Capital in the Twenty-First Century
|Original title||Le Capital au XXIe siècle|
|Country||France, United States|
|Subject||Capitalism, Economic history, Economic inequality|
|Publisher||Éditions du Seuil,
Harvard University Press
Published in English
|Media type||Print (Hardback)|
Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a book by French economist Thomas Piketty. It focuses on wealth and income inequality in Europe and the US since the 18th century. It was initially published in French in 2013, with an English translation released in April 2014. The central thesis is that when the rate of return on capital (r) is greater than the rate of economic growth (g) over the long term, the result is concentration of wealth, and this unequal distribution of wealth causes social and economic instability. Piketty proposes a global system of progressive wealth taxes to help reduce inequality and avoid the vast majority of wealth coming under the control of a tiny minority.
The French version of the book has sold over 50,000 copies while the English version as of 24 April 2014 has sold approximately 80,000 printed copies and over 13,000 digital copies; Harvard University Press expects to sell an additional 200,000 copies. The book reached number one on The New York Times bestselling hardcover nonfiction list in the list dated May 18, 2014.
Publication and initial reception
When initially issued in French in August 2013, it was characterized by Laurent Mauduit as a “a political and theoretical bulldozer.”  As news spread of its thesis in the English-speaking world, it was hailed by The Economist as ‘authoritative’. Paul Krugman has called it a landmark while former senior World Bank economist Branko Milanović considers it “one of the watershed books in economic thinking.’  In response to widespread curiosity abroad aroused by reviews of the original French edition published by Seuil in September 2013, it was translated rapidly into English and its publication date was pushed forward to March 2014 by Bellknap . It proved an overnight sensation,and ousted Michael Lewis’s financial exposé, Flash Boys: Cracking the Money Code, from the top of the US best-seller list,  Within a year of its publication, Stephanie Kelton spoke of a 'Piketty phenomenon', and in Germany three books had been published specifically dealing with Piketty's critique.
The central thesis of the book is that inequality is not an accident, but rather a feature of capitalism, and can only be reversed through state interventionism. The book thus argues that unless capitalism is reformed, the very democratic order will be threatened.
Piketty bases his argument on a formula that relates the rate of return on capital (r) to the rate of economic growth (g), where r includes profits, dividends, interest, rents and other income from capital; and g is measured in income or output. He argues that when the rate of growth is low then wealth tends to accumulate more quickly from r than from labor, and tends to accumulate more among the top decile and centile, increasing inequality. Thus the fundamental force for divergence and greater wealth inequality can be summed up in the inequality r > g. He analyzes inheritance from the perspective of the same formula.
The book argues that there was a trend towards higher inequality which was reversed between 1930 and 1975 due to some rather unique circumstances: the two World Wars, the Great Depression and a debt-fueled recession destroyed much wealth, particularly that owned by the elite. These events prompted governments to undertake steps towards redistributing income, especially in the post-World War II period. The fast economic growth of that time reduced the importance of inherited wealth.
The book argues that the world today is returning towards "patrimonial capitalism", in which much of the economy is dominated by inherited wealth: Their power is increasing, creating an oligarchy. Piketty cites novels by Honoré de Balzac, Jane Austen and Henry James to describe the rigid class structure based on accumulated capital that existed in England and France in the early 1800s.
Piketty predicts a world of low economic growth, dismissing the idea that bursts of technological advances will bring the growth back to the levels of the 20th century, arguing that we should not base ourselves on the "caprices of technology."
Nobel prize-winning economist Paul Krugman called the book a "magnificent, sweeping meditation on inequality" and "the most important economics book of the year — and maybe of the decade." He distinguishes the book from other bestsellers on economics as it constitutes "serious, discourse-changing scholarship." Krugman also wrote:
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 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.
Steven Pearlstein called it a "triumph of economic history over the theoretical, mathematical modeling that has come to dominate the economics profession in recent years", but also added, "Piketty’s analysis of the past is more impressive than his predictions for the future are convincing."
