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.

Edel Rodriguez for New Statesman
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Rehearsing for war

From the Middle East to North Korea, Donald Trump is reasserting US military strength and intensifying the rivalry among the great powers.

As Vice-President Mike Pence arrived in South Korea from Washington on Sunday, he announced that the “era of strategic patience”, in which the US sought to monitor and manage the nuclear threat from North Korea without pushing the matter for fear of escalation, was over. “President Trump has made it clear that the patience of the United States and our allies in this region has run out and we want to see change,” Pence declared. The heat under a crisis that had already been bubbling ominously was turned up another notch.

Much has been written in recent years about the stability provided by the post-1945 world order and the dangers of letting it crumble. The conflict in Korea provided the first big test of that order almost 70 years ago, but the difficulty was never really resolved. It remains the proverbial “wicked problem” in international affairs, “frozen” in an obsessively monitored and deeply uneasy stalemate, demarcated by the Demilitarised Zone: a line 160 miles long and roughly two and a half miles wide scored across the middle of the Korean Peninsula, drawn with superpower supervision in 1953. Partition has allowed a strong and ­successful state to flourish in the South while the North has survived in a state of ­arrested development.

The problem has been passed down from generation to generation because attempting to solve the issue risked opening a Pandora’s box. The risks included the unleashing of huge military force, potential world war and a refugee crisis on a scale that could severely destabilise even China. By the 1990s, it was clear that the North Korean regime had fastened upon another strategy for survival as the Cold War passed into history and its sponsors in Beijing and Moscow began to question the value of such an ally: the acquisition of nuclear warheads. Pyongyang has long had the firepower to flatten Seoul in a matter of hours. The mission since has been to develop its missile technology to carry that material as far as possible – certainly to Japan, but ideally also to the west coast of the United States.

The day after Pence’s announcement, the US and South Korea undertook a joint air and army exercise to ensure readiness in the event of an attack from the North. This followed a joint naval war game earlier in the week and the US decision to send a navy group led by the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, which Donald Trump described as an “armada”, to the region. No sooner had the fleet appeared than Japanese sources reported that it had been followed by Chinese and Russian submarines as it entered North Korean waters. Such are the great-power manoeuvres of the 21st century – whether on air, sea or land – in which the world’s most potent military machines shadow the moves of their competitors, and openly rehearse for war.

***

Asia has not had a major inter-state war since the 1970s but it is not immune from the tragedies of power politics that have beset other rapidly developing parts of the world. Across the region, military spending is rising fast as states jostle in anticipation of a changing balance of power.

The purpose of Pence’s Asia-Pacific tour is to offer reassurance to America’s allies in the region, which have been watching the rise of China, in particular, with trepidation. The stark change of tone emanating from the White House – and change of gear – has been noted. After years of steady consistency in US grand strategy, there is a sense of a building crisis and the Americans are being watched in anticipation of their next move more closely than they have been scrutinised in many years.

Before he left South Korea, Pence also visited Panmunjom, where the 1953 armistice was signed at the end of the Korean War, as well as Camp Bonifas, a UN military compound near the Demilitarised Zone, set up to monitor the ceasefire that followed. It is an eerie echo from the past that Pence’s own father served in the war that divided the country. Edward Pence was awarded the Bronze Star on 15 April 1953 for heroic service. The vice-president proudly displays the medal, and a photo of his father receiving it, in his office. He is no doubt aware of the costs of a conflict in which an estimated 36,000 of his countrymen were killed.

Just over a thousand British soldiers also lost their lives in the Korean War after being sent to fight in a joint UN force. But it was far more deadly still for the peoples of the Korean Peninsula, killing more than a million people, including 400,000 troops for the People’s Volunteer Army, among whom was Mao Anying, the eldest son of Chairman Mao, the leader of the Communist Party of China and protector of the North.

