What makes Thomas Piketty's book so popular

Professor inequality

At the age of 43, the Frenchman is celebrated as the new "economic pope". Since his book success, Thomas Piketty has not only been a sought-after teacher and discussion partner at the institutes in Paris.

Thomas Piketty looks relaxed, appears in jeans and a white shirt. His open manner immediately makes him likeable. He is talkative, explains with great expressiveness, and often with his hands. He easily fills the space in his tiny office in the Paris School of Economics, "which leaves just enough space for work, but hardly for visitors," he warns.

In conversation he gets going, he smiles often, his eyes shine. He likes to talk and speaks well. You can understand why he is so popular with his students. "He has the ability to explain complicated things in a very simple way," confirms Mathieu Valdenaire, one of his PhD students. Proud, but by no means complacent, he remains attentive to his interlocutor and almost apologizes: "I am a real chat bag." Above all, the 43-year-old hides an already impressive track record behind his boyish features of an eternal student.

Piketty was born on May 7, 1971 in the Paris suburb of Clichy. He is reluctant to talk about his family environment and dismisses it as "uninteresting". "My family shaped me, but who doesn't feel that way?" The sometimes very opposite influences of his childhood are by no means banal. His parents, who had actively experienced the utopias and unrest of 1968 in their youth, left Paris in the early 1970s to raise goats in the south of France - an alternative experiment that ultimately failed. Piketty's mother now works as a primary school teacher. His paternal grandparents, on the other hand, belong to the Parisian bourgeoisie, are strictly Catholic and very conservative. Both milieus, but above all the gap between them, shaped him from an early age.

At the age of 18, the exceptionally gifted student is accepted into the prestigious École Normale Supérieure. He is excellent in mathematics, but does not want to limit himself to this discipline and almost by chance focuses on economics. "I was only half a child and had no idea what exactly economics was, but it seemed to me the best way to deal with social issues and history at the same time." Today he is almost allergic when he is referred to as an economist. For him this is an "empty word". He describes himself as a social scientist. The student and later doctoral candidate Piketty is "a real workhorse," remembers his former fellow student Jacques Le Cacheux, now a professor in Pau and an expert on the economic council. “I've known him for 20 years now. If he throws himself into work, he can shut himself off from the world for months and then he is not available to anyone. "

The event that shaped Thomas Piketty most in his youth was the end of the Soviet Union. He wants to understand why this came about: "How did the Soviet Union convert an idea that should actually be emancipatory into such an absurd system?" He can deal with these questions relatively freely. He belongs to a generation that no longer had to take a stand for or against communism. "I'm not saying that Marx or Ricardo were right about everything, but they asked the right questions," says Piketty.

Inequality becomes the main topic of his research. At the age of 22, Piketty is doing her PhD on wealth redistribution. His doctoral thesis is chosen as the best in France in 1993. This is just the first in a slew of awards he has received over the years, including the award for the best young economist in France. Between 1993 and 1995 he was visiting professor at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the USA. Since 2000 he has been teaching at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris. “I love teaching. It is always enriching to debate with students, with people who still have the time to read such a long book, «he says with a smile. In 2006 Piketty was one of the founders of the Paris School of Economics, which he directed until 2007 and where he still teaches today. This school aims to bring together the best students and academics to give France a place in international economic research that has long been dominated by the English and Americans.

In his book "Capital in the 21st Century", Thomas Piketty, in collaboration with other economists from around the world, has compiled an unprecedented amount of facts and figures about the inequalities in wealth and income in more than 20 countries from the beginning of the Industrial revolution to this day. "I wanted to incorporate everything into this book that I have learned about money in 15 years, and to do so as far as possible from the purely technical aspects so that it reads like a novel." especially in the USA, Piketty expanded his research work with numerous references to history, sociology, political science and literature. Last but not least, his literary references to Honoré de Balzac and Jane Austen made a great impression. "I threw myself into this project without knowing what I was going to find," says Piketty. “I thought this method was more necessary than stubbornly proving abstract theorems. Other economists do that, I got bored quickly. "

The often euphoric reviews of influential American economic experts such as James Kenneth Galbraith, Joseph Stiglitz, Stephen Durlauf and, last but not least, the judgment of Paul Krugman, Nobel Prize in Economics, contributed to the huge success of the book in the USA. In the USA, Piketty is not only invited to the most famous TV talk shows. He has also been to the White House and debated with Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew and Barack Obama's economic advisory team.

How does Piketty explain this phenomenal success of his book in the USA? "The history of inequality arouses special interest there because it corresponds to the current concerns of Americans," he is convinced. "In the United States, you feel all the more directly affected by the problem because there is a true tradition of equal opportunities in this country."

But when Piketty recommends taxing the big fortunes and incomes more heavily in order to redistribute the money to the less wealthy, the neoliberals howl. The Wall Street Journal dismisses the French scientist as a “utopian” and accuses him of idealizing the Soviet model. Others accuse him of his scientifically unconventional approach. “That's pop economics,” scoffs a colleague. But Piketty stands by his style. At congresses, he likes to base his arguments on personal experience. When he talks about education and the benefits of being free of charge, he talks about his years as a student in the US that were only possible with a scholarship. When it comes to questions of family policy, he likes to chat about his three daughters whom he adores.

In France, “Capital in the 21st Century” was praised in the media and in business circles, but was sovereignly ignored by the political elite. He was not invited to the Élysée. Piketty does not belong to any party, but feels close to the socialists. In the presidential election campaign in 2007, Piketty advised Ségolène Royal, and in 2012 he took a position for the candidate François Hollande, for whom he also wrote a major tax reform - an election promise that the newly elected president quickly forgot. Since then, Piketty has made no secret of his disappointment with him and the ruling socialists. “I have the impression that Hollande didn't give much thought to what politics he wanted to pursue before the elections. You can't get rid of the feeling that he's constantly improvising. "

However, he rejects a stronger political commitment. His work and his books are his contribution to democratic opinion-forming and social mobilization. “The only thing that really impresses politicians is public opinion, and I can influence that by writing. I have great faith in the power of books and ideas. "When asked whether the French President has read his" Capital ", he replies with a mischievous smile:" I wonder if François Hollande reads books at all. "

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