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Thomas Piketty on Equality in the Modern World (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) June 1, 2022: According to the Wikipedia entry on the French economist Thomas Piketty (born in 1971), his 700-page densely packed 2014 book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, translated by Arthur Goldhammer (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; orig. French ed., 2013) "reached number one on the New York Times bestselling hardcover nonfiction list on May 18, 2014." The skeletal table of "Contents" (p. v) is supplemented by the "Contents in Detail" (pp. 657-664).

For those of us who are not experts in economics, Piketty has now published a comparatively accessible new 2022 book, A Brief History of Equality, translated by Steven Rendall (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press; orig. French ed., 2021).

In addition to the skeletal table of "Contents" (p. v), Piketty's new 2022 book also includes the "Contents in Detail" (pp. 247-250), which includes all the subheadings in each chapter - thereby providing an excellent overview of the book.

In Piketty's "Introduction" (pp. 1-15), he states that "since the end of the eighteenth century, there has been a historical movement toward equality" (p. 1).

He also says that over the long term no matter which criterion we employ, we arrive at the same conclusion. Between 1780 and 2020, we see developments tending toward greater equality of status, property, income, genders, and races within most regions and societies on the planet" (p. 1).

Nevertheless, in Piketty's Chapter 9: "Exiting Neocolonialism" (pp. 203-225), he significantly qualifies his sweeping claims about "1780 to 2020" (p. 1) on pages 218-219 in footnote 22 when he says, "The rise of inequalities since 1980 concerns not only the United States and Europe, but also the rest of the world, starting with India, China, and Russia. The only regions in which inequalities have not increased [since 1980], or increased only a little, are the one that did not really experience an egalitarian phased in the postwar period (in particular, the Middle East, Latin America [home of Pope Francis], and Sub-Saharan Africa). In all, between 1980 and 2018, the richest 1 percent on the planet have appropriated a share of worldwide growth that is more than twice as high as that going to the poorest 50 percent."

In short, between 1980 and 2018, the rich have been getting richer! However, I do not understand why Piketty relegates this information to a footnote on pages 218-219.

Nevertheless, Piketty's sweeping thesis about worldwide development in recent centuries is intriguing and multi-dimensional. He says that "since the end of the eighteenth century, the march toward equality has been based on the development of a number of specific institutional arrangements that have to be studied as such: [1] equality before the law; [2] universal suffrage and parliamentary democracy; [3] free and obligatory [Western] education; [4] universal health insurance; [5] progressive taxes on income, inheritance, and property; [6] joint management and labor law; [7] freedom of the press; [8] international law [including social justice goals of international law]; [9] and so on" (p. 12).

Piketty also stipulates that "each of these arrangements, far from having reached a complete and consensual form, is connected with a precarious, unstable, and temporary compromise, in perpetual redefinition and emerging from specific social conflicts and mobilizations, interrupted bifurcations, and particular historical moments. They all suffer from multiple insufficiencies and must be constantly rethought, supplemented, and replaced by others [i.e., by other arrangements]" (p. 12).

In addition, Piketty says, "To continue to shake up and redefine established institutions [and institutional arrangements], crises and power relations are necessary, as was the case in the past, but we will also need processes of learning and collective engagement, as well as mobilization around new political programs and proposals for new institutions [and new institutional arrangements]. This requires multiple frameworks for the discussion, elaboration, and diffusion of knowledge and experiences: political parties and labor unions, schools and books, travel and meetings, newspapers and electronic media" (p. 13).

In Piketty's Chapter 2: "The Slow Deconcentration of Power and Property" (pp. 30-47), he reports on page 43 in footnote 6 that "The richest 1 percent includes around 500,000 persons (out of about 50 million adults)."

In Piketty's Chapter 3: "The Heritage of Slavery and colonialism" (pp. 48-67), he discusses the "recent synthesis of capitalism [by] Pierre Francois and Claire Lemercier" in 2021 in French (p. 62, footnote 14). In addition, Piketty also manifests a certain scholarly humility when he allows that "It is, however, completely possible that new research or previously unknown sources will make it possible to further develop this conclusion, now fragile and provisional. Many other factors might explain an earlier proto-capitalist divergence" (p. 64).

Piketty also calls attention on page 66 in footnote 22 to Benedict R. Anderson's discussion of "the spread of printing" in his "classic book" titled Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (rev. ed., 2006; 1st ed., 1983).

Classic pioneering studies of the print culture that emerged in Western culture after the Gutenberg printing press emerged in Europe in the mid-1450s include the following books:

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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