on 26 March 2014
The main argument: The unequal distribution of wealth in the developed world has become a significant issue in recent years. Indeed, the data indicate that in the past 30 years the incomes of the wealthiest have surged into the stratosphere (and the higher up in the income hierarchy one is, the greater the increase has been), while the incomes of the large majority have stagnated. This has led to a level of inequality in wealth in the developed world not seen since the eve of the Great Depression. This much is without dispute.
Where there is dispute is in trying to explain just why the rise in inequality has taken place (and whether, and to what degree, it will continue in the future); and, even more importantly, whether it is justified. These questions are not merely academic, for the way in which we answer them informs public debate as well as policy measures--and also influences more violent reactions. Indeed, we need look no further than the recent Occupy Movement to see that the issue of increasing inequality is not only pressing, but potentially incendiary.
Given the import and the polarizing nature of the issue of inequality, it is all the more crucial that we begin by way of shedding as much light on the situation as possible. This is the impetus behind Thomas Piketty's new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
One of Piketty's main concerns in the book is to put the issue of inequality in its broader historical context. Specifically, the author traces how inequality has evolved from the agrarian societies of the 18th and early 19th centuries; through the Industrial Revolution and up to the First World War; throughout the interwar years; and into the second half of the twentieth century (and up to the first part of the twenty-first).
With this broad historical context we are able to see much more clearly the causes of inequality. As we might expect, what we find is that inequality is influenced by a host of societal factors--including economic, political, social and cultural factors. However, what we also find is that inequality is influenced by a broader set of factors associated with how capital works in capitalist societies (and market economies more generally).
Specifically, we find that capital (and the wealth it generates) tends to accumulate faster than the rate of economic growth in capitalist societies. What this means is that capital tends to become an increasingly prevalent and influential factor in these societies (at least up to a point). What's more, wealth not only tends to accumulate, but to become more and more concentrated at the top (mainly because those with more capital are able to earn a higher rate of return on their capital investments). For these reasons, capitalism on its own tends to produce a relatively high degree of inequality.
The natural tendency of capital to accumulate and to become ever more concentrated largely explains the high degree of inequality that was witnessed in the developed world in the early part of the twentieth century. This inequality was largely dashed, however, in the interwar years. The reason for this is that the major events of the first half of the twentieth century (including the two world wars, and the Great Depression) thwarted capital's natural tendency to accumulate, and also destroyed large stocks of wealth. The end result was that by the time World War II was over, inequality in the developed world had reached an all-time low.
After the Second World War, the natural tendency of capital to accumulate resumed. However, various political and economic measures (including progressive taxation, rent control, increasing minimum wages, and expanded social programs) worked to redistribute this growing capital, thus preventing inequality from growing as quickly as it would have otherwise.
In the 1980s, though, the developed countries did an about-face, and began eliminating many of the measures that had prevented inequality from rising according to its natural tendency. The consequence was that inequality reasserted itself in a major way, such that it is nearly as extreme today as it was on the run up to the Great Depression. Furthermore, the historical evidence indicates that capital will likely continue to accumulate and become ever more concentrated, such that we will witness an even greater level of inequality moving forward.
As far as justifying the growing inequality that we are currently seeing, Piketty raises serious doubts as to whether it may rightly be considered fair. What's more, as inequality continues to grow, it is increasingly likely that large parts of the population will also come to see it as unfair and unjustified--thereby increasing the likelihood of political opposition.
For Piketty, the best and fairest solution to these problems would be to steepen the progressive taxation applied to the wealthiest individuals. The problem, though, is that in a world of financial globalization (where there is a high degree of competition for capital--as witnessed by tax havens), it is extremely difficult to apply the appropriate tax scheme without the cooperation and coordinated efforts of the international community--and this is simply not something that is easy to achieve.
The alternative, however, is much more troubling for it is likely that it will involve reverting to protectionism and nationalism--and this is really in no one's interest.
This book is an absolute tour-de-force. The broad time-frame that Piketty explores, and the enormous body of data that he brings together, makes this study extremely comprehensive (no one will even think of accusing Piketty of cherry picking the data). Also, the reader is struck by how dispassionately Piketty analyzes the evidence he brings to the table. Indeed, while the author does have a position on inequality, one never receives the impression that this is corrupting his analysis (I consider myself to be a pragmatist politically, and often find that writers on both the left and the right massage the truth, but that was never the case here). Finally, it should be said that the book is very long, and just as dense, with the author often delving into extreme detail, so be prepared for a challenge. A must read for anyone with a serious interest in economics.