Piketty’s Capital Was So Popular There’s a Sequel

Another hefty volume that looks at the connection between capitalism and inequality.

French economist Thomas Piketty.

Photographer: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

If you’re reading this article, it may be because you’re one of the 2 million people who bought a copy of Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty. The long, dense academic treatise was the biggest publishing surprise of the year when it came out in English in 2014. It’s not clear how many people actually made it to the end, or even past the first few pages, but buying a copy was a sure sign that you cared about inequality (bad) and serious scholarship (good).

Now comes After Piketty, a book that, at 678 pages, is almost as long and almost as weighty. Released May 8 in the U.S., it’s a sympathetic appraisal of what Piketty got right and what he got wrong. I have read the introduction, the retrospective by translator Arthur Goldhammer, and bits and pieces of some of the following essays.

It’s clear from a cursory look that the scholars who contributed to After Piketty regard Capital as a landmark in economic analysis, even when they disagree with it. Among the contributors are Nobel laureate economists Paul Krugman, Robert Solow, and Michael Spence. Branko Milanovic, a leading scholar of inequality, wrote an essay, as did Emmanuel Saez of the University of California at Berkeley—a frequent collaborator of Piketty—and Mark Zandi, the much-quoted chief economist of Moody’s Analytics. The book was edited by Heather Boushey, the executive director and chief economist of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth; Berkeley economist Brad DeLong; and Marshall Steinbaum, a senior economist at the Roosevelt Institute.

One recurrent gripe about Capital in the Twenty-First Century—which is cited so often that it’s boiled down to C21—is that it was too deterministic, failing to acknowledge that society could choose not to allow economic forces to drive the world to greater inequality. Another is that the rate of profit has held roughly constant over a long period in a way that Piketty doesn’t account for. “This seems to be a substantial hole in the book,” the editors write.

Piketty gets the last word, in which he thanks the contributors for the “homage” and admits that his book—long as it was—didn’t cover everything it should have. He calls it “simply an introduction to the study of capital in the twenty-first century.”

Boushey says in an interview that Piketty was involved in the project from the beginning, even making introductions at Harvard University Press, which published both books. Boushey says the impetus for the new volume is that Piketty’s ideas haven’t been taken up, or even wrestled with, to the degree that the editors felt they deserved. 

It could be that academic economists feel that changing the world isn’t part of their job description. “What is the purpose of economics?” Boushey asks. “Some folks argue that the purpose is just to understand how markets work and we don’t need to be worrying ourselves about redistribution. Values shouldn’t come into it. But many, including Piketty, say economics is about allocation of resources, making sure that is fair and just. Market principles aren’t the only criterion.” The reception that Piketty has received from fellow economists, says Boushey, relates to “a deeper question about the purpose of economics as a social science.”

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