The New York Times’ Paul Krugman recently reviewed Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century, which argues that we’re on the road back to “patrimonial capitalism,” dominated by inherited wealth. Krugman’s column today, Wealth Over Work:
It seems safe to say that “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the magnum opus of the French economist Thomas Piketty, will be the most important economics book of the year — and maybe of the decade. Mr. Piketty, arguably the world’s leading expert on income and wealth inequality, does more than document the growing concentration of income in the hands of a small economic elite. He also makes a powerful case that we’re on the way back to “patrimonial capitalism,” in which the commanding heights of the economy are dominated not just by wealth, but also by inherited wealth, in which birth matters more than effort and talent.
To be sure, Mr. Piketty concedes that we aren’t there yet. So far, the rise of America’s 1 percent has mainly been driven by executive salaries and bonuses rather than income from investments, let alone inherited wealth. But six of the 10 wealthiest Americans are already heirs rather than self-made entrepreneurs, and the children of today’s economic elite start from a position of immense privilege. As Mr. Piketty notes, “the risk of a drift toward oligarchy is real and gives little reason for optimism.”
Indeed. And if you want to feel even less optimistic, consider what many U.S. politicians are up to. America’s nascent oligarchy may not yet be fully formed — but one of our two main political parties already seems committed to defending the oligarchy’s interests.
Despite the frantic efforts of some Republicans to pretend otherwise, most people realize that today’s G.O.P. favors the interests of the rich over those of ordinary families. I suspect, however, that fewer people realize the extent to which the party favors returns on wealth over wages and salaries. And the dominance of income from capital, which can be inherited, over wages — the dominance of wealth over work — is what patrimonial capitalism is all about.
To see what I’m talking about, start with actual policies and policy proposals. It’s generally understood that George W. Bush did all he could to cut taxes on the very affluent, that the middle-class cuts he included were essentially political loss leaders. It’s less well understood that the biggest breaks went not to people paid high salaries but to coupon-clippers and heirs to large estates. True, the top tax bracket on earned income fell from 39.6 to 35 percent. But the top rate on dividends fell from 39.6 percent (because they were taxed as ordinary income) to 15 percent — and the estate tax was completely eliminated.
Some of these cuts were reversed under President Obama, but the point is that the great tax-cut push of the Bush years was mainly about reducing taxes on unearned income. And when Republicans retook one house of Congress, they promptly came up with a plan — Representative Paul Ryan’s “road map” — calling for the elimination of taxes on interest, dividends, capital gains and estates. Under this plan, someone living solely off inherited wealth would have owed no federal taxes at all.
This tilt of policy toward the interests of wealth has been mirrored by a tilt in rhetoric; Republicans often seem so intent on exalting “job creators” that they forget to mention American workers.
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In fact, not only don’t most Americans own businesses, but business income, and income from capital in general, is increasingly concentrated in the hands of a few people. In 1979 the top 1 percent of households accounted for 17 percent of business income; by 2007 the same group was getting 43 percent of business income, and 75 percent of capital gains. Yet this small elite gets all of the G.O.P.’s love, and most of its policy attention.
Why is this happening? Well, bear in mind that both Koch brothers are numbered among the 10 wealthiest Americans, and so are four Walmart heirs. Great wealth buys great political influence — and not just through campaign contributions. Many conservatives live inside an intellectual bubble of think tanks and captive media that is ultimately financed by a handful of megadonors. Not surprisingly, those inside the bubble tend to assume, instinctively, that what is good for oligarchs is good for America.
As I’ve already suggested, the results can sometimes seem comical. The important point to remember, however, is that the people inside the bubble have a lot of power, which they wield on behalf of their patrons. And the drift toward oligarchy continues.
The Teabaggers in their colonial constumes who oppose taxes and regulations on the banksters of Wall Street and corporations, and who support the Plutocrats of the “Kochtopus” would be anathema to the Founding Fathers and the principles on which this country was founded. Stephen Budiansky’s Liberal Curmudgeon explained in 2010:
If there was one thing the Revolutionary generation agreed on — and those guys who dress up like them at Tea Party conventions most definitely do not — it was the incompatibility of democracy and inherited wealth.
With Thomas Jefferson taking the lead in the Virginia legislature in 1777, every Revolutionary state government abolished the laws of primogeniture and entail that had served to perpetuate the concentration of inherited property. Jefferson cited Adam Smith, the hero of free market capitalists everywhere, as the source of his conviction that (as Smith wrote, and Jefferson closely echoed in his own words), “A power to dispose of estates for ever is manifestly absurd. The earth and the fulness of it belongs to every generation, and the preceding one can have no right to bind it up from posterity. Such extension of property is quite unnatural.” Smith said: “There is no point more difficult to account for than the right we conceive men to have to dispose of their goods after death.”
The states left no doubt that in taking this step they were giving expression to a basic and widely shared philosophical belief that equality of citizenship was impossible in a nation where inequality of wealth remained the rule. North Carolina’s 1784 statute explained that by keeping large estates together for succeeding generations, the old system had served “only to raise the wealth and importance of particular families and individuals, giving them an unequal and undue influence in a republic” and promoting “contention and injustice.” Abolishing aristocratic forms of inheritance would by contrast “tend to promote that equality of property which is of the spirit and principle of a genuine republic.”
Others wanted to go much further; Thomas Paine, like Smith and Jefferson, made much of the idea that landed property itself was an affront to the natural right of each generation to the usufruct of the earth, and proposed a “ground rent” — in fact an inheritance tax — on property at the time it is conveyed at death, with the money so collected to be distributed to all citizens at age 21, “as a compensation in part, for the loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property.”
Even stalwart members of the latter-day Republican Party, the representatives of business and inherited wealth, often emphatically embraced these tenets of economic equality in a democracy. I’ve mentioned Herbert Hoover’s disdain for the “idle rich” and his strong support for breaking up large fortunes. Theodore Roosevelt, who was the first president to propose a steeply graduated tax on inheritances, was another: he declared that the transmission of large wealth to young men “does not do them any real service and is of great and genuine detriment to the community at large.”
As I’ve said many times, this is not your father’s GOP. These are radical extremists who prefer a serfdom under a Corporatocracy of Plutocrats than a democratic Republic of, by and for the people.