Česa Piketty (še) ne pove

Robert Kuttner se v analizi Pikettyjeve knjige “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” fokusira predvsem na to, česar Piketty v knjigi ne pove. In sicer, da v analizi obdobja, ki je izjema od “naravne tendence” kapitalizma po koncentraciji bogastva (obdobje 1941-1973 v ZDA in 1945-1973 v Evropi), ne gre globlje in ne razloži, katere značilnosti tega obdobja in katere ekonomske politike so privedle do zmanjševanja ekstremne neenakosti. Gre seveda za politike socialne države, politiko visokih davčnih stopenj na najvišje dohodke in veliko moč sindikatov.

The only exception to a relentless trend of wealth concentration that dates to at least the French Revolution, Piketty says, is the “historical accident” of the period between 1914 and 1945. But it is here, just when the story gets interesting, that he often loses focus. If something happened during those three decades that altered the tendency of inequality to concentrate, we need to know just what occurred—politically as well as statistically—and how the exceptional period of greater equality might be replicated. Was it inevitable that capitalism should revert to its long-term trend? Or could the right policies grounded in the right politics once again bend it toward a distribution that looked more like that of the postwar boom?

When discussing the era of Balzac, Piketty writes like a social and economic historian, but his rendering of what happened since 1914 is more mechanical, in the spirit of a narrow technical economist. An accidental byproduct of war and depression was to destroy capital. Since capital was narrowly held, this accident left capital less concentrated. Full stop. Well, not quite full stop, but there is much more to the history of capitalism’s era of greater equality that Piketty downplays or ignores. This simplification is a pity, since Piketty has the intellectual equipment to dig deeper. Happily, he leaves plenty of clues for further digging.

Piketty mentions some of this briefly but doesn’t focus on the political dynamics, and he is surprisingly blasé about the role of deliberate policy. “Neither the economic liberalization that began around 1980 nor the state intervention that began in 1945 deserves much praise or blame,” he contends. “The most one can say is that state intervention did no harm.” But this can’t be true. The key difference in the two trajectories of non-recovery after World War I and robust recovery after World War II was in the policies pursued.

The aftermath of the first war led to depression and fascism, while World War II was followed by a boom of widely shared prosperity. In the reconstruction period of 1944-1948, policymakers, cognizant of the mistakes of the Treaty of Versailles and the deflationary 1920s, deliberately created the conditions for domestic full-employment welfare states. There was a great deal more to the anomalous era of shared growth than the shrinkage of inherited wealth, though it’s certainly the case that the weakening of financial elites made possible a politics of broad gains for the wage-earning class.

Another factor that Piketty mostly (and surprisingly) omits is macroeconomics. In the 1930s, the U.S. didn’t just under-employ; the economy also underinvested, and the two problems were related. The overhang of the losses from 1929 and the dynamics of what the economist Irving Fisher termed “debt-deflation” left purchasing power depressed and business with too little appetite to invest. Technical breakthroughs like television and commercial aviation were underexploited because of weak aggregate demand. In a classic paper in 1939, when unemployment was still more than 15 percent, the American Keynesian Alvin Hansen estimated the investment shortfall at a then-impressive $2 billion.

Three years later, after Pearl Harbor, in the first six months of 1942, the War Department entered orders of $100 billion—50 times Hansen’s radical-sounding number. The economy roared back to life. Much of the investment capital was public. The economy did an end run around flaccid private finance, which had distributive as well as Keynesian consequences. It turned out that you did not need to give private capital exorbitant rewards for the economy to prosper. Indeed, the era of the postwar boom was one in which the rentier class suffered. The real return on capital was negative: Inflation reduced the value of bonds, and the stock market languished. Yet thanks to low capital costs, the economy thrived. Might there be a lesson here?

In a short interview, Piketty says that his discussion of the postwar recovery missed some of the political story, and he regrets understating the important role of unions and shifting power relations. He adds in an e-mail message, “I probably suggest too much that recovery was mostly mechanical, which is excessive. More inclusive institutions and better regulation policies did promote [postwar] mobility and growth.” He also says he favors of some kind of green transition, led by public capital.

If we want a more equal society, we need to understand both the institutions and the politics that once undergirded greater equality. Yes, there was the historical accident of two wars and the effect on inherited wealth, but there was also the effort of both statesmen and organizers to maximize the opportunity that history offered.

Vir: Robert Kuttner

2 responses

  1. Ja nič pretresljivega in drugačnega kot to kar na žalost uspešno promovirajo že 40 let. Govorijo o nekakšnem božjem trgu, ki s svojimi zakoni, ki temeljijo na velikeem poku (Torej so stari več kot 13 milijard let) pelje človeštvo v svetlo prihodnost 🙂

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