Strategic Leadership

for Leaders in an Uncertain World

Finally, McKinseyQuarterly admits to a lack of leadership based on the survey of corporate directors

This clearly exercised me 5 years ago! The situation at the top of large companies is likely even worse now. Besides lack of real leadership we can now safely add unjustifiable pay inflation as Thomas Piketty shows in his highly acclaimed book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” (Harvard University Press)

Martin Wolf writing in FT says in his review from which I quote extensively below:

Capital in the Twenty-First Century contains four remarkable achievements. First, in its scale and sweep it brings us back to the founders of political economy. Piketty himself sees economics “as a subdiscipline of the social sciences, alongside history, sociology, anthropology, and political science”. The result is a work of vast historical scope, grounded in exhaustive fact-based research, and suffused with literary references. It is both normative and political. Piketty rejects theorising ungrounded in data. He also insists that social scientists “must make choices and take stands in regard to specific institutions and policies, whether it be the social state, the tax system, or the public debt”.

Second, the book is built on a 15-year programme of empirical research conducted in conjunction with other scholars. Its result is a transformation of what we know about the evolution of income and wealth (which he calls capital) over the past three centuries in leading high-income countries. That makes it an enthralling economic, social and political history.

…In all, the two most striking conclusions are the rise of the “supermanager” in the US and the return of patrimonial capitalism in Europe.

Third, Piketty uses simple economic models to explain what is going on. He notes, for example, that the huge rise in labour earnings at the top of US income distribution is overwhelmingly explained not by sports stars or entertainers but by increases in remuneration of managers. He argues that this is the result of the falls in marginal taxation, which have increased the incentive to bargain for higher pay, reinforced by changes in social norms. The alternative view – that the marginal productivity of top managers has exploded – is, he asserts, unpersuasive, partly because the marginal product of a manager is unmeasurable and partly because overall economic performance has not improved since the 1960s.

Fourth, Piketty makes bold and obviously “unrealistic” policy recommendations. In particular, he calls for a return to far higher marginal tax rates on top incomes and a progressive global wealth tax. The case for the latter is that the reported incomes of the richest are far smaller than their true economic incomes (the amount they can consume without reducing their wealth). The rich may even take themselves outside any fiscal jurisdiction, so enjoying the fiscal position of aristocrats of pre-revolutionary France. This fact blunts one of the criticisms of the book’s reliance on pre-tax data: over time, the ability of individual countries to redistribute resources towards the middle and bottom of national income distributions might dwindle away to nothing.

Yet the book also has clear weaknesses. The most important is that it does not deal with why soaring inequality – while more than adequately demonstrated – matters. Essentially, Piketty simply assumes that it does.

One argument for inequality is that it is a spur to (or product of) innovation. The contrary evidence is clear: contemporary inequality and, above all, inherited wealth are unnecessary for this purpose. Another argument is that the product of just processes must be just. Yet even if the processes driving inequality were themselves just (which is doubtful), this is not the only principle of distributive justice. Another – to me more plausible – argument against Piketty’s is that inequality is less important in an economy that is now 20 times as productive as those of two centuries ago: even the poor enjoy goods and services unavailable to the richest a few decades ago.

For me the most convincing argument against the ongoing rise in economic inequality is that it is incompatible with true equality as citizens. If, as the ancient Athenians believed, participation in public life is a fundamental aspect of human self-realisation, huge inequalities cannot but destroy it.

In a society dominated by wealth, money will buy power. Inequality cannot be eliminated. It is inevitable and to a degree even desirable. But, as the Greeks argued, there needs to be moderation in all things. We are not seeing moderate rises in inequality. We should take notice.

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April 20, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment