I have thought about this piece on capital often since I read it: Continuations by Albert Wenger : Capital Is No Longer Scarce.
I realize it is relative and that there are people and organizations that have difficulty accessing capital. But I believe overall there is an abundance of capital. I believe that is why you see a lot of the behaviours you see in the world, from negative interest rates to bogus unicorns like We and Uber and Lyft to high housing valuations to no inflation.
And in the richest cities, like London, they are greatly appreciating capital, as this shows:
With some reflection, this makes sense, if you take as a given that:
- Stocks and bonds and even wages are fairly stagnant in terms of return on investment
- Urbanization means homes in cities that are desirable to live in are becoming more scarce
The result is homes becoming one of the forms of capital that can has the means to greatly appreciate in value.
To reverse this will require a greater supply of homes on the market, either through greater density in desirable cities or through more cities becoming desirable to live in. I can see both of these occurring. What I don’t see occurring is other forms of capital becoming more capable of great growth.
It will be interesting to see what happens in 10 years. But right now, bet on homes in key cities to continue to do this.
Bill Gates has a strong post on Piketty and inequality and I think it is one of the better ones I’ve seen. That doesn’t mean I agree with everything Gates argues for. For example, to counter Piketty at one point in the piece, he refers to data from the Fortune 400 records. I think the data that Piketty has gathered is much more significant than that and it is not something Gates accounts for. Still, it’s clear that Gates has thought hard about the book and his comments seem to reflect that.
Gates is on stronger ground when he points out areas concerning inequality that Piketty has left out or not touched upon. His assumption there, though, is that Piketty’s book is the end of the discussion on capitalism in the 21st century, when the better assumption is that the book is the start of a new and better discussion. I expect Piketty or followers and supporters of Piketty will be expanding into those areas based on the material in this book.
I am not surprised that Gates has wrote about this – Piketty uses him as an example at one point! Plus Gates is no stranger to wealth and capital and what to do with them. He’s a natural to write about inequality and the French economist.
All in all, a good read.
I wrote about Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century here and here. As I said, I strongly encourage you to read it and take notes.
If you want a great summary of the book, I highly recommend this post: Piketty Explained: Summary of Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty.
It’s superb. Peter Shirley, the author, has written a 30 second summary and a 15 minute summary, and when you finish both, you will have a very fast but very thorough introduction to the book. I am going to come back to this from time to time as a refresher to what I read in the book (as well as flip through the book again). Did you read Piketty but skip sections? Then review Peter’s post to see what you missed.
More good reasons to pick up Piketty before 2014 ends.
(The chart on world growth rates is from a link to Peter Shirley’s blog post.)
My previous post was a guide to reading Piketty’s Capital. As I was going through it, I also jotted down some rough notes on the book and things I thought as I was going along. My marginalia, so to speak. Here it is, for what it’s worth to you:
- Piketty’s book irked people for a number of reasons, including me initially. One reason, I think has to do with the grandness of his book. First, there’s the title. It implies this is a follow on to the great text by Marx. Second he does things like state fundamental laws of capitalism, as if economics were physics and Piketty is the 21st century Einstein. While Piketty can seem grand at time, he’s also humble in other parts. Throughout the book he often confesses to the limits of his approach based on the data (or lack of data) he has. He still has a lot of data and he has done a lot of analysis, but he is aware of the limits of it. This humility helped me get over the parts that irked me.
- For non-economists like me, I think the book is most enjoyable when Piketty relates economic theory with example in literature and history. His references to Austen and Balzac make his ideas less abstract and make them richer. Fortunately, he does this often.
- Some American critics would have you believe that Piketty is anti-capitalist / pro-socialist. I didn’t see that. I’d say Piketty is for open markets, strong on education, and democratic. From an American point of view, he may seem left wing, but to most of the developed world I would place him closer to the center, slightly left.
- One thing Piketty’s analysis can’t or doesn’t take into account is the exponential change in everything starting at the end of the 19th century. He touches on it a bit (pop growth rates on page 80), but this is factor. I believe that there is a correlation between growth rates and birth rates, with growth rates lagging birth rates. But this is a belief I have: I don’t have the ability to show this.
