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Life Arts    H4'ed 9/17/14

A Georgist Perspective on Thomas Piketty's book: "Capital in the 21st Century."

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b. Fails to see this as a regular cycle, e.g. during Hoyt's cycles of 19th Century

c. Fails to see that a big element in his "K" is land, and land prices depend on expectations, and on i.r.s, giving different values to same quanta of land and capital. The writer has shown that raising the i.r. actually DOES lower the real quantum of capital in durables, because a higher fraction of the cash flow now goes for interest, leaving less for capital recovery (or Capital Consumption Allowance, "CCA"). To a lesser extent it lowers the rentability of land, hence its "quantity" when measured in money. That kind of financial insight is missing from Piketty's work.

5. He hardly addresses the strong feelings and publications of the growing body of environmentalists who aver that "growth", as defined and conceived by today's orthodox, is a primrose path leading to ruin. On this we must give more credit to Joseph Stiglitz, who combines the respect of the orthodox with a program that includes heavy Pigovian taxes on pollution and other negative externalities.

B. Strong and immodest claims, making for sonorous rumbling oratory, but they are not always accurate

1. Piketty claims to have a "new theoretical framework that affords a deeper understanding of the underlying mechanisms". This "new" framework depends on invoking the old specter of exponential growth over long time spans, proven by assumption.

2. Using exponential growth as a specter goes back at least to Napier. Napier was a great mathematician, but also a major Scottish landowner and titled nobleman and militant protestant who stood to gain in the time of Henry VIII and the enclosures. Later Malthus used it to promote bugaboo of overpopulation, although Malthus distinguished land from capital, as did Ricardo.

3. This "exponential determinism" is not identical with technological determinism, but has a lot in common as a rhetorical device, in that it lets one ignore public policy, especially tax policy, as a determinant of factor ratios.

4. Since Piketty conflates land with K, he must have land growing along with K, exponentially, so there will be no problem of overcrowding land, no diminishing returns to K, no disproportion of factors. In this respect he is unconsciously like Kuznets and Solow, whom he faults for assuming "balanced growth" in their models and forecasts.

5. He claims to show "The dynamics of private capital accumulation". Not clear, though, if "accumulation" means social capital formation or agglomeration by individuals of both land and capital, e.g. the 1% vs. the 99%. He may use those ideas interchangeably, which would confuse readers, and perhaps Piketty himself.

6. He faults prevailing modern policies to promote growth because they "have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality", as he would do. "Deep structures" evokes titanic tectonic forces, which is impressive, but that is only oratory. These "deep structures" want exploring and defining, lest they be only shallow.

7. Assumes that capital substitutes for labor, so more K, instead of making jobs, destroys them. Neo-liberal ecsts so dominant today assume the opposite. See, for example, Dale Jorgensen's 2013 book, Double Dividend: Environmental Taxes and Fiscal Reform in the U.S. Jorgensen makes a major point that we should tax carbon emissions and spend the proceeds to LOWER taxes on capital, making more jobs and raising national income. So one cannot simply assume with Piketty that K destroys jobs without at least alluding to the other doctrine (for either belief is mostly a doctrine, assumed a priori). One should also refer to J.S. Mill's demonstration that this is a matter of relative prices; and add that the AFTER-TAX relative prices are the determinants.

8. A series of Luddites, most of them more sophisticated than the original Ned Ludd, have stirred up their readers by assuming capital is primarily or always labor-saving. Karel Capek's play RUR dramatized the nightmare. Eli Whitney's cotton gin, Cyrus McCormick's reapers, John Deere's plowshares, Henry Ford's tractors, were all supposed to destroy small farms, but it was not until 1935 that the mean size of American farms began to creep above 160 acres. Viewing tractors superficially they seem to substitute for labor, but what they mainly displaced were draft horses. Before tractors, feed and pasture for draft animals used about 1/3 of all land in farms, so tractors displaced mainly land rather than labor.

9. He claims his data, mostly from national govt sources, go back 300 years, but the U.S. is only 225 years old, and early data-keeping was sketchy and not every reliable. Germany and Italy and Greece did not exist before ca. 1850. Even Piketty's France, ancient in song and story, is on its 5th Republic since The Revolution, and this one, from 1959, is now looking shaky again.

10. At the same time Piketty omits many good and germane data sources, e.g. the reports of several U.S. Government agencies like the Bureau of Corporations during the Progressive Era, the U.S. Census of Governments under Allen Manvel's leadership, John McEwan's recent work on Who Owns Scotland?, the TNEC reports on concentrated control of U.S. industries, the Truman Committee Reports on monopoly in war industries, Professor Robert Montgomery's The Brimstone Game on the U.S. sulfur cartel, Hoyt's 100 Years of Land Values in Chicago, 1833-1933, etc.

11. Thorold Rogers dug up reams of primary data in his Six Centuries of Work and Wages to show that English workers' living standards declined from 1340 to 1900. Epidemiologist Dr. George Miller replicated Rogers' findings, in great medical detail, in On Fairness and Efficiency. Many other scholars (e.g. Wilhelm Hasbach's History of the English Agricultural Laborer) have addressed this period.

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Mason Gaffney first read Henry George when a high school junior , and became notorious among his classmates for preaching LVT to them . H e served in the S.W. Pacific during W.W. II, where he observed the results of land monopoly in The (more...)
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