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Capital in the Twenty-First Century | [Thomas Piketty, Arthur Goldhammer (translator)]

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

What are the grand dynamics that drive the accumulation and distribution of capital? Questions about the long-term evolution of inequality, the concentration of wealth, and the prospects for economic growth lie at the heart of political economy. But satisfactory answers have been hard to find for lack of adequate data and clear guiding theories.
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Publisher's Summary

What are the grand dynamics that drive the accumulation and distribution of capital? Questions about the long-term evolution of inequality, the concentration of wealth, and the prospects for economic growth lie at the heart of political economy. But satisfactory answers have been hard to find for lack of adequate data and clear guiding theories. In Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Thomas Piketty analyzes a unique collection of data from 20 countries, ranging as far back as the 18th century, to uncover key economic and social patterns. His findings will transform debate and set the agenda for the next generation of thought about wealth and inequality.

Piketty shows that modern economic growth and the diffusion of knowledge have allowed us to avoid inequalities on the apocalyptic scale predicted by Karl Marx. But we have not modified the deep structures of capital and inequality as much as we thought in the optimistic decades following World War II. The main driver of inequality - the tendency of returns on capital to exceed the rate of economic growth - today threatens to generate extreme inequalities that stir discontent and undermine democratic values. But economic trends are not acts of God. Political action has curbed dangerous inequalities in the past, Piketty says, and may do so again.

A work of extraordinary ambition, originality, and rigor, Capital in the Twenty-First Century reorients our understanding of economic history and confronts us with sobering lessons for today.

Download the accompanying reference guide.

©2014 the President and Fellows of Harvard College (P)2014 Audible, Inc.

What the Critics Say

"L.J. Ganser's voice and accents are superb, and emphasis is well placed." (AudioFile)

What Members Say

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  •  
    Kazuhiko TUXEDO PARK, NY, United States 06-14-14
    Kazuhiko TUXEDO PARK, NY, United States 06-14-14 Member Since 2012
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    "Audio format still useful to get the gist of it"

    I agree with the other reviewer who warned that the PDF has 106 pages of figures and tables and that the audio format may not be the best way to "read" this book.

    However, in my case, there is no way for me, who is not an economist or a student, to get through 685 pages (577 pages of main text and figures plus notes, index, etc.) in the hardcover copy just by, uh, reading. While the audiobook's 25 hours is longer than the length of an average audiobook, I got through it in less than 10 days just by listening during my daily commute and chores, and I feel I got the gist of the content. It was interesting enough and, I felt I missed some important aspects of the argument depicted in the figures, so I went out and got a hardcopy and a notebook so that I can even take notes. Yes, this audiobook got me interested in this book.

    An unexpected bonus of this book for me was the author's references to the characters and the financial/societal backdrops of stories by Jane Austen and Honoré de Balzac. I did not realize how much I missed and did not comprehend the important nuances of the stories from the 19th centuries world (or 18th or 20th for that matter). We don't usually pay attention to how culture is influenced by the distribution of capital in the society and how that affects day-to-day mood of people in it.

    I noticed that this book has been greatly politicized. But to me, the book simply provides DATA-DRIVEN analyses and recommendations for a fair society.

    20 of 21 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Madeleine London, United Kingdom 05-22-14
    Madeleine London, United Kingdom 05-22-14 Member Since 2008

    Audiobook addict.

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    "The Financial Times' Critique Doesn't Detract"

    It is a deep shame that the Financial Times' critique of Piketty's data is going to put some people off from buying and listening to this book, because a few quibbles about a very small amount of the data (on the UK only) doesn't detract from the validity of this detailed piece of analysis. It won't matter that many other well-respected economists defend Piketty's use of the data, or the robustness of his argument. For the readers of the FT, for those who represent the top 10% of weathholders, or those who aspire to be one of them, this book is a fundamental threat to their plans.

    It's a long book, and it takes some concentration to listen to. Looking at the linked PDFs help to bring the stats and numbers to life. But I found it incredibly worthwhile. The central argument - that R>G (capital always trumps growth) is successfully and persuasively argued six ways from Sunday. And that is something not even Piketty's most vehement detractors can argue against.

