Still confused why a doorstop economics text is the most talked-about book in the U.S.? A dog, Gawker's foremost columnist, returns this week with an in-depth review of French economist Thomas Piketty's sensational, revolutionary, much-discussed Capital in the Twenty-First Century. A dog maintains a Kinja blog at dog.gawker.com.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century, by Thomas Piketty. Belknap Press, 685 pp. Tastes like dry paper.
When they asked me to review a book, I was skeptical. "A book? What's that? I'm merely a dog." That one got a good chuckle from everybody. I'm a pretty big reader. Think about how much time I spend inside— a lot. Am I just supposed to sit on the couch all day? I have curiosity, just like you. At one point I spent several hours per day for six or seven straight weeks just trying to maneuver a copy of Where The Wild Things Are off the shelf and into a satisfactory reading position using only my teeth. I reasoned that learning where these wild things, in fact, are could open up a lot of profitable possibilities for someone in my situation. Turns out they're all in some faraway land. Big help to me! I've moved on.
"The dynamics of wealth distribution reveal powerful mechanisms pushing alternately towards convergence and divergence," Piketty writes. "Furthermore, there is no natural spontaneous process to prevent destabilizing, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently." Some might say this is a grim diagnosis. But for me, what it brings to mind is, I starting thinking about the part where he says "convergence and divergence," which is like a back-and-forth movement, like waves in the ocean, or even more like if someone throws something—a stick, or better yet, a ball—and I run and get it, and I bring it back to them, and when I'm "converging" on them, ball in mouth, I'm hoping the whole time that they will once again provide the "divergence" between me and the ball, by throwing it. I'm hoping so hard. God! Just do it, please! It's ridiculous that I have to beg. What else is to be done with the ball? It does no one any good just sitting there in one place. It's better to throw it. Go ahead. Throw it now. Right now! I look up, and the man holding the ball is Thomas Piketty.
So that's kind of "my take" on the book. I read all 685 pages, including end notes, and the whole time the most powerful takeaway for me was this sort of... I guess you'd call it an ongoing dream, constantly unfolding in my mind's eye, in slow motion, expanding to fill all mental space... of a ball, and the man throws the ball, and I run to get it. The ball is mine. It's not for anyone else. Another example of unequal distribution? I can't even muster up the energy to care about that. The ball is everything to me. I am a slave to its seductions. "When the rate of return on capital significantly exceeds the growth rate of the economy (as it did through much of history until the nineteenth century and as is likely to be the case again in the twenty-first century), then it logically follows that inherited wealth need save only a portion of their income from capital to see that capital grow more quickly than the economy as a whole. Under such conditions, it is almost inevitable that inherited wealth will dominate wealth amassed from a lifetime's labor by a wide margin, and the concentration of capital will attain extremely high levels—levels potentially incompatible with the meritocratic values and principles of social justice fundamental to modern democratic societies."
I wonder what Piketty was doing with the ball when he wrote these words. Was it perched in his lap as he tap-tapped away on his keyboard? Was it gripped in his hand that he absentmindedly waved through the air as he dictated his weighty phrases to an underling? Let's say, for the sake of argument, that it was—does that mean he's getting ready to throw it? When he moves his hand around with the ball in it, sure, it could be because he's deep in thought and he's unconsciously punctuating his point. But it could also be the gesture that precedes him throwing the ball. Who is to say with certitude? All I, the reviewer, can do in this situation is to keep a close eye on my own self-conjured mental vision of Thomas Piketty, always alert to the possibility that his next move could presage The Throwing of the Ball. Where will it land? It will land in America. And I will be ready to go get it.
I don't have any money but that never stopped me from doing anything yet.
[Image by Jim Cooke]