For the fact is that the most conspicuous example of soaring inequality in today’s world—the rise of the very rich one percent in the Anglo-Saxon world, especially the United States—doesn’t have all that much to do with capital accumulation, at least so far. It has more to do with remarkably high compensation and incomes.’
Note that: ‘And yet there is one thing that slightly detracts from the achievement—a sort of intellectual sleight of hand, albeit one that doesn’t actually involve any deception or malfeasance on Piketty’s part. Still, here it is: the main reason there has been a hankering for a book like this is the rise, not just of the one percent, but specifically of the American one percent. Yet that rise, it turns out, has happened for reasons that lie beyond the scope of Piketty’s grand thesis.
‘Piketty is, of course, too good and too honest an economist to try to gloss over inconvenient facts. “US inequality in 2010,” he declares, “is quantitatively as extreme as in old Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century, but the structure of that inequality is rather clearly different.” Indeed, what we have seen in America and are starting to see elsewhere is something “radically new”—the rise of “supersalaries.”
‘Who determines what a corporate CEO is worth? Well, there’s normally a compensation committee, appointed by the CEO himself. In effect, Piketty argues, high-level executives set their own pay, constrained by social norms rather than any sort of market discipline. And he attributes skyrocketing pay at the top to an erosion of these norms. In effect, he attributes soaring wage incomes at the top to social and political rather than strictly economic forces.
‘Capital in the Twenty-First Century makes it clear that public policy can make an enormous difference, that even if the underlying economic conditions point toward extreme inequality, what Piketty calls “a drift toward oligarchy” can be halted and even reversed if the body politic so chooses.
‘The key point is that when we make the crucial comparison between the rate of return on wealth and the rate of economic growth, what matters is the after-tax return on wealth. So progressive taxation—in particular taxation of wealth and inheritance—can be a powerful force limiting inequality.
‘France’s Third Republic. The Republic’s official ideology was highly egalitarian. Yet wealth and income were nearly as concentrated, economic privilege almost as dominated by inheritance, as they were in the aristocratic constitutional monarchy across the English Channel. And public policy did almost nothing to oppose the economic domination by rentiers: estate taxes, in particular, were almost laughably low.
‘Why didn’t the universally enfranchised citizens of France vote in politicians who would take on the rentier class? Well, then as now great wealth purchased great influence—not just over policies, but over public discourse. Upton Sinclair famously declared that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Piketty, looking at his own nation’s history, arrives at a similar observation: “The experience of France in the Belle Époque proves, if proof were needed, that no hypocrisy is too great when economic and financial elites are obliged to defend their interest.”
Krugman on Piketty, http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/may/08/thomas-piketty-new-gilded-age/?src=longreads
‘Piketty is in no doubt, as he indicates in an interview in today’s Observer New Review, that the current level of rising wealth inequality, set to grow still further, now imperils the very future of capitalism. He has proved it.
‘Capital, he argues, is blind. Once its returns – investing in anything from buy-to-let property to a new car factory – exceed the real growth of wages and output, as historically they always have done (excepting a few periods such as 1910 to 1950), then inevitably the stock of capital will rise disproportionately faster within the overall pattern of output. Wealth inequality rises exponentially.
‘The process is made worse by inheritance and, in the US and UK, by the rise of extravagantly paid “super managers”. High executive pay has nothing to do with real merit, writes Piketty – it is much lower, for example, in mainland Europe and Japan. Rather, it has become an Anglo-Saxon social norm permitted by the ideology of “meritocratic extremism”, in essence, self-serving greed to keep up with the other rich. This is an important element in Piketty’s thinking: rising inequality of wealth is not immutable. Societies can indulge it or they can challenge it.
‘As a result, the burden of paying for public goods such as education, health and housing is increasingly shouldered by average taxpayers, who don’t have the wherewithal to sustain them. Wealth inequality thus becomes a recipe for slowing, innovation-averse, rentier economies, tougher working conditions and degraded public services. Meanwhile, the rich get ever richer and more detached from the societies of which they are part: not by merit or hard work, but simply because they are lucky enough to be in command of capital receiving higher returns than wages over time. Our collective sense of justice is outraged.
‘The lesson of the past is that societies try to protect themselves: they close their borders or have revolutions – or end up going to war. Piketty fears a repeat. His critics argue that with higher living standards resentment of the ultra-rich may no longer be as great – and his data is under intense scrutiny for mistakes. So far it has all held up.
‘The solutions – a top income tax rate of up to 80%, effective inheritance tax, proper property taxes and, because the issue is global, a global wealth tax – are currently inconceivable.
‘But as Piketty says, the task of economists is to make them more conceivable.’
Another good article: http://www.newstatesman.com/2014/03/french-revolutionary