    Nor did I find Piketty's conclusions and suggestions even close to being the 'radical marxist' ones that he's been accused of holding by the press. He's conscious of the fundamental value of entrepreneurship, of a vibrant market.

    When all is said and done, this book will polarize its readers along ideological lines. Because ultimately he's asking the question: what do we want our society to look like? He argues very persuasively that many of the ways we have sought to establish fairness and meritocracy in society have been ineffective in the long run.

    This book threatens those who continue to perpetuate the myth that there are even playing fields: that financial success is based on merit, that opportunity is available to everyone, that trickle-down economics works, that education is the great leveler. There are good reasons why certain groups find this book threatening. It erodes the very thin veneer that the free market is truly free.

    But it is also a very optimistic book. Piketty offers some very 'unradical' solutions for how to mitigate the problem of rapidly accelerating wealth concentration. It's not a 'downer' at all.

    The narration is good for such a long and complex book. Well chosen to be easy on the ears but still engage the concentration. I found it well worth the credit and the time I spent on it.

    38 of 41 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Darwin8u Mesa, AZ, United States 05-25-14
    Darwin8u Mesa, AZ, United States 05-25-14 Member Since 2011

    A part-time buffoon and ersatz scholar specializing in BS, pedantry, schmaltz and cultural coprophagia.

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    "Hottest Economic Beach Read of the Season"

    This is one of those scholarly books that seem to end up being accidental cultural markers of time and place. I'm pretty sure Piketty wanted his book to be read/discussed/debated, and Belnap/Harvard Press certainly wanted it to be bought. But, I'm pretty sure neither the author or the publisher was expecting it to do sell like it did (whether it gets read is another matter). My guess is this book will stimulate a lot of debate about the real nature and scope of income and capital inequality AND debate about the proper roll of government in addressing these issues.

    What I loved about this book was Piketty's voice. His narrative style. The fact he rejected the theoretical speculation favored by a lot of modern economists and instead went with a historical and data-centric narrative, gave this book juice. He wrote an economics book that demands to be read. I loved how he used literature (Balzac and Austen) as reference points for his thesis about the challenges with income and capital disparities between the 1% and the lower 50%. I loved his boldness. I mean really, it takes some scholarly, economic balls to name your book 'Capital'. It is like walking into a Liverpool pub with a Manchester Untied shirt on. Piketty was provocative right from the start.

    Why didn't I rate this higher? I thought his proscriptive approach (Part IV) was a bit naive. I get what he is trying to do. He is setting the flag at the ideal point and letting the politics take care of itself, but his ideal isn't really even on this planet (not even on Planet France). I'm not sure the governing class in any of the major nations he dealt with will ever be ready for a large-scale capital tax, or a global system of taxing and studying incomes. There just isn't any stomach for that. Perhaps I'm a pessimist, but I think we are already governed by system of economic élite domination. It is more likely that a natural disaster, world war, or years of inflation are way more likely to change the current and growing capital inequality in the US and Europe than any preventative, rational, or progressive tax on wealth.

    We can barely politically stomach a slight increase to capital gains/dividend tax rates without shutting down government and calls to impeach our president. A one-time, double-digit tax on wealth just won't happen in my lifetime. When 97% of scientists warn us about global warming, but because of vested energy interests and media complicity we find half of our nation believing it is all hype as the poles melt, what hope do we have in preventing millionaires and billionaires from accumulating more wealth? Most will remain ignorant of the problem, apathetic about how that type of income disparity harms democracy, and mostly antagonistic about changing what is perceived to be a meritocracy for a redistributive tax solution. Just not going to happen. I can't see it happening in France, let alone Britain, China or the US.

    But that is just me venting my frustrations. The future IS the sole property of the future. I might be wrong. For the most part the book is already doing what he wanted. He's got FT writing and challenging his data. He has Paul Krugman giving supporting data. I'm reading his book instead of a Dan Brown novel. So, my bitching aside, his book has already done 10x what it had every practical right to do. It might just end up being the next John Rawls tome, read by economists, politicians and those tired of Dan Brown novels. I sure hope so.

