So where does that leave us, and specifically, where does it leave Capital in the Twenty-First Century, three years after its publication? It seems strange, perverse even, to say that its influence has been “quiet” when it has had great influence on public debate. But what this tour of the landscape of academic economics tells us is that, despite its hostile reception, Piketty’s influence, and that of this book in particular, continues to grow in the academic realm and is not likely to wither and die anytime soon—much as that might pain the harshest critics or the many more who have kept their distance.
For the latter, unfortunately, it is all too easy to keep looking the other way. It is increasingly possible to have a comfortable and rewarding life as a professional economist and never even consider the broad issue of inequality or the controversial explanations for and consequences of it that Piketty offers. Social norms used to require economists to at least take on broad public sentiment and to consider the issues of the day when setting their agendas, but the amount of money available for economics research and teaching has never been higher, no matter the esteem (or lack thereof) in which economists are held by the public. High officials in government, in corporate boardrooms, in courtrooms, and in university administrations, alumni bodies, and boards of trustees still want to hear what economists have to say (or at least to make a point of ostentatiously seeking out their advice and approval), and to have that approval validated in public.
All of which avoids the crucial question: are we actually doing or saying anything to make the economy serve the people who inhabit it? Economists could very easily spend their individual and collective lives avoiding that question as the economy crumbles around them, with Piketty’s book serving as little more than a cry in the wilderness. Right now, there is no assurance it won’t end that way, but by reading between the lines, my suspicion—and hope—is that Piketty is not one in a series of pop–social science fads. Rather, his work on inequality is an agenda-setting and generation-marking intellectual achievement, potentially as explosive (albeit with a longer fuse) in academia as it has been outside of it.