This opinion was published by the Indian Express.
French economist Thomas Piketty has written a scholarly tome with the humdrum title, Capital in the 21st Century. The book has become an overnight sensation because Piketty documents an inherent tendency for ever-increasing inequality of income and wealth in capitalist economic systems. It is not an accident, he says, that many will be left behind even as others become richer. The book taps into a collective anxiety, coming as it does amidst the lingering after-effects of the global crisis and slowing global growth.
India’s capitalist dynamic — as in other emerging economies — is different from that in the richer countries that Piketty focuses on. Yet, the lessons Piketty offers should ring a cautionary bell. Indeed, even more so than in the rich countries, India could find itself in a low growth, high inequality and high insecurity trap. These are the real fears that bubble under the theatrics and ugliness of the ongoing political debate.
Piketty is not an anti-capitalist. He sees capitalism as central to the innovation and entrepreneurial risk-taking needed for economic growth. But, using conventional tools of economic analysis, he warns that there is no automatic, ultimately benign, broad sharing of income and wealth over the development process. Rather, greater inequality — which perpetuates itself over generations — is the more likely outcome. And deepening inequality can fray capitalism’s virtues.
Piketty finds that countries are on the path to “patrimonial capitalism”, with inherited wealth increasingly concentrated in few families. As long as the rich earn a return on their wealth that is somewhat greater than the country’s growth rate, inherited wealth will rise relentlessly faster than national income. This process was interrupted, and reversed, in the first half of the 20th century, because the two World Wars destroyed private wealth and then helped create the political basis for the welfare state. But, over the past three decades, the wealth-to-income ratio has steadily recovered much of the lost ground and looks set to keep rising.
The US was historically different from Europe, with a much lower role for inherited wealth. But in recent decades, it has been a leader in rising income inequality, owing to a combination of soaring salaries for “supermanagers” and rising returns on capital for the richest. These large incomes are being turned into inherited wealth, generating entrenched privilege as in Europe at the beginning of the last century. All the while, for those at the bottom of the rung, it is becoming increasingly difficult to climb the economic and social ladder. As wealth and politics reinforce each other, equality of opportunity is a fading myth.
India is at risk of forging a potentially more pernicious form of rentier capitalism. Growth in the past few decades has brought gains to most, including the poor. But there is unmistakable evidence of rising concentration of income and wealth at the very top. Piketty and Abhijit Banerjee of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology find that the share in taxable income of the very-very rich (the top 0.01 per cent) was about 2 per cent in 1999. That brought the concentration of wealth back almost to the levels prevailing in the 1920s, the era when the maharajas cornered income and wealth.
While the Indian calculations do not extend beyond 1999, all indicators point to a stepped-up rise in inequality along the same pattern as in the US and Argentina. The “booming” 2000s witnessed the emergence of Indian billionaires, up from five in the late 1990s to 55 in 2014. The ratio of billionaire-wealth-to-GDP has risen from negligible levels to the 8-10 per cent range, comparable to that in the US and the UK. Add to this soaring land values in urban and peri-urban areas, some of it benefiting lucky farmers, but much of it captured by the wealthy and influential, often in deals between politicians and businesses.
While superficially similar to that in other countries, the rise in Indian inequality reflects more pernicious forces. Government contracts and relationships play a central role in fostering India’s wealth accumulation and concentration. Influence and connectivity create access to land, construction and mining permits and so-called “public-private partnerships”. Piketty is primarily concerned that if wealth mainly passes from one generation to another, the incentives to invest and grow will be undermined. More injurious, however, than such patrimonial capitalism is India’s rentier capitalism. The lure of easy money through investment in political connections draws entrepreneurship away from productive investment and innovation while it breeds corrosive social consequences.
India is in a political crucible. As the few with access are extracting resources from the state, the popular demands for broader social provisioning are rising. The unmet demands rouse ang er and create a perennial hunger for such elusive heroes as Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal.
In the middle of the last century, Europe and America addressed the social and political conflict — to varying degrees — through the rise of the welfare state. But that option is not open to India, where the government lacks the capacity to collect sufficient revenues and is not organised to deliver adequate social services. This impasse, in a theme resonant with Piketty, will not automatically resolve itself. Indeed, precisely because the government cannot provide adequate safety nets, the populist demands become more insistent. This feeds back, at best, into symbolic gestures with little real value. At worst, the symbolic gestures become the grazing ground for more cronyism.
It is possible to imagine technical solutions to pull out of this trap with sound regulation, effective taxation and smarter delivery of social services. But that will require a different politics and a different bureaucracy. None of the major political platforms, caught up in their own pettiness, have the vision to deal with these challenges.