‘Economists know almost nothing about anything’. Yet another reason to love Thomas Piketty

June 20, 2014

     By Duncan Green     

From the intro to ‘Capital in the 21st Century’, a taste of his great approach to learning, the easy discursive style, (but also why the book is 600 pages long – succinct he ain’t. I’ve got to page 164):

“To put it bluntly, the discipline of economics has yet to get over its childish passion for mathematics and for purely theoretical and often highly piketty_otu_img_0ideological speculation, at the expense of historical research and collaboration with the other social sciences. Economists are all too often preoccupied with petty mathematical problems of interest only to themselves. This obsession with mathematics is an easy way of acquiring the appearance of scientificity without having to answer the far more complex questions posed by the world we live in. There is one great advantage of being an academic economist in France: here, economists are not highly respected in the academic and intellectual world or by political and financial elites. Hence they must set aside their contempt for other disciplines and their absurd claim to greater scientific legitimacy, despite the fact that they know almost nothing about anything.

This, in any case, is the charm of the discipline and of the social sciences in general: one starts from square one, so that there is some hope of making major progress. In France, I believe, economists are slightly more interested in persuading historians and sociologists, as well as people outside the academic world, that what they are doing is interesting (although they are not always successful). My dream when I was teaching in Boston was to teach at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, whose faculty has included such leading lights as Lucien Febvre, Fernand Braudel, Claude Levi-Strauss, Pierre Bordieu, Francoise Heritier, and Maurice Godelier, to name but a few. Dare I admit this, at the risk of seeming chauvinistic in my view of the social sciences? I probably admire these scholars more than Robert Solow or Simon Kuznets, even though I regret the fact that the social sciences have largely lost interest in the distribution of wealth and questions of social class since the 1970s. Before that, statistics about income, wages, prices, and wealth played an important part in historical and sociological research.

The truth is that economics should never have sought to divorce itself from the other social sciences and can advance only in conjunction with them. The social sciences collectively know too little to waste time on foolish disciplinary squabbles. If we are to progress in our understanding of the historical dynamics of the wealth distribution and the structure of social classes, we must obviously take a pragmatic approach and avail ourselves of the methods of historians, sociologists, and political scientists as well as economists. We must start with fundamental questions and try to answer them. Disciplinary disputes and turf wars are of little or no importance. In my mind, this book is as much a work of history as of economics.”

Outstanding.

June 20, 2014
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Duncan Green
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