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Reviewing Piketty’s Blockbuster

Here’s my Barron’s review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.  Some slices:

Piketty’s method of doing economics involves frequent grand proclamations about “social justice” and economic “evolutions,” but he offers no analyses of the dynamics of individual decision-making, often referred to as “microeconomics,” that should be central to the issues he raises.

The author hovers instead in the economy’s stratosphere, gazing down on the only phenomena visible from such a distant perch—big statistics such as population growth or the share of national income “claimed” by the very rich. Revealingly, Piketty writes of income and wealth as being claimed or “distributed,” never as being earned or produced. The resulting statistics are too aggregated—too big-picture—to reveal what is happening to individuals on the ground.

Instead of actually looking at the behavior behind his statistics, the author serves up ad hoc and ultimately unpersuasive theories about the “behavior” of his big statistics themselves, including such hulking impersonal aggregates as the return to capital and the ratio of national wealth to national income. He imagines that such aggregates interact in robotic fashion through a logic of their own, unmoved by individual human initiative, creativity, or choice.


Every semester, I ask my freshman students how wealthy they would be if they each were worth financially as much as Bill Gates but were stranded with all those stocks, bonds, property titles, and bundles of cash alone on a desert island. They immediately see that what matters is not the amount of money they have but, rather, what that money can buy. No principle of economics is more essential than the realization that, ultimately, wealth isn’t money or financial assets but, rather, ready access to real goods and services.

Piketty seems barely aware of this reality, focusing on differences in people’s monetary portfolios. He therefore ignores the all-important supply side: what people—rich, middle class, and poor—can buy with their money. Yet, to the extent that inequalities are at all relevant, the only ones that really matter are inequalities in access to real goods and services for consumption. Bill Gates’ living quarters are larger and more elegant than mine and, I dare say, yours. But even the poorest people in market economies have seen their ability to consume skyrocket over time. And the poorer they once were, the greater has been the enhancement of their ability to consume.


I should have, in the first passage quoted above, said that Piketty offers few analyses of the dynamics of individual decision-making; he does have some such analyses.  But Piketty’s very few ventures into microeconomics are nearly all, in my opinion, flawed and ad hoc.  I’ll recount these flaws in upcoming comments on Piketty’s volume.