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.

 

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Article recommendation: Twentieth Century Flick: Business History in the Age of Extremes

I apologize for posting much these last weeks.  I have been quite busy reading journals on Global Value Chains, Deviant Capitalism, Black Market Trade and theories on Global Political Economy.  While this has driven me nuts… it has also made me pay attention to the field of Business History.

Business history is not the history of Capitalism and it is also not the history of entrepreneurship.  The research in this field is mostly controlled by an European institutionalist approach.  And in the latest decades, it has gained more insights from economic and business studies that are highly afflicted by neo-marxist approaches of the 20th Century.  So, if you are interested in learning about this particular area of research here is the info for a good article on the topic that may get you also interested, and provide you with further bibliography.

Twentieth Century Flick: Business History in the Age of Extremes
Priemel, Kim Christian (2012)
Journal of Contemporary History vol. 47 (4) p. 754-772

.Full Text (PDF)

Live-streaming of The Atlas Summit Available for June 28-July 1, 2012!

Register for Live-streaming! I am very happy to inform you that The Atlas Summit that is going to be held in the following days in Washington, D.C. is going to be available for Live-streaming.Here is a link to the Speaker Bios and information on the topic of their talks.

I am very exciting about this event since I will be talking this time on the History of Capitalism in two sessions.  I will be more than happy if you can join and send any questions during the Q&A Sessions: The History of Capitalism 1 and The History of Capitalism 2

If you can’t be in D.C. for the Atlas Summit you can still view all of the presentations by purchasing a live-streaming ticket. You will even be able of submitting questions for the Q&A sessions.Cost: $99 for entire conference.Students: $19 for entire conference. Sign up now!


Recommended Articles: Business, Economic and Financial History

List of selected articles that I read last week that may be of your interest:

  1. Super-cycles of commodity prices since the mid-ninteenth century. Bilge Erten
  2. Against Liberty: Adorno, Levinas and the Pathologies of Freedom. Nelson, Eric S.
  3. Lords of Uhuru: the political economy of elite competition and institutional change in post-independence Kenya. Bedasso, Biniam
  4. The Euro crisis: a historical perspective. Mourlon-Druol, Emmanuel
  5. Economics and ethics: a historical approach. Ciani Scarnicci, Manuela

On the fallacies of an Emerging Global Left

Socialism is unrealizable as an economic system because a socialist society would not have any possibility of resorting to economic calculation. This is why it cannot be considered as a system of society’s economic organization. It is a means to disintegrate social cooperation and to bring about poverty and chaos.” Ludwig von MisesMoney, Method, and the Market Process.

Recently, an article from the blog Poverty Matters (supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) authored by Jayati Ghosh in the Guardian elaborates on how a new global left is emerging as a result of a transcendance of the traditional socialist paradigm.  Ghosh explains that this new global left has is currently transcending the traditional socialist emphasis on “centralised government control over an undifferentiated mass of workers, to incorporate more explicit emphasis on the rights and concerns of women, ethnic minorities, tribal communities and other marginalised groups, as well as recognition of ecological constraints and the social necessity of respecting nature.”  This transcendance is occurring via what Ghosh considers to be seven common threads that are not new but a result of a “collective failure of memory”.

These threads are:

  1. An attitude to what constitutes democracy,
  2. the rejection of overcentralisation,
  3. a more complex approach to property rights,
  4. a discourse in the language of “rights”,
  5. a realization that addressing issues only in class terms is not sufficient,
  6. a emphasis on gender as a a cause for addressing issues,
  7. an emphasis on environmental conservation, the protection of ecosystems, biodiversity and the integrity of a country’s genetic assets.

I wonder what Ghosh considered to be the traditional socialist paradigma.  Socialism and the ideas behind this socioeconomic system of collective ownership of the means of production is very diverse and it is incorrect and inaccurate to speak of a single socialist paradigm.  More so, what seems a New emergence of the left is in fact not occurring anywhere in the world.

Collectivism (inaccurately generalized as “the left”) in its many names and shapes continues developing itself within the same framework of ideas that have been used for centuries. While the historical context has changed the principles continue being the same.  As such, the thread number 1 which seems for Ghosh as a new attitude toward democracy is the result of the failure of the previous collectivist governments that have ruled the world.  There is no real change in the attitude toward democracy since collectivist ideas consider democracy as a means to the value they aim to achieve: collective power over the collective.  The only way of having a new attitude toward democracy would be in fact to reject it as a mean to achieve any end successfully.  This of course is not happening anywhere in the collectivist groups of the world.

