Posts Tagged ‘Thomas Piketty’

graph_dl (1)

Economic inequality is arguably the crucial issue facing contemporary capitalism—especially in the United States but also across the entire world economy.

Over the course of the last four decades, income inequality has soared in the United States, as the share of pre-tax national income captured by the top 1 percent (the red line in the chart above) has risen from 10.4 percent in 1976 to 20.2 percent in 2014. For the world economy as a whole, the top 1-percent share (the green line), which was already 15.6 percent in 1982, has continued to rise, reaching 20.4 percent in 2016. Even in countries with less inequality—such as France, Germany, China, and the United Kingdom—the top 1-percent share has been rising in recent decades.

Clearly, many people are worried about the obscene levels of inequality in the world today.

In a famous study, which I wrote about back in 2010, Dan Ariely and Michael I. Norton showed that Americans both underestimate the current level of inequality in the United States and prefer a much more equal distribution than currently exists.*

In other words, the amount of inequality favored by Americans—their ideal or utopian horizon—hovers somewhere between the level of inequality that obtains in modern-day Sweden and perfect equality.

What about contemporary economists? What is their utopian horizon when it comes to the distribution of income?

Not surprisingly, economists are fundamentally divided. They hold radically different views about the distribution of income, which both inform and informed by their different utopian visions.

For example, neoclassical economists, the predominant group in U.S. colleges and universities, analyze the distribution of income in terms of marginal productivity theory. Within their framework of analysis, each factor of production (labor, capital, and land) receives a portion of total output in the form of income (wages, profits, or rent) within perfectly competitive markets according to its marginal contributions to production. In this sense, neoclassical economics represents a confirmation and celebration of capitalism’s “just deserts,” that is, everyone gets what they deserve.

From the perspective of neoclassical economics, inequality is simply not a problem, as long as each factor is rewarded according to its productivity. Since in the real world they see few if any exceptions to perfectly competitive markets, their view is that the distribution of income within contemporary capitalism corresponds to—or at least comes close to matching—their utopian horizon.

Other mainstream economists, especially those on the more liberal wing (such as Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Thomas Piketty), hold the exact same utopian horizon—of just deserts based on marginal productivity theory. However, in their view, the real world falls short, generating a distribution of income in recent years that is more unequal, and therefore less fair, than is predicted within neoclassical theory. So, bothered by the obscene levels of contemporary inequality, they look for exceptions to perfectly competitive markets.

Thus, for example, Stiglitz has focused on what he calls rent-seeking behavior—and therefore on the ways economic agents (such as those in the financial sector or CEOs) often rely on forms of power (political and/or economic) to secure more than their “just deserts.” Thus, for Stiglitz and others, the distribution of income is more unequal than it would be under perfect markets because some agents are able to capture rents that exceed their marginal contributions to production.** If such rents were eliminated—for example, by regulating markets—the distribution of income would match the utopian horizon of neoclassical economics.***

What about Marxian theory? It’s quite a bit different, in the sense that it relies on the assumptions similar to those of neoclassical theory while arriving at conclusions that are diametrically opposed. The implication is that, even if and when markets are perfect (in the way neoclassical economists assume and work to achieve), the capitalist distribution of income violates the idea of “just deserts.” That’s because Marxian economics is informed by a radically different utopian horizon.

Let me explain. Marx started with the presumption that all markets operate much in the way the classical political economists then (and neoclassical economists today) presume. He then showed that even when all commodities exchange at their values and workers receive the value of their labor power (that is, no cheating), capitalists are able to appropriate a surplus-value (that is, there is exploitation). No special modifications of the presumption of perfect markets need to be made. As long as capitalists are able, after the exchange of money for the commodity labor power has taken place, to extract labor from labor power during the course of commodity production, there will be an extra value, a surplus-value, that capitalists are able to appropriate for doing nothing.

The point is, the Marxian theory of the distribution of income identifies an unequal distribution of income that is endemic to capitalism—and thus a fundamental violation of the idea of “just deserts”—even if all markets operate according to the unrealistic assumptions of mainstream economists. And that intrinsically unequal distribution of income within capitalism becomes even more unequal once we consider all the ways the mainstream assumptions about markets are violated on a daily basis within the kinds of capitalism we witness today.

That’s because the Marxian critique of political economy is informed by a radically different utopian horizon: the elimination of exploitation. Marxian economists don’t presume that, under capitalism, the distribution of income will be equal. Nor do they promise that the kinds of noncapitalist economic and social institutions they seek to create will deliver a perfectly equal distribution of income. However, in focusing on class exploitation, they both show how the unequal distribution of income in the world today is affected by and in turn affects the appropriation and distribution of surplus-value and argue that the distribution of income would likely change—in the direction of greater equality—if the conditions of existence of exploitation were dismantled.

