by Thomas Piketty
Belknap Press of Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. 696 pages
REVIEWED BY SKIP FERGUSON
“Marxist!” “Socialist!” “Communist!” Since the publication of his book, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” French economist Thomas Piketty, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, has endured a torrent of rants. Yet his book has become a best seller, no small accomplishment for an almost 700-page book dense with facts and figures.
The book is a mix of economics and history, and while it is devoid of theology, it is a book clergy should read, seminary professors should study and church groups should discuss for its basic premise: economic inequality – the gap between the rich and virtually everyone else – has grown to the point where it now exceeds even that of the Gilded Age a century ago. And, absent any effort to restrain it, income inequality growth will continue and the gap will widen.
Piketty asked a fundamental economic question: “Do the dynamics of private capital accumulation inevitably lead to the concentration of wealth in ever fewer hands, … or do the balancing forces of growth, competition, and technological progress lead to reduced inequality and greater harmony among the classes?” He gathered his facts and figures dispassionately and methodically and concluded that the first proposition is true. Conversely, he found that the second proposition, “a rising tide lifts all boats,” was not true.
He argues that the natural course of economic events inevitably leads to a growing gap between the wealthy 1% and the other 99%. Further, and more troubling, Piketty believes that “there is no natural, spontaneous process to prevent destabilizing, inegalitarian forces from prevailing permanently.”
He maintains that “the history of inequality is shaped by the way economic, social and political actors view what is just and what is not, as well as by the relative power of those actors and the collective choices that result.” It is in this observation that things get interesting for us within the church: what do we mean when we use the word “just”? What do we mean when we talk about “economic and social justice”?
What does Scripture teach us? What are we to make of these words from Acts, “All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:44-45)? How should we respond to John the Baptizer’s admonishment, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise” (Luke 3:11)? In a time when the “prosperity gospel” has proven so popular, do we dare preach our Lord’s words, “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry” (Luke 6:24-25)?
Piketty’s policy recommendations in the last part of the book are where most of the controversy lies: he argues vigorously for more progressive taxation of the wealthy. The real value of this superb work is that Piketty opens our eyes to economic inequality and asks us to determine for ourselves what is just, and from there, to act. This is neither Marxism nor Socialism; it is our calling as followers of Jesus Christ.
SKIP FERGUSON is pastor of the Manassas Presbyterian Church in Manassas, Virginia.