History throws up strange parallels. When the Korean War began in 1950 it was understood to be the first serious test of the international system established after the Second World War. It is striking just how many of the same ingredients remain, including the identity of some of the main protagonists. On 25 June 1950, a border conflict between North and South Korea escalated into full-scale war when Kim Il-sung’s Korean People’s Army – backed by China, and with the tacit support of the Soviet Union – invaded the Republic of Korea in the south, claiming that it represented the legitimate government of all Korea. This is a claim that the regime of his grandson Kim Jong-un has not abandoned to this day.

Two days after the invasion, on 27 June, the UN Security Council voted to send a joint force, under General Douglas MacArthur of the US, the former supreme commander of Allied forces in the south-west Pacific area, to protect the sovereignty of the South and repel the invaders. Much more was at stake than the question of territorial integrity or preserving international law. By bringing the Americans into confrontation with the Chinese – and with the Russians seen to be the steering hand in the background – the conflict had all the ingredients for rapid escalation.

From the start, there were concerns that the Americans might overdo the brinkmanship, even under the cautious leadership of Harry Truman. Fears that the self-confident MacArthur would exceed his brief were confirmed when the UN forces pushed back into North Korea in October. In response, the Chinese Communists, who believed that MacArthur had designs on China itself, flooded across the Yalu River in their tens of thousands.

It was in the autumn of 1950 that the danger of another world war, this one involving nuclear weapons, reached its peak. On 28 November, after a grave reverse for the UN forces, MacArthur stated that the advent of 200,000 Chinese had created “an entirely new war”, with much higher stakes than before. Suddenly, the prospect that the US might resort to using an atomic bomb against the North Koreans, or even the Chinese forces, seemed plausible.

While the nuclear scare passed, the war rumbled on towards an ugly stalemate over the next three years. A temporary solution of sorts was found with the 1953 armistice. But there was no resolution to Korea’s frozen war. In a way that no other totalitarian state has managed, the North zipped itself into a hermetically sealed chamber, preserving a three-generation dictatorship that is both comically anachronistic and frighteningly modern in its missile technology.

***

Some of this complicated backstory was explained to Donald Trump by China’s president, Xi Jinping, during his recent visit to the United States. Trump – who had been pressuring China to do more to deal with the North Korean regime – appears to have been receptive to what he heard.

“After listening for ten minutes,” he said, “I realised it’s not so easy.”

This is the first critical test of the “new era in great-power relations” which Xi has been floating for a number of years, but Trump has now decided to put to the test. According to Trump’s most recent tweets, Beijing has continued to work with the US on the North Korea problem. He has welcomed its contribution but insisted that America’s own willingness to deal with the problem does not depend on China. In other words, there is no master plan being played out here, even if – as seems credible – America did hack North Korea’s latest missile launch to make it a damp squib.

The Trump administration is not creating the conditions for a new long game, building a fresh multilateral consensus to contain the North Korean threat. Instead, with a newfound sense of momentum serving as a tail wind, it senses a moment to “solve” one of the longest-running and most treacherous problems in international affairs. It has decided, at the very least, to severely clip the wings of Kim Jong-un’s regime. And in doing so, it has set out to demonstrate that when America speaks, it speaks with effect.

Like much current presidential policy, “the Trump doctrine” is being made on the hoof. Much of the hyperactivity of the past month or so was not scripted but emerged in response to overt challenges – beginning in Damascus and panning to Pyongyang – to the United States and the “red lines” it has laid down in the past. One foundation stone of Trump’s approach to the world is firmly in place, however: the willingness to reassert US military power with swift and decisive effect. The idea that the “America First” slogan implied anything resembling isolationism is crumbling. The growing sense that it does imply unsentimental and unvarnished power politics in the name of the US interest rather than multilateral niceties is closer to the truth.

