No one actually reads Piketty’s book

Hardly anyone actually finishes Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. According to University of Wisconsin professor Jordan Ellenberg writing at wsj.com last Thursday, only 2.4 percent of readers actually make it to the end of the book.

Of course, we can’t know this for sure. Ellenberg admits this study is for “entertainment purposes only.” The number is based on where in the book Kindle users tend to highlight passages (Kindle users’ highlighted passages are made public). Ellenberg explains:

How can we find today’s greatest non-reads? Amazon’s “Popular Highlights” feature provides one quick and dirty measure. Every book’s Kindle page lists the five passages most highlighted by readers. If every reader is getting to the end, those highlights could be scattered throughout the length of the book. If nobody has made it past the introduction, the popular highlights will be clustered at the beginning.

In the case of Piketty’s book, the last of the top-five most highlighted passages occurs on page 26. That’s not very far, considering the book is more than 700 pages long. So even with a huge margin of error, it seems few people are actually reading Piketty’s book.

But should anyone be surprised? It’s a dense pseudo-textbook on economic theory. I’m just glad people are thinking about these issues, even if wrongly.

Some Quotes on Piketty and Capital

Ok, so these aren’t actually about Piketty. But I came across a few selections tonight reading through Jesus Huerta de Soto’s Money, Bank Credit, and Economic Cycles that are very relevant in light of recent discussions about Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century and his r>g theory.

The first is from Bohm-Bawerk:

“There was and is always the choice between maintaining, increasing, or consuming capital. And past and “present” experience tells us that the decision in favor of consumption of capital is far from being impossible or improbable. Capital is not necessarily perpetual.”

The second is from Hayek:

“This basic mistake–if the substitution of a meaningless statement for the solution of a problem can be called a mistake–is the idea of capital as a fund which maintains itself automatically, and that, in consequence, once an amount of capital has been brought into existence the necessity of reproducing it presents no economic problem.”

That last one is especially relevant to Robert Solow’s review of Piketty’s book, in which he states:

“The key thing about capital in a capitalist economy is that it reproduces itself and usually earns a positive net return.”

…a statement Peter Klein has called “nonsensical from the point of view of microeconomics, entrepreneurship, uncertainty, innovation, strategy, etc.”