Piketty’s “Capital,” and the Rest of the World

Video: Thomas Piketty Discusses, “Capital In The 21st Century” with Ryan Grim and Alexis Goldstein

The book by the French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century has already become part of everyday discussions and is being referenced among academics. The research by Piketty has come in the perfect time and there are plenty of reasons why. Piketty’s book discussion brings some light to the study of income quintiles and deciles into a new debate of the “the skyrocketing incomes of the 1% — and the mind-boggling gains of the 0.1% and 0.01%  — by gathering and publishing income tax data that nobody had bothered with before. Piketty was behind similar projects in France, Britain, Japan, and other countries.” (via Justin Fox at the Harvard Business Review)

I finished reading the book this weekend and it was eye-opening. The book presents great challenges to the study of capital and inequalities in the developed economies as well as in the rest of the world. The book also opens the doors for a wider discussion on the effects European Capital has had in the global economy. Further, the book invites globalists to challenge our understanding of European-centric terms that over longer periods of time become, perhaps, insufficient to comprehend global economic processes over the passing of centuries and how these processes have changed and transformed themselves by a complex evolution and redefinition.

It can’t be denied that capital during all of the 19th Century and in the beginning of the 20th Century was centered in the main European metropolises and extracted most of the goods from the periphery. Few Capital remained in colonies and protectorates. Wealth belonged to the Empires and Poverty remained in colonial territories. Even the poorest of the European was considered Rich by comparison to the inhabitants of Colonies.

Today, European Empires are gone for a while, U.S. Capital increased and gained from the fall of the European Empires and new economies started developing in former Colonies. Giant Economies like China and Russia woke up after decades of isolation from global trade and today reconfigured our understanding of Capital. Piketty’s book somehow fails to explore this Global political changes and its economic effects.

Piketty’s central argument has a gigantic weakness since it is tied to nation-states and cannot be compared or understood in reference to Global Capital flows in today’s multinational economy. Very few references are made to the role played by Multinational Companies and foreign national investments and savings by State Companies in the world.  And less is mentioned of global inequalities and the North-South divide that has been increased by the investments done by Developed and Developing Economies in the rest of the world.  Piketty argues that Capital has tended over time to grow faster than the overall economy (he focuses on European and US economies); and that income from capital is invariably much less evenly distributed than labor income (again he focuses on European and US economies). Thus failing to acknowledge how Labor income stopped been localized during the 20th Century and it involved multiple polities far away from the metropolis.  Piketty argues that together (Capital growth and its uneven distribution) amount to a powerful force for increasing inequality.

Piketty doesn’t take things as far as Marx and this is a pitty. Marx’s methodology involved the State but it also referenced to its effects both and from the peripheries through the pass of longer periods of time. This is one of the most important contributions of Marx: his global understand of the economy.

Piketty shows how over the two-plus centuries for which good records exist, the only major decline in capital’s economic share and in economic inequality was the result of World Wars I and II, which destroyed lots of capital and brought much higher taxes in the U.S. and Europe. However, he again fails to acknowledge how Capital grew in the Global South after these wars as a result of increased inequalities in the Colonies and Agriculture-centered States in South America and Asia. During the wars Capital destruction was followed by a spectacular run of economic growth that involved the entire globe and not only Europe and the U.S.  The Cold War is a good reference for finding how Capital flows went from Europe to Asia, America and Africa.  As well, the run of economic growth started involving non-State actors in which Capital continue increasing at a higher and faster rate than the one he references and studies. Failing to study this shows in Piketty’s book that after decades of peace, slowing growth, and declining tax rates, capital and inequality are on the rise all over the developed world only, and it’s not clear what if anything will alter that trajectory in the decades to come.  However, the declining tax rates, capital and inequality are on the rise at a faster pace in the developing economies and in the “puppet states” (Nigeria, Chile, the Middle East countries) which have emerged around them as sources of petrol, minerals and rare earths.

Piketty’s main worry as points out Justin Fox is that “growing wealth in Europe will bring a return to 19th century circumstances in which most affluent people get that way through inheritance.” Plus, “U.S. median income will continue lossing ground relative to other nations in the following years”. But this are not the only worries that we should identify.  The BRICS countries are probably a good source of comparison to see how the growing wealth of the 20th Century remains on the hands of the few rich and is currently been passed through inheritance. Further, developing economies in South America and Africa are an extreme case of the last.

Piketty’s solution to Europe’s and U.S. problems is that a progressive global wealth tax be established. But this tax will fail to be the best response to the current dynamics of inequality if Capital continues flowing outside of Europe into multinational capital investments overseas and into State companies overseas. 

I enjoyed this political economy analysis and will continue learning a lot from it. Piketty’s solution is a challenge for the study of global political economy and the reconfiguration of the global economy in the 21st Century. Perhaps if a new book is published studying the shareholders who own the most stock in almost every Fortune 500 company and the Capital of any major global company instead of only the economies of France, Germany or the United States more accurate insights will be found.

 

Advertisements

Inequality in India

By 2011 the BRIC economies had some of the highest rates of income inequality adjusted to the Human Development Index among developing nations.  At the same time, the BRIC countries had consistently had the highest GNP growth versus the previous 10 years among developing nations.  How is it that there is not a parallel growth of the Human Development of its citizens?  The answer and one of the biggest challenges for the BRIC countries is the fact that a large amount of the GNP is distributed among small elites that control their market economies.

Economists and investors such as O’Neill, Krugman and others largely emphasize the expected growth of the BRIC economies as indicators of where to invest their money.  Unfortunately, they have not paid the same interest to what many other economists consider important: the human development of the people.  Fortunately, there are still some economists who since the decade of 1970 paid a lot of attention to the issues of freedom and equality.  Economists leaded by Milton Friedman, the Economics Nobel Prize of 1976, argued that economic policies should be focused in the freedom of its citizens as a primary value.  To them, stressing equality per se could lead to economic inefficiency as well as it would put in risk Freedom itself.  However, the same economist argued that it was necessary for developing economies that the government took a central role in poverty alleviation in order to keep the pace with the economic growth of its economies.  Unfortunately, this poverty alleviation is not being done in the BRIC countries and the economic difference between the poorest and the richest continues to grow. Since the 60s, a large group of economists emphasized the negative effects of not paying attention to a free and equal development in emerging markets; economists like Friedman and Hayek wrote a lot in this regard and even recently Elinor Ostrom’s ideas, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2009, are still not listened by those who have forgotten the importance of good governance economic policies.

India is the country in which this income inequality versus human development is more pronounced.  Currently, India occupies the position #93 with an IHDI of 0.392 and the country has descended in the rank many positions since the last decade.  Inequality in the earnings among Indians has doubled over the last two decades, making it one of the worst performers among developing economies.  Why? This is again the result of the failed attempts by the Indian government to combat corruption, bad administration and under-payments and also of the unawareness of foreign investors.

The fact that foreign investors have no interest in securing the welfare of the Indian people is a problem.  To them, the investment opportunities of this specific BRIC country are of value until they find a better economy to move their money to.  However, the real stakeholders are not the foreign investors but the Indian Government and its groups of interest who should aim to secure the welfare of all of its citizens now that they have a chance.  While the growth of this economies will continue the effect it will have in such unequal societies will result in some of the worst rates of poverty and hunger ever seen in history. By 2025 India will be the most populous country in the world but also, it will have 268 million people (20.3%) living still with less than US$1.25 a day as reported by economists in the World Bank. The Indian government should go aligned with the current trade liberalization in order to support higher productivity in the private sector and to exploit its comparative advantage of having a labor-intensive industry to foster the production of goods and services.