Mike Savage has posted a thoughtful essay on the Stratification & Culture Research Network blog reflecting on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century. There’s a lot of interest here but the element that really intrigued me was the discussion of Piketty’s methodology and how it relates to current trends within sociology:

Methodologically, Piketty is conducting a fundamental critique of the repertoires used in much of what currently passes as social science.  This is nowhere marked more strikingly than the way he invokes literary figures ranging from Jane Austen, Honore de Balzac, and Orhan Pamuk more than Simon Kuznets, Karl Marx or John Maynard Keynes to explore the nature of wealth accumulation and inheritance in the 19thcentury. From an economist, this is brilliant chutzpah. Perhaps he might be accused of using these novelists as illustrating (his) history, but arguably his thinking about wealthm inheritance and accumulation draws directly on these literary models.Furthermore, at its heart, Piketty’s book is fundamentally descriptive. Rather than the typical social scientific insistence on causality as the holy grail, the book’s ample figures and graphs present only uni and bi-variate distributions. There are no complex causal multi-variate models, no ‘variable centred’ attempts to distil the relative significance of various bundles of independent variables and the like. There is no league table of causal variables which pop out at the end of the book. Instead, Piketty relies on descriptive figures showing trends over time with no attempt to explain the trends through introducing independent causal variables.

This has left me wanting to go back to a book I only managed 60 pages of before losing interest – perhaps I consumed far too much of the meta-commentary before reading it? Savage argues that the book can be seen “as a model of descriptive social science that might be able to explore the relationship between past and present”. It facilitates an exploration of the way in which the “past will always exceed the present” in a manner that tends to be precluded by the dominant mode of theorising social change within contemporary social theory, with its tendency towards dichotomisation and hyperactive invocations of epochal change:

The social sciences, and especially sociology, abound with epochalist thinking (see generally Savage 2009). We are seen to have moved, variously, to a globalised, post-modern, neo-liberal, informationalised, cosmopolitan, (and so forth) world order. Such thinking saturates debates about social change and incites an almost constant agitation for detecting new kinds of epochal change and transformation which makes our contemporary times different from anything that comes before.In these suffocating conditions, Piketty offers not so much a breath of fresh air but rather a vital infusion of oxygen. His work is a powerful and extended critique of the conceit that our present time has somehow left behind history behind. Actually, is Jane Austen’s world so different from ours[6]? Have we really left behind the elitism and pervasive inequality characteristic of aristocratic society and the Belle Epoque? Don’t the strategies for wealth accumulation developed by Bill Gates and other billionaires share some common characteristics with the very wealthy of previous centuries? Page after page of Piketty refuses the glib temptations of ‘presentism’ and insists on the need for careful historical study.

He draws particular attention to Piketty’s concern with the middle decades of the 20th century and sociology’s tendency to overlook them, subsuming the intensity of social and economic change under the stability deriving from the consolidation of industrial capitalism. In contrast, the contemporary focus upon the intensification of social change tends to occlude “a remarkable and enduring regularity which needs to be placed at the forefront of our understanding of contemporary – as much as classical – capitalism”. Sociological theorising about social change is a mess and Savage suggests that Piketty’s work offers us an interesting basis upon which we could begin to reorientate our understanding of the long term development of capitalism: there has been a “striking persistence in the dynamics of capitalist accumulation and that we are now returning towards the Belle Epoque of the early 20th century after a brief blip in the middle decades of the 20th century linked to the two World Wars and inflation”. As well as having implications for how we conceptualise social change, it also raises crucial questions about the reconstitution of social class – ones addressed by Roger Burrows (here and here) in a project that both he and Savage are involved in:

