[Marxism] Capital Man - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Louis Proyect 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."

full: http://chronicle.com/article/Capital-Man/146059/

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