Piketty – in French it’s worse

Posted: May 2, 2014 by Admin in capitalist crisis, Capitalist ideology, Economics, Marxism

indexby Michael Roberts

Thomas Piketty’s now much-lauded book, Capital in the 21st century, was actually published in French last summer. But it did not receive the overwhelming plaudits that American and British mainstream and leftist economists have given it (see http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/30/upshot/why-pikettys-book-is-a-bigger-deal-in-america-than-in-france.html). Indeed, several French critics commented that Piketty’s data on the inequality of wealth in modern capitalist economies was good to have, but so what? Surely, everybody knows that capitalism generates inequality – what’s new about that. Some Americans reckon the French attitude is because Piketty is seen as too ‘meritocratic’, which is frowned on in France! (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2014/04/28/france_thomas_piketty_capital_in_the_twenty_first_century).

Thanks to some readers for pointing to some French critics who have come up with several perceptive critiques of Piketty’s book that make many of the points that I have made in my review for Historical Materialism (submitted, but not yet accepted – see my post (http://thenextrecession.wordpress.com/2014/04/28/reviewing-piketty-again/) and often better than I have. They are all in French, so Anglo-Saxons do not read them.

In particular, there is a paper by Bonnet, Bono, Chapelle and Wasmer wp-25-bonnet-et-al-liepp, which concentrates on Piketty’s data. The paper points out that valuing housing by movements in property prices rather than in rental equivalents exaggerates the rise in capital share of national income significantly. I think valuing ‘housing services’ with some synthetic concoction does not work at all.

Even more decisive is an article by French Marxist economist Michel Husson who says that in Piketty’s first ‘fundamental law of capitalism’ the causality is the wrong way round (see http://www.contretemps.eu/interventions/capital-xxie-si%C3%A8cle-richesse-donn%C3%A9es-pauvret%C3%A9-th%C3%A9orie). Husson points out that Piketty says that the share going to profit as opposed to wages depends on the ratio of total capital to income times the net rate of return. But Marx says that what matters is how you get the rate of profit. That changes Piketty’s equation to the net rate of return (r), or the rate of profit, is equal to share going to profits over wages (the rate of exploitation) divided by total capital. Piketty’s version shows he is only interested in the share going to profit and assumes a rate of return to do it. He has no theoretical explanation of how this r is reached. Piketty is interested in distribution of income or value in a capitalist economy not in its production. So he ignores Marx’s law of value.

Husson also points out that Piketty’s merging of the definition of capital, as Marx sees it, into wealth, by including housing and personal financial assets, distorts the real laws of motion on capitalism. And his use of the neoclassical aggregate production function model to project the likely development of inequality of wealth assumes an equilibrium growth path for capitalism without crises, booms of slumps, or events like the Great Recession. In the end, Piketty dispenses with neoclassical capital theory and just relies on historical data for his results.

These are points that I also make in my review. Some readers have asked for a bullet point summary of that review. So here it is:

1) Piketty shows compellingly that inequality of wealth and income is getting higher. And the reason is a rise of income going to capital in the form of profits, rent and interest, not due to higher skilled labour getting higher income than the lower skilled. And the rising capital income ratio is driven mainly by inherited wealth; from rags to riches is not the story of capitalist wealth; it is more from father to son or from husband to widow.

2) But then he tries to develop some ‘fundamental laws of capitalism’ and comes a cropper. He conflates capital into wealth by including non-productive assets like housing and stocks and bonds in his measure. In doing so, he loses sight of how wealth is created and appropriated, as Marx shows with his law of value. And his net rate of return on capital becomes separated from the capitalist process of production. Indeed, if you strip out housing and financial assets from his measure of the rate of return, you get Marx’s rate of profit and it falls (and moves up and down), unlike Piketty’s ‘steady’ r.

3) He uses the neoclassical aggregate production function to project how economic growth and wealth might develop over the long run, ignoring the longstanding faults in this model which assumes perfect substitution of capital for labour, even though capital in the model is not measurable. Then he drops the model and relies on a straightforward projection of his data.

4) He has no theory of crises and assumes they are passing phenomena. So his policy prescriptions are confined to progressive taxation and a global wealth tax to ‘correct’ capitalist inequality. The replacement of the capitalist mode of production is not necessary – in true social democratic fashion.
If Piketty had stuck to presenting his ‘wealth’ of data on inequality of wealth as being even more relevant than inequality of income under capitalism, that would be a contribution. But he wants to do more: to correct Marxism and replace it with his own ‘fundamental laws’ that imply capitalism can be made to work with suitable political action to reduce inequalities. This is why he is greeted with acclaim among Anglo-Saxon mainstream economics when translated into English and why, perhaps, he does not get quite the same accolades in French.

The above is taken from Michael’s blog, here.  See also: Thomas Picketty’s views reach New Zealand, here.



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