English translation: Harvard University Press, April 2014 - read introduction via link
Original title 'Le Capital au XXIe siècle', August 2013
'Piketty ends Capital in the Twenty-First Century with a call to arms—a call, in particular, for wealth taxes, global if possible, to restrain the growing power of inherited wealth. It’s easy to be cynical about the prospects for anything of the kind. But surely Piketty’s masterly diagnosis of where we are and where we’re heading makes such a thing considerably more likely. So Capital in the Twenty-First Century is an extremely important book on all fronts. Piketty has transformed our economic discourse; we’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to.'Intellectual and political debate about the distribution of wealth has long been based on an abundance of prejudice and a paucity of fact.'
Indeed, the distribution of wealth is too important an issue to be left to economists, sociologists, historians, and philosophers. It is of interest to everyone, and that is a good thing. The concrete, physical reality of inequality is visible to the naked eye and naturally inspires sharp but contradictory political judgments. Peasant and noble, worker and factory owner, waiter and banker: each has his or her own unique vantage point and sees important aspects of how other people live and what relations of power and domination exist between social groups, and these observations shape each person’s judgment of what is and is not just. Hence there will always be a fundamentally subjective and psychological dimension to inequality, which inevitably gives rise to political conflict that no purportedly scientific analysis can alleviate. Democracy will never be supplanted by a republic of experts—and that is a very good thing.'
'It therefore came as a revelation when Piketty and his colleagues showed that incomes of the now famous “one percent,” and of even narrower groups, are actually the big story in rising inequality. And this discovery came with a second revelation: talk of a second Gilded Age, which might have seemed like hyperbole, was nothing of the kind. In America in particular the share of national income going to the top one percent has followed a great U-shaped arc. Before World War I the one percent received around a fifth of total income in both Britain and the United States. By 1950 that share had been cut by more than half. But since 1980 the one percent has seen its income share surge again—and in the United States it’s back to what it was a century ago.
Still, today’s economic elite is very different from that of the nineteenth century, isn’t it? Back then, great wealth tended to be inherited; aren’t today’s economic elite people who earned their position? Well, Piketty tells us that this isn’t as true as you think, and that in any case this state of affairs may prove no more durable than the middle-class society that flourished for a generation after World War II. The big idea of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that we haven’t just gone back to nineteenth-century levels of income inequality, we’re also on a path back to “patrimonial capitalism,” in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties.'
'If Piketty is right, there are big political implications, and the beauty of the book is that he never refrains from drawing them. Piketty's call for a "confiscatory" global tax on inherited wealth makes other supposedly radical economists look positively house-trained. He calls for an 80% tax on incomes above $500,000 a year in the US, assuring his readers there would be neither a flight of top execs to Canada nor a slowdown in growth, since the outcome would simply be to suppress such incomes.
While bestriding the macro-economic agenda, the book's sideswipes against trendy micro-economics, often in footnotes, read like a sustained in-joke against the generation for whom all problems seemed solved, except the street price of cocaine in Georgetown.
The book has, in addition, mesmerised the economics profession because of the way Piketty creates his own world, theoretically. He defines the two basic categories, wealth and income, broadly and confidently but in a way nobody had really bothered to before. The book's terms and explanations are utterly simple; with a myriad of historical data, Piketty reduces the story of capitalism to a clear narrative arc. To challenge his argument you have to reject the premises of it, not the working out...
...If he is right, the implications for capitalism are utterly negative: we face a low-growth capitalism, combined with high levels of inequality and low levels of social mobility. If you are not born into wealth to start with, life, for even for the best educated, will be like Jane Eyre without Mr Rochester...
...Piketty has, more accurately, placed an unexploded bomb within mainstream, classical economics. If the underlying cause of the 2008 bank catastrophe was falling incomes alongside rising financial wealth then, says Piketty, these were no accident: no product of lax regulation or simple greed. The crisis is the product of the system working normally, and we should expect more.'
A fine tonic for a wet springtime day is the joy of watching the dwarf geckos giddying about whilst foaming at the mouth about 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century': for example, and, or, even, this tutti frutti.
Video of Cooper Union debate with Thomas Piketty, Paul Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz and Steven Durlauf. 16 April 2014
Thomas Piketty + 14:
Our Manifesto for Europe.
European Union institutions no longer work. A radical financial and democratic settlement is needed.
'The European Union is experiencing an existential crisis, as the European elections will soon brutally remind us. This mainly involves the eurozone countries, which are mired in a climate of distrust and a debt crisis that is very far from over: unemployment persists and deflation threatens. Nothing could be further from the truth than imagining that the worst is behind us...
...It is time to recognise that Europe's existing institutions are dysfunctional and need to be rebuilt. The central issue is simple: democracy and the public authorities must be enabled to regain control of and effectively regulate 21st century globalised financial capitalism. A single currency with 18 different public debts on which the markets can freely speculate, and 18 tax and benefit systems in unbridled rivalry with each other, is not working, and will never work. The eurozone countries have chosen to share their monetary sovereignty, and hence to give up the weapon of unilateral devaluation, but without developing new common economic, fiscal and budgetary instruments. This no man's land is the worst of all worlds...
...Debate over Europe's political institutions has all too often been pushed aside as technical or secondary. But refusing to discuss the organisation of democracy ultimately means accepting the omnipotence of market forces and competition and abandoning all hope that democracy can regain control of 21st century capitalism.'