Chronicles: On Our Troubled Times by Thomas Piketty; Trans. by Seth Ackerman, book review

This collection of the French economist's columns are repetitive, not prescient

Flawed offering: Thomas Piketty's Libération columns have been collated in book form
Flawed offering: Thomas Piketty's Libération columns have been collated in book form

The medium matters a lot when it comes to writing. Newspaper columns need to be very special to justify being turned into a book. They must possess a certain timeless quality. But that's extremely hard to achieve. Because when one is writing columns one is not actually trying to be timeless. One is trying to be timely. The first step is to look for a contemporary news "peg". And on that peg you hang your thoughts, wisdom and wit. But, over time, the peg tends to crumble as it fades into memory and all that work slides off leaving a jumble of arguments and observations on the floor.

Viking seems to believe it's got something more than a heap of mixed up intellectual clothing from Thomas Piketty. It has put a collection of the French economist's columns from the Libération newspaper since 2009 in a smartly designed short tome and called it "Chronicles" with a kicker "On Our Troubled Times".

Does it hang together? Sadly not. The collection has some interesting elements. Piketty fans will be fascinated to see that the economist had sketched out his famous equation about the rate of return on capital tending to be higher than the rate of growth (and thus inexorably driving inequality) as early as September 2009.

Piketty writes nicely and the translation by Seth Ackerman is efficient. He explains economic concepts around tax and the national accounts to the lay reader with the kind of clarity that generally comes from a deep understanding of the topic. And there are nuggets that non-French specialists will find interesting. I confess I was not aware that there are legal limits in France (nominally the land of égalité) to one's freedom to disinherit one's children.

But some of the columns seem to lack a substantive point. In others, interesting ideas – such as the economic benefits of worker representation on business boards, or the historic legacy of slavery on patterns of inequality are only very briefly sketched out. One is left wanting more. But a 700-word column permits no elaboration.

And the overall effect of reading column after column from Piketty on the eurozone crisis is rather tedious. We keep hearing that the solution to the crisis is mutually issued debt. That the European institutions must be democratised. That Germany and France need to show proper leadership. That tax competition between states is deeply damaging. That tax havens are a menace. That we need a progressive tax on wealth. The repetition isn't Piketty's fault. He was writing these columns weeks, sometimes years, apart. And he was trying to get his arguments (often good ones as it happens) into the bloodstream of public debate. It takes many injections to achieve that. It just doesn't work very well to collect all the needles in a single book.

One can see why Viking went for it, of course. Which publisher wouldn't want a piece of those blockbuster Piketty sales? And some readers will be tempted by the book's promise of brevity. But that would be a mistake. And the £16.99 price is frankly rather greedy for such a thin and flawed offering.

Readers would be better off buying Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which made Piketty's name. Now there's a proper book.

Viking, £16.99. Order at £14.99 inc. p&p from the Independent Bookshop

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in