Opinion

Story of a fraying capitalism

It is not an accident, Piketty says, that many will be left behind even as others become richer. The book taps into a collective anxiety, coming as it does amidst the lingering after-effects of the global crisis and slowing global growth.

By: and Date: June 6, 2014 Topic: Global Economics & Governance

This opinion was published by the Indian Express.

French economist Thomas Piketty has written a scholarly tome with the humdrum title, Capital in the 21st Century. The book has become an overnight sensation because Piketty documents an inherent tendency for ever-increasing inequality of income and wealth in capitalist economic systems. It is not an accident, he says, that many will be left behind even as others become richer. The book taps into a collective anxiety, coming as it does amidst the lingering after-effects of the global crisis and slowing global growth.

India’s capitalist dynamic — as in other emerging economies — is different from that in the richer countries that Piketty focuses on. Yet, the lessons Piketty offers should ring a cautionary bell. Indeed, even more so than in the rich countries, India could find itself in a low growth, high inequality and high insecurity trap. These are the real fears that bubble under the theatrics and ugliness of the ongoing political debate.

Piketty is not an anti-capitalist. He sees capitalism as central to the innovation and entrepreneurial risk-taking needed for economic growth. But, using conventional tools of economic analysis, he warns that there is no automatic, ultimately benign, broad sharing of income and wealth over the development process. Rather, greater inequality — which perpetuates itself over generations — is the more likely outcome. And deepening inequality can fray capitalism’s virtues.

Piketty finds that countries are on the path to “patrimonial capitalism”, with inherited wealth increasingly concentrated in few families. As long as the rich earn a return on their wealth that is somewhat greater than the country’s growth rate, inherited wealth will rise relentlessly faster than national income. This process was interrupted, and reversed, in the first half of the 20th century, because the two World Wars destroyed private wealth and then helped create the political basis for the welfare state. But, over the past three decades, the wealth-to-income ratio has steadily recovered much of the lost ground and looks set to keep rising.

The US was historically different from Europe, with a much lower role for inherited wealth. But in recent decades, it has been a leader in rising income inequality, owing to a combination of soaring salaries for “supermanagers” and rising returns on capital for the richest. These large incomes are being turned into inherited wealth, generating entrenched privilege as in Europe at the beginning of the last century. All the while, for those at the bottom of the rung, it is becoming increasingly difficult to climb the economic and social ladder. As wealth and politics reinforce each other, equality of opportunity is a fading myth.

India is at risk of forging a potentially more pernicious form of rentier capitalism. Growth in the past few decades has brought gains to most, including the poor. But there is unmistakable evidence of rising concentration of income and wealth at the very top. Piketty and Abhijit Banerjee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology find that the share in taxable income of the very-very rich (the top 0.01 per cent) was about 2 per cent in 1999. That brought the concentration of wealth back almost to the levels prevailing in the 1920s, the era when the maharajas cornered income and wealth.

While the Indian calculations do not extend beyond 1999, all indicators point to a stepped-up rise in inequality along the same pattern as in the US and Argentina. The “booming” 2000s witnessed the emergence of Indian billionaires, up from five in the late 1990s to 55 in 2014. The ratio of billionaire-wealth-to-GDP has risen from negligible levels to the 8-10 per cent range, comparable to that in the US and the UK. Add to this soaring land values in urban and peri-urban areas, some of it benefiting lucky farmers, but much of it captured by the wealthy and influential, often in deals between politicians and businesses.

While superficially similar to that in other countries, the rise in Indian inequality reflects more pernicious forces. Government contracts and relationships play a central role in fostering India’s wealth accumulation and concentration. Influence and connectivity create access to land, construction and mining permits and so-called “public-private partnerships”. Piketty is primarily concerned that if wealth mainly passes from one generation to another, the incentives to invest and grow will be undermined. More injurious, however, than such patrimonial capitalism is India’s rentier capitalism. The lure of easy money through investment in political connections draws entrepreneurship away from productive investment and innovation while it breeds corrosive social consequences.

India is in a political crucible. As the few with access are extracting resources from the state, the popular demands for broader social provisioning are rising. The unmet demands rouse ang er and create a perennial hunger for such elusive heroes as Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal.

In the middle of the last century, Europe and America addressed the social and political conflict — to varying degrees — through the rise of the welfare state. But that option is not open to India, where the government lacks the capacity to collect sufficient revenues and is not organised to deliver adequate social services. This impasse, in a theme resonant with Piketty, will not automatically resolve itself. Indeed, precisely because the government cannot provide adequate safety nets, the populist demands become more insistent. This feeds back, at best, into symbolic gestures with little real value. At worst, the symbolic gestures become the grazing ground for more cronyism.

