How to write a Thomas Piketty think piece, in 10 easy steps

April 28

Carlos Lozada is Outlook editor of The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter: @CarlosLozadaWP.

I know, it must feel like you’re the only person who hasn’t weighed in on Thomas Piketty’s “Capital in the 21st Century.” Don’t worry: You, too, can join the Nobel laureates, Pulitzer winners and assorted big thinkers reviewing, analyzing and explainering Amazon’s top-selling book. Simply follow these 10 steps on how to write your very own Piketty review, just like the experts:

1. Tour de force it up.

“Piketty’s ‘Capital in the 21st Century’ is an intellectual tour de force, a triumph of economic history over the theoretical, mathematical modeling that has come to dominate the economics profession in recent years.” (Steven Pearlstein, Washington Post)


“Capital in the Twenty-First Century” by Thomas Piketty (Belknap Press)

. . . magnificent, sweeping meditation . . . a tour de force of economic modeling . . . an awesome work.” (Paul Krugman, New York Review of Books)

“As a data-gathering exercise, this book is unquestionably a tour de force . . .” (Kevin Drum, Mother Jones)

2. Mention Alexis de Tocqueville.

“One hundred and eighty years after Alexis de Tocqueville came back to France with the news that he’d found true égalité in America, his countryman has arrived on our shores to deliver the opposite news.” (Boris Kachka, New York magazine)

“Because Tocqueville was such an assiduous researcher, who returned from his travels in the U.S. with trunkloads of documents filled with statistical data of all kinds, I have no doubt he would have found the data compiled by Thomas Piketty fascinating.” (Arthur Goldhammer, Daily Beast)

“Like Tocqueville, Piketty has given us a new image of ourselves. This time, it’s one we should resist, not welcome.” (Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, American Prospect)

3. Remark on how simple Piketty’s big idea is.

“Piketty’s key message is both simple and, once understood, almost self-evident.” (Heather Boushey, American Prospect)

“Piketty’s provocative thesis is extremely elementary and he makes it right in the introduction.” (Kevin Drum, Mother Jones)

4. Piketty uses lots of literary references. Say that in a way that shows you’re obviously familiar with them.

“One of the more delightful touches that Piketty brings to his task is how he draws on the novels of Honore de Balzac, Jane Austen and Henry James to illustrate the economics of a rigidly stratified society built on a foundation of accumulated capital.” (Steven Pearlstein, Washington Post)

“He turns to those timeless economic authorities Jane Austen and Honore de Balzac in mapping our future.” (Daniel Shuchman, Wall Street Journal)

“Piketty discusses at length the lecture that the scoundrel Vautrin gives to Rastignac in Balzac’s Père Goriot, whose gist is that a most successful career could not possibly deliver more than a fraction of the wealth Rastignac could acquire at a stroke by marrying a rich man’s daughter.” (Krugman, New York Review of Books)

“Are we really condemned to return to the social structure of ‘Mansfield Park’ and ‘Le Père Goriot’?” (John Cassidy, New Yorker)

5. If you basically agree with Piketty, call him a revolutionary.

“The result has been a revolution in our understanding of long-term trends in inequality. . . . Until the Piketty revolution swept through the field, most of what we knew about income and wealth inequality came from surveys.” (Paul Krugman, New York Review of Books)

“Thomas Piketty: a modern French revolutionary.” (Nick Pearce, New Statesman)

“Welcome to the Piketty revolution.” (Sean McElwee, Salon)

6. If you basically disagree with Piketty, call him an ideologue.

“For this book is less a work of economic analysis than a bizzare ideological screed.” (Daniel Shuchman, Wall Street Journal)

“The final chapters of the book, which contain Piketty’s policy recommendations, are more ideological than analytic.” (Tyler Cowen, Foreign Affairs)

7. Comment on Piketty’s looks in a vaguely creepy way.

“One devoted fan had even set up a Twitter feed, consisting of images of Mr. Piketty, boyishly handsome at 42, inviting the verdict, ‘hot or not.’ ” (Sam Tanenhaus, New York Times)

“Piketty, looking younger even than his years, and wearing a gray suit and a white shirt with partly opened collar — a stylistic nod, perhaps, to his countryman Bernard-Henri Lévy. . .” (Marc Tracy, New Republic)

8. Piketty calls for an international tax on wealth. Say it’s never going to happen.

“Economists can debate whether such a wealth tax would reduce incentives to invest and innovate, or whether it would be punitive enough to make a real dent in inequality. A more immediate problem is that it isn’t going to happen.” (Cassidy, New Yorker)

“Piketty wants the major world economies to band together to assess a modest global wealth tax. . . . The kind of global cooperation Piketty calls for is difficult to imagine happening in practice.” (Matt Yglesias, Vox)

“Politically, the global wealth tax is utopian, as even Piketty understands. If the left takes it up, they are marching onto a bridge to nowhere.” (David Brooks, New York Times)

“That is beyond the abilities of even the NSA. And if the proposal is utopian, which is a synonym for futile, then why make it? Why spend an entire chapter on it — unless perhaps to incite the naive?” (James K. Galbraith, Dissent)

9. Don’t forget to use the term “unified theory” or some variation of it.

“Whether or not Piketty’s grand unified theory is exactly correct, he’s moving the popular conversation in the right direction.” (Jordan Weissman, Slate)

“The quest for a unifying theory on the nature of capitalism began with the earliest political economists.” (Steven Pearlstein, The Washington Post)

“He also offers what amounts to a unified field theory of inequality, one that integrates economic growth, the distribution of income between capital and labor, and the distribution of wealth and income among individuals into a single frame.” (Paul Krugman, New York Review of Books)

10. Talk about the footnotes.

“This is a huge book, more than 700 pages long, dense with footnotes, graphs and mathematical formulae.” (Andrew Hussey, Guardian)

“At 577 pages of text and 75 pages of footnotes, it is annoyingly repetitious at times.” (Steven Pearlstein, Washington Post)

“It is also a long book: 577 pages of closely printed text and seventy-seven pages of notes. . . . There is also an extensive ‘technical appendix’ available online that contains tables of data, mathematical arguments, references to the literature, and links to class notes for Piketty’s (evidently excellent) lecture course in Paris.” (Robert M. Solow, New Republic)

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