There is one rule of economics that will always hold true: after a journalist has written a successful book, their publisher will chuck out a collection of their newspaper columns as quickly as possible. And so, here we are, Chronicles, a collection of newspaper columns written by Thomas Piketty, the author of the best-selling Capital in the Twenty-First Century. And yes, it’s a bit of a cash-in, but one that just about gets away with it.
The pieces included were originally published between 2008 and 2015 and deal with the major economic upheavals during that time. It is hard to objectively critique Piketty because so much of what he says (austerity is a bad idea, capitalism without some form of regulation creates further economic inequality, the problems of the EU would be better tackled by closer integration than by dismantling the entire project) are not only things that I agree with, but things that seem as obvious as breathing and eating are obviously useful if you want to keep living.
Too often though, Piketty has picked the wrong fight. Take austerity for example. He builds his argument from the assumption that some politicians think austerity is essential to cut national debt, while others argue that austerity is a bad idea because investment is needed to boost production. This perceived schism is a fantasy though; nobody actually believes that austerity works. Piketty would be better showing why some people pretend it does rather than showing why it doesn’t. We know it doesn’t work. We’re living it.
It is, painfully obviously, more expensive to shut a library and then build a new one twenty years later, than it is to just keep running the one you have. The new library is never coming. Clearly, the new library is never coming. So (and again, you know this, because it is obvious) the policy was never intended to save money. The policy was to shut libraries. The same goes for privatisation. You do not privatise things for a bit, just until the economy is all nice again. You privatise because you are short-sighted or to make your rich friends richer or because you are stupid or you just don’t give a shit. Ideological decisions are continually being framed as economical ones and the job of people like Piketty should be to highlight that. It is perverse to optimistically suggest things will probably work out because politicians will eventually realise their policies aren’t working. They don’t want them to work, or at least not in the way they say they do. They never have. Piketty isn’t angry enough by half.
The sections on the EU are more interesting because the EU is something that we are starved of information on in the UK. The most illuminating essay in the book is ‘To the Polls, Citizens!’ in which Piketty suggests readers vote for left-leaning parties in the European election to ensure Martin Schulz would end up head of the European Commission. In Britain we believe that the head of the European Commission is a totally unelected role and that Juncker just got the job because someone thought it was a bit of a laugh. We have no idea how the EU works, no idea at all, and only weeks until the referendum…
Any Cop?: Piketty is right about almost everything, and a lot of the essays are interesting but collectively they are just what they say on the tin, Chronicles. Opinions are not reinvestigated. He doesn’t dig deep or hard enough. There is no call to arms and very little revealing of truths. This isn’t the how-to-vote-in-the-referendum guide you’re looking for.