Minding Our Minds   /   Summer 2014   /    Notes And Comments

Behind the Piketty Phenomenon

Jay Tolson

flickr: cash

Piketty’s book revives the intellectual tradition of political economy.

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.

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