Pensées avec Thos. Pikkety

I am really, really glad I’m reading this book. It is a slow, because thoughtful, read, but worth it. Worth keeping it past the two renewals I had allotted. Worth having my library decide I’ve lost it, and bill me for replacement + handling. Not worth having this bill go to collections, however. So I need to hustle and get the other third-plus finished up.

Given that imperative, and that I don’t yet have a Tuesday where I’m writing in the morning—I made a stab in that direction today, but I frittered the time away poking at my school laptop—I thought I would share quotes from the forest of tabs bristling from the page-edges rather than generating my own pensées (thoughts). So that, in theory, I will take the time I would otherwise have spent writing in doing more Piketty-reading! Enjoy!

Some people believe that inequality is always increasing and that the world is by definition always becoming more unjust. Others believe that inequality is naturally decreasing, or that harmony comes about automatically, and that in any case nothing should be done that might risk disturbing this happy equilibrium. Given this dialogue of the deaf [emphasis mine], in which each camp justifies its own intellectual laziness by pointing to the laziness of the other, there is a role for research that is at least systematic and methodical if not fully scientific. p3

Granted, Dr. Piketty’s concern is to apply as much economic research-type rigor as he can find. But I find his formulation of our current dialogue…evocative. And perhaps helpful, in the way shining a bright light in a dark place can sometimes help one find footing.

[I]t is important for now to understand that the interplay of supply and demand in no way rules out the possibility of a large and lasting divergence [emph mine]  in the distribution of wealth linked to extreme changes in certain relative prices. p7


There is no fundamental reason why we should believe that growth [of wealth] is automatically balanced [among economic groups]. p16

Evidently we’ve all been merely wishing for the last 75 years, and as my grandfather might say, “Wishing won’t make it so.”

The distribution of capital ownership (and of income from capital) is always more concentrated than the distribution of income from labor. Two points need to be clarified at once. First we find this regularity in all countries in all periods for which data are available, without exception, and the magnitude of the phenomenon is always quite striking. […] Second, this regularity is by no means foreordained, and its existence tells us something important about the nature of the economic and social processes that shape the dynamics of capital accumulation and the distribution of wealth. p244

Every time a researcher tells me a phenomenon is “quite striking,” chills go down my spine and I start looking for safe places. The only thing I find more alarming is a researcher saying, “Hmm. How very interesting.”

Part of what has me enthralled is Pikkety’s thorough, systematic, data-driven critique of many of the basic, not-very-articulated assumptions in US life. That pure capitalism is a valueless perfect state, for example, rewarding virtuous capitalist actors and justly punishing the…well, the lazy? The unfit?

Or that all human activity can be encompassed within economic motives, an assumption I’ve been angry about since I was about fifteen:

The main purpose is the health sector is not to provide other sectors with workers in good health. By the same token, the educational sector is not to prepare students to take up an occupation in some other sector of the economy. In all human societies, health and education have an intrinsic value: the ability to enjoy years of good health, like the ability to acquire knowledge and culture, is one of the fundamental purposes of civilization. pp307-308

I will leave you with one more:

Economic and technological rationality at times has nothing to do with democratic rationality. The former stems from the Enlightenment, and people have all too commonly assumed that the latter would somehow naturally derive from it, as if by magic. But real democracy and social justice require specific institutions of their own, not just those of the market, and not just parliaments and other formal democratic institutions. [emph mine] p424

None of what happens in this nation, on this planet, is magic. Economics can be one more way to take a long, hard look behind the curtain. Pay attention.



Comment (1)

  1. Stefan Haag

    The last quote from Pikkety, especially your emphasis, makes a cogent point. Unless all of a society’s institutions–family, economic, political, educational, and religious–contain norms and values that promote social justice and democracy, those results will not be achieved. There is a need to educate all residents on those values.


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