British historian Andrew Hussey called the book "epic" and "groundbreaking" and argues that it proves "scientifically" the Occupy movement was correct in its assertion that "capitalism isn't working."
According to Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Solow, Piketty has made a "new and powerful contribution to an old topic: as long as the rate of return exceeds the rate of growth, the income and wealth of the rich will grow faster than the typical income from work".
The book has been described as “a political and theoretical bulldozer” in the French press.
The Economist wrote, "a modern surge in inequality has new economists wondering, as Marx and Ricardo did, which forces may be stopping the fruits of capitalism from being more widely distributed. 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century' ... is an authoritative guide to the question."
Will Hutton wrote, "Like Friedman, Piketty is a man for the times. For 1970s anxieties about inflation substitute today's concerns about the emergence of the plutocratic rich and their impact on economy and society. Piketty is in no doubt ... that the current level of rising wealth inequality, set to grow still further, now imperils the very future of capitalism. He has proved it."
Emanuel Derman has refrained from reading the book, on the grounds that, though Piketty appears less cocky than most economists, that profession in general is consistently wrong in its prognoses and reluctant to acknowledge how risky expert economic advice is, despite the fearsome influence economists exercise in the modern world.
Professors Daron Acemoglu (MIT) and James A. Robinson (Harvard) used the economic histories of Sweden and South Africa to show that social inequality depends much more on institutional factors than Piketty's factors like the difference between rate of return and growth. Cross-country analysis also shows that the top 1 %'s share of income does not depend on that difference. Professors write that general laws, which is how they characterize Piketty's postulations, "are unhelpful as a guide to understand the past or predict the future, because they ignore the central role of political and economic institutions in shaping the evolution of technology and the distribution of resources in a society". 
One strand of critique faults Piketty for placing inequality at the center of analysis without any reflection on why it matters. According to Martin Wolf, he merely assumes that inequality matters, but never explains why, only demonstrates that it exists and how it worsens.
As Clive Crook put it, "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 ... worsen inequality."
Lawrence Summers criticizes Piketty for underestimating the diminishing returns on capital, which Summers believes will offset the return on capital and hence set an upper limit to inequality. Summers challenges another one of Piketty's assumption, that returns to wealth are largely reinvested. A declining ratio of savings to wealth would also set upper limits on inequality in society.
Of 400 wealthiest Americans in 1982 only one in ten remained on the list on 2012, and an increasing share of wealthiest people have not increased their fortunes. Moreover, top 1 % incomes are now mostly salaries, not capital incomes. Most other economists explain the rise of top 1 % incomes by globalization and technological change. 
James K. Galbraith criticizes Piketty for using "an empirical measure that is unrelated to productive physical capital and whose dollar value depends, in part, on the return on capital. Where does the rate of return come from? Piketty never says." Galbraith also says: "Despite its great ambitions, his book is not the accomplished work of high theory that its title, length, and reception (so far) suggest."
German economist Stefan Homburg (de) criticizes Piketty for equating "wealth" with "capital". Homburg argues that wealth does not only embrace capital goods in the sense of produced means of production, but also land and other natural resources. Homburg argues that observed increases in wealth income ratios reflect rising land prices and not an accumulation of machinery.
Marxist academic David Harvey, while praising the book for demolishing "the widely-held view that free market capitalism spreads the wealth around and that it is the great bulwark for the defense of individual liberties and freedoms," is largely critical of Piketty for, among other things, his "mistaken definition of capital," which Harvey describes as:
a process not a thing ... a process of circulation in which money is used to make more money often, but not exclusively through the exploitation of labor power. Piketty defines capital as the stock of all assets held by private individuals, corporations and governments that can be traded in the market no matter whether these assets are being used or not.
Harvey argues that Piketty's "proposals as to the remedies for the inequalities are naïve if not utopian. And he has certainly not produced a working model for capital of the twenty-first century. For that we still need Marx or his modern-day equivalent." Harvey also takes Piketty to task for dismissing Marx's Das Kapital without ever having read it.
