He sticks to economics, which makes the review quite readable. He drops this sentence into the end of a minor paragraph:
the fact is that the most conspicuous example of soaring inequality in today’s world—the rise of the very rich one percent in the Anglo-Saxon world, especially the United States—doesn’t have all that much to do with capital accumulation, at least so far. It has more to do with remarkably high compensation and incomes.
In fact, that is one of the more damning criticisms of Piketty that one is likely to read. Krugman stops short of calling the book an intellectual swindle, but it appears to be one (I have yet to read it).
Suppose we know two things: First, wealth at the high end of the wealth distribution has increased a lot. Second, the share of wages and salaries in GDP has decreased. Do these two things tell us that capital is gaining at the expense of labor?
The swindle here is to treat “capital” and “labor” as homogeneous, separate categories. You are either a worker or a coupon-clipper. In fact, most people are labor-capitalists. They invest in human capital. They decide how much to save and how much risk to take with their savings. And there is a lot of heterogeneity among these labor-capitalists.
Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Mark Zuckerberg are not coupon-clippers. Their wealth comes from a combination of skill and risk-taking.
Looking at the 21st-century economy through the filter of the Marxist categories of “capital” and “labor” is not particularly insightful. This is not a good era for either a plain coupon-clipper or an ordinary worker to accumulate great wealth. For that purpose, it is better to be a successful entrepreneur or a high-skilled worker.
I think that Krugman correctly views Piketty’s scenario dominated by inherited wealth as offering a speculative analysis of the future. It does not well describe the present.
For example, suppose you look at the Forbes 500 or somesuch, meaning a list of the wealthiest Americans. Compare the list in 2010 to the list in the supposedly egalitarian era of 1950-1970. I will wager that the 2010 list has a smaller fraction of inherited fortunes as opposed to fortunes that were amassed by the wealthy themselves.
Moreover, looking at the low interest rate on risk-free assets today, I would say that the near-term future is one in which the inheritors shall be meek. The next generation of great entrepreneurs should easily surpass the heirs of current fortunes.
UPDATE: Steve Sailer has links to some papers on the Forbes 400. In particular, one paper by Kaplan and Rauh, says
We find that the Forbes 400 in recent years did not grow up as advantaged as in decades past. Those in the Forbes 400 today are less likely to have inherited their wealth or to have grown up wealthy.