Reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century Apr 29 2014
Last week, I noted on Twitter that a 700-page academic book by a French economist topped the best sellers list on Amazon. Well, Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century is still #1 on Amazon, even though the hardcover is currently out of stock. If you're curious about this anti-Kardashian moment in our culture but don't want to dive in fully, you can read the book's introduction on Harvard University Press's site.
The distribution of wealth is one of today's most widely discussed and controversial issues. But what do we really know about its evolution over the long term? Do the dynamics of private capital accumulation inevitably lead to the concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands, as Karl Marx believed in the nineteenth century? Or do the balancing forces of growth, competition, and technological progress lead in later stages of development to reduced inequality and greater harmony among the classes, as Simon Kuznets thought in the twentieth century? What do we really know about how wealth and income have evolved since the eighteenth century, and what lessons can we derive from that knowledge for the century now under way?
It is massive (696 pages) and massively ambitious (the title is a very conscious echo of Karl Marx's Das Kapital). It came out in France last year to great acclaim, which meant that those in the English-speaking world who pay attention to such matters knew that something big was coming. Over the past few weeks it has become one of those things that everybody's talking about just because everybody's talking about it. That, and it really is important.
Is it worth reading? Martin Wolf of the Financial Times called it "enthralling"; a couple people I know have described it as "a slog." I'd liken it to a big river -- muddy and occasionally meandering, but with a powerful current that keeps pulling you along, plus lots of interesting sights along the way. There are endless numbers and (ugly but generally understandable) charts, but also frequent references to the novels of Balzac and Austen, and even a brief analysis of Disney's The Aristocats. Regular people can read this thing; it's just a matter of the time commitment. You should definitely buy it, if your place on the income distribution allows it. It looks good on a bookshelf, plus every copy sold makes Piketty wealthier, allowing us to discover whether this alters his views about inequality.