On the institutionalization of extreme inequality


Here are two takes on one of the key issues of the day, the captuire of global wealth by a handful of oligarchs.

Our first take is graphic, from David Horsey of the Los Angeles Times:

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Our second takes comes from Bill Moyers and Nobel economics laureate and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and is sparked by a new and important book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty [the source of our second Chart of the day, immediately below this post].

From Moyers & Company:

What the 1% Don’t Want You to Know

Program note:

Economist Paul Krugman explains how the United States is becoming an oligarchy – the very system our founders revolted against.

From the transcript:

BILL MOYERS: Inequality’s been on the table for a long time. You’ve written extensively, others have, too. I mean, it’s a familiar issue, but what explains that this book has now become a phenomenon?

PAUL KRUGMAN: Actually, a lot of what we know about inequality actually comes from him, because he’s been an invisible presence behind a lot. So when you talk about the 1 percent, you’re actually to a larger extent reflecting his prior work. But what he’s really done now is he said, “Even those of you who talk about the 1 percent, you don’t really get what’s going on. You’re living in the past. You’re living in the ’80s. You think that Gordon Gekko is the future.”

And Gordon Gekko is a bad guy, he’s a predator. But he’s a self-made predator. And right now, what we’re really talking about is we’re talking about Gordon Gekko’s son or daughter. We’re talking about inherited wealth playing an ever-growing role. So he’s telling us that we are on the road not just to a highly unequal society, but to a society of an oligarchy. A society of inherited wealth, “patrimonial capitalism.” And he does it with an enormous amount of documentation and it’s a revelation. I mean, even for someone like me, it’s a revelation.

BILL MOYERS: I was going to ask, what could– what has Paul Krugman had to learn from this book?

PAUL KRUGMAN: Even the title, the first word in the title, “capital.” We stopped talking about capital. Even people like me stopped talking about capital because we thought it was all about human capital. We thought it was all about earnings. We thought that the wealthy were people who one way or another found a way to make a lot of money.

And we knew that that wasn’t always true. We knew that in the Gilded Age or in the Belle Époque in Europe, which he prefers to talk about. That high incomes were mostly a result of having lots and lots of assets. But we sort of said, “Well, that’s not the way things work anymore.” And he says, “Oh yeah? It turns out that you’re wrong.” That’s true, that right now, a lot of high incomes in America are people who didn’t start out all that rich. But we’re rapidly moving towards a state where inherited wealth dominates. I didn’t know that. I really was– I should’ve known it. I should’ve thought about it, but I didn’t. And so then here comes this book with– I mean, it’s beautiful– absolutely analytically beautiful, if that makes any sense at all.

BILL MOYERS: As you know, I’m no economist, but I found this book, as I said in the opening, just very readable and suddenly there would be this moment of epiphany.

PAUL KRUGMAN: Yeah, it’s a real “eureka” book. You suddenly say, “Oh, this is not– the world is not the way I saw it.” The world in fact has moved on a long way in the last 25 years and not in a direction you’re going to like because we are seeing not only great disparities in income and wealth, but we’re seeing them get entrenched. We’re seeing them become inequalities that will be transferred across generations. We are becoming very much the kind of society we imagine we’re nothing like.

BILL MOYERS: Here’s Piketty’s main point: capital tends to produce real returns of 4 to 5 percent, and economic growth is much slower. What’s the practical result of that?

PAUL KRUGMAN: What that means is that if you have a large fortune, or a family has a large fortune, they can — the inheritors of that large fortune — can live very, very well. They can live an extraordinary standard of living and still put a large fraction of the income from that fortune aside and the fortune will grow faster than the economy.

So the big dynastic fortunes tend to take an ever-growing share of total, national wealth. So once you– when you have a situation where the returns on capital are pretty high and the growth rate of the economy is not that high, you have a situation in which not only can people live well off inherited wealth, but they can actually pass on to the next generation even more, an even a higher share.

And so it’s all, in his terms, “r” the rate of return on capital, and “g” the rate of growth of the economy. And when you have a high r, low g economy, which is what we now have, then you’re talking not– you’re talking about a situation in which dynasties come increasingly to increasingly to dominate the top of the economic spectrum and a tiny fraction of the population ends up very dominant.

BILL MOYERS: What’s the realistic impact of this on working people?

PAUL KRUGMAN: There’s a direct impact, which is that part of income is always going to go to labor, although that seems to be a diminishing fraction. But the part that comes from capital is going to be in the hands of a very few people. The other thing, which I think is critically important, that he talks about more towards the end of the book is political economy.

That when you have — Teddy Roosevelt could’ve told you and did — that when you have a few people who are so wealthy that they can effectively buy the political system, the political system is going to tend to serve their interests. And that is going to reinforce this shift of income and wealth towards the top.

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