Why a Book on Growing Inequality Is Taking America by Storm

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.

That said, the book was also a great success in France, so we shouldn't exaggerate the difference. I think perhaps it's less unusual in France for a serious academic book to attract a broad readership, so we're simply more surprised that something like this has happened here.

LP: In the English version of the book, the word “capital” seems to be recalling Marx. Does the French original have the same connotation? What if the word was rendered “wealth” instead?

Yes, the French word has the same connotation. Thomas explicitly told me to use "patrimoine" (wealth) and "capital" interchangeably, and he says he is going to do this near the beginning of the book. In the phrase "capital/income ratio" he uses the word "capital" in French, not "patrimoine," so I translated it as capital/income ratio, which may have led to some confusion, because economists are used to thinking of capital as productive capital such as machinery and not including, say, housing, which Thomas does include in his measure of capital. But since he states clearly what he is doing, I don't think this is a major problem.

LP: You are a trained physicist and mathematician, and yet you’ve ended up immersed in the realm of literature and the humanities working as a translator. Piketty often turns to literature — Austen, Balzac and so on — to illuminate economics. Is it time that the fields of economics and literary and cultural studies were reacquainted?

I think we all tend to become too specialized in our studies, and I believe that catholicity of interests helps us to make better judgments as individuals and as citizens. Still, the world needs specialists with deep knowledge of particular areas. There will always be a tension between the benefits of specialization and the rewards of breadth. I don't think Piketty's book would have suffered a great deal if the literary examples had been removed. And Thomas is hardly the first literate economist.

The important thing, I think, is not to decorate specialist work with literary adornments, but to foster genuine collaborative research across disciplinary boundaries. Thomas' book may succeed in doing that, and if it does, that will have been one of its most important contributions.


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