Not for the numerically faint of heart, and those who are numerate may argue at points—just as Piketty’s masterwork has...

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THE ECONOMICS OF INEQUALITY

In a work that is aligned with but antecedent to his grand synthesis, Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013), French economist Piketty examines the structural causes of inequality.

Capital and income are intertwined, of course, and unevenly distributed. Just how unevenly has been a subject of much economic-historical work lately. In this book, published in 1997 and updated here and there since, Piketty observes that he does not “take fully into account the results of the past fifteen years of international research on the historical dynamics of inequality,” but the eternal verities hold. As the author writes, in a moment worthy of Marx, “the question of inequality and redistribution is central to political conflict.” Redistribute broadly and equitably, and you have the possibility of social justice; redistribute into the hands of the wealthy, and you risk turmoil and revolution when the have-nots catch on to what’s going on. Piketty’s argument is more descriptive than prescriptive; he notes that capital income, for instance, is subject to more unequal distribution than wage income, which makes good sense inasmuch as the rich tend to live on capital gains instead of salaries. The writing tends to be white paper–ish and technical (“in the United States…the P90/P10 ratio for income rose from 4.9 to 5.9 between 1979 and 1986”), and although training in economics isn’t strictly necessary in order to follow the author’s argument, it certainly wouldn’t hurt in tracking such concepts as the relative elasticity or inelasticity of capital and, particularly, human capital. The latter contributes strongly to Piketty’s case, which ends with a consideration of how Keynesian stimuli can influence long-term redistribution, if at all.

Not for the numerically faint of heart, and those who are numerate may argue at points—just as Piketty’s masterwork has inspired controversy. Still, a discussion worth having and a book worth reading.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-674-50480-6

Page Count: 146

Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

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A declaration worth hearing out in a time of growing inequality—and indignity.

ECONOMIC DIGNITY

Noted number cruncher Sperling delivers an economist’s rejoinder to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Former director of the National Economic Council in the administrations of Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, the author has long taken a view of the dismal science that takes economic justice fully into account. Alongside all the metrics and estimates and reckonings of GDP, inflation, and the supply curve, he holds the great goal of economic policy to be the advancement of human dignity, a concept intangible enough to chase the econometricians away. Growth, the sacred mantra of most economic policy, “should never be considered an appropriate ultimate end goal” for it, he counsels. Though 4% is the magic number for annual growth to be considered healthy, it is healthy only if everyone is getting the benefits and not just the ultrawealthy who are making away with the spoils today. Defining dignity, admits Sperling, can be a kind of “I know it when I see it” problem, but it does not exist where people are a paycheck away from homelessness; the fact, however, that people widely share a view of indignity suggests the “intuitive universality” of its opposite. That said, the author identifies three qualifications, one of them the “ability to meaningfully participate in the economy with respect, not domination and humiliation.” Though these latter terms are also essentially unquantifiable, Sperling holds that this respect—lack of abuse, in another phrasing—can be obtained through a tight labor market and monetary and fiscal policy that pushes for full employment. In other words, where management needs to come looking for workers, workers are likely to be better treated than when the opposite holds. In still other words, writes the author, dignity is in part a function of “ ‘take this job and shove it’ power,” which is a power worth fighting for.

A declaration worth hearing out in a time of growing inequality—and indignity.

Pub Date: May 5, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7987-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Penguin Press

Review Posted Online: Feb. 26, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2020

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A deftly argued case for a new kind of socialism that, while sure to inspire controversy, bears widespread discussion.

CAPITAL AND IDEOLOGY

A massive investigation of economic history in the service of proposing a political order to overcome inequality.

Readers who like their political manifestoes in manageable sizes, à la Common Sense or The Communist Manifesto, may be overwhelmed by the latest from famed French economist Piketty (Top Incomes in France in the Twentieth Century: Inequality and Redistribution, 1901-1998, 2014, etc.), but it’s a significant work. The author interrogates the principal forms of economic organization over time, from slavery to “non-European trifunctional societies,” Chinese-style communism, and “hypercapitalist” orders, in order to examine relative levels of inequality and its evolution. Each system is founded on an ideology, and “every ideology, no matter how extreme it may seem in its defense of inequality, expresses a certain idea of social justice.” In the present era, at least in the U.S., that idea of social justice would seem to be only that the big ones eat the little ones, the principal justification being that the wealthiest people became rich because they are “the most enterprising, deserving, and useful.” In fact, as Piketty demonstrates, there’s more to inequality than the mere “size of the income gap.” Contrary to hypercapitalist ideology and its defenders, the playing field is not level, the market is not self-regulating, and access is not evenly distributed. Against this, Piketty arrives at a proposed system that, among other things, would redistribute wealth across societies by heavy taxation, especially of inheritances, to create a “participatory socialism” in which power is widely shared and trade across nations is truly free. The word “socialism,” he allows, is a kind of Pandora’s box that can scare people off—and, he further acknowledges, “the Russian and Czech oligarchs who buy athletic teams and newspapers may not be the most savory characters, but the Soviet system was a nightmare and had to go.” Yet so, too, writes the author, is a capitalism that rewards so few at the expense of so many.

A deftly argued case for a new kind of socialism that, while sure to inspire controversy, bears widespread discussion.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-674-98082-2

Page Count: 976

Publisher: Belknap/Harvard Univ.

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2020

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