BBS Book Thingie: “Capital in the 21st Century” Discussion Week 5 (Chapter 4) - The Dynamics of the Capital/Income Ratio: From Old Europe to the New World

Hi folks… happy belated Father’s Day! I was tied up with related frivolities with my related relations, so I apologize for the tardy post, as well as for my lack of participation in the discussion. I won’t let it die! I’m gonna get caught up! Just maybe not this week…

We’re in Chapter Four in Part Two now. “From Old Europe to the New World.” Whaddaya think so far?

What do you think?

I am up to date with this. I am enjoying the extended history lesson, was a bit surprised by the Cameron and Tarantino references.

Not sure I have much to add, really just finding it interesting and enjoying Piketty’s thoughts and analysis of the differences between the various nations he’s considering.

And that’s about it - the subject matter is something I really don’t have much knowledge of, so I don’t have a lot to offer in terms of thoughts/criticism.


This chapter again seems to be building up to something more.

One thing that I found interesting was the depiction of the southern U.S. as being significantly wealthier (600% vs 300%) than the north with market valuation of slaves counted as capital. The history that I learned when growing up was first that the north was much wealthier (they had all the industry) and later that the balance of wealth and power was carefully kept as even as possible by the politicians (initially with the 3/5ths compromise and later by splitting territories into ‘southern style’ and ‘northern style’ when they became states) right up until the civil war. This gives a new angle, but I don’t know what I think of it yet.

I suppose figure 4.6/4.10 is also a little surprising in just how flat it is, and how much lower the total from 1950 on up to 2010 is when compared to the past. Maybe because it’s scaled against income and there was actual income growth? I would expect it to shoot upward toward the end due to wage stagnation and inflation affecting income (and housing prices), but it doesn’t.


And wealthier even than equivalent European landowners of the time, as they (like the US northern states) merely relied on waged labour and didn’t also own the human capital that did the work. When it’s put as baldly as that, it’s no wonder that the result of the American Civil War was an economic disaster for the Confederacy.

Not that I have a huge amount of sympathy for slave owners, BTW …


Should also add that I’m also learning how ignorant I am about slavery. I had no idea slaves were such a high proportion of the population of the southern US.

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Yeah, the going wisdom in the historiography as of late is that the south was the economic engine of the US in the antebellum, so his analysis is totally in line with what most antebellum historians are doing and thinking.

One point I found annoying was that he discounted colonialism in the 19th century, but what exactly does he think the various wars of expansion were in the 19th century other than flat out colonial conquests? if the US was wealthier, I don’t think it’s entirely on the landholding in the south, but in the steady expansion in the north. While slavery is at the heart of the Civil War, westward expansion played a role as well, because there was a pretty strong debate about what sort of use the land outwest should be put to, expanding slavery or free holders. This might be my first major point of disagreement with him actually.

Question… do you guys think that this book is hard to debate, because of his methodology? He’s using numbers where he has them, meaning it has the weight of scientific objectivity, on the surface? Thoughts?

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Shouldn’t we be on the next chapter by now?
(Spoiler - it’s more of the same).

It does just feel like a lot of numbers being plotted, and at least trying to appear objective. I keep hoping that it’s going to move on from looking at historical data at some stage.

Me too, but I get why he’s doing that. The social argument is often rejected as not being objective. It’s a smart way to make his argument by using hard data to back his claims of rampant inequality.

Yes, probably… I was out of town for a week, so I’m sort of out of synch with the rest of yous folks here!

I’ve read the next chapter and it is indeed more of the same.

He’s making a very careful argument piece by piece and I can’t see anything to discuss or argue with. Which is a good thing in one way, I guess. But difficult for a Book Club.


I finally found something I disagreed on with him in this book. But maybe it’s a bit nitpicky?

Go for, please do: we need something or we’re going to lose momentum.

I mentioned it in a previous post… specifically, it’s his characterization of the US as not being a colonial power, when what do we call the wars of expansion in the 19th century, except a set of colonial conquests. The discrepancies or similarities or whatever he’s pointing to, described between the US and Europe can be attributed to that, some historians have argued. But to imagine an ever expanding American state as anything other than “colonial” is I think misleading.

So, how does the expansion across the continent compare, economically, with the overseas empires of France and Britain? Does it allow for the US to become an economic powerhouse that can indeed compete, because of the vast resources being consumed as more territory is added?

Also, as he discusses the various overseas empires and economic ramifications of that (or slavery) why is he not accounting for the human costs then. I like his building up of this picture of economic expansion over time, and the use of numbers to back that up, but what are the human consequences of this. Despite the characterization of Marx as being one who describes a series of inevitability that leads to the modern capitalist system, he was very clear on describing the real consequences (and in Communist Manifesto) what the ultimate outcome of that might be. So I wonder with Piketty is he going to do something similar after his descriptions of grow, expansion, and inequality? I get the sense that he is doing so, but we haven’t seen it yet.


I agree, the US definitely has a colonial history of a magnitude comparable to the European powers — and got to keep it all while somehow claiming to have the moral high ground … :confused: :disappointed: But I think the reason he doesn’t directly compare the USA to the UK and France is because slavery artificially added so much value to the economic bottom line of the American South.

Because he’s an economist and only using historical research techniques to tell the stories of economies over time rather than the stories of people? Or maybe we haven’t got to that part of the book yet?

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The new chapter is up. We didn’t have a topic heading for this last week, so I’ve put Chapter 5 and 6 in a single topic.


Thanks! I was finally going to do that. Sorry about my absence… had to lock three episodes of my show this week, which is two more than I typically do in weeks that are 25% longer.

I’m gonna settle in to read and try to catch up.

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