I thought I would put off posting on the new book by French economist Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21st Century, until I’ve had a chance to read it, but I can’t help saying something about the sensational reception it’s gotten. There must be something special going on when a 700-page tome on economics, translated from its original French and laden with charts and graphs, makes it to the No.1 spot on the Amazon best-seller list. Piketty, who has been speaking to standing room audiences up and down the East Coast, has been hailed as a modern day Tocqueville or Marx. His book has been described as a game-changer that could redefine pubic discourse about our economic life.
Piketty’s message is that capitalism under usual circumstances tends to generate increasing inequality, and that current prospects are for the US and other Western societies to enter a new Gilded Age of huge disparities of wealth and, consequently, power. His solution: sharply progressive taxation.
It’s not surprising that Piketty’s book has gotten praise from the left, but more remarkable is the attention it has gotten from the mainstream media. It has been the subject of discussion on most of the major broadcast and cable news programs. It got a respectful if critical review and an interview with the author in that bulwark of the centrist establishment, the journal Foreign Affairs. Piketty has even had an audience (if that’s the right word) with US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew.
How does any non-fiction book, much less a long, dense tract on economics, get this kind of attention? A book whose message goes against the prevailing tides of the past several decades of American politics and ideology? (Remember the difficult struggle to partially restore the top marginal rates preceding the Bush tax cuts? The assault on the federal estate tax?) I don’t know how to explain it, but part of the explanation, surely, involves the increasing prominence of the issue of inequality over the past several years. That prominence is largely rooted in the 2008 financial crisis, which significantly delegitimized that powerful engine of inequality, Wall Street. Occupy Wall Street, which gave birth to the notion of the one per cent, also played its role. Piketty’s book, in short, resonates with changes in consciousness. If it had come out in 2007, it might have made it to the New York Times Book Review, but not to CBS News. Its author would have been no rock star.
The reaction to Piketty’s book on the right, understandably enough, has been less than enthusiastic. In an op-ed this Friday, the New York Times’ David Brooks avoided discussion of the substance of the book. Instead he focused on explaining its appeal. He implied that the core audience for the book is upper middle class young professionals, an affluent group who are nevertheless driven by envy of the truly rich. A key passage in Brooks’ column:
Piketty wouldn’t raise taxes on income, which thriving professionals have a lot of; he would tax investment capital, which they don’t have enough of. Think of what would happen to the Manhattan or Bay area real estate markets if the financiers had to sell their stray apartments in order to get liquid asset to pay the tax bill. Think of how much more affordable fine art would be. Think of how much more equal the upper class would be.
Typically imaginative writing by Brooks, but actually, Piketty does advocate progressive taxation of income—a 60% marginal rate on incomes over $200,000, raising to 80% on incomes of $500,000 or perhaps $1 million. I guess Brooks didn’t read that part of the book. Too bad, since so much of his argument collapses.
Another of the Times’ house conservatives, Sam Tanenhaus, was even more careful to avoid discussion of the substance of the book. In an article placed appropriately in the Sunday Styles section, Tanenhaus treats Piketty as “the newest version of a now-familiar specimen: the overnight intellectual sensation whose stardom reflects the fashions and feelings of the moment.” In other words, Piketty is very possibly a flash in the pan, a possibility that Tanenhaus undoubtedly relishes.
Brooks and Tanenhaus are by no means alone—as far as I’ve seen, the reaction to Piketty’s book on the right has ranged from respectfully critical to stridently hostile. That should surprise no one: ever since the French revolution, the left-right divide has centered on the issue of equality (or, if you prefer, inequality). Leftists have historically sought greater economic and social equality. Rightists—traditional conservatives like Brooks and Tanenhaus as well as the radical reactionaries that dominate the American right today—view existing inequalities as benign if not positively just and necessary. (Needless to say, that is why rich people—notable exceptions notwithstanding—tend to lean right.)
Of course, politics is complicated, and at any given time in any given country, other issues—issues not obviously linked to equality—get framed in left/right terms. What does gun control have to do with equality, or abortion rights? And yet, there is a fairly consistent left/right divide on both issues in the United States. But there are invariably specific situations that account for such apparent anomalies. The historically enduring left-right divide has been about equality. Which may also be part of the explanation for why Piketty’s book has had so much impact.