In case you hadn’t heard (it’s been quite popular of late), Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty is a book on economics. Why would a book on economics be popular? That is a good question. The simple reason is because, unlike most books that are assigned to an academic subject rather than to a genre, it is written for everyone. The other reason is that this book is thorough in an unusual way. M. Piketty starts with the basic and broad strokes, people earning money and people saving money, and demonstrates what has happened to that money over time. And this is perhaps what is most remarkable about this book: time. Economics (particularly the American flavor) is often criticized for being of little use in a practical sense; just a series of fancy theories and models with no real predictive capabilities. M. Piketty, eschewing this path, has turned his attentions instead to the historical record of wealth, creating arguably the most complete view of the subject to date.
As you may have gleaned from my tone, I quite enjoyed this book. Here is why. After many years of listening to people on the news talk about “growth” and “interest rates”, I now have some idea what they are talking about, and what it means. I also know why all the characters in Jane Austen books are always talking about one another’s incomes with peculiar precision. But most importantly, I now have a sense of the scale and the history of things like interest and growth and wealth and inequality. Instead of some abstract notion of “the one-percent” as some scheming cabal of Wall Street bogey-men with ALL THE MONEYS, I now know roughly how much money they have and why they have so much and how much of a big deal it is, globally and historically speaking (it is of the same scale as the European aristocrats of the late nineteenth century).
M. Piketty has distilled a tremendous amount of information into a series of clear graphs and economic identities. What math there is is terribly simple, and even if you quake and tremble at the mention of such things as “equations”, you can always just look at the charts and read the words, and there are a lot of words. One of my few criticisms of the experience of reading Capital is that it is a little dry. While I would not describe M. Piketty’s writing as verbose, it does become a little repetitive. In some sections, he seems to be simply reading the graphs out loud. This may be a feature of the translation or simply my preference for the visual over the aural. In any case when writing close to 700 pages on economics that is accessible to lay-peoples, I feel it behooves the author to write concisely. I also feel obligated to point out that the numerous charts in the book, while easy to read, are not up to the standards of the latest and greatest infographics of the modern age; they are the simplest of line graphs. This is not a problem per se, but there are places where there exists uncertainty in the data, and while that uncertainty is explained thoroughly in the text, the graphs always show single (most-likely or average) lines rather than ranges or error bars or some other fancy way of visualizing such things. Consider that nit picked.
Those minor points aside, I would not hesitate to recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject if for no other reason than simply to have a better idea what the guy on the news is talking about. My only reservation is that, being unfamiliar with economics or economists, I don’t know what consensus there is (or is not) concerning M. Piketty’s interpretations and conclusions. I would consider this a minor reservation however, because most of the work is not interpreting so much as simply documenting. Even the recommendations he presents in the last chapter are built up from such basic principles, illustrated by the historical record, that is difficult to find a viable position from which to argue against them.
So that’s it, Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty: plenty of history, some basic economics, a small helping of policy, all presented with low bias. Find it Amazon or read more about it (since you seem interested in reading about it than actually reading it) on Wikipedia.