Clive Crook takes a jaundiced look at what some enthusiastic fans are calling the “most important book ever”:
As I worked through the book, I became preoccupied with another gap: the one between the findings Piketty explains cautiously and statements such as, “The consequences for the long-term dynamics of the wealth distribution are potentially terrifying.”
Piketty’s terror at rising inequality is an important data point for the reader. It has perhaps influenced his judgment and his tendentious reading of his own evidence. It could also explain why the book has been greeted with such erotic intensity: It meets the need for a work of deep research and scholarly respectability which affirms that inequality, as Cassidy remarked, is “a defining issue of our era.”
Maybe. But nobody should think it’s the only issue. For Piketty, it is. Aside from its other flaws, Capital in the 21st Century invites readers to believe not just that inequality is important but that nothing else matters.
This book wants you to worry about low growth in the coming decades not because that would mean a slower rise in living standards, but because it might cause the ratio of capital to output to rise, which would worsen inequality. In the frame of this book, the two world wars struck blows for social justice because they interrupted the aggrandizement of capital. We can’t expect to be so lucky again. The capitalist who squanders his fortune is a better friend to labor than the one who lives modestly and reinvests his surplus. In Piketty’s view of the world, where inequality is all that counts, capital accumulation is almost a sin in its own right.
Over the course of history, capital accumulation has yielded growth in living standards that people in earlier centuries could not have imagined, let alone predicted — and it wasn’t just the owners of capital who benefited. Future capital accumulation may or may not increase the capital share of output; it may or may not widen inequality. If it does, that’s a bad thing, and governments should act. But even if it does, it won’t matter as much as whether and how quickly wages and living standards rise.