Thomas Piketty just tossed an intellectual hand grenade into the debate over the world’s struggling economy. Before the English translation of the French economist’s new book, Capital in the Twenty-first Century, hit bookstores, it was applauded, attacked and declared a must-read by pundits, left, right and center. For good reason: it challenges the fundamental assumption of American and European politics that economic growth will continue to deflect popular anger over the unequal distribution of income and wealth.
“Abundance”, observed the late sociologist Daniel Bell was “the American surrogate for socialism.” As the economic pie expands, everyone’s slice grew bigger.
The three-decade long boom that followed World War II seemed to prove Bell’s point, tossing Karl Marx’s forecast of capitalism’s collapse into the dustbin of history.
Marx predicted that as markets expand, profits from technological innovation would gradually dry up, depressions would get more severe and capitalists would drive labor’s share of income in the advanced industrial economies so low that revolution was inevitable.
But twentieth-century capitalism proved more resilient than Marx thought. New technologies continued to generate more profits and jobs. Keynesian fiscal and monetary policies prevented cyclical business downturns from triggering depressions. And the investor class, threatened by the specter of communism, agreed, grudgingly, to the New Deal model of strong unions, social insurance and other policies that forced them to share the profits from rising productivity with their workers.
In the United States, the portion of income going to the richest dropped from over 45 percent in the 1920s to under 35 percent by the 1970s. Between 1959 and 1973 the percentage of Americans living in poverty was cut in half. Other industrial countries followed the same pattern.
Ultimately, it was the communist system that collapsed, unable to match capitalism’s performance in providing the proletariat with a house, a car and the other totems of a middle-class life.
The idea that capitalism naturally led to greater equality was codified in a 1955 landmark study by the American economist Simon Kuznets, whose data showed that after an initial period of rising inequality (e.g., our nineteenth-century gilded age) the wealth generated by market economies is distributed between labor and capital more evenly. When workers’ productivity rose, so do their wages. The “Kuznets Curve” quickly became conventional wisdom for both mainstream economists and the politicians they advised. As the nautical John F. Kennedy put it: “A rising tide lifts all boats.”
The central question for Western economists then became how to keep the tide of growth rising. Liberals favored more active government interventions, conservatives more incentives for private investors. Income and wealth distribution—the issue that had preoccupied economists since Adam Smith—was narrowed to studies of the characteristics of the poor (their race, their gender, their sex life, etc.) that prevented them from rising with the tide. Almost no one studied the rich.
Then, in the late 1970s, the trend toward equality reversed. Workers’ output-per-hour continued to rise, but their wages and benefits flattened. Almost all of the gains from the increased productivity of the last three and a half decades went to corporate investors and their top managers. The poverty rate rose by a third. And the pain spread steadily up the socioeconomic ladder.