book review: capital in the twenty-first century

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was a big book a couple of years ago. It’s still large (mwah waaah) but it’s a not-inaccessible examination of some of the economic history we find ourselves embroiled in today.

Piketty uses a lot of historical data to look at how economic income patterns have changed, especially in France, since they had records going back to the 18th century, but more generally in the West. Why did Marx’s prediction that runaway capitalism would lead inevitably to its own collapse not work out like that? Why are we coming into a new age of inequality where the rich own more and more and the poor have less and less, and is this unprecedented?

I quite enjoyed learning about this stuff. I’m no economic specialist and wouldn’t be able to quibble with the data Piketty chose and didn’t choose, but I found it very interesting that the shocks of WWI, the great depression and WWII had on income and ownership were much bigger than I’d thought. For people growing up after the 1940s we have a perspective that equality is possible and the best thing to invest in is an education, but that’s skewed by specific postwar policies that have been undone by specific 1980s policies and greater deregulation. Inequality will be growing and if we don’t want that to continue we have to make changes to the capitalist system. Piketty never really goes so far as to say we should get a new system instead of capitalism, which is probably my biggest beef with the book.

It was written in an accessible enough style and Piketty re-explained concepts he was relying on at the beginnings of chapters so even a nonspecialist could follow along. I do think David Graeber’s Debt was more interesting in both writing style and content, as far as big modern books on economic principles go.

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