A review of Thomas Piketty - Le capital au XXI siecle

I found back some old notes I had written about the book “Le capital au XXI siecle” from Thomas Piketty. It took me a while to finish that book last summer.

So many journalists have written around Piketty, that I had to buy the book and read it. It turns out that some of the criticism I have read is not really founded once one reads the book, but here are other real obvious criticisms that I suprisingly did not hear.

The best part of the book is probably the introduction. It’s actually not so short and gives a good overall view of the main subjects of the book. But it’s a bit too concise to truely understand the point. Unfortunately as the book progresses, it feels more like someone trying to fill up empty pages than real content. The first half of the first chapter is still interesting, and then we are overwhelmed with too many graphs and even more words to just state the obvious in the graph, or to repeat over and over the same idea. His economic “laws” should really be summarized on one (or two) simple page, there is no need for hundreds of pages to understand them. Banks could learn a bit of basic statistics: Piketty makes the point of not considering only one measure of inequality like the Gini index, very much like banks should not consider only one measure of risk like the VaR.

The title is clever, as it is a direct reference to Marx “The Capital”, but it’s very far from the quality of Marx book. Marx can be wrong about many things, but in each chapter, he presents new ideas, a different way of looking at the problem. There is a real philosophical effort of defining the meaning of words, and there is fascinating analysis of the economic world of the 19th century. I am refering to the first volume, the only one Marx truly wrote.

I hardly understand why Piketty is so popular in the US. I remember how much fun it was to read Adam Smith “The Wealth of Nations”, and again how different perpectives it tries to bring, and it’s no small book either. Piketty is boring, extremely boring to read (except the intro). Maybe the Americans just stopped at the introduction. Likely it has more to do with Piketty being the intellectual defending the same ideas as the very popular Occupy movement (which we somehow don’t hear about so much anymore). Bourdieu was very talented in mixing the right amount of statistics with extremely original views along with a philosophical stance. I expected more from Piketty, an admirer of the likes of Bourdieu.

A much more interesting book would be something like a spiced up introduction to this book. One main leitmotiv is the fact that the 21st century will not look like the 20th century, but maybe more like the 19th century. Why wouldn’t the 21st century look like the 21st century, that is different from the 20th and the 19th century? Still, where Picketty is interesting is in the fact that there is something to learn from the 19th century economics, and something to unlearn from the 20th century economics which might be too prevalent today.

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