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Saturday, April 26, 2014

The Debate Over Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century

CapitalFollowing up on my previous post on the new book by  Thomas Piketty (Paris School of Economics), Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Harvard University Press, 2014):

David Brooks (New York Times), The Piketty Phenomenon:

Piketty ... argues that the real driver of inequality is not primarily differences in human capital. It’s differences in financial capital. Inequality is not driven by young hip professionals who arm their kids with every advantage and get them into competitive colleges; it’s driven by hedge fund oligarchs. Well, of course, this book is going to set off a fervor that some have likened to Beatlemania.

The book is very good and interesting, but it has pretty obvious weaknesses. Though economists are really not good at predicting the future, Piketty makes a series of educated guesses about the next century. ...

Politically, the global wealth tax is utopian, as even Piketty understands. If the left takes it up, they are marching onto a bridge to nowhere. But, in the current mania, it is being embraced.

This is a moment when progressives have found their worldview and their agenda. This move opens up a huge opportunity for the rest of us in the center and on the right. First, acknowledge that the concentration of wealth is a concern with a beefed up inheritance tax. Second, emphasize a contrasting agenda that will reward growth, saving and investment, not punish these things, the way Piketty would. Support progressive consumption taxes not a tax on capital. Third, emphasize that the historically proven way to reduce inequality is lifting people from the bottom with human capital reform, not pushing down the top. In short, counter angry progressivism with unifying uplift.

Paul Krugman (Princeton), Why We’re in a New Gilded Age (New York Review of Books):

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.

It’s a remarkable claim—and precisely because it’s so remarkable, it needs to be examined carefully and critically. Before I get into that, however, let me say right away that Piketty has written a truly superb book. It’s a work that melds grand historical sweep—when was the last time you heard an economist invoke Jane Austen and Balzac?—with painstaking data analysis. And even though Piketty mocks the economics profession for its “childish passion for mathematics,” underlying his discussion is a tour de force of economic modeling, an approach that integrates the analysis of economic growth with that of the distribution of income and wealth. This is a book that will change both the way we think about society and the way we do economics. ...

Piketty ends Capital in the Twenty-First Century with a call to arms—a call, in particular, for wealth taxes, global if possible, to restrain the growing power of inherited wealth. It’s easy to be cynical about the prospects for anything of the kind. But surely Piketty’s masterly diagnosis of where we are and where we’re heading makes such a thing considerably more likely. So Capital in the Twenty-First Century is an extremely important book on all fronts. Piketty has transformed our economic discourse; we’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to.

Paul Krugman (Princeton), The Piketty Panic (New York Times):

The really striking thing about the debate so far is that the right seems unable to mount any kind of substantive counterattack to Mr. Piketty’s thesis. Instead, the response has been all about name-calling — in particular, claims that Mr. Piketty is a Marxist, and so is anyone who considers inequality of income and wealth an important issue. ...

[W]hat’s really new about “Capital” is the way it demolishes that most cherished of conservative myths, the insistence that we’re living in a meritocracy in which great wealth is earned and deserved. ... [T]he fact that apologists for America’s oligarchs are evidently at a loss for coherent arguments doesn’t mean that they are on the run politically. Money still talks — indeed, thanks in part to the Roberts court, it talks louder than ever. Still, ideas matter too, shaping both how we talk about society and, eventually, what we do. And the Piketty panic shows that the right has run out of ideas.

Greg Mankiw (Harvard), First Thoughts on Piketty:

The book has three main elements:

  1. A history of inequality and wealth.
  2. A forecast of how things will evolve over the next century
  3. Policy recommendations, such as a global tax on wealth.

Point 1 is a significant contribution. I like this part of the book a lot.

Point 2 is highly conjectural. Economists are really bad at such things. In particular, the leap from r>g to the conclusion of a growing role of inheritance in society seems too large to me. Many capital owners consume much of the return on their capital, so wealth does not grow at rate r. This consumption ranges from fancy cars and luxurious vacations to generous charitable giving. In addition, unless mating is perfectly assortative, or we return to an era of primogeniture, wealth per family shrinks as it is split among children.  So, from my perspective, Pikettty tries to draw way too much from r>g. ...

Point 3 is as much about Piketty’s personal political philosophy as it is about his economics. As we all know, you can’t get “ought” from “is.” Like President Obama and others on the left, Piketty wants to spread the wealth around. Another philosophical viewpoint is that it is the government’s job to enforce rules such as contracts and property rights and promote opportunity rather than to achieve a particular distribution of economic outcomes. No amount of economic history will tell you that John Rawls (and Thomas Piketty) offers a better political philosophy than Robert Nozick (and Milton Friedman).

The bottom line: You can appreciate his economic history without buying into his forecast.  And even if you are convinced by his forecast, you don't have to buy into his normative conclusions.

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