As is her wont, Alex Witt asked me a good question this AM on MSNBC (paraphrasing, you can watch here): why is this 600+ page book by a hitherto little-known French economist, laden with data and charts, taking the world by storm?
As I said, a number of reasons but perhaps one of the most important is the intersection of the book’s scholarship, its timing, and its author.
As the US recovery proceeds into late middle age, the benefits of growth are heavily skewed toward the top. Wall St. is once again way ahead of Main St. In many other advanced European economies, recession-like conditions persist, in no small part resulting from first reckless finance and then from contraindicated austere fiscal policy.
So even if you’re not reading Krugman and others regularly, there’s a sense among many people of many different political stripes that something is structurally wrong with both the economy and the practice of economics. Between financial bubbles and busts, the macro-management seems inept and even once the economy starts growing again, the benefits accrue narrowly to the top.
In part, it’s a sense that “the fix is in” when it comes to the distribution of growth. In this regard, Piketty’s r>g (see here for a very cogent explanation) can be viewed as the economic mechanics of the fix. Moreover, especially given the uniquely pervasive money-in-politics problem in the US, it’s a self-reinforcing fix.
Against that backdrop, we get a long, carefully researched tome with literally centuries of data across numerous countries showing a pretty inexorable trend of income and wealth concentration and providing a cogent analysis of the mechanics behind those dynamics. At the same time, though Piketty clearly knows his economics, he is quick to dismiss a knee-jerk elevation of assumption-based economic analysis that has led so many policy makers astray in recent years. Moreover, he is not a known partisan who can quickly be compartmentalized and thus distractingly plugged into the existing debate that tends to generate more heat than light.
So, summing up, I think at least part of the reason for the book’s big splash is the intersection of a) timing and a latent demand for an explanation of what’s really going on, b) the weight of its scholarship and credibility of its evidence, and c) the unique attributes of the author.