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People who are genuinely materially desperate aren't the issue here. The Tenth Commandment Club has no qualms with a Jean Valjean stealing bread to feed his family. But the implicit emphasis of Piketty's Capital is with comparing the 1 percent (or 0.01 percent) to the typical person living in the G-7, a person who is, on average, more fortunate than most of the world's population and more materially fortunate than almost anyone living in the 19th-century novels that Piketty so loves to discuss. To paraphrase an old P.J. O'Rourke joke, just think about Mr. Darcy's visits to the dentist.
Piketty clearly prefers to talk about the wealth of European and U.S. elites, but he spends a few crucial pages talking about capital accumulation in developing countries. It's here that he notes what may be the most important fact in his book: According to his long-run forecast, "Asian countries should own about half of world capital by the end of the twenty-first century."
The high savings rates of Asian and particularly East Asian economies have been a puzzle that resists a complete explanation. Asian nations with young populations and old, those with fast-growing economies and the slower-growers, generally tend to have savings rates as high as or higher than those of similar economies outside Asia. If these countries keep saving at higher than average rates, it means a world of bountiful capital for decades to come. If capital flows stay free—if money can move to its highest return across the globe with few tax and regulatory fetters—that means there will be ever more homes and machines available across the world. And, a bountiful supply of capital tends to push interest rates in a direction that diminishes whatever is left of Piketty's central contradiction. The "global savings glut" that Ben Bernanke wrote about a decade ago may last quite a while, and that's good for global productivity.
Things could change at any time—culture and law are both hard to predict—but normal economics has a very strong prediction for what happens when some countries are (on average) more patient than other countries and when capital can flow freely the world over: In the long run, the patient inherit the earth. As long as nations differ (on average) in patience, the patient capitalists start by investing in the less patient countries and the less patient countries gladly and willingly borrow the cheap cash. The patient countries help increase the capital stock of their less patient neighbors, and—as long as there aren't legal barriers to foreign ownership—in the long run the patient nations end up owning essentially all of the world's capital and the less patient nations ultimately end up sending not only their profits but even most of their mortgaged wages to the patient nations.
One lesson of this story is that it's good to be patient. So let's start training ourselves and our children to delay gratification, to forego that great sound system on the new car, to eat at home a little more often. Another lesson is one that Piketty hits head on: If the world moves toward this outcome, where some rich nations own vast amounts of other rich nations' wealth, we can all expect a political backlash. An attack on foreign investment might show up as bans on foreign ownership, discriminatory regulations that end up as de facto bans, confiscation of foreign-owned assets, or something worse, something more violent.
Hence the need for tolerance. As Piketty reminds us, human beings can be pretty bad at living with economic inequality. But when it comes to capital, simple economic theory is right: the more, the merrier. And if we can reduce covetousness, we can say the reverse: the merrier, the more.