I’m sure that there’s going to be plenty more discussion here on Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (there’s lots of good arguments to be had, but it is every bit the major work that people say it is), but in the meantime, a correction. Dean Baker, in a somewhat grumpy review, says:
Rather than continuing in this vein, I will just take one item that provides an extraordinary example of the book’s lack of attentiveness to institutional detail. In questioning his contribution to advancing technology, Piketty asks: “Did Bill [Gates] invent the computer or just the mouse?” Of course the mouse was first popularized by Apple, Microsoft’s rival. It’s a trivial issue, but it displays the lack of interest in the specifics of the institutional structure that is crucial for constructing a more egalitarian path going forward.
I’ve been seeing the Gates quote circulate a bit among left-leaning friends, very likely because of its structural similarity to a notorious claim by a rather different big sweeping economics book that precipitated a lot of derision (nb though that Gabriel Rossman, despite repeated calumny from He Who Must Not Be Named, decided in retrospect that the mistake wasn’t that big of a deal). Whichever which way, Dean’s use of the Piketty quote is unfortunately rather misleading. What Piketty actually says (p.512 of the proofs version of the book, which I assume maps on to the final text):
“As for Bill Gates and Ronald Reagan, each with his own cult of personality (Did Bill invent the computer or just the mouse? Did Ronnie destroy the USSR single-handedly, or with the help of the pope?), it may be useful to recall that the US economy was much more innovative in 1950-1970 than in 1990-2010, to judge by the fact that productivity growth was nearly twice as high in the former period as in the latter, and since the United States was in both periods at the world technology frontier, this difference must be related to the pace of innovation.”
In other words, Piketty isn’t claiming that Bill Gates invented the computer, or the mouse, any more that he’s claiming that Saint Ronald went in there like Rambo with his missile launcher (with or without the help of trusty sidekick JP-II) to bring the Soviet Union to its knees. He’s engaging in sarcastic hyperbole to illustrate the ludicrous way in which popular wisdom attributes vast historical changes to the intervention of singular, godlike culture heroes. This is quite unambiguous in context, especially as Piketty has talked some pages before about Gates’ actual role (in a brief discussion of operating systems). Taken out of context, as it is in Baker’s review, it wrongly suggests that Piketty is ignorant or sloppy to a quite extraordinary degree.
Now, to be clear, I don’t think that this is deliberate dishonesty on Baker’s part. I can see how this kind of mistake can happen (I rely on notes myself when writing reviews; there but for the grace of God …). I also think that the broader point that Piketty’s book has little to say about institutions is a fair one. But Baker’s misattribution to Piketty of a bewilderingly stupid-sounding claim that Piketty obviously does not make is the kind of thing that could go viral (and already is going semi-hemi-quasi viral). Thus, I think, it’s worth pointing out that it’s just not so.
[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]