BBS Book Thingie: Capital in the 21st Century. Discussion Week 8 (Chapter 7) — Inequality and Concentration: Preliminary Bearings

Continuing the discussion from BBS Book Thingie: "Capital in the 21st Century" Discussion Weeks 6 and 7 (Ch.5 & Ch.6) — Capital/Income Ratio and Capital-Labor Split.

Have at it, if you’ve managed to hang on thus far.

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To copy what I wrote elsewhere:

He’s still going on about Balzac and Austen. Hasn’t he covered this already? This book is twice as long as it needs to be. I don’t need the “previously on…” and “coming up next…” bits at all.

He does make some good points (again) about inequality, and I did like the separation of labor and capital, and discussion of various ways of describing the equality.

I think I’ve been waiting for some more opinions from Piketty, but it’s going to be just a continued build-up of historical data (which is probably better :smile: ).

I did note the comments about Scandinavian/Nordic countries - which we probably know already - that much as we look at them from the outside and think they look preferable to US/UK etc, they’re moving towards us and away from what looks appealing to us.

Sweden in particular has been drifting economically right-ward for a while.

Whether this and their implementation of school vouchers are the cause of precipitously declining education standards there (according to OECD PISA testing) is a matter for debate.

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The inescapable reality is this: wealth is so concentrated that a large segment of society is virtually unaware of its existence, so that some people imagine it belongs to surreal or mysterious entities.

and later

It is possible to imagine societies in which the concentration of income is much greater [than present day USA or Ancien Régime France]? Probably not. If, for example, the top decile appropriates 90% of each years output (and the top centile (1%) took 50% just for itself, as in the case of wealth), a revolution will likely occur, unless some peculiarly effective repressive apparatus exists to keep it from happening.

Would that apparatus perchance be the combination of The War on Terror, ubiquitous surveillance and the Prison Industrial Complex?


It seems as if we’re finally getting some meat, in terns of what his argument is around inequality.

Combine that with an incredibly diverse, interesting, and distracting consumer economy (the culture industries, fast fashion, consumer goods, etc), and you are on to something. Why revolt when the new season of Game of Thrones or House of Cards will be out soon, and we have apple watches now… I mean, how can we revolt when APPLE WATCHES!!! As long as we have shiny things, why can people be upset? It’s 1984 surveillance combined with a vast array of distractions…

I find the whole distinction between income and wealth interesting, and telling. The fact that one can have a decent income, and still not be wealthy… And I like that he didn’t ignore the fact that wealth, in some ways, is more widespread than it was say before the French Revolution, meaning a larger group of people have some wealth - but that they (he argues) have more political power now(253-4). He says on page 261 that “a patrimonial middle class was an important, if fragile, historical innovation, and it would be a mistake to underestimate it.” But, he seems to think that this group do not have much political power, vis-a-vis the upper class…

Do we agree with that? It seems on its face to be true (an oligarchy, in other words). But we have just more people too, so are the percentages roughly equal? And now, we have more people who have more wealth generated via income, so that’s a major difference. He says on page 261 that "a patrimonial middle class was an important, if fragile, historical innovation, and it would be a

I’d like some firmer numbers of people who owe more than they generate in income (258-59). His numbers here (probably in the whole book) seem a bit vague. What about the percarity of wealth for many people? Does that change the picture any, people who can easily slip down with one disaster?

Last, I like his discussion on the justification of inequality in our society (264). He starts to compare previous eras of high inequality (ancien regime and the bell epoque in france with today (265) in the US, with the expansion of inequality here in the US since the Reagan era. Maybe that is where culture comes into play… we certainly have a cultural configuration which highlights the issues of “hypermeritocratic” ideology… I mean, how many biopics of Steve Jobs do we really need? And can’t we say the same of some superhero films, as well, which imagines a few individuals as capable of saving the entire planet? And how does that actually compare with our lived realities of work in modern society? What actually makes our society function… is it the Jobs of the world, creating gadgets, that are cool, but do we need them or is it the people out there, earning a living, who buy the gadgets made by people like Jobs, who keep the consumerist economy trucking? And who ultimately benefits from this?


The consumerist bit of Brave New World was added to the mix to make our Big Brother more palatable or less noticeable … :frowning:

We may have more people who have wealth generated by income now, but unless you’re earning CEO level obscene money and saving, we all need to keep earning just to keep our heads above water. Lose the job, start sinking. That’s a massive lever to use on people — and it’s only the really wealthy (who can rely on “rent” income and don’t need to work) that are able to use it fully. So they are far more powerful than their actual numbers.


Don’t forget the mainstream entertainment industry, and the black market for recreational drugs (except entheogens), not to mention a hefty chunk of the pharmaceutical industry.

Right… and I’m wondering if he’s leaving out part of the equation? Inflation and the cost of living. Sure, the (remaining) middle class have more income, but how much do they have going out to pay for BASICS in life (not even luxury goods)… I swear just buying groceries have increased a fair amount in the past decade. That’s a huge problem for many people.

I did mention the culture industries (part of my own work) and the role it plays in distracting people. But here is the thing, I believe such things are aimed at the middle class, more than the working class. Part of the reason hollywood is so responsive to the perceived demographic of young, white, men is that they are imagined as having cash to burn. But there have been plenty of studies about how first person shooters are being thought of as preparing that demographic for war, or at least to not be as concerned about it as they should be… but really it’s the working class men, especially men of color, who are on are on the front lines of our wars of choice. The thing is that many of them probably don’t have the extra cash to blow on an X-Box and the latest war-themed game… So, yeah… Big Brother is watching and entertaining, too.

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