In my view, lurking behind the scenes of the contemporary debate over economic inequality is a raging battle between radically different utopian visions of the distribution of income.

 

*The Ariely and Norton research focused on wealth, not income, inequality. I suspect much the same would hold true if Americans were asked about their views concerning the actual and desired degree of inequality in the distribution of income.

**It is important to note that, according to mainstream economics, any economic agent can engage in rent-seeking behavior. In come cases it may be labor, in other cases capital or even land.

***More recently, some mainstream economists (such as Piketty) have started to look outside the economy, at the political sphere. They’ve long held the view that, within a democracy, if voters are dissatisfied with the distribution of income, they will support political candidates and parties that enact a redistribution of income. But that hasn’t been the case in recent decades—not in the United States, the United Kingdom, or France—and the question is why. Here, the utopian horizon concerning the economy is the neoclassical one, or marginal productivity theory, but they imagine a separate democratic politics is able to correct any imbalances generated by the economy. As I see it, this is consistent with the neoclassical tradition, in that neoclassical economists have long taken the distribution of factor endowments as a given, exogenous to the economy and therefore subject to political decisions.

income  wealth

Inequality in the United States is now so obscene that it’s impossible, even for mainstream economists, to avoid the issue of surplus.

Consider the two charts at the top of the post. On the left, income inequality is illustrated by the shares of pre-tax national income going to the top 1 percent (the blue line) and the bottom 90 percent (the red line). Between 1976 and 2014 (the last year for which data are available), the share of income at the top soared, from 10.4 percent to 20.2 percent, while for most everyone else the share has dropped precipitously, from 53.6 percent to 39.7 percent.

The distribution of wealth in the United States is even more unequal, as illustrated in the chart on the right. From 1976 to 2014, the share of wealth owned by the top 1 percent (the purple line) rose dramatically, from 22.9 percent to 38.6 percent, while that of the bottom 90 percent (the green line) tumbled from 34.2 percent to only 27 percent.

The obvious explanation, at least for some of us, is surplus-value. More surplus has been squeezed out of workers, which has been appropriated by their employers and then distributed to those at the top. They, in turn, have managed to use their ability to capture a share of the growing surplus to purchase more wealth, which has generated returns that lead to even more income and wealth—while the shares of income and wealth of those at the bottom have continued to decline.

But the idea of surplus-value is anathema to mainstream economists. They literally can’t see it, because they assume (at least within free markets) workers are paid according to their productivity. Mainstream economic theory excludes any distinction between labor and labor power. Therefore, in their view, the only thing that matters is the price of labor and, in their models, workers are paid their full value. Mainstream economists assume we live in the land of freedom, equality, and just deserts. Thus, everyone gets what they deserve.

Even if mainstream economists can’t see surplus-value, they’re still haunted by the idea of surplus. Their cherished models of perfect competition simply can’t generate the grotesque levels of inequality in the distribution of income and wealth we are seeing in the United States.

That’s why in recent years some of them have turned to the idea of rent-seeking behavior, which is associated with exceptions to perfect competition. They may not be able to conceptualize surplus-value but they can see—at least some of them—the existence of surplus wealth.

The latest is Mordecai Kurz, who has shown that modern information technology—the “source of most improvements in our living standards”—has also been the “cause of rising income and wealth inequality” since the 1970s.

For Kurz, it’s all about monopoly power. High-tech firms, characterized by highly concentrated ownership, have managed to use technical innovations and debt to erect barriers to entry and, once created, to restrain competition.

d7c290116b17732db276c7a508a98911.16-9-xlarge.1

Thus, in his view, a small group of U.S. corporations have accumulated “surplus wealth”—defined as the difference between wealth created (measured as the market value of the firm’s ownership securities) and their capital (measured as the market value of assets employed by the firm in production)—totaling $24 trillion in 2015.

Here’s Kurz’s explanation:

One part of the answer is that rising monopoly power increased corporate profits and sharply boosted stock prices, which produced gains that were enjoyed by a small population of stockholders and corporate management. . .

Since the 1980s, IT innovations have largely been software-based, giving young innovators an advantage. Additionally, “proof of concept” studies are typically inexpensive for software innovations (except in pharmaceuticals); with modest capital, IT innovators can test ideas without surrendering a major share of their stock. As a result, successful IT innovations have concentrated wealth in fewer – and often younger – hands.

In the end, Kurz wants to tell a story about wealth accumulation based on the rapid rise of individual wealth enabled by information-based innovations (together with the rapid decline of wealth created in older industries such as railroads, automobiles, and steel), which differs from Thomas Piketty’s view of wealth accumulation as taking place through a lengthy intergenerational process where the rate of return on family assets exceeds the growth rate of the economy.