- I was surprised by how limited economic growth is. (Chart on page 94). As Piketty mentions, people think it should be in the 3-4% range, but is much more likely to hover around the 1% range. Yet even such growth rates have a huge impact over decades and centuries.
- Indirectly, Piketty makes the case for Naomi Klein’s thesis on disaster capitalism. The biggest opportunities for growth in the 20th century occur as a result of the World Wars. Take a look at the charts on page 97 to see what I mean. Wars are terrible for people and cities but good for economic growth.
- As I was reading the book in the summer, there were a slew of critics writing Think Pieces (or tweets!) against him and his book. The most ridiculous arguments against Piketty are the shallow ones, of course: the ones based on the book title, or that he is French, or that the book is all about new taxes. These arguments, mainly from American writers, reflect a lack of thought and the biases of Americans more than anything else. Critics of Piketty who write small articles on his book, criticizing this point or that, are missing the much bigger picture. Piketty, in presenting all of this data and analysis, is providing a broad stage to discuss capitalism. I think anyone wanting to take him on really has to do the same level of work. That’s the thing. Cherry picking is useless. Yes, it would be good to have more data. But this is the data available. If you want to criticize Piketty, you need more data, or you need to critique his data. If you want to show how technology is making inequality less not more, bring that data. Saying “Piketty is a red” or “this is not 19th century range” and thinking you are done just makes you look foolish and your arguments weak. (Of course you can believe what you like, but belief is not argument.)
- Another thing he doesn’t touch on is the destructive nature of IT on capital. Being an IT professional, I was wondering if he would examine capital in the 21st century from that perspective, since IT is having a greater and greater effect on our economies, and as more things become digital, the depreciation of capital related to those things accelerates. If you’d like to read more on that topic, you won’t find it here.
- It is interesting to note the stability of capitalism in the 19th century, at least in Europe. It was a conservative time politically, with limited warfare. Currency and other things economic were also stable then. No point here, just something that struck me as interesting.
- I believe that an accumulation of capital leads to anti-democratic measures by capitalists that result in revolutions or wars, which lead to the destruction of private capital. Piketty doesn’t go into this, but it would be interesting to read an analysis that shows a relationship between the accumulation of capital and the advent of wars and revolutions.
- I found this fact fascinating: after the Napoleonic wars and World War 2, Britain’s public debt was 200% of the GDP. 200%! I found this fascinating, first because there is a lot of worry now about the wealthiest nations having their public debt going over 100% of their GDP. Yet Britain’s was much much higher in those two cases. How did they reduced that debt and bring the percentage down from 200% to a much smaller number (as seen in the book)? Inflation. It was done over a very long period of time, but it is proof that high debt can be brought down and that it isn’t irreversible.
- Reading the section on slaves and capital made me think many things, including the idea that capital based on anti-democratic or inhumane means is precarious — think of capital that pollutes or depends on the deprivation of otherwise rights….it is unstable capital — and that capitalists and not just socialists should argue for an economic society based on democracy and human rights.
- One thing Piketty does well is whenever possible he links data from the US and Sweden because they are both relative outliers to the UK, France and Germany. It also highlighted to me how much the US lags (or leads, depending on your viewpoint) much of the developed world.
- Piketty is big on education. If anything, I think he gives it too much weight. People from better schools stay wealthy not just because of what they learn but who they connect with in such schools. (Maybe it is different in France, but I doubt it.) Establishment schools are smart enough to let new blood in but they are far from meritocracies. To me, Piketty seems to have a blind spot when it comes to academia that he doesn’t show elsewhere when talking about inheritance or super-managers.
- Piketty makes the case that taxes are better than debt. I made this note: “The concern for progressives is that capitalists will drive down both taxes and debt by abusing social programs.” But I don’t know why! 🙂 Ah well…it was likely a good thought at the time of reading it.
- Piketty talks at the end about the contradiction of capitalism is r > g. My belief is that this formula should be more complicated and that when you add a time factor in there and some other dependencies, you see have a better model and formula (or formulae) on how capitalism corrects itself, either through war, or revolution, or other drastic social change. But this is just another belief I have.
As you are reading it, you will likely have your own notes and marginalia. Let me know what you think.