One of the surprise bestsellers of last year, and I’m not talking about Fifty Shades of Grey, was a book by French economist Thomas Piketty. Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a heavy read, literally, weighing in at nearly seven hundred pages and, wait for it, not a sex scene in sight. A tome of this magnitude, however, should probably come with a health and safety warning: notwithstanding the long hours required to read it, drop it on your foot and you might never walk again.
And yet despite its length the text is absorbing, almost compelling. Written in a lucid style atypical of professional economists, the author treats his subject matter with a broad brush approach that doesn’t lose intellectual focus. Using a couple of simple equations, some graphs and tables, he charts the evolution of international income and wealth inequalities over centuries rather than decades and roots it firmly within a historical and sometimes literary context.
What a contrast to much of the economic work published nowadays, where you’d be hard pushed to understand it even with a PhD in maths and stats. I’ve done a bit of number crunching in my former life as an economist, but I have to confess to a feeling of acute mental numbness coupled with anxiety when confronted with much of the research routinely published in academic journals: paper after paper, ostensibly in English, reads as if written in a foreign language, often containing appendices brimming with proofs, axioms, lemmas etc. that can spread over as many pages as the impenetrable text itself.
But Piketty has brought economics back to reality, back to the big issues. In the run up to the general election we’ll hear politicians bombard us from all sides with a cacophony of views on social and economic issues, particularly inequality, but, to mix a metaphor, it’s difficult to see the wood from the trees in the cluttered landscape of pre-election politics. If you really want to know why income and wealth inequalities arise and persist, and in a number of cases get worse, this enjoyable magnum opus is a must read.