It is somewhat astonishing that Thomas Piketty’s CAPITAL in the 21st Century remains at the very top of the New York Times Best Seller List! Not intending to be condescending, this is not an easy read even for the most ardent observers of the national and world economy. The first 250 pages, filled with exhaustive research over a 250 year period, complete with charts and graphs, is a test of anyone’s concentration. You may need to read many pages more than once! The good news is that once through this sophisticated and advanced course in economics, the reader will come to an understanding of the inexorable march of an economic matrix that appears to be leading to a dysfunctional environment for the capitalistic system as we have known in America for over 300 years. Ironically, there is currently a billboard on the south bound FDR Drive in New York City that reads,” The French Aristocracy Didn’t See It Coming Either! ” Piketty does not set out to be an alarmist but rather to lay out what he believes is the most definitive research ever completed on the subject of inequality and the distribution of wealth in America and Europe, dating back to the seventeenth century. Admittedly, Piketty qualifies some of the early collection of data as anecdotal but at the same time has sought out all-available recorded records to track the distribution of wealth over three centuries. What is most troubling in the Piketty thesis is his substantiation of a mathematical paradigm that left unchecked , places the concentration of wealth worldwide and particularly in the United States on an unstoppable course of disastrous inequality. Not an exciting prospect. Piketty: ” If the growing concentration of income from labor that has been observed in the United States over the last few decades were to continue, the bottom 50% could earn just half as much in total compensation as the top 10% by 2030.” In the United States, the most recent survey by the Federal Reserve, indicates that the top decile own 72 percent of America’s wealth, of which the bottom half claim just 2% . These figures clearly delineate the plight of the dwindling middle class. If the top ten percent and the bottom 2 percent control 74 percent of all wealth in America, that leaves only 26% for everyone else! Fundamental to Piketty’s thesis is that a predicted economic annual growth rate in America of 1.5 percent or less will force a greater concentration of wealth among the top decile because based upon a rate of return there will be no incentive to invest risk capital back into the economy. The top ten percent can comfortably continue to invest capital at 4-5% ( with some hedge funds at 10-30%) and in essence keep these capital resources off the table in the hands of the super wealthy, further shrinking the middle class and decimating the lower class. He also predicts that as future generations of the wealthy mature, inherited wealth will be exclusively bequeathed, removing it from the general capitalistic economy, in the same manner as did the old European aristocracies. Thus, a new American Aristocracy fueled by inherited wealth? Piketty: ” In my view, there is absolutely no doubt that the increase of inequality in the United States prior to 2007 contributed to the nation’s financial instability. The reason is simple: One consequence of increasing inequality was virtual stagnation of the purchasing power of the lower and middle classes in the United States , which inevitably made it more likely that modest households would take on debt, especially since unscrupulous banks and financial intermediaries, freed from regulation and eager to earn good yields on the enormous savings injected into the system by the well-to-do, offered credit on increasingly generous terms.” ” If we consider the total growth of the U.S. economy in the thirty years prior to the crisis, we find that the richest appropriated three-quarters of the growth.The richest 1-percent absorbed 60 percent of the total increase of U.S. national income in this period. It is hard to imagine an economy and society that can continue functioning indefinitely with such extreme divergence between social groups.” Capital In The Twenty First Century has raised considerably debate and the outright questioning of Piketty’s research and formulas ( r>g ). However, if you take him for his word, the forecast is not comforting and for sure, don’t look for many rave reviews from the financial establishment! Unfortunately, if you have sensed something wrong with the economy, Piketty offers great insight but little comfort! Capital in The 21st Century is well worth a major investment of time.
I have not completed Tom Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. I will hasten to add that after completing the first 250 pages I may apply for an advanced Economics Degree. The reward for wading through research and formulas going back 200 years does however come after the academics but in the early reading the news is not good regarding income inequality globally and in America in particular. More on that in a future posting with another 500 pages still to complete.
There is breaking news today that may require an additional chapter in Piketty’s book!
Please indulge my own interpretative headline.
U.S. APPEALS COURT DEEMS TRUTH IRRELEVANT!
I was not shocked at the U.S. Federal Appeals Court decision overturning Judge Jed S. Rakoff’s rejection of the settlement deal with Citigroup, claiming that the bank had got off with a mere slap on the wrist. The three-judge panel yesterday said Rakoff got it wrong by applying an “ incorrect legal standard.” Citigroup now pays a fine and its business as usual.
The decision becomes even more frightening, at least to the layperson, when you peel back the details of the ruling! It seems to me that the three judges were searching for a rationale to support a foregone conclusion, much like Elmer Gantry could always find a passage in the Bible to support a point of view!
Judges Rosemary S. Pooler, Raymond J. Lohier Jr. and Susan L. Carney — concluded that it “is not within the district court’s purview to demand ‘cold, hard, solid facts. ”
The appellate court instead outlined a checklist for judges to follow when weighing enforcement cases, saying they must “determine whether the proposed consent decree is fair and reasonable, with the additional requirement that the public interest would not be dis-served.”
What a stretch! That the public interest would not be dis-served! How is that for a parsing of words to avoid saying that the greater public interest should be served! Your honors, please!
The final affront comes in this quote from the appellate decision.“ Trials are primarily about truth. Consent decrees are primarily about pragmatism.”
The bottom line is that three federal judges ruling deemed Judge Rakoff the “ skunk” at the Citigroup, S.E.C. party.
A final irony in this sordid affair is that the appellate court, in closing, questioned its own judgment!
“On remand, if the district court ( Rakoff) finds it necessary, it may ask the S.E.C. and Citigroup to provide additional information ( the truth) sufficient to allay any concerns the district court may have regarding improper collusion” between Citigroup and the S.E.C.” I think that Judge Rakoff made it quite clear that he had MANY CONCERNS!
This disingenuous decision may require an additional 50 pages in Tom Piketty’s already voluminous Capital in the Twenty-First Century!