I was the second child in our family. The first was a little girl named Barbara Claire. By the time I was born she was known as Bobs and although I was named Robert Paul I could not really be called Bob, so to my family and my relatives I became Rob as I am to them to this day. My big sister was 3 ½ years older than I (and, given the way these things go, still is.) I looked up to her even after I got a little bit taller than she. Bobs was a spectacular student and she actually taught me to read, because when she wanted to play school I was the only available pupil. She was a great dancer and taught me both to Foxtrot and to Lindy as well as to folk dance. All my life she has been my big sister and when there was something she wanted I felt it was a command that had to be obeyed. She just sent me the following email message:
“So far, you haven’t said anything about how you would design a system that was not built on the exploitation of labor. Clearly the two countries that tried it failed. Are you going to tell us?”
I have got to say something to my big sister and, by the way, to the rest of you. In answering these questions Marx is virtually no help at all. He must have written more than 5000 pages about capitalism but if you cobbled together everything you could find that he wrote about socialism I do not think it would come to as much as 100 pages. He came to believe, in contradistinction to the 19th century writers whom he called Utopian Socialists, that each stage in the historical development of economy and society grows organically out of the preceding stage through the development of the forces and social relations of production in ways that, although clearly deliberate and the consequence of human choices, are systemic and not really amenable to armchair planning. He certainly would not have thought it possible that a system based on the collective ownership of the means of production could emerge through revolutionary action from a late feudal economy, as in Russia, or, Lord knows, from a peasant society, as in China.
It takes no brains at all to see that the private ownership of the means of production in a capitalist economy leads to endlessly greater accumulations of capital and ever greater social inequality. The lifecycle being what it is, and very few capitalists being Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates or Elon Musk, what Piketty in the French fashion calls patrimonial capitalism – what we would call inherited wealth – is fated to become an ever more prominent feature of capitalism as it continues to evolve. Separate from this, but of course deeply connected to it, is the grotesque inequality in annual income. Since the median household income these days is around $60,000, it follows that anybody making or inheriting $60 million is making or inheriting the equivalent of a millennium of household median incomes. Simply to think of it in this fashion is to exhibit clearly the utterly unjustifiable inequality that is a defining characteristic of modern capitalism.
What could be done? What am I to tell my big sister? I am a great believer in half measures and ad hoc improvements, so increased minimum wages, guaranteed annual incomes, punitively high marginal rates on obscene incomes, and confiscatory inheritance taxes are all to be enthusiastically encouraged. But the more money you put in the hands of working-class Americans, the more profits will be made by those who sell them what they buy with their money and hence the more capital will accumulate in private hands.
Not much of an answer for your big sister, is it? Maybe tomorrow I can come up with something better, but do not cash in your 401(k) and make plans for a millennial celebration.