Global Studies’s Updates

Piketty’s Fair-Weather Friends | Article Link | by Seth Ackerman

In a Jacobin essay last fall, Mike Beggs and I argued that the themes of inequality and social class — central issues to the classical economists who founded the discipline two centuries ago — have been forcing their way onto the agenda of mainstream economics inch by inch after a century of neoclassical neglect. But this Occupy-era development has left the field in an awkward place: its theories and methods, inherited from the class-averse neoclassical tradition, are badly adapted to its newfound subject — leaving economists to face the return of the social question woefully unprepared.

Then came the Piketty phenomenon, an unprecedented explosion of popular and scholarly discussion of the economics of inequality. And not just inequality as it appears in dry distribution tables. To a remarkable extent for a work of modern economics, Piketty’s book explores social class in all its rich historical dimensions.

It pierces the veil of income shares to observe the medieval peasants, civil servants, and coupon-clipping rentiers who populated them. It inquires into the differing types of property held by families of contrasting social stations — the penchant for real estate of the interwar French middle class, the imposing bulk of enslaved humans in the antebellum US capital stock, the surprisingly sophisticated securities portfolios of Belle Époque legatees. All this is a welcome reminder of an older style.