[Marxism] Capital Man - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Apr 18 06:57:31 MDT 2014
Apparently bedazzled by the book’s arguments, few reviewers mentioned
its assault on the field. Yet Piketty’s disdain is unmistakable, the
lament of a scholar long estranged from the mainstream of his
profession. "For far too long," he writes, "economists have sought to
define themselves in terms of their supposedly scientific methods. In
fact, those methods rely on an immoderate use of mathematical models,
which are frequently no more than an excuse for occupying the terrain
and masking the vacuity of the content. Too much energy has been and
still is being wasted on pure theoretical speculation without a clear
specification of the economic facts one is trying to explain or the
social and political problems one is trying to resolve."
Piketty’s first published paper appeared in the Journal of Economic
Theory in 1993, when he was 22. It consisted of a mathematical model for
designing an optimal income tax schedule—and featured abundant
references to game theory, Pareto optimality, and Bayesian equilibriums.
A precocious math student, Piketty had entered the elite École Normale
Supérieure, in Paris, at 18, and by the time he turned 22 had a Ph.D. in
economics and job offers from MIT, Harvard, and the University of
Chicago. "They were very excited because I was a machine proving
theorems, and they liked that," Piketty told me. He chose MIT and moved
to Cambridge, Mass. He stayed just two years.
He liked living in the United States and his colleagues at MIT, and it
was exciting to teach graduate students, who were mostly older than he
was. "At the same time that I was very happy, I was thinking that
something strange was going on," he recalled. The problem, he quickly
concluded, was that he "knew nothing at all about economics."
He continued to publish theorems on income distribution but increasingly
wondered how inequality looked in the real world. How had it evolved
over time? "I realized that there was a lot of data out there that had
never been used in a systematic way," he said. As a student, he’d been
as interested in history and sociology as in economics, admiring the
work of Pierre Bourdieu, Fernand Braudel, and Claude Lévi-Strauss.
Piketty’s parents, who never finished high school, had joined the
student protests of 1968, and, as a teenager, Piketty spent a summer
working for a grandfather—"an entrepreneur with a strong capitalist
ethic"—who owned a stone quarry outside Paris. Yet greater influences on
his development, he believes, were the dramatic events taking place in
Eastern Europe. The year he entered the École Normale, the Berlin Wall
fell, and by the time he left the Soviet Union had collapsed as well.
"It was natural and important to me to ask the question: What can we say
about inequality and social justice and the dynamics of distribution
under capitalism? Why is it that people thought at some point that
communism was necessary?"
Piketty’s colleagues showed little interest in historical research.
"What I found quite surprising when I was at MIT was that sometimes
there was a level of arrogance with respect to other disciplines in the
social sciences, which is really quite incredible," he said. "In the
case of income distribution, which is what I was interested in, we had
almost no historical facts about which we knew anything. I found the gap
between the self-confidence of the profession and the actual achievement
of the profession quite astonishing."
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