Even if wage inequality could be brought under control, history tells us of another malign force, which tends to amplify modest inequalities in wealth until they reach extreme levels. This tends to happen when returns accrue to the owners of capital faster than the economy grows, handing capitalists an ever larger share of the spoils, at the expense of the middle and lower classes. It was because the return on capital exceeded economic growth that inequality worsened in the 19th century – and these conditions are likely to be repeated in the 21st.Piketty's proposed (admittedly Utopian) remedy for the current tendency for returns to capital to accrue faster than the economy grows is a global wealth tax, which he describes as "difficult but feasible." One only needs to look at global climate negotiations to be skeptical of that feasibility assessment. There is a global consensus among governments on the need to limit greenhouse gas emissions but they still can't agree on a means for doing so. How likely is it that governments would even agree on the need to limit returns on capital?
A more realistic proposal may be developed from consideration of the mechanism that underlies the r>g dynamic. Nearly a century ago, Thorstein Veblen offered insights into this mechanism in his The Engineers and the Price System. To Veblen r>g (although he didn't use that term) was a strategy pursued by business, not simply a statistical finding. As Veblen points out, "this is matter of course, and notorious. But it is not a topic on which one prefers to dwell." Accordingly, economists have preferred not to dwell on it. They have pretended it doesn't exist:
The mechanical industry of the new order is inordinately productive. So the rate and volume of output have to be regulated with a view to what the traffic will bear — that is to say, what will yield the largest net return in terms of price to the business men who manage the country's industrial system. Otherwise there will be “overproduction,” business depression, and consequent hard times all around. Overproduction means production in excess of what the market will carry off at a sufficiently profitable price. So it appears that the continued prosperity of the country from day to day hangs on a “conscientious withdrawal of efficiency” by the business men who control the country's industrial output. They control it all for their own use, of course, and their own use means always a profitable price. In any community that is organized on the price system, with investment and business enterprise, habitual unemployment of the available industrial plant and workmen, in whole or in part, appears to be the indispensable condition without which tolerable conditions of life cannot be maintained. That is to say, in no such community can the industrial system be allowed to work at full capacity for any appreciable interval of time, on pain of business stagnation and consequent privation for all classes and conditions of men. The requirements of profitable business will not tolerate it. So the rate and volume of output must be adjusted to the needs of the market, not to the working capacity of the available resources, equipment and man power, nor to the community's need of consumable goods. Therefore there must always be a certain variable margin of unemployment of plant and man power. Rate and volume of output can, of course, not be adjusted by exceeding the productive capacity of the industrial system. So it has to be regulated by keeping short of maximum production by more or less as the condition of the market may require. It is always a question of more or less unemployment of plant and man power, and a shrewd moderation in the unemployment of these available resources, a “conscientious withdrawal of efficiency,” therefore, is the beginning of wisdom in all sound workday business enterprise that has to do with industry. [emphasis added]Veblen didn't attribute this strategy of sabotage to evil motives on the part of individual firms, on the contrary it is a imperative for survival:
Should the business men in charge, by any chance aberration, stray from this straight and narrow path of business integrity, and allow the community's needs unduly to influence their management of the community's industry, they would presently find themselves discredited and would probably face insolvency. Their only salvation is a conscientious withdrawal of efficiency.Veblen was referring, as his title indicates, to the effects of the "price system" -- the interaction in the market of supply and demand. The withdrawal of efficiency kept prices at profitable levels by limiting supply. But what about government intervention to ameliorate those effects through a full-employment policy of demand management (a government spending program)? Michal Kalecki's analysis in "The Political Aspects of Full Employment" addressed that prospect:
Clearly, higher output and employment benefit not only workers but entrepreneurs as well, because the latter's profits rise. And the policy of full employment outlined above does not encroach upon profits because it does not involve any additional taxation. The entrepreneurs in the slump are longing for a boom; why do they not gladly accept the synthetic boom which the government is able to offer them?Kalecki outlined three categories of business objection to a full employment by government spending: "(i) dislike of government interference in the problem of employment as such; (ii) dislike of the direction of government spending... (iii) dislike of the social and political changes resulting from the maintenance of full employment." It is the first and third of these objections that have the most direct bearing on the issue of r>g:
Under a laissez-faire system the level of employment depends to a great extent on the so-called state of confidence. If this deteriorates, private investment declines, which results in a fall of output and employment (both directly and through the secondary effect of the fall in incomes upon consumption and investment). This gives the capitalists a powerful indirect control over government policy: everything which may shake the state of confidence must be carefully avoided because it would cause an economic crisis. But once the government learns the trick of increasing employment by its own purchases, this powerful controlling device loses its effectiveness. Hence budget deficits necessary to carry out government intervention must be regarded as perilous. The social function of the doctrine of 'sound finance' is to make the level of employment dependent on the state of confidence.
It is true that profits would be higher under a regime of full employment than they are on the average under laissez-faire, and even the rise in wage rates resulting from the stronger bargaining power of the workers is less likely to reduce profits than to increase prices, and thus adversely affects only the rentier interests. But 'discipline in the factories' and 'political stability' are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the 'normal' capitalist system.For "state of confidence" substitute r>g; for "bargaining power of workers" substitute r<g. Veblen borrowed his term from the subtitle of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn's I.W.W. pamphlet, Sabotage: The Conscious Withdrawal of the Workers' Industrial Efficiency. Flynn's pamphlet was published in 1916 but the idea of workers deliberately restricting output is much older.
One of the most persistent objections to trade unions during the 19th century was that their principal mode of operation was to restrict production. Veblen simply turned this perennial complaint into a question about the 'innocence' of those making all the indignant accusations. Adam Smith had long ago observed famously, "People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices."
The missing link here, though, is the recognition that the particular efficiencies that the workers withdraw are not the same ones as those that the business firm withdraws. There are different modes of efficiency and those differences result in different effects on the rate of return to capital. In other words, there are r>g efficiencies and there are r<g efficiencies. An example of an r>g efficiency would be a new machine that uses less fuel and less labour to produce a given amount of output. An example of an r<g efficiency would be a reduction in the length of the standard working day that improves worker productivity by reducing fatigue and increasing overall well being. Both are examples of efficiencies but they differ as to whom the benefit of the efficiency gain primarily accrues.
Ironically, business has historically raised its most shrill objections to r<g efficiencies by making the false claim that they are intended as restrictions on production. The distinction between r>g efficiencies and r<g efficiencies also has profound implications for Say's Law (the vulgar version), the Jevons Paradox and Chapman's analysis of the effects of a reduction in the hours of labor, which I discussed in an earlier post.