Piketty + Ninja Puffins: A Perfect Week

July 2, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

Spent last week on a remote Welsh island, Skokholm (if it sounds like Stockholm, I think that’s because the Vikings invaded it at some point). There was nothing to do

Puffin resists

1. Puffin resists

except watch the achingly cute puffins arriving with beak-fulls of eels and try and dive down the burrows to their

Goes all Luis Suarez on gull's eye

2. Goes all Luis Suarez on gull’s eye

waiting chicks before the lurking gulls could grab them. One

Gull vanquished. Go puffin.

3. Gull vanquished. Go puffin.

photographer in our group, Richard Coles, caught some great puffin-on-gull action (see pic sequence, click to enlarge), clearly influenced by Luis Suarez. David fought back, grabbing Goliath by the eye, and didn’t let go. Puffin wins. The pics went viral in the puffin-watching community, apparently. If you fancy it (groups of about 15, small island to yourselves, + several hundred thousand sea birds), check out the website – some slots still available in August.

But back to the day job – development and all that. When it rained, I finally sat down to read Thomas Piketty. There’s not much point in me trying to add to the mountain of handy summaries, reviews by very clever economists, online discussions, largely unconvincing takedowns by the FT etc, so here instead are some impressions from a non-economist.

It took a while to get started – I grazed til about page 200, then got increasingly hooked. It reads like a rather wonderful, scholarly seminar, with multiple digressions, cross references and reflections. A bit like Hobsbawm, but with graphs.

A more brutal anglo-saxon edit could have got it down to 400 pages, but that would have been a shame. Part of its charm is its quintessential Frenchness – an insistence on cross-disciplinarity, the importance of politics, power, institutions and social justice, and a healthy scepticism about all things British or American (see excerpt). All in all, a wonderful, and much-needed alternative narrative on globalization and inequality.

But not at all in the ranty ‘globalization ate my kids’ style that occasionally characterizes French polemics. Capital in the 21st Century is wonderfully measured and numerate, using numbers to understand the broad sweep of modern politics and distribution, the role of the state etc – a great primer. If anything, it probably should have been even longer, because it has some pretty serious blindspots – notably the implications of planetary boundaries for the future economy (climate change gets its first mention on page 567). The care economy and gender issues warrant no mention at all.

And as far as I can tell (schoolboy French only), the translation by Arthur Goldhammer is outstanding – the text is fluent, witty, full of nuance and enjoyable asides. Doesn’t read like a translation at all.

So I’ll be mining it for quotes for years. Convinced yet?

July 2, 2014
Duncan Green