August 31, 2015


Free Market of Ideas

Thomas Piketty

Green Army: Persons of Interest

[Some] animals are more equal than others.

George Orwell, Animal Farm, 1949.

Inequality of labor income and capital ownership across time and space

(Adapted from Tables 7.2 and 7.3, Capital in the Twenty First Century, pp 248-9)

Total Income

(income from labor + income from capital)


(capital ownership)

Top 10%P90-10050%35%50%90%60%70%
  Dominant 1%P99-100
  Well-off 9%P90-9930%25%30%40%35%35%

Middle 40%P50-9030%40%30%5%35%25%

Bottom 50%P0-5020%25%20%5%5%5%

Ratio between a member of the Dominant 1% and a member of the Bottom 50%

Ratio between a member of the Top 10% and a member of the Bottom 50%
Figures are approximate and deliberately rounded off.
The disparity of total income in the US in 2010 is comparable to that in Europe in 1910.
Between 1910 and 1970, 25% of national wealth was transferred from the top 1% to the middle 40% as a result of:
  • wartime destruction,
  • progressive tax policies and
  • exceptional post-war growth (p 356).

Assuming US wealth inequality was comparable to that Europe in 1910, it would appear that in the US since 1970, the top 1% has managed to claw back two fifths (10%) of that 25% from the middle classes.
Wealth inequality lags behind income inequality because it takes time for wealth to accumulate.
The wealth share of the top 10% in the US (%70) has not yet reached the peak in Europe in 1910 (90%); but, given the rising income disparity, it is only a matter of time before it catches up.
In the meantime, the relative shares of income (20%) and wealth (5%) of the bottom 50% have remained the same for over a century.

James McPherson (1936):
In the largest American cities [in] the 1840s, the wealthiest 5% … owned about 70% of the taxable property, while the poorest half owned almost nothing.
[In] the nation as a whole by 1860 the top 5% of free adult males owned 53% of the wealth and the bottom half owned only 1%.
(Battle Cry of Freedom, 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, 2003, p 21)

The growth rate of top global wealth:
Real rate of return on capital as a function of size of fortune

(Adapted from Table 12.1, Capital in the Twenty First Century, p 435)

Wealth Holders



Average annual growth rate (1987-2013)

Top 1 in 100 million30456.8%
Top 1 in 20 million1502256.4%
Average adult3 billion4.5 billion2.1%

The Great Divergence

Share of the richest 10% of the American population in total income.
(Based on Piketty and Saez, Income Inequality in the United States, 1913–1998, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 118(1), 2003, pp 1–39)

Paul Krugman (1953):
[America is] no longer a middle-class society in which the benefits of economic growth are widely shared:
[Between] 1979 and 2005
  • the real income of the median household rose only 13%, [while]
  • the income of the richest 0.1% [rose 296%.]
On the political side, you might have expected rising inequality to produce a populist backlash.
Instead, however, the era of rising inequality has also been the era of “movement conservatism" [during which] taxes on the rich have fallen, and the holes in the safety net have gotten bigger, even as inequality has soared.
(Introducing This Blog, NYT, 18 September 2007)

John Quiggan (1956):
The top 0.01% … doubled their share of [US national] income between 2000 and 2007, from 3% of all income to 6% …
This group of around 15,000 households earned more than the the bottom quarter of the population — around 75 million people.
(p 141)

Since 2000, [US] median household incomes have [fallen over a full business cycle for] the first time in modern history …
(Zombie Economics, Princeton University Press, 2012, p 157)

Thomas Hungerford:
[The] share of income accruing to the top 0.1% of US families increased from 4.2% in 1945 to 12.3% in 2007.
[And, while] changes over the past 65 years in the top marginal tax rate and the top capital gains tax do not appear correlated with economic growth [they have been] associated with the increasing concentration of income.
(Taxes and the Economy: An Analysis of the Top Tax Rates Since 1945, Congressional Research Service R42729, September 14 2012)

Peter Singer (1946):
[Under Ronald Reagan,] 60% of the growth in the average after-tax income of all American families between 1977 and 1989 went to the richest 1% of families [ie those with] average annual income of at least $310,000 a year, for a household of four.
(How Are We to Live?, 1993, p 97)

