The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 16 No. 2 (Summer 2014)

Behind the Piketty Phenomenon

Jay Tolson

Reprinted from The Hedgehog Review 16.2 (Summer 2014). This essay may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission. Please contact The Hedgehog Review for further details.

The Hedgehog Review

The Hedgehog Review: Summer 2014

(Volume 16 | Issue 2)

Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century, a hugely ambitious attempt to explain the dynamics behind economic inequality, is being widely hailed as one of the landmark works of our time, and not only by fellow academic economists. John Cassidy, writing in The New Yorker, describes it as “a book that nobody interested in a defining issue of our era can afford to ignore.” In one recent issue of The New York Times, three in-house columnists (David Brooks, Ross Douthat, and Paul Krugman) felt compelled to take on different aspects and implications of the book, and for two of them (Krugman and Douthat), it wasn’t the first time they addressed Capital in their columns. Part of the book’s attraction, quite clearly, is the boldness of its central thesis: “When the rate of return on capital exceeds the growth of output and income, as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based.” Just as important is Piketty’s broad international, multidisciplinary, and historical approach to the question. Stepping beyond the usual econometric exercises of much modern economics, Piketty revives the intellectual tradition of political economy, which to thinkers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was a moral and ethical discipline as much as it was an economic one. In the introduction to his book, Piketty, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, provides a candid glimpse of his own intellectual formation, a story that itself helps explain the broad appeal of his book:

“I belong to the generation that turned eighteen in 1989, which was not only the bicentennial of the French Revolution but also the year when the Berlin Wall fell. I belong to a generation that came of age listening to news of the collapse of the Communist dictatorships and never felt the slightest affection or nostalgia for those regimes or for the Soviet Union. I was vaccinated for life against the conventional but lazy rhetoric of anticapitalism, some of which simply ignored the historic failure of Communism and much of which turned its back on the intellectual means necessary to push beyond it….By contrast I am interested in contributing, however modestly, to the debate about the best way to organize society and the most appropriate institutions and policies to achieve a just social order….”

Jay Tolson

Excerpt from Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. © 2014 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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