Under Barack Obama, the US sought to withdraw from those areas in which he felt that the US had overstretched itself under his predecessor. Obama opted for a more rapier-like and cost-effective form of power projection. He drew down from formal military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, while presiding over a huge uptick in drone warfare, cyber capabilities and selective but deadly use of special operations. Much of the full range of US power was submerged in various “secret wars”, and the diplomatic compass was reset to pivot east. This was because, as a legacy of the 9/11 attacks, national security was geared towards the containment of an elusive and amorphous enemy – various offshoots of the global jihad movement – that operated on the periphery of America’s radar.

But the real metrics of great power are those now on display off the coast of North Korea. For all the advances in drone technology, the missiles that cause the gravest threats to humanity are those on the scale that the North Korean regime is attempting to build. Trump’s test was one that a president of the United States would have to face sooner rather than later.

Not since Ronald Reagan has the US been so willing to engage in naked displays of its own military potency in quick succession – and seek to gather diplomatic yields from them as swiftly as possible. The past fortnight brought a missile attack on an airbase manned by the Assad regime – changing the tenor of US-Russian relations overnight – and the dropping of the so-called Moab (“mother of all bombs”) on an Isis affiliate in Afghanistan. The latter was a far cry from the “clear, hold, build” counterinsurgency operations in vogue half a decade ago. But it did fit with a campaign promise by the new president that he would “bomb the shit out of Isis” should the opportunity arise.

Does this fit into a wider pattern or constitute a new approach? The Trump administration is eager to leverage any opening that might have been created. In Seoul, Pence wasted no time in joining the dots: “the world witnessed the strength and resolve of our new president in actions taken in Syria and Afghanistan”. North Korea, he continued, “would do well not to test his resolve, or the strength of the armed forces of the United States in this region”.

It is the generals who have increasingly set the tone for Trump’s foreign policy. During the 2016 election campaign, he promised to give the Pentagon more leeway than it had under Obama to focus on “winning”. The new national security adviser, H R McMaster, and the defence secretary, General James Mattis, are now the steering hands.

Neither man has followed the rather crass and short-sighted fashion for running down diplomacy. Mattis once said that if the state department budget was cut, he would need more ammunition. McMaster is an urbane thinker who knows that the use of force must always be carefully calibrated and is just one tool in a continuum of factors. In this respect, it is a problem that so many jobs in the state department remain unfilled. Now that muscle has been flexed, the experienced negotiators and diplomats should be flooding through the door.

***

The policy of “strategic patience” was based on an understandable calculation. But, in hindsight, it does appear that North Korea has suffered from neglect. Mitchell B Reiss, one of the most experienced diplomats who led efforts on North Korea in the 1990s, notes that, despite unprecedented co-operation between the US and China in recent weeks, including open threats of economic pressure and military action, they were still unable to prevent North Korea from testing ballistic missiles on 16 April. Even though the missiles exploded immediately after lift off, “The failure of Washington and Beijing to stop the test in the first place has important implications for the Trump administration’s future policy options and for stability in north-east Asia.”

In Reiss’s view, it is “highly unlikely that the North can be cajoled, threatened or given incentives to surrender its nuclear weapons”. The uncomfortable truth is that “short of regime change, which could inflame the entire Korean Peninsula in war”, the US cannot halt the North’s nuclear weapons programme. But that does not mean there are no options. Slowing the pace and raising the costs would be “prudent steps”. More, too, could be done, Reiss says, to “interdict imports of sensitive technologies, to sanction Chinese and other nationals who act as purchasing agents for the nuclear and missile programmes, and to punish Chinese banks that help finance these programmes through so-called secondary sanctions”.

In the end, so much comes down to US-China relations. Could this be the basis for a reset and a new accommodation between Beijing and Washington? How much further is China willing to go to use its leverage on the North, which depends on it for energy and food? And how patient will the Trump administration be if its new strategy does not yield tangible results of the sort that are sometimes elusive in the long and often open-ended game of deterrence? 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and the author of “Realpolitik: a History” (Oxford University Press)

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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