When a reviewer isn’t as quick to leap to conclusions as an author

Like other recent reviewers, Clive Crook of Bloomberg View notes serious problems with a new book that’s won lavish praise from the left: Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.

In addition to intellectual ambition and tireless excavation of the historical record, Piketty brings a zeal for accessibility: He writes in non-technical language, with almost no mathematical apparatus to confound the interested non-specialist.

All of which is grand. So what’s the problem?

Quite a few things, but this to start with: There’s a persistent tension between the limits of the data he presents and the grandiosity of the conclusions he draws. At times this borders on schizophrenia. In introducing each set of data, he’s all caution and modesty, as he should be, because measurement problems arise at every stage. Almost in the next paragraph, he states a conclusion that goes beyond what the data would support even if it were unimpeachable. …

… 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.

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