As some of you may know, I have penned a very long review of Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Indeed, it’s a kind of review of the reviews as well. It’s now up at the Commentary website.
Titled ”Mr. Piketty’s Big Book of Marxiness,” I write that Piketty isn’t a Marxist strictly speaking, but his tone, scientism and reductionism give the book — a la Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” — Marxist feel and appeal. Hence, “Marxiness.” More on all that another time.
Meanwhile, here’s a fun slice on a different aspect of my critique:
With almost the sole exception of left-wing Salon columnist Thomas Frank, virtually none of his reviewers—positive and critical alike—have commented on the fact that Piketty has a remarkably thumbless grasp of historical context. “Piketty’s command of American political history is, quite simply, abysmal,” Frank correctly declares. Many seem to have missed this because they are suckers for Piketty’s habit of using literary references to lend credence to his mathematical conclusions. In a section titled “the Rastignac’s dilemma,” Piketty highlights the plight of the penniless young noble Eugene Rastignac in Balzac’s Le père Goriot, who must choose between marrying a rich heiress or pursuing a mediocre and underpaid legal career. He then subjects us to long data-dissections showing that the return on inherited wealth outstrips the return on labor income and that we are destined to return to the “patrimonial capitalism” of 19th-century France. (Alain Bertaud of NYU makes a persuasive case that Piketty unfairly distorts the richness of Balzac’s character. His interpretation of Rastignac, Bertaud writes, “is so skewed that it seems that Piketty has been reading Balzac through inequality glasses.”)
Clearly some people go in for this sort of thing, but the weight of endless discursions into mathematical modeling and data collection can be lightened only so much by French Lit CliffsNotes. A spoonful of such sugar helps the medicine go down, but it doesn’t make Balzac’s famous dictum that “behind every great fortune is a great crime” any more valid.
Such techniques can also get an author into trouble. At times, it seems Piketty takes much of his early-20th-century history from the movie director James Cameron. He puts a good deal of stock in the historical value of Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster Titanic. At one point he says one need only note “that the dreadful [Cal] Hockney who sailed in luxury on the Titanic in 1912 existed in real life and not just in the imagination of James Cameron to convince oneself that a society of rentiers existed not only in Paris and London but also in turn-of-the-century Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.”
Well, no. In fact, the Billy Zane character was an entirely fictional creation of James Cameron’s imagination (and the proper spelling of his name is Hockley; Cameron invented Caledon Hockley’s name by joining the names of two towns in Ontario, where he spent some time in his youth). Still, let us concede that there were some rich jerks on the actual Titanic. So what? Many of the richest people on earth were passengers on the Titanic, including Isidor and Ida Strauss (owners of Macy’s), mining heir Benjamin Guggenheim, and John Jacob Astor IV (the wealthiest man on the ship). They, and numerous others, refused to get in lifeboats until all the women and children, including the poor women and children, got on first (Ida Strauss refused to leave her husband, preferring to die in his arms). After helping other passengers escape, Guggenheim and his secretary changed into their evening wear, saying they were “prepared to go down like gentlemen.” Meanwhile the most famous real-life cad on the ship was George Symons, a crewman who refused to let anyone else on his lifeboat even though there were 28 empty seats. Money, it seems, doesn’t tell you everything about a man.
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