On Tour With Rock-Star Economist Thomas Piketty

By
Piketty posing in his office in Paris on April 11, 2012. Photo: REUTERS/Charles Platiau

You’ve heard of Thomas Piketty, non? In just a few short weeks this spring, the French economist has gone from dismal scientist to intellectual superstar. This past weekend, his book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, hit No. 1 on Amazon and came up in six New York Times articles. One hundred and eighty years after Alexis de Tocqueville came back to France with the news that he’d found true égalité in America, his countryman has arrived on our shores to deliver the opposite news: Not only is the U.S. doomed to accelerating inequality, but so are all capitalist societies, absent some fairly serious interventions — mostly taxes. The tough prognosis in Capital runs across nearly 700 graph-dappled pages and three centuries of economic history. No serious economist could afford to ignore its mountains of fresh data and analysis, but for the rest of us, it’s a heavier lift. Hence Piketty’s New York publicity push last week — a different kind of endurance test, involving midtown traffic, a publicist shouting “Short answers!,” and the unbridled fury of a WNYC producer facing 30 minutes of dead air.

After a flurry of pre-publication op-eds and blog discussions in January, Capital (Marx reference intentional) was printed a month early by Harvard University Press, selling close to 50,000 copies here so far — hardly Harry Potter numbers, but magnitudes more than the average academic book — and instantly turning Piketty into a more affable and telegenic Paul Krugman. The first leg of his American tour, in Washington, D.C., included meetings with the Council of Economic Advisers, the GAO, the IMF, and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew. But New York was another beast — a two-day sprint that could have been fashioned by Torquemada. On Thursday, day two, there was Reuters TV, CNN Money, Yahoo’s “Daily Ticker,” MSNBC, The Leonard Lopate Show, the Times, Harvard Business Review, The Nation, and talks at NYU and Columbia.

It’s an all-day race, and it feels unwinnable from the start. Bounding out of Reuters opposite the Times Square ticker at 8:50 a.m. trailed by Harvard Press publicist Lisa LaPoint, Piketty is already 20 minutes behind. It’s too cold for his fitted gray suit, suede jacket, and a blue shirt opened, per French law, to the third button, but the compact, unwrinkled 42-year-old economist seems to bring his own weather, and it is bright and mild.

Last night he was the guest of Nobel laureates Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, with whom he spoke onstage at CUNY’s Graduate Center. “It was so positive,” says Piketty, in an accent slightly stronger than you’d expect, given his post-doc stint at MIT (he earned his Ph.D. at 22). “And Krugman — pfft,” he adds, with that Gallic aspiration of ironic surprise. “You know he liked the book a lot.”

The sold-out talk was followed by dinner with CUNY donors. The highlight was “this great discussion with two billionaires about Bill de Blasio.” Piketty knows little about his fellow redistribution advocate, and his tablemates felt “the previous mayor was a great mayor and the new one didn’t have the managing experience.” But they were surprisingly sanguine about the new one’s policy positions, as well as Piketty’s. It seems they worried that the prospect of inheritance might be stifling their heirs. “I think it would be easier for them, if instead of saying no to their children, society would say no to their children,” by taxing them mightily.

Miraculously, we arrive at CNN’s offices in the Time Warner Center on time, though the attendant security checks fix that fast. The guest of honor doesn’t mind; he’s giving an impromptu lecture on new taxes in California. He’s headed there in a couple of days, following a Friday visit to Boston (talks at Harvard, MIT, and the Kennedy Center, the last one introduced by Larry Summers). There will be a couple of events in San Francisco, but mostly it’s a break for Piketty and his partner, Julia Cagé, who just got her economics Ph.D. at Harvard. “You have to take vacation,” he says.

“After the boot camp I’m putting you through! Next stop this way,” LaPoint says brightly, as the elevator deposits us at CNN Money. Everyone except LaPoint rushes into a windowless room lined with black curtains, bare except for chairs, lights, and two bookshelves bearing ostentatious volumes like The Fifties. Morning host Christine Romans makes a quick introductory reference to her studies abroad in Lyon. Her straight blonde hair is as flawless as Piketty’s close-cut jet-black shell. He still clutches a cup of Reuters coffee. “I didn’t know the French drank out of Styrofoam cups,” a producer says. “You have to adapt,” Piketty says.

CNN’s questions run deeper than those at Reuters; LaPoint says the Reuters interviewer had been forced to scrap more serious queries because “they wanted more fun TV.” Piketty wants to downplay the sense that he’s predicting Apocalypse, but Romans makes it clear that Americans want help. “Our domestic audience watching this is just saying, I want it to get back to what it was,” to the egalitarian bygone days of midcentury. (He will later tell Chris Hayes that Mad Men–besotted nostalgists should “get over it.”) Making the obligatory Marx reference, she compliments him on the “beautiful” cover, a classical design that highlights the word capital in red. “I thought it was a bit too spectacular,” he says. “The French version was much more discreet. It’s the U.S. way.” “We like a little flash,” says Romans.

At 9:40 — the agreed-upon end-time — Romans begins to take questions from the producer, and then the cameraman, and then a writer tagging along. No one, it seems, can get enough of him. Twenty minutes later, executive producer Caleb Silver interrupts. He’s been waiting outside with an increasingly perturbed LaPoint. “I really enjoyed your book,” he tells Piketty, “Even if I broke my nose reading it.” We’re due at Yahoo! Finance, well, right now. On the elevator ride down, a monitor shows CNN following the South Korean ferry disaster. Piketty hasn’t heard of it.