    52 of 58 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Lawrence Monroeville, PA, United States 06-20-14
    Lawrence Monroeville, PA, United States 06-20-14 Member Since 2009
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    "Worth the time and money"

    I gave this audiobook 5 stars even though it's not perfect. Here's why.

    Obviously audiobook is not the perfect format for a wonky macroeconomic tome with lots of graphs and numbers. Even though it comes with pdf files for the charts, that's not much help when you're listening in the car. But the glass of water half full is that I wouldn't have had the time to read this book, so listening is better than nothing. And this book has great merit.

    We've all read the criticism of the author's predictions and extrapolations. That was predictable because of the reflexive reaction by conservatives, and also the carping economists who would never dream of having a best seller on their hands, thus turning into to haters.

    Even if you ignore the author's prediction that US wealth is and will continue to become more concentrated in the clutches of the one-percenters, this book is valuable for its fascinating explanation of the history of wealth stratification. That alone taught me a great deal and helps explain where any why the world economy is. In brief, wealth has always tended to rise to the top. It was only because of the "economic shocks" of the two World Wars that the American and European middle classes got a temporary bigger piece of the pie. Add to this the fact that emerging economies are merely catching up to us explains why Americans have anxiety about not being so far ahead of the rest of the world.

    This book is a great history lesson. Don't prejudge it just because, in the end, the author makes some value judgments. Learning is great fun. At least I think so.

    5 of 5 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ryan Somerville, MA, United States 06-18-14
    Ryan Somerville, MA, United States 06-18-14 Member Since 2005

    Gen-Xer, software engineer, and lifelong avid reader. Soft spots for sci-fi, fantasy, and history, but I'll read anything good.

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    "Wall, meet writing"

    Spoiler alert: the takeaway from Thomas Piketty's dry but much-discussed book is what most citizens of the developed world already know: income and wealth inequality in first world countries, particularly the United States, are at levels not seen since the Gilded Age. As much as I've personally benefitted from globalism and technology, it’s obvious that the lion’s share of the profits from these trends has gone to a small elite, while many Americans are being left behind in an economy that no longer places great value on their skills (or gives a damn about educating their kids).

    No doubt, the timing of the book’s publication has something to do with the big splash it made -- these are clearly issues on a lot of minds -- but Piketty brings some cool analysis to the current reality, helping the reader understand how to see it in terms of historical data. As he argues, all economic evidence suggests that this disparity is likely to continue to grow, driving modern countries towards a form of society not seen since 19th century Europe. There, he shows, there was less economic growth than in the 20th century, which meant that a small upper class that controlled most of the capital received most of the income, consolidating its dominance through inheritance. Piketty brilliantly illustrates this point with references to classic 19th century novels, wherein protagonists aren’t trying to better themselves in careers in which advancement is limited, but are focused on marrying well. Only the shock of two world wars ended this reality, creating a few decades of growth-through-rebuilding and relatively egalitarian prosperity for Western Europe and the US.

    Piketty dives down into the weeds of numerical data, graphs, charts, and comparison tables to make his point, which doesn’t always make for an ideal audiobook listen. Though there’s a PDF supplement, dedicated readers might want to get the book in print. Still, the gist is clear. We can no longer count on the rapid expansion and population growth that drove the wheels of US industry in earlier days. Return on capital is now a better bet than return on growth in most sectors of a 21st century non-emerging economy, with the start-up costs for high-tech industries or rental properties favoring the already wealthy. Even the apparent exceptions, such as software development (my own field), kind of prove the rule, in the sense that they only provide jobs for a small class of highly-skilled workers, sometimes to the detriment of the less-skilled.

    However, Piketty’s proposed solutions, as much as I agree with their goals, seem naive given current politics. He advocates more confiscatory taxes on the global top 1%, more transparency in the financial systems of all countries, and stronger international laws related to seizing the assets of tax dodgers. I don’t know about his fellow French citizens, but to even suggest to a certain segment of the US electorate that their country might not actually be a meritocracy, or that it be more subject to some international body of law, would trigger instant howling outrage. Never mind that most of that group will never be wealthy themselves -- they would still rather live in a decaying shack, imagining their interests to be aligned with those of the billionaire Koch Brothers, than ever agree with some “socialist” French academic.

