The economist offering this “solution” has been feted by the Obama White House economic staff, the International Monetary Fund, and by many of the people running world economies today. His ideas are definitely “in play.”
Thomas Piketty, the forty-two year old French economist whose book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, became an overnight sensation and unexpected bestseller, is being hailed as the new Keynes, an economic thinker who can lead us out of our current economic malaise, just as Keynes is alleged by his followers to have lead us out of the Great Depression.
Keynes’s keynote book, The General Theory, is loaded with economic theory. There are only two pages of data in that book, and Keynes dismisses the scant data he cites as “improbable.” By contrast, Piketty’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, is stuffed with data. Indeed Piketty considers himself a successor to the economist whose data Keynes dismissed, Simon Kuznets. Almost everyone admits that Piketty’s theoretical case is weak — but, his supporters say, look at all this data. You can’t argue with this mass of historical evidence!
Let’s take a closer look. Piketty’s primary argument is that wealth (which tends to be concentrated in few hands) grows faster than the economy, so that those with a lot of wealth keep getting richer relative to everyone else. This is supposed to be an inescapable feature of capitalism. (If this sounds familiar, it should be. It echoes both Marx and Keynes, although we should remember that Keynes mocked most of what Marx said as “hocus-pocus.”)
So what then is the evidence that wealth has grown faster than the economy?
We’ll start with the chart below, adapted from Piketty’s book. The top line is return on capital and the bottom line is the economic growth rate. The top line is supposed to be how the rich are faring and the bottom line how the average person is faring. Note that the lines on the far right are just a projection of Piketty’s, and not actual history.
This chart is astonishing for many reasons. First of all, it suggests that capital earned a 4.5 percent or higher return for the years 0-1800 C.E. This is a crazy number. If the human race had started out with only $10 in year 1 and compounded it at 4.5 percent a year for any series of 1,800 years, by now we would have much, much more than a trillion times the entire world’s wealth today, which is estimated at $241 trillion by Credit Suisse.