As well, the point number two of overcentralisation is false since collectivism is a centralized system of organization in which at the end of the day the sole power over everything resides in the collective government.  The only change is not of how centralization happens but on how many people are to be managing that collective government (the Party, elites, corporations, oligarchies, et al).

Point number three and four have nothing new and are the same exact approaches that collectivism has had since it origin in regard to property and rights.  Collectivist philosophies consider all in essence the private ownership of the means of production to be evil, static in nature and inefficient to satisfy the needs of humanity. Its approach to rights is rooted on the principle that the only important rights are those of the collective and thus reject the individual rights of its members.

Points five, six and seven have also not changed in the collectivist mindset since they are rooted in the principles of class struggle that have only continued the trend of understanding society as a competing/destructive system based on gender, race, culture, religion, etc.  The principle continues the same: The so called  tension or antagonism continues to exists in their interpretation of society due to competing socioeconomic interests between people.

By definition, the only way in which any real change, evolution or overcoming of a collectivist philosophy in the globe will arise when the discourse starts by rejecting the philosophical principles in which they are rooted.  As such, unless they understand how and why the collectivist philosophy is full of fallacious principles that have caused death and poverty for centuries, there is nothing that will change.  There is no emergence of a new left, there is no resurgence of collectivism and the dialectics of historical materialism continue existing in the core of all collectivist philosophies.  It will be only until intellectuals have the common-sense and moral courage to question their philosophies of life that we may seem an end to centuries of collectivist failed projects of organizing society.  Until that day what we will continue seeing is the same social system that has destroyed the best within man for ages.

Travel Diary: Prices, Unions and Freedom in one of the richest countries of the World

Prices in a capitalist economy reflect the relative scarcity of a good or service as well as the amount and intensity of consumer demand. Free-market prices are the only viable means of rational economic calculation. If a good or service becomes in shorter supply, for whatever reason, its price will rise, all other things being equal. The higher price will give consumers the proper incentive to do what is needed whenever anything becomes scarcer: conserve, or cut back on consumption. DiLorenzo in “How Capitalism Saved America

Last weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Oslo Objectivist Conference 2012 in Oslo, Norway in which I enjoyed a weekend of Philosophy, Objectivity and a celebration of Individual Rights.  On Monday before returning to my base in Leipzig, I decided to spend the day enjoying the parks and streets of the city (one of my favorites) and during lunch I went to eat buffalo wings in front of the City Hall Park.

That noon I was reading the last pages of the book “How Capitalism Saved America” by Thomas DiLorenzo and was writing extensive notes in my notebook criticizing many of his arguments in favor of capitalism due to lack of consistency and integration.  Leaving those morality issues aside, I was very interested in his historical explanation on the role that Unions (and privileged groups of interest) have had in destroying the foundations (principles) of capitalism in the United States since the foundation of the country.  Curiously, that same day the Farmers Union of Norway gathered in front of the park to do a countrywide protest (news).

As DiLorenzo writes, Unions have claimed for decades to be representatives of the “interests” of society, workers, middle class, proletarians and et. al. However, it has been actually only in the interests of the Union’s leadership and their pursuit of cronyism that they have actually worked by being concerned only in “their own membership rolls and dues revenues”. Examples from the Unions intervention in the destruction of the most successful industries of the  United States are explained by DiLorenzo’s book.

On Monday, the disgruntled Norwegian farmers decided to take the streets against the recent decisions of the government in April, 2012 to subsidy of Agriculture by granting only 625 million Norwegian Kroner instead of the 2.2 billion they asked.  The Norwegian Farmers’ Union (NFU) decided to take their trucks and cows and occupy the doors of the City Hall in Oslo; in other cities and towns the mayors were even kidnapped by the unionists.

This protest arise after the Parliament decided that that food prices should rise 20 percent in the next 20 years in line with expected population growth, providing sufficient income to both achieve this and ensure continued recruitment to farming (this reminds me of Hayek’s ideas on the Fatal Conceit). The NFU doesn’t agree.  They consider that the average annual incomes are under 300,000 kroner per man-labour year, whilst it is 469,000 on average in other sectors.  They also claim to represent the “interests” of 100,000 jobs in agriculture and food industry and not only to be seeking for more money for farmers (yeah, right).

