By Paul Smart
How do we think about economics, given the way the relatively new social science’s tenets have taken over so much of our lives, both political and social? Where has modern philosophy, what’s left of it, taken us beyond the origins of economics thinking by Adam Smith and the Rev. Thomas Robert Malthus in the 18th century; David Ricardo, John Stuart Mill and the mighty Karl Marx in the 19th century; and the Keynesian/Milton Friedman partisanship that seems to have taken hold from the 20th century on?
Our publisher recently passed on a copy of the alluringly-named Why Save The Bankers? a 2016 collection by Thomas Piketty, author of the highly influential (and equally alluringly-titled) Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which shifted economic thought away from markets to basic fairness.
The book deals with a world that feels familiar but still somewhat naïve, dealing as it does with a pre-Trumpian world where we’re still wrestling with bailouts, Greek financial failures, early signs of rupture in the European Union experiment, and the first indications of a resurgence of greedy strongman political will getting backed up by consumer anger at inequities the masses are reluctant to address.
“Will oligarchy, or plutocracy, be America’s future?” Piketty asks in one essay. “Up to now, America has been sheltered by the ceaseless growth of its population and the dynamism of its universities and innovations. But that’s no longer enough.”
The author sees hope in Europe’s struggles to stay together after centuries of struggle and challenge. But is his blunt yet non-lyrical approach to the great questions of our time enough to counter the self-conscious share-the-pain work of a J.D. Vance in his popular excuse for bad behavior and faulted political thought, Hillbilly Elegy?
While Piketty and Vance move the needle on economics thought away from GDPs and other high-fallutingly abstract ways to measure success or failure, and back towards real ways and costs and daily decisions, they fail to take full hold of a growing sense among many that modern economic thought fails to fully address ideas of value, of money and markets as a reflection of life and its challenges.