    Piketty emphasizes his faith in democracy, but there are a few things I wish he’d discussed more, even if they fall outside the purview of economics. The long-term implications of technological advances on the job market. The tendency of big government and big business to end up in bed with each other. How the people can take back ownership of the political system and the machinery of production without going down the failed route of Communism.

    Still, I’m glad this book is being talked about. If the Boomer Generation is still earnestly clinging to the “American Dream” ideals it once knew, it’s pretty clear to younger generations that the system isn’t so meritocratic or upwardly mobile as it once was. I think that Piketty, a Gen-Xer himself, is speaking more to this demographic than the one currently in charge. After all, to quote a certain Gen-X musical, the aging Koch brothers are “just for now”.

    That said, your kids might give some thought to marrying one of their heirs.

    9 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Michael Williams St. Croix, Virgin Islands United States 07-13-14
    Michael Williams St. Croix, Virgin Islands United States 07-13-14 Member Since 2012
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    "Long book and one listen is not enough."
    What made the experience of listening to Capital in the Twenty-First Century the most enjoyable?

    This is a complicated book by a very smart guy who spent a very long time putting it together. My first listen all the way through with many rewinds still didn't get me to fully grasp what was being explained. What I did get was that most people who listen won't understand or will take Thomas P suggestions as an affront to the free enterprise system. I didn't. Imagine taking Americans into his suggestions when all it takes is for two of the less rich guys like the Koch brothers to stir up a tea party. Or even to get better gun control.

    Americans won't do anything of the likes of this book suggest but it should serve to wake people up to realize there is a trend line that has historical precedence. Wealth is getting more concentrated.

    What I would like to know is whether the concentration is actually causing stagnation or is it being used more effectively than what the government can do with it. Thats what it boils down to. Who do you think will do a better job with the money? The rich or the government.


    What was one of the most memorable moments of Capital in the Twenty-First Century?

    FOR SURE.. Big point and major take away for me was, that the most effective way to gain a more "egalitarian" society as per past history, was by the dissemination of SKILLS.

    Train and educate the populace for them to help themselves. Not hand outs like most people will interpret this book to say.


    What does L. J. Ganser bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

    He brings eyeballs and a voice. There was a few points in the book that he really made it sound like TP wrote in a derogatory tone about one thing or another and I wondered if the author would have used that tone but I was being as objective as possible so I let it slide.


    Was there a moment in the book that particularly moved you?

    The whole book is a must for anyone trying to understand the equality vs inequality discussion we hear about from the talking heads.


    Any additional comments?

    Don't NOT get this book because you think it might turn you into a pinko commie tree hugging freak. This is a real work by a very smart guy who spent a long time putting it together. Heavy but you will be a better person for it. You will have a deeper understanding of a very real phenomenon in our paradigm. Wealth is undoubtedly becoming more concentrated. What does that mean? If it means more bad things for more people then that might need to be addressed. If it's just what account the money flows through to get to the same ends then who cares. I'd rather have Warren Buffett run the country than most of the people we have had in the past. Rich people know what to do with money.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    CHESTER LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, United States 06-18-14
    CHESTER LAS VEGAS, NEVADA, United States 06-18-14 Member Since 2007

    Chet Yarbrough, an audio book addict, exercises two cocker spaniels twice a day with an Ipod in his pocket and earbuds in his ears. Hope these few reviews seduce the public into a similar obsession but walk safely and be aware of the unaware.

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    "CAPITAL FORMATION"

    What follows Thomas Piketty’s erudite introduction to Capital in the Twenty-First Century is a detailed history of capital formation and income inequality that nearly puts one in a coma. In truth, Piketty’s peregrination is essential for credibility but only for the sake of economists that wish to challenge Piketty’s conclusions.

