I enjoy books, both for their own sake and because I am pretentious. If somebody asks what I’m reading, I like to have an answer that implies intellectual ambition, an insatiable hunger for knowledge. But I also want to stay current on my pop culture, so the ideal book will be both snooty and popular. And during the past year, the intersection of Snooty and Popular belonged to Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century.
If you’re not familiar with Piketty, he’s a French economist. And probably now a rich one, too, since his book became the most unlikely of bestsellers. In my case, I was browsing a bookstore with a friend of mine when he said, “Oh, you should get that. It’s good.” And, not wanting to seem like the Us Weekly-reading dum-dum that I really am, I said, “Sure! I’m always keen to learn the latest French economic theory!” Most copies of this book, I think, were sold under similar circumstances, akin to a dare.
By the time I jumped on the Piketty bandwagon, the book was already popular, so I trusted in the wisdom of the crowd. Sure, it’s a 650-page economics treatise, but maybe he makes it fun, like Michael Lewis would. Will the rentiers be able to maintain their aristocratic lifestyles after the transition from an agrarian economy? Grab some popcorn and let’s find out!
Let me save you a lot of time and get right to the points that are interesting, inasmuch as there are any. Did you know that a long time ago, there was no inflation? In the 1800s, British novelists commonly mentioned characters’ incomes as shorthand for their social standing. They could do so because 100 imperial dingledoons one year would be worth the same amount 30 years later. But financing the World Wars led to inflation, and authors had to stop mentioning people’s incomes because doing so would make their books seem prematurely dated. Nowadays, a lot of people don’t like inflation, but it’s important to remember that inflation underpins the Dr. Evil “One Million Dollars” joke, which still works.
Now, I’m no economist myself, but some of Piketty’s figures seem a little sketchy. For instance, in a section about real estate, Piketty says that a million-euro apartment in Paris rents for 2,500 euros a month, which works out to a 3 percent annual return. Let’s try that with Boston: Walk into a real estate office on Newbury Street and tell them you’re looking to rent a million-dollar condo for $2,500 a month, per the reckoning of a bestselling economist. Everyone will have a good laugh and then show you what you can actually get for that amount of money, which is a rail car with sawdust on the floor parked out in Brighton. Your roommate will be named Hobo Joe, and he will steal your baked beans if you don’t keep an eye on him.
What else? You might imagine that, because he’s French, Piketty’s prose is florid and romantic and he wants everyone to work 25-hour weeks and take two-hour lunches devoted to wine and lovemaking. Uh, non. Dude is cold. There’s one point where he says something like “The term ‘human capital’ is irrelevant, because you can’t actually own humans. Slavery is a historic phenomenon, for now.” For now? This guy’s so analytical that he’s leaving himself an out in case the computers enslave us all when the Singularity arrives in 2029. In which case, he’ll run new numbers.
Let me distill the rest of it for you: The rich get richer. Money is like a snowball rolling downhill, and the people with big balls are going to get all the money. Capital is something you own that makes money, so your dog doesn’t count. Unless your dog is like Rin Tin Tin, who was both a dog and capital, so you can see it’s a complicated subject. The end.
That’s about all I got out of my $48 purchase, other than eyestrain and an ongoing low-level sense of regret. I mean, this book has equations in it. And I didn’t graduate college to read equations. I made it to page 225 before I gave up and started using the book for more practical purposes, like counterbalancing my forklift or serving as a land anchor for hot-air balloons. The Wall Street Journal noted that of Capital’s top five reader-cited passages on Amazon, the one deepest in the book appears on page 26. What an amazing coincidence that all the best parts are right at the front. It appears that I’m not the only fraud who bought this thing and then realized that if it were any drier, it’d spontaneously combust.
Now that I’ve given up on Capital in the Twenty-First Century, I’m free to find my next book. And there’s another book that’s so hugely popular that I have to assume it’s really well written: Fifty Shades of Grey, a work whose very title speaks to literary nuance. Hey, my wife seemed to like it.