Hunter Lewis Examines Thomas Piketty’s Improbable Data

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Writing in Mises Daily today, Hunter Lewis exposes the rather dubious use of historical economic data by Thomas Piketty in his popular new book Capital in the Twenty-first Century:

[His chart on wealth vs. economic growth] is astonishing for many reasons. First of all, it suggests that capital earned a 4.5 percent or higher return for the years 0-1800 C.E. This is a crazy number. If the human race had started out with only $10 in year 1 and compounded it at 4.5 percent a year for any series of 1,800 years, by now we would have much, much more than a trillion times the entire world’s wealth today, which is estimated at $241 trillion by Credit Suisse.

The 4.5 percent or higher number is also crazy because Piketty is right that there was negligible economic growth prior to the industrial revolution, and such high returns for the rich are just not consistent with so little growth. The truth is that rich people for most of those years were interested in spending or hiding their wealth, not in investing it, because wealth out in the open was likely to be stolen, if not by bandits, then by government.

If you look closely at the more modern part of the chart and ignore the projection into an unknown future, you will see that the lines do not support Piketty’s thesis. His idea that the rich will always necessarily get richer relative to everyone else under capitalism is not supported by the data he presents.

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9:00 am on May 2, 2014
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