3.2 Examples from Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century

Piketty examples

 

Examples from Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014)

 

Identify what kind of passage each is: an argument or one of the seven non-arguments. If it’s an argument, spell out its premises and conclusion. If it’s something else, say why it is what it is. For instance (illustration) if you say it’s an explanation, say what it purports to explain (the explanandum) and how it purports to explain it (the explanans). If it’s a conditional, spell out its antecedent and consequent, etc.

 

  1. When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based. (1)

 

  1. The concrete physical reality of inequality is visible to the naked eye and naturally inspires sharp but contradictory political judgments. Peasant and noble, worker and factory owner, waiter and banker: each has his or her own unique vantage point and sees important aspects of how other people live and what relations of power and domination exist between social groups, and these observations shape each person’s judgment of what is and is not just. Hence there will always be a fundamentally subjective and psychological dimension to inequality, which inevitably gives rise to political conflict that no purportedly scientific analysis can alleviate. (2)

 

 

  1. By the time Marx published the first volume of Capital in 1867, exactly one half century after the publication of Ricardo’s Principles, economic and social realities had changed profoundly: the question was no longer whether farmers could feed a growing population or land prices would rise sky high but rather how to understand the dynamics of industrial capitalism, now in full blossom. (7)

 

 

  1. “The development of Modern Industry cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers, Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” (Marx, quoted on p. 8)

 

  1. Marx’s dark prophecy came no closer to being realized than Ricardo’s. In the last third of the 19th century, wages finally began to increase: the improvement in the purchasing power of workers spread everywhere, and this changed the situation radically, even if extreme inequalities persisted and in some respects continued to increase until WW I. (9)

 

 

  1. One should be wary of any economic determinism in regard to inequalities of wealth and income. The history of the distribution of wealth has always been deeply political, and it cannot be reduced to purely economic mechanisms. In particular, the reduction of inequality that took place in most developed countries between 1910 and 1950 was above all a consequence of war and of policies adopted to cope with the shocks of war. Similarly the resurgence of inequality after 1980 is due largely to the political shifts of the past several decades, especially in regard to taxation and finance. (20)

 

  1. In slowly growing economies, past wealth naturally takes on disproportionate importance, because it takes only a small flow of new savings to increase the stock of wealth steadily and substantially. (25)

 

 

  1. If, moreover, the rate of return on capital remains significantly above the growth rate for an extended period of time, then the risk of divergence in the distribution of wealth is very high. Ibid.

 

  1. The French Revolution did not create a just or ideal society, but it did make it possible to observe the structure of wealth in unprecedented detail. (29)

 

10. The system established in the 1790s for recording wealth in land, buildings, and financial assets was astonishingly modern and comprehensive for its time. The Revolution is the reason why French estate records are probably the richest in the world over the long run. Ibid

11.  In a way the French Revolution was more ambitious [than the American]. It abolished all legal privileges and sought to create a political and social order based entirely on equality of rights and opportunities. The Civil Code guaranteed absolute equality before the laws of property as well as freedom of contract (for men, at any rate). (30)

 

 

 

 

Answers

1.When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based. (1)

This seems to be a report, although it implicitly is saying that the inequalities are produced by the greater rate of return on capital (over the rate of growth), which would be an explanation of the inequalities.

 

 

2.  The concrete physical reality of inequality is visible to the naked eye and naturally inspires sharp but contradictory political judgments. Peasant and noble, worker and factory owner, waiter and banker: each has his or her own unique vantage point and sees important aspects of how other people live and what relations of power and domination exist between social groups, and these observations shape each person’s judgment of what is and is not just. Hence there will always be a fundamentally subjective and psychological dimension to inequality, which inevitably gives rise to political conflict that no purportedly scientific analysis can alleviate. (2)

“Hence” is a clear indicator that an argument is present. So here, even if you get lost in the length of the passage, you should sense that “hence” is an anchor to cling to. The conclusion is that inequality is fundamentally a political issue, not simply a “scientific” issue of Economics.

