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What Does Piketty’s Capital Mean for Developing Countries?

Gabriel Demombynes's picture

The economics book that has launched a thousand blog posts, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Country, tells a grand story of inequality past and present. One would expect that a book on global inequality would have much to say about development. However, the book has limited relevance for the developing world, and the empirical data he marshals for developing countries is weak.

Piketty’s central story is that convergence in the developed world and slower population growth will leave us with a permanently modest economic growth rate (g). Coupled with a constant return to wealth (r), concentration of capital ownership, and high rates of savings among the wealthy, the low g leads to rising wealth inequality over a longish run—something like the second half of the 20th century.

A low-g future for the developed world is a mostly uncontroversial assumption. (He assumes future GDP per capita growth of 1.2 percent for the U.S.) But Piketty draws conclusions for the world as a whole, and we are a long way from global convergence. As Branko Milanovic noted in his review, catch-up growth could fend off Piketty’s inequality dystopia for some time.