A Critique of Piketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-first Century”

By Sam Vaknin
Author of “Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited

In his programmatic and data-laden tome, “Capital in the Twenty-first Century” (2014), Thomas Piketty makes several assertions, two of which merit a closer look: (1) That r (the return on capital) is, in the long-run always greater than g (the growth of the real economy), thus enriching the rich; and (2) that inherited wealth tends to create a “patrimonial” form of capitalism, akin to the aristocracy in the French and British ancient regimes.

Putting aside the somewhat artificial and dubious distinction between the “real” and the financial economy, r and g are apples and oranges and cannot be compared. Economic growth (g) is not the return on the real economy in the same way that r is the return on capital and its assets. R is intended to compensate for a panoply of risks and is comparable to the wave function in Quantum Mechanics: it incorporates all the publicly and privately available information about future uncertainties and provides a distribution function of all plausible scenarios. Put simply: subject to political and market vicissitudes, capital can vanish overnight. Not so the real economy: it is always there, regardless of upheavals, political meddling (usually in the form of taxation), inflation (a kind of tax, really), and disruptive technologies.

Capital (wealth) can be construed as a call option on the real economy and, especially, on real estate and emerging technologies. R amounts, therefore, to the premium on this option. Income inequality is growing because of the decline in the role and importance of labor, which is being gradually supplanted by capital assets, such as robots and computers as well as being offshored, outsourced, and downsized. Again, put simply; capital can buy a lot more labor nowadays, hence the apparent lopsidedness of the distribution of wealth.

Luckily for the 99%, the bulk of the nation’s wealth is inactive: dormant in deposits and other long-term assets or languishing in hordes of cash in the form of non-distributed profits. Such capital exercises political clout and muscle but is irrelevant in terms of wage compression.

Inherited wealth is no different to any other form of capital. It is merely an extension of the investment horizon, a kind of immortality. If Warren Buffet lives to be 300 or hands what’s left of his wealth to future generations of Buffets is immaterial in terms of economic impact. There is no evidence that inherited wealth is less productive than riches obtained via entrepreneurship. Such claims have more to do with seething envy than with scholarly erudition. Inherited wealth concentrated in the hands of the few may be compared to an oligopoly, not necessarily a bad thing.

There is no basis to prefer one type of economic activity over another on strictly scientific grounds: investment is as important as entrepreneurship and finance is as crucial as manufacturing. Wealth – inherited or not – is always invested: either in the financial sector or in the real one. To rank economic activities as more or less preferable is ideology, not science: a judgment that is driven by values and predilections, not by hard data.

Similarly, to talk about a monolithic, immutable oligarchy is laughable. As any casual perusal of Forbes’ list of richest people would show, the mobility inside this group is remarkable and its composition is in constant flux. Most of its new members are there by virtue of wages and bonuses.

These nouveau riches and arrivistes raise the thorny issue of agent-principal conflicts: how the executive class institutionalized the robbery of their firms and shareholders and rendered this plunder a fine art. This travesty may be one of the main engines of skyrocketing income inequality together with the venality of politicians in an increasingly plutocratic world. It is a political failure and has to be resolved politically.

No amount of taxation, progressive or flat and no quantity of transfers from the state to the poor will solve the issue of income inequality. The state should encourage wealthy people to invest and create jobs. It should penalize them if they do not (by taxing their wealth repeatedly.) It should help the poor. There is very little else it can do.


Author Bio

Sam Vaknin ( http://samvak.tripod.com ) is the author of Malignant Self-love: Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain – How the West Lost the East, as well as many other books and ebooks about topics in psychology, relationships, philosophy, economics, and international affairs.

He is the Editor-in-Chief of Global Politician and served as a columnist for Central Europe Review, PopMatters, eBookWeb , and Bellaonline, and as a United Press International (UPI) Senior Business Correspondent. He was the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory and Suite101.

Visit Sam’s Web site at http://www.narcissistic-abuse.com


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