Occupy the Best-Seller List (The New Yorker)
The economist Paul Krugman burst into an office at the cuny Graduate Center one recent evening with a pronunciation question. “Is it Pik-etty?” he asked, so that the name rhymed with “rickety.” “Or is it Pikit-tay? And are we going with Tho-mah, or Thom-as?” Three academics stood nearby, clutching wineglasses. They had assembled as part of a welcoming party, but no one knew how to pronounce the name of the guest of honor, the French economist Thomas Piketty. “How about Dr. P.?” Chase Robinson, the interim president of the Graduate Center, suggested.
Dr. P. was in town to deliver a talk about his new book, “Capital in the Twenty-first Century,” which has been credited with providing the hard numbers behind the slogans of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The seven-hundred-page volume has created so much international buzz that its American publisher released it a month early. The cuny talk sold out weeks in advance, so the university had set up live streaming online. “I feel like I’m the most powerful person in the city,” Tanya Domi, a cuny official in charge of the event’s logistics, said. “Journalists have been sending me their résumés, begging to be let in. This never happens.” She tallied the Nobel laureates in the house: Krugman, Joseph Stiglitz, and Edmund Phelps. Earlier in the day, Piketty had been at the United Nations, lecturing on income inequality. The next day, he would set off to visit three more American cities.
It was a lot of media glare for a group used to data sets and multilettered equations, and the social scientists were enjoying it. “We’re really capturing the Zeitgeist here!” Robinson said. Janet Gornick, the director of cuny’s Luxembourg Income Study Center, said, “After Occupy Wall Street, people were calling us to ask about the one per cent, and we had nothing to say. Meanwhile, Piketty was quietly building his data. Now he can thank the Occupy people for the book sales!” One of the novelties of the book is that it quotes directly from the tax returns of the world’s richest one per cent, an undertaking that is a bit like staring at the sun. “My Ph.D. thesis was on this subject; it was published forty-five years ago,” Stiglitz said later. “But those articles were not part of the mainstream conversation then, because there was no mainstream conversation on income inequality.”