The problem is, neither Kurz nor Piketty can tell a convincing story about where that surplus comes from in the first place, before it is captured by monopoly firms and transformed into the wealth of families.

Kurz, Piketty, and an increasing number of mainstream economists are concerned about obscene and still-growing levels of inequality, and thus remained haunted by the idea of a surplus. But they can’t see—or choose not to see—the surplus-value that is created in the process of extracting labor from labor power.

In other words, mainstream economists don’t see the surplus that arises, in language uniquely appropriate for Halloween, from capitalists’ “vampire thirst for the living blood of labour.”

Culture, it seems, is back on the agenda in economics. Thomas Piketty, in Capital in the Twenty-First Century, famously invoked the novels of Honoré de Balzac and Jane Austen because they dramatized the immobility of a nineteenth-century world where inequality guaranteed more inequality (which, of course, is where we’re heading again). Robert J. Shiller, past president of the American Economic Association, focused on “Narrative Economics” in his address at the January 2017 Allied Social Association meetings in Chicago. His basic argument was that popular narratives, “the stories and models people are talking about,” play an important role in economic fluctuations. And just the other day, Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro—professor of the arts and humanities and professor of economics and president of Northwestern University, respectively—economists would benefit greatly if they broadened their focus and practiced “humanonomics.”

Dealing as it does with human beings, economics has much to learn from the humanities. Not only could its models be more realistic and its predictions more accurate, but economic policies could be more effective and more just.

Whether one considers how to foster economic growth in diverse cultures, the moral questions raised when universities pursue self-interest at the expense of their students, or deeply personal issues concerning health care, marriage, and families, economic insights are necessary but insufficient. If those insights are all we consider, policies flounder and people suffer.

In their passion for mathematically-based explanations, economists have a hard time in at least three areas: accounting for culture, using narrative explanation, and addressing ethical issues that cannot be reduced to economic categories alone.

As regular readers of this blog know, I’m all in favor of opening up economics to the humanities and the various artifacts of culture, from popular music to novels. In fact, I’ve been involved in various projects along these lines, including the New Economic Criticism, the postmodern moments of modern economics, and economic representations in both academic and everyday arenas.

And, to their credit, the authors I cite above do attempt to go beyond most of their mainstream colleagues in economics, who treat culture either as a commodity like any other (and therefore subject to the same kind of supply-and-demand analysis) or as a reminder term (e.g., to explain different levels of economic development, when all the usual explanations—based on preferences, technology, and endowments—have failed).

But in their attempt to invoke culture—as illustrative of economic ideas, a factor in determining economic events, or as a way of humanizing economic discourse—they forget one of the key lessons of Raymond Williams: that culture both registers the clashes of interest in society (culture represents, therefore, not just objects but the struggles over meaning within society) and stamps its mark on those interests and clashes (and in this sense is “performative,” since it modifies and changes those meanings).

In fact, that’s the approach I took in my 2014 talk on “Culture Beyond Capitalism” in the opening session of the 18th International Conference on Cultural Economics, sponsored by the Association for Cultural Economics International, at the University of Quebec in Montréal.

As I explained,

The basic idea is that culture offers to us a series of images and stories—audio and visual, printed and painted—that point the way toward alternative ways of thinking about and organizing economic and social life. That give us a glimpse of how things might be different from what they are. Much more so than mainstream academic economics has been interested in or able to do, even after the spectacular debacle of the most recent economic crisis, and even now in the midst of what I have to come the Second Great Depression.

I then went on to discuss a series of cultural artifacts—in music, film, short stories, art, and so on—which give us the sense of how things might be different, of how alternative economic theories and institutions might be imagined and created.

Importantly, economic representations in culture are much wider than the realist fiction to which some mainstream economists have turned. One of the best examples, based on the work of Mark Osteen, concerns the relationship between noncapitalist gift economies and jazz improvisation.* According to Osteen, both jazz and gifts involve their participants in risk; both require elasticity; both are social rituals in which the parties express and recreate identities; both are temporally contingent and dynamic. Each of them invokes reciprocal relations, yet transcends mere balance: each, that is, partakes of excess and surplus. Osteen suggests that jazz—such as John Coltrane’s “Chasin’ the Trane”—may serve as both an example of gift practices and a model for another economy, based on an ethos of improvisation, communalism, and excess.

I wonder if economists such as Piketty, Shiller, Morson, and Schapiro, who suggest we include culture in our economic theorizing, are willing to identify and examine aspects of historical and contemporary culture that point us beyond capitalism.

 

*Mark Osteen, “Jazzing the Gift: Improvisation, Reciprocity, Excess,” Rethinking Marxism 22 (October 2010): 569-80.

