Tag Archives: Welfare State

What about the periphery? Swedish wealth-income ratios in historical perspective

Wealth-Income Ratios in a Small, Developing Economy: Sweden, 1810–2014


Daniel Waldenström (Paris School of Economics and Research Institute of Industrial Economics daniel.waldenstrom@nek.uu.se)

ABSTRACT: This study uses new data on Swedish national wealth over the last two hundred years to examine whether the patterns in wealth-income ratios found by Piketty and Zucman (2014) extend to small and less developed economies. The findings reveal both similarities and differences. During the industrialization era, Sweden’s domestic wealth was relatively low because of low saving rates and instead foreign capital imports became important. Twentieth century trends and levels are more similar, but in Sweden government wealth grew more important, not least through its relatively large public pension system. Overall, the findings suggest that initial conditions and economic and political institutions matter for the structure and evolution of national wealth.

URL: http://EconPapers.repec.org/RePEc:hhs:uufswp:2015_006

Distributed by NEP-HIS on 2016-10-17

Review by Anna Missiaia

This paper looks at the evolution of wealth-income ratios in Sweden over the last two hundred years. Wealth-income ratios have gained increasing attention as an aftermath of the release of Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty as well as the more specific paper by Piketty and Zucman (2014). The trajectory of wealth-income ratios in core economies such as the US, the UK, Germany and France shows a U-shape pattern over the last two hundred years, with a level of 600-700% of wealth over income in the 18th and 19th centuries, a low point of 200-300% in the 1970s and a subsequent increase up to 400-600% today. The U-shape is, in the interpretation of Piketty and Zucman, the consequence of the two world wars and the creation of the welfare state while in the last decades we are seeing a reversal and a “return to historical norms”. The come back of capital is potentially interesting as wealth accumulation can have different effects on the economy and the society, depending on weather the additional wealth is in public or private hands. Also, the increase in wealth relative to income poses new questions on what the optimal taxation strategy should be. In terms of the scope of this line of research, at the end of their paper Piketty and Zucman call for a further effort to cover new and non-core countries in the analysis. Identifying the components of wealth driving the increase in the ratio is also a worthwhile next step.

The work by Walderström goes in this direction in two ways. First, it looks at a “small, developing economy” such as Sweden, which represents at least part of the periphery that is missing in previous research. Moreover, it discusses to some extent the determinants of Swedish wealth in comparison with other core countries, suggesting that the composition of wealth can dramatically change the interpretation of the ratio.

The inclusion of small economies in the analysis is important because theory predicts a different evolution of wealth-income ratios during industrialization depending on the size of the country.  In particular, large economies (like the ones studied by Piketty and Zucman) are expected to increase their wealth while small economies are expected to increase capital imports. Moreover, Sweden is an excellent case-study for looking at the effect of a social democratic welfare state and its political institutions on the accumulation of national wealth.

The empirical analysis in the paper is grounded on a new body of evidence that, as it often happens with Sweden, provides very detailed information compared to other countries. In this case, the Swedish National Wealth Database (SNWD)  provides information on the household sector, the public sector and national, private and public savings following the same structure of Piketty and Zucman (2014).


Swedish farmers before the creation of the universalistic welfare-state system

The results of the paper are the following: Sweden in the 19th century had a much lower ratio (about half) compared to core countries such as the UK, France and Germany but it had a very similar level compared to the US. The author then goes on and asks whether 19th century Sweden is really comparable to the US in terms of national wealth dynamics. The answer is no. Sweden had a low ratio because of its low level of savings due to low incomes. The US had a low ratio because of a high level of income growth that was dominating wealth growth. For this reason, Sweden had to rely much more heavily on capital imports to sustain its industrialization. The 20th century shows again a much lower ratio for Sweden compared to the core countries (this time both European countries and the US alike) but the explanation lays this time in the increasing role of the Swedish Government and the creation of the well-known universalistic welfare-state system which redirected resources from private wealth to provision of public goods. In this sense, the discussion on the emergence of the public pension system, which is neglected by the analysis of national wealth in core countries by Piketty and Zucman, is most interesting. In short, the argument is that creation of a public pension system with a large share of unfunded pensions financed by taxation led to a decrease in saving for retirement and thus wealth. The figure below shows the low ratio for Sweden over the last two hudred years.


Private welath-income ratios in comparison.

The main contribution of this work is showing that the patterns of core countries, that are often at the core of the research and speculation Piketty and coauthors, are far from being exhaustive in explaining national wealth at world level. Also, as the same wealth-income ratio can hide very different underlying structural differences, the use of a more detailed breakdown of public wealth that includes pensions is also much appreciated. On the other hand, it is clear that because of its very peculiar history (see the non-participation to the world wars and the early formation of such a strong welfare state) Sweden cannot be considered as fully representative of the entire periphery. More research on other countries is needed to capture the entire picture.



Piketty, T. (2014) Capital in the 21st century, Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

Piketty, T. and G. Zucman (2014) Capital is back: Wealth-income ratios in rich countries, 1700–2010, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 129(3): 1255–1310.

