Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Piketty Redux

Shirelock strip by TricksyWizard/DeviantArt.

Thomas Piketty has written a new book, The Guardian reports, under the title Capitale et Idéologie, as long as War and Peace, appearing tomorrow in French, with an English version scheduled to arrive in March. I doubt I'll be making any attempt to read it before then, but I want to put a heads up at the beginning of the presidential campaign for something in the Guardian's coverage that has really captured my imagination.

One of the things that was lacking from Capital in the Twenty-First Century, you may remember, was any very clear idea of what could be done about the increasing concentration of wealth around the world in the hands of an increasingly small group of aristocrats other than the thought that it would have to involve taxing rich people. Apparently he's got something much more specific this time, and it really warmed my heart:
Among the proposals in the book are that employees should have 50% of the seats on company boards; that the voting power of even the largest shareholders should be capped at 10%; much higher taxes on property, rising to 90% for the largest estates; a lump sum capital allocation of €120,000 (just over £107,000) to everyone when they reach 25; and an individualised carbon tax calculated by a personalised card that would track each person’s contribution to global heating.
In an interview with the French weekly news magazine L’Obs, Piketty made no apologies for the impact his ideas would have on the stock market. He said: “[Yes], it will also affect the price of real estate that is crazy in Paris, and it will allow new social groups to become owners and shareholders.”

This to me is a rapid sketch of a socialism for the 21st century, setting up workers for full participation in "control over the means of production" instead of simply handing it into the custody of the state as in the old version, or trying to compensate workers for their lack of control (alienation) as in the weak social democracy we refer to as "progressive"—and it reminds me in part of Elizabeth Warren's program, but more radical; her "accountable capitalism" plan for corporate governance is for workers to take 40% of the board seats, and her wealth tax doesn't have anything like a 90% bracket.

Do you see what I mean? The idea of socialism was never to get rid of capital, except in the vapory utopia of communism beloved of the vulgar communists—Marx himself was, in his faith in the power of investment and credit, as much a "capitalist to the bones" as Warren is—but to socialize it: to distribute control, in this case control-through-capital, throughout the population, so that nobody's a wage slave estranged from the significance of her-or-his labor.

Piketty's program is designed for France, meaning you take it for granted that the citizens already have complete access to health care, child care, and quite a lot of free post-secondary training options (university being pretty severely rationed, though, as it always is in free-college countries and as it probably should be; what's needed is always for the other options to be a lot better, as they are in Germany). It's in that context that the lump-sum capital grant makes sense, because it's not meant just to make your life less hard, like Andrew Yang's Universal Basic Income, but to enable you to become a propriétaire, an owner. But we will need that stuff too—universal health care and universal access to college-like experiences in particular—in order to have the rest (which is a reason for doing the health care in the quickest and most inexpensive way, by improvements to the ACA).

Have I told you how much I dislike Yang and UBI, by the way? I think it's a trick (even if Yang himself doesn't understand it that way) at the minimum to get government to cover for the irresponsibility of employers more than it already does (e.g. by giving food stamps and Medicaid to Walmart workers because Walmart refuses to pay them enough), and at worst to rook people out of the social safety net altogether (as UBI plans from Milton Friedman and Charles Murray to Yuval Levin and Reihan Salam do). There's no way it has any effect on income inequality, in any case; it absolutely preserves it.

And the personalized carbon tax is tremendous (though it will have to be really carefully calibrated for rural residents, and others, like truck drivers, who have to burn fuel to get their work done).

And I'm enthralled by Piketty's economically rigorous attitude to the equities and real estate markets: Let them fall! It's not prosperity, it's hoarding!

No comments:

Post a Comment