Doubting Thomas

Photo: courtesy of Universat Pompeu Fabra/flickr.com Photo: courtesy of Universat Pompeu Fabra/flickr.com

Two recent commentaries on Thomas Piketty’s blockbuster, Capital in the 21st Century, caught my attention, if for no other reason than both show signs the writer has actually read the book. While both are broadly sympathetic, they are far from uncritical.

Benjamin Kunkel has a long review in the London Review of Books in which he effectively critiques Piketty from the left. While praising Piketty’s “incomparable array of data” he argues that he pays too much attention to inherited wealth and not enough to wages and growth, and takes issue with the universality of Piketty’s assertion that the return on capital usually exceeds the rate of economic growth. (Kunkel also has some interesting ideas about socialist ownership without monopoly, which I’ll come back to another time.)

Former BBC economics star Steph Flanders’s review in Saturday’s Guardian is more supportive, although she also disputes Piketty’s emphasis on inherited wealth. Flanders’s most interesting point is also picked up by Kunkel: Piketty tends to lump all capital together, regardless of who owns it or to what use it’s put, so that capital accumulation always leads to more inequality. (This seems a bit unfair on Piketty, but I’m only halfway through the book myself, so I’ll reserve judgement.)

Both are worth a lot more of your time than the knee-jerk responses of free market fantasists (try Daniel Hannan or James Pethokoukis), who seem to think just pronouncing Piketty a “Marxist” will encourage everyone to move on (betraying their ignorance of both Marx and Piketty in the process). Most of Piketty’s neo-con critics seem to have done no more than scare themselves shitless about his proposed wealth taxes or just got  lathered up reading commentaries by their right-wing friends (who probably haven’t read it either).

If you’re going to denounce someone’s work at least, like Kunkel and Flanders (or even the highly critical Chris Giles of the FT for that matter), do them the courtesy of reading it or at least trying to understand it. True, it’s a big ask, but I heard somewhere that someone had published a condensed version (approved by Piketty himself). If I can dig out the details, I’ll stick them up here.