Waldenström, D. (2015), Wealth-income ratios in the small economy: Sweden over the past two centuries, Vox post, http://voxeu.org/article/wealth-income-ratios-small-economies



Help or Hindrance? Business and Welfare Policy Formation

Bringing Power Back In: A Review of the Literature on the Role of Business in Welfare State Politics

by Thomas Paster (Central European University and Max Planck Institute) (thomas.paster@eui.eu)

URL http://d.repec.org/n?u=RePEc:zbw:mpifgd:153&r=his

Abstract What is the impact of business interest groups on the formulation of public social policies? This paper reviews the literature in political science, history, and sociology on this question. It identifies two strands: one analyzes the political power and influence of business, the other the preferences and interests of business. Since the 1990s, researchers have shifted their attention from questions of power to questions of preferences. While this shift has produced important insights into the sources of the policy preferences of business, it came with a neglect of issues of power. This paper takes a first step towards re-integrating a power-analytical perspective into the study of the role of business in welfare state politics. It shows how a focus on variation in business power can help to explain both why business interest groups accepted social protection during some periods in the past and why they have become increasingly assertive and averse to social policies since the 1970s.

Reviewed by Mark J Crowley


This paper was circulated by NEP-HIS on 2015-04-19.  It is a meticulously review of a topic that is now becoming a subject of major debate in the developed world’s political culture.  At a time of austerity and belt-tightening in much of the western world in response to the economic crises of recent times, the welfare state has been targeted as an area where potential savings could be made, prompting arguments that the construct itself has become the scapegoat of austerity. Much of the attention in the recent literature on the welfare state has examined the political and social considerations behind the formation of a welfare system and its reform.  This paper hones in on an aspect that has received less attention: the role of business in the formation of welfare state policy.  Although there is still significant literature on this topic, the paper manages to draw the current research together into a coherent whole to present numerous interesting theories about the development and role of big business in public policy formulation that will be of interest to historians.


Paster embeds his argument in the Marxist critiques of the 1970s that claimed much of the decisions concerning the level of influence exercised by business in state affairs depended on their relative power and individual preferences.  He cites the fact that the state’s dependence on private business for capital does give the latter, by default, a greater level of influence over public policy.  Furthermore, with the development of Marxist theory in the 1980s with the rise of Conservative policies, especially Thatcherism in the UK and Reagan’s economics in the USA, the ‘varieties of capitalism’ approach has led scholars to examine the development and evolution of the welfare state from a different perspective.  Many have now seen a link between the influence of business preferences and the level of support offered to policy options concerning welfare reform.  Moreover, the growth of interest groups in response to the increased size of the state has seen more actors playing a part in the negotiations of public policy, particularly state welfare.

Paster outlines how much of the literature has focused on the nature of power dynamics within the business community, and its relative influence over public policy.  In many nations, leaders of corporations form a major part of the power elite. It could be argued that this was why, in many developed nations there was significant opposition to the legislation proposed for a national minimum wage for low paid workers, primarily owing to the increased costs that this would bring.  This could also have influenced the greater outsourcing of work, primarily service-based industries and call-centre work to nations such as India.  Furthermore, he outlines how there is evidence that during times of economic difficulty, both the public and business are reluctant to see greater state intervention, and that a more cautious approach does led to a relative neglect in the nature of welfare provision for the most vulnerable in society.


One of the most interesting arguments articulated by Pester in this paper is how big businesses prefer to increase the level of skills among its workforce as a means of protecting against future unemployment.  The argument focuses on how business leaders believe that highly-trained workers, in the event of finding themselves unemployed, would then be easily able to find alternative employment owing to their skills, thus reducing dependency on the state.  This has become more important with globalisation and the internationalisation of the economy.  Yet despite the growing importance of international trade, and the growing economic relationship with not only European countries but developing nations, this has also brought pressure on the development of coherent policies to assist workers.  While the idea of policy transfer could be regarded as positive, with nations comparing its social policy and potentially embracing new ideas in the aim of improving life for its lower paid citizens, international trade has also brought about increased regulation, thus increasing the influence of both businesses and the state over the development of public policy.  This, therefore, is a double-edged sword which carries numerous positive elements but also several complicating factors.


This paper is very strong.  It shows a deep understanding of many of the issues concerning public policy development in many European countries, and the USA in the twentieth century.  In focusing on the role of big business in policy considerations, it approaches the issue of welfare reform and development from an interesting angle.

My observation on this paper would be that perhaps in trying to compare so many nations in one short article, perhaps the author is seeking to do too much.  In much of the comparative literature on the welfare state (albeit not from a business perspective) authors seek to compare two nations.  This paper has a much wider remit.  Furthermore, although the primary focus of this paper is on the role of business in the discussions concerning welfare state policy, I do feel that maybe it could benefit from some additional information, maybe only a paragraph or two, to help set the context.  The political culture concerning state welfare is different in each of the countries examined in the research.  The motivations and the political responses to the original formation of the welfare state were different among the respective politicians.  For example, it could be argued that in Britain, the earliest advocate of the welfare state in the government, Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, did so because of his fear that if there was no provision for the working-class, it could result in a revolution.  For the USA, the growth in welfare programmes came much later with the development of Roosevelt’s new deal.  Furthermore, the development of such policies in a very politically-conservative nation was ravaged with difficulties.  For the British case in particular, I would encourage the author to consult the numerous works of Pat Thane on the topic, which place the formation of the welfare state into the wider political and international context.  While this is only a minor criticism of an extremely well-researched paper, placing this paper in the wider political context would help strengthen the argument and highlight even more the significance and value of this research to the wider academic community.



Baldwin, Peter, The Politics of Social Solidarity: Class Bases and the European Welfare State 1875-1975 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990).

Thane, Pat (ed.) The Origins of British Social Policy (London: Croom Helm ; Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1978).

Thane, Pat, The Foundations of the Welfare State, (Harlow: Longman, 1982).