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  Ross Douthat's op-ed/review of Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-first Century in the Dallas Morning News is good to the extent of bringing our attention to Piketty's contention that “free markets, by their nature, tended to enrich the owners of capital at the expense of people who own less of it,” that the rise of the middle class in the 30 years following WWII is but a temporary anomaly due to the “massive destruction of inherited capital during the long era of world war,” and that the future is one where a small contingent of capital owners will increasingly grow wealthy at the expense of the middle class.
    Instead of doubling-down on this idea, Douthat allows himself to be distracted by two unrelated ideas: (1.) that the 99% who have recently gained some wealth, is a monolithic group; and (2.) that the welfare state has introduced a discussion of the “meaning of life” that somehow trumps economics.  He also seems to be trapped into an inadequate and limited definition of capital.  Capital as classically understood to be the means of creating and acquiring wealth.  
    That definition has included: (1) land that can be rented out or from which natural resources can be extracted, (2) manufacturing/servicing/intellectual properties (usually corporate) that can be rented out, and (3) money that also can be rented out.  This classical definition ignores the fact that labor is the means by which those not fortunate enough to inherit one or more of the three classical categories of capital, can acquire a measure of wealth.  An hour of labor is poor man's capital!   We know why labor is not included in the usual definitions of capital.  It is because, like the history of the world is written by the winners of it's wars; the story of capital is written by those who have inherited wealth and want to convince everyone else that is the only legitimate way to get it, so don't try to take it away from them!  [America's version of the divine right of kings.]
    Piketty is French and writes from a European perspective.  So the growth of the middle class in Europe might have come from the destruction of inherited capital during the war years -  though I'm not sure what the evidence of that is - that certainly was not the case in the U.S.  On the contrary, the nation's capital, in all its forms, was incorporated into the war effort and came out of the war years better off than it was before the war when the Great Depression had ravished the American economy.  
    FDR's plan of recovery included massive infrastructure projects (TVA, the Golden Gate Bridge, Hoover Dam, et.al.) which poured billions of borrowed dollars into the private construction industry, which after 1941, transitioned into the industrial might of the war effort; but also included putting millions of the unemployed to work at decent wages in CCC and WPA camps and into the war effort (think Rosy, the Riveter) at union contract wages.  We came out of WWII as the most powerful nation in the world because we had built all elements of our national capital:  the classical elements as well as a working middle class.
    Douthat can be forgiven for ignoring the labor part of capital, but assuming that the 99% who make their living through hourly labor are a monolithic group defies understanding.  That 99% is composed of those who make enough to pay their cost of living in America and those who, for whatever reason, cannot.  Poverty exists in America.  Lumping an unemployed coal miner, with black lung disease, living up a dirt road in West Virginia with a $15m per year corporate CEO living in a high-rise on Wall Street is nonsense.  The welfare state is not about bringing “meaning to life.”  It is about food stamps and Medicaid!   Bringing some physical comfort to people – young and old – who go to bed hungry every night and expect to die poor and young watching folks not at all like them on TV...if there is electricity in their shack!
    And as for why there is not rioting in the streets, it is because, for the people on the positive side of the able-to-pay-their-expense-for-living-in-America equation, whatever welfare costs to keep the poor content is just the price of doing business.


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