Capital in the Twenty-First Century is quite a book, and it took my longer than I want to admit to read. This thing clocks in at just over 750 pages, and I wouldn't exactly qualify it as light reading. This is economic history, claims, and statistics annotated by lengthy footnotes the whole way through. I definitely wouldn't recommend this book to anyone looking for something to casually read before going to bed, but if someone is looking for a great introduction and insight into income inequality and trying to get a historical frame for it, then I would highly recommend them to pick this book up and stick through to the end.
Capital in the Twenty-First Century is Thomas Piketty's grand look at rising inequality across Europe and the United States (for the most part). Piketty goes through the history of inequality, both wealth generated from labor and from capital, with an emphasis on the present day and the effects to capital after the World Wars. One of his main ideas is that when the rate of return on capital is greater than economic growth, then inequality increases as assets pool to the top. Piketty makes rather grim predictions for the future of capitalistic countries: either reform capitalism or democracy will be in jeopardy.
It's a difficult book to summarize because there is a lot in there, Piketty digs in on stuff and presents a lot of information. I think this book definitely benefits from this particular moment, and by that I mean it is a book written at the right time. There is a ton of talk, anxiety, and social unrest going around about rising inequality, and whether or not you agree with Piketty's conclusions or methods (of which there is a fair bit to criticize), this book still stands as a fantastic meditation on the subject of inequality. That is probably the books strongest suit; it is a fantastic, modern attempt to quantify and assess inequality around the world, and it does a great job of giving recent historical context for what changes in inequality have looked like.
The book has definitely received its fair share of criticism, and honestly some of it is deserved. I'm not a trained economist and even I noticed that Piketty barely if ever mentions depreciation of assets at any point, which is a pretty big oversight when discussing capital assets. I also think he takes an overly optimistic view of state intervention as a panacea to inequality. That said, I think there are a ton of great ideas in this book and I am much more happy reading a book with some parts I don't agree with. It's worth noting that this book did a great job of sparking debate among the economic community as well. There have been a ton of books and articles published either building on the ideas of this book or critiquing it, and in m opinion getting the ball rolling on having this conversation is a tremendous accomplishment in itself.
This book took me a long time to get through (I took a couple of breaks to read other books along the way), but I am glad I got through to the end. Is it a perfect economic analysis? No. Does it make an attempt to quantify and analyze a dense topic while providing some great insights and perspectives? Absolutely. I think this book is the start of a greater road that we in modern societies must take a lot of time to examine. How badly do we want an egalitarian society, and how much are we willing to change to achieve that? There are a lot of changes we are going to have to make and things that will look different, and I am glad that there are people out there trying to research and find answers to these questions.