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.
Update, 23 April: David Harsanyi says the book is amazing — not for its content, but for the way it is being siezed upon by big government fans, inequality monomaniacs, and confiscatory taxation buffs.
As I write this, Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century is #1 on Amazon. It’s been deemed an “important book” by a bunch of smart people. Why not? It validates many of the preconceived notions progressives have about capitalism: Inequality is growing. Mobility is shrinking. Meritocracy is dead. We all live in a sprawling zero-sum fallacy. And so on.
The book, as you probably know, has also sparked nonstop conversation in political and media circles. Though it’s best to let economists debunk Piketty’s methodology and data, it is worth pointing out that liberal pundits and writers have not only enthusiastically and unconditionally embraced a book on economics, or even a run-of-the-mill leftist polemic, but a hard-left manifesto.
Now, I realize we’re all supposed to accept the fact that conservatives are alone in embracing fringe economic ideas. But how does a book that evokes Marx and talks about tweaking the Soviet experiment find so much love from people who consider themselves rational, evidence-driven moderates?
The thing is, some of us still believe that capitalism fosters meritocratic values. Or I should say, we believe that free markets are the best game in town. Not that long ago, this was a nearly universal position. A lot of people used to believe that even the disruptions of capitalism — the “caprices of technology” as Piketty dismisses them — that rattle “social order” also happen to generate mobility, dynamism and growth. Today this probably qualifies as Ayn Rand-style extremism.
Then again, I haven’t read Ayn Rand since college (or maybe it was high school) but if I still believed she was the most prophetic writer of her generation, I might feel compelled to defend her ideas. But Piketty’s utopian notions and authoritarian inclinations — ones that I’m pretty sure most Americans (and probably most Democrats) would still find off-putting — do not seem to rattle the left-wing press one bit. While Piketty’s economic data might be worth studying and debating, his political ideas are unworthy of discussion.
Despite the extremism of his positions, Piketty has already become a folk hero to inequality alarmists everywhere. So if his popularity tells us anything, it’s that many liberal “thought leaders” have taken a far more radical position on economic policy than we’re giving them credit for.
Update the second, 28 April: Megan McArdle hasn’t read the book yet, but she addresses one of the ideas most positive reviewers have praised in their glowing reviews.
What I want to quarrel with is not the book’s methods or conclusion, but with the general idea that income inequality is the most important thing going on in the world. In terms of how it matters to lived human experience, I doubt it even makes the top 20.
I am not disputing that something unhappy is going on in the global economy. Nor am I disputing that this unhappiness is unequally distributed. But the proportion of this unhappiness due to income inequality is actually relatively small — and moreover, concentrated not among the poor, but among the upper middle class, which competes with the very rich for status goods and elite opportunities.
If we look at the middle three quintiles, very few of their worst problems come from the gap between their income and the incomes of some random Facebook squillionaire. Here, in a nutshell, are their biggest problems:
- Finding a job that allows them to work at least 40 hours a week on a relatively consistent schedule and will not abruptly terminate them.
- Finding a partner who is also able to work at least 40 hours a week on a relatively consistent schedule and will not be abruptly terminated.
- Maintaining a satisfying relationship with that partner over a period of years.
- Having children who are able to enjoy more stuff and economic security than they have.
- Finding a community of friends, family and activities that will provide enjoyment and support over the decades.
This is where things are breaking down — where things have actually, and fairly indisputably, gotten worse since the 1970s. Crime is better, lifespans are longer, our material conditions have greatly improved — yes, even among the lower middle class. What hasn’t improved is the sense that you can plan for a decent life filled with love and joy and friendship, then send your children on to a life at least as secure and well-provisioned as your own.
How much of that could be fixed by Piketty’s proposal to tax away some huge fraction of national income from rich people? Some, to be sure. But writing checks to the bottom 70 percent would not fix the social breakdown among those without a college diploma — the pattern of marital breakdown showed up early, and strong, among welfare mothers.