As we travel the country taking our campaign forward we often see a great book, one quarter read, abandoned on the coffee table. Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (Trans. Arthur Goldhammer).
A master work of economic analysis, which retuns Marxian thought to the high table of discourse, we would argue, but which the average reader might fail to pursue to the end, due to its length and complexity.
Piketty’s framing propositions were developed, it can be argued, in an an earlier paper authored with Emmanuel Saez, in 1995. The Economics of Inequality is a much shorter work than his later magnum opus. (National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 8467. U.S., September 2001)
Recently published as a ‘new’ book by Harvard University Press, The Economics of Inequality (Amazon.co.uk) at 160 pages or so, is a much more digestible read than Capital. It has some newly updated content and tables, although the data used to deliver argument in this new work stops in the mid-nineties of course. (Harvard University Press; July 2015)
In a recent New York Times book review, Inequality as it was viewed in the 90’s, the review article argues that Piketty has achieved something of a volte-face on the 1%, and their limiting effect on the economic distribution of wealth and resources.
…the most important contribution of “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” was precisely its suggestion that since then a rising share of after-tax profits in national income has indeed set us on the path back to a rentier society, in which the rich live off inherited wealth’.
The article expounds further that Piketty’s Capital ‘…made a disturbing case that we are well on the way to re-establishing “patrimonial capitalism,” a society dominated by oligarchs who inherit their wealth’.
The weakness in this earlier paper, The Economics of Inequality, the reviewer argues, is that Piketty declares, in his original research with Saez, that ”…progressive taxation seems to have prevented a return to 19th-century rentier society”. We disagree. This shorter paper is still a key piece of analysis on an emerging understanding of inequality even with an anti-rentier argument, with all its concomitant impact on economics, education, property and law.
A better critique, we would argue, is that Piketty has spent another two decades researching and thinking about his core propositions and has tempered his analytical ‘oratory’ accordingly with the publication of Capital.
Do open or download Piketty’s original paper from this page and see if you agree. The paper has some interesting historical analysis on the rise of I.T. professions and their effect on wages. (Even though contemporary analysis would now hold that this view is a ‘paperless office’ proposition, which technology also failed to achieve -Ed ).
Useful links: An on-line version of the NYT Book Review here.