Thomas Piketty’s Capital In the 21st Century has been a bestseller in America since its translation came out in the spring. It’s being widely touted as the most important book in macroeconomics in decades.That is, provided the book is not a mystery, in which case somebody might have given up on the details to locate the resolution. But I digress.
It’s arguable that this is all a load of BS. It turns out no one is actually reading it.
Here’s how we know. When someone buys a book for their Kindle, they can highlight passages. Part of what you agree to when you buy a Kindle is that Amazon can keep track of those highlighted passages. The most frequently highlighted passages are actually shown towards the bottom right of a book’s webpage on Amazon.
For most books, these passages occur throughout the book. And a good sign that people finish the book is that there’s a heavily highlighted passage towards the end.
Let me close with some advice for economics professors.
To put that in perspective, that’s like getting a text for a class that has they typical 15 chapters in it, and when the books are sold back to the bookstore at the end of the semester, they notice that no one highlighted anything after the first chapter. What would you conclude about a class like that? For my part, I’d conclude that the material wasn’t very interesting, the students weren’t trying hard, and no one was doing quality control to make sure they did.Yes, and there are two different dynamics at work. The first is give-me-the-credential-with-the-least-effort. The second is confirm-my-priors. And thus, the job is always, to say No and to uphold standards.
Currently, I’m at location 1921, and I’ve highlighted 123 passages in the book. And yet I match up with 1.5 out of 5 of the most popular highlighted passages.
It’s a rough conclusion, but an academic macroeconomist, preparing to use the text in an advanced undergraduate class, doesn’t find interesting or worthwhile well over half of what the general reading public does.
I hate to sound elitist, but this doesn’t bode well for the public’s ability to understand macroeconomics even when guided by a book that’s quite readable. I think this is prima facie evidence that the intellectual baggage people bring with them to macroeconomics is huge.