It has been a long, long time since Americans accepted the advice of a French intellectual about anything important, let alone the future of democracy and the economy. But the furor over Thomas Piketty’s stunning bestseller, Capital in the 21st Century – and especially the outraged reaction from the Republican right – suggests that this fresh import from la belle France has struck an exposed nerve.
What Monsieur Piketty proves, with his massive data set and complex analytical tools, is something that many of us – including Pope Francis — have understood both intuitively and intellectually: namely that human society, both here and globally, has long been grossly inequitable and is steadily becoming more so, to our moral detriment.
What Piketty strongly suggests is that the structures of capitalism not only regenerate worsening inequality, but now drive us toward a system of economic peonage and political autocracy.
The underlying equation he derives is simple enough: r > g, meaning the return on capital (property, stock, and other forms of ownership) is consistently higher than economic growth. How much higher? Since the early 1800s, financiers and landowners have enjoyed returns of roughly five percent annually, while economic growth benefiting everyone has lagged, averaging closer to 1 or 2 percent. This formula has held fairly steady across time and space. While other respectable economists may dispute his methodology and even his conclusions, they cannot dismiss his conclusions.
As a work of history and social science, Capital in the 21st Century outlines a fundamental issue while providing little in policy terms. Piketty mildly suggests that nations might someday cooperate in a progressive and global taxation of capital gains, with shared proceeds. There isn’t much reason to hope for any such happy solution. But then it isn’t up to Piketty to solve the problem.
He has already done America and the world a profound service by demolishing the enormous shibboleth that has long stood as an obstacle to almost every attempt at economic reform, from raising the minimum wage to restoring progressive taxation: Only if we coddle the very wealthy – and protect them from taxation and regulation — can we hope to restore growth, employment, and prosperity. Only if we meekly accept the revolting displays of power and consumption by the very fortunate few can we expect them to bestow any blessing, however small, on the toiling many.