The fundamental point which Piketty’s class analysis leads to, therefore, is the need to focus on the very wealthy, and how far this group might indeed by crystallising as a class. Rather than the traditional sociological obsession with the boundaries between middle and working class, and so the dividing lines in the middle reaches of society, we instead need to turn our gaze much higher up the social distribution in order to focus on the very wealthy and a broader elite class. And here his references to the world of Austen and Balzac are very pertinent. Given that he argues that economically we are returning to a period of wealth stability such as they wrote about, are we also likely to see the resumption of the kind of status based, kinship and inheritance dominated, and ritualistic society that they delineate? And if so, what kinds of rituals and symbolic life is characteristic of the super wealthy and the broader elite? What is the role of elite education, of residential and consumption patterns, of friendship and social networks amongst these groups? This is arguably the fundamental sociological question of our age, in exploring the kinds of closure and social and cultural elitism which might now characterise the very highest levels of the social structure. What kind of kinship alliances, elite rituals, and institutional powers do we see around us in 2014?

The thought occurred when reading this that these issues could be productively addressed through social fiction – using what we do know to explore these forms of life and how they might change over the coming decades, as well as the potential implications of these changes. As someone who is instinctively drawn to “the banal epochal theorising of sociologists such as by Bauman, Beck and Castells”, despite being intensely critical of it, I found this essay challenging but plausible. Read the full thing rather than my notes!

I’ve blogged a few times recently about Thomas Piketty and the making of intellectual superstars. I find his elevation to “rock star” status fascinating, not least of all the deeply performative nature of this silly epithet, revealing as it does many interesting trends about the status of intellectuals in contemporary circumstances. The case has become even more fascinating with the alleged takedown of his data in the FT last night:

Now, in a move that has delighted his manifold critics on the right, who view Piketty’s tome as a dangerous, modern-day successor to Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, the 43-year-old French economist has found himself attracting a less welcome form of attention. The Financial Times has suggested that Piketty’s work contains a series of errors that appear to fatally undermine large parts of his thesis. The normally restrained paper claims that some of the data Piketty uses to support his arguments about yawning inequality in Britain and Europe are dubious or inexplicable. Some of this, the paper suggests, may be down to straightforward transcription errors. More damningly, the FT claims, “some numbers appear simply to be constructed out of thin air”.

The paper goes as far as to suggest its findings are similar to those last year that undermined the work of the Harvard economists, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, which analysed the relationship between growth and debt and was subsequently found to have been based on a flawed spreadsheet.

Bloomberg described the claims as a bombshell and there has been no shortage of commentators suggesting the story is huge. Some on the right have also been gleeful, suggesting the FT‘s story will scupper Piketty’s chances of landing a Nobel prize. But, as the dust settles, even many of his critics have been reluctant to claim that Piketty has been left badly wounded by an impenetrable row over the selection and interpretation of data, nor do they accept that the FT‘s claims have done much to damage his over-arching thesis.

http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/may/24/thomas-picketty-economics-data-errors

Much as I expected, I got 50 pages into the book before getting distracted by other things and haven’t been back to it since. I’m deeply aware of not having read the book when reading the coverage of the FT’s attack. I’m also wondering how many other people commenting upon it have actually read the book in depth. I find myself nodding approvingly at Krugman’s critique of the critique, vaguely aware of feeling ‘my side’ is under attack, despite this being a book I only bought because I was intrigued by all the hype surrounding it. I find the whole Piketty affair fascinatingly strange. It all seems so obviously overblown and yet the issues at stake are clearly consequential. Nonetheless, there’s a subtle theatricality pervading the endless stream of verbiage being generated in response to this book, as if the book could in reality consist of 600 blank pages without making a difference to the sentiments underlying the detailed arguments.

I’m really not very clear about what I do think is going on here, perhaps explaining why I’m so gripped by it, but I’m certain I’ll be rehearsing this in my mind for years to come as a case study for considering the causal power of ideas within social life. I think it illustrates an acceleration of the process by which ideas can find material sponsors, concerned to promulgate a way of understanding a contested phenomena and promote it socially. There’s also something interesting going on about the way in which the meditation of this process by the blogosphere contributes to its rapidity, amplifying certain voices through a dynamic which is superficially democratic (bringing lots of people into the process) but basically exclusionary, given pervasive tendencies (e.g. not having read the actual book for quite understandable reasons) which leaves opinion formation in the hands of Krugman and comparable ‘thought leaders’.

