Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century raced to the top of the best-seller list, where, as a 570 page economic tome with 200 years of historical data on income and wealth, it made an odd contrast with “Frozen Little Golden Book” (a child’s book based on the movie Frozen) and a few self-help books. I do not know of any other book on economics that has met with as much commercial success or caused as much discussion as Capital. Some have attributed this to the book’s conclusion in favor of a global progressive tax on capital being popular among partisans. While praise and criticism of the book certainly fall along partisan lines, this is clearly not the reason for the book’s success, as it’s hardly the first book to support a conclusion that was popular with a certain political segment. The book is also meticulously researched, and so full of detail that it spills onto a massive online technical appendix, but rarely has meticulous been a complement that propels a book to best-seller status. So why then is Capital so popular?
I believe it is because Piketty has not shied away from the great questions of economics, questions of wealth, growth, capital, inheritance, distribution, and so forth in favor of questions that are more likely to yield scientific and publishable results. It is unfortunate, but true, that a distressing proportion of the economics profession has walked away from these seemingly intractable issues in favor of pursuing increasingly obscure mathematical models with little relationship to the important economic questions of the day. (There are notable exceptions, including Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz, and a great many other individuals who I respect and admire but nonetheless form a minority in the economics profession). Piketty writes of his experience as a young professor at MIT:
I did not find the work of US economists entirely convincing. To be sure, they were all very intelligent, and I still have many friends from that period of my life. But something strange happened. I was only too aware of the fact that I knew nothing at all about the world’s economic problems. My thesis consisted of several relatively abstract mathematical theorems. Yet the profession liked my work.
To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and cooperation with the other social sciences….We must start with fundamental questions and try to answer them. Disciplinary disputes and turf wars are of little or nor importance. In my mind, this book is as much a work of history as of economics.
This also makes the social sciences more democratic and less technical. Piketty notes that “Democracy will never be supplanted by a republic of experts- and that is a good thing.” He nonetheless sees a role for social science, a role that his book fills.
[Social scientific research] can inform democratic debate and focus attention on the right questions. It can help to redefine the terms of debate, unmask certain preconceived or fraudulent notions, and subject all positions to constant critical scrutiny. In my view, this is the role that intellectuals, including social scientists, should play, as citizens like any other but with the good fortune to have more time than others to devote themselves to study.
Capital is a best-seller because it gathers the best available data, carefully examines it, and puts it into an understandable theoretical framework that gives us a better background for debates on inequality, growth, inheritance, inflation, public debt, and myriad other economic issues. This is not an easy thing to do, but it might happen more frequently if academic economists at least took it as part of their basic goals to not only study issues of real-world relevance, but also to attempt to communicate about them to the public. Not only would this help the public to make more informed democratic decisions, it would also tether economics to the real concerns of ordinary people, and prevent them from floating away into the land of abstractions.