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Capital in the Twenty First Century Hardcover – 2014
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What are the grand dynamics that drive the accumulation and distribution of capital? Questions about the long-term evolution of inequality, the concentration of wealth, and the prospects for economic growth lie at the heart of political economy. But satisfactory answers have been hard to find for lack of adequate data and clear guiding theories. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty analyzes a unique collection of data from twenty countries, ranging as far back as the eighteenth century, to uncover key economic and social patterns. His findings will transform debate and set the agenda for the next generation of thought about wealth and inequality.
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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.
This historical math occupies most of the bulk of the book, but is actually a footnote to its main inquiries. First, is this concentration of capital (his term is wealth inequality) a bad thing? Second, if so, what should be done about it? Here , we enter the world of moral and political philosophy and things get tricky fast.
Piketty's moral perspective understandably is informed by modern Western norms associated with liberal democracy. Unchecked, the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth that unrestrained capitalism is producing is a threat to modern democracy and its ideals.In addition, public capital necessary for the improvement of the lives of the general polity is in ever shortening supply as democracies go deeper and deeper into debt. Piketty thinks the only way out of this cycle is to impose a universal and annual tax on capital itself such that the fiscal soundness of western governments and their public capital funds can be restored.
However, much of the world's capital is sourced from societies that have no interest in promoting the values of western liberal democracies and often have the opposite objective. Whatever one might think of Piketty's redistribution philosophy, his prescription of a universal annual tax on capital is of no practical use. At best, it is a good idea whose time will never come. Nevertheless, the overwhelming evidence that Piketty has amassed shows that some consensus of what economic justice means must be developed and soon.
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