Reviewed by Sarah Ell

Harvard University Press RRP $60

If you’re interested in the world economy and where it’s going, you may have heard of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. First published in French in 2013, and in English a year later, the book is written by French economics professor Thomas Piketty. The author has ruffled feathers globally with this in-depth analysis of the workings of capital in the modern world, the trends of wealth accumulation since the industrial revolution and wealth inequality.

Piketty and his researchers analysed data from more than 20 countries to track the accumulation of wealth and the growth in inequality – that is, the gap between the rich and the rest of us getting ever wider. Piketty contends that wealth grows faster than economic output, generating increasingly more income for the already rich, no matter how hard the rest of us work and save. 

Piketty’s solution is to tax the rich, by introducing a global wealth tax, although he acknowledges that this would require “a high level of international cooperation and regional political integration”. He also discusses the evolution of a functional social state and managing public debt. 

Piketty’s writing (and Arthur Goldhammer’s translation) is straightforward and not overly technical or mathematical. Rather than getting bogged down in figures and formulae, Piketty sees his style of ‘political economy’ as a social science, and one of the reasons the book has become such a success is its accessibility.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century is neither a light read nor a short one – at more than 650 pages – but the effort is worth making. Whether or not you agree with Piketty’s proposed solution, or believe it is workable, his knowledge and expertise are impressive. The trends he has identified are significant for everyone living in the capitalist system today.