Capital in the 21st Century: Chapter 8
In the eight chapter of Capital, “Two Worlds,” Piketty contrasts two major classes of the “rich.” Whereas most economic analyses depend upon the 10% as the principle category of analysis, Piketty attempts to nuance those figures, with a recognition that the 1% live radically different lives (and earn radically different incomes) than the next 9%. In fact, he will even become more specific, distinguishing the .1% (the super-rich), the small subset who still live off of income from capital.
notes, first and foremost, a decisive un-arguable decline of income inequality in France since the Belle Epoque–a period defined by massive inherited wealth–“income inequality has greatly diminished in France since the Belle Epoque: the upper decile’s share of national income decreased from 45-50 percent on the eve of World War I to 20-35 percent today” (271). Of course, he is quick to note, this should not be taken to indicate a relative equality in the present system, but quite to the contrary, to simply highlight the startling inequality of the Belle Epoque. More interestingly, this dramatic decrease in income inequality over the 20th century can be attributed almost entirely to the loss of income from capital (the destruction of the rentier class); “if we ignore income from capital and concentrate on wage inequality, we find that the distribution remained quite stable over the long run” (272-273). Or said more directly:
“the reduction of inequality in France during the twentieth century is largely explained by the fall of the rentier and the collapse of very high incomes from capital. No generalized structural process of inequality compression (and particularly wage inequality compression) seems to have operated over the long run” (274).
This decline of the rentier has led to a compression of the composition of top incomes in the highest decile (see figures 8.3 and 8.4). Whereas in the early 20th century, much of the 1% earned a majority of its income from capital, this has now largely been reduced to the upper 1000th (the .1%). Piketty controversially describes this as the rise of a society of “super-managers” in place of the society of the rentiers. Since I have been using this series to highlight prominent critiques of Piketty, particularly those of Andrew Kliman, I should here point you to a recent article concerning this designation: “Were Top Corporate Executives Really Hogging Worker’s Wages.” This distinction in income composition leads Piketty to posit “two worlds” of the top decile: “‘the 9 percent,’ in which income from labor clearly predominates, and ‘the 1 percent,’ in which income from capital becomes progressively more important” (280). Whereas the top centile is dominated by “super-managers” and the financial sector, within the next 9% “we also find doctors, lawyers, merchants, restauranteurs, and other self-employed entrepreneurs” (280). This distinction becomes particularly important when one begins to examine the decrease in income inequality. “‘The 1 percent’ by itself accounts for roughly three-quarters of the decrease in inequality between 1914 and 1945, while ‘the 9 percent’ explains roughly one-quarter” (284).
In France, these distinctions were amplified by the historical circumstances of the two world wars, the depression, and the “chaotic” interwar period. “In each war,” for example, “the scenario was the same: in wartime, economic activity decreases, inflation increases, and real wages and purchasing power begin to fall. Wages at the bottom of the wage scale generally rise, however, and are somewhat more generously protected from inflation than those at the top” (287). This push toward equality would reemerge in May ’68, following the student and social unrest. For the next (roughly) 15 years, the minimum wage would boost, almost yearly, until the 1982-83 “turn toward austerity” (289).
The United States, Piketty suggests, presents a “more complex case” (291).
“The most striking fact is that the United States has become noticeably more inegalitarian than France (and Europe as a whole) from the turn of the twentieth century until now, even though the United States was more egalitarian at the beginning of this period… US inequality is [now] quantitatively as extreme as in old Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century.” (292-293).
To a certain extent, the final portion of the chapter is an attempt to explain this development. Most importantly, Piketty wants to connect the rise of inequality in the US to the rise of the super-managers (a class who is only now beginning to take hold in Europe). The initial (relative) “equality” at the beginning of the century can be easily understood by the limited number and power of the rentier class in the United States. This (relative) equality would continue until the neoliberal revolution of the early 1980s (and thus correspond to the “turn toward austerity” in France). Offering a tacit justification of Occupy’s rhetoric, Piketty largely attributes this rise in inequality to the 1%; “the bulk of the growth of inequality can from ‘the 1 percent,’ whose share of national income rose from 9 percent in the 1970s to about 20 percent in 2000-2010” (296).
This, then, begs the question: “is it possible that the increase of inequality in the United States helped to trigger the financial crisis of 2008?” (297). To this central question, Piketty gives a definitive… “kinda.” For Piketty, it is undeniable that considerable gaps in the social sphere due to inequality would have an economic destabilizing effect. But, he does remain somewhat modest in his claim, cautioning that “it would be altogether too much to claim that the increase of inequality in the United States was the sole or even primary cause of the financial crisis of 2008” (298).