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Capital in the Twenty First Century Hardcover – 2014
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“It seems safe to say that Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the magnum opus of the French economist Thomas Piketty, will be the most important economics book of the year―and maybe of the decade. Piketty, arguably the world’s leading expert on income and wealth inequality, does more than document the growing concentration of income in the hands of a small economic elite. He also makes a powerful case that we’re on the way back to ‘patrimonial capitalism,’ in which the commanding heights of the economy are dominated not just by wealth, but also by inherited wealth, in which birth matters more than effort and talent.”―Paul Krugman, New York Times
“A sweeping account of rising inequality… Eventually, Piketty says, we could see the reemergence of a world familiar to nineteenth-century Europeans; he cites the novels of Austen and Balzac. In this ‘patrimonial society,’ a small group of wealthy rentiers lives lavishly on the fruits of its inherited wealth, and the rest struggle to keep up… The proper role of public intellectuals is to question accepted dogmas, conceive of new methods of analysis, and expand the terms of public debate. Capital in the Twenty-first Century does all these things… Piketty has written a book that nobody interested in a defining issue of our era can afford to ignore.”―John Cassidy, New Yorker
“An extraordinary sweep of history backed by remarkably detailed data and analysis… Piketty’s economic analysis and historical proofs are breathtaking.”―Robert B. Reich, The Guardian
“Piketty’s treatment of inequality is perfectly matched to its moment. Like [Paul] Kennedy a generation ago, Piketty has emerged as a rock star of the policy-intellectual world… But make no mistake, his work richly deserves all the attention it is receiving… Piketty, in collaboration with others, has spent more than a decade mining huge quantities of data spanning centuries and many countries to document, absolutely conclusively, that the share of income and wealth going to those at the very top―the top 1 percent, .1 percent, and .01 percent of the population―has risen sharply over the last generation, marking a return to a pattern that prevailed before World War I… Even if none of Piketty’s theories stands up, the establishment of this fact has transformed political discourse and is a Nobel Prize–worthy contribution. Piketty provides an elegant framework for making sense of a complex reality. His theorizing is bold and simple and hugely important if correct. In every area of thought, progress comes from simple abstract paradigms that guide later thinking, such as Darwin’s idea of evolution, Ricardo’s notion of comparative advantage, or Keynes’s conception of aggregate demand. Whether or not his idea ultimately proves out, Piketty makes a major contribution by putting forth a theory of natural economic evolution under capitalism… Piketty writes in the epic philosophical mode of Keynes, Marx, or Adam Smith… By focusing attention on what has happened to a fortunate few among us, and by opening up for debate issues around the long-run functioning of our market system, Capital in the Twenty-First Century has made a profoundly important contribution.”―Lawrence H. Summers, Democracy
“It is easy to overlook the achievement of Thomas Piketty’s new bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, as a work of economic history. Debates about the book have largely focused on inequality. But on any given page, there is data about the total level of private capital and the percentage of income paid out to labor in England from the 1700s onward, something that would have been impossible for early researchers… Capital reflects decades of work in collecting national income data across centuries, countries, and class, done in partnership with academics across the globe. But beyond its remarkably rich and instructive history, the book’s deep and novel understanding of inequality in the economy has drawn well-deserved attention… [Piketty’s] engagement with the rest of the social sciences also distinguishes him from most economists… The book is filled with brilliant moments… The book is an attempt to ground the debate over inequality in strong empirical data, put the question of distribution back into economics, and open the debate not just to the entirety of the social sciences but to people themselves.”―Mike Konczal, Boston Review
“What makes Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century such a triumph is that it seems to have been written specifically to demolish the great economic shibboleths of our time… Piketty’s magnum opus.”―Thomas Frank, Salon
“[A] 700-page punch in the plutocracy’s pampered gut… It’s been half a century since a book of economic history broke out of its academic silo with such fireworks.”―Giles Whittell, The Times
“Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics has done the definitive comparative historical research on income inequality in his Capital in the Twenty-First Century.”―Paul Starr, New York Review of Books
“Bracing… Piketty provides a fresh and sweeping analysis of the world’s economic history that puts into question many of our core beliefs about the organization of market economies. His most startling news is that the belief that inequality will eventually stabilize and subside on its own, a long-held tenet of free market capitalism, is wrong. Rather, the economic forces concentrating more and more wealth into the hands of the fortunate few are almost sure to prevail for a very long time.”―Eduardo Porter, New York Times
“Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a monumental book that will influence economic analysis (and perhaps policymaking) in the years to come. In the way it is written and the importance of the questions it asks, it is a book the classic authors of economics could have written if they lived today and had access to the vast empirical material Piketty and his colleagues collected… In a short review, it is impossible to do even partial justice to the wealth of information, data, analysis, and discussion contained in this book of almost 700 pages. Piketty has returned economics to the classical roots where it seeks to understand the ‘laws of motion’ of capitalism. He has re-emphasized the distinction between ‘unearned’ and ‘earned’ income that had been tucked away for so long under misleading terminologies of ‘human capital,’ ‘economic agents,’ and ‘factors of production.’ Labor and capital―those who have to work for a living and those who live from property―people in flesh―are squarely back in economics via this great book.”―Branko Milanovic, American Prospect
About the Author
Thomas Piketty is Professor at the Paris School of Economics and at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS).
