America's hottest author: a French economist?

Thomas Piketty's 'Capital in the 21st Century' – 700 pages of economic and growth data – has captured the No. 1 slot on Amazon for its sharp look at what lies behind growing wealth inequality.

Lucas Jackson/Reuters/File
Members of the Occupy Wall Street movement hold signs aloft while demonstrating during a march through the upper east side of New York October 11, 2011.

The French are no quiet critics of what they see as a "cold-hearted," American-style capitalism that fosters inequality by failing to protect the poor.

So it’s not surprising that "Capital in the 21st Century," which argues that income inequality will only continue to grow because of capitalism's inherent characteristics, did not become a media sensation when it was published in France last September. The French already condemn rising inequality, a phenomenon they see as playing out especially in the United States.

What is perhaps surprising is the book's lofty status in the American market, where it has just claimed the no. 1 spot on Amazon – bona fide blockbuster stature for 700 pages of economic and growth data.

The tome, by French economist Thomas Piketty, has shot up the charts because of its sharp message on a political lightning rod: the question of what is contributing to the stagnation of the middle class and the soaring coffers of the "1 percent." In the US, Mr. Piketty said during his book tour, wealth concentration looks like that of pre-world war Europe. Only major world disruptions, like the two world wars of the 20th century, were able to reverse capitalism's inequalities by destroying accumulated wealth, he says.

"When the rate of return on capital exceeds the rate of growth of output and income," he writes in the book, "as it did in the nineteenth century and seems quite likely to do again in the twenty-first, capitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which which democratic societies are based."

President Obama calls growing inequality "the defining issue of our time" – and it’s just as contentious today as gay marriage or universal healthcare. Paul Krugman at The New York Review of Books called it “a truly superb book.” The National Review writes it off as message that could have come “right out of the pages of Karl Marx’s Das Kapital.”

And now that the US has become fascinated by Piketty’s work, the French are taking a second look, to the bemusement of some commentators.

“It's been interesting to watch the fortunes of French economist Thomas Piketty's Le capital au 21e Siècle since its publication in France last September,” wrote the English translator of the book, Arthur Goldhammer, on his blog. “The French version has sold well from the start. For the past 78 days straight, it has been on the Top 100 list of amazon.fr. But today, for the first time, it hit no. 1 in France, as news of Piketty’s astonishing success in the United States returned to French shores. It's as if France was awaiting validation of its latest intellectual superstar by the tough American audience.”

The muted enthusiasm at its initial release here might result from the fact that inequality is not as glaring in France – thanks to state benefits paid for through taxation. At the same time, an overall critique of neoliberalism is broadly embedded in French culture, says Philip Golub, a professor of international relations at American University of Paris.

“Inequalities are not felt quite as sharply as in the US. And wealth is not displayed in such an ostentatious fashion,” he says. “Another reason is that the critique of contemporary capitalism, neoliberalism, has been much more developed here. [So the book] doesn’t come out as something that is radically new.” 

The fact that its message comes from a French intellectual shouldn’t play a role in economists' assessments of the book, no matter their political stance, says Dr. Golub, since it’s a huge body of work that amasses empirical data on which policy can be crafted. But that hasn’t stopped the American masses from assuming cultural biases. One comment on the website of CBS dismissed it as the work of a “leftist frog.”

“The French are already operating under this agenda ... and not doing so good,” writes another reader, called SANDY14002. “They tax the rich 75 percent to feed their ever-hungry government. Some of it might 'trickle down,' but only after the gov't gets whatever it wants...”

[Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Piketty's surname.]

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