With the Miliband: Thomas Piketty. (Image: Dan Murrell)
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Thomas Piketty: a modern French revolutionary

Piketty’s book Capital is being acclaimed as the most important work of political economy to be published in decades. It has certainly caught the attention of Ed Miliband’s inner circle.

In Balzac’s novel Le père Goriot (1834-35), the impoverished young nobleman Rastignac is confronted with a dilemma by the cynical convict Vautrin: should he work and study hard to become a lawyer, only to earn a mediocre income, or should he seduce an eligible heiress and lay his hands on an inheritance sufficient to pay him an income worth ten times as much? Rastignac mulls the path of seduction until he is asked to bump off a brother who stands inconveniently between the heiress and her fortune. Murder is a step too far, even for a social climber.

Rastignac’s dilemma is one of the literary vignettes that enliven the most remarkable work of economics in recent years, if not decades: the French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. It was first published last year in France, and its appearance in English this spring (Belknap/Harvard, £29.95) has caused an intellectual sensation on both sides of the Atlantic. It has been called “one of the watershed books in economic thinking”, a “magisterial treatise on capitalism’s inherent dynamics” and a “bold attempt to pick up where Marx left off and correct what he got wrong”. The American Nobel economics laureate Paul Krugman has described it as “epic”, with a “sweeping vision”, while Jacob Hacker – the Yale political scientist credited with coining the term “predistribution” – has compared Piketty to de Tocqueville.

Piketty, who was born in 1971, has made his name studying the historical evolution of income and wealth distributions in advanced economies. A son of parents from the radical soixante-huit generation, Piketty was an intellectual star in the making from an early age, completing his doctorate on wealth redistribution at 22 before becoming an assistant professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. A few years later, dissatisfied with the mathematical abstractions of US economics, he returned to France and began researching the work that would establish his academic reputation, Top Incomes in France in the 20th Century. From there, Piketty collaborated with other academic luminaries such as Emmanuel Saez, Tony Atkinson and Facundo Alvaredo to produce groundbreaking empirical studies of the highest incomes in leading capitalist economies, now synthesised into the World Top Incomes Database. These have galvanised new interest in the causes and consequences of widening inequality, while helping inspire the slogan of the Occupy movement: “We are the 99 per cent.”

The central thesis of Piketty’s latest book is that in societies where the rate of return on capital outstrips economic growth, wealth inequality ineluctably rises. Once constituted, capital reproduces itself faster than economic output increases. The entrepreneur becomes a rentier and inequalities harden. We are returning to the 19th-century world of the novels of Balzac and Jane Austen, whose characters are caught up in the trials and tribulations of inheriting, living off or losing wealth.

Piketty’s thesis is arresting because he buttresses it with ample historical data to show that the reduction of inequality in the middle of the 20th century was an exception, not the norm in a market economy. Ordinarily, he argues, if capital is reinvested it yields between 4 and 5 per cent a year, outstripping economic growth. Wealth inequalities therefore increase. This has been true of almost all human history. The 20th century was exceptional because of the capital shocks of two world wars, decolonisation and the growth of the welfare state. The huge inequalities of the belle époque gave way to a more egalitarian distribution as capital was destroyed, taxed or nationalised to pay for the war effort and the building of public services and social security. Growth, on the other hand, was relatively high because of technological catch-up and convergence, particularly in Europe and Japan following the Second World War.

In the late 1970s and 1980s, these processes started to go into reverse, as growth rates slowed, capital was rebuilt, taxes on wealth and top incomes were cut, and the institutions of postwar social democracy were dismantled. Today, wealth holdings in the advanced economies are six times as large as annual national income – the same sort of level as existed before the First World War.

There are important differences in the structure of wealth inequality between these two epochs, however. In the Edwardian era, the richest 10 per cent owned virtually all the nation’s wealth in countries such as France and Britain; the wealthiest 1 per cent owned roughly half, and the middle 40 per cent only 5 per cent. Today, the top 10 per cent own 60 per cent of Europe’s wealth and 70 per cent in the US, while the middle class owns between a third and a quarter, respectively. In historical terms, this growth of a “patrimonial middle class” has been an important transformation, underpinning its political importance in distributional conflicts and its swing position in the electoral landscapes of advanced economies. In contrast, nothing has changed for the assets of the poorer half of the population: it still owns less than 5 per cent of the wealth, as it did before the First World War.