Robert Wade (1944):
The highest-earning 1% of Americans doubled their share of aggregate income … from 8% in 1980 to over 18% in 2007 [excluding capital gains.]
The top 0.1% (about 150,000 taxpayers) quadrupled their share, from 2% to 8%.
Including capital gains [the income share of the] top 1% [reached 23%] by 2007.
During the seven-year economic expansion of the Clinton administration, the top 1% captured 45% of the total growth in pre-tax income …
[While] during the four-year expansion of the Bush administration the top 1% captured 73% …
During the seven-year economic expansion of the Clinton administration, the top 1% captured 45% of the total growth in pre-tax income; while during the four-year expansion of the Bush administration the top 1% captured 73% …
(John Ravenhill, Global Political Economy, 3rd Edition, Oxford University Press, 2010, p 396)

Nate Silver (1978):
[US Senators:]
  • who often gain access to inside information about a company while they are lobbied and
  • who also have some ability to influence the fate of companies through legislation,
return a profit on their investments that beats the market average by [nearly one percentage point per month.]
(The Signal and the Noise, 2012, p 342)

Mark Twain | Samuel Clements (1835 - 1910):
It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or and other important thing — and the last man gets the credit and we forget the others.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859):
We may naturally believe that it is not the singular prosperity of the few, but the greater well-being of all, which is most pleasing in the sight of the Creator and Preserver of men. …
A state of equality is perhaps less elevated, but it is more just; and its justice constitutes its greatness and its beauty.
(Democracy in America, 1835, Bantam, 2011, p 878)

Thomas Piketty (1971)

[In] Europe private wealth is now at levels unknown since the Belle Epoque …
(p 105)

Total wealth (real estate and financial assets net of all debts) held by Europeans is the highest in the world, far above the United States and Japan …
(p 117)

[The] total wealth of EU households is more than €50 trillion (including more than €25 trillion in financial assets) … five times more than Europe's entire sovereign debt (€10 trillion). …
[Indeed,] Europe today is less indebted than the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan, and yet we're the ones with a sovereign debt crisis. …
We absolutely have the means to solve our debt problems on our own — if only Europe would stop behaving like a political dwarf and a tax-revenue sieve.
(p 88)

The Cypriot crisis illustrates the drama of small countries under globalization, which, in order to save their own skins … are often willing to resort to the most ruthless tax competition to attract the most disreputable capital.
(p 111)

[Historically, growth was] never as strong as it was in the years 1950 to 1980, a period when tax progressivity was at a maximum, especially in the United States. …
[A] good part of the the current American deficit could be eliminated by returning to 1980 levels of tax progressivity …
The IMF is right to emphasize that public debts in the rich countries … aren't much compared to the mass of private wealth (financial and real estate) held by those same countries' households, especially in Europe.
The rich world is rich; it's the governments that are poor.
(pp 124-5)

(Chronicles On Our Troubled Times, Viking, 2016)

Plutocratic Oligarchy

[It] seems that US politicians of both parties are much wealthier than their European counterparts and in a totally different category from the average American …
[This] might explain why they tend to confuse their own private interest with the general interest.
Without a radical shock, it seems fairly likely that the current equilibrium will persist for quite some time.
The egalitarian pioneer ideal has faded into oblivion, and the New World may be on the verge of becoming the Old Europe of the twenty-first century’s globalized economy.
(p 514)

The top marginal tax rate of the income tax (applying to the highest incomes) in the United States dropped from 70% in 1980 to 28% in 1988.
(p 499, Figure 14.1)

The top marginal tax rate of the inheritance tax (applying to the highest inheritances) in the United States dropped from 70% in 1980 to 35% in 2013.
(p 593, Figure 14.2)

The idea that unrestricted competition will put an end to inheritance and move toward a more meritocratic world is a dangerous illusion.
(p 424)

Between 1987 and 2013, the number of [dollar billionaires rose 10 fold] from 140 to 1,400, and their total [publically visible wealth rose 18 fold] from 300 to 5,400 billion dollars …
(p 433)

[The] vast majority (at least three-quarters) of [unreported] financial assets held in tax havens [~ €7 trillion or 10% of global GDP] belongs to residents of the rich countries.
(p 467)

No one has the right to set his own tax rates.
It is not right for individuals to grow wealthy from free trade and economic integration only to rake off the profits at the expense of their neighbors.
That is outright theft.

