To Incite the Naïve?

by Andrew Stuttaford

Writing from the left (I you don’t believe me, read what he has to say about the death tax), James Galbraith dissects Capital in the Twentieth-First Century, the new confiscation manifesto by Thomas Piketty, and he does so in a way that is not  necessarily to Piketty’s advantage.


In global comparison, there is a good deal of evidence, and (so far as I know) none of it supports Piketty’s claim that U.S. income today is more unequal than in the major developing countries. Branko Milanović   identifies South Africa and Brazil as having the highest inequalities. New work from the Luxembourg Income Study (LIS) places Indian income inequality well above that in the United States. My own estimates place United States inequality below the non-OECD average, and my estimates agree with those of the LIS on India.


As for remedy, Piketty’s dramatic call is for a “progressive global tax on capital”—by which he means a wealth tax. Indeed, what could be better suited to an age of inequality (and budget deficits) than a levy on the holdings of the rich, wherever and in whatever form they may be found? But if such a tax fails to discriminate between fortunes that have ongoing “social utility” and those that don’t—a distinction Piketty himself has just drawn—then it may not be the most carefully thought-out idea.

In any case, as Piketty admits, this proposal is “utopian.” To begin with, in a world where only a few countries accurately measure high incomes, it would require an entirely new tax base, a worldwide Domesday Book recording an annual measure of everyone’s personal net worth. That is beyond the abilities of even the NSA. And if the proposal is utopian, which is a synonym for futile, then why make it? Why spend an entire chapter on it—unless perhaps to incite the naive?

Or to provide cover for those who would do very well out of doing just that.

In any event, read the whole thing.