    To a non-economist, less traveling between economic histories would have offered more clarity and less boredom. I suspect, even this brief synopsis will make many eyes glaze over. That is unfortunate, because Pikertty’s book is important.

    Piketty does not have incontestable answers but he has credibly framed the problem of income inequality.

    2 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Anne Hoag State College, PA 06-09-14
    Anne Hoag State College, PA 06-09-14 Member Since 2002

    Anne in Happy Valley

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    "Audiobook not the best format for this work"
    Any additional comments?

    Be forewarned, to properly digest this important work one must have the 106 pages of graphs and charts. My tablet screen is not good enough for viewing the .pdfs which comes with the audiobook. Therefore I'd have to print them off -- much less convenient than the handy packaging of an actual book! I'm off to buy the hardcopy now!

    8 of 10 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Sierra Bravo 09-14-14 Member Since 2002

    Semi retired small business person/ college professor/ investor.

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    "One side of the story."
    Would you recommend this audiobook to a friend? If so, why?

    Yes, an old friend of mine would say that there are three sides to everything, your side, my side and the truth. This book is one side of the story and the data and assumptions made are intended to bolster that side.


    What was your reaction to the ending? (No spoilers please!)

    The ending is a summary of the book hardly a surprise.


    What does L. J. Ganser bring to the story that you wouldn’t experience if you just read the book?

    It is clear and concise reading that can be followed, not an easy task with such a book. Audio frees time over reading (usually on long car trips)


    Did you have an extreme reaction to this book? Did it make you laugh or cry?

    Piketty cherry picks his data to prove a point but criticizes those with different views for doing the same thing. For example when comparing inequality in 1900-1910 to inequality in 200-2010 Piketty chooses to ignore transfer payments and income taxes. Since neither existed in the earlier period but both are very substantial, and substantial forces for reducing inequality today. Ignoring these makes the resulting comparisons are very skewed from reality. He is clearly smart enough to know this and deliberate misrepresentations like this cloud an important discussion. It frustrates me when this is done deliberately to make the data prove a point. Both sides do it.


    Any additional comments?

    If you believe that income inequality is not a problem then you should read (listen to) this book. If you believe that all wealth is inherited and they system is rigged so that the little guy never get ahead you should perhaps read "The Millionaire Next Door" which is also research based and paints a very different picture of the wealthy. Always challenge your beliefs by reading the other side it gets you close to the truth in the middle.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jeremy NEW YORK, NY, United States 08-28-14
    Jeremy NEW YORK, NY, United States 08-28-14 Member Since 2010

    This is the kind of styles I like: good pace, cerebral, well-documented, meaty, mind-bending.

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    "The watershed moment"

    "Capital" is, deep inside, the love child of years of careful research trying to measure wealth across and within nations. That it should be mass-marketed as a best seller remains somewhat of a mystery, however. While Capital certainly spends less space on methodology than an academic text, it makes very little compromise otherwise. Except for a few brief winks toward economic ideas, that Piketty quickly dismisses as being generally ambiguous for all practical purposes, the tome spends its time running through never-ending statistics, often repeating the analysis for different countries, for different periods, for different measures, etc. This is a difficult book to read; in fact, noting that readers have mostly highlighted the first passages of the book, the WSJ suggests that it is one of the least read books of the year among its buyers.

    This is a necessary preamble to anyone who is approaching this book as a relaxed reading that would be comparable to the writings of other economists like Krugman or Stiglitz, which it is not. And, given the press coverage as well as some unfortunate reviews, let me stress that this not a book of fresh political debate. It is a book about scientific facts, or rather, the best current approximation of these facts. And the one main documented fact is, on its own, not that surprising; namely, that free markets tend to a rising unequal distribution of wealth. Hence, it is other mechanisms, such as war or the welfare state, that moderate this inequality. Actual policy recommendations, based on the assumption that inequality carries unbearable social costs, come only in the final chapters. Naturally, a reader may agree or disagree with this assumption, hence with the implied recommendations, but this does not, in any way, devalue the contribution of the book.

