Thomas Piketty. REUTERS/CHARLES PLATIAU
Thomas Piketty. REUTERS/CHARLES PLATIAU

Around the world, more than 2-million people bought a copy of Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty. The long academic treatise was the biggest publishing surprise of the year when it came out in English in 2014.

It’s not clear how many people actually made it to the end, or even past the first few pages, but buying a copy was a sure sign that you cared about inequality (bad) and serious scholarship (good).

Now comes After Piketty, a book that, at 678 pages, is almost as long and almost as weighty. Released on May 8 in the US, it’s a sympathetic appraisal of what Piketty got right and what he got wrong.

I have read the introduction, the retrospective by translator Arthur Goldhammer and bits and pieces of some of the essays following that.

It’s clear from a cursory look that the scholars who contributed to After Piketty regard Capital as a landmark in economic analysis, even when they disagree with it.

One recurrent gripe about Capital in the Twenty-First Century — which is cited so often it has been abbreviated to C21 — is that it was too deterministic

Among the contributors are Nobel laureate economists Paul Krugman, Robert Solow and Michael Spence.

Branko Milanovic, a leading scholar of inequality, wrote an essay, as did Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley and Mark Zandi, the much-quoted chief economist of Moody’s Analytics.

The book was edited by Heather Boushey, the executive director and chief economist of the Washington Centre for Equitable Growth, Berkeley economist Brad DeLong and Roosevelt Institute senior economist Marshall Steinbaum.

One recurrent gripe about Capital in the Twenty-First Century — which is cited so often it has been abbreviated to C21 — is that it was too deterministic, failing to acknowledge that society could choose not to allow economic forces to drive the world to greater inequality.

Another is that the rate of profit has held roughly constant over a long period in a way Piketty doesn’t account for. "This seems to be a substantial hole in the book," the editors write.

Piketty gets the last word, in which he thanks the contributors for the "homage" and admits that his book — long as it was — did not cover everything it should have. He calls it "simply an introduction to the study of capital in the 21st century".

Boushey says in an interview that Piketty was involved in the project from the beginning, even making introductions at Harvard University Press, which published both books.

She says the impetus for the volume is that Piketty’s ideas haven’t been taken up or wrestled with to the degree the editors felt they have deserved. It could be that academic economists feel changing the world is not in their job description.

"What is the purpose of economics?" Boushey asks. "Some folks argue that the purpose is just to understand how markets work and we don’t need to be worrying ourselves about redistribution.

"Values shouldn’t come into it. But many, including Piketty, say economics is about allocation of resources, making sure it is fair and just. Market principles aren’t the only criterion."

Boushey says the reception Piketty has received from fellow economists relates to "a deeper question about the purpose of economics as a social science".

Bloomberg

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