In the Boston Review, Marshall Steinbaum reflects on why Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, despite being a widely praised and bestselling book, has had such a frosty reception among academic economists. The few economists who have written about the text at all have criticized its methodology and conclusions, but Steinbaum suggests that this hostile reception has more to do with economists protecting their elite privilege than with any faults on Piketty's part. Here's an excerpt from the piece:
But perhaps the greatest rebuke of Piketty to be found among academic economics is not contained in any of these overt or veiled attacks on his scholarship and interpretation, but rather in the deafening silence that greets it, as well as inequality in general, in broad swathes of the field—even to this day. You can search through the websites of several leading economics departments or the official lists of working papers curated by federal agencies and not come across a single publication that has any obvious or even secondary bearing on the themes raised by Capital in the Twenty-First Century, even in order to oppose them. It is as though the central facts, controversies, and policy proposals that have consumed our public debate about the economy for three years are of little-to-no importance to the people who are paid and tenured to conduct a lifetime’s research into how the economy works.
This dearth of reaction to such a critical work is not healthy. It is as if the rapturous reception by the public increased the resentment among Piketty’s academic economist colleagues. As an appeal to the public to resolve, or at least have a say in, what the experts consider their own domain, Piketty appears to have questioned the very value of having a credentialed economics elite empowered to make policy in the name of the public interest but not answerable to public opinion. The economics elite, it seems, answered by stonewalling Capital in the Twenty-First Century, so it would not have the impact on economics research agendas that it merits.
And yet the purpose of this essay is to catalog the ways that Piketty, and Capital in the Twenty-First Century in particular, has had influence—great influence, even—on several distinct lines of scholarship to have grown up starting around the time the book was in draft and to have flourished and extended following its publication. In only some of the literatures discussed here is the reference to Capital in the Twenty-First Century overt, but thematically the links are there and it is important that they be acknowledged. Indeed, it is in economists’ interest that they be acknowledged, because without them the public would be justified in thinking that a cadre of well-paid and highly credentialed experts wields great influence over matters of direct relevance to their well-being without having to bother showing, even mildly, that they are remotely concerned with the public’s welfare.
Image: Janitor in Goldman Sachs building. Via Boston Review.