Sunday, April 20, 2014

Piketty’s Unlikely Path

I’ve only just started K21, so I won't comment on anything substantive, but the mini-autobiography he presents in the introduction got me thinking.  Here’s a guy who was a natural for cranking out theoretical models in economics.  His career was jet-propelled, and at an age when most econ grad students are sweating out their prelims he was already on the tenure track at MIT.  He could spend the rest of his life among the elite of the elite, playing cleverly with algebraic puzzles for a living.  Instead, he quit, returned to France, and spent the next decade digging through archives, laboriously piecing together datasets on income and wealth distribution.

Question: how likely is this to happen?  How many talented modelers, on a fast track to the highest reaches of the profession, would give it up and walk away?  OK, empirically, how many have actually done this?  It is essentially an accident that K21 was written in the first place.

3 comments: said...

Well, Marx himself to some extent did this, although things were obviously much different in his day. But he had a budding journalistic career as a youth that he could have kept up with if he avoided taking overly radical stands at key points, and would in effect pull a Piketty when he chose to write Capital itself, which took many years and mostly extreme poverty for him just to finish Volume I, the only one published in his own lifetime, and, of course, to much less financial success than Piketty's efforts are apparently resulting in.

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JW Mason said...

Are you sure Piketty has rejected the conventional path as decisively as that? From where I'm sitting, ti also seems possible that he is trying to keep a foot in both worlds. For instance, the paper he just published with Zucman covers a lot of the same ground as K21, but in a much more orthodox way.

In any case, clearly a big part of the difference is the intellectual climate in France vs. the US. A friend tells me about seeing Piketty on a panel last year with Gerard Dumenil, where they clearly saw each other (and were seen by the audience) as peers and equals. Hard to imagine the equivalent here.