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Anyone who has bothered to read this book must admit that the writer is rigorous in his analyses and my impression was the writer eschews prejudgment. Piketty provides exhaustive data throughout in a fascinating historical analysis of capital and the inevitable pitfalls of indecent inequality of wealth ("...the `first globalization of finance and trade (1870-1914) is in many ways similar to the `second globalization' which has been underway since the 1970's." and, "...capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.") There were reasons for the financial shocks and the world wars of the 20th century, and if we're not paying attention...
Piketty notes that, "Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves." Nevertheless, the essential economic equations and trend analyses are sufficiently addressed and easily understandable by all. He notes that economics should be considered a branch of social science, i.e., "...politics is ubiquitous and...economic and political changes are inextricably intertwined and must be studies together."
If nothing else, the reader is warned, "...all citizens should take a serious interest in money, its measurement, the facts surrounding it, and its history. Those who have a lot of it [money] never fail to defend their interests. Refusing to deal with numbers rarely serves the interests of the least well-off."
So why are reactionaries freaking out over this book? Piketty concludes that national debt can only be reduced by: repudiation (bad), inflation (horrible), austerity (really horrible), or a progressive tax on capital (reasonable). Further, he recommends that the only reasonable way to address indecent wealth inequality is a progressive global tax on wealth, which in turn requires global transparency of accounts and an end to foreign tax havens; he goes on to say none of these measures will be easy, but does offer practical suggestions. Clearly, the plutocrats would panic over popularization of such a suggestion, and it only takes a word or two from them to spin up their PACs and puppet organizations (I won't name names) into blindly trashing these rational suggestions. Thus the one-star reviews from those who haven't read the book.
Other specifics of note:
* His rational explanation of what central banks do and why they are necessary is excellent and should be understood by all.
* His discussion of past and recent European economic issues, the creation the Euro, and administration by the ECB and European Committee should be of great interest to most Americans.
* The fact that income taxes were not invented by Woodrow Wilson and had been used successfully in Europe for many decades before that is probably news to most Americans.
* The real reasons why the gold standard had to be abandoned and is no longer feasible should be better understood by many.
* His explanation of what "rentiers" are (i.e. those with sufficient wealth to live off dividends, rents, and other financial instruments) is something that should be better understood by all. At some point, wealth takes on a life of it's own whenever r>g and this and what amounts to regressive taxation at the top of the pyramid, are the driving force behind income inequality.
* His explanation of the recent phenomenon of "super managers" who demand salaries in the tens of millions (the ones that piss everyone off), and how it was a result of the conservative revolution of the 1980s' is something that should be understood by all.
Though it's a tough slog for me, but I highly recommend this book be read be all. I recommend someone write a "Reader's Digest" version that could reference the original, since the average reader may struggle with it.
The book has 577 pages excluding references, index, etc. The first half was devoted to a historical analysis of income and wealth inequality, and some basic economic equations explaining the trends. During these sections the author did not express his conclusions or the points the he wanted to make in the book and so would be easy to give up on the book as being too dense and boring. It was only through public knowledge that I knew the author would prescribe a global tax on wealth to rein in growing inequality and so continue to read.
It wasn’t until the middle of the third chapter, page 300 or so, where the author got to his summaries and put the historical analysis into context. I would have preferred that he wrote a more condensed volume and put much of the historical data into footnotes or shortened them and interspersed into the summary analysis.
The author’s main point is that in the long run the return on capital will be 4 -5 percentage points greater than economic growth and so wealth will accumulate to those that have it to the detriment of everyone else. Wealth will become increasingly concentrated because of the role of inheritance and because large wealth gets a higher rate of return than smaller wealth. The only way to mitigate it is a global tax on wealth.
I do not necessarily disagree with the author’s conclusion but would have liked him to expand on some points. These are some.
Why does the return on capital exceed economic growth? He did not explain this very well.
What would happen to economic growth if the tax on unearned income was taxed at the same marginal rates as earned income, or even at higher rates?
What economic effects would there be if the wealthy were to liquidate assets to pay the wealth tax in currency?
The author seemed to simplify the process required to get a fix on total global wealth ownership and allocating the tax among the various nations. How would this work?
What is the harm of high wealth inequality and where would equilibrium be reached? Is there no merit to the idea that the high wealthy are the job creators?
More analysis of alternative ways to bring down income and wealth inequality, and exploration of the idea that less inequality might actually be good for the economy.