It isn't every day a name economist publishes a long, heavily footnoted book and storms the bestseller list. How to explain this?
I will reject two partisan explanations. The first is that “inequality is an idea whose time has come”. Well, yes and no. Actually, it came a couple of decades ago, and quite a few important books have been written on the topic since then, none of them reaching even a sliver of Piketty's audience. But no doubt it helps that the topic is about inequality and not, say, auction theory.
The other partisan meme is that it’s just the Marxist liberals (I love writing this) who are in a frenzy, and once they get bored they’ll move on to their next obsession, like how wonderful it is to raise your taxes. If so, there are a lot of these Lenin-lovers out there, more than we thought. But still, why Piketty?
I have some hypotheses of my own:
1. Readers in this country, maybe elsewhere, really like history books and other books with lots of history in them. They like the long view, the big picture. Piketty’s vision of capitalism spans centuries, and this fits right in. I remember the mini-craze a few years back for This Time it’s Different. It had the topic du jour (financial chaos), but I think readers appreciated all the history packed into it. If it had told more stories it would have made an even bigger splash.
2. Which brings me to the second thought: Piketty drops juicy factoids on almost every page. He goes out of his way to do this. That’s a formula for mass market success, or at least it gives an author a fighting chance. Some of this material is central to his argument, like the tables with wealth, growth rates, etc. A lot of it falls under the heading of what reviewers have called digressions, which is mostly context-setting. This much I'll wager: the vast majority of his readers are more interested in the data and stories than the algebra.
3. And the data are really wonderful. Admit it. The book is crammed with interesting and important evidence about the evolution of capitalism through the ups and downs of history. This part of his popularity is fully deserved: the book is the culmination of a research project that he has pursued doggedly for two decades, which is where all the cool numbers come from.
4. Finally, he has found a voice and style that lots of readers are comfortable with. He is morally serious, talking about grand issues of democracy, social justice, the viability of the social order, and all that, but he also has a sense of humor and, more important, a disarming honesty about his own limitations. He admits it when, despite his best efforts, the evidence is simply weak. Predictions are provisional and may flip if new data point in another direction. There is an aw-shucks tone to the whole enterprise—no bluster at all. Need I mention that this is unusual for an economist?
So there are some explanations. But maybe it’s not about him. Perhaps the competition is simply weak right now—no killer historical novels or Gladwellesque pastiches about the psychological quirks that explain what running a Fortune 500 company and dog training have in common. We're having an early summer and people have to read something.