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Capital in the Twenty First Century Hardcover – 2014
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"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
Is the world really falling apart? Is the ideal of progress obsolete? Cognitive scientist and public intellectual Steven Pinker urges us to step back from the gory headlines and prophecies of doom, and instead, follow the data: In seventy-five jaw-dropping graphs, Pinker shows that life, health, prosperity, safety, peace, knowledge, and happiness are on the rise. Learn more
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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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Piketty's insistence on linking economics to other disciplines, in particular literature and history, is one of the nobler aspects of this magisterial book. Evidence for the stagnation and extreme inequality of society just two hundred years ago is provided by Piketty's two favorite authors, Honore de Balzac and Jane Austen, whose protagonists naturally assumed that a "decent" life was only possible on at least 50 times the average income. Piketty notes (unfortunately in passing) that the increase in purchasing power is the reason it is possible for someone with an average or slightly above average income to 1) invest in things like his book, and 2) take the time to appreciate it. Rising levels of education and technology are the primary reason for this increase in purchasing power, but both education and technology, he implies, may be nearing their limits, or at least cannot be expected to increase as rapidly as they did in the twentieth century. For certain, the human population (especially in developed countries) will not increase as fast, which will tend to increase the importance of inherited wealth.
Piketty spends roughly the first four-fifths of the book providing data and the theoretical background of the problem, and the last fifth proposing solutions. At the national level, he believes a more sharply progressive income tax is in order, but would also like to see a global, or at least pan-European, tax authority to impose a progressive tax on wealth itself, a tax that for the largest fortunes would be between 2 and 10 percent. As long as countries are competing against each other to provide lower taxes and therefore higher post-tax rates of return on capital, the common people of all countries will lose. The alternative of reducing the rate of return on capital through war would appear not to be viable in the nuclear era and the inflation associated with war at any rate does not reduce the rate of return on capital unless it dwells in unproductive asset categories like bank accounts.
Some of the projections in this book (such as $200 a barrel oil by 2020) are wildly off the mark, but most of them appear to be on it. The alternative of not acting to restrain the economic forces building up higher levels of inequality could lead to the top one thousandth of the world's population owning 60 percent of all assets by the middle of this century. Piketty doubts that a machinery of repression sufficiently robust to prevent revolution in such circumstances exists anywhere but this level of inequality could in the end be just the challenge the NSA is looking for. A revolution in some developed countries but not others would set up another world war, which would make the question of income and wealth distribution among humans academic, as they could no longer live on Earth. Piketty therefore sees the peaceful reinforcement (through progressive taxation of both income and wealth) of the "social (welfare) state" as the only solution.
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.
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