To date, the most thoroughgoing attempt to end these practices is the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FATCA) adopted in the United States in 2010 and scheduled to be phased in by stages in 2014 and 2015.
(p 522)

[The tax havens would] undoubtedly suffer significant losses if financial transparency becomes the norm.
(p 524

[Financial enclaves such as Luxembourg, Switzerland and the City of London could lose] as much as 10–20% of [their income.]
In the more exotic tax havens and microstates, the loss might be as high as 50% or more of national income, indeed as high as 80–90% in territories that function solely as domiciles for fictitious corporations.
(p 641, Note 9)

If the fortunes of the top decile … of the global wealth hierarchy grow faster for structural reasons than the fortunes of the lower deciles, then inequality of wealth will … tend to increase without limit.
This inegalitarian process may take on unprecedented proportions in the new global economy [so that, if nothing is done] to counteract it, very large fortunes [could] attain extreme levels within a few decades.
(p 431)

For example, if the top thousandth enjoy a 6% rate of return on their wealth, while average global wealth grows at only 2% a year, then after thirty years the top thousandth’s share of global capital will have more than tripled.
The top thousandth would then own 60% of global wealth …
[Such] a large upward redistribution from the middle and upper-middle classes to the very rich … would very likely trigger a violent political reaction.
(p 439)

[Economic] growth — or, more precisely, growth in output per capita, which is to say, productivity growth — has been quite similar [across the rich world within a few tenths of a percentage point (1.8±0.2) irrespective of the degree of tax liberalization.]
(p 321)

Growth rate of per capita national income in rich countries, 1970-2000

(Adapted from Table 5.1)
United Kingdom1.9%
Germany and the United States1.8%
Australia, Canada and France1.7%
Tax liberalisation and deregulation does not increase productivity.
It only enlarges the slice of the wealth and income pie going to the Top 10%.
(p 174)

[The] very large decrease in the top marginal income tax rate in the English-speaking countries after 1980 seems to have totally transformed the way top executive pay is set, since top executives now had much stronger incentives than in the past to seek large raises.
[The resulting] explosion of very high incomes [has amplified] the political influence of the beneficiaries of the change in the tax laws, who [having been incentivized to keep] top tax rates low or [indeed to reduce them even further, have used] their windfall to finance political parties, pressure groups, and think tanks [dedicated to entrenching their position of advantage.]
(p 335)

Liliane Bettencourt (1922)

Between 1990 and 2010, the fortune of Bill Gates … increased from $4 billion to $50 billion.
At the same time, the fortune of Liliane Bettencourt — the heiress of L’OrĂ©al [and the richest woman in France —] increased from $2 billion to $25 billion …
Both fortunes thus grew at an annual rate of more than 13% from 1990 to 2010, equivalent to a real return on capital of 10 or 11% after correcting for inflation.

In other words, Liliane Bettencourt, who never worked a day in her life, saw her fortune grow exactly as fast as that of Bill Gates, the high-tech pioneer, whose wealth has incidentally continued to grow just as rapidly since he stopped working. …
Note, in particular, that once a fortune passes a certain threshold, size effects due to economies of scale in the management of the portfolio and opportunities for risk are reinforced by the fact that nearly all the income on this capital can be plowed back into investment.
(p 440)

[Bettencourt's] declared income was never more than 5 million a year, or little more than one ten-thousandth of her wealth (which is currently more than €30 billion). …
The crucial point is that no tax evasion or undeclared Swiss bank account is involved (as far as we know).
Even a person of the most refined taste and elegance cannot easily spend [€1,500 million a year (ie 5% return on €30 billion)] on current expenses. …
[If such] people are taxed on the basis of declared incomes that are only [one third of 1%] of their economic incomes … then nothing is accomplished by taxing that income at a rate of 50% or even 98%. …
[In developed countries effective] tax rates (expressed as a percentage of economic income) are extremely low at the top of the wealth hierarchy, which is problematic, since it accentuates the explosive dynamic of wealth inequality, especially when larger fortunes are able to garner larger returns.
(p 525-6)

(Capital in the Twenty-First Century, 2014)