Capital in the Twenty First Century

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9780674430006: Capital in the Twenty First Century

What are the grand dynamics that drive the accumulation and distribution of capital? Questions about the long-term evolution of inequality, the concentration of wealth, and the prospects for economic growth lie at the heart of political economy. But satisfactory answers have been hard to find for lack of adequate data and clear guiding theories. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty analyzes a unique collection of data from twenty countries, ranging as far back as the eighteenth century, to uncover key economic and social patterns. His findings will transform debate and set the agenda for the next generation of thought about wealth and inequality.

Piketty shows that modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge have allowed us to avoid inequalities on the apocalyptic scale predicted by Karl Marx. But we have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality as much as we thought in the optimistic decades following World War II. The main driver of inequality?the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth?today threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values. But economic trends are not acts of God. Political action has curbed dangerous inequalities in the past, Piketty says, and may do so again.

A work of extraordinary ambition, originality, and rigor, Capital in the Twenty-First Century reorients our understanding of economic history and confronts us with sobering lessons for today.

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About the Author:

Thomas Piketty is Professor at the Paris School of Economics.

Review:

It seems safe to say that Capital in the Twenty-First Century, the magnum opus of the French economist Thomas Piketty, will be the most important economics book of the year?and maybe of the decade. Piketty, arguably the world’s leading expert on income and wealth inequality, does more than document the growing concentration of income in the hands of a small economic elite. He also makes a powerful case that we’re on the way back to ‘patrimonial capitalism,’ in which the commanding heights of the economy are dominated not just by wealth, but also by inherited wealth, in which birth matters more than effort and talent. (Paul Krugman New York Times 2014-03-23)

A sweeping account of rising inequality... Eventually, Piketty says, we could see the reemergence of a world familiar to nineteenth-century Europeans; he cites the novels of Austen and Balzac. In this ‘patrimonial society,’ a small group of wealthy rentiers lives lavishly on the fruits of its inherited wealth, and the rest struggle to keep up... The proper role of public intellectuals is to question accepted dogmas, conceive of new methods of analysis, and expand the terms of public debate. Capital in the Twenty-first Century does all these things... Piketty has written a book that nobody interested in a defining issue of our era can afford to ignore. (John Cassidy New Yorker 2014-03-31)

An extraordinary sweep of history backed by remarkably detailed data and analysis... Piketty’s economic analysis and historical proofs are breathtaking. (Robert B. Reich The Guardian 2014-04-06)

Piketty’s treatment of inequality is perfectly matched to its moment. Like [Paul] Kennedy a generation ago, Piketty has emerged as a rock star of the policy-intellectual world... But make no mistake, his work richly deserves all the attention it is receiving... Piketty, in collaboration with others, has spent more than a decade mining huge quantities of data spanning centuries and many countries to document, absolutely conclusively, that the share of income and wealth going to those at the very top?the top 1 percent, .1 percent, and .01 percent of the population?has risen sharply over the last generation, marking a return to a pattern that prevailed before World War I... Even if none of Piketty’s theories stands up, the establishment of this fact has transformed political discourse and is a Nobel Prize–worthy contribution. Piketty provides an elegant framework for making sense of a complex reality. His theorizing is bold and simple and hugely important if correct. In every area of thought, progress comes from simple abstract paradigms that guide later thinking, such as Darwin’s idea of evolution, Ricardo’s notion of comparative advantage, or Keynes’s conception of aggregate demand. Whether or not his idea ultimately proves out, Piketty makes a major contribution by putting forth a theory of natural economic evolution under capitalism... Piketty writes in the epic philosophical mode of Keynes, Marx, or Adam Smith... By focusing attention on what has happened to a fortunate few among us, and by opening up for debate issues around the long-run functioning of our market system, Capital in the Twenty-First Century has made a profoundly important contribution. (Lawrence H. Summers Democracy 2014-05-01)

It is easy to overlook the achievement of Thomas Piketty’s new bestseller, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, as a work of economic history. Debates about the book have largely focused on inequality. But on any given page, there is data about the total level of private capital and the percentage of income paid out to labor in England from the 1700s onward, something that would have been impossible for early researchers... Capital reflects decades of work in collecting national income data across centuries, countries, and class, done in partnership with academics across the globe. But beyond its remarkably rich and instructive history, the book’s deep and novel understanding of inequality in the economy has drawn well-deserved attention... [Piketty’s] engagement with the rest of the social sciences also distinguishes him from most economists... The book is filled with brilliant moments... The book is an attempt to ground the debate over inequality in strong empirical data, put the question of distribution back into economics, and open the debate not just to the entirety of the social sciences but to people themselves. (Mike Konczal Boston Review 2014-04-29)

What makes Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century such a triumph is that it seems to have been written specifically to demolish the great economic shibboleths of our time... Piketty’s magnum opus. (Thomas Frank Salon 2014-05-11)

[A] 700-page punch in the plutocracy’s pampered gut... It’s been half a century since a book of economic history broke out of its academic silo with such fireworks. (Giles Whittell The Times 2014-05-07)

Thomas Piketty of the Paris School of Economics has done the definitive comparative historical research on income inequality in his Capital in the Twenty-First Century. (Paul Starr New York Review of Books 2014-05-22)

Bracing... Piketty provides a fresh and sweeping analysis of the world’s economic history that puts into question many of our core beliefs about the organization of market economies. His most startling news is that the belief that inequality will eventually stabilize and subside on its own, a long-held tenet of free market capitalism, is wrong. Rather, the economic forces concentrating more and more wealth into the hands of the fortunate few are almost sure to prevail for a very long time. (Eduardo Porter New York Times 2014-03-11)

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a monumental book that will influence economic analysis (and perhaps policymaking) in the years to come. In the way it is written and the importance of the questions it asks, it is a book the classic authors of economics could have written if they lived today and had access to the vast empirical material Piketty and his colleagues collected... In a short review, it is impossible to do even partial justice to the wealth of information, data, analysis, and discussion contained in this book of almost 700 pages. Piketty has returned economics to the classical roots where it seeks to understand the ‘laws of motion’ of capitalism. He has re-emphasized the distinction between ‘unearned’ and ‘earned’ income that had been tucked away for so long under misleading terminologies of ‘human capital,’ ‘economic agents,’ and ‘factors of production.’ Labor and capital?those who have to work for a living and those who live from property?people in flesh?are squarely back in economics via this great book. (Branko Milanovic American Prospect 2014-03-01)

Monumental... [Piketty] documents a sharp increase in such inequality over the last 25 years, not only in the United States, but also in Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, China, India, Indonesia and South Africa, with people with the highest incomes far outstripping the rest of society. The book is impressive in its wealth of information. (Robert J. Shiller New York Times 2014-04-12)

Instantly influential... [Its] euphoric reception is richly merited... [Piketty’s] chief intellectual accomplishment is to show how the basic forces of capitalism tend inevitably toward an ever-greater accumulation of wealth at the tip of the pyramid... Over the past couple decades, we have started to realize that capitalism is no longer delivering for the vast majority of people in most Western democracies. The middle class is being hollowed out, even as fortunes continue to grow at the very top. Piketty has now delivered the most empirically grounded, intellectually coherent explanation of what is going on... His masterwork... That’s why the most successful societies of the 21st century will be the ones whose plutocrats read Piketty and help come up with the political answers to the economic forces he so powerfully describes. Piketty shows that the economics of the postwar era?when the West enjoyed strong, widely-shared growth?was a historical exception. For our Western democracies, it was also a political necessity. Capitalism is facing an existential challenge; smart plutocrats will be part of the solution. (Chrystia Freeland Politico 2014-04-01)

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is the most important economics book of the year, if not the decade... Capital in the 21st Century essentially takes the existing debate on income inequality and supercharges it. It does so by asserting that in the long run the economic inequality that matters won’t be the gap between people who earn high salaries and those who earn low ones, it will be the gap between people who inherit large sums of money and those who don’t. (Matthew Yglesias Vox 2014-04-08)