 

3.  By the time Marx published the first volume of Capital in 1867, exactly one half century after the publication of Ricardo’s Principles, economic and social realities had changed profoundly: the question was no longer whether farmers could feed a growing population or land prices would rise sky high but rather how to understand the dynamics of industrial capitalism, now in full blossom. (7)

This seems like a report, but it makes sense to see an illustration here as well. Instead of just saying that things had changed, the passage gives a clear example, after the colon.

 

  1. “The development of Modern Industry cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own gravediggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.” (Marx, quoted on p. 8)

This is an argument. The conclusion is that the downfall of capitalism is inevitable.

 

  1. Marx’s dark prophecy came no closer to being realized than Ricardo’s. In the last third of the 19th century, wages finally began to increase: the improvement in the purchasing power of workers spread everywhere, and this changed the situation radically, even if extreme inequalities persisted and in some respects continued to increase until WW I. (9)

This clarifies, explains, or explicates the opening statement. “Explication” is the best answer.

 

  1. One should be wary of any economic determinism in regard to inequalities of wealth and income. The history of the distribution of wealth has always been deeply political, and it cannot be reduced to purely economic mechanisms. In particular, the reduction of inequality that took place in most developed countries between 1910 and 1950 was above all a consequence of war and of policies adopted to cope with the shocks of war. Similarly the resurgence of inequality after 1980 is due largely to the political shifts of the past several decades, especially in regard to taxation and finance. (20)

As often happens in a long passage, the first sentence states the conclusion, and the premises follow it.

Premise: the reduction of inequality between 1950 and 1980 was due to policies enacted in response to wars.

Premise: the increase in inequality since 1980 is due largely to policies on taxation and finance.

Conclusion: inequality is not a matter of economic determinism but of political realities.

 

  1. In slowly growing economies, past wealth naturally takes on disproportionate importance, because it takes only a small flow of new savings to increase the stock of wealth steadily and substantially. (25)

This could be read as an argument or as an explanation. The latter seems the stronger case: this is answering the question “Why does past wealth take on such importance in slow growing economies.”

 

  1. If, moreover, the rate of return on capital remains significantly above the growth rate for an extended period of time, then the risk of divergence in the distribution of wealth is very high. Ibid.

This is a conditional statement. The antecedent is “the rate of return on capital remains significantly above the growth rate for an extended period of time.”

 

  1. The French Revolution did not create a just or ideal society, but it did make it possible to observe the structure of wealth in unprecedented detail. (29)

Report

 

10.  The system established in the 1790s for recording wealth in land, buildings, and financial assets was astonishingly modern and comprehensive for its time. The Revolution is the reason why French estate records are probably the richest in the world over the long run. Ibid

Explanation of why French economic records are so important. But this could be read or construed as making an argument for that point as well.

 

11.  In a way the French Revolution was more ambitious [than the American]. It abolished all legal privileges and sought to create a political and social order based entirely on equality of rights and opportunities. The Civil Code guaranteed absolute equality before the laws of property as well as freedom of contract (for men, at any rate). (30)

 

This is an argument for why you should believe that the French Revolution was more ambitious than the American Revolution.

Premise: The FR guaranteed absolute equality before the laws as well as freedom of contract (and the American Revolution did not) –at least for men.

Premise: The French Revolution abolished all legal privileges (and the American did not) –at least for men.

Conclusion: The FR was more ambitious than the AR.

 

 

One Response to 3.2 Examples from Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century

  1. Sally Merrill says:

    Are you still there, my colleague? I found this from your 2014 course online, after a student of mine in our LOGIC/Fallacies Unit cited it, and I had to check it out.
    I like this use of Capital! I studied Marx in German in Hamburg in 1970, … and enjoyed Piccady’s book, though I often questioned exactly where it was leading in terms of pragmatic conclusions. Anyhow, I differ with you on #5: I think it is an argument for the first sentence as conclusion, the rest being reasons why it is true that Marx’ predictions were about as bad as Ricardo’s, — but with missing PREMISES about what exactly Marx had predicted (assuming what time frame, for instance?) that was disproven, if it was, …and exactly how to evaluate Ricardo’s vs. Marx’ predictions. So, Enthymematic Argument, in my view.
    Best regards, if you ever receive this, if your course is still on-going,
    Dr. Sarah Bishop Merrill, M.S., Ph. D., South Texas College, McAllen, TX 78501

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