    Some extra discussion should also be given to a few unfair criticisms, often made by those who have only read its cover. First, this is no modern Marx: the book does not predict that inequalities would necessarily grow so large to explode the social order - in fact, references to the "Belle Epoque" make it quite clear that high degrees of inequality can be very sustainable - that the working class will rise and challenge greedy bourgeois or that some kind of great reshaping of the state should occur. Beyond this, it is saddening that, at this age, some would still lower themselves to any form of Reductio ad Marx. Second, some commentators have questioned a few methodological assumptions of the research which is, undoubtedly, a good thing and in the way of healthy dialogue. However, it is intellectually dishonest to use a couple of (very debatable) side debates to draw judgment on the book which is almost entirely unrelated to these assumptions. Third, this is not an attempt at philosophy or economic theory. Very little progress is made in terms of conceptually defining capital. Capital is what we can measure and what we can measure is capital; for this reason, the largely un-measurable human capital is not included as capital, for better or for worse. Lastly, the thesis is not nearly as controversial as one might think: certainly, if we remove any notion of the state except for the protection of property rights, it is quite plausible that inequalities might increase over time. There is controversy somewhere, but it is more subtle. That is, should a person or family have the right to preserve wealth across generations to preserve all of descendants from any kind of want OR is it unbearable to imagine a future society where a portion of its people toil for the wants of others whose sole claim to wealth is successful ancestry.

    I do not offer to give an opinion on this question, and neither does the author. It is not the function of economists to decide on the right model of society. However, it is their function to document the facts and the available tools to get to alternative models of society. This is the great treasure that is to be found here.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
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  • David
    London, United Kingdom
    8/8/14
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    "The most talked about non-fiction book this year"

    This is a mega-work - both in length and impact. The most detailed study of the distribution of wealth for decades - a monumental work of scholarship - and a powerful polemic for the effective global taxation of wealth. It's not the ideal Audible Book because you need to print off loads of PDF charts to really make sense of it, which, since I was listening to it at the gym, was a bit of a problem. Also because it has provoked a lot of debate, including over the accuracy of some of the data, you may prefer to spend your time tuning into the debate on-line; unless you are a professional economist, in which case you will have already read it and have an annotated hard-back copy on your shelf. I committed to the twenty plus hours of listening and learnt a lot. I especially like some of the incidental historical detail and the sections where he goes off-piste and gives us his views on the Euro crisis. I was convinced by both the analysis and the polemic. He is open enough to put all his data on-line. The critique by the FT's economics editor casts doubt on some of it, but Piketty's response is strong, and the fundamental argument that inequality is growing because the returns to capital are growing at a faster rate than the standard of living of the majority of the population survives intact.

    1 of 1 people found this review helpful
  • Alexander
    6/6/14
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    Story
    "A momentous, highly enjoyable book."
    Would you consider the audio edition of Capital in the Twenty-First Century to be better than the print version?

    Unfortunately, as there are many references to graphs, the print edition might be preferable to the audio version, but the performance adequately describes the content of the graphs so the listener is not at a loss.


    Any additional comments?

    This book has rightly inspired a heated debate which hopefully will lead to some very significant reforms in the way our modern economy works.

    2 of 3 people found this review helpful
  • Victoria
    Totnes, Devon, United Kingdom
    7/8/14
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    Performance
    Story
    "Heavy going, questionable statistics...?"
    What could have made this a 4 or 5-star listening experience for you?

    This was a difficult listening experience. Too many figures and formulas for an audiobook and too vague ideas without cohesive explanations which were followable as an audiobook.


    What will your next listen be?

    Something lighter and without the figure-heavy, formula-heavy random, straggled monologue.


    Who might you have cast as narrator instead of L. J. Ganser?

    A Non-american


    What character would you cut from Capital in the Twenty-First Century?

    Not Applicable


    Any additional comments?

    This has been praised and slated in equal measure in the media. I'm erring on the side of unimpressed. The overall theme and tenet of the book could be explained in a far more brief format, with snappier and more appealing illustrative examples. The catch-all formulas make no sense in audio format and, as such, I have not and will not finish this audiobook.

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