- Joe Fiorito discusses the spread of income inequality in Canada. And Doug Henwood reviews Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century, while wondering what will follow from the empirical observation that accumulated wealth tends to perpetuate itself to the detriment of most of the population:
The core message of this enormous and enormously important book can be delivered in a few lines: Left to its own devices, wealth inevitably tends to concentrate in capitalist economies. There is no “natural” mechanism inherent in the structure of such economies for inhibiting, much less reversing, that tendency. Only crises like war and depression, or political interventions like taxation (which, to the upper classes, would be a crisis), can do the trick. And Thomas Piketty has two centuries of data to prove his point.- Meanwhile, Bart Cammaerts highlights the need to distance democratic decision-making from the influence of big money. And Salon offers a few educated guesses as to when and how the next financial crash may strike - with the influence of the financial sector on lax regulation serving as a major driving force.
Economics as a discipline loves stories about equilibrium and convergence. Vast inequities should, in theory, be “competed away,” as neoclassical economics likes to say. But mostly they’re not. Globally, poorer countries should gain on richer ones as technology and education spread and mobile capital’s search for higher returns makes the poor less poor. That has happened to some degree, but rapidly developing economies such as India and many African nations remain much poorer than the United States or Western Europe. In the case of personal wealth, old fortunes should decline and be replaced by new ones, just as manual typewriters were replaced by electric ones, and electric typewriters were superseded by computers. But in fact old money is remarkably persistent. Yes, we’ve seen the creation of a large number of new fortunes over the last few decades, a change from wealth’s dark days of the mid-twentieth century. Bill Gates is the son of a well-off lawyer who was nowhere near a billionaire; Mark Zuckerberg sprang from the loins of a dentist and a psychiatrist. They are the very picture of modern new wealth. But despite those new fortunes, inheritance remains very important. David Rockefeller, worth $2.8 billion at the age of ninety-eight, is number 193 on the Forbes 400. Overall, Piketty concludes, it’s likely that half or more of the wealth of the upper orders originates in inheritance.And though Piketty doesn’t explore this, I’ve long suspected that a major force for the repeal of the estate tax in the United States has been that the billionaires of the neoliberal age—the tech and finance moguls, some famous, some barely known—have been thinking about their legacy. The scions of the second Gilded Age want to see their grandchildren on the Forbes 400, just like David Rockefeller is a ghost of the first Gilded Age. I’m less sure whether they want to see their names on traditional foundations—maybe more the entrepreneurial kind. But it’s clear that the political salience of the “death tax” is a reflection of a cadre of fortunes of a sort that was long out of fashion....
Anticapitalist rhetoric need not be lazy—and for all the empirical sophistication of Piketty’s work, his political thinking is hardly a model of complexity or effort. He mostly aspires to contribute to rational democratic deliberation about “the best way to organize society.”Still, while such deliberation is clearly necessary, political action cannot be factored out of that process just because we happen to have lived through the Cold War’s unmourned collapse. It’s energizing to see that a younger generation of political intellectuals, who were in grade school when the Berlin Wall came down, missed the anticapitalist vaccination. They might be able to take Piketty’s data and cause some genuine trouble with it. Because serious trouble—demonstrations, strikes, insurgent political movements—is what it will take to derail capitalism’s inevitable tendency toward concentration. Short of that, it looks like we’ll be continuing our journey along the road to a new serfdom.
- Carol Goar takes note of Peggy Nash's efforts to address youth unemployment, while pointing out the risk of a "lost generation" if reasonably secure jobs are a thing of the past.
- Finally, Tim Harford takes a look at how behavioural economics have already influenced public policy - and how much more room there is to test the work done by governments to maximize the achievement of policy goals while minimizing costs.