When I read Capital in the 21st Century by Thomas Piketty, inequality was on everyone’s minds. It was on the tail end of the financial crisis of 2008, and the intervening five years provided little growth or return to pre-recession normality. It seemed as though the ensuing vacuum left by the recession had been gobbled up by the wealthy.
With the loss of the middle class in the United States, and the ballooning of wealth held by the top 1%, that seems to be the case.
Piketty took us through most of modern economies since the revolutions of the 1700s, noting the trends of technology, globalization, wealth accumulation and inheritance, and so on. Most of the conclusions pushed towards one solution, which was a progressive tax on capital. This would be difficult to police and enforce from simply a national perspective, as we know that certain countries like Ireland, or some islands in the Caribbean are happy to serve as places where wealth can be housed by companies (see Paradise Papers). Instead, an international entity would have to intervene.
What Piketty had done that, until that time, few economists had, was in hedging his own answers as provisional. In the introduction, he knew that many of the developments in data collection and digitization were ongoing, and were prone to error.
Regardless, Piketty had also taken huge amounts of data seriously. The beauty of living in the modern age of the internet is in this new digitization of information. Various archives of economic information, particularly tax records of developed nations, held unprecedented levels of data as accurately as could be measured (because nation budgets depended on it), and therefore also held great insight into the effect of policies from property owning economies arising after the pre-modern era. This wealth of information was a new trend in the 21st century as the internet reached maturity.
As a quick aside, while this wealth of internet information is great, it has produced complications for higher education, since knowledge so digitized has democratized education for the masses. It has left up for grabs as to what we should now teach for our future citizens. Yuval Noah Harrari dedicates a chapter in his latest book 21 Lessons of the 21st Century to the problem of education. Particularly in the United States, college tuition has not been made affordable in direct proportion to the democratization of knowledge, but rather more expensive, which implies a certain insecurity about the state of the diploma as a way of proving knowledge and expertise.
When I read that book back in 2013, I thought Piketty had nailed it. Although I had little in the realm of an economic background, I was amazed at the readability of his work, the wealth of information, and his ability to understand his results as parochial. This is coming from a time when I had also read History of Madness by Michel Foucault, in the same year in fact. Foucault’s book was decidedly more confident in its results, and therefore much more arrogant. While I believed in the power of both at the time (and often used the books to make myself look good), in hindsight I wish I would have appreciated Piketty’s well-rounded approach to knowledge formation.
Michel Foucault’s structural examination is not so different than Piketty’s, ironically. I have just recently finished the foundational sections on ternary societies in Capital and Ideology. Like Foucault, Piketty is less willing to believe in the conventional idea of progress, but much more suggestive of the idea that each time period came with it certain positives and negatives. For example, ternary societies provided a institutional charge of providing societal norms as well, and with the ensuing hole after the French Revolution, while property rights had been distributed, and while the monarchy had checks and balances placed on him, the issue of the role of the clergy and nobility had little answers directly after.
It may have been violent stability among the clergy, but it was stability nonetheless.
The difference between Foucault and Piketty is in the way that they approach statistical knowledge. Foucault’s work, while rigorous, is much more willing to pick sections out from a context, in order to reinterpret them to fit his definitions of “power.” Piketty uses not just statistical data from inheritances, tax data, and demographic data, he is also willing to use fictional accounts from Balzac and Austen as a way to make his thesis much more robust.
Here lies the counterargument: at the end of the day, everything we do is simply cherry-picking. Piketty may provide the illusion of a more dependable methodology, but his attempts to time travel hundreds of years is just as broad an attempt as Foucault. One man’s Madness is another’s Ideology, no?
And each one provides a broad enough account that the books are highly entertaining from a laymen like myself. To go too in-depth on a time period or idea would be to enter academia, and the product would hardly be read. To go too broad would be history, not critique.
So you can see that Piketty really has his hands tied here. We need now more than ever new answers for wealth. As Piketty remarks in the early accounts of the movement towards ownership societies, he was stunned to see that the promises for egalitarianism fought so violently during the French Revolution could be undone by as little as 100 years. The inequality in the years before World War I was as high as they had ever been recorded, which gives us a warning for now. Inequality in wealth and income led to such unstable governments and ideologies, and the resultant violence that occurs after is an attempt to balance the books.
So Piketty most likely chooses to broaden his account in order to continue a conversation about inequality, and get the word out to the ordinary people like me who read such works…before it is too late.
As such, I am much more empathetic of authors attempting to cut a larger swath than they have any right to. And why not! I am so honored to be living in a time period where I can not only purchase this book, but I can also check out an audiobook version from my local library. I can digitally inhale this book while in the presence of a pandemic, which would make my trip to an indoor space and touching all the physical books dangerous.
That said, don’t read the audiobook version.
The pace is all wrong, because all the footnotes are read alongside the text, and all the graphs and charts are explained in verbal form, so one must go to the PDF accompanying the audiobook. The irony is that you should probably have some device in front of you while listening to the audiobook, which sort of defeats the purpose.
If you are willing to brave it, I think Capital and Ideology in its bulk is a great trip so far. It has the combination of confidence and humility. It’s able to make wonderful statements that stick with you, “Capital is never asleep,” while also providing such excavations of history that remind you of the brutality and strangeness of the past. Yes, it’s long, but that is what summers are for.
I’ll have more to say as I make my way through the book. I think it takes a risk in being broad and sweeping, but for the novice like me, or anyone wishing to stick their toes in the water of history or economics, paradoxically this huge work is the best place to start.