Thursday, April 24, 2014

when r > g

If you are seeking amusement, take a look at the critical responses in the Wall Street Journal's editorial pages to the publication of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  As might be expected, the WSJ commentators are not economists but rather business-schooled money managers.  Their arguments either ignore the inequality issues raised by Piketty or claim that obscene levels of compensation for CEOs have no significantly deleterious effect.  Much of the verbiage is devoted to an attempt to portray the French economist as a doctrinaire anti-capitalist Marxist.

What the WSJ folks do not do is to look at the central claim made in Piketty's work:

"Piketty uses a simple formula to illuminate the dynamics at work. Inequality tends to rise, he argues, when the average rate of return on capital exceeds the economy’s growth rate (or, as he puts it, when r > g)...

...Per capita growth for developed economies, Piketty believes, has settled at approximately its maximum sustainable rate, around 1 percent annually. That was enough to make people in the nineteenth century feel they were caught in perpetual revolution, but judged by the best of the twentieth century, or China and India today, it seems positively anemic. With growth reduced, escalating income inequality is all but inevitable without aggressive policy intervention."

Those are the words of Timothy Shenk in an extraordinarily articulate article in The Nation, in which the writer presents an analysis of Piketty's work in the proper historical context, which is totally lacking in the WSJ critiques.

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