Traffic is starting to build on the way back through Times Square. I ask Piketty about Romans’s lament for postwar America. “Oh yes,” he says, “I guess rich countries have the feeling that they’re going to disappear from history.” They will diminish, to be sure. “But I think we are strongly attached to our social achievement, and we are not going to let that disappear. I am more confident in our democratic solution than some people seem to be.” It took years of government battle, after all, for the U.S. to pass the world’s first progressive income tax in 1913.

At Yahoo, Piketty is whisked into makeup for another coat as LaPoint and I wait in the green room. Tech money oozes from the ersatz midcentury furnishing. LaPoint explains that, since we’ve still got MSNBC and then Lopate at noon — which is live — this session can only last ten minutes, tops. “There’s a reason the book is 700 pages — he’s got a lot to say,” she says. “I’m probably going to have to get audited, because in D.C. I had to cut off his meeting with the Treasury Secretary.”

After taping begins, she glances at the monitor. “He looks short.” Yahoo anchor Aaron Task seems to like Piketty’s illustration of the need to replace property tax with a wealth tax: If you own a $500,000 house, you pay the same tax whether you’ve got a mortgage of $490,000 or you paid in full on signing. It’s the same message that made Secretary Lew perk up at their truncated meeting. “He looked reasonably interested,” Piketty later recalls. “I notice that if you talk about this average American family, to them, that’s much more appealing.”

Piketty ambles out 15 minutes later. “Are we okay?” he asks LaPoint. “We’re really late,” she says, “But if there’s any way for you to do shorter answers, that might put us back on track.” In the Town Car, Picketty emails Cagé, who’s back at their hotel. “I’m still wondering whether, do you think I’ll be able to find 30 or 40 minutes for lunch?” He asks. “No, I don’t think so,” says LaPoint. The trouble with these interviews, he says, is that they’re taped, so the hosts go long. In France he only does live appearances. “I like to be the director of what I want to say,” he says. “I don’t want to be just a piece in someone else’s discourse.”

At NBC’s front lobby, we compete with tourists for guest passes. “I.D.s out,” says LaPoint. “Short answers!” “What can I do,” Piketty protests. We share the elevator with a family guided by an NBC page. “Try not to step on the peacocks if you can,” he quips, pointing to the carpet design, while LaPoint mutters, “short answers short answers short answers.”

Piketty gets another coat of makeup while, on a nearby monitor, Obama sounds an air horn, marking the start of a wheelchair race for wounded veterans. The booker for MSNBC’s All in With Chris Hayes explains why they’ve decided to pre-tape the segment. “We’re gonna have freedom here. Chris wanted to talk to you about your thesis.” Piketty turns to LaPoint. “So what is our plan?” “Our plan is for you to answer short, short!”

Chris Hayes greets Piketty warmly but briskly. Here’s a man who values time. “We’re ready to go,” he says to his staff. “Let’s get this show on the road!” But the answers are not short, and the questions, typically for MSNBC, are almost as long. “So let me back up and identify those two arguments,” Hayes says halfway in. At 11:40, LaPoint asks the booker if he’s on his last question. He is not. “Define capital for me,” Hayes says. LaPoint, turning pale, emails the producer for Leonard Lopate.

While Hayes wraps up, Krystal Ball — former congressional candidate, current host of MSNBC’s The Cycle — walks in with her co-host, the writer Touré. Two weeks ago, on the air, she called Capital “almost as mind-bending as Neo’s awakening in The Matrix. After you read it, you just can’t quite see the world in the same way.” Touré spent half the weekend trying to find the book in stores or on Amazon; all are having trouble keeping up with demand. “So you guys are running around like crazy,” says Ball.

“He has the longest answers ever,” says LaPoint, “and everyone keeps asking all these questions!” At 11:50, taping ends and the entourage hustles into the studio. “Hey, Tom,” says Hayes, “this is Krystal Ball. She’s a huge fan of yours.” “Thanks for all the book publicity,” says Piketty. They pose together as Touré takes an iPhone photo.

“I felt a bit tired, actually,” Piketty confesses as we trot out to the Town Car, “not as efficient as I like to be.” LaPoint tosses him an open bag of chocolate-covered almonds. It’s three minutes to airtime for Leonard Lopate. We’re on 49th Street, and the WNYC studio is in far west Soho.

“So it was fun to see the famous Krystal Ball,” says Piketty. “Is she like really famous in the U.S. or no?” I try to explain her odd trajectory without using the phrase sex toy, and fail. At that very moment, LaPoint is on the phone with a WNYC producer who is saying something like “I don’t give a shit, stop apologizing.” Fortunately, the second guest, author Mary Roach, arrived early, so they’ll swap time slots and Piketty will go on at 12:30. “I am in so much trouble now,” says LaPoint.

After a few sips of WNYC coffee, Piketty revives. He steps excitedly into the studio, where Anna Sale is filling in for a vacationing Lopate. LaPoint walks me through their tour adjustments: Tomorrow’s MIT talk will be moved into a larger hall. The IMF talk in D.C., meant to be a seminar, became a lecture before 80 people or so. Today’s planned podcast with Harvard Business Review will have to be scrapped. For an academic book, “we don’t really anticipate that the rest of the world is going to be so excited.”

The angry producer makes a brief appearance, taking LaPoint aside for a stern talk just as Piketty’s wrapping up. The economist, for his part, is delighted with the radio interview. “You know, live is so much better. You have no choice; you have to be good!” His answers were as long as ever, but Sale didn’t mind; she asked only two questions during the first ten minutes. With any luck, he’ll even be able to squeeze in a sandwich at Pret a Manger. After that, there are only four more events before Boston. It’s not quite as difficult as instituting a worldwide progressive wealth tax, but there’s a learning curve.