Books by French professors of economics usually don’t get much attention in the United States, but a recently published one by Thomas Piketty, a professor at the Paris School of Economics, certainly has changed that. Piketty’s book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, explores the issue of income inequality. On Friday, the Op-Ed page of the New York Times was bracketed by one column by Paul Krugman praising the book and another by David Brooks criticizing it. Piketty recently did a reading at the Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge which was attended by Lowell’s Nancy and Richard Pitkin. Trying to better understand the Piketty phenomenon, I asked if they could share their observations of the event; Richard Pitkin sent the following:
On Friday afternoon April 18th we attended the author’s event for Thomas Piketty new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I had seen the notice for this event in early March and immediately scheduled to go even though it was 3pm on a Friday afternoon. Thomas Piketty was a well known name for me because of his co-authorship with Emmanuel Saez of a 2002 National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) paper on income distribution. This paper, which I read in 2004, while quite academic was amazing. It showed how income in the country was changing. So knowing of this work, seeing a new book by Professor Piketty inspired me to hear what he would say about the new book. Again this was many weeks before the book became a sensation.
I had attended Harvard Bookstore events on Fridays before, and since these are in-store, I knew the seating was limited. I let Nancy know that we needed to be at the store no later than 2:30pm even though the event did not start till 3pm. The news reports about the book on a number of economic blogs were generally very favorable. We reached the event just at 2:30pm and got two of the last seats near the podium. While Nancy kept our seats, I proceeded to the front of the store to purchase the book to be signed. While there the owner of the Harvard Book Store, Jeff Mayersohn, was overlooking the seating, he told me that he had never seen the seats fill up 30 minutes before the event. I did ask him why he held it in such a small space, and he kindly informed me that when the event was scheduled in December 2013 the publisher had no inkling that book would be so popular. Also two week earlier when the store knew it had a block buster book author, the printed calendar for the store did not permit a change of venue. Because there were so many people in the store the event was live streamed on closed circuit TV to other parts of the store.
I found Professor Piketty talk quite refreshing. He explained a bit of his background and touched on his fond remembrances of his years at MIT in the early 90’s. I heard a passionate academic who understood that economic work should not be just formulas, but rather the data needed to inform people about how the choices that are government policy and there effect on ordinary people. I was very encouraged by Professor Piketty’s optimistic view that the United States policies of the last 30 years that created a new gilded age can be reversed. The fact that so many are talking about the new gilded age reminds me of the John Kenneth Galbraith biography where he saw this future when policies changed in the 1980s. I found Professor Piketty to be quite modest on his and his teams` accomplishments, but he spoke with the authority of working on a subject for over twenty years. His concern for curbs on extraordinary wealth remind me of the founding in Massachusetts and the other English colonies where on principal it was to live free of moneyed aristocrats. These same concerns also surfaced 100 years ago when as Professor Piketty pointed out in his talk, we changed laws to curb the power of America’s new wealthy aristocrats from the first gilded age.
Professor Piketty was a very good speaker, and I really enjoyed listening to him, I am looking forward to finding the time to reading his book and learning how the new gilded age has developed on the global stage. [Ed. note: Professor Piketty’s talk was videotaped by the Harvard Bookstore and is available below via WGBH’s YouTube channel].