Home > Real-World Economics Review > Reading Piketty in Athens

Reading Piketty in Athens

from Richard Parker

I have been reading Thomas Piketty this past week in Athens, where I came back to assess how Greece is faring half a decade after its economy imploded, initially as a consequence of its own ills and then – in an act of monumental malpractice by Germany, the ECB, and the IMF – the cure imposed.[1]

Signs of recovery are few.

It is hot here, as Mediterranean summers always are – but as thick as the heat is, an air of solemnity and defeat lies far more thickly over this concrete-gray capital and its now concrete-gray people, for whom what we know as the Great Recession has been their Great Depression, where the GDP has contracted 40% in five years and more than a quarter of its workforce can find no paid employment.

Four years ago, tens of thousands of Greeks would turn up regularly, week after week, at Syntagma Square in the heart of Athens to protest, again and again, the terms of the European-and-IMF-designed austerity regime that was the price Greece was being made to pay for loans meant to keep its government and economy afloat.

The streets lack protestors now, filled instead by tourists (more than 20 million visitors are expected this year, nearly two tourists for every Greek citizen) but also with drunks, junkies, and beggars out in alarming numbers of their own. Syntagma Square – jammed when I was here in 2011 with the tents and makeshift lean-tos of young protestors – has been scrubbed clean, the grass and flowers replanted, and new marble steps and benches replacing the stonework that had been chipped and broken to provide rocks to hurl at riot police.[2]

But cross the street from Syntagma Square and walk into the five-star Hotel Grande Bretagne and you suddenly encounter   the tangible meaning of “unequal privilege” and what the incomes of the One Percent buy today – the quiet, the coolness, the sheen and rich color of the marbled floors and brocaded chairs and banquettes, the glistening reflection of silver tableware and brass sconces, the comforting thickness of the imported carpets, the watchful eye of both waiters and security guards – all take on a jarring immediacy that is, for me, sensory and ethical at once.

In Athens today, because you can in 30 seconds walk out of a world of beggars and into that of bankers, you can’t help but reflect on how vividly Piketty’s dry-as-bone wealth and income tables and graphs can translate into human experience. This makes reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century in Athens profoundly immediate and unsettling.

Yet simultaneously the various aspects of deep inequality in Athens – of wealth, of income, of opportunity, of hope, of trust – everywhere underscore the oddly-disconnected (even sometimes ethereal) feeling Capital conveys, although Piketty goes to great length to emphasize his own connectedness to human life through his empiricism, both in terms of the data he’s assembled and in its rootedness in a historian’s vivid chronology of politics and societal change rather than an economist’s usual ordered placement of such data in the sterile ahistoricity of time series.

The fundamental genius of Capital in the Twenty-First Century, though, lies in its mapping and detailed decomposition of the great U-curve track income and wealth distribution have followed over the 20th century – first, sharply declining inequality, especially during the thirty or so years from World War II’s end up to the mid-1970s (what the French, Piketty reminds us, nostalgically still call “les trentes glorieuses”), then inequality’s equally-sharp rise from the 1970s to today.  It’s what gives the book a monumental facticity of unusual scale and scope that, in no small part, explains the attention Piketty’s work has garnered these past few months.

Yet that attention is also thanks to the moment in which the book has appeared. Just as Keynes’s General Theory struck with such force because it was published in 1936 – and not 1926 or 1916 – so Piketty’s Capital, by appearing (in English translation) in 2014 – and not 2004 or 1994, has arrived at a pitch-perfect message to be heard.

[1] I served as an economic advisor to Prime Minister Papandreou, 2009-2012.

[2] A wealthy Greek banker told me that the owner of the Grande Bretagne, Athens’ most famous luxury hotel, and which sits on one edge of Syntagma Square, had paid more than 2 million Euros to repair the park because neither the city nor the national government had funds to do so.

Richard Parker, “Reading Piketty in Athens”, real-world economics review, issue no. 69, 7 Oct 2014, pp. 58-73, http://www.paecon.net/PAEReview/issue69/Parker69.pdf

  1. Steve
    October 10, 2014 at 10:00 pm

    Income inequality is a significant effect of the actual cause of the problem which is the fact that the system itself under the current conventions of cost accounting cannot currently create enough individual income to,liquidate prices and hence even approach equilibrium, coupled with the decades long ingrained orthodoxy of General Equilibrium. Thus we are afflicted with what we think we know (DSGE) and what we do not know (that the system itself cannot produce the required individual incomes to liquidate consumer prices as production comes to the market).

    It would be nice if we could dispense with economic theories that see the problem (excess cost) and yet amazingly prescribe more austerity for the individual (Austrian economics) or that think there is no actual solution and that palliatives are the best “solution” (Keynesianisms).

    A little “outside of the box” thinking and policy and we’d right the ship of the economy.

  2. Garrett Connelly
    October 11, 2014 at 3:04 am

    An important point from Piketty is the balance of capital and an educated middle class with expanding horizons was a brief and unique moment which has been turned back toward indentured servitude by the power of the military corporate state.

    • Ack Nice
      October 12, 2014 at 2:43 pm


      RIP lovely, loyal, trueblue braveheart Loukanikos, the good Greek man’s best canine friend, bold and honorable enemy of the lethal military corporate state – You will be fondly remembered, ever with gratitude. To me you will always be Representative for all those precious souls gassed and kicked and killed, sent to early graves by the psychopathy that is militarism…psychopathy employed precisely because: men are still allowed to pursue unlimited personal fortunes on planet Earth.

  3. Ack Nice
    October 21, 2014 at 12:51 pm


    warning; if you still have a soul, this is going to hurt, so steel your nerves before reading linked article

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