A battle of ideas

Thomas Piketty’s new book
by
July 2022, no. 444
Buy this book

A Brief History of Equality by Thomas Piketty, translated by Steven Rendall

Harvard University Press $47.95 hb, 282 pp

A battle of ideas

Thomas Piketty’s new book
by
July 2022, no. 444

Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), by French economist Thomas Piketty, is wholly unlike Sally Rooney’s Normal People (2018) bar one telling, if esoteric, similarity. For a period of time during the 2010s, being seen with the book mattered more than having read it. Ed Miliband, former leader of the British Labour Party, boasted that he had not progressed beyond the first chapter. WIRED reported that the five most highlighted passages on Kindle were in the book’s first twenty-six pages. But finishing either text was immaterial (though, on this front, one suspects that Rooney fared better). Lavishly praised on both sides of the Atlantic, the bestsellers were transformed into cultural totems, sufficient as references in conversation, signifiers of a particular white, liberal, progressive sensibility (or anxiety). ‘It looks good on a bookshelf,’ said the Harvard Business Review of Piketty’s 696-page tome, ‘plus every copy sold makes Piketty wealthier, allowing us to discover whether this alters his views about inequality.’

Piketty has never claimed an issue with inequality per se. The problem arises, he says, when inequality ‘becomes too extreme’, reducing mobility, and is thus ‘useless for growth’. Capital, backed by troves of long-run historical data, chronicled a return to extreme levels of inequality across select Western nations surpassing the rich–poor gap of America’s Gilded Age. Piketty’s assessment of the root cause was distilled to a simple equation, r > g. R, the rate of return on capital (wealth), grows faster than g, the overall economic growth. Income from capital outstrips income from labour. Money reproduces itself faster than humans earn it. Capital served as a warning against this ‘central contradiction of capitalism’, which, unless checked, would plunge us (presumably the West) into an ‘endless inegalitarian spiral’.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied reviews 'A Brief History of Equality' by Thomas Piketty, translated by Steven Rendall

A Brief History of Equality

by Thomas Piketty, translated by Steven Rendall

Harvard University Press $47.95 hb, 282 pp

Buy this book

From the New Issue

Comment (1)

  • This is a strange review in that the reviewer pays but scant attention to Piketty's book. Rather, she uses it as a springboard to dive into a pool of her own concerns about colonialism, race, and gender . Little is mentioned of Piketty's analysis beyond r>g .There is no serious discussion, yet alone evaluation, of his suggestions as to how economic, fiscal, and social reforms might rein in inequality or (more ambitiously) reduce it, worldwide. Piketty has blindspots, but he deserves a more substantive critique than this. To dismiss Piketty so superficially, with such palpable distaste, is to throw out the baby with the bath water.
    Posted by tim lenehan
    04 July 2022

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