Norway is one of the richest countries in the world and its society lives in very comfortable conditions.  The Leviathan in government charges immense amounts of taxes and inflation is incredible.  Just to illustrate the size of Leviathan: The buffalo wings and a beer cost me the high price of 250 krone (aprox. 33 euro or US$41.00 in T.G.I. Friday’s) That same meal would have cost me much less if bought in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world .

How can they afford it? The population earns artificial higher incomes due to the government interventions in the economy and disrupts the economy of the country.  How did the country reached such a condition can only be understood by taking a close and detailed attention to the role interventionism has in a country’s economy.  The effect: high prices, unstoppable high taxes and widespread limitation of liberties behind the power that Unions, groups of interests, politicians and bureacrats have had in the economy for decades.

Slowly but consistently, the Unions and crony capitalists in the bureaucracy of the Norwegian country have made it impossible to be free to exchange products in the country without any type of government intervention.  While Norwegians seem to be free, their daily lives are unconsciously been managed and controlled by a gigantic government that regulated every instant of their lives.

As DiLorenzo described, “Ludwig von Mises initially explained back in the 50s in this theory of government interventionism: one intervention (such as subsidies for railroads) leads to market distortions, which create problems for which the public “demands” solutions. Government responds with even more interventions, usually in the form of more regulation of business activities, which cause even more problems, which lead to more intervention, and on and on. The end result is that free-market capitalism is more and more heavily stifled by regulation. And on top of that, usually the free market, not government intervention, gets the blame.”

I would love to go back to Oslo and if possibilities arise to settle and live there for a couple years. I wish that my passion for buffalo wings will bring me to experience a story to write about and meditate again.  As for now, I return to write about Capitalism while sitting in a desk in Leipzig, Germany.

Discourse: Nationalization, Private Companies and Crony Capitalism

The neoliberal (a.k.a. crony capitalism) ruling of the world during the last 50 years is usually generalized as a “big fish eats small fish” relationship. The story continues, with the big fish in Washington, Brussels and Moscow fed themselves with the riches of the world and profited from globalization.  Meanwhile, the small fish continued breeding and feeding the always hungry lords.  This general discourse is repeated in most if not all the academic papers dealing with postcoloniality and globalization.

The impact of the ideas of these intellectuals is widespread and not easily observable for the ignorant masses.  As such, when you read the newspapers in Latin America or Africa in regard to the “new” nationalizations being undertaken by the “new” socialist/anti-neoliberal governments in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Greece, Lithuania, and Sri Lanka since 2011 people usually ignores that there is nothing “new” in these actions.

These nationalizations of privately owned assets have been in many of the cases actual renationalizations of companies that were not owned by the principles of free market ideas, but that had been privatized by corrupt social democratic governments 50, 40 or 10 years before and who created new privately owned privileged companies.  As a result of these social democrat and socialist governments many privately owned companies emerged as the bastions of crony capitalism, inefficiency and corruption.  The previous, generally increased as closer the national industries were owned by crony private companies that owned single-crop cultive exports and resource rich regions.

To mention short examples of the previous, recently in Argentina Yacimientos Petrolíferos Fiscales (YPF; English: “Treasury Petroleum Fields”) was renationalized (not nationalized) by the government under claims of corruption, inefficiency and negative benefits to their national interests.  In Bolivia, Transportadora de Electricidad (TDE) was nationalized by Evo Morales government.  However, TDE was also a fruit of the neoliberal and crony capitalist deals established in 1952 after a coup d’état that established a military socialist democracy with the party  Revolutionary Nationalist Movement (MNR) which allied into a military-nationalist clique that lasted for 50 years.

Privately owned companies produce always more efficient and better products than state-owned companies.  However, privately owned companies that have benefited from government granted privileges for decades not necessarily will produce more and better services and products than state-owned companies.  The previous is something that few of us dare to identify and explain with a non-contradictory historical and philosophical background.  Meanwhile, the great majority of academics influenced by collectivist philosophies will start writing articles and books applauding the “successful” renationalizations and condemning those free-market authors who will write back and fight.

Indeed, there is a difficult road in defending private property and privately owned businesses in the context of countries and regions that lack respect for individual rights and the rule of law.  As such, to defend the private vs collective in those circles it is necessary that first we identify how the societies are currently organized around the collective inefficient systems of social and economic organization.  In the case of Bolivia and Argentina it is necessary for us to identify how these business and societies are not structured and organized around the principles of free market and individual rights.  By understanding and explaining this clearly there will be a chance to change the discourse of discussion from “why is renationalization good?” to “why laissez faire capitalism is better than the privately owned business of crony capitalism?”