Thomas Piketty’s equality program | Trade Standard News



A BRIEF HISTORY OF EQUALITY


Author: Thomas Piketty (Translated by StevenRendall)


Editor: Harvard University Press


Price: $27.95


pages: 288

Thomas Piketty begins his latest book by cordially mentioning the pleas he receives to write something short – previous books were around 1,000 pages – and ends it by expressing the hope he has given to “citizens”, rather than economists, new weapons in the world. fight against inequalities, which is his main subject. This should not be taken as a sign that A brief history of equality is consciously simplified. It is not centered on a new economic observation, such as that of Capital in the 20th century, where Piketty reports that the return to capital exceeds the rate of economic growth. But neither is it written in the tone of a patient explanation. It’s a useful opportunity for readers to see Piketty bring his broader argument about the origins of inequality and his agenda for combating it into high relief.






Much of the current discussion of inequality focuses on the period since 1980, when the benefits of growth began to accrue much more narrowly to the wealthy than before. Although Piketty hardly disputes it, he announces here that he has come to tell an optimistic story, that of the world’s incredible progress towards equality. It does this by creating a much broader time frame, from 1780 to 2020, and focusing on politics and measures of well-being as well as economics. Life expectancy has increased from 26 to 72 years and, with the rise of compulsory public education, the literacy rate has increased from around 10% to 85%. Slavery and colonialism, once rampant, have been virtually abolished. Perhaps half the population of the developed world is at least middle class, although before the 20th century there was no middle class to speak of. The right to vote, formerly reserved even in democracies to male proprietors, is on the way to becoming universal.

What caused this progress? Piketty has a direct answer: the advent of progressive income and wealth taxes, and the comprehensive welfare state. Taxes reduced inequality and paid for the welfare state, which provided education, health care, old-age pensions and protection from severe deprivation. Our culture’s familiar assertions of how growth, innovation, and entrepreneurship are tied to general prosperity are completely outside of Piketty’s account. Instead, he says, the landowners have always used their excessive influence over the government to create systems of “military and colonial domination” and environmental spoliation that made them even richer. The idea that growth can solve the world’s economic problems is “completely insane”. Only a substantial weakening of property rights – a process which in the past included the abolition of slavery, but which still has a long way to go – can achieve this.

Piketty writes as a citizen of the world, wary of nationalism, but his thinking strikes this American reader as distinctly European. In the United States, when you think of the very wealthy, the people who usually come to mind are high-earning workaholics in technology, finance, and corporate executive suites. Piketty, more concerned with property than income, thinks of annuitantsindividuals who are not so different from the pre-revolutionary French nobility, except that they converted their influence into financial assets rather than feudal landholdings.

Although Piketty favors much higher income tax rates, policies that redistribute property rather than income are central to his agenda. These would include reparations for descendants of slaves and colonized people, encouraging countries in the South to tax the wealth of non-residents doing business there, debt cancellation and a program he calls “the inheritance for all”, in which wealth taxes would reduce large fortunes and provide everyone with a financial cushion. It would also take much of the control of companies away from their executives and shareholders and give it to employees, and create “an equal funding system for political campaigns, media and think tanks.” All of this would amount to “a

profound transformation of the world economic system.

The name Piketty gives to his program is participatory socialism. On economic issues, he is considerably to the left of what American liberals are used to thinking. He is well aware that the scale changes he proposes are never gradual. Meaningful movement in the right direction, according to his lights, has always required wars, revolutions, economic depressions and “massive political movements”.

Are such changes on the way? Piketty does not make predictions, but he treats the current system of “hypercapitalism” as clearly doomed to failure. Besides socialism, the only real alternatives are authoritarianism, Chinese-style communism or “reactionary projects” like ISIS. And political reform will not be sunny: “The idea that there are only winners is a dangerous and anesthetic illusion that must be abandoned immediately. He is correct that a massive change to the order he deems necessary is rare and usually associated with calamity. Incremental adjustments, however, are constantly occurring. In the absence of catastrophe, it seems possible, even likely, that they will steer economic policy in the direction that Piketty would like – away from the market friendliness of the late 20th century – but to an extent that he would consider pathetically inadequate. This may already be happening. If this is the case, his work, with his desire to get out of what had been the terms of the debate, is partly responsible.




©2022 New York Times News Service

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