Piketty also shows that increased income inequality in the past 30 years has changed patterns at the top. The top 1 per cent of the income distribution now lives off higher labour incomes, and not just rents from wealth. As property has penetrated into the middle classes, so the “coupon-clippers” cohabit with the “working rich” at the very top. These are the “supermanagers” or top executives of large firms who have vastly increased their compensation packages since the 1980s.

In 1929, the year of the Wall Street crash, income from capital was the primary resource of the top 1 per cent of the income hierarchy in the US; in 2007, you have to climb into the top 0.1 per cent before that is true. Of this super-elite group at the pinnacle of the income distribution, between 60 and 70 per cent consists of top executives. Contrary to popular myths, less than one in 20 is a celebrity or sports star, and only one in five is a banker. There has been a “skyrocketing” of the pay packages of leading executives in large firms in the non-financial as well as financial sectors.

What accounts for this? Piketty argues that it has nothing whatever to do with managerial talent. It is the product of collusion between executives and their boards, pure and simple. When marginal tax rates onthe super-rich ran at 90 per cent, as they did in the 1960s and 1970s in the US and elsewhere, there was little point awarding oneself a huge pay rise. But when those rates fell to 25 per cent, there was every incentive to do so.

This income inequality produces its own peculiar ideology, which Piketty terms “meritocratic extremism”. Without very high pay, the argument goes, only those who inherit wealth can amass riches, which would be unfair. Very high pay rewards talent and enterprise and therefore contributes to social justice. Piketty is scathing in his contempt for this ideology.

“This kind of argument,” he writes, “could well the lay the groundwork for greater and more violent inequality in the future. The world may come to combine the worst of two past worlds: both very large inequality of inherited wealth and very high wage inequalities justified in terms of merit and productivity . . . Meritocratic extremism can thus lead to a race between supermanagers and rentiers, to the detriment of those who are neither.”

Given these findings, it is not surprising that Piketty’s prognosis is bleak. Without countervailing political action, we can expect worsening trends. Population will be stable or falling in the advanced economies, while the rate of technological progress cannot be expected to exceed 1-1.5 per cent. Hence, if the rate of return on capital remains between 4 and 5 per cent, it will easily outstrip growth. In the 21st century, current wealth inequalities will therefore be amplified, the consequences of which, Piketty argues, “are potentially terrifying”. We will all live under the dead hand of the accumulated inequalities of past generations. “The earth belongs to the living,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote. But if Piketty is right, in the coming century, the dead will rule the world as “the past devours the future”.

A more competitive market – doubling down on the free-market experiment – will not spring this trap. As Piketty noted in a recent interview, “. . . the fact that returns on capital are higher than the growth rate has nothing to do with monopolies, and cannot be resolved by more competition. On the contrary, the purer and more competitive the capital market, the greater the gap between return on capital and the growth rate.”

Instead, we need to rebuild the democratic institutions that can redistribute income and wealth. His signature policy is a global tax on wealth, levied progressively at different wealth bands. He is politically realistic enough to know that formidable practical and political obstacles lie in the path towards that objective. So he sets out various steps towards it, such as greater transparency about asset ownership, and automatic transmission of bank data to tax authorities, while urging the adoption of a wealth tax at the European level. A tax at 0 per cent on fortunes below €1m, 1 per cent between €1m and €5m, and 2 per cent above €5m would affect about 2.5 per cent of the population of the European Union and raise about 2 per cent of Europe’s GDP.

This would of course require greater political and fiscal integration in Europe, which is why Piketty was a co-signatory, with Pierre Rosanvallon and other French intellectuals, to a recent open letter calling for tax-raising powers and a budget for the eurozone, held accountable to a new European chamber of national parliamentarians. Is this utopian? No more so than the “stateless currency” the eurozone already possesses, he says.

