Capital in the Twenty-First Century

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I struggled 30% of the way through this before giving up and coming to terms with the fact that it wasn’t going to get any better.

The content is great, it’s just that the author is an economist, not a writer. He might as well have just given us a collection of spreadsheets with annotations scribbled in the margins. It’s dense, meandering, and poorly written.

When I see a book of 500 pages like this, what I think is mental laziness. Laziness not to be able to communicate the information more clearly and succinctly.

So instead I read some articles online summarising the main points.

Notes

  • Pinckney is the most frustrating writer ever. Especially coming from Braverman’s clear, well structured, and concise writing style. With Piketty I find myself constantly wondering if he is heading towards a point or just rambling facts. He jumps around constantly and justifies this by saying “we will deal with it later”.
  • Fuck it, it’s impossible to read, just read this for a TL;DR instead, and the wiki page.
  • “Piketty’s argument is that, in an economy where the rate of return on capital outstrips the rate of growth, inherited wealth will always grow faster than earned wealth. So the fact that rich kids can swan aimlessly from gap year to internship to a job at father’s bank/ministry/TV network – while the poor kids sweat into their barista uniforms – is not an accident: it is the system working normally.” – The Guardian
  • “Piketty accepts that the fruits of economic maturity – skills, training and education of the workforce – do promote greater equality. But they can be offset by a more fundamental tendency towards inequality, which is unleashed wherever demographics or low taxation or weak labour organisation allows it.” – Same as above
  • “If he is right, the implications for capitalism are utterly negative: we face a low-growth capitalism, combined with high levels of inequality and low levels of social mobility” – Ditto

Quotes

  • “the higher the savings rate and the lower the growth rate, the higher the capital / income ratio (β).”
  • “In other words, if global output and the income to which it gives rise were equally divided, each individual in the world would have an income of about 760 euros per month.”
  • “More specifically, all of the major developed countries (the United States, Japan, Germany, France, and Britain) currently enjoy a level of national income that is slightly greater than their domestic product.”
  • “Above all, knowledge diffusion depends on a country’s ability to mobilize financing as well as institutions that encourage large-scale investment in education and training of the population while guaranteeing a stable legal framework that various economic actors can reliably count on.”
  • “There is, moreover, no evidence that this catch-up process is primarily a result of investment by the rich countries in the poor. Indeed, the contrary is true: past experience shows that the promise of a good outcome is greater when poor countries are able to invest in themselves.”
  • “Capital-dominated societies in the past, with hierarchies largely determined by inherited wealth (a category that includes both traditional rural societies and the countries of nineteenth-century Europe) can arise and subsist only in low-growth regimes.”
  • “Note, too, that the convention in national accounting is not to count any remuneration for public capital such as hospital buildings and equipment or schools and universities.18 The consequence of this is that a country that privatized its health and education services would see its GDP rise artificially, even if the services produced and the wages paid to employees remained exactly the same.”
  • “It is important to bear this reality in mind as I proceed, because many people think that growth ought to be at least 3 or 4 percent per year. As noted, both history and logic show this to be illusory. To be sure, the transformations entailed by a growth rate of 1 percent are far less sweeping than those required by a rate of 3–4 percent, so that the risk of disillusionment is considerable—a reflection of the hope invested in a more just social order, especially since the Enlightenment. Economic growth is quite simply incapable of satisfying this democratic and meritocratic hope, which must create specific institutions for the purpose and not rely solely on market forces or technological progress.”
  • “The nature of capital has changed: it once was mainly land but has become primarily housing plus industrial and financial assets. Yet it has lost none of its importance.”
  • “Whether public or private, capital is always defined as net wealth, that is, the difference between the market value of what one owns (assets) and what one owes (liabilities, or debts).”
  • “The central fact—and the essential difference from the twentieth century—is that the compensation to those who lent to the government was quite high in the nineteenth century: inflation was virtually zero from 1815 to 1914, and the interest rate on government bonds was generally around 4–5 percent; in particular, it was significantly higher than the growth rate. Under such conditions, investing in public debt can be very good business for wealthy people and their heirs.”
  • “historical time series or measurements of the type indicated in Figure 3.3 but who had intimate knowledge of the British capitalism of his time, clearly recognized that Britain’s gigantic public debt had no apparent impact on national wealth and simply constituted a claim of one portion of the population on another.”
  • “In other words, if a country saves 12 percent of its national income every year, and the rate of growth of its national income is 2 percent per year, then in the long run the capital / income ratio will be equal to 600 percent: the country will have accumulated capital worth six years of national income.”
  • “This formula, which can be regarded as the second fundamental law of capitalism, reflects an obvious but important point: a country that saves a lot and grows slowly will over the long run accumulate an enormous stock of capital (relative to its income), which can in turn have a significant effect on the social structure and distribution of wealth.

sebastiankade

Sebastian Kade, Founder of Sumry and Author of Living Happiness, is a software designer and full-stack engineer. He writes thought-provoking articles every now and then on sebastiankade.com

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