Piketty: Qui ça, donc?

If you follow blogs on economics, or at least blogs on politics, you can hardly have failed to read about Thomas Piketty’s doorstop surprise bestseller, Capital in the 21st Century. Briefly, its argument is that so long as the rate of return on capital (R) is greater than the rate of growth of GDP (G) then wealth will concentrate more and more in the hands of the rich, and the rest of us are screwed. In fact, he suggests that R>G is the natural order of things, and only very special circumstances prevented it from being true for much of the twentieth century.

So far so interesting, but what is really strange is that Piketty is not American or British, he’s French. And his book was published, to tepid reviews, in French last year. Since then it has been largely ignored here, and indeed when I looked for it in the (large) book department of a Paris department store yesterday, they didn’t have a copy.

Odd, isn’t it? After all, Piketty has now embarked on a triumphant lecture tour of the US, on the back of massive sales, and liberals, and what pass for leftists, there, have hailed him as their intellectual saviour. In France, meanwhile, the most rigid and inegalitarian forms of economic theory are still dominant, and an allegedly Socialist government has embarked on a massive and economically suicidal programme of spending cuts which will increase inequality (not to mention poverty and unemployment) to even higher levels. What’s going on?

What’s going on is that the French elite is now reaping the rewards of its infatuation with Anglo-Saxon style market sadism, and the mindless neoliberalism of Brussels. All French economists desperately want to be accepted by their Anglo-Saxon equivalents, and they try not only to write in English, but to think in it as well. The idea that a French economist might actually be able to teach Anglo-Saxons a thing or two simply does not compute: better just to pretend he doesn’t exist.

Which is a shame because Piketty, at bottom, is a historian as much as an economist. Like David Graeber, who is an anthropologist as much as an economist, and whose book Debt was last year’s sensation, Piketty actually knows about stuff, and is used to handling evidence and drawing conclusions. He’s in the great tradition, ironically, of French historians like Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel, but then Bloch was a resistance martyr and Braudel spent years in a prison camp. The average French economist these days thinks he’s suffering if a US University won’t give him a Business Class ticket to go and give a lecture there.

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