Is Piketty’s analysis too pessimistic? Thoughtful politicians will embrace much of his analysis. Stewart Wood, Ed Miliband’s intellectual consigliere, has read the book and called for its arguments to be debated widely. Piketty’s work gives substantive grounding to the core argument of Miliband’s leadership that Britain’s post-Thatcherite economic model generates socially destructive, unjustified and ultimately unstable inequalities. But parties aspiring to elected office will also be deeply wary of the politics of levying supertaxes on the wealthy, and with good reason: François Hollande is currently the most unpopular president in French history.

When the social-democratic and liberal politicians of the mid-20th century built the good society, they did so with an organised working class at their backs, pushing them forward. No such historical force exists today in advanced capitalist democracies. Nor do we really know from Piketty’s analysis what political action can achieve, because his analysis of the reduction of wealth and income inequality in the 20th century doesn’t quantify how much came from wars, and how much from public action, such as taxation.

Piketty also rests his central claim that the rate of return on capital exceeds growth largely on historical data, which leaves him open to the criticism that Dean Baker and other economists have made, namely that he underplays the potential to reduce inequality offered by progressive policies other than taxation, such as reforms to corporate governance and intellectual property rights, or egalitarian education and skills, wage enhancement and public investment strategies. He leaves largely unexplored the potential for spreading capital ownership itself more equitably in society, so that more can share in its returns. Indeed, his work could be used to justify wealth predistribution policies, such as employee share ownership, profit-sharing, the creation of new sovereign wealth funds and universal asset stakes for citizens, instead of redistributive wealth taxes.

The magisterial sweep of Piketty’s Capital is such that he cannot answer everything. His range is immense. And his open, fluent style will guarantee him a wide readership. In contrast to much of what passes for orthodox economics, he is engaged with the problems of the real world (indeed, he took time out from his academic career to advise the Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal in her bid for the French presidency in 2007). The discipline of economics, Piketty argues, remains trapped in a juvenile passion for mathematics, divorced from history and its sister social sciences. His work aims to change that.

Perhaps his greatest achievement is to rescue the study of inequality for “political economy” – a term that went out of fashion in the 20th century but which is now experiencing a revival. Despite the enormity of the challenges Thomas Piketty’s book poses, it ends on a note of urgent activism, not acquiescence: “If democracy is some day to regain control of capitalism, it must start by recognising that the concrete institutions in which democracy and capitalism are embodied need to be reinvented again and again.”

Nick Pearce is the director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, where Thomas Piketty will be speaking on 30 April. For details visit: ippr.org/events

Nick Pearce is Professor of Public Policy & Director of the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath.

MILES COLE
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The new Brexit economics

George Osborne’s austerity plan – now abandoned by the Tories – was the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s.

George Osborne is no longer chancellor, sacked by the post-Brexit Prime Minister, Theresa May. Philip Hammond, the new Chancellor, has yet to announce detailed plans but he has indicated that the real economy rather than the deficit is his priority. The senior Conservatives Sajid Javid and Stephen Crabb have advocated substantial increases in public-sector infrastructure investment, noting how cheap it is for the government to borrow. The argument that Osborne and the Conservatives had been making since 2010 – that the priority for macroeconomic policy had to be to reduce the government’s budget deficit – seems to have been brushed aside.

Is there a good economic reason why Brexit in particular should require abandoning austerity economics? I would argue that the Tory obsession with the budget deficit has had very little to do with economics for the past four or five years. Instead, it has been a political ruse with two intentions: to help win elections and to reduce the size of the state. That Britain’s macroeconomic policy was dictated by politics rather than economics was a precursor for the Brexit vote. However, austerity had already begun to reach its political sell-by date, and Brexit marks its end.

To understand why austerity today is opposed by nearly all economists, and to grasp the partial nature of any Conservative rethink, it is important to know why it began and how it evolved. By 2010 the biggest recession since the Second World War had led to rapid increases in government budget deficits around the world. It is inevitable that deficits (the difference between government spending and tax receipts) increase in a recession, because taxes fall as incomes fall, but government spending rises further because benefit payments increase with rising unemployment. We experienced record deficits in 2010 simply because the recession was unusually severe.