Second, Piketty and fellow French economist and University of California, Berkeley, inequality researcher Emmanuel Saez are arguably the most important public intellectuals in the world today. Their research is driving the economic agenda pushed by Washington Democrats and promoted by the mainstream media. The soft Marxism in Capital, if unchallenged, will spread among the clerisy and reshape the political economic landscape on which all future policy battles will be waged. We’ve seen this movie before.

John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich Hayek famously squared off in the 1930s, Left versus Right. But when Keynes published his revolutionary General Theoryin 1936, Hayek went silent. It was a de facto retreat that helped give free rein to anti-market forces — even if that was not what Keynes intended — for decades until Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz wrote A Monetary History of the United States in 1963 and energized the intellectual fight against statism. Who will make the intellectual case for economic freedom today?

http://www.nationalreview.com/article/374009/new-marxism-james-pethokoukis

I wrote last week about the rapidly emerging discourse of Piketty having won the argument. I’m somewhat suspicious of it, largely because I read enough postmodernism at an impressionable time in my life to believe that people don’t win arguments in this way. Having said this, I’m actually reading the book now and it is clearly something extremely important. But it nonetheless seems to me that Piketty has been culturally elevated to fill a structural hole: the reformist left needed a John Maynard Keynes for the 21st century and they’ve finally found it. I don’t think this necessarily means that Piketty’s proposals will be adopted but I wonder if we are seeing the early signs of a consolidation of the centre left, perhaps analogous to the influence of third way politics but without being, well, shit. There’s an excellent post on Paul Krugman’s blog (HT jonnyholmstrom) which discusses the political reaction to Piketty’s work and the intellectual reasons for it:

“Capital in the Twenty-First Century,” the new book by the French economist Thomas Piketty, is a bona fide phenomenon. Other books on economics have been best sellers, but Mr. Piketty’s contribution is serious, discourse-changing scholarship in a way most best sellers aren’t. And conservatives are terrified. Thus James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute warns in National Review that Mr. Piketty’s work must be refuted, because otherwise it “will spread among the clerisy and reshape the political economic landscape on which all future policy battles will be waged.”

Well, good luck with that. The really striking thing about the debate so far is that the right seems unable to mount any kind of substantive counterattack to Mr. Piketty’s thesis. Instead, the response has been all about name-calling — in particular, claims that Mr. Piketty is a Marxist, and so is anyone who considers inequality of income and wealth an important issue.

I’ll come back to the name-calling in a moment. First, let’s talk about why “Capital” is having such an impact.

Mr. Piketty is hardly the first economist to point out that we are experiencing a sharp rise in inequality, or even to emphasize the contrast between slow income growth for most of the population and soaring incomes at the top. It’s true that Mr. Piketty and his colleagues have added a great deal of historical depth to our knowledge, demonstrating that we really are living in a new Gilded Age. But we’ve known that for a while.

No, what’s really new about “Capital” is the way it demolishes that most cherished of conservative myths, the insistence that we’re living in a meritocracy in which great wealth is earned and deserved.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/25/opinion/krugman-the-piketty-panic.html?hp&rref=opinion&_r=5

Is this the first time a 640 page hardback book about economics has been a “#1 Best Seller” on Amazon? I suspect so. It does sound like an excellent book. I’ll almost certainly read it once it’s out in paperback. But I’m intuitively suspicious of the discourse surrounding the book and the rapidity with which Piketty has been elevated to the status of the 21st century’s John Maynard Keynes:

Screen shot 2014-04-23 at 14.15.34

 

Ohhh…. I just realised this is “#1 Best Seller’ in Economic Systems. That makes more sense.