776a-web-CH25

source*

As I noted a few days ago (in discussing the notion of human capital), the concept of capital has undergone an extraordinary redefinition and expansion in recent years. Now, in the work of mainstream economists, it has come to refer to, in addition to physical capital, human, social, intellectual, and many other forms of capital.

What’s going on?

My sense is that, whereas capital traditionally referred to the property of capitalists—and thus their claim on some portion of new value created in the form of profits—it now means something very different: any stock that can be accumulated over time to yield an income (or at least, as in the case of housing, a flow of benefits). One interpretation, then, is we’re being moved by this reimagining of capital further and further away from any notion of class (such as implied by the differences between capital and labor and the accumulation of capital by and for the benefit of a tiny minority in society). But there is, I think, a somewhat different interpretation: we’re still obsessed by class (perhaps even more than before) and, precisely because of that, the mainstream project is to turn all of us into capitalists, with the shared goal of accumulating and managing our individual portfolios of various forms of capital.

Income share by labor and corps to 2011

It is perhaps not a coincidence that capital is being redefined and expanded precisely when the “capital share”—that is, the share of national income going to corporate profits—has reached record highs (not coincidentally, just as the wage share is at a record low) and some (such as Thomas Piketty and sympathetic readers) are expressing a worry that current trends in the unequal distribution of wealth may, if they continue, represent a return to the réntier incomes and inherited wealth characteristic of “patrimonial capitalism.”

So, capital is still a problem that haunts economics.

The problem of capital can be traced back to the first texts of modern economics. While I don’t have the space here to present a full history of economic thought, it is important to note that, for Adam Smith, the stock of physical capital played an important role in creating the wealth of nations. But, at the same time, Smith worried that capitalists might not carry out their “historical mission” of accumulating capital—if, for example, they chose to divert some of their profits to other uses, such as luxury consumption. David Ricardo, too, worried about the capitalists’ mission—if, with continual growth, the declining fertility of land under cultivation meant that rent on the land cut into profits and thus slowed the process of accumulation. Marx, of course, challenged both the classicals’ definition of capital—preferring to see it as a social relationship, rather than a thing—and their worry that the accumulation of capital (in the form of c and v, constant and variable capital) would slow as a result of exogenous events—because, for Marx, the problems were endogenous, as capital itself created obstacles to smooth and continuous accumulation. Even in early neoclassical growth theory (for example, in the Solow model), capital carried the hint of class, as it still had to be accumulated by a small group of investors—with the caveat, of course, that labor also stood to benefit as a result of more jobs and a higher marginal productivity.

But that previous class dimension of capital seems to have radically changed with the proliferation of new, expanded notions of capital.

This issue of capital came up as I was reading the commentaries on Piketty’s book that were delivered in a session at the recent American Economic Association meetings. All of the respondents—mainstream economists of various hues and stripes—took issue with Piketty’s definition and measurement of wealth. However, let me for the sake of this post focus on one of them, by David Weil [pdf]. Weil’s view is that, in addition to productive capital (the K one finds, alongside labor, in the usual neoclassical production function), capital should also include two other forms of wealth: human capital and “transfer wealth.” In his hands, labor income is now transformed into another kind of return on capital, the result of which is that a portion of national income (his calculations indicate 38 percent) represents a payment for education above and beyond “brute” labor. Human capital has the additional advantage, for mainstream economists like Weil, that it is more equally distributed (“there is a limit to how much human capital even the richest parent can cram into the head of his or her child”) than physical or financial capital. And then there are the Social Security payments workers rely on as retirement income. Weil also wants to treat them as capital, as a “transfer wealth.” He does acknowledge potential objections (“Ownership of transfer wealth conveys no control rights, and it can’t be sold or borrowed against, although it is not clear that these characteristics would be very valuable to those who hold it. Because it is annuitized, transfer wealth does not pass on to heirs, and so it is certainly true it affects the dynamics of inequality differently than market wealth.”) but then, impressed with the “gross size of these transfer claims,” Weil proceeds to treat them as a form of individual wealth—instead of as a social claim by one group of former workers on the surplus being created by existing workers.

The proliferation of these notions moves capital further and further away from its previous associations, in one way or another, with class and the process of producing, capturing, and utilizing the surplus in the form of capitalist profits. That’s one of the effects of redefining capital and imagining that wages and Social Security represent different returns on capital.

At the same time, the new forms of capital continue to be haunted by the issue of class, precisely in the insistence that everyone—not just capitalists—owns some and that forms such as human capital and “transfer wealth” are more equitably distributed than traditional (physical and financial) capital. In other words, mainstream economists’ attempts to redefine and expand what we mean by capital still carry the whiff of a claim on net income that is something above and beyond what laborers receive by exchanging their ability to work for a wage.

