The FT Gets Piketty’s Capital Argument Wrong

By Mike Konczal |

Chris Giles at the FT just wrote a critique of the data in Thomas Piketty’s Capital. Many people will rightfully debate the empirics of what Giles has found, which he believes shows that inequality of the ownership of wealth – how much of wealth is held by the top 1% – isn’t increasing, but it’s important to understand how it fits into the larger argument.

Their Problem With the Theory

Giles writes: “The central theme of Prof Piketty’s work is that wealth inequalities are heading back up to levels last seen before the first world war.”

This is incorrect, or at least badly stated. Piketty’s central theme is not that inequality of the ownership of wealth is going to skyrocket. If you look at the text [1], he’s somewhat agnostic about this, but it’s not determinative. The central theme is that the 1% already owns a lot of the capital stock, and the capital stock is going to get gigantic relative to the rest of the economy.

Inequality expert Branko Milan also tweeted this point, but let’s go through it and break down the theory Piketty puts forward. I used three dominos in my Boston Review writeup, and I’m adding a fourth here to make Giles’ critique explicit. Let’s describe Piketty’s argument as four dominos falling into each other:

1. The return on capital is greater than the growth rate. The infamous “r > g” inequality. Meanwhile growth begins to slow, perhaps because of demographics.

2. The amount of capital, or private wealth, relative to the size of the economy will begin to grow rapidly as growth slows. This is the “past tends to devour the future” line. The size and role of wealth of the past will take on a greater relevance to the everyday economy.

3. If the rate of return doesn’t fall, or doesn’t fall that quickly, the capital share of income will increase. More of our economic pie will go to people who own capital.

4. The ownership of capital is very concentrated, historically and across a wide variety of countries. It is unlikely to fall quickly, much less spontaneously democratize itself, in response to these trends. So the income and power of capital owners will skyrocket.

So right away, rising inequality in the ownership of capital is not the necessary, major driver of the worries of the book. It isn’t that the 1% will own a larger share of capital going forward. It’s that the size and importance of capital is going to go big. If the 1% own a consistent amount of the capital stock, they have more income and power as the size of the capital stock increases relative to the economy, and as it takes home a larger slice. However, obviously, if inequality in wealth ownership goes up, it will make the situation worse. (It’s noteworthy that these numbers Giles is analyzing aren’t introduced until Chapter 10, after Piketty has gone through the growth of capital stock and the returns to capital at length in previous chapters.)

The way that Giles could put a serious dent into Piketty’s theory through this analysis is by showing that inequality of wealth ownership is falling in the recent past. This is not what Giles finds. He mostly finds what Piketty finds, except in England, where it’s flat instead of slightly growing in the recent past.

From the four dominos, we can also see what flaws in the data would make people believe that Piketty’s argument is fundamentally unsound. Remember that Piketty has constructed data for each of these trends, not just the fourth one. Piketty and Zucman’s data on private wealth and national income, for instance, is here. But to really dent the theory you need to take down one of the dominos. Most have been fighting about the third one – that either the rate of return on wealth will fall quickly, or that it is determined by institutional factors that are politically created.

But the idea that the ownership of capital will become more concentrated isn’t an essential part of the theory. Though obviously if it does grow, then it’s an even greater problem.

Notes on the Empirical Arguments

I’m not blown away by the criticism so far, but I hope Piketty responds to the individual issues. Especially what’s going on in Britain, because this could be a good learning experience. A few quick points from me, will hopefully have more later. The two major criticisms outside Britain are:

Weighing Sweden

Giles argues that when comparing Britain, France and Sweden, Piketty should weigh by population, instead of equally. Why? Because weighing the countries equally “is questionable, as it gives every Swedish person roughly seven times the weight of every French or British person.”

But weighing here, as always, depends on what you are trying to examine. I’d say the variable is the system of laws and economies that produce a consistent output among a group defined by space over time – i.e. the nation-state. And, especially if you want the variable not to be size but different economic systems, you have a collector’s set of what Gøsta Esping-Andersen calls The Three Worlds of Welfare Capitalism between England (liberal), France (corporatist) and Sweden (social democratic). If none of them are producing a fall in wealth inequality, that’s a remarkable fact. Weighing them by economic system makes sense. I’d be happy to be convinced otherwise, but Giles makes no such deep argument.

USA Data Missings?

Giles states that “it is not possible to say anything much about the top 10 per cent share between 1870 and 1960, as the data for the US simply does not exist.” However, as Matt Bruenig points out, since Piketty’s book came out there’s been significant new work by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman telling us exactly that. Check out the slides, they are awesome. Well respected work that fills in the makeshift gaps Piketty had to use to make the wealth inequality data for the United States in this period. This is a sign of a good work – subsequent work is bearing out its results.

And this new work points to wealth inequality increasing in the United States. Dramatically. Go figure.

[1] Piketty’s conclusion from Chapter 10, which is when he introduces inequality in the ownership of wealth: “To sump up: the fact that wealth is noticeably less concentrated in Europe today than it was in the Belle Epoque is largely a consequence of accidentlal events…and specific institutions. If those institutions were ultimately destroyed, there would be a high risk of seeing inequalities of wealth close to those observed in the past….Nothing is certain: inequality can move in either direction….it is an illusion to think that somthing about the nature of modern growth or the laws of the market economy ensures that inequaity of wealth will decrease and harmonious stability will be achieved.”

It’s fair to say that this isn’t the only worrisome sign he points out in the book.

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Mike Konczal is a Fellow with the Roosevelt Institute, where he works on financial reform, unemployment, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy. His blog, Rortybomb, was named one of the 25 Best Financial Blogs by Time magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rortybomb.