In 2009 governments had raised spending and cut taxes in an effort to moderate the recession. This was done because the macroeconomic stabilisation tool of choice, nominal short-term interest rates, had become impotent once these rates hit their lower bound near zero. Keynes described the same situation in the 1930s as a liquidity trap, but most economists today use a more straightforward description: the problem of the zero lower bound (ZLB). Cutting rates below this lower bound might not stimulate demand because people could avoid them by holding cash. The textbook response to the problem is to use fiscal policy to stimulate the economy, which involves raising spending and cutting taxes. Most studies suggest that the recession would have been even worse without this expansionary fiscal policy in 2009.

Fiscal stimulus changed to fiscal contraction, more popularly known as austerity, in most of the major economies in 2010, but the reasons for this change varied from country to country. George Osborne used three different arguments to justify substantial spending cuts and tax increases before and after the coalition government was formed. The first was that unconventional monetary policy (quantitative easing, or QE) could replace the role of lower interest rates in stimulating the economy. As QE was completely untested, this was wishful thinking: the Bank of England was bound to act cautiously, because it had no idea what impact QE would have. The second was that a fiscal policy contraction would in fact expand the economy because it would inspire consumer and business confidence. This idea, disputed by most economists at the time, has now lost all credibility.

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The third reason for trying to cut the deficit was that the financial markets would not buy government debt without it. At first, this rationale seemed to be confirmed by events as the eurozone crisis developed, and so it became the main justification for the policy. However, by 2012 it was becoming clear to many economists that the debt crisis in Ireland, Portugal and Spain was peculiar to the eurozone, and in particular to the failure of the European Central Bank (ECB) to act as a lender of last resort, buying government debt when the market failed to.

In September 2012 the ECB changed its policy and the eurozone crisis beyond Greece came to an end. This was the main reason why renewed problems in Greece last year did not lead to any contagion in the markets. Yet it is not something that the ECB will admit, because it places responsibility for the crisis at its door.

By 2012 two other things had also become clear to economists. First, governments outside the eurozone were having no problems selling their debt, as interest rates on this reached record lows. There was an obvious reason why this should be so: with central banks buying large quantities of government debt as a result of QE, there was absolutely no chance that governments would default. Nor have I ever seen any evidence that there was any likelihood of a UK debt funding crisis in 2010, beyond the irrelevant warnings of those “close to the markets”. Second, the austerity policy had done considerable harm. In macroeconomic terms the recovery from recession had been derailed. With the help of analysis from the Office for Budget Responsibility, I calculated that the GDP lost as a result of austerity implied an average cost for each UK household of at least £4,000.

Following these events, the number of academic economists who supported austerity became very small (they had always been a minority). How much of the UK deficit was cyclical or structural was irrelevant: at the ZLB, fiscal policy should stimulate, and the deficit should be dealt with once the recession was over.

Yet you would not know this from the public debate. Osborne continued to insist that deficit reduction be a priority, and his belief seemed to have become hard-wired into nearly all media discussion. So perverse was this for standard macroeconomics that I christened it “mediamacro”: the reduction of macroeconomics to the logic of household finance. Even parts of the Labour Party seemed to be succumbing to a mediamacro view, until the fiscal credibility rule introduced in March by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell. (This included an explicit knockout from the deficit target if interest rates hit the ZLB, allowing fiscal policy to focus on recovering from recession.)

It is obvious why a focus on the deficit was politically attractive for Osborne. After 2010 the coalition government adopted the mantra that the deficit had been caused by the previous Labour government’s profligacy, even though it was almost entirely a consequence of the recession. The Tories were “clearing up the mess Labour left”, and so austerity could be blamed on their predecessors. Labour foolishly decided not to challenge this myth, and so it became what could be termed a “politicised truth”. It allowed the media to say that Osborne was more competent at running the economy than his predecessors. Much of the public, hearing only mediamacro, agreed.

An obsession with cutting the deficit was attractive to the Tories, as it helped them to appear competent. It also enabled them to achieve their ideological goal of shrinking the state. I have described this elsewhere as “deficit deceit”: using manufactured fear about the deficit to achieve otherwise unpopular reductions in public spending.

The UK recovery from the 2008/2009 recession was the weakest on record. Although employment showed strong growth from 2013, this may have owed much to an unprecedented decline in real wages and stagnant productivity growth. By the main metrics by which economists judge the success of an economy, the period of the coalition government looked very poor. Many economists tried to point this out during the 2015 election but they were largely ignored. When a survey of macroeconomists showed that most thought austerity had been harmful, the broadcast media found letters from business leaders supporting the Conservative position more newsworthy.