The problem, of course, is that the more capital is detached from the traditional role of the capitalist—to serve as “a machine for the conversion of this surplus-value into additional capital”—the more it calls into question the idea that the class of capitalists serves any particular role at all in today’s society. This is a problem that, of course, has reinforced by the onset and enduring legacy of the most severe crisis since the First Great Depression.

In this sense, the proliferation of new forms of capital—in the midst of the growing inequality that both caused and is now the consequence of the Second Great Depression—merely serves to remind us of the antithesis between the character of wealth as socially produced and privately captured. That is the real problem with capital that simply can’t be solved within the existing economic institutions.

*This illustration was produced by the Capital Drawing Group.

RO20136402 DonDeLillo_Cosmopolis_2011

As readers know, there are few things I take more seriously than economic representations and the power of ideas.

As I argued in my book, representations of the economy (including, of course, issues of inequality) are produced and disseminated in many different discursive forms and social sites, only one of which is the academic discipline of economics. We also find them in academic disciplines other than economics (such as anthropology, sociology, cultural studies, and so on) and in many places outside the academy (including in literature, from Balzac to DeLillo).

And, of course, I wouldn’t teach, write, and give talks (not to mention compose posts for this blog) unless I believed in the power of ideas—especially those ideas that represent a ruthless criticism of everything existing.

So, I was pleased to find I’m in good company, as Thomas Piketty explains in this interview with Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias:

Pablo Iglesias: When I was reading the introduction of your book, my attention was caught by the way you described your experience in the United States. You said you wanted to return to Europe immediately. You were criticising the deification of economists in the US and showcasing your admiration for Pierre Bourdieu and Fernand Braudel.

Thomas Piketty: I really enjoyed my stay in the US, but I couldn’t wait to get back to France, to get closer to historical research, especially economic and social. Overall, I see myself as a researcher in social science rather than as an economist.

I think that the line between economics, history, sociology and political science is thinner than what economists sometimes tend to affirm. It is tempting for economists to have people believe that they created a separate science, too scientific for the rest of the world to understand. But of course this is a big joke, which has done a lot of harm. I believe we need a modest approach to economics, and that we shouldn’t let economists keep economic questions to themselves.

In my work, I try to conduct research on the history of income and assets, and I don’t believe it’s possible to tackle this issue without an economic, social, political and cultural approach. This includes the representations people have of inequalities, which is why in my book I also mention representations in literature. I believe it is crucial not to leave these questions for the economists, as they are far too important.

PI: What you are saying is very interesting, as sometimes economists introduce themselves more or less as representatives of a natural science; as if they were putting on a lab coat and stepping away from social sciences. Moving on to your recent rejection of the Legion of Honour, what in your opinion should be the role of intellectuals today?

TP: We do not write books for those who govern, we do not write books for governments. We do not write books seeking official honours. We write books for anyone who reads books, and above all I try to contribute to the democratisation of economic and social knowledge. I trust the power of books, of ideas. I believe in a general democratisation of society and of economy. This can enable citizens to take up issues that are not technical. Public funding, income, assets, interest rates, salaries … these questions are for everyone.

I’m trying to democratise this knowledge so that every citizen can be more active and take part in collective deliberation. I believe this shows more political commitment than going to official receptions. Political leaders often implement what they believe to be the prevailing opinion. Therefore, the most important thing for me is to help in transforming this opinion.

human-capital-main

Like the capital controversy of the 1960s, the current controversy over human capital pits neoclassical economics against its critics.

The original capital controversy (also known as the Cambridge controversy, because it was staged between neoclassical economists at MIT, and thus of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and non-neoclassical economists at Cambridge University, and thus of Cambridge, England), which actually took place between the mid-1950s and mid-1970s, was narrowly about the internal consistency of neoclassical economics and more generally about the role of capital in economic theory. The basic idea is that, in a world of heterogeneous capital goods (e.g., a shovel and an automobile assembly-line), you need to know the price of capital (the interest rate or rate of return on capital) in order to determine the quantity of capital (i.e., in order to add up all those different kinds of physical capital). But, in neoclassical economics, you need to use the quantity of capital in order to determine the price of capital (via supply and demand in the “capital market”), which creates a fundamental problem for the neoclassical theory of capital.

Hence, Joan Robinson’s famous question, “What is capital?” To which neoclassical economists responded with gobbledy-gook. And so Robinson repeated her question, the neoclassicals with gobbledy-gook, and the controversy continued without resolution. Neoclassical economists, like Robert Solow, resorted to an aggregate production function (where the problem of heterogenous goods is simply defined away), while Robinson and the other anti-neoclassical economists on the other side of the pond entered into increasingly arcane areas of dispute, such as reswitching and capital-reversing.*

As I have long explained to students, the theory of capital is the most controversial topic in the history of economic thought because the theory of capital is the theory of profits—and therefore an answer to the question, do the capitalists deserve the profits they get?

