Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday, 5 April 2016

Chronicles by Thomas Piketty: reflections on three reviews

As I have already reviewed this book for the New Statesman, I thought it might be interesting to compare my review with two others: Ben Chu in The Independent and Paul Mason in the Guardian. Paul uses some pretty positive language (“lucid”, “brilliantly concise”), Ben is much more critical, and my review is mainly descriptive (although I do use the word 'delicious'). To be fair, Ben’s main criticism is that putting together occasional newspaper columns (nicely translated from the French by Seth Ackerman) does not work as a book, so it is more a criticism of the publisher than the author.

I suspect there is less disagreement among reviewers than there first appears to be, for one simple reason: the Eurozone crisis. Inevitably quite a few of Piketty’s columns are about that crisis. It was obvious that Piketty should write about this at the time, but the columns work less well when they are collected together. I understand the Eurozone crisis much better now than I did as it was unfolding, and people will be rightly interested in the end result rather than the process by which I got there.

But it is not just that. Piketty, like many mainstream economists within and outside France, view a monetary union as fundamentally unstable. I find that frustrating for two reasons. First, a fiscal/political union seems to be a non-starter right now, so it is not a very helpful perspective, and it tends to prevent those that hold that view from exploring in more depth how the existing monetary union could be made to work better. In that respect I side with the position of Yanis Varoufakis, which I quote at the end of my joint review. (Both Paul and I review Piketty alongside the new book by Yanis Varoufakis, and I will talk more about this book in a later post.)

If we just consider the columns that were not about the Eurozone crisis, I positively enjoyed reading these. They are well written (and well translated), with little that a non-economist would find difficult. The word that keeps springing into my mind is refreshing, but I did not use it in my New Statesman review because I was not sure where that feeling came from. On further thought I think it is the combination of two things. First, the pleasure of seeing an excellent economist apply his knowledge in a very accessible way across a range of issues. Second, that his perspective is deeply and unapologetically egalitarian. He writes without needing to constantly defend his views against a more neoliberal perspective, something I suspect an Anglo-Saxon version of Piketty would feel the need to do.

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