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Why a Book on Growing Inequality Is Taking America by Storm

The translator of Piketty's 'Capital In the 21st Century' discusses inequality and the book's huge success.

A book as important as Thomas Piketty's Capital in the 21st Century deserved a translator of formidable intellect with an acute sensitivity to language. That is who it got in the form of Arthur Goldhammer, a mathematician-turned-man-of-letters who has translated 130 books from the French, including Tocqueville's Democracy in America. Goldhammer chairs the seminar for visiting scholars at Harvard's Center for European Studies and is a member of the editorial board of French Politics, Culture, and Society. He even has his own blog, French Politics. We caught up with Goldhammer to find out what he thinks of the book's phenomenal success and whether it will bring lasting change to the way Americans think about the economy and the growing crisis of inequality.

Lynn Parramore: Even those ideologically disposed towards unregulated markets are finding that they cannot dismiss Capital in the 21st Century out of hand. What is it about the book that forces people to take it seriously from all points on the economic and political spectrums?

Arthur Goldhammer: First, there is the huge amount of data that Piketty and his collaborators collected before the book could even be conceived. This was not simply a matter of compiling figures that already existed. In order to provide consistent data series covering many countries over a very long time span, they had to devise clever methods of interpreting the available sources, which vary widely in quality.

Second, Piketty has taken great care to present his data in a clearly accessible form. Much of it is displayed in easily interpreted graphs. And he has described in plain language, without arcane mathematical formulas, how he thinks the data should be read. For the more technically inclined, there are numerous papers cited in the online appendix in support of the methods and conclusions. So there is something for everyone to sink their teeth into, experts as well as general readers.
LP: Do you think that the book could spark a lasting change in how we think about economics, either on the part of the public or the academy? Or does it reflect a sea change that was already underway?

AG: I think the enormous response to the book suggests that there was already great uneasiness among many people that we still do not understand what is happening to our economy. At first the anxiety stemmed mainly from the economic crisis, but as the immediate emergency receded, people began to look at the broader picture: what has happened to income inequality over the past three decades, what changes people sense in social mobility and access to educational opportunities, the growing importance of inherited wealth that has become increasingly visible, and so on.

Since Piketty touches on all these themes, he has struck a nerve. But to say that does not mean that there will be lasting changes in the academy. Economics is a field with a deeply entrenched way of looking at the world, which Piketty directly challenges. Absorbing that challenge will take some time. The book will undoubtedly spark theses among existing graduate students, some of whom will try to tear down its arguments. It will also stimulate work in related fields, such as history, political science and sociology. Piketty himself calls for such research to flesh out arguments to which his data merely point suggestively. There are promising signs of change, but it's too early to know what the ultimate influence of the book will be.

LP: Piketty's book is said to be an even bigger deal in the U.S. than France. Why do you suppose this is?

AG: Quite simply, I think we are more worried about inequality here than in France. The phenomenon to which Piketty refers as "supersalaries" for "supermanagers," which has CEOs earning 100 times what an average worker makes, does not exist in France. Elite universities in France pay their students to study, whereas here families must save for years if they hope to send a child to an elite private university.