Norwegian economist and journalist Maria Reinertsen compares the book to the 2014 book Counting on Marilyn Waring: New Advances in Feminist Economics by Ailsa McKay and Margunn Bjørnholt, arguing that "while Capital in the Twenty-First Century barely touches the boundaries of the discipline in its focus on the rich, Counting on Marilyn Waring challenges most limits of what economists should care about."
Allegation of data errors
On May 23, 2014, Chris Giles, economics editor of the Financial Times (FT), identified what he claims are "unexplained errors" in Piketty's data, in particular regarding wealth inequality increases since the 1970s. The FT wrote in part:
The data underpinning Professor Piketty’s 577-page tome, which has dominated best-seller lists in recent weeks, contain a series of errors that skew his findings. The FT found mistakes and unexplained entries in his spreadsheets, similar to those which last year undermined the work on public debt and growth of Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff.
The central theme of Prof Piketty’s work is that wealth inequalities are heading back up to levels last seen before the first world war. The investigation undercuts this claim, indicating there is little evidence in Prof Piketty’s original sources to bear out the thesis that an increasing share of total wealth is held by the richest few.
Piketty wrote a response defending his findings and arguing that subsequent studies (he links to Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman (de)'s March 2014 presentation, The Distribution of US Wealth, Capital Income and Returns since 1913) confirm his conclusions about increasing wealth inequality, and actually show a greater increase in inequality for the United States than he does in his book. In an interview with Agence-France Presse, he accused the Financial Times of "dishonest criticism" and said the paper "is being ridiculous because all of its contemporaries recognise that the biggest fortunes have grown faster."
The accusation received wide press coverage. Some sources said the Financial Times has overstated its case. For example, The Economist, a sister publication to the Financial Times, wrote:
Mr Giles's analysis is impressive, and one certainly hopes that further work by Mr Giles, Mr Piketty or others will clarify whether mistakes have been made, how they came to be introduced and what their effects are. Based on the information Mr Giles has provided so far, however, the analysis does not seem to support many of the allegations made by the FT, or the conclusion that the book's argument is wrong.
Scott Winship, a sociologist at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and critic of Piketty, claims the allegations are not "significant for the fundamental question of whether Piketty's thesis is right or not ... It's hard to think Piketty did something unethical when he put it up there for people like me to delve into his figures and find something that looks sketchy ... Piketty has been as good or better than anyone at both making all his data available and documenting what he does generally."
In addition to Scott Winship, the economists Alan Reynolds, Justin Wolfers, James Hamilton, and Gabriel Zucman claim that FT's assertions go too far. Paul Krugman noted that "anyone imagining that the whole notion of rising wealth inequality has been refuted is almost surely going to be disappointed." Emmanuel Saez, a colleague of Piketty and one of the economists cited by Giles to discredit him, stated that "Piketty's choice and judgement were quite good" and that his own research supports Piketty's thesis.
- (French) Le Capital au XXIe siècle, Éditions du Seuil, Paris, 2013, ISBN 9782021082289
- (English) Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press, 2014, ISBN 9780674430006
- Piketty's Capital: An Economist's Inequality Ideas Are All the Rage by Megan McArdle, Bloomberg Businessweek, May 29, 2014
- Marc Tracy (24 April 2014). Piketty's 'Capital': A Hit That Was, Wasn't, Then Was Again: How the French tome has rocked the tiny Harvard University Press. The New Republic. Retrieved 27 April 2014.
- Laurent Mauduit, ‘Piketty ausculte le capitalisme, ses contradictions et ses violentes inégalités,’ Mediapart, 03 Septembre 2013: ‘un bulldozer théorique et politique’
- Thomas B. Edsall, 'Capitalism vs.Democracy.' New York Times, 28 January 2014.
- ‘All men are created unequal: revisiting an old argument about the impact of capitalism,’ The Economist, 4 January, 2014.