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In my view, mediamacro and its focus on the deficit played an important role in winning the Conservatives the 2015 general election. I believe Osborne thought so, too, and so he ­decided to try to repeat his success. Although the level of government debt was close to being stabilised, he decided to embark on a further period of fiscal consolidation so that he could achieve a budget surplus.

Osborne’s austerity plans after 2015 were different from what happened in 2010 for a number of reasons. First, while 2010 austerity also occurred in the US and the eurozone, 2015 austerity was largely a UK affair. Second, by 2015 the Bank of England had decided that interest rates could go lower than their current level if need be. We are therefore no longer at the ZLB and, in theory, the impact of fiscal consolidation on demand could be offset by reducing interest rates, as long as no adverse shocks hit the economy. The argument against fiscal consolidation was rather that it increased the vulnerability of the economy if a negative shock occurred. As we have seen, Brexit is just this kind of shock.

In this respect, abandoning Osborne’s surplus target makes sense. However, there were many other strong arguments against going for surplus. The strongest of these was the case for additional public-sector investment at a time when interest rates were extremely low. Osborne loved appearing in the media wearing a hard hat and talked the talk on investment, but in reality his fiscal plans involved a steadily decreasing share of public investment in GDP. Labour’s fiscal rules, like those of the coalition government, have targeted the deficit excluding public investment, precisely so that investment could increase when the circumstances were right. In 2015 the circumstances were as right as they can be. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the International Monetary Fund and pretty well every economist agreed.

Brexit only reinforces this argument. Yet Brexit will also almost certainly worsen the deficit. This is why the recent acceptance by the Tories that public-sector investment should rise is significant. They may have ­decided that they have got all they could hope to achieve from deficit deceit, and that now is the time to focus on the real needs of the economy, given the short- and medium-term drag on growth caused by Brexit.

It is also worth noting that although the Conservatives have, in effect, disowned Osborne’s 2015 austerity, they still insist their 2010 policy was correct. This partial change of heart is little comfort to those of us who have been arguing against austerity for the past six years. In 2015 the Conservatives persuaded voters that electing Ed Miliband as prime minister and Ed Balls as chancellor was taking a big risk with the economy. What it would have meant, in fact, is that we would already be getting the public investment the Conservatives are now calling for, and we would have avoided both the uncertainty before the EU referendum and Brexit itself.

Many economists before the 2015 election said the same thing, but they made no impact on mediamacro. The number of economists who supported Osborne’s new fiscal charter was vanishingly small but it seemed to matter not one bit. This suggests that if a leading political party wants to ignore mainstream economics and academic economists in favour of simplistic ideas, it can get away with doing so.

As I wrote in March, the failure of debate made me very concerned about the outcome of the EU referendum. Economists were as united as they ever are that Brexit would involve significant economic costs, and the scale of these costs is probably greater than the average loss due to austerity, simply because they are repeated year after year. Yet our warnings were easily deflected with the slogan “Project Fear”, borrowed from the SNP’s nickname for the No campaign in the 2014 Scottish referendum.

It remains unclear whether economists’ warnings were ignored because they were never heard fully or because they were not trusted, but in either case economics as a profession needs to think seriously about what it can do to make itself more relevant. We do not want economics in the UK to change from being called the dismal science to becoming the “I told you so” science.

Some things will not change following the Brexit vote. Mediamacro will go on obsessing about the deficit, and the Conservatives will go on wanting to cut many parts of government expenditure so that they can cut taxes. But the signs are that deficit deceit, creating an imperative that budget deficits must be cut as a pretext for reducing the size of the state, has come to an end in the UK. It will go down in history as probably the most costly macroeconomic policy mistake since the 1930s, causing a great deal of misery to many people’s lives.

Simon Wren-Lewis is a professor of economic policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford. He blogs at: mainlymacro.blogspot.com

 Simon Wren-Lewis is is Professor of Economic Policy in the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University, and a fellow of Merton College. He blogs at mainlymacro.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt