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Capital in the 21st Century: A Review

Thomas Piketty has written a truly incredible work, a masterpiece, a tour de force that melds historical data, policy analysis, and meditations on the biggest economic problems of our time. The French economist’s new tome, Capital in the 21st Century, will change the entire way we think about economics – or so I think, from what I have gathered from the various reviews I have read that are not stuck behind paywalls. (If anyone has a subscription to Foreign Affairs, can you email me the review that’s in there?)

Let me quickly apologize here and offer a confession: I have not yet had a chance to read the book myself. It’s sold out on Amazon and at all local bookstores, and my requests to the publisher have so far gone unheeded. Even if I did receive a copy, though, I already have a large queue of items I intend to read, and it probably wouldn’t be fair for me to put this one above the other ones that are waiting patiently in line. I am 140 pages into Infinite Jest, and I don’t want to start another book until I finish it.

It seems like everyone else has had their say on the matter, however, so I just can’t wait to weigh in on the book. The news cycle, like the changing relationship between capital and labor, moves fast – and I won’t be left behind as the headlines churn endlessly forward like the gears of the industrial workplace.

Even from just the front cover, you can tell that this book is important. (Although I have not read the book, I have indeed seen the front of it.) The title evokes Marx’s ruminations on the divide between workers and owners that spawned the very basis of how we think about economics in the modern day. (Although I have not read Marx’s Das Kapital, I have been notified that the title is a nod to the original.) The red outline on the front cover also carries deep symbolism: it evokes the years of bloodshed and antipathy that have defined the relationship between labor and capital since the first factories sprung up amid the lush fields of 18th century England.

There is a touch of punnery on the cover, which should not go unheeded. The word “Capital” appears in capital letters. A deft touch to match the work of a deft economist, who, through charts, data, and an austere but striking book cover has created a sensation unlike anything to hit American shores since a mop-top crew called The Beatles landed in New York in 1964. (I was not alive during at the time, but I’ve seen pictures.)

The back cover is less noteworthy.

I have also spent a fair amount of time reading reviews of the book; after all, three to five pages of double spaced text seemed far less intimidating than an entire tome. Many critics have aggregated previous criticisms, which made my life even easier. Overall, I have read at least three paragraphs of reviews but feel like I understand at least twice that amount.

Some critics have claimed that Piketty’s work is repetitive. But what I found was that many of the reviews themselves were repetitive, displaying very similar summaries of what was in Piketty’s text. I found this grating, since I had to read so many of them in lieu of the book.

Another review I skimmed claimed that Piketty confuses the concepts of capital and wealth, which, in the opinion of Piketty’s critics, should be distinct concepts. I cannot comment on whether Piketty in fact mixes these two comments together, because of the fact that I have not read the book. But I can say that wealth and capital, while a similar number of letters, are not the same word. (However, Piketty wrote the original in French; since I do not speak French, I do not know the terms for wealth and capital in his native tongue. It is possible that they are the same number of letters and/or the same word.)

Overall, I thought most of the reviews captured the spirit of what I believe to be Piketty’s worldview. However, I cannot say for certain what that worldview is, only what other people have told me what other people have told me what other people have told me what that worldview is. It is, in a way, like a game of telephone – not just any game of telephone, but a game of telephone that dials straight to the soul of economics.

In sum, Capital in the 21st Century has fundamentally upended the economics profession, if not our world. It has changed my life forever. Someday, I hope to read it. Once I finish Infinite Jest, of course.