The original capital controversy was never resolved. But now there’s a new capital controversy, a debate about human capital. It was launched by Branko Milanovic, based on Thomas Piketty’s refusal to include human capital in the other forms of capital he measures in his inquiry about the history and future prospects of wealth inequality.** Basically, Milanovic argues that labor is not a form of capital because labor involves a “doing” (work has to be performed in order for skills to be used and wages to be paid) while other forms of capital are characterized not by work but by nonwork, that is, ownership (financial capital generates a return based on owning some of financial claim, and no work is involved in making such a claim).

why is “human capital” such a disastrous turn of phrase? There are two reasons. First, it obfuscates the crucial difference between labor and capital by terminologically conflating the two. Labor now seems to be just a subspecies of capital. Second and more important, it leads to a perception — and sometimes to the argument used by insufficiently careful economists — that all individuals, whether owners of real capital or not, are basically capitalists. Even if you have human capital and I have financial capital, we are fundamentally the same. Entirely lost is the key distinction that for you to get an income from your human capital, you have to work. For me to get an income from my financial capital, I do not.

I’m with Milanovic on this. There is a fundamental difference between doing and owning, between doing labor and owning capital. But I also think the human capital controversy has even larger implications.

First, a bit of history: the idea of human capital was invented in the early 1960s by neoclassical economist Theodore Schultz [pdf] as part of a more general attack on Marxian-inspired notions of capital (capital that is connected to profits and therefore exploitation), an extension of Adam Smith’s theory of the causes of the wealth of nations (which now, Schultz argued, should include the accumulation of all prior investments in education, on-the-job training, health, migration, and other factors that increase individual productivity), and an attempt to depict all economic agents, including laborers, as capitalists (who “invest” in and “manage a portfolio” of skills and abilities). Human capital can thus be seen as, simultaneously, a blunting of the critical dimension of capital (broadening it to matters other than profits and thus a particular set of claims on the surplus) and a step in the creation of the neoliberal subject (who seeks a “return” on its “investments” in itself).

Second, the problems associated with the notion of human capital, which Piketty’s correctly does not include in his definition of wealth (since, for Piketty, “capital is defined as the sum total of nonhuman assets that can be owned and exchanged on some market”), also serve to undermine at least part of Piketty’s project. One of the elements missing from Piketty’s approach to capital as wealth is any kind of “doing.” It’s all about owning (of “real property” as well as of “financial and professional capital”), without any discussion of the labor that has to be performed in order to generate some kind of extra value and thus a return on capital.

And so, as is always the case in economics, it comes down to a theory of value. In neoclassical theory, all factors of production get, in the form of income, an amount equal to their marginal contributions to production. Everyone contributes and everyone, within free markets, gets their “just deserts.” In Piketty’s world, the owners of capital manage to capture a larger and larger portion of the national income if the rate of economic growth is less than the rate of return on capital (which exacerbates the already-unequal distribution of income, based largely on CEO salaries). In a Marxian world, capital is a social relationship that both generates a surplus (because “industrial capital” exploits “productive labor”) and represents a distributed claim on one or another portion of the surplus (in the form of “financial capital,” the ownership of land, and so on), based on the idea that the “doing” of labor occurs simultaneously—as both cause and effect—with the “owning” of capital. Three different theories of value and thus three very different theories of capital.

But it doesn’t stop there. In recent years, we have seen a dreary expansion of the idea of capital beyond even physical/financial capital and human capital. It now includes—in the hands of business professors, economists, and other social scientists—intellectual, organizational, social, and other forms of capital. Somehow, if they call it capital, they think it deserves to be taken more seriously.

As I see it, all these new forms of capital, like human capital, are ways of expanding Smith’s wealth of nations; they are all seen as contributing to the production of more “stuff”—more use-values, the “immense accumulation of commodities.” But the expanding universe of capital also serves to hide the extent to which all that stuff, which is in reality socially produced, is then privately appropriated—leading to a growing gap between a tiny minority at the top and everyone else. In other words, it’s a pattern of private capitalist appropriation that creates a more and more unequal social distribution of income and wealth.

The capital controversy will remain with us, then, as long as we refuse to solve the problem of capital.

 

*Avi J. Cohen and G. C. Harcourt [pdf] provide a useful overview of the capital controversy.

**Nick Rowe and Tim Worstall have since criticized Milanovic and his call to junk the notion of human capital, and he in turn has responded to their criticisms.

ftblog477

source

One of the great merits of Thomas Piketty’s blockbuster book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, is to have shifted our focus not just to the issue of inequality, but to Capital.