It is possible to imagine technical solutions to pull out of this trap with sound regulation, effective taxation and smarter delivery of social services. But that will require a different politics and a different bureaucracy. None of the major political platforms, caught up in their own pettiness, have the vision to deal with these challenges.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint.

Due to copyright agreements we ask that you kindly email request to republish opinions that have appeared in print to communication@bruegel.org.


Warning: Invalid argument supplied for foreach() in /home/bruegelo/public_html/wp-content/themes/bruegel/content.php on line 449
View comments
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Lockin' tax haven's door

Tax avoidance and evasion harm the public coffers, and increase inequality and poverty. This post summarises the recent debate on several aspects of the issue: the update of the European blacklist of tax havens and the related recent report from Oxfam, a call for reform of international taxation by the IMF, and the request for IRS reform by US democratic senators.

By: Enrico Bergamini Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: March 25, 2019
Read about event

Upcoming Event

Mar
27
15:00

Changing relationships between Europe and Africa in the face of technological development – can digitalisation, AI and the platform economy help bridge the gap?

This event will look at digitalisation in Europe and Africa and how this is changing the relationship between the two continents

Speakers: Masood Ahmed, Charles Kenny, Susan Lund, J. Scott Marcus and Amolo Ng’weno Topic: Global Economics & Governance, Innovation & Competition Policy Location: 1 Abbey Gardens, Great College Street, London, SW1P 3SE
Read article More on this topic

Opinion

Sticks and carrots from China’s leadership to Chinese banks

The takeaway from the 13th National People's Congress (NPC) is clear: under the current economic downturn, Chinese authorities will do whatever it takes to support the real economy. Alicia García Herrero and Gary Ng reflect on the "sticks snd carrots" approach to Chinese banks.

By: Alicia García-Herrero and Gary Ng Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: March 21, 2019
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

The trade crisis: good and bad scenarios and the EU's response

What role will the EU play in the resolution of the global trade crisis?

Speakers: Uri Dadush, Maria Demertzis and Denis Redonnet Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: March 20, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

China’s debt is still piling up – and the pile-up is getting faster

With looser monetary policy, China's policymakers hope to encourage banks to lend more to the private sector. This seems to imply a change from the deleveraging drive begun in mid-2017. Although this should be good news for China's growth in the short term, such a continued accumulation of debt cannot but imply deflationary pressures and a lower potential growth further down the road.

By: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: March 19, 2019
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

External Publication

Towards EU-MENA shared prosperity

This joint publication collects the papers produced as part of the third collaboration between Bruegel and the Policy Center for the New South (PCNS). Within the theme “Towards EU-MENA Shared Prosperity”, the two organisations launched a “Platform for Advanced & Emerging Economies Policy Dialogue” in Rabat on 1 April 2016, addressing issues of common interest in the Mediterranean and the MENA Region.

By: Abdelaziz Ait Ali, Uri Dadush, Yassine Msadfa, Yana Myachenkova and Simone Tagliapietra Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: March 14, 2019
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Law and macroeconomics: legal responses to recessions

This event will feature an academic lecture on the use of law as a macroeconomic tool.

Speakers: Yair Listokin and Maria Demertzis Topic: Global Economics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: March 12, 2019
Read article More by this author

Opinion

The case for green realism

The transition to a carbon-neutral economy is bound to make us worse off before it makes us better off, and the most vulnerable segments of society will be hit especially hard. Unless we acknowledge and address this reality, support for greening the economy will remain shallow and eventually wane.

By: Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: Energy & Climate, Global Economics & Governance Date: March 7, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Russia's foreign policy does not help its economic modernisation

In the highly interdependent modern world, a country’s economy and its foreign policy are strongly linked. A country’s foreign-policy ambitions should correspond to its economic potential, but Russia’s over-ambitious foreign ventures have exacerbated the negative effects of the numerous economic headwinds it faces.

By: Marek Dabrowski Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: March 6, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Tense transatlantic relations put EU in tough spot

The global multilateral system is being challenged by the US and China, which prompts the EU to rethink how well it can compete in the world.

By: Maria Demertzis Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: March 5, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

The possible Chinese-US trade deal

The future of Sino-American relations after the incoming end of trade talks between Beijing and Washington. We review opinions in the English-speaking blogosphere on the likely content of the deal and the message this agreement sends to the world.

By: Jan Mazza Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: March 4, 2019
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

China's strategy: Growth, alliances, and tech acquisition

Despite the pause in the US-China trade war, the US and China are strategic competitors, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future. China realizes that there is little room to settle long-term disputes and, as a result has shifted towards a strategy that focuses on sustaining growth at any cost, expanding alliances, and advancing its technology.

By: Alicia García-Herrero Topic: Global Economics & Governance Date: February 27, 2019
Load more posts