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160 pages, Hardcover
First published January 1, 1997
The concentration of wealth and capital income did not return to the astronomical level achieved on the eve of World War I, however. The most likely explanation involves the fiscal revolution of the twentieth century. The impact of the progressive income tax (created in France in 1914) and the progressive estate tax (created in 1901) on the accumulation and reconstitution of large fortunes seems to have prevented a return to nineteenth-century rentier society. If contemporary societies have become societies of managers—that is, societies in which the top of the income distribution is dominated by the “working rich” (people who live mainly on their labor income rather than on income derived from capital accumulated in the past), it is primarily a consequence of particular historical circumstances and institutions.
In the United States, for example, there has been a substantial withdrawal of less-skilled individuals from the labor market (and from the group of people classified in official statistics as “actively seeking work”) since the 1970s. This is entirely due to the collapse of low-wage employment opportunities (Juhn et al., 1991; Topel, 1993). Many people of working age have thus found themselves excluded from the labor market, yet they are not counted in unemployment statistics. One striking manifestation of this can be seen in the impressive increase of the prison population. In 1995, 1.5 million individuals were incarcerated in US prisons, compared with 500,000 in 1980; it is estimated that 2.4 million will be incarcerated in 2000 (Freeman, 1996). This aspect of underemployment, entirely neglected in official unemployment statistics, is not a minor matter, since these 1.5 million prisoners represented 1.5 percent of the US working age population in 1995.
Although the wage share tended to increase in the 1970s, it was the profit share that increased in the 1980s and 1990s, in some cases substantially. These variations were widest in France, where the wage share was 66.4 percent in 1970, rising to 71.8 percent in 1981, then falling after 1982 to 62.4 percent in 1990 and 60.3 percent in 1995. How can we explain the fact that more than 5 percent of national income was redistributed from capital to labor between 1970 and 1982, while 10 percent went from labor to capital between 1983 and 1995?
It so happens that the first period coincides with a period of substantial wage increases inaugurated by the Grenelle Accords of 1968. Wages continued to improve in the 1970s owing to the influence of social movements and substantial increases in the minimum wage. The last major increment to the minimum wage occurred in 1981.
[F]iscal redistribution measures adopted by the Socialist government after it came to power in France in 1981, which were denounced at the time by the right as the height of “fiscal bludgeoning” and which consisted essentially of a wealth tax and a surtax on top income brackets, brought in less than 10 billion francs in 1981 (Nizet, 1990, pp. 402, 433), or 0.3 percent of national income. In theory, a government can achieve any level of redistribution it wants via taxes and transfers, but in practice, no transfer of comparable magnitude has been accomplished in so few years. Inevitably, therefore, workers think of and experience redistribution primarily in terms of social struggle and wage increases rather than fiscal reform and transfer payments.
The essential difference between these two types of redistribution is that the contribution of firms is not calculated in the same way: direct redistribution requires firms to contribute to redistribution in proportion to the number of workers they employ, whereas fiscal redistribution requires firms to contribute only in proportion to their profits, no matter how much capital or labor they employ to produce those profits. Fiscal redistribution thus makes it possible to separate the price the firm pays for labor from the price that workers charge for their services and thus to preserve the allocative role of the price system while still redistributing income.