Top Incomes in France in the Twentieth Century
by Thomas Piketty
translated from the French by Seth Ackerman
The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2018
Well-intentioned readers who felt browbeaten and perhaps a trifle aggrieved by the explosive ubiquity of the 2014 English-language translation of French economist Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twentieth Century, readers who felt oppressed by the book's endless, stem-winding reviews in journals where they'd otherwise be contentedly reading about some new attempt at a Henry Green revival, readers who plaintively wondered if it was really incumbent upon them to digest this massive fondue of financial facts and figures, such readers may have sighed in relief once the whole ghastly tourbillon had finally over.
Those readers – and we are all those readers – will now be regarding the good folks at Harvard's Belknap Press with a steady, almost inimical gaze, with a slight side-to-side grinding motion of the jawline, with the sudden bodily immobility of the unexpectedly accosted, because Belknap has delivered forth another helping of Piketty for the Spring book season, and Top Incomes in France in the Twentieth Century is not only twice as long as Capital in the Twentieth Century but also half as digestible.
The later book is actually the earlier. Les hauts revenues en France au XX e siècle: Inégalités et redistributions, 1901-1998 first appeared in 2001 and might very well have remained untranslated if not for the unlikely success of Capital. At 1,250 pages, Top Incomes is the vast drab informational workload from which Piketty later crafted the gay romp of Capital, so the two books understandably share a worldview, a philosophy, and a certain way with spreadsheets. This earlier tome aims to be nothing less than a biography of France's economy for the entire length of a century, a mind-boggling undertaking that does not, it must be admitted, translate into thirstily compulsive reading. Piketty has consulted God only knows how many reams of tabulated data on French taxes and incomes over the course of the 20th century, studying the ways incomes fluctuate and the factors that determine what widens and narrows income inequality.
The reading is frankly arduous, despite Piketty's clear and energetic prose (translated here by Seth Ackerman, who's presumably now being given the gentlest hospice care), and the story is an increasingly dark one. Piketty isn't anywhere here actually trying to tell that story, but for the maniacally dogged reader, a story emerges anyway, a story of the inexorable centralization not of political power but of political power's control over the markets. With lapses and occasional backtracking, the pattern sharpens decade by decade, with financial tightening of penalties and bonuses steadily moving in the direction of greater control:
We should underscore the distance that has been traveled: in the 1917 tax year, all wage earners, including the highest-paid, benefited from a system of tax advantages relative to the self-employed, relative even to the most impoverished self-employed workers, who, with very few exceptions, were treated the same as the biggest publicly listed corporations; at the very end of the century, wage earners and self-employed workers were subject to the same tax conditions, and the only categories of “workers” disadvantaged by the law were with earned incomes above a certain threshold, whether these “workers” were wage earners or self-employed.
“First and foremost,” Piketty writes in a sentiment that will be familiar to anybody who actually tackled Capital, whether they liked it or not, “the history of this shift confirms that the weight of ideology cannot be ignored.” This author's distinctive signature, this infusing of math with musing, fills Top Incomes in just the way it did Capital, but with far less summary and no concision, not the smallest sop tossed to the intrepid trekker. Unlike Capital, there isn't the slightest thing inviting about Top Incomes; it won't become an unexpected cause célèbre in the literary press, although it might be studied in college economics classes. As if econ students weren't depressed enough.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com