In praise of . . . Thomas Piketty

The French economist’s ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ is being acclaimed as the most important book published so far this century

Thomas Piketty’s  “Capital in the 21st Century” has fuelled fierce debates about inequality. Photograph: Ed Alcock/New York Times service

Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century” has fuelled fierce debates about inequality. Photograph: Ed Alcock/New York Times service

Sat, Apr 26, 2014, 01:12

It is one of the unlikeliest bestsellers in memory – a 685-page tome full of historical census and tax data and literary allusions to the likes of Jane Austen and Balzac.

But not only is Capital in the 21st Century the most unlikely bestseller in recent years, it is already being acclaimed as the most important book published so far this century, a masterpiece of economic analysis that has instantly transformed Thomas Piketty, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, into one of the most influential voices on the planet.

What sort of topic could possibly elevate someone from relative ivory tower obscurity to global intellectual pre-eminence in the space of a few months? If you guessed economic inequality, give yourself a median- income star.

Piketty has marshalled a few centuries’ worth of economic evidence from a number of countries to argue that the converging economic equality evident for much of the last century was a mere aberration and that, in the long term, the return on capital will outpace economic growth, leading to inevitable economic inequality due to escalating inherited wealth unless drastic global action is taken.

Piketty’s recent book tour of the US was a sort of intellectual Beatlemania, with various luminaries of the economic left such as Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz hailing the book as a “bona fide phenomenon”.

Of course, the knives are being drawn among those elements, largely on the neoliberal side of things, for whom convincing arguments about the perils of economic inequality are ideological anathema.

The debate over the book has been so intense that Piketty is already being put on the sort of economic pedestal occupied by John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek in the 20th century, shaping the entire discourse in the field.

The astonishing sales success, meanwhile, is helped by the fact that the book, or at least the English translation by Arthur Goldhammer, is dense but eminently readable.

Whatever Piketty’s long-term impact, he has already registered one significant achievement – the parameters of the inequality debate have been swiftly transformed, and the scope of potential solutions significantly widened.