- Paul Krugman. America’s Taxation Tradition,’ in New York Times, 27 March 2014 .
- John Cassidy, ‘Forces of Divergence:Is surging inequality endemic to capitalism?,’ in The New Yorker, 31 March, 2014
- 'Thomas Piketty’s blockbuster book is a great piece of scholarship, but a poor guide to policy,' Economist 3 May 2014.
- John Lanchester ‘Flash Boys’ in London Review of Books Vol. 36 No. 11, 5 June 2014 pages 7-9
- Heidi Moore, 'Why is Thomas Piketty's 700-page book a bestseller?,' The Guardian 21 September 2014-09-21
- Heinz-J. Bontrup, Pikettys Krisen-Analyse. Warum die Reichen immer reicher und die Armen immer ärmer werden, pad-verlag. Bergkamen 2014, ISBN 978-3-88515-260-6.
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- Stephan Kaufmann, Ingo Stützle, Kapitalismus: Die ersten 200 Jahre. Thomas Pikettys "Das Kapital im 21. Jahrhundert": Einführung, Debatte, Kritik, Bertz + Fischer Verlag, Berlin 2014, ISBN 978-3-86505-730-3.
- Ryan Cooper (March 25, 2014). "Why everyone is talking about Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century". The Week.
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- Paul Krugman (March 23, 2014). "Wealth Over Work". The New York Times.
- Paul Krugman (May 8, 2014). Why We’re in a New Gilded Age. New York Review of Books. Retrieved April 14, 2014.
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- John Cassidy (March 31, 2014). Forces of Divergence: Is Surging Inequality Endemic to Capitalism? The New Yorker. Retrieved April 13, 2014.
- Branko Milanovic (October 2013). The return of "patrimonial capitalism": review of Thomas Piketty's "Capital in the 21st century", Munich Personal RePEc Archive. Retrieved April 20, 2014.
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- "The Most Important Book Ever Is All Wrong". Bloomberg View. Retrieved 22 April 2014.
- The Rise and Fall of General Laws of Capitalism, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, Abstract and pages 1, 10, and 19.
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- David Harvey (May 20, 2014). Taking on ‘Capital’ Without Marx: What Thomas Piketty misses in his critique of capitalism. In These Times. Retrieved May 20, 2014.
- Maria Reinertsen, "Bør morsmelk regnes med i bruttonasjonalprodukt?", Morgenbladet, No. 26, 2014, pp. 6–7, 4–10 July 2014
- Chris Giles (May 23, 2014). Thomas Piketty’s exhaustive inequality data turn out to be flawed. Financial Times. Retrieved May 23, 2014.
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- Weissmann, Jordan (May 23, 2014). "Financial Times: Piketty’s Data Is Full of Errors". Slate. Retrieved May 25, 2014.
- Thomas Piketty (May 23, 2014). Piketty response to FT data concerns. Financial Times. May 23, 2014
- Jennifer Rankin (May 26, 2014). Thomas Piketty accuses Financial Times of dishonest criticism. The Guardian. Retrieved May 26, 2014.
- R.A. (May 24, 2014). "A Piketty problem?". The Economist. Retrieved May 25, 2014.
- Alan Reynolds (July 9, 2014). Why Piketty’s Wealth Data Are Worthless. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved July 11, 2014.
- Mark Gongloff (May 27, 2014). Economists Rip Apart FT's Piketty Takedown. The Huffington Post. Retrieved May 27, 2014.
- Ryan Grim (May 27, 2014). The Economists FT Relied On For Its Thomas Piketty Takedown Don't Buy It. The Huffington Post. Retrieved May 28, 2014.
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|Library resources about
Capital in the Twenty-First Century
- The book's official website
- Text from Introduction to Capital in the Twenty-First Century
- All the raw data from the book
- Newsnight's explainer about Capital (video) on BBC Newsnight (3:10)
- YouTube video of Thomas Piketty describing Capital in the Twenty-First Century
- A handy summary of the book with six charts by John Cassidy