Even more than Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time, Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a most unexpected best-seller, especially given the fact that, unlike Hawking's most famous work, this one contains no pictures. It is also probable that the two works have something else in common: many more people own the book and perhaps have it on prominent display on their shelves than will actually have read very much of it. It is a heavy, technical tome, though written with style and clarity (given the opacity of the topic). One can certainly say it is easier to follow than Marx's great work of the same name, but that is not a particularly high compliment.
Piketty's thesis is relatively straightforward: The world economy exhibits much greater returns on capital than actual economic growth. While this thesis is argued at great length and with economic data for over twenty countries over a long period of time, the implication is really rather simple: The gap between rich and poor is growing wider and wider, and more and more money is being concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. In terms of Western electoral politics, it means that the rhetoric about the squeezing of the middle classes is (according to Piketty) a reality that can be seen in terms of the ownership of capital. It is a somber argument in terms of its implications for the future.
Economics is not my field, and so I must leave critiques and assessments of Piketty's argument and supporting evidence to the experts. But even as a layman, it is obvious that one problem with the book is its prophetic aspirations. The future is unpredictable for many reasons, natural disasters not being the least of them. The problem is rendered complicated by further factors. A world where oil prices are a key part of any developed country's economy is a world where the whole idea of national economies with even relative independence as understood, say, one hundred years ago, is an anachronism. When one is analyzing economic behavior on a global scale, the capacity for error would seem quite great.
Oil is vital for the simple reason that the automobile was invented and has become an essential part of life. The IT revolution of the past forty years has also transformed the world economy. Movies and television have created and transformed markets. Game theory has changed how economists and businesspeople think. None of these things could have been predicted at the end of the nineteenth century, and yet all of them have profoundly shaped national and world economies. Confident predictions of blessing or disaster by economists on the scale that Piketty chooses to make them are clearly ill-founded. Maybe he will prove to be correct, but there is absolutely no way of knowing that. As I say, I am no economist, but I do know something about the history of economics, and history indicates that its predictive power is extremely limited, being subject to so many variables.
The real significance of the book, though, lies less in the details of its argument than in the fact that it is a phenomenon. To have a footnoted 650-page economics tome as a best-seller is astounding. And, given the fact it is unlikely to be read by many of those who have bought it, and that it lacks either a sexy title or a glossy cover to attract buyers, one has to ask why this is.
There are a couple of factors involved. First, I suspect it speaks to the cultural moment. Picketty's thesis is essentially a pessimistic one, whereby the future (for most us) is going to contain much less in terms of opportunities for increasing material comfort and upward social mobility than the past. Many in the Western middle classes are intuitively aware that in their lifetime they have not seen the growth in the standard of living that their parents enjoyed in the post-war boom and then again in the 1980s. Piketty offers an account of why this is so and along the way finds people we can blame: the international capitalists.
Second, the book represents something of a return to the traditional concerns of the Left. The manifold failures of Marxism should have finished the Left, but we all know that did not happen. Instead, the Left of the 1950s and '60s reinvented itself via the work of the Frankfurt School and numerous trendy French thinkers such as Louis Althusser. The New Left is a complicated movement, but it bequeathed to subsequent generations two obvious things: one, a barbaric prose style of Gnostic opacity that cloaked its arguments in shrouds of impenetrable linguistic bombast; and two, a psychologized, rather than an economic, concept of oppression. That is why the major concerns on the Left today are often only tangentially connected to economics: abortion, LGBTQ rights, and so on, are the order of the day.
In this context, the success of Piketty's book seems to reflect the fact that many people still (rightly!) regard economic issues as fundamental to the human experience of freedom and oppression. The book may well be an example of "Old Left" thinking, but that in itself is to be welcomed, as it represents a return to a debate in which the terms are not simply defined by whatever the latest sexual lobby group decides them to be. I can argue with the Old Left because I can agree with them that, to borrow a phrase, "It's the economy, stupid!"
Third, and following from the last point, I suspect much of Piketty's success is due to the book being a conscience-salving purchase. Like the Harvard professors who devised and campaigned for the Affordable Care Act, most of us want to imagine ourselves as committed to helping those suffering economic hardship. But also like said professors, we generally prefer to think that other people are the problem and do not appreciate it when the proposed solution is applied to ourselves. To read Piketty, or perhaps more likely, to own Piketty, is to place oneself on the right (i.e., the Left) side of the current debates about poverty without actually having to do anything about it’partly, of course, because if Piketty is right, there is nothing we can do about it.
So, is there a Christian "take" on Picketty? I would suggest it is this: The book simply confirms what the Bible says about the infatuation people have with mammon. People are fascinated with money, its power, who has it, and who does not. That Piketty's book is a best-seller is prima facie evidence of this. That makes sense: money gives us god-like powers. Money can also allow us to distract ourselves from our own mortality. People thus like books about money and about why others seem to have it and they do not. I suspect Piketty appeals to people for these two reasons: he talks about what we love most, and he allows us all to feel like victims. Greed and lack of responsibility, after sex and violence, are two of the easiest things to sell in today's marketplace.