Monday, June 2, 2014

Capitalizing on "Capital in the Twenty-First Century"...

French economist Thomas Piketty is making the rounds in the U.S. today. A Bloomberg TV reporter---in the minute or so I caught of his interview with Piketty---referred to the author of the latest blockbuster as "somewhat of a rock star". His book is in queue on my e-reader, and when I'm done procrastinating I will indeed tackle its nearly 700 pages. In the meantime, I've seen a plethora of commentary on this exposé of growing inequality---lauded and dismissed by the usual suspects, of course.

Whether or not Piketty's book truly breaks new ground on this age-old debate, you gotta admit his timing was impeccable. While it wasn't a smash hit in France when released last fall, his publisher's decision to have it translated to English and released in the U.S. during an election year when the economy is of no help to incumbents was either a stroke of sheer luck or utter genius (per my recent essay The Season of Envy).

Piketty is capitalizing on Capital in the Twenty-First Century big time! And kudos to him...

Barron's---exercising excellent judgement---asked economist Don Boudreaux to review Piketty's book. Don's assessment is as much a lesson in commonsense, real world, economics as it is a book review. Which is primarily why---having not yet read the book and, therefore, not prepared to pass judgment myself---I encourage you to read it in its entirety. Here's a snippet:
Every semester, I ask my freshman students how wealthy they would be if they each were worth financially as much as Bill Gates but were stranded with all those stocks, bonds, property titles, and bundles of cash alone on a desert island. They immediately see that what matters is not the amount of money they have but, rather, what that money can buy. No principle of economics is more essential than the realization that, ultimately, wealth isn't money or financial assets but, rather, ready access to real goods and services.

Piketty seems barely aware of this reality, focusing on differences in people's monetary portfolios. He therefore ignores the all-important supply side: what people—rich, middle class, and poor—can buy with their money. Yet, to the extent that inequalities are at all relevant, the only ones that really matter are inequalities in access to real goods and services for consumption. Bill Gates' living quarters are larger and more elegant than mine and, I dare say, yours. But even the poorest people in market economies have seen their ability to consume skyrocket over time. And the poorer they once were, the greater has been the enhancement of their ability to consume.

If we follow the advice of Adam Smith and examine people's ability to consume, we discover that nearly everyone in market economies is growing richer. We also discover that the real economic differences separating the rich from the middle class and the poor are shrinking. Reckoned in standards of living—in ability to consume—capitalism is creating an ever-more-egalitarian society.

THE U.S. IS THE bête noir of Piketty and other progressives obsessed with monetary inequality. But middle-class Americans take for granted their air-conditioned homes, cars, and workplaces—along with their smartphones, safe air travel, and pills for ailments ranging from hypertension to erectile dysfunction. At the end of World War II, when monetary income and wealth inequalities were narrower than they've been at any time in the past century, these goods and services were either available to no one or affordable only by the very rich. So regardless of how many more dollars today's plutocrats have accumulated and stashed into their portfolios, the elite's accumulation of riches has not prevented the living standards of ordinary people from rising spectacularly.

Furthermore, these improvements in real living standards have been undeniably greater for ordinary folks than for rich ones. In 1950, Howard Hughes and Frank Sinatra could easily afford to pay for the likes of overnight package delivery, hour-long transcontinental telephone calls, and air-conditioned homes. For ordinary Americans, however, these things were out of reach. Yet, while today's tycoons and celebrities still have access to such amenities, so, too, do middle-class and even poor Americans. This shrinking gap between the real economic fortunes of the rich and the rest of us should calm concerns about the political dangers of the expanding inequality of monetary fortunes.

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