[A] magnificent, sweeping meditation on inequality... The big idea of Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that we haven’t just gone back to nineteenth-century levels of income inequality, we’re also on a path back to ‘patrimonial capitalism,’ in which the commanding heights of the economy are controlled not by talented individuals but by family dynasties... Piketty has written a truly superb book. It’s a work that melds grand historical sweep?when was the last time you heard an economist invoke Jane Austen and Balzac??with painstaking data analysis... A tour de force of economic modeling, an approach that integrates the analysis of economic growth with that of the distribution of income and wealth. This is a book that will change both the way we think about society and the way we do economics... Capital in the Twenty-First Century is, as I hope I’ve made clear, an awesome work. At a time when the concentration of wealth and income in the hands of a few has resurfaced as a central political issue, Piketty doesn’t just offer invaluable documentation of what is happening, with unmatched historical depth. He also offers what amounts to a unified field theory of inequality, one that integrates economic growth, the distribution of income between capital and labor, and the distribution of wealth and income among individuals into a single frame... Capital in the Twenty-First Century makes it clear that public policy can make an enormous difference, that even if the underlying economic conditions point toward extreme inequality, what Piketty calls ‘a drift toward oligarchy’ can be halted and even reversed if the body politic so chooses... His masterwork... Sometimes it seems as if a substantial part of our political class is actively working to restore Piketty’s patrimonial capitalism. And if you look at the sources of political donations, many of which come from wealthy families, this possibility is a lot less outlandish than it might seem... [A] masterly diagnosis of where we are and where we’re heading... Capital in the Twenty-First Century is an extremely important book on all fronts. Piketty has transformed our economic discourse; we’ll never talk about wealth and inequality the same way we used to. (Paul Krugman New York Review of Books 2014-05-08)

Groundbreaking...The usefulness of economics is determined by the quality of data at our disposal. Piketty’s new volume offers a fresh perspective and a wealth of newly compiled data that will go a long way in helping us understand how capitalism actually works. (Christopher Matthews Fortune.com 2014-02-26)

French economist Thomas Piketty has written an extraordinarily important book. Open-minded readers will surely find themselves unable to ignore the evidence and arguments he has brought to bear... In its scale and sweep it brings us back to the founders of political economy... The result is a work of vast historical scope, grounded in exhaustive fact-based research, and suffused with literary references. It is both normative and political. Piketty rejects theorizing ungrounded in data... The book is built on a 15-year program of empirical research conducted in conjunction with other scholars. Its result is a transformation of what we know about the evolution of income and wealth (which he calls capital) over the past three centuries in leading high-income countries. That makes it an enthralling economic, social and political history. (Martin Wolf Financial Times 2014-04-15)

About as close to a blockbuster as there is in the world of economic literature?easily the most discussed book of its genre in years. The central premise is provocative and profoundly bleak... Piketty challenges one of the underpinnings of modern democracies?namely, that growth and productivity make each generation better off than the previous one. (Barrie McKenna Globe and Mail 2014-04-06)

Piketty has unearthed the history of income distribution for at least the past hundred years in every major capitalist nation. It makes for fascinating, grim and alarming reading... Piketty’s book provides a valuable explanatory context for America’s economic woes... Piketty gives us the most important work of economics since John Maynard Keynes’s General Theory. (Harold Meyerson Washington Post 2014-04-02)

Stands a fair chance of becoming the most influential work of economics yet published in our young century. It is the most important study of inequality in over fifty years... Although the contours of Piketty’s history confirm what economic historians already know, his anatomizing of the 1 percent’s fortunes over centuries is a revelation. When joined to his magisterial command of the source material and his gift for synthesis, they disclose a history not of steady economic expansion but of stops and starts, with room for sudden departures from seemingly unbreakable patterns. In turn, he links this history to economic theory, demonstrating that there is no inherent drive in markets toward income equality. It’s quite the opposite, in fact. (Timothy Shenk The Nation 2014-04-14)

Magnificent...Even though it is a work more concerned with the past 200 years, it’s no coincidence that the full title of Piketty’s book is Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Its ambition is to shape debates about the next two centuries, not the past two. And in that it may succeed. (Christopher Croke The Australian 2014-04-19)

[Piketty] is just about to emerge as the most important thinker of his generation...He makes his case in a clear and rigorous manner that debunks everything that capitalists believe about the ethical status of making money...He demonstrates that there is no reason to believe that capitalism can ever solve the problem of inequality, which he insists is getting worse rather than better. From the banking crisis of 2008 to the Occupy movement of 2011, this much has been intuited by ordinary people. The singular significance of his book is that it proves ‘scientifically’ that this intuition is correct. This is why his book has crossed over into the mainstream--it says what many people have already been thinking...Unlike many economists ...

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