In Which We Pick on Picketty, Part I


A few months ago, I heard that a new book about economic policy had become a best seller. Having been told by a literary agent, a few weeks earlier, that Americans won’t read books about policy (economic or otherwise), I wondered why Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century was such a huge success.

So I decided to read the dang thang.

Now, by calling it a “dang thang,” I mean no disrespect. As a matter of fact, I admire Piketty and his work. His meticulous construction of a case for raising taxes on the rich is most impressive. I would have thought, however, that his meticulousness (700 pages worth) would have driven away readers in droves.

So why didn’t it?

Well, maybe because the book focuses on inequality, and inequality is a hot topic. In recent years, prominent individuals, including Pope Francis, Senator Elizabeth Warren, former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, and President Barack Obama have spoken frequently and passionately about inequality. In 2011, media coverage of Occupy Wall Street protests brought unequal distribution of wealth to the attention of the U.S. and much of the world. And just today I read a piece, in Politico, by self-described “zillionaire” Nick Hanauer, in which he warns his fellow “0.1%ers,” that “The Pitchforks Are Coming . . . For Us Plutocrats.” Here’s a bit more of Hanauer’s spiel:

If we don’t do something to fix the glaring inequities in this economy, the pitchforks are going to come for us. No society can sustain this kind of rising inequality. In fact, there is no example in human history where wealth accumulated like this and the pitchforks didn’t eventually come out. You show me a highly unequal society, and I will show you a police state. Or an uprising. There are no counterexamples. None. It’s not if, it’s when.[1]

So, the most likely reason the book is a bestseller, I suspect, is that Piketty demonstrates, in overwhelming detail, the inherent tendency of free-market capitalism to leach wealth away from the masses and up to the zillionaires—precisely when people are particularly concerned about inequality. And because the topic of inequality is au courant (as Piketty, the Frenchman, might say), some people might buy the book—with no intention of actually reading the dang thang—thinking that, if nothing else, the book would make a dandy soporific on a restless night when the sandman fails to appear. And there might be a bit of the bandwagon or keeping-up-with-the-Joneses effect, too: Everyone buys Picketty because Everyone is buying Piketty.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

Well, Dear Reader, if you’re wondering, about now, what any of the above has to do with consumerism and its impact on the environment (which is, after all, the ostensible topic of this blog), I assure you that there is a connection. Unfortunately, I’m out of time and energy so I can’t tell you now, but I will do my best to get back to it tomorrow. So please join me then for another death-defying episode in the Thrill-a-Minute Adventures of!


[1] Hanauer, Nick. “The Pitchforks Are Coming . . . For Us Plutocrats.” Politico. July/August 2014.


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