My own view, for what it’s worth, is that Piketty inappropriately combines different forms of wealth—land, financial investments, physical equipment, and real estate—into a single term he refers to as capital. The problem, as I see it, is that Piketty’s capital obscures what we mean when we refer to the capital share within contemporary economies.

The real issue is the share of net income that is appropriated by Capital, some of which is retained within enterprises as profits while the rest is distributed to other claimants, such as the owners of equity capital (in the form of dividends), executive officers of corporations (as salaries), financial institutions (as interest payments), and so on.

In any case, we are now focusing our attention on Capital, which we simply weren’t doing before.

We can see this shift in Tony Atkinson’s presentation of twelve policy proposals [pdf] “that could bring about a genuine shift in the distribution of income towards less inequality.” He makes a key point about technology: the capital share depends in part on technology (as neoclassical economists see it) but technology can’t be taken as given (as neoclassical economists generally assume). Atkinson then offers an alternative view:

Not only the extent of technological progress, but also its direction, is endogenously determined. . .This brings us to a crucial issue of positional power and control over economic decision-making.

What this means is, the next time someone invokes the Solow growth model and the Cobb-Douglas production function, the appropriate question is: to what extent does Capital control the technology and thus the returns to capital and labor?

A similar concern appears in another response to Piketty: Shi-Ling Hs’s “The Rise and Rise of the One Percent: Considering Legal Causes of Wealth Inequality.” His view is that the “capital-friendly bias in legal rules and institutions”—such as financial deregulation, oil and gas subsidies, and “grandfathering” (that is, regulations that exempt existing regulatory targets)—”have inflated returns to private capital and driven it well above the rate of economic growth, exacerbating economic inequality.”

Piketty, his supporters, and his critics are all missing a huge piece of the puzzle: the role of law in distributing wealth. . .

That something is a system of lawmaking that, with good economic intentions, is biased towards the formation of certain forms of capital. This capital bias has produced a set of legal rules and institutions that has increased returns on certain forms of private capital without inducing a concomitant increase in economic growth, and in some cases retarded economic growth. In the parlance of Piketty’s r > g relation, the law has been much more effective in boosting r than it has been in boosting g. This is understandable, because inflating and propping up r is easy—government subsidies, favorable tax treatment, and legal protections from regulatory interference are just a few of many ways that lawmakers have boosted or propped up returns to certain owners of private capital—the ones powerful enough to ask for them. It is not nearly as easy to figure out how to make economic growth keep pace. Inducing economic growth is a matter on which leading economists differ sharply, to say nothing of an ideologically divided Congress. The world is an extremely complicated place, made more so by globalization, and ensuring economic growth has been much more art than science. Moreover, in modern times, the political salience of “trickle-down” theories of economics have held enormous influence over American policymaking, such that many lawmakers are strongly inclined to believe that boosting private returns to capital (Piketty’s r) is tantamount to boosting economic growth generally (Piketty’s g). Taken together, these factors have caused lawmakers to mostly take comfort in boosting returns to private capital and rationalize their indifference to economic growth by throwing up their hands and just hoping that private wealth will somehow also stimulate economic growth.

The problem, of course, is that while both Atkinson and Hs both direct our attention to worrying about processes that favor Capital (for example, in terms of the direction of technological change and the making of new laws), neither actually suggests taking the obvious next step: to eliminate the role of Capital in our current economic institutions.

That’s why Chris Dillow’s discussion of democratic Keynesianism is so useful. Relying on Michal Kalecki (which I, too, have done, on many occasions), Dillow argues that

“Democratic” policy-making cannot serve the public interest, because it is subverted by capitalists’ interests. This represents a challenge to naive social democracy, which thinks that governments can do the right thing if only they have the will and courage.

More generally, what Dillow clearly understands, and what many sympathetic commentators on Piketty seem to miss, is that the state and civil society are not separate entities. If they were, then of course, it would be possible to suggest the state could adopt policies and laws that serve to lessen or eliminate the grotesque inequalities that have arisen within contemporary civil society. However, that well-intentioned project of addressing inequality becomes difficult—if not impossible—when capitalists’ interests are paramount within both the civil society and the state.

And that idea is as valid for Capital in the twenty-first century as it was in previous centuries.

 

I didn’t attend the most recent American Economic Association/Allied Social Sciences Association meetings in Boston. But, according to Chuck Collins, several sessions focused on the sensation of French economist Thomas Piketty and his 2014 book on inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

As an outsider to academic economics, I was struck by just how compartmentalized and smug the field appears. At one point, [Gregory] Mankiw even put up a slide, “Is Wealth Inequality a Problem?” Any economist who ventures across the disciplinary ramparts will, of course, find a veritable genre of research on the dangerous impacts of extreme inequality.

We now have over two decades of powerful evidence that details how these inequalities are making us sick, undermining our democracy, slowing traditional measures of economic growth, and turning our political system into a plutocracy.

