Capital in the 21 Century: Still Mired in the 19th (See correction) | Dean Baker

Posted: April 20, 2014 in Economy


by Dean BakerCo-director, CEPR; author, ‘The End of Loser Liberalism: Making Markets Progressive’

Thomas Piketty’s new book on the history and future of capitalism (Harvard University Press) is a bold attempt to pick up where Marx left off and correct what he got wrong. While there is much that is useful in this lengthy and well-written book (Piketty and his translator Arthur Goldhammer can fight over credit), it owes too much to the master, and not in a good way.

For backdrop, economists and social scientists in general have a huge debt to Piketty. His work with Emmanuel Saez has advanced enormously our understanding of income distribution at top end. The World Top Income Database that they constructed along with Facundo Alvaredo and Anthony Atkinson is an enormously important source of data that economists are just beginning to analyze. This book is a further contribution in providing a wealth of information about historical trends in income distribution and returns to capital over large parts of the world.

Piketty begins his book by dissing the unnecessary complexity of economics. While the theoretical excursions of the last four decades have been an effective employment program for economists, they have done little to advance our understanding of the economy. The book itself is laid out in a way that makes it easy for the non-expert to understand, with the mathematics kept to a bare minimum.

Based on his analysis of capitalism’s past, Piketty has a grim picture of the future. The story is that slowing growth will lead to a rise in the ratio of capital to income, which we have already seen throughout the world with the rise in stock and house prices. This is turn will imply growing inequality as wealth distribution is hugely unequal and there is little reason to believe that the market will somehow reverse this inequality. Piketty’s remedy is higher income taxes on the rich and wealth taxes, solutions that he acknowledges do not seem to have good political prospects right now.

While the book presents this story with the sort of the determinism that many have seen in Marx’s theory of the falling rate of profit, there are serious grounds for challenging Piketty’s vision of the future. First, there are many aspects to the dynamics that have led to the redistribution to profit and high earners in the last three decades that are likely to change in the not too distant future.

The top of my list is the loss of China as a source of extremely low cost labor. According to the International Labor Organization, real wages in China tripled in the decade from 2002-2012. While these data are not very accurate, there is little doubt that wages in China are rising rapidly. While Chinese wages still have a long way to go before they are on a par with wages in the United States or Europe, its huge cost advantage is rapidly disappearing. Manufacturers can look for other low-wage havens, but there are no other Chinas out there. The loss of extreme low wage havens is likely to enhance the bargaining power of large segments of the workforce.

[Continue to Source article: Capital in the 21 Century: Still Mired in the 19th (See correction) | Dean Baker.]


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