[Marxism] Thomas Piketty: the Elvis super-star of neo-Keynesianism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Apr 19 08:32:30 MDT 2014


NY Times, April 19 2014
Economist Receives Rock Star Treatment
By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER

French economists who boldly question the dominance of capital over 
labor — and call for a progressive global tax on wealth — visit the 
American halls of power about as often as French rock stars headline 
Madison Square Garden.

But those halls of power are where Thomas Piketty, a 42-year-old 
professor at the Paris School of Economics, has been singing his song of 
late.

Since touching down in Washington this week to promote his new book, 
“Capital in the 21st Century,” Mr. Piketty has met with Treasury 
Secretary Jacob Lew, given a talk to President Obama’s Council of 
Economic Advisers and lectured at the International Monetary Fund, 
before flying to New York for an appearance at the United Nations, a 
sold-out public discussion with the Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and 
Paul Krugman, and meetings with media outlets ranging from The Harvard 
Business Review to New York Magazine to The Nation.

The response from  fellow economists, so far mainly from the liberal 
side of the spectrum, has verged on the rapturous. Mr. Krugman,  a 
columnist for The New York Times, predicted in The New York Review of 
Books that Mr. Piketty’s book would “change both the way we think about 
society and the way we do economics.”

But through all the accolades, Mr. Piketty seems to be maintaining a 
most un-rock-star-like modesty, brushing away comparisons to Tocqueville 
and Marx with an embarrassed grimace and a Gallic puff of the lips.

“It makes very little sense: How can you compare?” he said on Thursday 
between gulps of yogurt during a break in his packed schedule — before 
going on to list the 19th-century data sets that Marx neglected to draw 
on in “Das Kapital,” his 1867 magnum opus.

“If Marx had looked at them, it would have made him think a bit more,” 
he said. “When I started collecting data, I had no idea where it would go.”

Mr. Piketty’s dedication to data has long made him a star among 
economists, who credit his work on income inequality (with Emmanuel Saez 
and others) for diving deep into seemingly dull tax archives to bring an 
unprecedented historical perspective to the subject.

But “Capital in the 21st Century,” which analyzes more than two 
centuries of data on the even murkier topic of accumulated wealth, has 
elicited a response of an entirely different order. Months before its 
originally scheduled April publication, it was generating intense 
discussion on blogs, prompting Harvard University Press to push the 
release forward to mid-February.

Since then, it has hit the New York Times best-seller list, and sold 
some 46,000 copies (hardback and e-book) — a stratospheric number for a 
nearly 700-page scholarly tome dotted with charts and graphs (as well as 
references to Balzac, Jane Austen and “Titanic”).

And not all those readers are economists. Six years after the financial 
crisis, “people are looking for a bible of sorts,” said Julia Ott, an 
assistant professor of the history of capitalism at the New School, who 
appeared on a panel with Mr. Piketty at New York University on Thursday. 
“He’s speaking to a real feeling out there that things haven’t been 
fixed, that we need to take stock, that we need big ideas, big 
proposals, big global solutions.”

Those big ideas, and the hunger for them, were on ample display at 
N.Y.U., where the standing-room crowd was treated to Mr. Piketty’s 
apology for having written such a long book, followed by a breakneck 
PowerPoint presentation of its main arguments, illustrated with striking 
charts.

At the book’s center is Mr. Piketty’s contention — contrary to the 
influential theory developed by Simon Kuznets in the 1950s and ’60s — 
that mature capitalist economies do not inevitably evolve toward greater 
economic equality. Instead, Mr. Piketty contends, the data reveals a 
deeper historical tendency for the rate of return on capital to outstrip 
the overall rate of economic growth, leading to greater and greater 
concentrations of wealth at the very top.

Despite this inevitable-seeming drift toward “patrimonial capitalism” 
that his charts seemed to show, Mr. Piketty rejected any economic 
determinism. “It all depends on what the political system decides,” he said.

Such statements, along with Mr. Piketty’s proposal for a progressive 
wealth tax and income tax rates up to 80 percent, have aroused strong 
interest among those eager to recapture the momentum of the Occupy 
movement. The Nation ran a nearly 10,000-word cover article placing his 
book within a rising tide of neo-Marxist thought, while National Review 
Online dismissed it as confirmation of the left’s “dearest ‘Das Kapital’ 
fantasies.”

But Mr. Piketty, who writes in the book that the collapse of Communism 
in 1989 left him “vaccinated for life” against the “lazy rhetoric of 
anticapitalism,” is no Marxian revolutionary. “I believe in private 
property,” he said in the interview. “But capitalism and markets should 
be the slave of democracy and not the opposite.”

Even if he doesn’t expect his policy proposals to find favor in 
Washington anytime soon, Mr. Piketty called his meetings there 
gratifying. Mr. Lew, he said, seemed to have read parts of the book 
carefully. A member of the Council on Economic Advisers corrected a 
small error concerning Balzac’s novel “Le Père Goriot,” which includes a 
discussion of getting ahead through advantageous marriage rather than 
hard work. “I was impressed,” Mr. Piketty said.

His book, however, ends not with an appeal to policy makers, but with a 
call for all citizens to “take a serious interest in money, its 
measurement, the facts surrounding it and its history.”

“It’s too easy for ordinary people to just say, ‘I don’t know anything 
about economics,’ ” he said, before rushing to his next appearance. “But 
economics is not just for economists.”




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