Mankiw, at another point in his presentation, had still more embarrassing comments to make. Piketty, he intoned, must “hate the rich.” Piketty’s financial success with his best-selling book, Mankiw added, just might lead to self-loathing.

These clearly well-rehearsed quips, aimed at knee-capping the humble French economist, fell flat. Mankiw’s presentation, entitled “R > G, so what?,” came across as little more than an apologia for concentrated wealth.

And Piketty’s response?

Piketty’s one poke back at the nitpickers came in response to their unanimous support for a progressive consumption tax as an alternative to any other progressive income or wealth tax. “We know something about billionaire consumption,” Piketty observed, “but it is hard to measure some of it. Some billionaires are consuming politicians, others consume reporters, and some consume academics.”

adbusters_AEA_memewar_S

Apparently, according to Justin Wolfers, mainstream economists expressed renewed interest in the issue of inequality (including Thomas Piketty’s book) at their most recent annual meeting.

The problem is, they didn’t have much to say.

It’s not that the heart of the profession buys into Mr. Piketty’s specific theoretical framework — although there’s much greater sympathy for it among those on the left than on the right — but rather that it highlighted the fact that mainstream economics still lacks a compelling explanation for why inequality has risen so sharply. And while many remain suspicious of Mr. Piketty’s dire prognosis that inequality will continue to rise, the absence of a strong competing theory means that agnosticism remains the only alternative pose.

20140104_FNC089

In episode I of Piketty wars, Harvard University Press published Capital in the Twenty-First Century. In episode II, the reviews of Piketty’s book, by liberal mainstream economists, were generally positive. Now, in episode III, the Right can be found on their Invisible Hand ship, launching a series of attacks against Piketty.*

The first salvo came from beware-of-the-politics-of-envy generals Phil Gramm and Michael Solon, on the opinion pages of (not surprisingly) the Wall Street Journal, who use two main arguments: First, based on research by Philip Armour, Richard V. Burkhauser, and Jeff Larrimore (on which I wrote last year when it first appeared), they make inequality virtually disappear by various sleights of the very-much-visible-hand (by changing the definition of income, the relevant data set, what counts as income, how capital gains are calculated, and so on). Second, they extol the virtues of Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, and the Walton family (as if Gates, Buffett, and Walton alone are responsible for the wealthy they’ve accumulated, in an economy seemingly without workers who actually produce the value they’ve captured).

Then there’s prosperity warrior John Cochrane, also in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, who waves the flag of “good inequality”—because, in his view, “most U.S. billionaires are entrepreneurs from modest backgrounds, operating in competitive new industries. They are decidedly not bad workers, who suffer from awful public schools and who are “stuck in a cycle of terrible early-child experiences, substance abuse, broken families, unemployment and criminality.” Cochrane’s approach is to say anything and everything in order to ridicule the idea of taxation and redistribution and point us toward the only goal he wants us to recognize: prosperity, based on “property rights, rule of law, [and] economic and political freedom.”

Finally, we have the Jedi-knight-turned-Darth Vader of the bunch, my old friend Deirdre McCloskey [pdf]. She enters the duel with Piketty with an eloquent (when is she not?) 51-page essay of a lightsaber. Her main critique is the oft-repeated refrain that it’s poverty, not inequality, that is the real problem—and, of course, in her view, the West has already solved that problem. The idea that growing inequalities should concern us is simply anathema to McCloskey’s Smithian-inspired celebration of the “immense accumulation of commodities.” Who cares if the growing gap between a tiny minority at the top and everyone else undermines the legitimacy of that society, especially its promise of “just deserts”? And then there’s her misreading of Piketty, who simply does not argue that r > g is the basis of contemporary inequalities. As her French nemesis has made clear, the real cause of income inequality is the explosion in top managerial compensation. Then, on top of that, as capital itself grows in importance, and as earnings on capital exceed the growth in total income, there is a tendency for wealth ownership to become more unequal, thus creating the prospect of dynasties of inherited wealth, which Piketty refers to as “patrimonial capitalism.”

Precisely because of growing inequalities in the distribution of income and wealth, the legitimacy of contemporary capitalism is being called into question. Piketty has been a central figure in producing and making sense of the data that demonstrates the existence of those inequalities—in order to warn the Republic of the impending danger. Instead of listening to him, those on the dark side merely deny the existence of a problem and try to make us believe that all is well in the Galaxy.

Meantime, the Death Star of inequality continues to be constructed, which could mean a victory of the Empire over the Republic. Unless, of course, the Rebellion is successful.

 

*Full disclosure: I’m not really a fan of Star Wars and therefore I’m sure I’ve mangled the plot line of Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge of the Sith.

.