Capital & Ideology: Conclusion and Final Review

Diagnosis:

The significant reduction of inequality that took place in the mid-twentieth century was made possible by the construction of a social state based on relative educational equality and a number of radical innovations, such as co-management in the Germanic and Nordic countries and progressive taxation in the United States and United Kingdom. The conservative revolution of the 1980s and the fall of communism interrupted this movement; the world entered a new era of self-regulated markets and quasi-sacralization of property… People have once again begun thinking about a new, more equitable, more sustainable economic model. My discussion here of participatory socialism and social federalism draw largely on developments taking place in various parts of the world; my contribution here is simply to place them in a broader historical perspective.

The history of the inequality regimes studied in this book shows that such political-ideological transformations should not be seen as deterministic. Multiple trajectories are always possible. The balance of power at any moment depends on the interaction of the short-term logic of events with long-term intellectual evolutions from which come a wide range of ideas that can be drawn on in moments of crisis.”

Treatment:

“The first step is to establish a regime of social and temporary ownership. This will require power sharing between workers and shareholders and a ceiling on the number of votes that can be cast by any one shareholder. It will also require a steeply progressive tax on property, a universal capital endowment, and permanent circulation of wealth. In addition, it implies a progressive income tax and collective regulation of carbon emissions, the proceeds from which will go to pay for social insurance and a basic income, the ecological transition, and true educational equality. Finally, the global economy will need to be reorganized by means of co-development treaties incorporating quantified objectives of social, fiscal, and environmental justice; liberalization of trade and financial flows must be conditioned on progress toward meeting those primary goals. This redefinition of the global legal framework will require abandonment of some existing treaties…Those treaties will need to be replaced by new rules based on the principles of financial transparency, fiscal cooperation, and transnational democracy.”

History can be annoyingly incompatible with conventional economic wisdom.

Complications:

Historians, sociologists, political scientists, and philosophers too often abandon the study of economic questions to economists. But political economy and economic history involve all the social sciences, as I have tried to show in this book. All social scientists should try to include socioeconomic trends in their analysis and gather quantitative and historical data whenever useful and should rely on other methods and sources when necessary… This neglect has contributed not only to the autonomization of economics but also to its impoverishment. I hope that this book will help to remedy that”

This is an interesting revision from his previous book where he states:

“To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences.”

I don’t think the statements are contradictory. The distinction seems to be boil down to who is ignoring who, which is neither knowable nor significant.

Final Review

Do I recommend the book?

No, it was boring and took forever. Obviously. You should find a decent online summary and then read something more fun.

On a more serious note, it depends on what you want. I have come to the conclusion that I prefer books with a little more passion and a little more call to action. It can be a little discouraging to put a few months into a book, and then read “All my conclusions are tentative and fragile by their very nature.”

It is important to be realistic when it comes to the limits of our own understanding. It is also important to be realistic about how change takes place, and it certainly does not take place by telling everyone how little we know and how wrong we might be.

Informative vs Persuasive

Piketty is generally informative more than persuasive. This book is explicitly more political in its content than its predecessor, but its style is the same. Piketty is willing to critique weak ideologies at length, but it feels a bit toothless since the relatively small portion of the book devoted to what he actually advocates for feels defensive. He calls for debate and discussion more so than fiercely advocating for his own positions. Obviously these issues are supposed to be democratic, but we’re all reading your book. Have some self confidence.

He goes far out of his way to be very thorough with where he gets his data and how he arrives at his conclusions and it gets a bit exhausting. I wonder if this tendency is an outcome of his own curiosity or if it is an attempt to gain credibility among skeptics. A problem that comes with being this comprehensive is that it’s hard to form a unifying, coherent, and compelling argument. It comes off as a bit disjointed and aimless, which makes for a dull read.

In general, I prefer persuasive books. “Informative” books that are too boring for people to read are not informative in any meaningful way. “Persuasive” books on the other hand have to inform in order to effectively persuade.

Persuasive books may be seen as less reliable than informative books, since authors would feel more license to express their own views, but informative books could just as easily misinform. If anything persuasive books are less likely to be misleading since they are bound to be read more critically than books purporting to be objective.

I am not sure how useful this line of thinking is, since there is a happy abundance of each category.

TL;DR The book does its job of elaborating on the ideologies of inequality regimes throughout history. The criticisms I have are mostly are based on my preference for concision and passion over long-winded impartiality.

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