How Piketty Misses the Point

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By Deirdre N. McCloskey,

from CATO Institute,

Thomas Piketty has written a big book — 577 pages of text; 76 pages of notes; 115 charts, tables, and graphs — that has excited the left worldwide. First published in French in 2013, an English edition was issued last year to wide acclaim and a top position on the New York Times bestseller list. It has been a long time since a technical treatise on economics has had such a market. An economist can only applaud. And an economic historian can only wax ecstatic.

Piketty’s theory is that the yield on capital usually exceeds the growth rate of the economy, and so the share of capital’s returns in national income will steadily increase, simply because interest income is growing faster than the income the whole society is getting. Let us therefore bring in the government to implement “a progressive global tax on capital” — to tax the rich. It is, he says, our only hope. Reading the book is a good opportunity to understand the latest of the leftish worries about capitalism, and to test its economic and philosophical strength.

All the worries … share an underlying pessimism, whether from imperfection in the capital market or from the behavioral inadequacies of the individual consumer or from the Laws of Motion of a Capitalist System. During such a pretty good history from 1800 to the present, the economic pessimists on the left have nonetheless been subject to nightmares of terrible, terrible faults. Admittedly, such pessimism sells. For reasons I have never understood, people like to hear that the world is going to hell, and become huffy and scornful when some idiotic optimist intrudes on their pleasure. Yet pessimism has consistently been a poor guide to the modern economic world.

The technical flaws in Piketty’s argument are pervasive. When you dig, you find them. The fundamental problem is that Piketty does not understand how markets work. In keeping with his position as a man of the left, he has a vague and confused idea about how supply responds to higher prices. Startling evidence of Piketty’s miseducation occurs as early as page 6.

He begins by seeming to concede to his neoclassical opponents: “To be sure, there exists in principle a quite simple economic mechanism that should restore equilibrium to the process: the mechanism of supply and demand. If the supply of any good is insufficient, and its price is too high, then demand for that good should decrease, which would lead to a decline in its price.” The words I italicize clearly mix up movement along a demand curve with movement of the entire curve, an error of first-term college students. The correct analysis is that if the price is “too high” it is not the whole demand curve that “restores equilibrium,” but an eventually outward-moving supply curve. The supply curve moves out because entry is induced by the smell of super-normal profits.

This brings me to the next technical problem. Piketty’s definition of wealth does not include human capital, owned by the workers, which has grown in rich countries to be the main source of income, when it is combined with the immense accumulation since 1800 of capital in knowledge and social habits, owned by everyone with access to them. Once upon a time, Piketty’s world without human capital was approximately our world, that of Ricardo and Marx, with workers owning only their hands and backs, and the bosses and landlords owning all the other means of production. But since 1848 the world has been transformed by what sits between the workers’ ears.

The only reason in the book to exclude human capital from capital appears to be to force the conclusion Piketty wants to achieve. One of the headings in Chapter 7 declares that “capital [is] always more unequally distributed than labor.” No it isn’t. If human capital is included — the ordinary factory worker’s literacy, the nurse’s educated skill, the professional manager’s command of complex systems, the economist’s understanding of supply responses — the workers themselves, in the correct accounting, own most of the nation’s capital — and Piketty’s drama falls to the ground.

Finally, as he candidly admits, Piketty’s own research suggests that only in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada has income inequality increased much, and only recently. In other words, his fears were not confirmed anywhere from 1910 to 1980; nor anywhere in the long run at any time before 1800 … The truth is that inequality goes up and down in great waves, for which we have evidence from many centuries ago down to the present, which also doesn’t figure in such a tale.

The central problem with the book, however, is an ethical one. Piketty does not reflect on why inequality by itself would be bad. To be sure, it’s irritating that a super rich woman buys a $40,000 watch. The purchase is ethically objectionable.

But our real concern should be with raising up the poor to a condition of dignity, a level at which they can function in a democratic society and lead full lives. It doesn’t matter ethically whether the poor have the same number of diamond bracelets and Porsche automobiles as do owners of hedge funds. But it does indeed matter whether they have the same opportunities to vote or to learn to read or to have a roof over their heads.

The political scientist and public intellectual Robert Reich argues that we must nonetheless be alarmed by inequality, rather than devoting all our energies to raising the absolute condition of the poor. “Widening inequality still hampers upward mobility,” he declares. Reich is mistaken. Horwitz summarizes the results of a study by Julia Isaacs on individual mobility from 1969 to 2005: “82% of children of the bottom 20% in 1969 had [real] incomes in 2000 that were higher than what their parents had in 1969. The median [real] income of those children of the poor of 1969 was double that of their parents.”

The most fundamental problem in Piketty’s book, then, is that he misses the main act. In focusing solely on the distribution of income, he overlooks the most surprising secular event in history: the Great Enrichment of the average individual on the planet by a factor of 10 and in rich countries by a factor of 30 or more. Many humans are now stunningly better off than their ancestors were.

This includes a gigantic improvement of the poorest — your ancestors and mine. By dramatic increases in the size of the pie, the poor have been lifted to 90 or 95 percent of equal sustenance and dignity, as against the 10 or 5 percent attainable by redistribution without enlarging the pie.

3% of a smaller pie is more than 1% of a larger pie, but the total received is smaller for the poor.

What caused the Great Enrichment? It cannot be explained by the accumulation of capital, as the very name “capitalism” implies. Our riches were not made by piling brick upon brick, bachelor’s degree upon bachelor’s degree, bank balance upon bank balance, but by piling idea upon idea. The bricks, BAs, and bank balances were of course necessary. Oxygen is necessary for a fire. But it would be unenlightening to explain the Chicago Fire of 1871 by the presence of oxygen in the earth’s atmosphere.

The original and sustaining causes of the modern world were indeed ethical, not material. They were the widening adoption of two new ideas: the liberal economic idea of liberty for ordinary people and the democratic social idea of dignity for them. This, in turn, released human creativity from its ancient trammels. Radically creative destruction piled up ideas, such as the railways creatively destroying walking and the stage coaches, or electricity creatively destroying kerosene lighting and the hand washing of clothes, or universities creatively destroying literary ignorance and low productivity in agriculture.

That even over the long run there remain some poor people does not mean the system is not working for the poor, so long as their condition is continuing to improve, as it is, and so long as the percentage of the desperately poor is heading toward zero, as it is. … It is a brave book Thomas Piketty has written. But it is mistaken.

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